The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

blueAlthough I’m a big L.M. Montgomery fan (Anne of Green Gables meant so much to me and yes, I’ve even traveled to P.E.I. to see her sights), I had never read this book before. A friend gave it to me for Christmas and I was even more interested to read it after I read in Colleen McCullough’s obituary that she had received criticism for similarities between her book, The Ladies of Misssalonghi, and this.[I had read Ladies of Missalonghi many years ago and really liked it, though I could only remember a few details and not the actual plot.  I’m afraid after reading The Blue Castle I still don’t remember the plot of Missalonghi, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it.]

Anyway, The Blue Castle.  Valancy Stirling-such a name! is 29 years old and has lived a miserable life.  It won’t take many pages before you can perfectly imagine her dreary existence and feel damp and cold within your own bones. She has a large family that rules her, never lets her forget that she is an ugly old maid, and does not allow for any gaiety.  They are preposterously terrible and Valancy lives with it.  Then one day she gets a terrible diagnosis that prompts her to cast her family aside and live life to its fullest, which includes taking up with people that everyone looks down on. And oh! how Valancy prospers! It’s all very magical and romantical (as Anne might say) and she is living life like a woodland nymph.  There are secrets and surprises that are not too surprising and all works out as it should.

I enjoyed this tremendously, though I can acknowledge that the whole thing reads as if it were written by Anne Shirley herself, perhaps at age 13.  Heady dreams about what a romantic carefree life would be like, romantic dreams that show a certain naivete (the limits of physical contact are an arm around the waist, a whisper in the ear), declarations of love that include calling one a “jolly chum”, and flowery, flowery prose. It’s a little bit mockable. But I love that kind of stuff and it was fun to read, very quick, and I loved seeing Valancy blossom (as usual in these sorts of things she has a “queer beauty”, and people routinely say that she is not pretty, but those who appreciate her see that she has an unusual beauty that makes her unique and striking and possibly not quite human) into someone who had love in her life.

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The Wedding Bees: A Novel of Honey, Love, and Manners by Sarah-Kate Lynch

After a pretty depressing book I needed something sweet fun and this was just the ticket. I came across it as a Goodreads recommendation if I liked Sarah Addison Allen, and indeed it had a similar tone and flavor. (and btw, there were a million recommendations in this vein, so apparently I could read magical sweet books from here until the end of the year.)
Sugar moves every spring to a new place in the U.S. and starts anew. The one constant is her bees, including a queen that is descended from her grandfather’s original queen.  Her sweet and friendly way and strict adherence to Southern charm and manners have made it easy for her to make new friends every place she goes.  She’s practically like a Mary Poppins what with how she touches people’s lives and changes them.  You can tell that this time it will be the same.  She moves into an apartment building in the Alphabet City part of NYC and promptly meets the other tenants, also known as the colorful secondary characters.  Two grouchy old people, a shy chef, an anorexic, and a crass single mom.  You know Sugar’s unrelenting cheerfulness and honey will somehow fix up all these people. Sugar’s bees have a special connection to her that is, if not magical, definitely special (and anthropomorphic). But what about Sugar herself? What happened in her past that has made her never return home? Why is she so reluctant to give her heart to Theo, whom she meets her first day in NYC and immediately feels an electric connection to him?

Charming and sweet as golden honey itself.

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by Maureen Johnson, John Green, & Lauren Myracle

snowMost years I like to treat myself to buying a holiday romance collection. Somehow I missed this when it originally came out and was thrilled to discover it on a table at BJ’s this season.  Unfortunately, despite the promise of three superstar YA authors combined with holiday romance, this was nowhere near as good as this year’s current YA holiday collection, My True Love Gave to Me.

