Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"The Tutor's Daughter" by Julie Klassen

When the boarding school of Emma Smallwood's father shuts down, he takes a job tutoring the young sons of a baronet in cliff-top manor in Cornwall.  When Emma decides to accompany him, she has no idea what mysteries await her at the manor.  

The baronet's older sons, Henry and Phillip, are former students of Mr. Smallwood's and they both remember the relationships they had with the younger Emma.  They both find themselves drawn to her and she enjoys getting to know them again.  But soon, strange things begin to happen at the manor.  At night, Emma hears someone playing the pianoforte, only to find the room empty when she investigates.  Someone begins sneaking into her room at night and soon things start to go missing.  As these frightening acts begin to escalate Emma finds herself in terrible danger and her hopes lie in an unlikely rescuer.

The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen is a historical romance that has it all - an exciting locale, an interesting time period, dashing suitors, mystery, and intrigue all wrapped in romance.  From the beginning this book grabs your interest and holds it tight until the very end.  This is a testament to Klassen's writing skill as this book is over 400 pages but it doesn't feel like it at all.

In her author bio Julie writes that she loves all things Jane - Jane Eyre and Jane Austen - and it really shows in her writing.  It's obvious that she has done a lot of research for accuracy and she includes in the authors note what inspired certain elements of the book and how she came to know about it.  This is appreciated as the book is not just set in a certain time period but draws heavily on actual events and attitudes, such as shipwrecks and mental illness.

I have read one other novel by Julie Klassen, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall.  I really enjoyed it, especially since the theme of Upstairs, Downstairs is so popular right now.  So when I picked this one up I was expecting much of the same (in a good way.)  But I was pleasantly surprised to find the elements of gothic literature included.  It made the genre of historical fiction fresh to me and definitely made this a page-turner.  The Christian fiction elements are excellently woven in without being too preachy.  In fact, I would recommend this book to people who aren't Christian as a good historical novel.

I challenged myself this year to read more historical fiction as it has never really been a genre I've been very interested in picking up.  However, if Julie Klassen (and others) continue to write novels as fantastic as this one, I will very quickly change my mind about the genre.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Crazy Rich Asians" by Kevin Kwan

Rachel Chu has agreed to spend her summer holiday in Singapore with her boyfriend Nicholas Young, a fellow university professor.  Nicholas is returning for the wedding of a close friend and this will be the first time Rachel gets to meet his family.  Rachel is envisioning a quiet vacation, a humble family home, and plenty of time to explore the island.  But what she does not realize is Nicholas is the darling of Singapore's elite society.  

Nicholas is the heir of one of Singapore's richest, pedigreed Chinese families.  His humble family home is larger than most palaces.  His family and friends travel by private plane.  And it turns out that Nicholas is one of Singapore's most eligible bachelors.  When word spreads that Nicholas is bringing home a girlfriend, an ABC (American-born Chinese), high society finds itself in a flurry.  Especially Nicholas' mother, who has some very strong ideas about who her son will, or will not, marry.

Crazy Rich Asians is the hilarious and unforgettable debut novel by Kevin Kwan.  With its glittery cover and sensational stories, it is sure to be THE book of the summer.  Pop this one out on the beach (or anywhere really) and it will definitely get tongues wagging.

I could not put this book down.  Absolutely enjoyed it.  It's like the television show Dallas, or Beverly Hills 90210, but set in Asia and on a much, much richer scale.  The book centres around three super-rich families, all obsessed with wealth and the honour and prestige that comes along with it.  Characters attend the most prestigious of schools around the world, fly to Paris on a whim to shop for couture, and have no qualms about spending $40 million on a wedding.  These are people who have no issues with buying a hotel to make a point about its customer service.  

While the plot of the book is about Nicholas bringing Rachel home to meet his family and friends, much of the book is really about the lifestyles of the wealthy.  In fact, I kind of forgot about the plot while reading the incredible tales of the uber-rich.  But that isn't a problem at all.  You would think after a couple hundred pages setting up just how wealthy they are, you'd be tired of it but you're not.  And when the  book begins to show how appearances can be deceiving, it really gets good. 

There is definitely a lot going on in this book.  There is a large group of characters to keep up with but this does give you a good idea of how the character of Rachel feels when being introduced to it all.  It's nice to see the comparison of the generations, for example Nicholas' feelings toward his wealth versus the feelings of his parents.  Don't think that this book is just all glitz and scandal, the term beach read is misleading in the case of this book.  There is a depth and drama to it that keeps it from being gossipy or pretentious.  

