Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: Keeping Sweets by Cate Ashwood

I have been dying to read a porn-to-love romance novel, mostly because I found it surprising it became such a trope in MM romance (wouldn't it be a tad raunchy for most readers, provided it really aims to portray gay porn?). Now, I can totally see why it works for so many readers. I have always associated porn stars with loneliness - I feel like whenever someone works in a line of business that requires them to check their humanity at the door (think prostitutes, or clowns for that matter), it becomes very hard to make a meaningful connection with another person, particularly if that line of work is porn. Granted, Keeping Sweets is not exactly the kind of story where one person needs to get over the fact that their love interest is a porn actor; indeed, both heroes are, albeit in different stages of their respective careers. Yet, I give huge kudos to Cate Ashwood for keeping the porn aspect of the book both arousing and integral to the plot and character building.

The novel concerns Evan, a recent high school graduate who is all too happy to move away to college from his abusive stepfather. In order to pay the tuition, however, he decides to appear in a porn film, which leads him to a meeting with a veteran porn star Brandon, whom he instantly feels attracted to. Brandon, on the other hand, is looking to get out of the business and settle down, but can't help the butterflies he feels for the young and naive Evan, and he soon finds himself compromising his work ethic and the facade he has built over the years.

I really, really enjoyed the character of Brandon. He is a man bruised by life and further disillusioned by his work as a porn actor. He was really the character through which we got the most opinions about the business, and I liked how Ashwood managed to portray pornography both as a job, an emotional strain, and even a fetish for some. Brandon really shone when it came to his protectiveness of Evan, and I was very much invested in their relationship. The scenes where he takes Evan shopping or to see the ocean nearly slayed me. Granted, Evan was a little too naive for my tastes, but I liked how he went from a lonely, marginalized youth unaware of sex or his own body to someone who was deemed very alluring on the set of the porn movie, and not just for his body. Thus, the pairing of Evan and Brandon worked not only on the physical level, but on the emotional one as well, each learning a lot from the other person.

Although I did have minor problems with the book (the whole I won't do what I want to do because I don't feel like I should, even though I will obviously have to at some point because this is a romance novel argument that Brandon kept clinging to got old rather quickly), I just can't bring myself to rate it anything under five stars. The snappy pace of the novel and Ashwood's obvious writing talent made Keeping Sweets a heartwarming and engaging experience I am not afraid to recommend to any romance afficionado - and this is her debut novel, so she is definitely an author to look out for. Also, I am really hoping that the minor character of Colt gets a spin-off novel, he was such an alluring mystery!


Find Keeping Sweets on Amazon, or add it to your to-read list on GoodReads.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Top Ten Things to Read When You Need Something Light and Fun

Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.

Although I rarely re-read books (too many books on my TBR list for that!), there are some books I can't help but pick up time and time again, and more often than not, they are light and fun!

1. Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson. This is the first in the Queen Betsy series of novels, and although I haven't continued reading the series yet, I've read this one at least twice. It is just hilarious - Betsy (short for Elizabeth Taylor) is a cynical, shoe-obsessed newborn vampire, and the book is mostly concerned with her coping with her vampire powers and just being annoyed by everything. I was quite honestly surprised by this book, as it managed to blend chick lit tropes with wit and an engrossing plot. A real winner! My Review | GoodReads | Amazon

2. Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell. A lot of people disliked this book because it's so different from the TV show - there is no warmth or real storylines, and the characters are mere sketches compared to Sarah Jessica Parker and the gang. But the reason why I like it so much is because it is essentially a collection of Bushnell's Sex and the City columns featuring her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw. Essentially, it is the things Carrie types out on her computer, like pieces on Toxic Bachelors or Psycho Moms. It works whether you read it in order, as Mr. Big starts to reappear and become more fleshed out, or if you just turn to any random piece and read it as part of the collage that is the New York dating scene. GoodReads | Amazon

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Book four is hands down my favorite in the Boy Wizard series, and for a number of reasons. It has such great dynamics between the characters - Harry and Ron's fight, for example, is some of the best writing Rowling has done in the series, and the burgeoning romance on all fronts is so much fun to read. Moreover, both the Triwizard Challenge and the Quidditch World Cup are such exciting and unique set pieces! It is an altogether dynamic book with one of the funniest (and most frustrating) characters in the entire series - Rita Skeeter! GoodReads | Amazon

