Review: (You) Set Me on Fire

(You) Set Me on Fire
Mariko Tamaki
Penguin Canada

Allison has been burned in the past – literally and figuratively. A failed high school romance resulted in emotional and physical scars, but now Allison is off to college, where she can be whoever she wants to be. When she meets Shar outside a frat party, Allison is instantly drawn to her. The two quickly become inseparable, blowing off school to party and making fun of the “normal” girls in their student residence. As their friendship begins to become toxic, will Allison once again go down in flames?

I was inspired to read this book after hearing author Mariko Tamaki read from it at The Word on the Street in September. I guess this book could be considered part of the emerging “new adult” trend since it is about the college experience. I found this to be a nice change from reading about younger teens in high school. While I can’t say my university life was anything like Allison’s, having recently finished graduate school at a school where last night’s partying was a frequent topic of discussion among the undergrads on the bus, I can still somewhat relate. Allison finds herself in a number of awkward situations throughout the book, and these stories, such as getting sick from too many shots after climbing the “Tower of Power” at a frat party, are laugh-out-loud funny. Tamaki does an excellent job of capturing a young adult’s dialogue and worldview. Readers will cringe at Allison’s misfortunes while still rooting for her to get her life in order.


Review: The Imposter Bride

The Imposter Bride
Nancy Richler

When Lily Azerov arrives in Montreal after World War II, she expects to marry Sol Kramer. However, after Sol has a change of heart, Lily marries his brother, Nathan, instead. But an uninvited guest at their wedding knows Lily is not who she claims to be. One day, Lily disappears suddenly, leaving behind her baby daughter, a notebook, and an uncut diamond. As she grows up, Lily’s daughter, Ruth, tries to figure out exactly who her mother was and what happened to the woman whose identity she stole.

I had mixed feelings upon finishing this book. I enjoyed the mystery surrounding Lily and finding out little by little who she really was and how she found herself in Montreal in 1946. However, I did feel part of the mystery wasn’t really explained. At various points in her childhood Ruth receives packages from her mother containing rocks, with an index card noting the location where the rock was found, the time, date, and weather conditions. We never find out the significance of these rocks, if any. It seems an odd way for a woman to communicate with the daughter she left behind but we never know why she did this. Maybe I’m just not a fan of loose ends, but I found this to be a let-down after all the buildup throughout what was otherwise a highly enjoyable novel. The Imposter Bride was short listed for the 2012 Giller Prize.


Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky
MTV Books

Told through a series of letters written by teen Charlie to an unknown person, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of a socially awkward youth who stands on the edges of society, carefully observing everything around him. When he attempts to stop being a wallflower and start “participating,” he quickly discovers all the ups and downs of adolescence, from first love to experimenting with drugs and alcohol and even a brief part in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I was excited to read this book both because it is considered by many to be a YA classic, and also because of the upcoming film. I absolutely loved Emma Watson as Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, but I admit I am nervous about seeing her “all grown-up” in a different sort of film. As for the book, you really can’ t help but feel for Charlie. The teen years are awkward for all of us, but circumstances in Charlie’s past have made connecting with others even more difficult for him. He is very intelligent and often notices things that other people don’t, while at the same time he is often clueless in social situations, which results in much of the novel’s humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found Charlie to be one of the most memorable characters I have encountered recently.

The movie trailer is here:

Review: The Chaperone

The Chaperone
Laura Moriarty
Riverhead Books

It is 1922 and Wichita housewife Cora Carlisle has just accepted a job as chaperone to fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks as she embarks on a summer in New York City study at the Denishawn dance school. Dealing with strong-willed Louise and her mercurial moods proves challenging, but Cora has her own reasons for coming to New York. She is on a mission to find answers to a question that has long been haunting her. But what she finds isn’t what she expected.

I really enjoyed travelling back in time to the flapper era for a glimpse at the girl who would go on to become an icon. While the career of Louise Brooks is chronicled throughout the book, though, this is really Cora’s story. While at first Cora seems like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, her past is full of secrets that come to life over the course of this compelling novel.

Review: Seating Arrangements

Seating Arrangements
Maggie Shipstead
Alfred A. Knopf

Winn Van Meter is heading to the island of Waskeke in New England for the wedding of his pregnant eldest daughter, Daphne. In a house overrun by females, Winn struggles with his long-standing crush on Daphne’s seductive bridesmaid, Agatha, and his desire to join an exclusive country club. Meanwhile, younger daughter Livia is desperately clinging to a failed relationship, leaving her vulnerable to the charms of the best man. What unfolds is a commentary on the ideals of marriage and familial obligations.

I enjoyed reading Shipstead’s debut novel and found it to be a great summer read. It was interesting to explore the complicated dynamics of the Van Meter family. As Shipstead demonstrates, having money and social status doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness, and even the most seemingly perfect families have their share of tribulations. I look forward to Shipstead’s next book.

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey
E.L. James
Vintage Books

Originally written as Twilight fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey is the story of shy, socially awkward literature student Anastasia Steele and attractive, wealthy, intimidating Christian Grey. When Ana interviews Christian for the student newspaper, she is instantly attracted to him. Grey takes a surprising interest in her as well, but the relationship he has in mind is not the “hearts and flowers” kind Anastasia wants. Driven by a need for control, Grey asks Ana to be his submissive. Although their affair is intensely passionate, Ana yearns for more. Can she accept Grey on his terms?

