Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Julie's Review: The Abstinence Teacher

Summary: Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It's got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It's the kind of place where parents are involved in their children's lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth's younger daughter's soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn't approve of Ruth's style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn't applaud The Tabernacle's mission to take its message outside its doors. Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value. The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Review: I hadn't read a Tom Perrotta novel but I had seen 2 movies based on his books, Election and Little Children. I thoroughly enjoyed both so much that I decided to read one of his books. The summary sounded very good but after finishing the book, I think the title “The Abstinence Teacher” is a bit misleading. Sure it’s what fuels the novel into a direction but I really think the novel is about faith, religion and personal choices. I found the two main characters Ruth and Tim to be likeable. I could identify with both of them on different levels. I see why Tim was drawn to religion, as many recovering addicts are; he just joined a very “pushy” church and got sucked into their rhetoric. As for Ruth, all she did was make a simple statement about how some people enjoyed oral sex after being asked a direct question by a student. Frankly, it’s not like she showed them how perform it. This comment sends a ripple through the community and enter in Joanne Marlow, who is the very put together Abstinence Teacher. The school even does an assembly where she testifies to how she’s a virgin and all of her friends who’ve had sex have had traumatic outcomes. Now, I do think that abstinence should be taught as part of an overall sex education course, but I do not think it’s realistic to believe that teenagers abstain. Ruth is basically forced to teach the new curriculum even though she doesn’t believe in it and thinks it’s full of crap.

When Ruth’s daughter Maggie is lead in prayer after a soccer game by her coach, Tim, Ruth throws a fit and pulls Maggie off the field. Ruth is ticked off because Tim is a part of the church, Tabernacle, which is forcing her to teach the abstinence course. She feels that if she can’t teach other alternatives to abstinence in her classroom, her daughter shouldn’t be subjected to prayer in a park district sponsored sport. Ruth wants to compose a letter to the head of the Soccer Association that scolds Tim for his prayer after a game but she’s finding that the other parents are reluctant to get on board since no harm was really done. Tim comes to Ruth to discuss the issue and Ruth resolves not to send a letter.

I’m not sure if it’s the meeting with Ruth that sends Tim into a religious tailspin or if he would have gotten there eventually anyway. I think he was struggling with his new found faith for a while. I don’t necessarily think his issue is with God because he still does pray for guidance at the end of the book, I think his issue is with the church he is attending and its leader, Pastor Dennis. He does everything Pastor Dennis tells him to do, even if it doesn’t feel right so that he can be a righteous man instead of a sinner. He even marries a young woman even though he’s not in love with her because his Pastor tells him it’s a good idea. Tim is a follower and religion makes it worse. I agree with Tim’s mom when she says that religion is just another addiction for him. I think by the end of the novel he does start to realize that fact and is looking for his own truth. Which isn’t that what all of us are doing anyway?

Overall, I like his prose, wit and how he examines subject matters that most of us deal with on some level or at some point in our lives. I wouldn’t say I loved this book but I did find the characters appealing and real. I would definitely read him again.

Final Take: 3.5/5

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movie Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Summary: What happens when two witty, wise, but vulnerable teens meet by accident at a chaotic punk rock club? They fall in love, of course. While both are dealing with the fallout of failed relationships and the infinite hurt that accompanies them, they are questioning everything about themselves, their friends, and their future paths. The passion and intelligence of these characters, along with the authors' intimate knowledge of and complete respect for their audience, make this novel unique. Told in alternating chapters over the course of a single night, the narratives create a fully fleshed-out picture of both teens, informed by their love of music, their devotion to their friends, and their clear-eyed view of the world. These kids don't drink or do drugs and it's solely their obsession with music that takes them to these clubs. One of Norah's relatives calls her a potty mouth, and that's no exaggeration. Throughout the book, the expletives fly fast and furious, but they are more about personal expression and in-your-face attitude than about strong emotions. Yet, there is also considerable depth and sensitivity. Norah explains the Jewish concept of tikkun olam the responsibility to heal a fractured world and Nick comes up with an original spin on it. There are many heart-stopping, insightful moments in this supremely satisfying and sexy romance. A first-rate read.

