Willow by Julia Hoban

One last book read on my sister's nook. This is one I hadn't planned to read but she really insisted and I had to read it fast to get it done in time so she could have her e-reader back. This is the epitome of how our general reading preferences differ. I love epic fantasy and adventure, which she has read a few more than me oddly enough, but she really loves young adult and very sad books. This one is both YA and sad.

From Goodreads: Seven months ago, on a rainy March night, sixteen year- old Willow’s parents died in a horrible car accident. Willow was driving. Now her older brother barely speaks to her, her new classmates know her as the killer orphan girl, and Willow is blocking the pain by secretly cutting herself. But when one boy—one sensitive, soulful boy—discovers Willow’s secret, it sparks an intense relationship that turns the “safe” world Willow has created for herself upside down.
Told in an extraordinary fresh voice, Willow is an unforgettable novel about one girl’s struggle to cope with tragedy, and one boy’s refusal to give up on her.

It was a bit better than I expected and a nice break in that the novel isn't in first person. The novel does involve self-harm, as the description mentions and from the very beginning of the story. So, it may be hard for some people to read. It was even hard for me at some points but overall I handled it and I'm sure most would too.

Characters: Willow is the main character, obviously, and even in third person the story is told from her point of view only. She is very distant and the third person helps create that feeling. Normally, I say that third person isn't distancing but in this case, it had to be for the story. At times I didn't feel close enough to the main character but I had to keep reading to know what happens. The one I had the hardest time with, was the boy named Guy with his knight in shiny armor mentality. There are a few times where I didn't really believe his character and one time where I really didn't believe. It was like "really, you are going to say that is a way you can protect her, really?" I won't say what I'm referring to because I don't want to give anything away but if you read the novel I think you will see what I mean. Overall, though, the characters weren't too bad. Seeing them through Willow's eyes and then seeing how she wasn't quite right about her assessment's brought the story more to life.

Story: The story was a little slow in spots and I wondered where it was going to go because it wasn't quite obvious even though the end made total sense. It was emotional but also had some funny moments, which makes sense as well. When I studies Shakespeare, it was always the tragedies that had the most humor because tragedy and humor accentuate each other in story telling. I started to care for the main character, though it wasn't easy in the beginning, and how her relationships with others developed, especially with her brother. It is a tamer story if comparing to one with action and adventure, but it's an emotional journey.

Overall: It's a sad, distant book that is a decent read. I hadn't planned to read it but I am a little glad that I did listen to my sister. It's not my usual style but it's good to branch out from time to time.

Dawn's Verdict: 8/10

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi - a travel memoir

Travel memoirs are one of my favourite forms of escapism and I have many favourites, charming books that tell the often-enhanced travel stories of people just like us but who get to travel, then write about it, then travel some more...and write about it. Now that's Utopia!

Another much-loved author is the effervescent Italian, Adrianna Trigiani, who has this to say - "The great Marlena de Blasi writes fairy tales for grown ups." Well, this book, and others that Marlena has since written, are my kind of fairy tale.

I was writing my entry for the A - Z Challenge and as my V is for Venice, I thought, why not review this luscious book?

A Thousand Days In Venice is a charming story about love found late in life and straight away the story will resonate with many readers. Marlena is a divorced American chef who decides to leave her material possessions and America behind and travel to Venice, Italy, and lo and behold she finds love with a "blueberry-eyed Venetian." At first she thinks she is too old for romantic love and intimacy and wants to run away but is inexplicably drawn into a romance which would seem to most, utterly impossible. It is a true-life memoir, and Marlena chooses to take a risk, to follow her heart and venture out into a world of new possibilities. She leaves her well-established life in the US, two grown children and a beautiful home in St. Louis to begin a new life with a Venetian she calls "the stranger."

Which I thought was a bit strange. It bothered me how she called this man, Fernando, "The Stranger," not just when she first met him, but through most of the book. But maybe it was deliberate. Maybe it added to the strange allure of Venice, a city where the idea of meeting and making love to a stranger is folklore during Carnavale.

