Saturday, November 23, 2013

To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie (Book Review)

Publication Information: Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 1982; Lizzie Skurnick Books, trade paper, 2013
Genre: Young Adult    Setting:  1956, United States

Plot:  Sylvie is a pretty, movie-magazine-obsessed, mature-looking 15-year-old who has lived in foster care since she was 7, and the last three foster families have included a lecherous father.  Sylvie learned the hard way that no one takes her fears of these men seriously so she has saved every penny to run away to Hollywood where she expects to be discovered.  Naturally, some creep on the bus steals her savings and Sylvie is forced to use her wiles to continue her journey to stardom.
What I liked: How I love Ellen Conford’s books!  Dear Lovey Hart, I am Desperate; We Interrupt This Semester for an Important Bulletin; and The Alfred Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations are three of my all time favorites.  Sylvie is a poignant rather than funny heroine, so yearning for affection that it breaks the reader’s heart.  The humor so pervasive in Conford’s other books is replaced by a vivid description of 50s suburbia and a heroine whose escapism into movie fandom completely informs her world view.   Carrie Wasserman is self-deprecating and appealing; this book has a lot of amusing moments but Sylvie is not intentionally funny:

That hatbox was one of the very few things I’d bought for myself out of my savings.  It was beautiful, ivory-colored simulated leather, and even though it cost $14.99 on sale, I knew I had to have it.  I’m very realistic and practical, and I knew it might take me a while after I got to Hollywood to get my first break in the movies, so I figured I would do some modeling until I was discovered.  A lot of movie stars start that way, and models make sometimes $35 to $50 an hour.  And all the models go from job to job with their stuff in a hatbox, just like mine.  It’s a model’s trademark, her hatbox, and if I had one, they’d know I was a professional just by looking at me.

Amusing to the reader but sad too.  At times this book seemed more like a YA problem novel from the 70s than my beloved Ellen Conford.  I don’t recall reading it before although I knew exactly when Sylvie was going to be robbed on the bus (memory or instinct?).  I like that this is dedicated to Susan Beth Pfeffer – isn’t it fun to think of authors you like being friends?   I met Ms. Conford once in 1986 and she signed A Royal Pain for my sister at the old Eeyore's Bookstore.  She was a bit taken aback by my enthusiasm and said, "Aren't you a little old for my books?"  I guess that was before YA adult readers were out of the closet! 
Source:  I bought this book, and am delighted it is back in print from Lizzie Skurnick’s new imprint to join my Conford collection.  And I love the new cover!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sense & Sensibility (Book Review)

Publication Information: HarperCollins, 2013, hardcover
Genre: Fiction    Setting: 21st century England

Plot: As in the Jane Austen novel that inspired this book, when Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate passes to his son, John (and son’s detestable wife Fanny), leaving his second wife and their three daughters virtually penniless.  John ignores the promise he made his father to support his relatives and feels put upon rather than guilty.  Belle Dashwood has no choice but to move with her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, to a small cottage in Devon on the estate of a generous Dashwood cousin, Sir John Middleton.  It is Fanny’s much nicer brother Edward who comes up with this plan, and of course, he is Elinor’s love interest (it is a pity I see Hugh Grant’s perpetually slack-jawed face when I think of Edward Ferrars) while her overly-emotional sister Marianne is enamored of local bad boy John Willoughby.  Once settled in their new home, Elinor is assisted in finding a job by Sir John’s kind friend, Bill Brandon, who yearns for Marianne although he and Elinor have far more in common.  The family’s financial concerns are acute but no one seems to pay any attention except sensible Elinor, and even she is consumed by love.
What I liked: I have been reading Joanna Trollope since the early 80s when she wrote historical fiction under the pen name Caroline Harvey: Leaves from theValley and Parson Harding’s Daughter, among others.  Then in 1995, a miniseries was made in the UK of a contemporary novel called The Choir which she had written under her real name.  That put her on the map.  Even a CD of music from the series became a bestseller.  I enjoy her contemporary fiction, which is more upscale than Helen Fielding and such imitators.   Unlike her illustrious great-great-great-great-great uncle, her books are not connected and for the most part reflect relatively normal situations among the late 20th or early 21st century British middle class.  I listened to her most recent, The Soldier’s Wife, about a family coping with the rigidly military father’s return from Afghanistan, about a year ago.  Trollope really understands family life and interrelationships, and reveals her keen insight to the reader by creating vivid characters and showing us what they are thinking.