Review: It's a vary rare weekend where I get to see 1 movie let alone 2 and for both of them to be book adapations is probably even more rare. I haven't read Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist but I definitely will after seeing the movie. It was adorable. A wonderful movie about finding your way and falling in love. I adore Michael Cera and really wanted to see the movie because he's in it. Now I did read a couple of reviews on the book a while ago and it peaked my interest. The music is wonderful in the movie and well what can go wrong when there's a Yugo involved. Many young people will have no clue what a Yugo is but us children of the 80's/90's remember them well.

I loved that everything happened in less then 24 hours in the movie, which at that age in your life seemed like a long period of time and was so exciting. Norah's friend Caroline is a hoot as are Nick's friends. Nick is a "straight edge" as is Norah. Needless to say there are a few moments where the story could turn on it's head but you know in the end that Nick and Norah will end up together.

At 35, I'm probably past the age of the target audience for this movie but I still enjoyed it. I think now I want to go and read the book, because I can almost guarantee the book is better.

Final Take: 4/5

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book to Movie: The Secret Lives of Bees

Summary: In Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, 14-year-old Lily Owen, neglected by her father and isolated on their South Carolina peach farm, spends hours imagining a blissful infancy when she was loved and nurtured by her mother, Deborah, whom she barely remembers. These consoling fantasies are her heart's answer to the family story that as a child, in unclear circumstances, Lily accidentally shot and killed her mother. All Lily has left of Deborah is a strange image of a Black Madonna, with the words "Tiburon, South Carolina" scrawled on the back. The search for a mother, and the need to mother oneself, are crucial elements in this well-written coming-of-age story set in the early 1960s against a background of racial violence and unrest. When Lily's beloved nanny, Rosaleen, manages to insult a group of angry white men on her way to register to vote and has to skip town, Lily takes the opportunity to go with her, fleeing to the only place she can think of--Tiburon, South Carolina--determined to find out more about her dead mother. Although the plot threads are too neatly trimmed, The Secret Life of Bees is a carefully crafted novel with an inspired depiction of character. The legend of the Black Madonna and the brave, kind, peculiar women who perpetuate Lily's story dominate the second half of the book, placing Kidd's debut novel squarely in the honored tradition of the Southern Gothic.

Review: I can't believe that it's been 7 years since I've read this wonderful book. I'm so thrilled that they made it into a movie. My mom had actually recommended the book to me, so we went to see it together along with my sister. The movie was every bit as good as I remember the book being. The cast is just fantastic. While I may not have wanted Dakota Fanning in My Sister's Keeper, she was superb as Lily Owen. Queen Latifah was her usual charming self as Beekeeper August Boatright; Alicia Keys shines as June Boatwright; Sofie Okenedo is wonderful as kind, sensitive May Boatwright. I can't believe that was Paul Bettany as T. Ray Owens. I knew he looked familiar but I just couldn't place him since it was a different role for him. I can't forget the wonderful Jennifer Hudson who's character Rosaleen is the catalyst for the story.

The story is funny and very moving depending on the scene. It is definitely a coming of age story in a very turbulent and pertinent time in US history. The music throughout the movie is beautiful and fits perfectly. I wonder if Ms. Keys learned how to play the cello. I would think with her background she would be able to pick it up fairly quickly. The story of the Black Madonna moved me to tears and I loved how it was an integral part of who Lilly became.

It's a story about family and finding out who you are and where you belong. Something I think all of us can relate too.

Now I can't speak to how it translates from the novel to the movie because of how long it's been since I read it, but the movie is worth whatever the price in your area.

