NetGalley Review: Sideshow of Merit by Nicole Pietsch (Did Not Finish)

Sideshow of MeritSideshow of Merit by Nicole Pietsch
Did not finish.
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to namelos for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

Goodreads Book Blurb: You couldn’t call Mount Rosa Hospital a good place to be in 1957, when you were fourteen. But it’s where Tevan George was, and James Rowley too, “convalescing” from tuberculosis. And it’s where both boys were abused by an older boy–although neither of them did much talking about it, then or later. Shut up! That’s what Tevan did. James too, but he never said much about anything anyway. Nine rocky years later, on the run together since they skipped out on a medical checkup at Mount Rosa’s in 1961, Tevan and James emerge early one morning from the ’55 Chevy they’ve been living in and come across Buddy Merit setting up his “Ten in One” sideshow on a fairground in Ontario. They can’t do magic. They can’t foretell the future. They can’t swallow swords. What Tevan and James decide they can do is a stunt they’ve done only in private, in the dark-a stunt that, performed in public for the marks, takes on a life of its own and surprises even the two young men who perform it. In the company of the misfits and reprobates and losers who make up Buddy Merit’s sideshow, Tevan and James act out the central trauma of their lives until they get to a place from which they can’t go forward and they can’t go back.

My Opinion: There are a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads about this book. I hate to add mine to it, but mine will be for a different reason than subject matter.

A lot of people are not keen on the fact that Sideshow of Merit features erotic asphyxiation. Honestly, I have pretty high limits when it comes to literature, and I was willing to see how Pietsch handled the subject matter.

But the book was just so mind-numbingly slow and boring! I made it 80 pages in on a 350 page book, and very little had happened. If it had, it had happened in such a way that I just wanted something else to happen. I wasn’t drawn to the characters, I wasn’t drawn to the plot, and I kept forgetting that Sideshow of Merit was set in Canada.

Bottom Line: I was really disappointed in this book, as it completely failed to keep me engaged.

NetGalley Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

The Thinking Woman's GuideThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Baker
Read: July 17 – July 25, 2013
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to Penguin Group – Viking for sending me this advance review copy via NetGalley!

Release Date: August 1, 2013
ISBN:
9780670023660
Price: $27.95 USD
Format: Hardcover

Goodreads Book Blurb: Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman.  During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty.  Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.

Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.

My Opinion: When I saw this book on NetGalley, I had to have it. Something I have been craving lately is a strong female character, particularly in a fantasy setting. I requested this book and was so excited when I was approved.

Unfortunately, my excitement only lasted about 100 pages into the book.

With a title like The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, I imagined the character to be a headstrong woman who was secure in herself and her opinions. I thought she wouldn’t take any bull from anybody, and that she would be an accomplished magician by the end of the book. Nora was none of these things.

A lot of the time, her lack of matching characterization to the promises made in the title were written off as being tied to enchantment. This didn’t fly with me. I think in the end, the title was just a really bad choice for the book.

There is another reason for this. Not only did Nora not present as a “thinking woman”, the book didn’t have much in the way of magic in it, either. For a book titled The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, this was nothing short of a tragedy.

Emily Croy Barker’s book is the first one I have read recently that features what I have dubbed the “constructed-patriarchy trope“. In writing fantasy, authors have so many options open to them. Why do they fall back on creating an oppressive patriarchy for their characters to overcome? In this instance, it may have been an effort to make Nora seem more like a “thinking woman”, but it fell flat.

Another character I had a very hard time liking was Aruendiel. He was the typical alpha male, very much a jerk, yet somehow endearing. The only difference in The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is that he is not stunningly good-looking.

Writing-wise, Emily Croy Barker is good. The prose was decent, but the storytelling was lacking. There were a lot of tangential  things brought in that did nothing for me with regards to the whole story, and instead just bogged down the book bringing it in at over 500 pages. I love long books, but this one could have easily been shorter.

Not having read any Austen myself (I know, I know, bad Erin) I found the Pride and Prejudice references overdone and tiresome by the end of the book. They also seemed really out-of-place to me, but that could also be because I haven’t actually read P&P, and don’t know the story.

Even knowing this is a part of a planned series, the ending really aggravated me, as open-ended endings tend to.

Bottom Line: The title was a bad call on this one. Inherently it is not a horrible book. The writing itself is good, and some of the imagery is wonderful. But I had such high expectations of it because of the title that it really fell flat for me. As always, I encourage my readers to make their own call. But if you decide to pick up Emily Croy Baker’s book, imagine it is titled differently, with no reference to magic or amazing female characters.

NetGalley Review: Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts

Tumble & FallTumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts
Read: July 12 – July 17, 2013
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for sending me an advance copy for review via NetGalley.

