Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

This book has so many elements: literary analysis, unresolved grief, unfulfilled needs, dreams, familial traits, legacies, romantic tension and mysterious inheritance. The main character, Samantha Whipple, is at once flippant, rash, immature and emotionally lost. She is the last descendant the the literary family of the Brontes. She is overshadowed and manipulated by her unstable father, who now deceased, continues to hold sway over her beyond death.

The cover's synopsis sounded mildly intriguing with the story's tie-in to the Bronte family. A few conversations in the beginning are humorously clever but become tiresome as the book goes on. Samantha repeatedly expresses her dislikes of all kinds of things, from authors to beverages. At first the reader may feel sympathy for this awkward, socially inept, insecure young woman. But after awhile, this reader felt like saying, "Oh, stop it!" to both Samantha and the author.

Discussions between Samantha and her Oxford professor regarding literature, the odd personalities of the Bronte siblings, their behaviors and their writings, are convoluted. I began to wonder if some of these conversations might not be some of the author's master's thesis disguised as part of the novel. The professor comes off to me as also manipulative and unstable. Samantha's attraction to him strikes me as emotional transference from her father to this man.

The Madwoman Upstairs is Catherine Lowell's first novel. It is due out in March 2016. The book left me creeped-out. Dark psychological implications of many elements of the story were burdensome. They left me wishing for a fresh breeze and sunshine. Oddly, that's the way Charlotte and Emily Bronte's books made me feel years ago when I read them. By invoking the same reactions, maybe Lowell is better, after all, than I thought.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith is a slightly different story of art theft and forgery. It revolves around 17th C. artist Sara de Vos, her time and her art, 20th C. art history graduate student Eleanor (Ellie) Shipley and 20th C. lawyer Marty de Groot, wealthy American descendant of the original Dutch owner of a painting by Sara.

In 1958 Ellie, who restores and conserves paintings to support herself, is approached and agrees to make a copy of the de Vos painting. It is Ellie's one and only forgery. Exactingly done, except for one slight difference not detectable to the naked eye, the copy is switched with the original. It is not until several months later that de Groot becomes aware that what is now hanging in his apartment is no longer the original. So begins his quest to get it back.

Just as 17th C. paintings have layers of canvas, sizing, ground, paint, varnish and accumulated dirt, Smith builds the multiple layers of his story through the layers of his characters - their personal situations, their personalities, their surroundings and their times. He moves from late 1950s New York City back to mid-1600s Holland, as well as forward to Australia, circa 2000.

Smith does a good job of describing his settings. The reader can clearly picture the old, established wealth of de Groot's apartment, the grunge of Ellie's one-room Brooklyn apartment and the buildings, scenery and details of Sara's Holland. Each character has their own tensions and sadness which the reader is called upon to feel and understand. The complexities of this trio, how they parallel each other and intertwine, make for an enjoyable story.

While some reviewers of advance copies of the book have raved that it is compelling, the best they have ever read, "almost perfect," I cannot use such hyperbole. I felt it was competently done, of mid-level depth of character development and above average in setting the scene, whether on canvas or in the world of the protagonists.

I enjoyed it much more than The Goldfinch. Readers who liked Girl with a Pearl Earring or who like art/theft/forgery plots will likely enjoy this take on true and false art, which also questions what other things of life may also be true or false.: love, value, skill?

The book is due to be published April 5, 2016. This is Dominic Smith's fourth novel.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Genres: Contemporary, YA
Release Date: March 24th, 2015
Source: Checked out from GPL

Add on Goodreads

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.
Written in the Stars is the kind of book that I should have loved but I didn't. Diversity? Check. Forbidden romance? Check. A female lead you want to root for? Check. So why didn’t I love it? For starters, it is written in a very simplistic middle grade style which is odd given the age of the characters and the things happening.

I also think the book is a lot more rushed than it should be. It takes a lot of time to build to the climax but not enough time is spent providing readers with a detailed resolution. We find out what happens in the epilogue but given the risk and the issues at hand, it would have been a lot nicer if more time were spent actually hashing that bit out.

I also struggled a lot with the cruelty of her parents because even though this is SUCH AN important issue and it happens a LOT, I also feel like the way the community was represented as a whole could have been done better? Not all south-east asian parents are trying to marry their kids off at the youngest age possible and are super conservative. If we got more positive depictions, I think it would have helped highlight the issue even more without stereotyping an entire community.

That said, I do think the author did a good job with exploring the issue of forced arranged marriages and how horrible they can be. In the second half of the book, Nalia’s emotions become so real and her pain  and it hurts. 

So overall, I would recommend this book to readers because the right people will fall in love and every story needs to be told & read.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

This is a very well-written novel about identical twin sisters who are about 6 years old. One is named Helen and she is popular, smart and their mother's favorite. The other one is named Ellie, and she has behavioral problems, trouble in school and absolutely no friends. Helen spends a lot of time making fun of her sister, and getting her friends to do the same. Helen makes up games to play with Ellie that showcase her "simple" personality, and they really are quite cruel. Even in school the teachers treat Ellie as if she isn't as smart as everyone else, which further alienates Ellie from everyone. One day Helen decides to play a game by switching places with Ellie. Ellie agrees, and they change clothes and Helen fixes her own hair to look like Ellie's trademark messy braid, and she braids Ellie's hair properly, as Helen, and they manage to fool the first person they see. What a hoot! Helen wants to take it a step further and try to trick their Mother. When they get home, their Mother is completely distracted because her new gentlemen friend has come a calling, so she introduces the girls by their switched names. The next morning Ellie refuses to switch back. Helen keeps insisting that she isn't Ellie, but her Mother, who is not the greatest mother in the world, doesn't believe her. Helen becomes frustrated, and starts to act out, so everyone really does think she is Ellie, both at home and at school. This is where things start to go downhill for Helen, and this is where the story begins. If you like books that are somewhat dark and creepy, that deal with mental illness, behavioral problems and someone's waking nightmare, then this book is for you! Read On!