Book to Movie Final Take: 5/5

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Julie's Review: Off-Season

Summary: For as long as she can remember, they were Cam and Lilly--happily married, totally in love with each other, parents of a beautiful family, and partners in life. Then, after decades of marriage, it ended as every great love story loss. After Cam's death, Lilly takes a lone road trip to her and Cam's favorite spot on the remote coast of Maine, the place where they fell in love over and over again, where their ghosts still dance. There, she looks hard to her past--to a first love that ended in tragedy; to falling in love with Cam; to a marriage filled with exuberance, sheer life, and safety-- to try to figure out her future.

It is a journey begun with tender memories and culminating in a revelation that will make Lilly re-evaluate everything she thought was true about her husband and her marriage.

Review: I know I've read a previous book by Ms. Siddons' before, but I don't think I'll be going back. I had such high hopes for Off Season. It sounded excellent, the reviews on amazon were wonderful; what a let down. Now it's not the worst book I read this year that's for sure because there were some pretty great bright spots, like the first 60% of the book, after that she lost me.

What I loved was the parts of the novel with Lily as a 11 year old girl summering in Maine, or the house that is called Edgewater. I could picture the house and the beautiful scenery surrounding it. I could picture Lily as a 11 year old girl, the leader of the pack who was coming into young adulthood and didn't understand her mom. This is the summer she meets Jon Lowell. This is the summer when everything changes. This was the best part of the book and the subsequent chapters when they go back to Washington and their lives are changed forever.

What I didn't like was the way she met Cam. It just felt so contrived and completely unrealstic. I don't mind having the character fall in love and have a whirlwind romance but it just seems like she didn't even know who she was or what she wanted when she was swept away. I didn't like the way they had Lily seem to go mad when she went back to Edgewater. I knew what was going to happen as soon as a character was introduced. It was a bit obvious to me even from the book jacket what the secret was going to turn out to be. That was disappointing. And the revelation was anti-climatic because it came at the end of the book and I'm not even sure if Lily knew it.

The writing at times was beautiful and at times it was scattered. It seems like toward the middle of the book, Ms. Siddons' didn't know where she wanted to go with the story. I thought the magical/mystical part was a little much for a "adult" book. I think only Alice Hoffman really can pull that stuff off for women.

It wasn't a complete waste of time because I did like the majority of the book but I wouldn't recommend it unless you really were running out of things to read.

Final Take: 3/5

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jenn's Review: Anatomy of a Boyfriend

Summary: Before this all happened, the closest I'd ever come to getting physical with a guy was playing the board game Operation. Okay, so maybe that sounds pathetic, but it's not like there were any guys at my high school who I cared to share more than three words with, let alone my body.

Then I met Wes, a track star senior from across town. Maybe it was his soulful blue eyes, or maybe my hormones just started raging. Either way, I was hooked. And after a while, he was too. I couldn't believe how intense my feelings became, or the fact that I was seeing—and touching—parts of the body I'd only read about in my Gray's Anatomy textbook. You could say Wes and I experienced a lot of firsts together that spring. It was scary. It was fun. It was love.

And then came the fall.

Review: When Daria Snadowsky sent me this book to read, I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't this. Because it's labeled YA chick-lit, I think I was prepared to discover more Gossip Girls, less... real. There are lots of reviewers comparing the book to Judy Blume's Forever; the author herself even dedicates it to Blume. I am abashed to admit, I never read Judy Blume growing up - is that considered a crime against humanity? - I was more of a of a Madeleine L'Engle fantasy fiction and mystery (Nancy Drew Case Files) fanatic. So this book took me completely by surprise.

Unlike some YA chick-lit that champions sex for the sake of sex, this book is NOT trashy. Snadowsky paints a very real portrait of first love and first sexual experiences that is very relevant today. Snadowsky doesn't speak for or against teen sex but relates the trials and triumphs of a mature teen who is experiencing everything for the first time. There are moments I'm sure many of us can relate to... some fondly and some not so fondly. Honestly, I wish I'd read this as a teen (or perhaps Ms Blume, as she's more my vintage). It gives realistic expectations; it's informative without being a 'how to'; it captures the emotional roller coaster that is first love and first sex. It's honest, and I find that really refreshing.