Release Date: September 17, 2013
Price: $17.99 USD
ISBN: 9780374378615

Goodreads Book Blurb: A novel about the end of days full of surprising beginnings. The world is living in the shadow of oncoming disaster. An asteroid is set to strike the earth in just one week’s time; catastrophe is unavoidable. The question isn’t how to save the world—the question is, what to do with the time that’s left? Against this stark backdrop, three island teens wrestle with intertwining stories of love, friendship and family—all with the ultimate stakes at hand.

My Opinion: In theory, this was a great book for me. In practice, it was anything but.

The biggest thing I really missed in Tumble & Fall was a sense of urgency. The world is ending in a week, and while there is nothing anyone can do about it, that doesn’t need to translate into a lack of urgency. Even if there was nothing I could do about it, the impending end of the world would send me into a tizzy.

The characters were a little thin, and I wasn’t entirely sold on their reactions. Part of this could be the narrative style Coutts chose, opting for a three-way shared narrative. If a two-way shared narrative makes it hard to connect to the characters, a three-way was even worse. And the connection between the narrating characters was tenuous at best.

I didn’t find anything groundbreaking in the prose in Tumble & Fall, though there wasn’t anything technically bad. The words were right, the grammar was correct, but the story lacked the sparkle and magic that makes stories come alive and live within the reader.

One thing I did really like was the ending. Normally I hate endings that don’t tie everything up nicely, but I was so intensely afraid that Coutts was going to end Tumble & Fall with something akin to “And the asteroid missed Earth. Hooray!” that I was pleasantly surprised with the ending. This was also a spot where I feel like Coutts finally came into her strength with prose, and the final twenty pages or so read very hauntingly.

One plot hole I found really aggravating. If the asteroid is large enough to do damage akin to ending the world (or so they think) and is aimed for a direct hit… wouldn’t it be visible to the naked eye?

The Bottom Line: Not an end-of-the-world/apocalypse book by any real stretch. That whole plot point could be removed with minimal rewrites and no real damage to the main stories. Triple narrative makes the characters hard to connect to, and their motives hard to follow. The whole book lacks urgency.

If slow-paced contemporary romance is your thing, I would suggest checking this book out when it is released. For me, that is very much not my thing, so I found little enjoyment in Tumble & Fall.

NetGalley Review: The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

The Boy Who Could See DemonsThe Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Read: July 8 – July 12, 2013
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to Bantam Dell/Random House Publishing for sending me this review copy via NetGalley!

Goodreads Book Blurb: Alex Connolly is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex’s mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn’t exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?

My Opinion: This is a very hard book to review. It was very engaging and I found it immensely enjoyable, but it was also quite nuanced and intricate. I want to talk about it, but I feel like anything I could say would reveal potential spoilers.

The demons in this book are very real, and are not of the fantastical variety. Alternating between the viewpoints of Alex and Anya, we learn of Alex’s ability to see demons, including his best friend, Ruen. This made the book an instant winner for me. I loved that The Boy Who Could See Demons chose to attack mental health head on, instead of taking a supernatural route. There are supernatural elements, for sure. But at its core, the book is intensely psychological in nature.

The larger arc, which was probably a little bit lost on me as I am not much for world history, was the psychological effect on people from the political unrest in Northern Ireland. And not only the direct effect, but the trickle-down effect.

The characters were well written and likeable, if a little unreliable at times.

And that ending. Jaw-dropping.

Bottom Line: The Boy Who Could See Demons is inherently readable, and is paced like a thriller. While tacking some heavy subject matter, the prose is trim and never bogged down. This is definitely a book I would recommend checking out!

Review: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Silver Linings PlaybookThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
Read: May 26 – May 27, 2013
Personal read.

Goodreads Book Blurb: Pat Peoples has a theory that his life is actually a movie produced by God, and that his God-given mission in life is to become emotionally literate, whereupon God will ensure a happy ending – which, for Pat, means the return of his estranged wife Nikki, from whom he’s currently having some ‘apart time.’ It might not come as any surprise to learn that Pat has spent several years in a mental health facility. When Pat leaves hospital and goes to live with his parents, however, everything seems changed: no one will talk to him about Nikki; his old friends now have families; his beloved football team keep losing; his new therapist seems to be recommending adultery as a form of therapy. And he’s being haunted by Kenny G. There is a silver lining, however, in the form of tragically widowed, physically fit and clinically depressed Tiffany, who offers to act as a go-between for Pat and his wife, if Pat will just agree to perform in this year’s Dance Away Depression competition.

