Sunday, November 30, 2008

Movie Review: The Jane Austen Book Club

Photobucket Summary: Lest there be any doubts about the ongoing relevance of the novels of Jane Austen, the charming Jane Austen Book Club will lay them to rest--with wit, sharp insight, and a wicked chuckle or three. Directed by the talented Robin Swicord, who adapted the book by Karen Joy Fowler (and also wrote the crackling screenplay for the 1994 version of Little Women), the film is a modern-day comedy of manners, with deeply felt emotions, repressed feelings, unquenched desire and embarrassing relatives--all staples of Austen works. The film centers on a group of six friends in Sacramento, Calif., who gather to distract themselves from loss (a newly dumped Sylvia, played with grace and quiet pain by Amy Brenneman), repressed disappointment (the prissy teacher Prudie, played by Emily Blunt), or a life of unrealized dreams (Jocelyn, played by Maria Bello, whose acting skills have gained great nuance, both in comedy and drama). All are devoted Austen fans, except the lone man, Grigg (Hugh Dancy, adorable and available, ladies), who has an ulterior motive for joining the chick-lit gang. As the months unfold, we learn about the relationships of all the members, and watch as elements of Austen's novels and characters pop up with enchanting regularity.
There's plenty of pride (Prudie), prejudice (Jocelyn), sense (Sylvia), and sensibility (Sylvia's daughter Allegra, headstrong and reckless in life and love, played by Maggie Grace)--and a fair amount of persuasion (Grigg and Sylvia's caddish ex, Daniel, a smooth Jimmy Smits). As the minuet of relationships and alliances unfolds over the months, the emotions are real and the leavening humor spot-on. About the only thing that doesn't ring true is seeing all these Sacramento women bundled up in shawls, blankets, thick sweaters and extra layers--even in July(!). Still, the film will engage even reluctant Austen readers (if there is such a thing). As Kathy Baker's Bernadette says gaily, "Jane Austen is the perfect antidote to life!" Elizabeth Bennett couldn't have put it better.

Movie Review: Another book to movie, where I haven't read the book, but I thought The Jane Austen Book Club sounded like a perfect movie to watch while my husband was out. It indeed was. I was working while watching it, but it's one of those movies that doesn't need your undivided attention to get the gist of it. The cast is excellent and part of the reason I wanted to watch it. The movie itself is a tad predictable but it's not like I didn't expect that when I decided to watch it.

I did like the idea that each book club member chose the Jane Austen book of their liking and how it correlated to what they were going through personally. Again, predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. I've attempted to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice but I couldn't make it through. (I know that's horrible being an avid book reader). I think I prefer the movies based on her novels rather than her novels *ducks the tomatoes being thrown*. I will encourage my daughter to actually read the books because I do want her to understand the language of one of the best female writers ever.

If you are looking for an enjoyable movie to watch while drinking some wine and relaxing, The Jane Austen Book Club is a perfect movie for that and if you don't mind predictability. It might make you want to pick up a Jane Austen book or at least understand the books better.

Movie Final Take: 3/5

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Movie Review: Atonement

Photobucket Summary: We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama "The Trials of Arabella" to welcome home her older, idolized brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren't up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting prospects of preoccupation come onto the scene. The charlady's son, Robbie Turner, appears to be forcing Briony's sister Cecilia to strip in the fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new "Army Ammo" chocolate bar; and upstairs, Briony's migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present....

The interwar, upper-middle-class setting of the book's long, masterfully sustained opening section might recall Virginia Woolf or Henry Green, but as we move forward--eventually to the turn of the 21st century--the novel's central concerns emerge, and McEwan's voice becomes clear, even personal. For at heart, Atonement is about the pleasures, pains, and dangers of writing, and perhaps even more, about the challenge of controlling what readers make of your writing. McEwan shouldn't have any doubts about readers of Atonement: this is a thoughtful, provocative, and at times moving book that will have readers applauding.

Review: To be honest I have had this movie on DVR for a bit of time and wasn't sure if I wanted to watch it because it had gotten such mixed reviews from the book community. My sister who, like me, wanted to see it because of the critical acclaim, couldn't even finish it. I on the other hand came home from Thanksgiving and happened upon it on cable, so I watched it. I'm happy to say that I did.

While the movie was a bit slow in parts I thought the story was fascinating and very well told and true to the time period. I thought Keira Knightly was splendid as Cecilia and well James McAvoy is my new crush. He's utterly charming and sensitive as Robbie Turner. From the first time we see Cecilia and Robbie together you know that they are destined to be together. Of course nothing can be easy. Robbie and Cecilia have a bit of a tiff and when Robbie writes her a letter, actually 2 letters, you just know one version is going to be his downfall.

