Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Last Summer (of You and Me)

Author: Ann Brashares
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Released: 2007
Genre: Romance/Women's Fiction

Sisters Riley and Alice are as close as sisters can be, even though Riley is sort of a tomboy and Alice is a sweet, girly girl. They spend all their summers on Fire Island, where they became fast friends with Paul, their beach neighbor. After two years spent away, Paul returns to the island for the summer and the trio tries to resume their friendship where they left off. But Paul and Alice change the rules of their relationship when Paul acts on the attraction for Alice he's almost always felt. They keep their romance quiet for fear of hurting Riley with the changed dynamics, but that becomes a moot point when Riley gets sick, making Alice promise not to tell Paul, and Alice abruptly leaves the island without explaining anything to Paul, feeling that she is being punished for her relationship with Paul. While Alice and Riley struggle with Riley's disease, Paul struggles with memories of his past. The trio seems about to be  torn apart, but real friendship and deep love can withstand the tests of time and trouble.

This is the type of book where you just feel a constant ache in your heart as you read it. What I kept thinking is that the emotions are really the main characters in the story. For the first part of the book, not much happens, and after the big events halfway through, not much else happens, but the emotions are stark and clear, and that's what makes this story.

I love Alice. And I love Riley. I like Paul, too, but not as much as the girls. Although the story is told from three points of view, letting the reader into each character's head for a few pages at a time, I sympathized with Alice and Riley a lot more than with Paul. The thing is, I think he's supposed to seem like a bit of a jerk in the beginning, though he does change towards the end. Especially when he and Alice get back together, he has to change a lot of his character in order to do that.

This is more than a romance, which is why I labeled it romance/women's fiction. Because the main point of the story is not so much the romance between Alice and Paul, but the dynamics of strong friendship and how real friends and sisters can overcome anything together. Publisher's Weekly says, "It's a beach read, for sure, but a mediocre one." I cannot disagree more! It didn't feel like a beach read to me. It's full of heartache and almost made me cry a few times. And I think it's anything but mediocre. It's brilliantly written, with a matter-of-fact voice belying the tremendousness of what's going on. I love this book!

Changing Tides

Author: Devora Weiner
Genre: Jewish Women's Fiction

When I first picked up the book Changing Tides, I prepared myself for a good laugh. Not because the author meant to be funny, but because the other books by Devora Weiner that I've read have been laughable - ludicrous. I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself liking the characters and getting drawn into and involved in their stories!

The premise reminded me of Sara Wiederblank's Just Between Friends - four friends having a reunion, then going on with their own lives, each with their own problems. The difference is that Just Between Friends deals with girls in their upper twenties, while Changing Tides is about women turning forty. It was interesting to see life from that perspective.

The characters are all complex (well, actually, two or three secondary characters are somewhat flat, but with such a large cast of characters, it's still good). Especially the four main characters have ins and outs to their personalities, and their reactions to every situation seem real and authentic to their characters.

The plot(s) are interwoven nicely, with the interaction between friends causing overlaps in each one's life story. What I found was that, although there are four separate lives to keep track of (more, counting some daughters whose voices are heard), it was easy to remember which life goes to which woman. That's a pretty hard thing to do, but Devora pulls it off!

Overall, this is a nice book to relax with and maybe provoke a little thought and introspection.


Author: A. Shalom
Publisher: Israel Bookshop Publications
Released: 2009
Genre: Historical Jewish YA

In Damascus, Syria, in the 1970s, Sophia wants nothing more than to escape Syria and live freely. When two girls Sophia knows are discovered escaping and are killed, and their parents are apprehended and tortured, Sophia knows the risks, but she is still determined to make it to the Aretz (Israel). Her parents want her to think about marriage, but she knows that marriage will tie her down and eliminate any hope she has of escaping. Meanwhile, the Jews find out that a "sleeper," a spy from the Mukhabarat, has been placed in their community and is informing the police of any escape plans. Then, Sophia is introduced to Matlub, a man she would consider marrying. When he disappears without an explanation, she is mystified and very hurt, but soon forgets about it when she discovers who the sleeper is. Soon after, an opportunity to escape without causing harm to her family comes up and she grabs the chance - meeting up with someone she thought she'd never see again.