The first story, by Maureen Johnson, I liked the best. It sets up the premise for the interconnected stories (which, by the way I didn’t realize were interconnected because when I bought the book I literally didn’t even bother to read the back description! )It’s Christmas Eve and through a hilarious and bizarre circumstance Jubilee has to get on a train to go to her grandmother’s. A big snowstorm stalls the train on the track stranding everyone in a small town. Other characters on the train-a cheerleading team, a handsome boy-aren’t prominent in the story, but are in the other two stories.  Story #2 by John Green is mostly about two boys and a girl, all best pals, on a quest to go meet those cheerleaders by making their way through the snow to the shining oasis of the Waffle House. Story #3, well, I don’t even know how to describe. It seemed to involve a teacup pig and regret over cheating on a boy. Honestly, I was skimming by that point. I did like how it wrapped up with all the characters from the different stories coming together.

Overall, this was a bit disappointing.

My True Love Gave to Me ed. by Stephanie Perkins

trueloveThis was a terrific collection. I adore Christmas story collections and each year try to find one to buy or check out (I’m partial to Christmas Regency romances.) This year I bought a YA collection, as well as got this new one from the library. A couple were just ok for me, and I skipped two, but these were the standouts I really liked:

Midnights by Rainbow Rowell-solid Rowell story. I liked checking in with the characters on each New Year’s Eve

Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me by Jenny Han-I can only describe this as “girl Elf.” A human child who Santa found as a baby and raised at the North Pole? Except she’s sadly aware that she’s human and everyone else is not. I loved the details about the elves and life with Santa (aka “Papa”).

It’s a yuletide miracle, Charlie Brown by Stephanie Perkins- you know how in Anna and the French Kiss and the other two Perkins book I say that her characters are so ridiculously talented in interesting and quirky ways that you can’t help but be jealous of these make believe people? I felt this story had that hallmark because Marigold is a super talented animated video creator. But beyond that I just loved this. Her hoarder like apartment (not hoarding-just the entire contents of a house left by movers in the same spot for over a year), the hunky guy and his family’s tree farm, it was all just lovely.

Welcome to Christmas, CA by Kiersten White-like a Hallmark Christmas movie! Seriously, this should be a tv movie. A tiny town that’s not even a town it’s so small, a teenage girl who can’t wait to get out and leave her mom’s annoying boyfriend, they’re poor, everyone is crabby, and then a new cook comes to town who somehow knows just what people need to make them happy and cooks it. And then the wonderfully touching ending that, if you’re sappy like me, brings a tear to your eye.

Star of Bethlehem by Ally Carter-also ripe for a tv movie. Swapping identities on the spur of the moment and going to a small town in Oklahoma where everyone thinks you’re an Icelandic exchange student but you’re really a superstar hiding out. Away from fame and your creepy manager you love the warm and big family that welcomes you. The perfect ending. This was like watching a wonderful and funny tv movie.

The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer by Laini Taylor- initially I thought this was a terrible choice for the last story in this holiday collection. It’s very fantasy and dreamy and really not Christmassy at all. Very different from the Hallmark Christmas movie entries. But! Laini Taylor is an awesome writer and you get so caught up in this beautiful and strange story that who cares where it is? I really liked it. It was like a magical fairy tale.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

jojoI really disliked Moyes’s last book (that everyone else loved), so I wasn’t so sure about this, though it sounded right up my alley. And indeed it was so up my alley that I got this at the library yesterday at noon and had finished it by noon today. I couldn’t stop reading it! Oh, I just loved it.

Jess is a down and out single mom doing everything she can to keep it together. She is truly an admirable character-a kind mum, working any job she can, trying to find money to pay bills (and not succeeding), worried all the time about the kids, living in a terrible council estate. Her life is pretty crap. Her husband left two years ago, depressed and unable to help. The children are Nicky, a teenager who is an outcast mostly due to his loner ways and mascara. And maybe also due to the fact that Jess is actually his stepmom, so both his mom and dad have abandoned him.  Tanzie is 10, a mathematical genius, and also someone who doesn’t fit in. There are horrible hooligans who bully Nicky and are truly criminal, but the police turn a blind eye. Then there’s Norman, the flatulent dog. Flatulent dogs are always good comic relief in a book.

