Face In A Book Update: Mini-Review Edition

Friday, May 02, 2014

Face In A Book is my weekly currently-reading feature! These week? A heavy dose of mini-reviews, from us to you.


Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (Push; On Sale April 29, 2014)
A new paperback edition of the cross-cultural comedy about finding your place in America . . . and finding your heart wherever, from an amazing new young author. 

Dimple Lala doesn't know what to think. She's spent her whole life resisting her parents' traditions. But now she's turning seventeen and things are more complicated than ever. She's still recovering from a year-old break-up and her best friend isn't around the way she used to be. Then, to make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a "suitable boy." Of course, it doesn't go well . . . until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web of words and music. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a story about finding yourself, finding your friends, finding love, and finding your culture -- sometimes where you least expect it.

This book just got me on so many levels. I’d heard so many good things about Born Confused, and I was definitely intrigued by the Indian-American main character, Dimple. Let’s take a minute to get real: I’m a first generation American, and I’ve often felt that I’m not entirely Syrian, or Albanian, or even American. I’m this hodge-podge mix of all of these things, though I strongly identify as an American. It can be a difficult thing as a teenager to try and fit in everywhere - at home I had to be the good little Muslim girl and student, while at school I tried to be a normal kid, one who didn’t bring lebne or falafel for lunch. After a while, I realized that I should just be myself, even if it made some people unhappy.

Dimple is just plain confused. Her parents want to set her up with Karsh, a suitable Indian boy, but what she really wants is a bad boy film student. When her (insufferable) friend Gwyn starts to crush on Karsh (and attempts to appropriate Dimple’s Indian culture, her family, and deludes herself into thinking she’s talented in any way – mostly I thought Dimple should just ditch the  girl), Dimple begins to think that maybe he isn’t so unsuitable after all. While she’s falling for Karsh, she’s also falling for her culture…and herself.  The characters are all incredibly well-drawn, including Dimple’s parents – who I loved – and her cousin Kavita. Even Gwyn, who again, I despised, was a multi-dimensional character with spirit. That said, I actually cringed at some of her quotes: “I mean, Sabina is supposedly doing Women’s Studies, right? Then how come there isn’t a single Elle or Cosmo in here?” UGH, GWYN. WHY. And she stands up at a South Asian identity conference and says something that made me want to face palm. Repeatedly.

But by the end, I was actually sobbing. I can’t remember the last time I felt so in love and moved by a book. I will be recommending this over and over again. -Amanda


What Strange Creatures by Emily Arsenault (William Morrow; On Sale July 22, 2014)
Scandal, love, family, and murder combine in this gripping literary mystery by critically acclaimed author Emily Arsenault, in which a young academic’s life is turned upside down when her brother is arrested for murder and she must prove his innocence.

Theresa Battle has already been divorced, and she has the houseful of pets, an unfinished dissertation, and a dead-end job to prove it. She’s not surprised though – as she says repeatedly, the Battles are used to disappointment. Even her brother Jeff wanders through life, with his girlfriend Kim as his only solace. When Kim is found dead, and the evidence stacks up against Jeff, Theresa is determined to prove her brother’s innocence. And no, it’s not just to get rid of Theresa’s puggle, who she was pet-sitting before the tragedy. When she discovers a possible conspiracy, Theresa finds herself in terrible danger.

Man, this book. Theresa was snarky, and I really dig that. The dialogue was witty, and I found myself smirking fairly often. There was a little too much talk about the subject for her dissertation – a veritable crazy woman from the 14th century named Margery Kempe who is known for writing the first autobiography - but I'm a nerd so all in all I really enjoyed that.

The mystery is also a real mystery. Which was refreshing, especially since I normally guess who did it within a few chapters of starting a book (or a TV show, which is why my father HATES watching Law & Order: SVU with me. Hint: it’s almost always the celebrity guest star.)

So I had to throw in an extra star for an actual surprise ending. I honestly didn't expect that AT ALL. -Amanda

Katherine by Anya Seton (Chicago Review Press; 1954)
This classic romance novel tells the true story of the love affair that changed history—that of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Set in the vibrant 14th century of Chaucer and the Black Death, the story features knights fighting in battle, serfs struggling in poverty, and the magnificent Plantagenets—Edward III, the Black Prince, and Richard II—who ruled despotically over a court rotten with intrigue. Within this era of danger and romance, John of Gaunt, the king’s son, falls passionately in love with the already married Katherine. Their well-documented affair and love persist through decades of war, adultery, murder, loneliness, and redemption. This epic novel of conflict, cruelty, and untamable love has become a classic since its first publication in 1954.

Last week, I was stuck in a pile of ARCs and realized I needed to read something that I didn’t feel obligated to read (working on those feelings this week – and making a commitment to only request books I’m excited about), so I took a break and read Katherine. I assumed it was light and fluffy historical fiction fare that I could pick up on and off over a few days, and I was largely right.

