Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

h1

Review: The Hijab Boutique, by Michelle Khan

20/09/2011

Originally posted on Luxury Reading September 16, 2011.

“Some people feel that it is the duty of foreigners to fit in, or they may even feel a bit threatened by hijab…when people ask questions I use the opportunity to spread the word and message of Islam.”

Farah Khan is an only child who lives with her widowed mother, a hijabi, and attends an all-girls private school with her best friend Ashanti. When her teacher gives a class assignment to bring in something representing the girls’ mothers, Farah panics because her mother isn’t a singer or an actress or a dancer; in fact, the only unique thing she sees about her mother is the scarf she wears around her head.

Michelle Khan’s first children’s book, The Hijab Boutique, is a quick read with a deep and resounding message. In it she explores the origins of hijab as well as what it means for the modern Muslim woman to veil herself; how the veil is portrayed in Western culture; and even the sartorial qualities available to hijabi. What’s more, she shows great empathy for families rebuilding after the loss of a loved one so that children can truly understand the message.

I’m excited to have such a simple yet profound story to share with my nieces, and any other girl who cares to read and learn a meaningful lesson about inner strength, faith, and womanhood through another’s eyes.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by The Islamic Foundation. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

Advertisements
h1

Review: Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star by Heather Lynn Rigaud

15/09/2011

Original review posted September 9 at Luxury Reading. Also, check out the interview with author Heather Lynn Rigaud (questions are mine also!), and the extra information available at Rigaud’s blog, Austen Nights. Enjoy!

I am a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice. It was one of my favorite “you must read this” books assigned in my English classes, and I like to think that I have a bit of Elizabeth Bennett’s wit and verve. While watching different interpretations of the book on screen is endlessly entertaining, however, I’m generally reluctant to pick up a re-imagined version of the actual story. (Zombies? No thank you.)

Fortunately, Heather Lynn Rigaud’s Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star stays true to Austen’s original characters and follows the general plot nearly to perfection. Set in the modern music industry, our favorites from Pride and Prejudice come together in a professional relationship that quickly develops into a mass of romantic tension familiar to any reader – only this time, laced with sexual tones that illustrate the difference in attitudes between 1813 and 2011. (More below…) Darcy, Charles Bingley and Richard Fitzwilliam are Slurry, an immensely popular band (Rigaud likens to Puddle of Mudd) in need of an opening act for their upcoming tour. Enter the ladies of Long Borne Suffering: Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, and Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas. Sparks fly from their first meeting, and as the tour heats up so do the offstage encounters…

The biggest issue with a reload of a well-known novel, of course, is that the reader most likely knows how the story will end. Riguad recognizes that and, rather than forcing the ending, uses the narrative arc to explore new depths in her characters’ personalities and reworking minor plot threads to give the story new life. Anne de Bourgh, for example, is given a serious attitude and far more exposure in her recast as the A&R Executive at de Bourgh Records (a personal triumph for me – I had one six-word line as Lady Anne in the stage production); also, readers who were dissatisfied with Charlotte’s choices in the original story can take a closer look at how she moves on from those choices.

As mentioned above, with the 21st-century rewrite Rigaud has added a decidedly sexual twist to the story – acknowledging the evolution of romantic relationships – that unfortunately takes away from the narrative rather than adding to it. Pages at a time are devoted to explicit descriptions of the various characters’ sexual encounters, which are written in a way edging dangerously close to soft-core porn. I’m no puritan, but even I had to skip some of the more salacious scenes.

All in all, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star is poised to introduce the timeless themes of Pride and Prejudice to an all-new audience that can perhaps relate more closely to the modern setting. As long as the reader is okay with the sex scenes (or okay with skipping pages), this is a more than ideal read for a warm night.

Rating: 4/5

h1

Review: To Die For, by Sandra Byrd

09/09/2011

This review was originally posted on Luxury Reading September 7, 2011. Check it out for a great discussion in the comments, and add your own below!

In the 475 years since the beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn, her story has been told and retold by countless historians and storytellers in attempts to exonerate and vindicate, or to further vilify. Contemporary writers have increasingly posited that the Queen was falsely accused and convicted through political maneuvering by her rivals at court; no matter what one believes, however, her story continues to rivet those who hear it.

But what of those who lived in the Queen’s shadow? While writers have shed light on some of the Queen’s most notorious family and friends, little attention has been devoted to others who lived in her orbit, whose lives were impacted by her triumphs as well as her downfall simply by knowing her. Sandra Byrd’s To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn tells the story of Anne’s rise and fall through the eyes of Meg Wyatt*, her childhood friend and lady-in-waiting whose own life also hangs on Anne’s favor with the king.

