Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Juliet Spell by Douglas Rees

Because I am such a sucker for books and I want my children to find the same joy and escape in them that I do, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find books that I think they'll enjoy when I am in the bookstore. Most of the time, I fail miserably. I saw this book on the shelf and after reading the cover copy, wasn't sure my daughter would appreciate it. But the idea of a modern day reworking of the Romeo and Juliet tale caught my own fancy and I regretted not buying it for myself. I told my daughter the premise and she said she'd be willing to read it so immediately back to the bookstore we went. If I had bought it without asking her, odds are she never would have read it but because I wanted to read it too, she zipped through it, enjoyed it, and cheerfully passed it along to me. Obviously I was predisposed to like it and happily, it turned out to be a cute and fun young adult read.

Miranda is a high school theater geek who is trying out for the part of Juliet in the joint high school/community production. She desperately wants the part not only for herself but because her mother, who as an actress before she met Miranda's father, never got to play the part. Miranda thinks it would be lovely to be able to dedicate her performance to her mother, who has been a hard working single mother for the several years since Miranda's father left them to "find himself." Because Miranda wants the part so badly, she goes home and casts a spell to become famous. No, she's not a witch. She's just a teenaged girl desperately wishing, by any means possible, to be cast in the part she wants. But Miranda's spell does work. Sort of. At least when the smoke clears, it appears that Miranda has summoned a real Elizabethan actor into her kitchen. Best yet, his name is Edmund Shakeshank and he is William Shakespeare's younger brother. As Miranda helps him adjust to being plunked down in the twenty-first century, he helps her with her acting and together they run through some of the more entertaining Shakespeare plots all while the play in which they are both players runs into some significant road blocks.

The story over all is charming and fun and the Shakespeare references are entertaining. The novel is not without problems though. It is patently unbelievable and much of it was too easy. No one seems to blink much of an eye that Edmund was inadvertantly transported from his century to ours. And he, in turn, is only incredulous of a few major things rather than completely overwhelmed as any true Elizabethan would be in the same situation. Most of the plot is fairly predictable but there are a few delightful twists that keep the narrative tension from going slack. As a love story, it definitely captures immature high school relationships, as opposed to ones fully realized. The characters are pretty transparent but likable enough. The plot with Miranda's absent father is a false note and was certainly less enjoyable than the rest. While not high literature, the novel was goofy, frothy, entertaining fluff that continues to appeal despite its weaknesses; it left me smiling.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: More Than Words Can Say by Robert Barclay

My family is lucky enough to have a summer cottage that I have been spending time at every summer for my entire 40 years. It is a place deeply ingrained in my soul. It is my la querencia (roughly translated as the place of my heart). I could no more contemplate not going up there as I could fly to the moon. So when I read the premise of More Than Words Can Say, I was immediately captured. And I so wish that it had lived up to my expectations, offering me the same warm and wonderful feelings that being at the cottage always evokes in me. Instead it fell short.

Opening immediately following the death of Brooke Bartlett, her granddaughter Chelsea discovers, somewhat to her surprise, that she has inherited the family cottage, the one that her grandmother closed in 1942 and never re-opened, about which she was unwilling to speak, but which she paid to maintain ever since she left it so abruptly and without explanation. Chelsea's first reaction is to sell it sight unseen but when a letter from her grandmother tells her of the existence and location of a hidden journal, she opts to go to the cottage and look for answers to the mystery of why Brooke never again returned to Lake Evergreen.

Upon her arrival, she falls in love with the lake and the cottage, changing a short stay into a full summer in the Adirondacks. It doesn't hurt that her next door neighbor is a handsome, single doctor who is clearly exactly the sort of man for whom Chelsea has been looking unsuccessfully back home in Syracuse's social elite. She finds her grandmother's journal and together with Dr. Brandon Yale, she slowly reads through the pages, learning the secrets of that summer so long ago. As she reads of her grandmother's life, she starts to fall for Brandon, who has his own past demons to face.