After Katherine is debuted at court, she’s quickly married off to Swynford. For some reason, his attempt to rape her is seen as highly romantic (oh, medieval England, I am so glad I don’t live in you) and she’s obviously incredibly lucky to marry a rapist knight with bad manners. Luckily for her, she’s got a backbone. She’s also stunningly beautiful, obedient, and many other lovely qualities. It kind of grated on me after a while, but Katherine was mostly redeemed in the end, despite a turn to the religious. I’ll give the plot a break in that regard, since this was written in the 50’s, and takes place in the 14th century. Makes sense.

Her romance with John of Gaunt was enduring – and I loved the glimpse into historical life Seton gives. The details are vivid, and I feel like they were mostly historical accurate. I didn’t sense any glaringly obvious anachronisms, so that was definitely a plus. Things I didn’t like so much? 600 PAGES. SWEET LILY POTTER THAT’S A LOT OF WORDS.

Still, it fit the bill – and I can definitely agree that it’s a historical fiction classic. -Amanda

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (Ace; 2001)
All the creatures of the forest and field and riverbank knew the infant was special. She was the princess, spirited away from the evil fairy Pernicia on her name-day. But the curse was cast: Rosie was fated to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a poisoned sleep-a slumber from which no one would be able to rouse her.

Robin McKinley is a goddess, first of all. Her books can do no wrong for me – I just adore her fairy tale retellings. Beauty is one of my favorite books. And since, like I mentioned earlier, I was taking an ARC break, I read this along with Katherine to recharge.

First of all, the writing is simply beautiful: “People forgot; it was in the nature of people to forget, to blur boundaries, to retell stories to come out the way they wanted them to come out, to remember things as how they ought to be instead of how they were.” JUST. GAH. And the entire book is written in this narrative vein. Which I loved – it kept with the fairy tale feel by dispensing with the dialogue. Not just that, but McKinley managed to retell Sleeping Beauty in a way that was actually different enough to be unique, but familiar enough to clearly be Sleeping Beauty. So A+, McKinley, A+.

Second, as other reviewers have said, it was totally twee. It was kind of refreshingly different. And from a feminist angle, Peony seems as if she’d be the perfect princess, meanwhile the real princess, Rosie, is a mess. She hates anything feminine, and frankly, she is a badass who has "beast speech." The only thing that creeped me out was Rosie’s love interest, who I felt was a bit too old…but hey, it’s a fairy tale. Shit happens. -Amanda

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin; 2002)
When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna's eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."

Anna Frith, the housemaid of a clergyman and his wife, is smack dab in the middle of a plague epidemic that essentially starts in her household. Carried by an infected bolt of cloth, the plague sweeps through the little village. The struggle to maintain hope while death is all around you is the meat of the issue in Year of Wonders, and one of the scenes I enjoyed any scenes that included the “witch” they begin hunting. The book is inspired by the real life story of a village named Eyam, where they chose to isolate themselves to prevent the plague from spreading to neighboring villages and the rest of the country. For me, finding out that a fictional tale is based on a true story is an extra pleasure.

I’ve been meaning to review this book for a while, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. Maybe that’s because it made me really, really depressed while I was reading. Not because the writing is terrible, by any means – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s moving, historically accurate, and has a tough spark of life working its way through. But there’s no getting around it – the Black Death is just awful to read about. People die, obviously, and throughout the book, I just kept getting into a deeper and deeper funk. That said, I really felt it was worth reading, because it made me feel. Frankly, that’s the highest praise I can give any book. Still, while I finished it, I can’t count it as a favorite, and I wouldn’t say it was an enjoyable read. -Amanda

The Kiss of Deception (The Remnant Chronicles #1) by Mary E. Pearson (Macmillan; On Sale July 15, 2014)
In a society steeped in tradition, Princess Lia’s life follows a preordained course. As First Daughter, she is expected to have the revered gift of sight—but she doesn’t—and she knows her parents are perpetrating a sham when they arrange her marriage to secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom—to a prince she has never met.

On the morning of her wedding, Lia flees to a distant village. She settles into a new life, hopeful when two mysterious and handsome strangers arrive—and unaware that one is the jilted prince and the other an assassin sent to kill her. In The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, deception abounds, and Lia finds herself on the brink of unlocking perilous secrets—even as she finds herself falling in love.

I was a bit apprehensive about the love triangle, but the last thing you can say about me is that I’m a book discriminator. If the story sounds good, I’m in – simple as that. I loved so many aspects of the storyline – I really liked that certain women have the gift of sight, and that a certain type of power revolved around that. I loved Lia’s lady-in-waiting Pauline, whose romance and quips were some of the best parts of the book. I thought the switching POVs were really interesting – you never really know which of Lia’s love interests is the assassin and which one is the prince – which kept me guessing until the end. That said, while it was predictable in some ways, it was also enjoyable.

On a sidenote, you can tell that this book caught my fancy from an aesthetic standpoint, considering I designed a Fashion Meets Fiction post around it. -Amanda