Fernando, "The Stranger" is at times demanding in his wishes, which was strange since it was Marlena who was making the big changes, not him. He really wasn't the one giving up anything. He was also rather controlling in day-to-day living, just as you would expect of the stereotypical pampered adult male used to getting what he wants. He imposes his wishes on her and expects her to conform, yet you can tell Marlena isn't the type who would usually be pushed around by a man. I'm glad I gritted my teeth at his at times mincing habits as he did change later as the relationship developed.

As you can imagine, this is a mammoth crossroads in Marlena's life and she turns to her best friend Misha for advice. As Marlena is struggling with her feelings about this new-found love and discussing the ramifications with Misha she receives some poignant advice. "Now that it has presented itself to you, could you dare to imagine turning away form it for anything or anyone?" Misha tells of love she has once known. "I was afraid that the sentiments would change. I was afraid of some form of betrayal and so I walked away. I betrayed it before it could betray me. And maybe I thought life inside that intensity would suffocate me. So I chose a sort of pleasant, safe compromise, an emotion less than passion and more than tolerance. Isn't that what most of us choose?"

Don't most of us more often than not choose the "safe road" in our lives?  Doing a Robert Frost and choosing 'the road less travelled' can be a scary thought and there are not many of us that have the stomach for it. I've read other memoirs of 50-somethings who run away from their life, find another country, find another man, and live either happily or confusedly ever after (check our the Australian Mary Moody's books on escaping to France. Hot. Hot. Hot.) Marlena's story was bringing up conflicting emotions for me as I both admired her for it, and felt maybe she was a little crazy for it too, especially with 'The Stranger' who I know I couldn't live with for a minute! But, ah, Venice I could live with forever!

Marlena de Blasi has a very descriptive writing style which is beautiful and lush. She takes you right into the streets of Venice. You can smell and see the foods that she describes with her chef's eye and palate and I could visualise myself walking down those same fascinating streets or sitting by the Adriatic Sea. (I've since visited Venice and followed in Marlena's footsteps but I took my own 'stranger' with me.) There were many thoughtful and insightful paragraphs that grabbed me in this book. Marlena. de Blasi makes you ponder choices in life and imagine wonderful world of possibilities that might just be in reach after all. But possibly more so in Venice than anywhere else seeing as it is one of the most fascinating and romantic cities in the world.

This was the first book of Marlena de Blasi's that I had read. I've since read all her travels through Italy - Tuscany and Umbria. Beautiful. Exciting. Being a chef, she has written at least two cookbooks on regional Italian food.

Would you like to be swept off your feet by an unexpected romance?
Would you give up your home country for your new love? 
Do you enjoy reading travel narratives? Tell me about them...

L'Aussie's Verdict: 8/10

Hard Magic by Laura Anne Gilman

Back to paperback books and guess what... This is not YA. Shocking, I know, since I've been reading a lot of YA books lately. This is a book I found at random when I was walking through Barnes and Noble last year. It seemed interesting, so I picked up the book.

From Goodreads: "Welcome to P.U.P.I.—Private, Unaffiliated, Paranormal Investigations: A handpicked team trained to solve crimes the regular police can't touch—crimes of magic.
My name's Bonnie Torres. Recent college grad, magic user and severely unemployed. Until I got a call out of nowhere to interview for a job I hadn't applied for. It smelled fishy, but the brutal truth was I needed the work—so off I went.
     Two days later I'm a PUPI—me and Nick, Sharon, Nifty and Pietr. Five twentysomethings, thrown into an entirely new career in forensic magic.
     The first job we get is a doozy: proving that the deaths of two Talents were murder, not suicide. Worse, there are high-profile people who want us to close up shop and go away. We're sniffing out things they'd rather keep buried.
      Looks as if this job is gonna get interesting. The only problem is, we're making it up as we go along…"

This ended up being better than I thought. In general, I don't watch the CSI type television shows, so I wasn't sure if I was going to like a book labeled as a paranormal version of CSI.