The narrative flips back and forth from Chelsea and Brandon's growing relationship to the journal and the growing conundrum faced by Brooke. Each journal entry tails off into scenes from that summer of 1942, giving far more detail than the journal itself ostensibly would. The intertwining plotlines work together but their coincidences can be too numerous to be believable. The revelation of Brooke's secret is anti-climatic and the grief it seems to cause Chelsea is completely out of proportion to the secret itself. The fact that the secret is predictable and that both plots were telegraphed within pages of chief characters' introduction fed into this reaction.

The characterization of Chelsea and Brandon, Chelsea's mother and father, Brooke, Gregory, and all of the townspeople can't help rescue the plot from its failings either, as they are almost all one-dimensional and rather cliched. Dialogue between any of the characters is stilted and unbelievable. And the fact that Chelsea and Brandon feel the need to reiterate in only marginally different language what the journal has just clearly laid out for the reader caused this reader to become irrationally annoyed with these fictional characters. This isn't the only instance of clunky writing either. Little is done in the book without a qualifying adverb, leading to an overabundance of words ending in "ly" which only serve to point out the poor choice of verb they are so necessary to modify. And on a smaller scale, there are portions of the book, especially including those centered around the 1941 Chris Craft (one of which my grandfather owned when I was younger), that are not well researched or realistic.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I just didn't. Overall, it was too melodramatic, too predictable. If the plot had been more engaging or the ending more momentous, I might have been able to overlook the problems with the writing but in this case, I wasn't drawn into the story enough to look past the other stumbling blocks.

For more information about Robert Barclay and the book visit his publisher webpage. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for dissenting opinions and a few who agree with me too.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from our chaos to yours

One of these years we’re going to shock you all by skipping the letter and just sending a picture of us looking all perfect and shiny. That’s when you’ll know we’ve jumped the shark (or just plain gotten lazier than usual). Luckily for you, that year is not yet to be so you can thoroughly enjoy another year of our misadventures. Without further ado, the 2011 Knox year in review.

January: In the interest of starting the year off rather stupidly, Kristen ran the Disney half marathon with her sister, without training for it. Actually, if we’re going with full disclosure, Kristen ran (and walked rather a lot) of the half well behind her sister.

February: T. managed to fall twice this month and ended up with a soft cast on his right arm after the second time. Thankfully the final verdict was not broken but for the several days it took to hear that, Kristen had to struggle with fourth grade math. I mean she had to write out all his homework for him.

March: Kristen turned 40 this month. Remember when 40 was old? Yeah. It still is. Her parents took her with D. and without kids to Panama to celebrate. Three of the days there were spent learning to scuba dive, which Kristen took to like a fish to water (I know, big groan!) and was sorry to resurface each day. D. had a little more trouble adjusting his buoyancy but Kristen found it greatly entertaining to watch him float up towards the surface while the instructors chased after him to tug him back down.

April: The kids had spring break this month and we all traveled to Atlanta to watch Kristen’s dad scuba dive at the Atlanta Aquarium. The trip reminded us why we don’t love staying in hotels as a family given the arguments over the beds and the tv and the pullout. Good quality family time.

May: As the school year started to wind down, we found ourselves all over Charlotte and surrounding towns/states with dance competitions, tennis tournaments, and soccer games for the kids. Kristen and D. rarely saw each other because in order to make it all work, divide and conquer had to be the month’s game plan. We tend to split down gender lines but Kristen thinks next year it’s D.’s turn to do the dance hair and make-up and she’ll go burn, I mean bask, in the sun at an outdoor game/match.

June: We finally decided to acknowledge that we have three children and re-wrote our wills to include T. (He’s not even in double digits yet so we’re right on top of it!) The kids will be pleased to find that we have left them all of our debts. And one lucky family member will be less pleased to find we’ve left her our children for the duration. Perhaps we shouldn’t tell her that the lawyer says she can always turn the responsibility down as he made us give him a lengthy back-up list of guardians. And he hasn’t even met our kids!

July: As is usual, after R.’s dance nationals in Tampa, we headed to the cottage for vacation. Nothing like adding 8 driving hours to our usual 15. W. came down with the creeping crud this summer. After stumping the ER doctor, the dermatologist declared it the worst case of impetigo she’d seen in a long time. A cartload of drugs later, he was left only slightly polka dotted across his entire torso, a highly fashionable look for a 14 year old boy. D. was unable to make the cottage this year, spending his time traveling for work instead. Good thing he likes his job. And at least he got to avoid the contagious cooties flying around up north.