Meg Wyatt is in love with Will Ogilvy, the heir of a neighboring family and friend to the Wyatt and Boleyn families. When Will leaves for school with Meg’s brother Thomas and Anne leaves for the French court, Meg is left to care for her ailing mother, at the mercy of a controlling father and her sneering brother Edmund. Meg faces one disappointment after another from that point, including Will’s decision to take holy vows and her own marriage by proxy to the aging Baron Blackston. However, as Anne catches the eye of Henry VIII, she calls Meg to the English court and opens up a world of possibility to her.

All is not well for long, though, and as the reader travels through the familiar tale of Anne’s ill-fated royal romance the connection between her fate and Meg’s is sadly all too easy to see. While Meg visits clandestine reform meetings and struggles to retain her independence, Anne becomes ever more desperate to bear a son and keep the King’s love so that she can avoid the danger looming about them all.

While Anne’s fate is all too familiar, the success of Byrd’s story lies in Meg’s unexpected path to everything she thought she never wanted. Meg is such a vibrant character that she emerges from Anne’s shadow and takes her rightful place as the heroine of the novel; as such, the title could more accurately be “A Novel including Anne Boleyn, but really about Meg Wyatt” – and so much the better.

To Die For is an exciting and heartbreaking journey through one of the most tumultuous periods in the Tudor dynasty. Byrd’s clear and expressive writing style and her steady pace throughout give this book a priority place on the historical fiction shelf.

Rating: 4.5/5

*Meg Wyatt’s real name was Anne, but was changed by the author for the sake of narrative clarity.

h1

Review: Downward Dog, Upward Fog by Meryl Davids Landau

19/08/2011

The original review was posted 8/18/2011 at Luxury Reading. Check out the other great reviews and giveaways available!

Follow Meryl on Twitter, @MerylDL

There are few among us who can’t relate to Lorna Crawford in some way. She has a job she loves with coworkers she decidedly doesn’t; a boyfriend who is sweet and charming, but constantly tied up with work; and a mother in whose eyes she never quite measures up. When we meet Lorna, she is on the verge of a road rage meltdown – something anybody who’s ever had to commute anywhere can understand – and we soon learn that this is a fair indication of her life as a whole. When she finds herself unreasonably frustrated with her closest group of girlfriends, Lorna knows it’s time for a change.

Lorna’s journey to enlightenment begins with some gentle prodding from her sister, interfaith minister Angelica (Anna), who consistently encourages her: “Last time something serendipitous happened to me, she quoted this fellow, Deepak something, who wrote in some book that coincidences are messages.” (p. 9) As Lorna jumps in to weekly yoga sessions, spiritual self-help books and nightly attempts at meditation (sujaling, as she calls it), she opens herself up to new friends and new understanding about her life. However, as uplifted as she feels in the moment, she finds her progress threatened by outside influences as well as her own self-doubt.

In Downward Dog, Upward Fog, Meryl Davids Landau explores the path to spiritual awakening and serenity with its many obstacles and small victories, with a protagonist who is sympathetic because she could be any one of us. Her supporting characters are equally engaging, realistic three-dimensional individuals rather than mere caricatures of the “nagging mother” or the “enlightened one”, which allows the reader to fall more completely into the story.

I was concerned that the spiritual concepts presented would be somehow separate from the central story, especially because of the potential for descriptions that would go over the average reader’s head. Fortunately, Landau approached the road to spirituality primarily from Lorna’s perspective, making the reader a partner in her discovery and development and maintaining the accessibility of those concepts. Anybody could, after reading this book, choose to begin a similar spiritual journey with a level of comfort she may not have had before. Even if the spiritual journey lasts no longer than the last page, the reader will find herself rooting for a happy ending – for Lorna, and ultimately for herself.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Meryl Davids Landau. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

h1

Review: The Borgia Betrayal, by Sara Poole

05/08/2011

Review originally posted at Luxury Reading June 12, 2011. You can navigate directly to the post here.

Francesca Giordano, poisoner to His Holiness Pope Alexander VI, lives a life full of secrets. An independent, passionate woman in late fifteenth-century Rome, she is responsible for protecting the Pope and his family — the infamous Borgias — from outside harm as well as for consolidating Il Papa’s position by eliminating those who could pose a threat to the safety of St. Peter’s Throne. But Francesca has another, deeper purpose: to find and kill the man responsible for her father’s death while in then-Cardinal Borgia’s service.

When the elusive killer allies with the Pope’s enemy, Girolamo Savonarola, to remove the Pope and install Savonarola in that office, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the piazzas and tunnels of Rome, even penetrating the boundaries of the Vatican itself. Can Francesca fulfill her duty to the Pope and avenge her father…or will she give her life in the attempt?

Sara Poole’s second novel about the enigmatic Francesca pulls the reader in from the start. She is a femme fatale, both strong enough to confront the challenges before her (and thwarting the men who would stop her in the process) and attuned enough to her own passions to indulge them. At times Poole expertly draws out Francesca’s deep-seated vulnerability — her wistful denial of love, the gradual recollection of repressed memories, and fear of losing still more people she loves — to create a truly three-dimensional character with whom any reader can relate.

