Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Magic Room

The Magic Room: A Story About The Love We Wish For Our Daughters, by Jeffrey Zaslow.

When I first drove up to Becker's Bridal, I was aware only that the store was a popular stop for brides-to-be from central Michigan. I didn't know its history. I knew nothing about the family that ran it. I certainly didn't know about the Magic Room.

But on the very first day I visited Becker's, I truly senses that this was a place that could illuminate the most poignant aspects of a woman's journey to the altar. I just knew that the story I wanted to tell about all of our daughters was here - in the walls, in the mirrors, on the racks, and especially, in that small, simple room at the top of the stairs.


I read this book for the BlogHer Book Club campaign, and it is the third book I have reviewed for them; however, it is the first that I have really enjoyed. The bridal shop in the novel is located in Fowler, Michigan (Lansing area), about an hour and a half from where I live, and since I had never heard of Fowler, I looked it up on Google Maps when I first started reading the book; and there it was! Becker's Bridal is located on their two-block Main St., and it even has its own denotation on Google Maps.

The story is rooted at Becker's, but, as the title says, really is a novel about "the love we wish for our daughters." It chooses six brides and tells their stories: how they got engaged, how they ended up at Becker's, and the special circumstances in their lives that all happened before their wedding days. It also focuses on the women who run Becker's, and how the store ended up under each's ownership.

The stories were all very interesting, and so was the history of the store. The Magic Room in the title refers to a special room that one bride goes into (only one at a time) with family or friends when she has found a dress that she thinks she may want to purchase. The storefront where Becker's exists used to be a bank, and the Magic Room used to be an old vault; it has since been renovated, but some of that inclusiveness remains. The lighting is soft, and when brides wear a dress into the Magic Room, they can see immediately whether that is the dress "for them" or not.

The writing is very good in the novel as well, although there were a few times that it tended to gear towards the sappy/dramatic. The Magic Room will be available in bookstores on January 2, 2012.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received compensation for writing this review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Lake of Dreams

The Lake of Dreams, by Kim Edwards.

My name is Lucy Jarrett, and before I knew about the girl in the window, before I went home and stumbled on the fragments and began to piece the story back together, I found myself living in a village near the sea in Japan. It had been a spring of little earthquakes, and that night I woke abruptly, jarred from a dream. Footsteps faded in the cobblestone lane and distant trains rumbled; I listened harder until I could make out the surge of the sea. But that was all.

The Lake of Dreams was released this year, but I only now found out about it. It's by the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is one of the best and also saddest books I have read in the past few years, and which was also turned into a made-for-TV movie as well. The Lake of Dreams, like her previous novel, does not disappoint.

Lucy Jarrett has been living overseas with her boyfriend, Yoshi, for a while now, but she is currently unemployed. She decides to go home to upstate New York, to The Lake of Dreams (actual city name), to visit her mother, brother, and family. Once there, she discovers a long-lost relative who may or may not have been involved in something scandalous, and therefore whose existence was covered up. It's connected to the discovery of beautiful stained-glass windows in an old church, too, and she works with an old boyfriend, Keegan Fall, now in the glassworks profession, to try and figure out the mystery.

This novel was very well-written and the characters seemed very real. The mystery story, too, helps reveal things about Lucy and also about her father's death, about 20-30 years previous, and it makes for a good read. The Lake of Dreams was featured on the BlogHer Book Club, which is how I found out about it, and I was pleased to discover that Edwards had written another novel; this is her second novel and third overall book (she also wrote a book of short stories). This novel was one of the better ones I've read recently, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Restoration

Restoration, by Olaf Olafsson.

Later, when she lay in the clinic at San Martino, listening to the cicada singing outside the window and watching Melchiorre's shadow by the door, it occurred to her that she had begun to change that evening. It took a long time; there was more than one veil over her eyes, and they were not stripped away all at once but little by little, until she finally saw Robert Marshall in a cold, pitiless light. And that was when she committed the crime, in the light that spared no one and was devoid of all beauty or forgiveness.