The real Sense & Sensibility was published in 1811. At that time, young ladies of gentle birth such as the Dashwoods had virtually no career options.  The difficulty of using this plot in contemporary fiction is that one wonders exasperatedly why Elinor and Marianne and their mother can’t get jobs.  Trollope deals with this by having Marianne barely out of secondary school and Elinor in the middle of an architecture degree.  I guess it had been a long time since I read the real book: I had completely forgotten the youngest sister, Margaret.  She is a complete pain in this book, seeking attention and making no effort to economize.  Of course, Marianne is also annoying but I appreciated her use of 21st century technology: checking Facebook compulsively to see if her married ex has changed his status from ‘single’.
Jane Austen is everywhere and her popularity shows no signs of ebbing, as Joanna Trollope has noted.  England finally recognized her with stamps in early 2013.  Even Nightline sent one ofits goofier reporters to a Jane Austen convention the other night and pointed out how intellectual her fans are.   Trollope also recommends several books about Austen for those curious.  

What I disliked: It's not that I don't enjoy Austen-inspired fiction -- in fact, I actively seek it out, and enjoyed this book very much but it does somehow seem a waste of Trollope's talent.  On the other hand, I suppose she is coming full circle, given the first books of hers that I read were Austen-inspired historical fiction set in the early 19th century.  This book is part of The Austen Project which is assigning six contemporary authors to rewrite Austen (create Austen homages?).  Next will be Val McDermid with her own version of Northanger Abbey.  That should be interesting given her usual dark style.

Source: I received an advance reading copy of this book from HarperCollins in return for a fair review.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Buying In (Book Review)

Title: Buying In
Author: Laura Hemphill
Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 2013
Genre: Fiction             Setting: NYC

Plot: Sophie Landgraf, a recent Yale grad, landed a coveted analyst position on Wall Street, but she is unprepared for the competitiveness of her (mostly male) coworkers, the long hours and ambiguity of her assignments, the unrealistic expectations and unceasing pressure, and the knowledge – shared by everyone at Sterling – that they are only one failed deal away from losing their jobs.  The people Sophie should be able to rely on, her boyfriend, Will, and her father, back in western Massachusetts, are both very critical of her job and believe she has changed since selling out to capitalism.  As her work becomes even more stressful and all-absorbing, Sophie has to figure out what is most important to her because it doesn’t appear she can Have It All.
What I liked:  There are lots of books about young women starting jobs in the big city (whether it is New York, as here, or London or wherever) but most of them ignore the actual work allegedly being done and focus on the personalities.  Hemphill writes vividly about a world she clearly knows well, and I couldn’t put this down.  I have a much better understanding of what investment bankers do all day than I ever did before, and she did a great job showing how Sophie becomes consumed by her job and by the alpha personalities there.   Although I have never worked in investment banking I have worked in jobs with hideous hours so I sympathized with Sophie’s predicament: no one on the outside ever understands what it is like.

Sophie is improbably unsophisticated despite having spent four years at Yale*, but it is satisfying for the reader when her cluelessness is an asset, such as when she sends one of her father’s weird sculptures to a client.  This endears her to him although he sees right through Sterling’s Managing Director, and it saves her job.  

* My Yale sister will appreciate the mention of dancing at Toad’s.