But here's the real test:

Would I give this to my daughter to read when she starts dating seriously? (As much as I'd prefer her to be 25 before she decides to serious date, I know how unlikely that is...)

You bet I would.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Book to Movie: The Kite Runner

I've been anxious to see this movie ever since I read A Thousand Splendid Suns. Of course, I wanted read The Kite Runner lover first and all that. That also means that I don't go into these movies with any expectations, however, I figured that the producers would have to work extra hard to ruin this movie.

Of course, some details were sacrificed for time, but the movie maintained the essence of the book for the most part. The acting here was superb, all of the actors well chosen, particularly the younger actors and especially the young man chosen to portray young Hassan. I'd heard there was quite some controversy regarding the filming of the pivotal scence, but I think that the director handled it with handled with grace.

The tone was the same as the book, you feel the sadness and despair and ultimately the hope. I think this movie was beautifully made. I shed a tear or two.

When I think about the movie, I don't count it as one of the greatest of all time, but it's good. I enjoyed it.

Final Take - 3.75/5

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Julie's Review: A Northern Light

Summary: It's 1906 and 16-year-old Mattie Gokey is at a crossroads in her life. She's escaped the overwhelming responsibilities of helping to run her father's brokedown farm in exchange for a paid summer job as a serving girl at a fancy hotel in the Adirondacks. She's saving as much of her salary as she can, but she's having trouble deciding how she's going to use the money at the end of the summer. Mattie's gift is for writing and she's been accepted to Barnard College in New York City, but she's held back by her sense of responsibility to her family--and by her budding romance with handsome-but-dull Royal Loomis. Royal awakens feelings in Mattie that she doesn't want to ignore, but she can't deny her passion for words and her desire to write.
At the hotel, Mattie gets caught up in the disappearance of a young couple who had gone out together in a rowboat. Mattie spoke with the young woman, Grace Brown, just before the fateful boating trip, when Grace gave her a packet of love letters and asked her to burn them. When Grace is found drowned, Mattie reads the letters and finds that she holds the key to unraveling the girl's death and her beau's mysterious disappearance. Grace Brown's story is a true one (it's the same story told in Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and in the film adaptation, A Place in the Sun), and author Jennifer Donnelly masterfully interweaves the real-life story with Mattie's, making her seem even more real.

Mattie's frank voice reveals much about poverty, racism, and feminism at the turn of the twentieth century. She witnesses illness and death at a range far closer than most teens do today, and she's there when her best friend Minnie gives birth to twins. Mattie describes Minnie's harrowing labor with gut-wrenching clarity, and a visit with Minnie and the twins a few weeks later dispels any romance from the reality of young motherhood (and marriage). Overall, readers will get a taste of how bitter--and how sweet--ordinary life in the early 1900s could be. Despite the wide variety of troubles Mattie describes, the book never feels melodramatic, just heartbreakingly real.

Review: I believe that Jennifer Donnelly might be my new favorite recently discovered author. While I think that The Winter Rose outshines A Northern Light, it is nonetheless a very intriguing story. It isn't so much the true story that is inter weaved with in the works of fiction, but the fiction story that held my interest. I loved Mattie. I loved her naivety and her soul. I loved her struggle between doing what she promised and making a life for herself. It really wasn't until the end of the story that I was sure what decision she was going to make. I love how Ms. Donnelly made me wait until the last several pages of the novel to tell us the outcome.

I loved the time period that the novel takes place in and the area of the country. I don't know much about the true life story that the book is written around but I could picture The Glenmore clear as the ocean water in my mind. Ms. Donnelly has a way of writing that transports you to the time and place.