Sophia is a full, three-dimensional character. I felt like I got to know her very well, and I liked her! She's a bit headstrong, but she's intelligent and strong-willed, and she's really just a normal girl living in hard circumstances. Her decisions and desires may be specific to her situation, but really, she reacts like any girl you know to the obstacles and crossroads in her life.

The history of the book is also very vivid. I actually felt sort of sandy at times during the book! It's obvious that the author knows this time period very well, about what Jewish life in Syria was like, down to the fact that Jews were not allowed to have telephones. The dating and matchmaking rituals also sound authentic, and it was very interesting to see how much choice a girl had there. I always thought that in Syrian communities, matches are set up, and the girl just married whomever she was told to, but their dating system sounds very similar to shidduch dating here in America nowadays! OK, so they didn't go to hotels, but they had dates and conversation to determine if they were compatible as husband and wife.

The plot is very well constructed. There are layers to it, and plenty of surprising twists and turns, not focusing only on her escape but on her life as well. I liked the style of the book - sort of like a fifteen-year-old girl talking. A bit simplistic at times, but on the whole, a nice, easy read.

(Musawi, by the way, means follower of Moses. I like how the Syrians use it as a derogatory term, but the Jews use it as a symbol of pride.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Author: Ruti Tanenold
Publisher: Sapir Press (Feldheim)
Released: 2010
Genre: Jewish YA

In Krakow, Poland, Serina is a spoiled oldest daughter of a wealthy Jewish family. But one Friday night, when her parents are at shul (synagogue), Johanna, their maid, persuades Serina to walk with her to the church - where she hands her over to the Felician nuns. Serina's parents try frantically to get her back, but Serina is transported to various convents across Poland and eventually out of Poland in order to keep her from her parents. Meanwhile, the nuns try to convince Serina that her parents don't want her anymore. After losing her memory due to illness - or so the nuns say - Serina believes that her place is in the convent. Years later, when she is married with a son, her father manages to contact her, but she wants nothing to do with him. When a girl who looks just like her turns up, she begins to make contact with her family again and slowly regains her memory and her love for her family, returning to them and to Yiddishkeit (Judaism).

This is actually based on a true story, which makes it difficult for me to say some of the things I think about it. But here goes - it's a little hard to believe that Serina lost her memory like that. It's implied that the nuns gave her some sort of drug and only concocted the story about her illness, and since this is based very closely on fact, it must be true, but still - a little hard to believe.

For the most part, I enjoyed reading this book. It's clear, the plot kept simple (again, can't blame or credit the author if it's all fact), and for a Jewish "tween," it's perfect. The language is slightly sophisticated at times, but it's understandable and does not talk down to the reader. The characters are easy to sympathize with, especially at the gut-wrenching scenes. The father and mother are fully developed, not just as frantic parents trying to get back their daughter. They're also shown dealing with Clarie, the younger daughter, and talking to each other, so they're fully rounded.

I felt most for Clarie, not as much for Serina. The reason, I think, is something that the author says in her acknowledgments: It appears that aside from a factual book about this story, her resources were family members of Serina, but not Serina herself. Whether that's because Serina didn't want to talk about it or because Serina is no longer living, I don't know, but it did seem to me that Serina's life behind the convent walls is not as fully portrayed as her parents' and Clarie's lives are.

I'm trying not to say this, but say it I must! The writing style is quite good, but I would say it has potential. It could have been sharpened and tightened in places, and I would have liked to see a bit more character development. I can't really say anything bad about the book, because it is good, and for a ten- or twelve-year-old, it's a good, solid read, but still, I felt there were certain points that could have been better. (It's that Jewish Book Syndrome!)

Why I Generally Don't Read Jewish Books

If you've been following my blog, you may have noticed that although I reviewed two Jewish books way back when I started blogging, I haven't reviewed any since. The reason is quite simple: When I read those, it was because it was Pesach/Passover, and my sister had gotten some new books, so I read them. Now, over Succos, my sister bought some more new Jewish books, so I've been reading those! In between, I don't really read Jewish books.

Here's why: Jewish books are not really of the same caliber as non-Jewish, mainstream fiction. There's the "Yair Weinstock" books - crazy, unrealistic spy novels, following multiple characters across many countries and possibly time periods, where people with no spy experience end up saving the world.  There's the tearful, emotional dramas about people's problems, ranging from emotional and mental disorders to "shidduch-crisis" type or emunah (faith) problems. There's historical fiction, usually inspired by a single event, and the rest of the book doesn't make much sense for that time period. And usually the style of writing is either formulaic or all over the place - many books translated from Hebrew sound stilted or floppy (I know, two extremes, but it's true!).