Main Character: Bonnie is a fun character with a bit of an attitude. She is amusing and there are some great lines that really made me chuckle. Bonita (that is her first name actually) is also a bisexual main character, though men get her attention a bit more than women. Overall, I liked her except for one thing. She really needs to get control of her libido because it gets a little old with her losing attention on important topics by different guys. Strangers, client's relatives, witness', coworkers, bosses, doesn't matter, she gets distracted. What did help was there were consequences for it some of the time and having the tension helped. Having her occasionally mention women did make her a little more relatable to me than some of the other girl MCs I've read recently who spend too much time focusing on who they find attractive. But there are a few times where the reader could have seen Bonnie discover clues that are later heard about in dialogue instead of just seeing her distraction over some one's appearance and her interest in them.

Story: It was mostly interesting. I've not read many mysteries before, so trying to figure out how two people magically died wasn't easy. I liked how the plot of the story interlaced with the world, where magic and non-magic humans existed among other beings too. I liked the magic type, the concept of current and how the characters, MC especially showed the reader its uses. The only problem with a story like crime scene investigation is that the end feels a little anti-climatic. There was an exciting commotion towards the end that confused me a little about what was going on, and that made me feel more in the story.

Minor issues: There are many characters and many many names. Each of the P.U.P.I. characters are called by first, last and nicknames at different points in the novel. Two of them are named Nick (one often called Nifty). It was a nice break to read an adult book and I barely noticed at times that the book was in first person. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was talking when a lot of dialogue was happening at once. Line after line within the P.U.P.I. organization discussing certain evidence was good but I had no idea who was saying what. Didn't detract from the story but I did notice it.

Overall: I am looking forward to the next book, Pack of Lies. I didn't see it in the bookstore today but it was published at the beginning of this year. Those that like paranormal, magic and a little crime investigation might like this book. And even if you're like me and don't watch crime stuff, you might still like this book.

Dawn's Verdict: 8/10

Shade, by Jeri Ready-Smith

Shade is a novel I wanted to read for some time, based on the amazing reviews I'd already read about it. I'm very happy to say that despite having exceptionally high expectations, I wasn't disappointed.

Blurb from Goodreads: Love ties them together. Death can't tear them apart.

Best. Birthday. Ever. At least, it was supposed to be. With Logan's band playing a critical gig and Aura's plans for an intimate after-party, Aura knows it will be the most memorable night of her boyfriend's life. She never thought it would be his last.

Logan's sudden death leaves Aura devastated. He's gone.

Well, sort of.

Like everyone born after the Shift, Aura can see and hear ghosts. This mysterious ability has always been annoying, and Aura had wanted nothing more than to figure out why the Shift happened so she can undo it. But not with Logan's violet-hued spirit still hanging around. Because dead Logan is almost as real as ever. Almost.

It doesn't help that Aura's new friend Zachary is so understanding—and so very alive. His support means more to Aura than she cares to admit.

As Aura's relationships with the dead and the living grow ever complicated, so do her feelings for Logan and Zachary. Each holds a piece of Aura's heart...and clues to the secret of the Shift.

The concept for the novel hooked me before I'd even started reading. It really is a unique idea and Aura'a angst about being torn between both the ghost and memory or her dead boyfriend, and her new feels for Zach are portrayed perfectly. The pace is reasonably fast, which works well because it would have been easy to be bogged down with teen emotions etc and forget the actual plot. There was enough happening to keep me reading cover to cover without putting the book down to breathe!

While I was expecting Shade to be set in the future, it seems to be set in a world exactly like ours, except for the fact that anyone under sixteen can see ghosts. There's a slight atmosphere of anxiety in the world, which Smith-Ready weaves in wonderfully, making the world just different enough to feel almost magical.

The characterization is fantastic, and Aura is a protagonist that I couldn't help rooting for. I think that the reader is expected to feel the "Team Logan" vs "Team Zach" tug. Both boys are very different characters and the time Aura spends with them shows how different they are. The book wouldn't have worked with just Logan-the-ghost. Zach's contrasting personality is needed and very well done.

The book ends with a cliffhanger that had me immediately searching for the second book. Fortunately, we don't have long to wait. Shift is out May 3rd!