I'm sure by now you've heard something about this book.  I highly recommend picking it up to see what all the fuss is about.  I've got my fingers crossed that we'll be back in Singapore soon to see what else these characters can get up to.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are purely my own.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"It's Monday! What Are You Reading?"

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Well, I did it.  I finally managed to get back into a reading groove.  And it feels oh so good.  I always think summer is going to be fantastic for reading but then it gets here and it's way too busy.  And it really doesn't help that lately I've been addicted to watching 8 Out of 10 Cats on Youtube.  But I've got a ton of good books in my pile that I really want to get to, so I'm making sure I make good time for reading now.

What I Read Last Week
Parenting Without Borders by Christine Gross-Loh
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan - review coming soon but let me say, I loved this book.

What I'm Reading Now
Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

What I Plan to Read Next
I picked up A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra yesterday and was instantly drawn in.  

After that I can't decide between Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight or The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messaud. Have you read either of them?  Which do you think I should read next?

What are you reading this week?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Parenting Without Borders" by Christine Gross-Loh

Every culture has its own unique ways of doing things and when it comes to parenting, there is no exception.  And in a world that is growing ever closer, it's easy for us to notice how our parenting styles compare and what other cultures seem to be getting right when we are struggling.  Wouldn't it be great to know their secrets?

In Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, Christine Gross-Loh brings "the world's best parenting strategies" right to you.  In this book she looks at parenting styles from countries such as Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and China and compares them to American notions of raising children.  She shows that helicopter parenting is unique to America, co-sleeping is the norm in most cultures, and the world's highest academic achievers get a lot of time to play at school, among many other things.

Disclaimer: I don't like parenting books.  I think I've done pretty well so far by learning from my children and searching for advice from other moms in my life.  The parenting books I have read have come across as preachy or rigid and quite frankly, I don't have the time for that.  However, I'm fascinated by how people around the world tackle the same issues I do.  And considering my husband and I come from two different cultures and are trying to find the balance in raising our children within them, I thought I'd give this one a try.

My first problem going into the book was that it was something different from what I thought it would be.  I thought it would just be a comparison of cultures, a sort of "here's what they do in this country.  Now here is what they do in this other country."  Kind of like what the movie Babies did.  Instead, the book takes one issue (for example, co-sleeping) per chapter, then visits with parents of many different cultures to see how they tackle that issue.  Fair enough.  However, in doing it this way, at many times it came across as "this is what America does wrong and here is how everyone else does it better."  At times I wasn't sure if this book was to enlighten you on how other cultures raise their children, or make you feel bad for how your culture raises children.

And as it goes with most parenting books, which is my biggest issue with reading them, there is no one right way for doing things.  Kids are unique.  Yes, their culture influences them, but even within one family, different things work for each child.  Take the issue of sleeping.  One of my children slept early on in a crib in her own room.  The other slept in my room and often in my bed.  Neither has had any sleeping issues and both have developed similarly when it comes to independence.  Actually, I could go as far as to say that the opposite of what is being suggested in this book (that co-sleeping promotes independence) has happened in my family IF I were to base things solely on that one subject.  But I won't.

I'm not saying that I disliked this book, I just wish it was written differently.  I guess I didn't find it as balanced as other readers have.  And maybe that's because of my parenting book bias.  I would have preferred a journey around the world, dropping in on families to see what life is like, but instead it was more of a "here's what we're doing, now here is what everyone else is doing differently."   And as someone who doesn't over schedule their children and could never be accused of being a helicopter parent (that's me with my nose in a book while my child is dangling by their feet off the playground), it's easy to take offense to the claim that this way of raising your children is difficult to do in North America.

It was still interesting to see what other parents around the world have to say on certain subjects.  And there are a lot of great ideas in there that you can apply to your own parenting style.  If you like to read parenting books then I think this one brings something new to the genre.  Just have a more open mind going into it than I did.

Friday, July 12, 2013

"The Twin" by Gerbrand Bakker

Helmer van Wonderen was a young man studying at university when his twin brother Henk was killed in a car accident.  Family obligations came first and Helmer left school to return to the home he grew up in and take over his brother's role on the small family farm.  

Thirty years later, Helmer is still a single man working on the farm.  His mother has passed away and he has moved his invalid father to a room upstairs to keep him out of the way.  But when Henk's ex-girlfriend Riet reappears after decades away, Helmer's solitary life is interrupted.  She asks if her eighteen-year-old son, also named Henk, can come and live on the farm for a while and it is his arrival that brings the past back to the forefront of Helmer's life.

The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker, is a simple and subtle novel about rural life and family dynamics.  The winner of the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, it's an interesting look at the relationship between a middle-aged man and his father, forever shaped and haunted by the death of his twin brother, the one his father preferred.