I didn't want Mattie to settle for something because it what was normal and expected of her. I wanted her to break out and pursue her dreams. I felt that staying with her dad or marrying Royal would limit her to a life that she really didn't want and truly was too good for. Mattie had choices where as many young women in that day did not. I loved how Miss Wilcox encouraged her. I liked the twist in the story. I loved Mattie's word of the day and think I might need to start that myself to expand my vocabulary.

It did take me a while to get caught up in the story but I'm not sure if that speaks to the book or my CRAZY life right now. I asked Lisa if I should read this one first or The Tea Rose: A Novel, she said A Northern Light. I shall have to ask her why.

If you like historical fiction surrounding real life cases than you will enjoy this one. It's a strong, character driven story; with a very satisfying ending. I still give The Winter Rose a decent edge over this one though because that book hooked me within the first few pages.

Final Take: 3.75/5

Related: Lisa's Review: A Northern Light

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Confessions of a Shopaholic on the "Big Screen"

Well, it's here, the official movie trailer for Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic .

The movie stars Isla Fisher as Becky Bloomwood and Hugh Dancy as Luke Brandon. I'm quite glad they decided on non-American actors for the leading roles (Except they're all speaking with American accents!) ~ the rest of the casting made me do a double take. Becky's parents are being played by Joan Cusack and John Goodman!!! Krysten Ritter is cast as Becky's faithful friend Suze (anyone else have trouble seeing her as anything but Gia from Veronica Mars or Lucy on Gilmore Girls???).

A little out there as casting goes? What do you think?

The movie is currently scheduled to release in February.

Personally, I prefer Kinsella's NON-shopaholic stuff, but I won't mind taking a gander at the film... maybe when it comes out on DVD.

Thoughts from Trashionista:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Jenn's Review: The Dirty Secrets Club

Summary: An ongoing string of high-profile and very public murder-suicides has San Francisco even more rattled than a string of recent earthquakes: A flamboyant fashion designer burns to death, clutching the body of his murdered lover. A superstar 49er jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. And most shocking of all, a U.S. attorney launches her BMW off a highway overpass, killing herself and three others.

Enter forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, hired by the SFPD to cut open not the victim’s body but the victim’s life. Jo’s job is to complete the psychological autopsy, shedding light on the circumstances of any equivocal death. Soon she makes a shocking discovery: All the suicides belonged to something called the Dirty Secrets Club, a group of A-listers with nothing but money and plenty to hide. As the deaths continue, Jo delves into the disturbing motives behind this shadowy group—until she receives a letter containing a dark secret Jo thought she’d left deep in her past, and ending with the most chilling words of all: “Welcome to the Dirty Secrets Club.”

Review: I started reading Meg Gardiner over a year ago after reading Stephen King's column in Entertainment Weekly singing her praises. Of course the problem with that was, at that time, Ms. Gardiner's novels were only available in the UK. I am no stranger to ordering from, so I thought I'd order a couple and ~WOW, was I hooked! I ordered all the books in her Evan Delaney series.

Gardiner's writing is... intense, there's just no other word for it. Gardiner is a brilliant linguist. There's no sentence, no word, that's extraneous. (If you're a skim-reader —you know who you are, skimming over paragraphs when things get a little dull— then this author is not for you.) Everything is very tightly packaged, wound with action and suspense. I've never read another author like her.

Infomercial over.

Dirty Secrets Club is the first book in a new series from Gardiner about Jo Beckett. I found this book to be shadow less intense than her series about Evan Delaney, because there is slightly less urgency in forensic psychiatry — slightly — though in this case Beckett is racing against time to prevent further murder-suicides from occurring. The plot was not quite as fine tuned as her other series, but still a dramatic page turner. Although you are introduced to the villains quite early on in the novel (a tactic that sometimes de-energizes a story), things are not always what they appear and there are lots of nice twists along the way.