Enter Briony, Cecilia's younger sister. She's a bit imaginative and comes to imagine things she didn't see. What she thinks she sees is different than what she really sees and as viewers we know she's lying. Her lie, intentional or not, changes the course of 2 people lives. I'm not going to give anything away because it would completely ruin the movie.

It's a story of lies, jealousy, secrets but most of all love. I haven't read the book and probably won't but the movie was beautiful.

Movie Final Take: 4/5

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Group Review: Dedication

Summary: The team behind The Nanny Diaries and Citizen Girl returns with another breezy chick lit portrayal of a woman wronged and, eventually, empowered. When Kate Hollis's childhood chum Laura calls from their Vermont hometown and announces the arrival of Jake Sharpe, a mega rock star and Kate's high school sweetheart, Kate jumps on a plane from Charleston, S.C. (where she's a sustainable development consultant) and makes for idyllic Croton Falls. Through it's been 13 years, Kate still has a primal need to confront not only the boy who abandoned her before the senior prom, but the musical pirate who used her personal life as fodder for his most celebrated songs and cheated his high school bandmates out of deserved recognition and royalties. Chapters switch back and forth between the present and the pivotal middle and high school years where Kate (then Katie) and Jake did the first-love thing: readers get to see Jake's growing he's-just-not-that-into-you-ness and how (surprise!) their Zima-fueled love (it was the '90s) was idealized. While one spends much of the book wanting to shout at Kate to give it up, go back to Charleston and get on with it, McLaughlin and Kraus do get the nagging need for closure in even the shallowest relationships comically right.

Julie's Review: Dedication is a book about coming to terms with the love that you lost. I think it's a great premise but the book fell short. I found the writing to be choppy and adolescent. I liked Kate but I also couldn't stand her. I guess it was the whole, get on with your life at 30 that was bothering me. Sure, Jake Sharpe used their teenage romance to become a big Pop Star but I'm sure he's not the first one to do so or the last, maybe other pop stars just aren't so blatant. He did have a song called "Katie". So 13 years after he leaves her before prom, he's back in the town they grew up and fell in love in. So she drops everything to show him what he's missing. Some funny stuff ensues at times but mainly I just wanted to get to the point where they try to work it out and SURPRISE!! it doesn't. Jake is self-absorbed and surrounded by his cronies. Kate wants to figure out if she loves the guy that Jake's become. Before we even get to know the 30 year old Jake, the reader can tell that NO she won't be able to love him.

Have we all wondered what would happen if we reunited with our first love? Of course, but most of us know that it is never like it was when it was your first. First loves are pretty much intense and I think everyone will always love a part of their first. The thing is as you mature you realize it for what it was and that doesn't dawn on Kate until the end of the book.

Julie's Final Take: 3.5/5

Jenn's Review: I agree with Julie in that the premise of this book is fascinating; it holds so much potential. Growing up in Buffalo, I know people who used to be friends with John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls (whoo-hoo, Six Degrees of Separation and all that jazz). Not that I'm comparing McLaughlin's and Kraus's character of Jake to John Rzeznik (because I don't know him, I know of him and even that's nothing at all), because as far as I know there is no comparison. I'm just saying that, knowing someone who was friends with someone who became a rock star, the plausibility of the plot is all the more tangible for me. This could have been a delicious read, and instead it was merely sub-par.

The incessant cutting back and forth from flashbacks of Katie's memories of the past thirteen years (middle school through college and beyond) at first was just confusing. There were far too many secondary characters that, it turns out, I needn't have fussed over trying to keep straight because they weren't important and very few carried through the rest of the story. Some of her high school flashbacks were important, even interesting, but again they get bogged down in mundane minutiae. When McLaughlin and Kraus finally give you enough of the back story through flashbacks that you can grasp what is at the center of this ridiculous obsession of Kate's, and I'm finally thinking 'Phew! We're done with the flashbacks.', there are more of them! These becoming just fluff in the grand scheme of things.

At the heart of the plot, when I felt like we'd arrived, and that the story could finally go somewhere, it didn't. I didn't even feel like the character of Jake was consistent. There was rationalization for his behavior in the reader's eye, as well as some through Kate's eyes, but it all got thrown out the window in the end.

Most disappointing of all is that the book ends with a Kate flashback. It was weak. I know it was supposed to be symbolic and bring the story full circle, but it lessened the importance of what Kate was supposed to have gleaned from her journey. The denouement is not supposed to plummet through the floor, and this one really felt like overkill.