4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. I must have read this book at least ten times. It is a hilarious fictional diary of a confused, klutzy and pseudo-intelectual teen boy in early '80s Britain. Not only is his worldview skewed and downright delusional, making the book side-splittingly funny, it is also set against historical events such as Lady Diana's wedding or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's political activity, all of which are misinterpreted by Adrian. Also, his pining after his high school sweetheart Pandora is beyond sweet! Get two copies of this book - one for you, and for the teen in your family. You'll read it again and again, and laugh until your sides hurt! GoodReads | Amazon

5. I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. I first read this book a thousand years ago, long before its popularity was somewhat revived by the somewhat unsuccessful movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker (what is it about SJP that I so adore!?). It is a year or so in a life of a working mother who juggles her children and her career, usually with a lot of panic and hysteria. It's been a while since I last picked it up, and I'm not sure how the book would hold up against the gender worldviews I've acquired since then, but I am just about certain I would enjoy it again! GoodReads | Amazon

6. Speaking With the Angel, edited by Nick Hornby. This is a real gem. Although Hornby himself is a hit-and-miss for me, the anthology of short stories he compiled for charity is a roller coaster of different voices and experiences, including those of Hornby himself, Helen Fielding and Colin Firth (yes, that Colin Firth). There wasn't a single story here I disliked, and the great thing about an anthology like this is that you can revisit your favorite stories for an instant dose of positivity and happiness! GoodReads | Amazon

7.  Muscling Through by J. L. Merrow. You guys, you have no idea how incredibly sweet and cute this romance is. As if the pairing of a Cambridge art professor and a sensitive street thug wasn't dreamy enough, Al's somewhat dimwitted point of view reveals both protectiveness and confusion when it comes to the higher-class professor. I have seen many bloggers and reviewers gush over this novella and J. L. Merrow in general, and I am so glad. This author deserves all the readers that he can get! My Review | GoodReads | Amazon

8. The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz. The collection of previously published pieces by the celebrated humorist is both outrageous and profoundly observant. A reviewer on GoodReads noted how her writing is so rhythmic, you can't help but read certain parts aloud, and I agree completely. Another calls her "a cross between Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, and that friend of yours who never shuts the fuck up." Again, so true. Read this to find out why Los Angeles and its people suck, what an irresponsible author does when she misses her deadline, or why children are infinitely better conversations companions than adults (hint: they will never ask for a loan!). GoodReads | Amazon

9. Ms. Taken Identity by Dan Begley. If for no other reason, this book should be cherished for promoting the criminally overlooked dick lit (or lad lit, if you wanna be appropriate) genre. It is about a PhD candidate with serious girlfriend issues who can't sell his serious book and instead decides to come up with a female pen name and write a chick lit novel. Although he initially thinks this would be an easy feat, he realizes there's more to understanding women than watching Oxygen and Oprah, and develops a newfound respect for the genre, as well as a romantic interest way out of his league. My Review | GoodReads | Amazon

10. Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding. Obviously. I am not exactly sure whether I prefer the book or the movie when I want to get away and experience the hell of Bridget's life, but good old Bridget never fails to put a smile on my face! I also find it very motivational - as the heroine would say, "It is proved by surveys that happiness does not come from love, wealth, or power but the pursuit of attainable goals." She is the underdog in all of us, and seeing her win just makes me feel all warm inside! GoodReads | Amazon

Thanks for reading through this massive post - I hope I've given you some good ideas for your future reading! What do you like to read when you're in the mood for something light and fun?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife has literally been everywhere for the longest time. This in itself is not surprising - Ms. Obreht is the youngest-ever winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, and this fact is even more fascinating considering that The Tiger's Wife is her debut novel. Furthermore, she has been chosen as one of New Yorker's 20 Under 40 (aka, 20 promising authors who are younger than 40).  Not to mention, everyone and their mom bought a copy of The Tiger's Book, its exotic-looking cover beckoning from the shelf of your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble.