This is the second book by Bakker I have read, the first being The Detour.  I was kind of in the middle with it, not sure why I liked it, not sure what was keeping me from being excited about it.  I kind of feel the same way about The Twin.  In the beginning I wasn't sure I liked it, yet I just had to keep reading it.  For me this points to the skill of Bakker's writing, that what comes across as simple or mundane continues to keep your interest.  Throughout the book, the man that Helmer is slowly unfolds and as more of him becomes apparent, the more interested you are.  

Typically, I enjoy books like this.  I often don't mind ones that unfold slowly so long as I'm given little bits of information as I go.  But often with those kind of books, I experience much more at the end.  I'm not talking a big twist or anything like that, I just like for situations to be resolved, things to be explained.  And upon finishing this book I didn't feel fully satisfied.  I just found myself wondering what I'm supposed to be drawing from the story of Helmer, other than the little sadness I felt for him.

This is one of those books that, I think, is written in a style that is for some people and not for others.  That doesn't make it good or bad, it could also just depend on your mood when reading it.  This one is more about the character and his struggles and much less about the plot.  Simple and subtle, not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on what you're expecting.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

"Revenge Wears Prada" by Lauren Weisberger

A decade has past since Andy Sachs left Miranda Priestly, editor of Runway Magazine, standing in the streets of Paris.  After a year of working as Miranda's assistant, a job that millions of girls would kill to have, Andy just couldn't take it anymore and quit.  And over that decade, a lot has changed for Andy.

Not only is she married to the love of her life, Max Harrison, the heir of a media empire (and not her college sweetheart), she is the editor of a high end Bridal magazine, The Plunge.  To top it off, her partner in the magazine is her former co-assistant and nemesis, Emily.  Yes, things are a little different from when we last saw Andy.

Just when Andy thinks things couldn't be more perfect, the past walks right back into her life.  Andy's new life brings her back into the path of Miranda Priestly.  This time however, Andy is in the drivers seat, when Miranda's company makes an offer to buy The Plunge.  But just when Andy thinks this is her chance to get revenge, things around her begin to fall apart.

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger is one of the most talked about new releases of 2013, with so many people anxiously awaiting a visit with the characters we fell in love with in The Devil Wears Prada back in 2004. 

Right.  So just as many people were considering this book one of their most anticipated of the year, many people are considering this book one of their most disappointing books of the year as well.  Could it be because there has been so much time between the original book and now?  Or Meryl Streep's fantastic portrayal of Miranda in the movie version is so highly regarded that we feel so let down by this book?

For me personally, I think it's because I built up this book so much, I was gently letdown.  I didn't hate the book, in fact I still gave it 3 stars.  But it wasn't what I was expecting and I think it all comes down to there just wasn't enough Miranda.  As a catch-up to what Andy is up to ten years later, I don't think the book faltered in any way.  It's nice to see her become successful on her own rather than someone who just gave up and went home.  But that promise of the Devil returning in the title?  It was more like the mention of her returning.  More time was given to deciding how not to run into her or what to do when they finally do, rather than actually interacting with her.  And that was the big disappointment for me.  

I have enjoyed all of Weisberger's other books as they take you into glamourous celebrity worlds and those books are always fun.   But I found that the writing behind this one just wasn't up to par.  For me, it felt like it was written quickly because of demand rather than a genuine wanting to return to characters who were so well-loved.  It's unfortunate to see that happen.  I don't feel like I wasted my time reading this book, I just wish it had been better given how much anticipation I felt for the book.

Monday, July 8, 2013

"It's Monday, What Are You Reading?"

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

My reading has been all over the place for the past month, some times I'm not reading at all, sometimes I have a whole bunch of books on the go.  I'm going to have to book myself in with the eye doctor this week because I think I may need glasses.  I definitely can't see as well as before and I think that might be contributing to the fact that I'm not able to read for as long as I usually do.

That being said, I'm still pushing along and I'm in the midst of one of those reading bursts where I have quite a few books on the go.  Which ones are they?

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
Parenting Without Borders by Christine Gross-Loh
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

I tend to read fiction earlier in the day and then non-fiction later on, I don't know why.  But I'm hoping that by next week I can report to you that at least one of these books is finished!

What are you reading this week?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

"Mouthwatering Vegan" by Miriam Sorrell

In 2010, Miriam Sorrell started a blog to help others learn and prepare delicious vegan dishes.  Her goal was to inspire other vegans as well as omnivores and vegetarians to live a healthier life.  Her blog took off and before she knew it she was approached to write her own cookbook.  The result is Mouthwatering Vegan, with over 130 irresistible recipes for everyone.  As the cover says, "welcome to the meat-free revolution."