I had not heard of the author Olaf Olafsson before reading this novel, but it seems that he is a "jack of all spades," so to speak. He has a degree in physics from Brandeis University, and is the founder of Sony Interactive Entertainment (a division of Sony). He is also currently one of the "top media executives in the country" and is the Executive Vice President, International and Corporate Strategy, of Time Warner. I'm not sure when he finds the time to write, but this endeavor, Restoration, was interesting, once I figured out the characters and which voice was whose.

The character jumps from first-person POV, that of Alice's, to Kristin's, in the third-person. Alice lives in the countryside of Italy with her husband, who has recently disappeared, and formerly with her son, Giovanni, who died at a young age of meningitis. The time period is World War II, and Alice has taken in some children who would otherwise have been refugees. Kristin, injured from a train blast, stumbles upon their cozy household, and of course is taken in as well. Alice is hiding a painting for the Germans, which was given to them from the renowned restoration expert Robert Marshall, and is said to be a painting by one the greats. What they don't know, however, is that the painting is a fake: Kristin, an art student of Marshall's and later his lover, painted it in the style of the greats to fool Marshall and get back at him - he said he was going to leave his wife and never did. The painting was taken from her before she was able to explain it to him, however, and experts confirmed it to be by the great painter and not her.

Kristin hasn't told Alice any of this, but when her leg heals, she starts to look for the painting at the villa. Soon, however, the Germans have taken over the villa as the "front line," and they are all forced to evacuate to avoid the bombings.

This novel was a little confusing to me at first because it jumps around so much - from past to present - and is also written in two POV's (first-person, in Alice's voice, and third person, for Kristin's) - but once I figured it out it was easier to read. Anyone who is interested in novels based on / taking place during World War II will enjoy this book, and indeed, the story it tells is a tangled web of lies, hope, and complicated relationships. It reminded me a little bit of the movie The Red Violin, except that it was about a painting, in that it followed the painting from when Kristin created it to the very end of the novel, when she sees it again after many years.

3 stars out of 5.

Restoration will be in bookstores on February 7, 2012.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The World We Found

The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar.

She made a face. "I was the ugly duckling of the group, I'm afraid."

"Are you kidding me? My God, Mom, you're still beautiful. Jeez, have you seen how Dad looks at you, still? Like he - like he could just inhale you or something." Diane sucked her cheeks in.

Armaiti squeezed her daughter's hand. "You're funny. Anyway, it doesn't matter who was pretty and who wasn't. What matters is" - and here she hesitated, wanted to get it right the first time - "that ... that these three women gave me something. A sense of belonging in the world, but more than that. A sense that the world belonged to me. Do you understand? A belief that it was my world - our world. To shape it as we wanted. That we never had to settle for things as they were, you know?

Diane was looking at her intently, her big eyes searching her face, and Armaiti saw how perilously young her daughter still was. Something about that look broke her heart. "You still believe that, Mom? About changing the world?" Diane asked.

How simple, how lovely, it would be to answer with a direct, honest yes.


I had never heard of the author Thrity Umrigar before reading this novel, but it is one of the best novels I have read in quite a long time, even though I was unfamiliar with India's history before this. Umrigar is the author of four other novels and a memoir, and I will definitely be reading some of her other work in the future.

The World We Found focuses on four women who were friends in college. Laleh and Nishta are still married to their college sweethearts; however, Laleh's husband Adish does well for himself and they have a happy household, with two teenage children, and Nishta's husband Iqbal, a Muslim, has turned their household into more of a prison. Nishta changed her name to Zoha to "fit in" - or, more accurately, Iqbal forced her to - and she now wears a burqa while going outside. Kavita has been a closeted lesbian ever since their college days, when she was in love with Armaiti but never told her, and now Armaiti lives in the U.S. with her daughter, Diane, and Kavita is in a relationship with Ingrid, a business associate of hers. Although these four friends haven't seen each other in many years, when Armaiti tells them that she is dying of cancer and asks them to come to the States, they all agree. The most difficult part will be getting Nishta out, especially since Iqbal took away her cell phone and passport, but Laleh and Kavita are willing to do whatever it takes to reunite with Armaiti again before her demise.