That's not to say there aren't good Jewish writers. OK, I don't like thrillers, but I suppose there are some good Jewish ones. And the tearful dramas can be good - take Chava Rosenberg, whose many books are translated from Hebrew. She manages to inject a large amount of truth and reality in her stories so you feel like you're reading someone's diary. An emotional someone, but still! Sara Wiederblank's Just Between Friends is a real, believable account of four normal girls (although she does talk about the shidduch crisis!). And there's M. Bassara's Sun Inside Rain (when is she writing another novel please please please!), which is thoroughly researched historical fiction, with an emotionally charged story about a heroine with emunah issues. That's a book I read so many times and plan on re-reading again over the second days of Succos! I heard that M. Bassara is actually a pseudonym, and "Bassara" means "bas Sara," daughter of Sara, meaning that she is a giyoress (convert to Judaism). (unconfirmed fact!)

Which brings me to my point - I think that the main problem with Jewish literature is that the people reading and writing it have not generally read anything besides Jewish literature. I used to think that there was a dearth of writers in the Jewish world, and in order to keep up with demand for new books, publishers just printed whatever came across their desks. After corresponding with M. Bassara, though, I learned that some Jewish writers are actually rejected. In most published Jewish books, I see "potential" - a word my friends and I decided, back in eighth grade, is actually derogatory and not a compliment. Because a published book should be polished - its potential should be realized and actualized. But since Jewish writers - and I guess editors as well - don't have a wide reading base of "bestsellers" with which to compare manuscripts, books that sound like first drafts are published.

Older books, like Family for a While, A Light for Greytowers, The Exiles of Crocodile Island, Dovid Meyer, etc., seem to me to be of a much higher caliber than most of today's novels. That totally fits with my idea, because back then, Jewish people did tend to read more widely (secular books were generally a lot cleaner then and thus more accepted in the Jewish community). So authors in that time did have successful books to compare their own writing to, and they wrote to that standard.

But here's the thing - there is so much writing talent in the Jewish community! It bothers me so much when a half-baked novel is published - more than it bothers me when a ridiculous novel is published - because it means that with just a little more work and maybe some research, the novel could have been great rather than mediocre!

(P.S. There was this one book I had taken out of the public library, not a Jewish book, but I hadn't realized that it was a faith-based book - This Side of Heaven by Karen Kingsbury. When I started reading it, I started with the acknowledgments - call me crazy, but I read every part of a book - and I didn't get past that. I was gagging on the language and style in the dedications to her children! Anyway, my mother picked it up off my shelf yesterday and read it. She told me now that she was laughing all the way through - because it reminded her of Jewish faith-based books! The same gooey, mushy, seeing the light after "going off" and causing everyone heartache, the same style as the "tearful dramas" about emunah problems... And this is published by Center Street of Hachette Book Group! Who knows, maybe it's just a symptom of the genre...)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Castle in the Air

Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins)
Released: 2001 (copyrighted 1990)
Genre: YA Fantasy

Howl's moving castle is back, in an adventure involving many people from far and diverse lands. Abdullah is the son of a carpet merchant who spends all his free time daydreaming. When a stranger sells him a magic carpet that takes him into his daydreams at night, things start getting very complicated. The princess that Abdullah dreamed of is real, and they fall in love - but she is suddenly snatched away by a djinn just as Abdullah is about to take her away to marry her. Abdullah sets out to rescue Flower-in-the-Night, and meets up with many strange characters along the way, who help him get to the Castle where all the princesses that the djinn stole are held.

I love how all the characters in the book are really just big kids, all throwing temper tantrums at one point or another. The total irreverence about all things magical carries over from Howl's Moving Castle, with traditional magic challenged and accepted ideas about magic made fun of - nicely, of course. The whole book is just one big romp of lots of fun. And getting to meet up with Howl and Sophie, Lettie and Suliman again was just great!