August: R. got braces on right before starting her last year in middle school. Luckily she is generally unfazed by them and usually resists ugly rubber band color combinations. W. started high school this month even though we’re pretty sure we’re not old enough to have a kid this old. Also, once home from Michigan, the kid activities ramped up again rather quickly. Tennis for W., dance for R., soccer for T., and gassing up the minivan for Kristen.

September: R. hit 13 this month. Yes, that makes two teenagers in one house at the same time. Pretty sure that should garner us a very fancy pity party or something.

October: D. was awarded the Microsoft Greater Southeastern Division Services Executive of the Year. This is really code for “the guy who knows the most people in any given bar in the greater southeastern US.” And anyone who knows him knows that he truly deserves this award!

November: W. got his braces off this month. D. turned 40 and had to stop teasing Kristen about being old. Kristen ran the Savannah half-marathon with friends and despite not training for the race again (bad habit, anyone?), she did actually run the entire way this time. Then, just to make her sound sportier than she really is, her tennis team went to states in Wilmington, NC the following weekend and ended up taking fourth place.

December: Kristen, belying her mature age, ruptured her ear drum this month, just like she used to do when she was four. She might have whined about it a bit more now though. Also this month, T, earned his very first tournament medal for soccer (2nd place). Kristen is now busy trying to get him to throw away all those stupid and meaningless dust-collecting “participation” trophies. He’s not on board yet but she’s determined to sway him eventually (or just slowly chuck them while he’s at school and can’t argue—because, after all, she’s the mom and can do evil things like this).

As 2011 comes to a close, we hope that all of you are surrounded by family, peace, love, and happiness now and throughout the coming year.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

I am a complete sucker for the color blue and for flowers so the cover of this book grabbed me from the get go. I was less enchanted by the idea of a missionary story centered around a family with four daughters since unlike the rest of the world, I didn't love Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. (I loathed it, actually.) And while there were quite a few echoes of the aforementioned book, Meldrum's novel was gripping enough to keep the pages turning so that I could uncover the whole story here.

Opening with the imminent trial of mother Seena for the death of her husband Dick, this tale of family, relationships, religion, and race set in both Michigan and a small village in West Africa, takes turns both expected and unexpected. Dick and Seena's marriage is increasingly broken and showing cracks when Dick, a very devout Catholic, decides with the help of the local parish priest that the family, including all four daughters, Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, Mary Catherine, and Amaryllis, should go to Africa as missionaries. This ill-fated decision will change so much in all of their lives.

Dick Slepy is a pathologist whose obsession with his wife has manifested itself by him becoming more and more controlling and possessive. Seena gave up her schooling to marry Dick and she becomes more and more distant to both her husband and her daughters as her regrets mount. The Marys are all very different from one another. Mary Grace is a beautiful boy magnet while Mary Catherine is extremely pious. Mary Tessa questions everything around her in life and Amaryllis, the different one, is a synesthete who views everything, observes everything, and notices everything almost from an outsider's perspective. These six people are on a collision course with everything they know and believe as Africa distills their truest beings.

The novel is chock full of betrayal, dysfunction, and forbidden love. Each of the characters keeps secrets from the others and they all stay mostly aloof from one another. Even Seena's decided preference for Amaryllis over her other daughters comes off as a convenience in her mostly detached life. The novel's narration changes from chapter to chapter so that each of the Slepys has a chance as the major focus. And yet none of the characters come off as particularly appealing. They are all, with the possible exception of Amaryllis, so self-involved as to be blind to anything outside of themselves. Meldrum's writing is well done but somehow never quite drew me in. There was so much going on, so much of different significance in each character, the loaded history of the Slepy family, as well as the cultural differences and incorrect assumptions once they are in Africa that it was hard to settle where to place my attention. And the back and forth in time allowed the narrative tension to wax and wane a bit too much for my liking. Well written and complex, it is proving difficult to explain why this just didn't strike a cord with me but it didn't.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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