What I disliked (and a spoiler):  None of the characters was very likeable, except Sophie’s hometown friend Kim.  Sophie creeps around snooping in her coworkers’ desk drawers (occasionally stealing) and deserves to get caught.  I understand her stress level but she rarely thought about anyone but herself.  On the other hand, I thought her boyfriend was kind of a jerk not to be more sympathetic when she is nervous and exhausted.  I was glad the author didn’t replace him but instead shows that Sophie has no time for a boyfriend and a job, and wants the job more.  To me that was what made the book fiction rather than chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada and others of that ilk.
Source:  I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours, and recommend it for those want fiction that is entertaining but less predictable than Lauren Weisberger and Sophie Kinsella.  You can buy a copy through this link.  Even better, I have a copy of the book to give away: please leave a message if you are interested and I will pick a winner on Thanksgiving.  You can read other reviews from the Tour here:
Monday, November 4th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, November 5th:  Entomology of a Bookworm
Wednesday, November 6th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, November 7th:  BookChickDi
Friday, November 8th:  Bibliotica
Monday, November 11th:  The Well Read Redhead
Tuesday, November 12th:  Tiny Library
Wednesday, November 13th:  Staircase Wit
Thursday, November 14th:  Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Monday, November 18th:  Luxury Reading
Tuesday, November 19th:  Sarah’s Book Shelves
Wednesday, November 20th:  A Bookish Affair
Thursday, November 21st:  Walking with Nora
Friday, November 22nd:  Classy Cat Books
Monday, November 25th:  Reading Reality
Tuesday, November 26th:  Books and Movies

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Another Place Another Spring (Book Review)

Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1971
Genre: YA Historical Fiction      

Plot:  No one asked Marya Breshnevskaya if she wanted to accompany Countess Elena Temkova to Siberia, escorted by the harsh police Captain Boris Branov, but loyalty to her former master binds her, although she learns  that Elena and her mother are not worthy of her devotion.  Marya, a peasant from the Ukraine, was brought up more as a companion to the young Countess in St. Petersburg than as a servant.   Then, five years ago, Elena’s father was exiled to Siberia for his support of the Decembrist Revolutionaries, and now Elena’s mother has turned in her own daughter to the imperial secret police for cherishing her father’s letters.  More surprising, however, is Marya’s growing recognition that Branov is not her enemy as they share a dangerous yet intimate journey to Siberia, encountering foes and friends along the way.
What I liked:  This book reminded me of two much beloved books from my childhood, Masha and The Youngest Lady inWaiting by Mara Kay, also set in 19th century Russia (I was delighted to come across this link to background on Kay).  Masha is gently born but brought up almost in peasant poverty until her mother sends her to the Smolni Institute to be educated (tragically, ensuring a better life for the daughter she will never see again).  Later, she too, like Marya (even their names are the same), is caught up in the Decembrist Revolt.  In contrast, Marya is a serf’s daughter rescued by Count Pavel Temkov when she was orphaned, brought up generously by him practically as a lady, but never considered anything but a servant by Elena or her mother.  Both are brave young women, set apart from their peers, forced to rely on themselves for survival.  And you know I love books about orphans.

One is conditioned to expect a book about an aristocratic heroine, but Marya is the unexpected but admirable character who knows – as does the reader –  that her ungrateful mistress will not survive imprisonment without her.  The book took unexpected turns: I was really surprised to read about the 1812 Russian settlement at Fort Ross, California, which continued until early 1842 (and didn’t really believe in it until I looked it up).  For those interested in 20th century exile to Siberia, I recommend The Endless Steppe (which even has a Betsy-Tacy connection).

What I disliked:  There were a lot of very sad scenes, bleakest of which is when the spoiled Countess prevents Marya from sharing in the reunion with her father, the exiled Count Pavel. In addition, it is a bit hard to imagine someone escaping from Siberia, penniless, and winding up in California but that is what fiction is for.

Source: This book was recommended by author Sophie Perinot, and I got a copy via Interlibrary Loan from Fitchburg, MA.  It is one of those crossover YA historicals will satisfy an adult historical reader, and was definitely worth the wait.