This is another of those books that I read again and again. It's fast, it's fun, and it makes me smile!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Author: Judith McNaught
Publisher: Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster)
Released: May 1993
Genre: Romance

Julie Mathison has worked hard half her life to show her gratitude to her adoptive family by living up to their standards and behaving like a preacher's daughter. When she is kidnapped by Zachary Benedict, who escaped prison after having been convicted of killing his wife, all that is at stake. Especially when Zack worms his way into Julie's heart and she becomes convinced of his innocence. And when they fall in love with each other. But Julie keeps getting conflicting information about Zack's innocence after he lets her go so he can continue his escape. In her heart, she knows he isn't a murderer, but should she follow her heart?

This is the umpteenth time I've read Perfect. It's one of those books that you have to read again and again. I totally fell in love with Zack and Julie the first time I read the book, and I love revisiting them. Julie's dilemma is so heart-wrenching - especially the scene where the police arrest Zack as Julie watches. And the scene where Zack watches Julie watching it. I can actually play those scenes in my mind without the book in front of me, because they are written so vividly.

Actually, paying attention to it for so many times, I did notice something that is beginning to bother me - lots of times, Zack or Julie "laughs" or "grins" when in fact maybe a small smile is called for. And their moods change on a dime. It upset the flow of the story this time as I read it, because I kept going "whoa! She's mad, and now she's just not?" But in general, the emotions are really quite real and scenes play out realistically.

Savor the Moment

Author: Nora Roberts
Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Released: May 2010
Genre: Romance

Two of her friends and business partners are happily engaged, and Vows, their wedding planner business, is thriving. It's Laurel's turn to find love. But she's decided to take a hiatus from men and focus on her cakes. When she hotheadedly kisses Del, her friend's brother, to make a point in an argument, she re-awakens the crush she's had on him since forever - and she awakens in him feelings he never knew he had for her. As childhood friends become more than that, Laurel finds out what true love means.

This is the third book in the Bride Quartet, but I didn't get to reading the first two yet. I did play the game Vision in White, which is based on the quartet, so I had some idea of what was going on! Though you don't really need to have read the other books to enjoy this one. Nora Roberts is great at making each book part of the series but stand-along as well.

I love the style of these books. They're low-key, laid-back - perfect lazy feel-good romance stories. There are no major fights or entanglements - though Del and Laurel do get into a few arguments - and the plot line is clean and simple. In a romance like this, that's great, because you can focus on the characters and the love story without being distracted by any other details.

The characters, as always in a Nora Roberts book, are real and multi-faceted, giving the story dimension and credibility. I like series like this one, where characters from the previous book show up. In this quartet, it happens all the time, since the four friends are involved in a business together. What made it even more exciting was that the seeds for the fourth romance are planted in this book! The friendship between the four friends brings them all together, and this interweaving of their stories strengthens the tie between them.

In My Mailbox 5

In My Mailbox is a meme started by The Story Siren, where bloggers post any new books they bought, received, borrowed, etc. 

I've decided not to be too hard on myself about not doing this meme regularly. I figure whenever I do it, great, but I'm not committing to doing it every week after all. I just don't have that regular a schedule! But I do like the idea, so I will try to do it as often as I can.

So here's what I have on my shelf that I haven't posted yet:

After reading My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares, I got all excited about her again and ran to reserve all her Sisterhood books from the library. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten the first one yet, so I'm holding out for that one, because I want to re-read these in order. By the way, My Name Is Memory is very different from the Sisterhood books! But in all her books, she's a great author!

More Ann Brashares:
3 Willows (a continuation of the Sisterhood books)
The Last Summer (Of You and Me) - that's all part of the title, by the way.
This Side of Heaven, by Karen Kingsbury. 
(I think I read about this one on another blog, and I should've written down which one as soon as I read it, because now I don't remember which blog it was, and I have no idea what the book is about! We shall soon see.)