Gardiner unwraps her heroines slowly, you learn more about them with each chapter and each novel, and Jo is no different. She give you bits and pieces of her, enticing you to read more. I am interested to see how she will develop throughout this series.

I think this was a great introductory novel for this series, and her first publication in the states. If you want a true sense of Gardiner, though, I highly recommend that you start with the Evan Delaney series, now available in paperback here in the US, of which China Lake is the first novel.
I will say this after having scanned through the reviews of this book that are out there, people seem to either love Gardiner or hate her; I fall into the category of the former. Gardiner is far and away, my favorite suspense novelist.

Final Take:  4.0/5.0

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lisa's Review: The Kite Runner

Taking us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the present, The Kite Runner is the unforgettable, beautifully told story of the friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul. Raised in the same household and sharing the same wet nurse, Amir and Hassan nonetheless grow up in different worlds: Amir is the son of a prominent and wealthy man, while Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant, is a Hazara, member of a shunned ethnic minority. Their intertwined lives, and their fates, reflect the eventual tragedy of the world around them. When the Soviets invade and Amir and his father flee the country for a new life in California, Amir thinks that he has escaped his past. And yet he cannot leave the memory of Hassan behind him.

After reading, A Thousand Splendid Suns, I put The Kite Runner closer to the top of my To Be Read pile, however it still took a year for me to get to it, because I felt that it would take a toll emotionally and I wasn't wrong. Frankly, there's not much you can say without spoiling this book.

Amir, a privileged young Afghan comes of age shortly before the country becomes embroiled in war. His servant and friend, though Amir could never admit it, Hassan grows up with him. Amir longs for his father's approval and try as he might, seems only capable of getting it for a short while. Tragedy strikes and Amir takes a cowardly route and has to live with that and his subsequent betrayals for the rest of his life. There are some surprises and then you saw some things coming a mile away. I suppose that's to be expected in a story about redemption. Hosseini's use of language and imagery is vivid and emotional and somewhat autobiographical, I suspect!

I'm sure I prefer A Thousand Splendid Suns to The Kite Runner, but it's a slight, indiscernible preference.

Final Take: 4.5/5

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Jenn's Review: Don't Look Down

Summary: Lucy Armstrong is a director of television commercials who's just been recruited to finish a four-day action movie shoot. But she arrives on the set to discover that the directing staff has quit, the make-up artist is suicidal, the stars are egomaniacs, the stunt director is her ex-husband, and the lead actor has just acquired as an advisor a Green Beret who has the aggravating habit of always being right.

Green Beret Captain JT Wilder had thought that hiring on as a military consultant for a movie star was a good deal: easy money and easier starlets. Instead he has to babysit a bumbling comedian, dodge low-flying helicopters, and resist his attraction to a director who bears a distracting resemblance to Wonder Woman. Then the CIA calls and he realizes that somebody is taking “shooting a movie” much too literally.

Review: I wanted to read this book because I stumbled across the second collaboration of Crusie & Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman, and loved it. This is most certainly their first co-authored work as it does not have the fluidity of the second. Whereas I found their writing styles meshed well in Agnes, I was far more aware of the switching of voices here.

The novel opens and you feel like you've been dropped in the middle of a chapter. I'm a fan of NOT reading the jacket blurb before starting the book ~sometimes I'll read the blurb before purchasing a new author, but I prefer to let the author's story unfold on it's own with no preconceptions~ but it's hard to do that with this book. It takes a good few pages to get ones bearings (With Agnes the title pretty much gave you the need-to-know plot exposition). I also didn't find these characters as likable as those in their second book nor the mystery as intriguing. It felt like the formula, though contextually far fetched (a director of commercials is called in to finish up the directing a feature film?!?), was laid out a little too early thus making the whole thing a little predictable.

All in all, the read was good fun. I certainly hope that their continued collaboration matures with persistence. I don't know that I'd re-read this one, but it made me want to pick up Agnes and the Hitman again. I recommend you do the same.