A must-read for anyone who loves YA.

WritersBlockNZ's Verdict: 9/10

Geek Girl by Cindy C. Bennett

Another book read on the nook. I did choose this one on my own because the title intrigued me and I was entertained by the novel. It didn't take me long to read it either.

About the book: 17-year-old Jen decides one day, out of boredom that she's going to make a bet with her friends. That bet is that she will turn one of the school geeks, Trevor, bad. The prize? A lip-piercing to help her make her goal of only staying one year per foster family. But she soon finds herself in Trevor's world of sci-fi movies, charity work and family outings. As the bet becomes less important, Jen must face her past, figure out if she could ever belong with a geek boy and whether the plan to leave the new foster family is what she really wants.

Does the plot sound a little familiar? Not the whole plot, of course, but "the bet" is a plot that has been used before. The movie, She's All That, comes to mind in particular but it's not the only one. And this book does follow some of that plot line, so certain points will be expected but there is more to it than just the bet.

The story at first I thought would be a little too much about the bet but soon the author provided depth with the main character. At first it was a little rough because page one, the first lines in fact, is the bet. So, we don't know anything about the character except she plans to turn a boy bad in order to get her lip re-pierced, which comes off as a shallow reason but reading past that will show that the book has a deeper storyline than just that. I do wish more of the geek activities were shown. There is a lot of talk about the geeky movies they watch and she starts to love in dialogue but we don't see it except once and even then that time shows the geek boy she's trying to turn isn't all that geeky. I haven't read too many stories yet dealing with foster care and I think that part really did add depth to the novel.

The main character is a little hard to feel sympathy for at first. Because we start at once with the bet, it does make her seem not like a nice character. But in the middle of the novel, I really felt for her and at one point in the story she almost goes too far the other way and becomes so mopey that it became hard again. But at the same time, it brought me in as her friend where I wanted to tell her snap out of it. So that works. The geek is a super polite really nice guy but... not very geeky. I wish he had been a little more geeky. I may be biased because I've bowled in leagues since I was 5 (family owns the bowling alley) so I don't think that's a geek thing to do but I'm at least a geek if not close to a nerd anyways. But I expected to see a little more geekiness from him. And having Trevor have an athletes body with a six-pack, disappointed me a little. I know, I'm weird and should consider it a step from the stereotype and I'm not saying he has to be very out of shape or anything, just no six-pack. I rolled my eyes at that. But he was a really nice guy and I like nice guys who actually get to have love in a story.

May not be competing with classics but I found this book entertaining. And yes, I even got a little emotional near the end even though I knew some of the plot points that were going to happen well in advance. If looking for a fun read, this might be a good book to check out.

Dawn's Verdict: 7.5/10

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

This is the strangest book I’ve ever read. Usually, I dislike magical realism, but I’ve read other Alice Hoffman novels and love her writing style, the way she blends magic with the mundane of everyday life. The Story Sisters is one of my favourite books and at first I was disappointed in The Red Garden, but as I read on it hooked me in, daring me to put it down. She has linked a collection of fourteen short stories to weave her way through the history of a fictional town, Blackwell, Massachusetts, deep in the Berkshires, from its founding in 1750 to the late 20th century.
Blackwell is a very small town in the shadow of Hightop Mountain. The same families keep appearing in the linked stories – the Motts, the Partridges, the Starrs, and the Jacobs. These people pass down Blackwell’s folktales and legends from one generation to another.

Bears are a common thread throughout. Blackwell was first known as Bearsville due to the large population of bears dotting Hightop Mountain. The opening story, “The Bear’s House,” revolves around a courageous young woman, Hallie Brady, who founded Blackwell along with three other families. Hallie married at seventeen and joined her forty-year-old husband and three other families on an expedition to western Massachusetts. All except Hallie were beaten down by the snow, the cold, the bears, and the lack of food. No one had basic hunting and survival skills. Hallie, however, was determined to survive. She stepped into her husband’s boots (literally and metaphorically) and tackled the wilderness .
Hoffman writes:

She had come all the way from England and she didn't intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain.