On the one hand, I am glad Tea Obreht sold so many books. She is a talented writer, and I am sure she is bound to be a great one after her skills receive some more polishing. Her prose has an ethereal quality about it, which is fitting for a book that revolves so much around folklore and magic. Its elements are deeply engrossing - whether its the contemporary story of a young doctor from a worn-torn Balkan country facing the horrors of war while seeking answers about her grandfathers' death, or the two myths that talk of a mysterious tiger and his human companion, and a man who has been denied the right to die.

It is all very fascinating, however the book ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Much of it has to do with the structure - Obreht's prose is quite wordy, and as soon as you get engrossed in one of the three prominent plot lines, the chapter finishes and you are forced to plunge into another one. I found this to be a particular problem, as I felt quite distanced from the majority of the book. I also couldn't but mentally compare it to Katherine Neville's The Eight, a book quite unlike The Tiger's Wife, for sure, but one that handled multiple storylines more than skillfully, building one on top of the other for a unity of effect I'm sure even Poe would be thrilled with. Obreht, on the other hand, simply meshes them together which, unfortunately, results in an ending I found very underwhelming and honestly, quite confusing.

Another thing that I feel inclined to speak when it comes to the novel is its treatment of the ex-Yugoslavian countries and the warfare that serves as its background, particularly since I happen to come from these parts. Obreht consciously misnames (or flat out refuses to name) geographical locations, which, coupled with anachronisms and fabrication of myth and folklore, effectively reduces the unfortunate history of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia to legend, producing a sense of all-pervading vagueness and distrust of history. While I may feel inclined to reason that this particular instance of Orientalization (or Balkanization, if you will) works toward painting a version of history blind of national and ethnic particularities, underscoring the essence of humanity, pain and loss, I can very much see how some, especially those that like to keep their hold on history firm and as unambivalent as possible, will and have found this irritating and even disrespectful.

The Tiger's Wife is a mixed bag for sure. The book is almost saved by its enchanting eloquence and prose, which effectively overshadows what its trying to do and how it comes close to failing at it miserably. I think it is interesting to compare it to the prose of Anne Rice, which, although quite purple at times, never really detracts from the experience, as the author's intents mostly lie in the realm of entertainment. However, even if one gets the sense that Tea Obreht bit off more than she could chew, her debut novel makes for an often-mesmerizing reading experience and has made this blogger excited for the young author's sophomore effort.


Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: Close Enough to Touch by Victoria Dahl

I was really excited when my request to Harlequin through NetGalley resulted in an ARC of Close Enough to Touch on my e-reader. Thank you, Harlequin! Victoria Dahl has quite a following, and I was excited to read a book by an author so many of the people on GoodReads seemed to have loved!

I walked away from the book satisfied, but also with a feeling that I could have loved it had it been a bit "tighter." But first, what is it about? It follows the main character Grace Barrett, who reluctantly moves from the hustle and bustle of LA to a small Wyoming town due to a painful past that is a mystery to the reader until later in the novel. There, she is put up by her aunt, who owns an apartment building also known as Stud Farm, due to a number of studly cowboys inhabiting it. The narration shifts between that of Grace and Cole Rawlins, the romantic interest, who is one of the people in the apartment building and who has a painful history of his own. As Grace is adjusting to her new surroundings, she is introduced to a plethora of new friends and starts a new job, all the while negotiating the magnetic pull of Cole and the dilemma of whether she should follow her heart of her head.

The book basically has two protagonists, whose pasts are slowly revealed to us. Their interweaving narratives also provide a glimpse into their psychology - and this is where the story's conflict comes from. I was instantly smitten with Cole - apart from being gorgeous, a cowboy and a sex machine, he is also incredibly sweet and tormented. I thought that his torment came from a very real place that involved his teenage years, his family and his brief time in Hollywood. The mystery of what happened to Cole is mixed with his current problem, which is an injury that prevents him from working on the farm toward his dream of owning it. These were all very real, difficult conflicts and I was with Cole every step of the way.