Ed, on the other hand, is a super wealthy, very smart, computer guy who has become insanely successful. But, some unfortunate, somewhat accidental, insider trading has him in hot water. His life is falling apart. Jess cleans his holiday home and through a series of events he ends up driving her and the children and Norman to Scotland. The trip takes forever because Tanzie gets carsick over 40 mph. Their destination is a maths olympiad which, if Tanzie wins, will provide enough money for her to go to a private school and hopefully get a leg up out of their horrible life. So it’s a madcap road trip with a lot on the line, obviously Jess and Ed fall for each other, and everyone bonds. (This reminds me, a bit I think, of the movie Little Miss Sunshine.)

So, it took a little while to get to the road trip, the heart of the book. It was so heartwarming, as well as inciting all kinds of other emotions. Nicky and Tanzie’s father is a terrible excuse for a person and I was furious with his despicable being. Ed helping out Nicky was so touching and sweet. And at the end I just had to cry through a couple of chapters. Definitely a feel-good story, with some pretty sad, pretty realistic moments. I’d recommend this to anyone.

Bridget Jones Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

bridgetWhen this came out last year I simply refused to read it. Even when two friends read it I said I simply wasn’t going to read a Bridget Jones without Mark Darcy in it. But then I was at the library this week and there it was on display in the new books and I thought, “if I didn’t care that much that the mother in How I Met Your Mother died, maybe I could just enjoy this book for having Bridget in it.” And indeed, that was the case.  Right away I was transported back to good old Bridget. It felt like 15 years ago reading and laughing with her and Tom and Jude and the terrible scrapes she gets into. Sure, she’s 15 years older and dealing with having young children, but so am I! (actually, she is older than me.) As for Mark? It’s terribly tragic that Bridget is a widow and it’s like Helen Fielding tapped right into my greatest fear so I was a bit sad throughout reading it, and did cry a few times. But it’s handled really well and you are able to laugh at Bridget getting sucked into the world of Twitter (or course she gets drunk and tweets) and naughty texting with her much younger boyfriend. There is a handsome man at her children’s school who she always seems to be in embarrassing situations in front of.  I thought this very much mirrored her relationship with Mark in the first book.

Overall, I really liked it and it felt comfortable and familiar to having fun with Bridget again.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

projectEveryone said I would love this, and I did! (I actually had a prepub of this on my bedside table for a long time, then passed it on, missed out on reading it, and that’s why I’m late to the party of everyone reading this.) It’s clearly so destined for a movie, but I am puzzled that the author is at work on a sequel (and in Goodreads this has a parenthetical Don Tillman #1 next to it) because this is a perfectly satisfying book with no need to revisit the characters.

The main character, Don, is immediately identifiable to the reader as someone with Asperger’s. He’s a brilliant scientist with a rigid schedule designed for maximum efficiency and a total lack of social skills. Don knows he is wired differently than others, but even when giving a lecture about Asperger’s he doesn’t realize he’s describing himself. Don has exactly two friends-Gene and his wife Claudia. Gene is a fellow scientist at the university. Another friend, an elderly woman, once told him he would make a good husband and so Don decides to find a suitable wife and creates the Wife Project.  This involves a blunt and detailed questionnaire. He has a few dates where he immediately rules out the women and then agrees to let Gene choose one of the candidates. Enter Rosie. She immediately is unsuitable because she clearly has the wrong answers, but somehow Don ends up on a date with her, having his orderly way messed up.  For reasons he can’t quite understand Don continues to be engaged in Rosie’s life, helping her with a project.

What I liked about this was that Rosie doesn’t “cure” Don, although he is able to change and reflect on the change. And the story is very funny without laughing at Don.  Even he acknowledges that his social missteps are often funny. I kept thinking he was like a grown up Max from Parenthood (though less obnoxious).

A charming and funny, and entirely unlikely, romantic comedy.