Hallie smashes the ice of a frozen river and fishes out eels for a stew, builds traps for rabbits, and milks a hibernating bear. She survived.

And Hallie loved “her” bear. Even after the town was established she often “gazed out the window, as if there was someplace she wanted to be, some other life that was more worth living.”

As Hoffman weaves her magic, you can't help noticing that most of the women in Blackwell long for something that’s out of reach. Some pine for the wild, others long for love, but die alone and unfulfilled. Some stay in Blackwell, others venture away. All seemed touched by regret. As one character sadly says: “I already knew I would never get what I wanted."

Hallie Brady is the “first lady” of Blackwell. She introduces many of the themes and motifs that run throughout this collection of stories. Hoffman presents an intense but unstable relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live - sorrow and loss, magic and mystery. Hallie plants the garden of the book’s title in the rich, red soil where every plant that grows there is vibrant and alive with the colour red. Scarlet amaranth and crimson larkspur grow wild; many of the town’s inhabitants have red hair and freckles, and the temper to go with these attributes. Then there's the bones in the garden... 

Ghosts continually surface in this book, in almost every story, and since their stories are rooted in the actual history of Blackwell, they remind the reader that stories usually outlive their readers and that the division between the “real” world and the world beyond is very tenuous.

Every story is linked to and enriched by the stories that came before it. And real, historical figures make an appearance in Blackwell. In one story, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wanders into Blackwell and plants the “Tree of Life,” an apple tree that will sustain the whole town. The poet, Emily Dickinson stumbles into Blackwell, bringing her dog, Carlos. She’s forever changed by her short stay.

There are other unforgettable characters. There’s the little girl wearing a blue dress who drowns in the Eel River, but whose ghost hovers over Blackwell and is often sighted by inhabitants. “The Monster of Blackwell” is Matthew James, a young man “exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself,” a young man with a deformity so severe that he flees to Hightop Mountain, only to fall in love with, and write lyrical poetry to, Kate Partridge, a beautiful woman in the village, the daughter of one of Blackwell’s founding fathers.

The strongest stories in the collection are those where a strong current of magical realism is present such as it is in “The Fisherman’s Wife," a story about a strange woman with long black hair. The wife of a fisherman who’s caught more than one million eels, this odd woman goes door-to-door in Blackwell until something very extraordinary happens, but this being Blackwell, barely causes the inhabitants to bat an eyelash.

As always, Hoffman conveys the extraordinary events in spare, matter-of-fact prose, but there are gems that touched me deeply. In this book we can hear laughter shine “through the darkness, brighter than any light;” we see people falling in love “like a stone dropped into a river;” we watch a toddler “hurtle into each day.” It’s fresh and it’s beautiful and it’s a joy to read.

Hoffman has set the stories against real, historical events – the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, yet sometimes these events seem out-of-place. Like the tale of Ben Levy, a Jewish graduate of Yale in the 1930s. (I can’t imagine many Jews attended Ivy League schools in the 1930s.) Then there’s the fact that while Hoffman uses the Civil War as a backdrop, she never once mentions slavery. Maybe this adds to the enchantment of the book showing Blackwell’s isolation allowed its inhabitants to know what was going on, but were not too impacted by events.
I recommend The Red Garden to fans of Alice Hoffman and to those who like fairy tales or magical realism. Even if, like me, you generally prefer reality-based fiction, you will find something to love in these bewitching, beautiful stories.

L'Aussie's Verdict: 7.5/10

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Another book read on the Nook. My sister suggested I read it and since I had her e-reader I figured why not give it a try. And by suggested I mean, repeatedly bugged me because she has a number of books she thinks I should read and finally I'm starting to listen.

From Goodreads: What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.

Instead, it turns out to be her last.

Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

At first, I was unsure about the novel. The first section (sounds more accurate than chapter cause it was 50 pages) took me a couple of days to read. 50 pages where I'm pretty sure the death part happens like 3 times. I lost count even and thought there might have been more than 7 chances but if the description says 7, I believe it. The thing is the main character isn't 100 percent in achieving from me, the reader. She's kind of stuck up, popular type of teenager who had no problem being mean to others for no reason, which makes it hard at first. But after that, I was drawn in. While the first 50 pages on the Nook took me days to read, the next 50 took only a couple of hours. I got into the story and started to care about the main character so by the 5th and 6th chances I was even crying. I had no idea how it would end and I needed to know.