Jenn's Final Take: 3/5

Lisa's Review: I suppose I will be the lone dissenting voice, because I liked this one just a little better than my friends. Probably because I know the desperation of seeking closure to the relationship that didn't quite end correctly. I know it all a little too well and the fact that this book accurately captured that desperation, the opportunity to confront and the confusion that comes along with it is possibly my favorite part. Thankfully, my experiences never included a now famous ex-boyfriend, who parlayed our teenaged love life into consistent number one hits - can you imagine? The story unfolds chapter by chapter, alternating past memories with the present.

Katie is sympathetic and I am right there with her in every moment, fearing her choices, willing her to be brave and cheering her on. Yes, 13 years was a lot of time, but my twenties were dotted with the soundtrack to my first sexual experiences and my parents lives, so I can't judge whether she should have fully moved on already. I did wonder what would have happened if Jake hadn't shown up that Christmas. I also worried about whether we would get the 'chick-lity' ending, this was executed in the "right" way - real and extremely satisfying, coming full circle and ultimitely to the wise realization that true friendship surpasses all.

I will agree with my friends that the writing needed some work. For such a short book, my mind wandered a little too much at times and there were times the authors could have been less vague about some things. Overall, I think the plot rules the writing stlye and it was short and easy to read.

Lisa's Final Take: 4/5

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Julie's Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Summary: See's engrossing novel set in remote 19th-century China details the deeply affecting story of lifelong, intimate friends (laotong, or "old sames") Lily and Snow Flower, their imprisonment by rigid codes of conduct for women and their betrayal by pride and love. While granting immediacy to Lily's voice, See (Flower Net) adroitly transmits historical background in graceful prose. Her in-depth research into women's ceremonies and duties in China's rural interior brings fascinating revelations about arranged marriages, women's inferior status in both their natal and married homes, and the Confucian proverbs and myriad superstitions that informed daily life. Beginning with a detailed and heartbreaking description of Lily and her sisters' foot binding ("Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace"), the story widens to a vivid portrait of family and village life. Most impressive is See's incorporation of nu shu, a secret written phonetic code among women—here between Lily and Snow Flower—that dates back 1,000 years in the southwestern Hunan province ("My writing is soaked with the tears of my heart,/ An invisible rebellion that no man can see"). As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well.

Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel is an excellent book about love, friendship and life. We learn Lily's story through her eyes at 80 years old and reflecting back on her life and even though she could paint herself "rosy", I didn't feel like she did. I felt she gave an honest account of her laotong relationship with Snow Flower. This relationship started when they were 7 years old and last their lifetime's. It is an intense and yet innocent relationship when they are younger and only grows into a more mature friendship as the women marry and have children. There are many trials and tribulations for both of the women as we go through the journey of their lives. There are even a few twists and revelations that I didn't see coming.

There were 2 extremely vivid parts in this book for me. The first, is when Ms. See describes in great detail the foot binding process. I literally felt sick to my stomach while reading this and couldn't even imagine the pain these young girls were put through to gain beauty. It's amazing how differences in culture defines beauty. To us Westerners foot binding is seen as a deformity and cruel, but to the Chinese it was a way to gain status and marry into a better family. It was an important stage in a young girl's development.

The second was when Snow Flower and Lily have to retreat to the mountains to outlive a raid on Snow Flower's village as China changes government and people rebel. The descriptions of what happened to them emotionally and physically is astounding. It's amazing what people will persevere through by sheer will.

As with any book about friendship, there was a huge misunderstanding that leaves Lily with much guilt and has her trying to atone for her mistake the rest of her life. I don't want to give away much because well that would ruin the book. I think all women can identify with this to some degree. How many of us have read an email and thought that there was one meaning in it when really the author meant another? I know I have and it lead to a 6 month misunderstanding and miscommunication between my best friend and I. Thank goodness we talked it out but I think these things are quite common. Not only in personal correspondence via email but also business. Email is the 21st century version of Nu Shu in some respects.

Ms. See has a wonderful writing style. Her attention to detail is tremendous and her history research is quite impressive. This is the 2nd book of hers I have read. I previously read Peony in Love: A Novel(Julie's Review) and give that a slight edge over Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel because I found the story a bit more intriguing. That being said I can't wait to find out what Lisa See has in store for her readers next.

Final Take: 4.75/5

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jenn's Review: The 6th Target

Summary: When a horrifying attack leaves one of the four members of the Women's Murder Club struggling for her life, the others fight to keep a madman behind bars before anyone else is hurt. And Lindsay Boxer and her new partner in the San Francisco police department run flat-out to stop a series of kidnappings that has electrified the city: children are being plucked off the streets together with their nannies-- but the kidnappers aren't demanding ransom. Amid uncertainty and rising panic, Lindsay juggles the possibility of a new love with an unsolvable investigation, and the knowledge that one member of the club could be on the brink of death. And just when everything appears momentarily under control, the case takes a terrifying turn, putting an entire city in lethal danger. Lindsay must make a choice she never dreamed she'd face--with no certainty that either outcome has more than a prayer of success.