My Opinion: It is really refreshing to see a book that isn’t afraid to tackle various mental health issues head-on. I liked that The Silver Linings Playbook was written in a bit of a diary style so that we could see inside Pat’s head. On the outside, those of us with mental illnesses aren’t that much different, but on the inside it is a whole different story. Quick really highlighted that.

That said, I didn’t love the book. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that The Silver Linings Playbook has a lot to do with sports (football, specifically) and I am not a sports fan at all.

I have seen this book compared to an adult Perks of Being a Wallflower and I can see the resemblances. Maybe that is why I am not a huge fan, because I didn’t love Perks either.

At the end of the day, I found The Silver Linings Playbook to be lackluster. The characters didn’t really shine, and the story was pretty transparent. While I enjoyed that the narrative voice was different to reflect Pat’s mental issues, I wasn’t sold on the book as a whole.

Bottom Line: I want to see the movie version of it, but the book version lacked something to push it from “meh” to “wow” for me.

Review: The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Read: May 15 – May 16, 2013
Personal read.

Goodreads Book Blurb: Twenty-seven-year-old Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night…. Until she finds it harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tenderhearted woman who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother…

Fleeing a life of bad luck and big mistakes, Della Lee has decided Josey’s clandestine closet is the safest place to crash. In return she’s going to change Josey’s life—because, clearly, it is not the closet of a happy woman. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey is soon forgoing pecan rolls and caramels, tapping into her startlingly keen feminine instincts, and finding her narrow existence quickly expanding.

Before long, Josey bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who makes the best sandwiches in town, is hounded by books that inexplicably appear whenever she needs them, and—most amazing of all—has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush.

As little by little Josey dares to step outside herself, she discovers a world where the color red has astonishing power, passion can make eggs fry in their cartons, and romance can blossom at any time—even for her. It seems that Della Lee’s work is done, and it’s time for her to move on. But the truth about where she’s going, why she showed up in the first place—and what Chloe has to do with it all—is about to add one more unexpected chapter to Josey’ s fast-changing life.

Brimming with warmth, wit, and a sprinkling of magic, here is a spellbinding tale of friendship, love—and the enchanting possibilities of every new day.

My Opinion: This is the first of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels that I have read. I will definitely be checking out more, because I really adored this story!

The Sugar Queen was not at all what I expected. I was thinking something more along the lines of Chocolat, but even with it not being what I thought, I was hooked very early on. It is a light and fluffy read about friendship, stepping outside your comfort zone, and a dash of love.

Story-wise, there were a few things I didn’t understand or relate to very well. One was Josey’s shame at her sugar stash, and therefore her inability to just tell Della Lee to leave. It would have been a very different book, of course, but it was a minor thing I didn’t understand. The other was Josey’s shame at how she behaved when she was younger. Maybe this is because I have no concept of “southern Belle”.

Writing-wise, Sarah Addison Allen doesn’t do anything complex or overly magical. The prose is basic, though readable. The plot was fairly light and fluffy. There are a few twists, most of which I saw coming fairly far away.

The characters in The Sugar Queen are really fun, though at times I found them to be a little flat. I especially loved Chloe and the books that follow her around. In the end, I really felt like Josey did grow and change over the course of the story, which is not something you see often enough these days.

Bottom Line: A sweet, light, and fluffy read that delivers a few twists and some really likeable characters.

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett
Read: May 12 – May 14, 2013
Personal read.

Goodreads Book Blurb: Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

My Opinion: I loved The Help. My book club had read it a while back, and I bought it then, but chose not to read it. Then the movie came out. And I did something I hate to do. I watched the movie before I read the book. And I loved the story so much that I decided I needed to read the book. (For the record I saw the movie pretty recently on the free movie channels.)

I think the biggest mark of The Help being a good book for me was how uncomfortable I was while reading it. I feel like Stockett did a fantastic job of building the world of 1960’s Mississippi and the racism that plagued the country. My discomfort comes from the fact that real people were (and unfortunately still can be) like this. She also really explored the relationships between white women, their children, and their black maids at the time. It was really interesting for me to see the different dynamics in those various relationships, and I felt they were well written.

While the book made me feel uncomfortable a lot of the time, it also made me feel warm, it made me laugh, it made me mad, it made me cheer. It took me through the entire range, leaving no stone unturned.

The other thing I liked about The Help was the characters. Because this isn’t really an action packed novel, the characters are really important. While some of the background characters lacked depth, I really felt like Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter were really well done. We got to explore their minds, their personal thoughts, and their thoughts as a group. It was fantastic.

Stockett did a great job of writing in dialect, as well. There is a right way and a wrong way to write dialect and accents, and I felt like Stockett did it the right way.

Bottom Line: A very readable book with great characters.