On the other hand, Grace was challenging for me to root for. While her spunk was initially amusing, it soon became more akin to a personality disorder. Her reluctance to make friends and get involved romantically far eclipsed the necessity of creating an obstacle between Cole and her - it was an abyss which took a while for me to get used to. Due to her own past (much less riveting that Cole's), she fears being "soft," which translates into keeping Cole at a distance - even though he literally keeps her from starving, saves her ass from being fired from her job and doing everything he can for her to feel good. This left me thinking he might just be better off without her. On the other hand, Grace's job problems, coupled with the reason she moves from LA to Jackson, Wyoming, somewhat redeemed the character in my eyes, since this made her relatable.

The secondary characters are really well handled - they are colorful enough to be memorable, but the details of their life are well measured and do not drag down the story. I was particularly fond of Eve, Grace's new boss, as well as of Cole's best friend Shane, as well as the character of Lewis, who appears very briefly. And since I've just learned this to become a series, I am hoping for spin-offs featuring at least some of these characters. Another thing I really appreciated was the blending of the contemporary and western genres (the book cover may be a bit misleading in this respect, but it is really sexy, so I don't care; on the other hand and upon close inspection, what happened to Cole's big toe?), as well as the sex scenes which were scorching hot, but also contributed to the development of the story.

I am definitely not giving up on Victoria Dahl, but I am not all too sure about Close Enough to Touch. There is a definite sense of authorship here, and Dahl handles the pace of the novel masterfully. It never drags, and it balances a spectacular amount of characters flawlessly. However, the somewhat annoying heroine definitely affected my attitude towards the central romance, even though the character of Cole was worth the price of admission himself.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

30 Day Book Meme - Day 2

#02 A book you've read more than three times*

There's a lot of books that I've read more than once, and most of them have to do with my childhood and adolescence. I find that this is the period where most people are looking for (positive) affirmation, and will thus often re-read books that they identified with.

Thus, I have to start with Enid Blyton. Now, my mom used to have this book by Blyton when she was a child, and I believe it was then published in Serbia as a standalone - in other words, without any context of the series. But obviously, it's the Famous Five series, and I'm pretty sure it's one of the earlier ones. But since it was titled here as The Secret of Kirrin Island, and there is no such original titles in the series, I am unsure of which one it actually is. Just to spice it up, I've included the cover of the edition I read - it's so vintage and beautiful.

Also, there was Anne of Green Gables - the original novel, and I must admit I've never read the other books in the series. But I absolutely loved Anne and how smart and chatty she was. I also remember that I had a kid crush on Gilbert Blythe, and it was really good to watch the fabulous TV adaptation(s) and find out where the story went. As a companion to this book, I must also say that I was obsessed with the Road to Avonlea TV series, which is based on Anne, and expands the universe... It's beautiful.

Finally, there's Harry Potter. Obviously. I started reading HP at the age of 11, and it is without a doubt something that left its biggest impact on me. I remember being shocked by the candidness of the books (something that I feel people often overlook, particularly in light of the somewhat sugarcoated films) - the graphic violence, the negotiation of death, the characters' struggle to fit in, poverty... It is without a doubt the most important series of books that I've read in my life.

What are some of the books that you've read more than three times?

*for the complete list of questions, and the links to the answers, click here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Metroland by Julian Barnes

Oh Julian Barnes, how I have a love-hate relationship with you.

My readers may remember my glowing review of Barnes' brilliant A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, a book so hard to define when it comes to form and genre, it makes for a completely unique reading experience. On the other hand, there's Flaubert's Parrot, which is really Barnes' master thesis thinly disguised as a novel that everyone seemed to love and I couldn't get past the few first pages - though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I never really gave it a chance either.

So although I have great respect for the man, I don't approach Barnes' novels easily. In the case of Metroland, it is a mostly superb reading experience (and a relief in that). A coming-of-age novel about a boy, Christopher, from the suburb of London called Metroland, who with his best friend Toni escapes the monotony of home by reading French writers and philosophers is adorable and profound and grounded in a very realistic depiction of adolescence and young adulthood.

There are three parts of the book. The first, set in Metroland, finds the 16 y.o. characters dreaming of adulthood; the second finds the protagonist living it up in Paris during his college years; the third sees him back in Metroland, with a wife and a daughter. It is also this third part where the real conflict begins, with Toni feeling betrayed for Christopher's normative life choices while he is still obsessing about art and philosophy and being a free spirit.