This is book is quite a departure from the YA I normally read. Given the controversy surrounding this book, I was curious to read it to see what the fuss was about. Having worked at Harlequin as a Proofreader for four years, I’m not really a stranger to erotica and didn’t find the sex in this book as shocking as one might expect given the reaction it has received. I was relieved that the writing wasn’t as awful as I had read in other reviews, though it is definitely cheesy in many areas. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, partly because I didn’t feel any connection to the characters. I probably won’t read the sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, but I can understand why some people would want to read a book like this that has a little more spice than the average romance novel.


Review: Austentatious

Alyssa Goodnight

Straitlaced engineer Nicola James has had her entire future mapped out since the age of thirteen. “The Plan” leaves little time for romance and certainly no time for magic journals that write back. But that is exactly what she finds when the journal she buys at an antiques stores, hidden among a set of Jane Austen novels, offers up its own critiques of her innermost thoughts. A self-professed “Janeite,” Nicola wonders if the spirit of Jane Austen, whom she dubs “Fairy Jane,” is somehow wreaking havoc on her love life. Fairy Jane’s advice leads her into a passionate romance with sexy Scotsman Sean MacInnes, forcing Nic to choose whether to follow her plan — or her heart.

I picked up this book because I am a huge Jane Austen fan. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Nicola overly likeable as a character and certainly not worthy of comparison to an Austen heroine despite the frequent attempts made to compare her situation to Elizabeth Bennett’s. I don’t think the analogy really worked. Sure, Nic is hesitant to get involved with Sean at first, but he is never rude to her the way Darcy is to Lizzie, quite the opposite in fact. I found Nicola’s anal-retentiveness exasperating at times. Also, I get that she loves cupcakes but is it really necessary for her to bake them every day? And still go out the cupcake bakeries for more? Seriously, how is this girl not obese? But I digress. My complaints aside, Austentatious is a light read perfect for the beach, a piece of sugary fluff, not unlike one of Nicola’s prized cupcakes, that will satisfy your craving for romance.

Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Set in the 1980s, The Marriage Plot follows the post-graduation lives of Madeleine, her boyfriend, Leonard, and her old friend Mitchell, who happens to be in love with her. When Madeleine and Leonard move to the Cape for his research fellowship, Leonard’s manic depression threatens to drive a wedge between them, while Madeleine tries to figure out what to do with her life after being rejected from graduate school. Meanwhile, Mitchell develops an interest in religion and sets off to Europe and then India, all the while convinced Madeleine is destined to marry him.

I decided to read this book because I had never read Eugenides before and I remember Middlesex being quite popular. I am also a fan of Jane Austen and thought the marriage plot concept of Madeleine’s thesis sounded interesting. However, this concept didn’t really play out in the novel the way I expected it to. There is a section of the book that describes Madeleine’s past romances, all of which went wrong one way or another. But the marriage plot thread seems to be dropped somewhere in the middle and then quickly resurfaces on the final page. As a former English major, reading this book reminded me of fourth-year seminars discussing literary theory, and I have to admit that is not really a time I want to go back to given how pretentious I found many of the comments made by some of my classmates. I couldn’t help but find this book a little pretentious also and I felt that it would have made more sense had I read more of the works mentioned. It was an interesting enough story but not one I would wildly recommend to others.

Review: The List

The List
Siobhan Vivian

Every year at Mount Washington High School, a list is put out in the week leading up to homecoming naming the prettiest and ugliest girls in each grade. No one knows, who writes the list, but the tradition has continued for years. For freshman Abby, being on the list is exciting even if her older sister, Fern, resents her for it. Danielle worries her older boyfriend won’t like her anymore. Popular girl Candace knows being named ugliest must be a cruel joke, while Lauren, who had previously been homeschooled, is overwhelmed by her newfound popularity. Bridget obsesses over her weight despite being named prettiest, while Sarah rebels against traditional ideas of beauty. Jennifer is named ugliest for the fourth year in a row, while her former best friend, Margo is named prettiest. For each girl, being named to the list has lasting consequences.

I found The List an interesting read given all the girl-on-girl meanness in today’s pop culture, from Mean Girls to Gossip Girl and all the various Real Housewives shows. The list is created by girls, not guys. It’s bad enough for boys to judge girls by their looks and call them ugly, but somehow it seems even worse seeing girls turn on each other rather than stand together to protest such misogynistic treatment. The creator of the list is revealed at the end of the book, and while this person’s identity may surprise you, I found the ending fell flat. I was hoping for more, some kind of statement about self-esteem or bullying or something a bit more meaningful than what I got. Still, The List was an interesting read that attempts to examine the way the opinions of others can damage the way girls see themselves.

Review: Something Wicked

Something Wicked
Lesley Anne Cowan
Puffin Canada

Troubled teen Melissa is struggling to get over her breakup with her twenty-eight-year-old secret boyfriend, Michael. To dull her pain, she turns to drinking, drugs, and promiscuity. But her troubles don’t end there. Melissa is also dealing with her younger brother’s death, an irresponsible mother, and being kicked out of school. Can she overcome these challenges and get her life back on track?

Cowan has written a gritty, compelling novel about a lost girl struggling to get through life. Melissa makes a lot of mistakes, but she is also smart. She is capable of doing well at school when she can focus and dreams of going to university to become a veterinarian. Given her difficult childhood as the daughter of a single mother who is still somewhat of a child herself, living in poverty, it is hard not to sympathize with Melissa no matter how many bad choices she makes. Fortunately, help is available in the form of counselors and social workers if Melissa can decide she is worth saving. Something Wicked is nominated for the 2012 White Pine award.