I didn't actually know about Sorrell's blog before I picked up this book, I'm just a big fan of vegan recipes and vegetarian living and am always on the lookout for new and exciting cookbooks.  What I really liked about this one is that it goes beyond what many vegan cookbooks do and expands on the wonderful foods and flavours available.  In other words, there is more than just another recipe for black bean quesadillas and meat-free spaghetti sauce in this book.

Miriam Sorrell comes from a Mediterranean background and it shows in a lot of her recipes including Greek Garlic Bean Stew, Sweet Potato Moussaka, and My Greek Family Tree Hummus.  But this book also offers a wide variety of cuisines with recipes such as Tandoori Kofta Masala, Moroccan Smoked Eggplant Dip, Spanish-Style Omelette, and Swiss Vegan Fondue.

And for those who think that vegan eating isn't exciting, check out the dessert section that includes Crème Caramel Extraordinaire, Hot Apple and Chocolate Crumble, Lime and Coconut Cheesecake, Chocoholics Cheesecake, and Luscious Red Velvet Cake.  My favourite out of this bunch is the Bountiful Coconut Chocolate Bar.  If you're a fan of coconut and chocolate together then you will enjoy this very easy to make vegan version of the Bounty chocolate bar.

In addition to recipes, this book includes a section on why going vegan is a good option as well as vegan basics like what to put in your pantry and what are great meat and dairy alternatives.  I always appreciate when specific brands are recommended as it makes shopping easier for the new vegan or the just curious.  

My only criticism of this cookbook is the photography.  It seems as though the same personal photos from the blog are used and while it makes sense, some of the photos could look a bit more professional.  Some seemed a bit blurry to me and there were a few times where the photo made me hesitant to give the recipe a try.  I think it really came down to the photos being a little too close up to the food for me.  

I wouldn't recommend this as the place to start for anyone who is considering going vegan in terms of learning about vegan nutrition (for those go here) but I would definitely give this one a mention as one that will prove that vegan eating doesn't have to be boring or bland.  I'm positive that even life-long vegans will find some great new dishes for their repertoire from this book.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are purely my own.

Friday, July 5, 2013

"On Black Sisters Street" by Chika Unigwe

Every night, Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce stand in windows of the red-light district of Antwerp, Belgium, waiting for their next customer.  This isn't what any of the women had planned for when they immigrated from Africa.  However, they must stay focused on doing what they need to do to start a new life.  

But when Sisi does not come home one night, the women must face the fact that this life will be harder to escape from than they thought.

On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe, winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature, is a novel of importance, a voice for the women throughout the world who are sold and trafficked.  Unigwe spent time interviewing African sex workers in Antwerp, which leads to the honest and brutal story that makes up this novel.

Sisi, Joyce, Ama, and Efe all come from troubled backgrounds back home in Nigeria.  They are abused, abandoned, unemployed, and alone.  They have dreams of bigger and better lives, and their saviour comes in the form of Senghor Dele, a man who exports women to Europe.  The women don't fully understand what it is he is doing until they arrive overseas and at that point are trapped in debt to him.  

I have read a few books about the trafficking of women but I have never read about it in fictional form, until now.  It's very obvious that this is a well-researched book and appears that Unigwe has stayed true to the stories of the women she has interviewed.  It's difficult to read this as fiction when you know that around the world millions of women and children are forced into this kind of life.  But it is a look at how women end up here and the ways in which they push forward in the hopes of making it out and building a life for themselves.

My only criticism of the book is the way in which it is formatted.  It tells the story of the four women and jumps back and forth between them, as well as back and forth in time, between their lives in Nigeria and their lives in Belgium.  For me personally, it would have flowed better if it was more straightforward in time (maybe started in the present, went to the past then through to the present again.)  

However, I'm not the award winning writer, and Unigwe is very deserving of the acclaim she has received for her work.  Her name has taken its place amongst the top modern African writers and her writing goes beyond one people or continent.  I look forward to more of the stories she has tell.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

State of the Blog

If you read my blog on a semi-frequent basis, you'll probably have noticed there wasn't much to read last month!  With my husband having exams to mark and report cards to write in addition to finishing up his own course he was taking and everything that comes along with kids finishing up in school, and my 3 year old doing what a busy 3 year old normally does, it was a hectic month around here.  There was very little time for reading and blogging.  So that has left my blog on its own with nothing to do.

But it is summer now and though it looks to be a busy one, I know I'll get back on track with reading.  So look for my blog to pick back up its pace in the next week.  And if it doesn't, feel free to give me a swift kick and tell me to get back in gear, because as busy and wonderful as life gets, it doesn't feel complete without reading!