Rome comes alive through Poole’s use of descriptors; it is easy to imagine the sultry heat of the summer and to conjure the bustle of people in the marketplace in ones’ mind. While some descriptions are repetitive, the picture of Rome is no less vivid for it. Skillful narrative makes use of the setting and allows for a few different subplots to intermingle while never losing sight of the main story, or of Francesca’s interactions with the supporting characters. Setting The Borgia Betrayal down often required a few moments to readjust to the real world; to me, that is the mark of an adept storyteller. Also, while this book is a sequel, Poole is careful to explain references to the earlier book well enough to make it a viable stand-alone story.

The Borgia Betrayal is a fast-paced historical narrative that keeps the reader hooked until the unexpected conclusion. Rather than dissatisfying, the loose threads at the end only made me want to read Poole’s next work even more.

Rating: 4/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Griffin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

h1

Review: Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg

12/06/2011

Originally posted on Luxury Reading June 10, 2011. See the original review here.

The best kind of memoir is one where the reader feels as if the memoirist is sitting across from them on a couch, sipping a beverage and chatting comfortably – a flowing and dynamic conversation rather than a dry biographical analysis of how s/he got where s/he is today. Simon Pegg, with his characteristic good humor, sets that perfect tone in Nerd Do Well.

Simon Pegg has near universal recognition after roles in the popular Star Trek reboot (2009) and such offbeat comedies as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2006), both of which he co-wrote with director Edgar Wright. As his star rises, fans and followers will enjoy tracing his path from the British suburbs to the big screen.

This, however, is no ordinary memoir. While Pegg delves into his past to share with the reader the roots of his love for acting and comedy, he is careful not to overindulge in emotional recollections – he openly expresses a reluctance to address emotion, yet does so just enough to make his story come alive. Pegg also tempers personal anecdotes with an almost academic discussion of cinema and science fiction through the last several decades (with special attention paid to the Star Wars franchise), brilliantly illustrating how the development of the latter contributed to his own personal and professional development.

Every couple of chapters, the reader also encounters a pleasant and highly entertaining surprise: a science-fiction story starring a swarthy and heroic Simon Pegg and his robotic sidekick, Canterbury. The story itself is so over-the-top that one cannot help but laugh, recognizing at the same time that the effort is more to blow off steam than to achieve a literary triumph. The effect, regardless, is an exercise in hilarity.

Nerd Do Well is a tantalizing glimpse into the mind of one of Hollywood’s celebrity outliers – a man of extreme talent and humor who nonetheless is still the little boy from Brockworth, or any other little town, who dreams of something bigger.

Rating: 5/5

Review and copy was provided free of any obligation by Gotham. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

h1

Review: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C.W. Gortner

06/06/2011

(Originally posted June 1, 2011 on Luxury Reading)

“You’ll fare better without love. We Medici always do.”

The story of sixteenth-century Europe cannot be told without telling of Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of the illustrious Medici family of Florence. Hers is not an easy story, for her reign as Queen of France and Queen Mother during the reigns of three sons was fraught with conflict and tragedy. In The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, author C.W. Gortner digs beneath historical canon to reveal a woman both pragmatic and passionate, who devoted her life to defending the country she came to call home and the last branches of the Valois line who would rule it.

Ten-year-old Caterina de’ Medici has visions, portents of the future she can neither control nor understand. When her aunt takes her to a trusted seer for guidance, he shares with her that she is to fulfill a grand destiny – “It may not be the destiny you want, Caterina de’ Medici, but fulfill it you will.” (p. 15)

Four years later, Catherine is married to the Duc d’Orleans, second son of King Francois I of France, and as she acclimates to the French court she must overcome the rumors surrounding her marriage and bear a son to secure the succession. As the story progresses through years and decades, Catherine recounts the end of the Valois dynasty that claims the lives of her husband, two of her sons, and countless thousands of French citizens who engaged in civil war, Catholic against Huguenot. Her own inexperience in statecraft and her single-minded focus on protecting her children provide hard and often tragic lessons; despite all, however, Catherine rises to every challenge and sees her many visions come to pass.

The Confessions is a heartfelt look into the life of one of history’s more enigmatic royal figures. Catherine is alternately revered and reviled, feared by those who fail to understand the motivations behind her actions. Gortner transports the reader back to sixteenth-century France and surrounds her with such dynamic characters that she comes out of the reading a bit shocked to be sitting on a couch rather than traveling in a royal convoy. Through his excellent writing the Valois and their countrymen become far more than footnotes in a history book; they come alive once more.

Any lover of historical fiction will have a hard time putting this down, and anybody looking for a well-written and moving narrative need look no further.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.