This book was very, very well-written, and the characters are really brought to life. It reminded me in a weird way of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, minus them sharing a magical pair of pants, because the four women were so close at one point and now their lives are completely different and separate, for the most part. The end of the novel sort of leaves the possibility open for a sequel, but I doubt Umrigar will write one; it was one of those books where it leads up to an event at the end, and where all the events happen before that one big event, if that makes sense. I will still wonder what happened to Nishta, Laleh, Kavita, and Armaiti, though, which gives you an idea of how descriptive these characters are.

4.5 stars out of 5.

The World We Found will be in bookstores on January 3, 2012.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Best of Me

The Best of Me, by Nicholas Sparks.

Neither one of them was able to move or speak as surprise gradually turned to recognition. Dawson's first thought was how much more vivid she was in person than in his memories of her. Her blond hair caught the late afternoon light like burnished gold, and her blue eyes were electric even at a distance. But as he continued to stare, subtle differences slowly came into focus. Her face, he noticed, had lost the softness of youth. The angles of her cheekbones were more visible now and her eyes seemed deeper, framed by a faint tracing of lines at the corners. The years, he realized, had been more than kind: Since he'd seen her last, she'd grown into a mature and remarkable beauty.

I am a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks' books, and this one was no exception, except the ending was much more sad than his usually are.

Amanda and Dawson were deeply in love and were going to move in together after high school, but Amanda's parents forbade it, since his family was from the "wrong side of town." They threatened to not pay for college if Amanda continued seeing him, so she went to Duke and they broke up. Now, twenty-four years later, their mutual mentor Tuck has died, and they both return to their small town of Oriental, and end up seeing each other again. They must decide if what they have is worth jeopardizing Amanda's marriage and home life for, and if it even IS still true love, after all of these years.

As all his novels are, this one was beautifully paced and descriptive. I had an inkling of what the (sad, but kind of bittersweet) ending would be once a few key events happened, and I was thinking "Oh no," and then it ended up playing out that way. The ending is more of a Jodi Picoult type, I thought, but it still works with the novel. The characters and their actions are all very believable, and you will finish The Best of Me in one or two sittings if you have time.

A few of Sparks' novels have been turned into movies, and I was trying to think of a few actors who could play Dawson and Amanda, but the way they are written in the book is very specific. Another of his novels, The Lucky One, features Zac Efron and will be in theaters this April 2012.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

1 Dead in Attic

1 Dead in Attic, by Chris Rose.

This is no environment for a wuss like me. We reporters go to other places to cover wars and disasters and pestilence and famine. There's no manual to tell you how to do this when it's your own city.

And I'm telling you: it's hard.

It's hard not to get crispy around the edges. It's hard not to cry. It's hard not to be very, very afraid.


Chris Rose was a journalist for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. He and his family got out of town and eventually settled with his parents in Maryland, but he came back to New Orleans quickly after Katrina to write columns for the newspaper. 1 Dead in Attic is a collection of his columns, in a semi-chronological order, and it helps us to get a sense of the city from 2005-2006 as a whole. The novel title refers to what was written on doors in the city - the number of people dead, the number of pets dead, and the number of people found alive - and it was written on a door that Chris Rose saw while bicycling around the city one day.

I was a college freshman in 2005, starting out at the University of Michigan, and I knew that New Orleans had been ravaged by a hurricane, but I didn't know the extent of it until I visited a friend in New Orleans last month, and also read this book. Most of the areas we went to (Lakeview, downtown, Uptown, Mid-City, etc.) were fine, but in 2005 and 2006 they were not. There's a Starbucks near the Lakeview area that has a line painted on it, wrapping around the building, that is almost to its roof, and it simply says "Katrina" next to it; this was the highest that the water got up to in 2005.

The novel was interesting but I think residents or former residents of New Orleans would enjoy it more than I did, as a lot of the places' names were still foreign to me. The writing is very good, though, and paints a picture of a city in tumultuous times that was just then, in 2006, trying to rebuild itself.

3 stars out of 5.