Review: I looked back over my reviews of the WMC books and I keep finding myself saying "this isn't my favorite," in other words, few are living up to the first novel in the series. However, I think that this one was solid. There are instances where I don't feel that multiple cases in a crime novel work well, but this is not one of those instances. I found all of the crime stories accessible and plausible, though the central crime, child abduction, was the least riveting case in that it seemed too predictable and had the least satisfying solution (what about the rest of the children???). It's also far more realistic that a homicide detective would be working several cases (but would they take the lead in a kidnapping regardless of whether or not a murder was part of the case?). I didn't like Lindsay's demotion, though I understand the literary reason for it... I don't think that counts as a flaw in the story, just a product of my own personal connection with Lindsay. I truly loved the side-story about Cindy's new apartment, though.

The only real shortcoming I can site in the book was Lindsay's relationship issues. They seem to have come out of thin air and were much ado about nothing. She seemed to become highly irrational about her situation and I don't think it was congruent with her character, but maybe that's just me. Oh, and I also disliked the random discovery about Claire that came from her hospital stay. That seems to be a standby, proverbial monkey wrench.

All in all, a better Women's Murder Club than I have read in a while.


Julie's Review: The 6th Target

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lisa's Review: The Secret Life of Bees

Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her harsh, unyielding father, Lily Owens has shaped her entire life around one devastating, blurred memory--the afternoon her mother was killed, when Lily was four. Since then, her only real companion has been the fierce-hearted, and sometimes just fierce, black woman Rosaleen, who acts as her "stand-in mother."

When Rosaleen insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily knows it's time to spring them both free. They take off in the only direction Lily can think of, toward a town called Tiburon, South Carolina--a name she found on the back of a picture amid the few possessions left by her mother.

There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters named May, June, and August. Lily thinks of them as the calendar sisters and enters their mesmerizing secret world of bees and honey, and of the Black Madonna who presides over this household of strong, wise women. Maternal loss and betrayal, guilt and forgiveness entwine in a story that leads Lily to the single thing her heart longs for most.

The Secret Life of Bees has a rare wisdom about life--about mothers and daughters and the women in our lives who become our true mothers. A remarkable story about the divine power of women and the transforming power of love, this is a stunning debut whose rich, assured, irresistible voice gathers us up and doesn't let go, not for a moment. It is the kind of novel that women share with each other and that mothers will hand down to their daughters for years to come.
I'd never heard of The Secret Life of Bees. Maybe I had, and it never registered. When I'd learned of of the movie and realized it was based on a novel, I knew I had to get to reading.

Unfortunately I found myself detained by Edgar Sawtelle. Anyway, I was careful not to read Julie's review of the movie, because I wanted to savor. And savor I did!

I really would just be repeating Julie, telling you just how wonderful this book is. To say it was well written, heartwarming and relevant would just be redundant. Getting caught up with getting to know the Boatwright Sisters, the colorful Daughters (and Son) of Mary, and learning about their livelihood was nothing short of a pleasure. I was unfortunate enough to find myself, on a crowded train, nearing the end of the book, with nary a tissue in sight, no desire to stop reading and absolutely not caring.

I thought the ending was a bit saccharine and tied up really neatly, probably more than I normally would, and the cynic in me knew that this element would get played up in the movie. I saw this as the biggest detriment to my enjoyment of the book-knowing about the movie. I was not truly able to create my own versions of the characters myself, due to visions of Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson dancing in my head.

Inability to compartmentalize aside, I had a truly emotional reading experience and you will too.

And finally, I'm off to the theatre.

Final Take: 4.5/5

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Author Interview: Cyndia Depre

I want to thank Cyndia Depre for taking time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for us at Girls Just Reading. Enjoy the interview.

GJR: Where do you write?

CD: I have a room of my own, and that’s where I write. Three walls have shelves stuffed with books. My computer is here. My thesaurus and dictionary are within reach. I call it my cave, but it’s really my idea of heaven. Sometimes my husband comes in here, but he always tiptoes and whispers. It’s so cute. Ideas come anywhere any time, so I always have paper and pencils with me. I once wrote the bones of a short story while stuck at a train crossing.

GJR: How do you develop your characters, plot and writing style?