A Stranger Like You, by Elizabeth Brundage
Savor the Moment, by Nora Roberts

So that's what's on my shelf now - in addition to some other books I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. And with my workload shaping up to the way it is this semester, I don't expect to be doing a lot of extra reading. But knowing me and my predictions, I'll probably end up having a ton of free time anyway, and I'll post lots of reviews! Here's hoping that's what happens!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nightshade Giveaway

Enna Isilee of Squeaky Books is celebrating her birthday by having a whole slew of author interviews, contests, and blogger guest posts! Here's an interview with Andrea Cremer, author of Nightshade, and a link to a contest hosted by Cass of Words On Paper, giving away a copy of Nightshade and some Nightshade swag.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Name Is Memory

Author: Ann Brashares
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Released: June 2010
Genre: Paranormal Romance

Daniel has a rare gift - he can remember his past lives. But an act in his first life turns this into a curse, as in life after life, he tries to reconnect to the girl he wronged so terribly. But time after time, their circumstances don't allow them to be together. Whether it's age differences, class differences, or life events, Sophia, as Daniel thinks of her, always slips out of his reach. Now, Daniel finds her - she is the right age and nothing stands in their way. The only problem is that since Lucy, as she is called in this life, doesn't remember her past lives, she thinks Daniel is crazy when he tries to explain. The imprint on her soul of past lives is strong, however, and she begins to believe that Daniel is telling the truth. But someone is out to prevent their ever getting together again. After trying for centuries to be together, Daniel and Lucy must fight to keep their love.

I love love love this book!!

It's such a heart-wrenching book, but in a way it's heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The issues it raises, about the nature of the soul, about the arc of a life, about the arc of life, of humankind, are so well portrayed. Above all are the concepts of atoning for a wrong and the enduring quality of love. The story is thought-provoking, and it sucked me in completely. A book that has a premise like this one, of souls being reborn and only a few remembering their past lives, allows the author to explore many aspects of life, and Ann Brashares definitely does that! Almost every word seems to be something that she has contemplated and theorized about. The way she deals with these, and other, concepts is really great. In fact, as I was reading, some ideas struck me as so beautifully put that I stopped and wrote them down. Here are some:

An observation about the progress of mankind, as seen from someone who's actually seen the progress over more than a millenium: "It was the rhythm of human enterprise to invent and worship some new approach, to fully reject it a generation later, to realize the need for it again a generation or two after that and then hastily reinvent it as new, usually without its original elegance."

About the arc of human history: "People didn't seem to realize what a slender edge they stood on in human history and that every person before them stood on that same edge, thinking it was the world. If they were to look back they would see quite a landscape spreading out behind them, but mostly they didn't."

And one that I like because it coincides with my belief that you can see people's personalities in their faces, that as they change, they get new looks to their faces: "Although very young children were kind of homogenous, people pressed their souls into their faces and bodies fairly quickly in a life, and more and more deeply as they aged. A loving soul was always more beautiful over the long haul..."

But more than the thought involved in the book is the emotion. First of all, the characters jump right off the page and into real life. And their feelings are so well described! One of the ways I judge a book is how much and how often my heart physically aches while reading - in this book, there was hardly a page that went by without a twinge of some sort. The continued dashed hopes of Daniel, the pain of "Sophia" not remembering, of pushing him away - as I said, heart-wrenching. I was totally involved in the story, completely as one with the characters.

This is a love story to trump all love stories. It's more touching than Romeo and Juliet (come to think of it, it has some similarities to Romeo and Juliet), and it has so many facets as the book follows it over time - lots of time! The romance in each life is real, in each situation it's unique, until the culmination in today's connection, where "Sophia" is Lucy. Even though Lucy's soul draws her to Daniel without her knowledge of who he is, the attraction is authentic, and the arc of this individual romance makes sense, in addition to the arc of the romance over centuries.

I also like the way the stories of Daniel's past lives are interwoven with the "modern" story. It sort of gives the reader a feel for how he lives, with all these memories bottled up in his mind, with all the different people and places. And it built the story up gradually, gaining momentum equally in the ancient world and in the modern world.

One piece of advice I'll give - don't start reading My Name Is Memory until you have a few hours in which you can read uninterrupted. I read this book on the train and between classes, and by the time I was halfway through, I was wishing I had been able to read it through all at once. It's the sort of book you sink into and get wrapped up in, and it was very hard to come up for air!

P.S.  I rushed to post this review because when I love a book so much, I have to gush about it right away. What I didn't mention was the ending, because I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I won't say anything to give it away, but it's a bit open-ended. I figured that makes sense, since they've been living so long - I guess if they found each other and can be with each other, they can die, but who wants that? Anyway, I read a few other reviews and stuff about My Name Is Memory, and it appears it's actually only the first of a trilogy (though I haven't found Ann herself actually corroborating this). I am all for that! Oh, and it's been optioned for a movie - wouldn't that be cool?