Since there is no plot to speak of (and the novel is in fact a collection of vignettes), I guess the reader will naturally gravitate to their favorite section of the book based on the time period they cover. I myself enjoyed the adolescent part, but absolutely loved Christopher's years in Paris, where we read about his sexual awakening and first love(s). I also found the conflict between him and Toni surprisingly poignant and gripping, which gave the book an overall nostalgic, somewhat sad, feel. I could have gone without some of the cutesy, boys-will-be-boys type writing in the overlong first part, as well as some slightly homophobic comments, but all in all, I am very happy with Metroland - it is a really good, poignant novel, though it is definitely no History.


Trivia Bit #1 - There is a film adaptation of the book, starring Christian Bale, and it seems like a colossally bad idea. Naturally, I got my hands on a copy and will hopefully watch it soon and post about it.

Trivia Bit #2 - I am obsessed with the Russian cover of the book, because: a) it is obviously marketed as a YA novel, which it obviously isn't, and b) it features the English model and musician George Craig (of Burberry and One Night Only fame; he also dated Emma Watson) on the cover, for no apparent reason.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

30 Day Book Meme - Day 1

Since I'm determined to really push my book blog and post frequently on it, but am at the same time cramming for my exams (which is good - it means I'm reading a lot, but also lacking the time to write reviews), I decided to start the 30 Day Book Meme, which I stumbled upon at Ellen's book blog here. Obviously, the meme isn't going to take over the blog completely, but it's a nice way to break up the upcoming reviews, get to know me a little bit and point to some of my earlier reviews.

I love the idea of the meme, as it seems to me more meaningful than most memes I've seen around book blogs - those were mostly temporary and would lose their validity about a day or so after you filled it out. This one, however, I decided to really invest some time in so it can still be (somewhat) truthful even if accessed in five years, or whatever. So here we go!

Day 1 - The Best Book You Read Last Year

The year of 2011 was pretty eclectic, reading-wise. I've read some modern classics, been introduced to Chicano lit (reviews to come!) and read a LOT of GLBT fiction and non-fiction, but all in all, the book that I feel I've thought about the most was the one that I've reviewed already - Gregory Maguire's Wicked. It is a novel that I had wanted to read for a long time, but also one that can easily be described as a chore, since it is long and unfocused and often requires some previous Wizard of Oz knowledge to fully appreciate it.

So not to write a review again, let me just say it was a fabulous read. The sort-of-prequel to The Wizard of Oz, Wicked is a book you invest a lot into - your time, patience, emotions - and it is rewarding in the sense that you walk away with a sense of thinking you know what it did to you. It is heavy with symbols, metaphors and such, making it far from transparent (in fact, it can sometimes get pretty confusing, as well as a little too abstract). On the one hand, this can make for a frustrating reading experience. On the other, it's one of those things where I will randomly be reminded of Wicked and its ideas when I least expect to be - and it will often be things I hadn't exactly thought of while reading the book.

For me, that sort of literary impact is more than impressive. It ensures that the memory of the novel will stay with me, and that Maguire has managed to tune some of my brain cells to dance to his tune.

30 Day Book Meme:
#01 The best book you read last year
#03 Your favorite series
#04 Favorite book of your favorite series
#05 A book that makes you happy
#06 A book that makes you sad
#07 Most underrated book
#08 Most overrated book
#09 A book you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving
#10 Favorite classic book
#11 A book you hated
#12 A book you used to love but don't anymore
#13 Your favorite writer
#14 Favorite book of your favorite writer
#15 Favorite male character
#16 Favorite female character
#17 Favorite quote from your favorite book
#18 A book that disappointed you
#19 Favorite book turned into a movie
#20 Favorite romance book
#21 Favorite book from your childhood
#22 Favorite book you own
#23 A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven't
#24 A book that you wish more people would've read
#25 A character who you can relate to the most
#26 A book that changed your opinion about something
#27 The most surprising plot twist or ending
#28 Favorite title
#29 A book everyone hated but you liked
#30 Your favorite book of all time.