The main character is a popular teen girl who has her close friends and avoids those that might make her lose popularity. She's not the most likeable or relatable character in the very beginning and that almost makes the reader not mind that she's dead. (This is one of the few times I'll probably be able to say a character dies and not have in be a spoiler.) But once she starts trying to figure her life out, when she starts to experience moments and makes changes, she becomes a good character. I was even cheering for her and certain other characters by the end but it was equally heart breaking to know that wonderful moments would never exist again.

The basic plot is what the novel description says. The main character experiences the same day over and over as she tries to figure out how to end the cycle. I had no idea where the story would end even as I neared the last chapter. It brings up the interesting question: if you knew you would die, or did die and had to live the day over, what would you do? Some reviews I've seen related it to Groundhog's Day but I haven't seen that. It felt very well done and original to me even though I had my doubts if I would even like the book at the very beginning.

Oh goodness. This book may have started a bit iffy but it became Wow. Seriously. I love the moments in particular. The main character has these moments where she notices something that in the past would have seemed small and forgettable but that time, it's savored. The writer did an excellent job bringing those moments to life. The thing about reading this book is it also causes so many questions to crash over the readers minds. If you have any doubt about where you are in your life, that you're not doing what you want to be doing (like me living at my parents' house after college... X.X) then this book will make you wonder what you are missing. If life ended tomorrow... It makes me want to act, to do something, to move anywhere and yet I feel distracted by too many options. It's an odd feeling.

I say give this book a chance. It's not a perfect book but it is good.

Dawn's Verdict: 8.5/10

Slide the Corner by Fleur Beale

Slide the Corner by Fleur Beale is not a particularly new book (published in 1993), and I read it when I was younger. Despite the fact that this book is essentially about cars, and from a boy's POV, when I read it at about 12 years old, I loved it. So, when I dug this out of a second hand shop, I knew I had to pick it up and re-read.

Synopsis: Greg is the odd one out at home-he doesn't like computers and isn't a brain like the rest of the family. He's bored at school and misunderstood at home. But when Greg stumbles upon Brad, a mechanic who works on and drives rally cars, Greg suddenly finds his niche. Against his fathers wishes a bond forms between Brad and Greg, and as the two work together to win on the circuit Greg grows in confidence in his chosen sport. The family must come to realise the strength in each of its members ... no matter what that strength might be.

I'm really glad that I found this book again, because on a second read, over ten years later, I still loved it.

Greg is a likable character from the beginning. He's quite self-depricating, especially at the start, but as he grows in confidence and earns his family's respect, he becomes even easier to sympathise with. The other characters feel a little flat at times, and some of them appear to be almost too nice (especially Holly and Brad who help him into rallying). His father is the main antagonist of the story, and he was a fantastic character. I really felt like I hated him at times, especially with his insults towards Greg (he calls him "thick as crude oil" on several occassions). The father does grow too however, and he mellows out naturally, rather than having an unrealistic climax where he suddenly changes his mind (which would have been easy to do).

The novel is set in small town New Zealand, presumably in the '90s when it was published, and while there was a little bit of 'small town mentality' vs 'big city', it really could have been set anywhere, if it wasn't for the obviously New Zealand obsession with cars (which from what I can tell hasn't changed!). Rallying is a huge sport in NZ, although I imagine that Greg's father's objections to it aren't uncommon either.

Slide the Corner is a coming of age story, and I suspect that it would have particular appeal to boys over 12 years old. It's fast paced - throwing the reader into the drivers seat and having them whooping with excitement with the characters. It's also emotionally complex without overstating anything, and at times it had me laughing aloud.

7 out of 10 for me, and a must read for any young teenage boy (particularly those who might be adverse to the idea of reading!).

WritersBlockNZ's Rating: 7/10

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