CD: I love a twisty-turny plot, so I try to surprise readers. That takes a lot of time, but is worth it. I start with the ending and write it first. Then write to it. My taste in books is very character driven, and I work hard on my protagonists. I want them to be as close to real people as possible. I see them in my mind, and at times it almost seems I’m watching them and listening to them speak. Please don’t think I’m goofy. I really do think a lot of writers do the same.

GJR: How do you write?

CD: Other than needing long uninterrupted sessions, there is no system to my writing. I do it when I feel like it and never try to force words to come. If a scene pops into my head, I write it and worry about where to fit it in later. My first draft is my outline. When I start the only things I know for sure are whodunit and the main characters. It seems my best ideas come just as I’m about to go to sleep. I get out of bed and sit on the bathroom floor making notes. Then jot down where I want the idea to occur and put it in a file the next day. When I write I separate the notes into chapter piles. Sometimes I’ll have the same note written several times. It’s hard to remember if I wrote something down, so I’ll do it again and again. I guess that means I really like the idea!

Someday I hope to write in short spurts. But I tend to concentrate so hard that I can’t just get into and out of a scene willy-nilly. When I write I even shut off the phones. I have no idea what I’ll do when my husband retires and lurks around the house all day. Maybe he’ll take up canasta or bowling or something. I can only hope.

Thanks again to Tracee at Pump Up Your Book Promotion for hooking me up with Oblivious and Cyndia Depre.

To keep up with Cyndia check out her website Cyndia Depre's website

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Julie's Review: Oblivious

Photobucket Summary: Eccentric Olivia Chatham has found her life's calling. Crime Buster. Tucker Monroe. The small Wisconsin town's mysterious new resident, discovers he, too has a mission. Keeping up with her. ~book jacket.

Review: I received Oblivious from Tracee at Pump Up Your Book Promotion and agreed to read and review it. I have to say, it probably wasn't something that I'd pick up off of a shelf. That being said, I really did enjoy it. I thought the character were hilarious and very well written. I adored Olivia Chatham and well Tucker Monroe screamed "HUNK". Both of them aren't really what they seem. At first, ok well during the book at times too, Olivia comes off as a bit dim but proves that she isn't and is actually quite smart. Olivia wasn't the most worldly but she definitely had a naivety that was refreshing. I thought the crime that they set about solving was quite humorous and entertaining. I'm not saying murder is funny but well how Olivia, Tucker and her best friend Josie go about solving the murder.

I also enjoyed the book for it's "Midwest Flavor". I could definitely picture Chatham, Wisconsin and well I think Chicago is the best city that I've ever been to. The whole town is a hoot and Olivia's parents are quite fun too.

I can't really say much more without giving it away, so I won't.

I have to say that the cover of this book does it no justice at all. I would definitely recommend getting a different cover for the next print run. If Ms. Depre writes another book with Olivia Chatham, I'm in. I will say that the comparison's to Janet Evanovich are pretty good, but I do think Ms. Depre has a bit to go until Olivia is as popular as Stephanie Plum.

For a fun light read, I definitely recommend Oblivious.

Check back tomorrow when Cyndia Depre does a guest blog for us.

Final Take: 3.75/5

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lisa's Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

WTF? I'm very tempted to let those three letters be my review, but it would just be unfair. So I'll try to be fair, however, this may end up being more rant than review, so bear with me.

First rule of reading, follow your instincts. I really should have followed mine. I was mildly intrigued by the premise when I saw the author interviewed on the today show. The critical acclaim and numerous positive reviews led me to buy this although I was not at all swayed by the summary. Hold on - let me move my hair so you can brand "sucka" on my forehead.

For starters, it is long - it could easily have been 150 pages shorter, without losing anything. No one needs a 3 page dissertation on playing canasta, particularly when it does nothing to enhance the plot, move it forward or explain motivations.

With the exception of Edgar and one or two others, the characters are one dimensional, unrelatable or in some instances, flat out useless. Knowing their motivations for their actions might have helped some.

There was at times a saving grace that came in the form of delightful prose. Other times, especially when discussing the elements of dog breeding, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tedious, convoluted, laborious, and sleep-inducing immediately spring to mind. Let's just chalk that up to me being wholly uninterested in dog breeding.

All of the elements of a coming of age story are evident and the overall plot was interesting at times. The execution, though left much to be desired. I don't blame the author that much, it's his first time, but his editors... It's been a bestseller, so obviously I am not the only one that got suckered in. And that is the source of my disappointment, I didn't follow my own mind and wasted 4 weeks of valuable reading time.

Its a good thing I can fight the urge to spoil the ending for those of you who are still interested.
Final Take 2/5

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