jmc_bks: (Book on table)
I probably never would have picked up a copy of this ebook if I hadn't seen it mentioned on Twitter, primarily because I don't get the Hello Kitty phenomenon. I'm not sure if it was @avidbookreader, @McVane, or @limecello who recommended it, or a conversation the three of them had. In any case, I downloaded a sample of the book and was hooked, although I had not read the back blurb and didn't know where exactly the book was going. I just liked the author's voice and opening. The book is available in paper and electronic format, but the ebook was considerably less expensive, so I downloaded a copy. And then it sat in my e-TBR for a while (the e-TBR to be distinguished from Mt. TBR, the paper version of where potential good books go to languish).

Based on the potential recommenders, I wasn't sure what to expect, since they all have very different taste in books. The information in the blurb and the excerpt reveal that the narrator, Fiona Yu, is an American-born Chinese woman, a 28 year old lawyer who lives with her family, who are pressing her to marry a good Chinese boy. All of that is sort of chick-lit-ish (and I don't mean that in a derogatory way) and not very original, but an opening in which a narrator decides clinically to rid herself of her virginity via sterilized and lidocained dildo? Different and promising and satiric and funny.

Another chick lit cliche fulfilled: Fiona's smart, went to Yale, is miserable as an associate at a Big Law firm. She likes expensive bags and shoes. And because it's expected of her, she works in her family's laundry. She wears stilettos not because she likes the way they look but because they hurt, which reminds her that she's alive, and likens them to modern Chinese foot-binding. She resents that despite her academic success and good job, she isn't skinny enough or pale enough to please cultural stereotypes.

At the outset, her rebellions seem small: she sows discord via planted pocket contents at the family laundry. She's obsessed with Kurt Cobain and "Smells Like Teen Spirit". She makes serial killers her heroes (which probably should have told me something). One early passage that reveals a lot about Fiona:

All you have to do is comb your hair and wear a suit and you can be one crazy motherfucker. And get away with it.

The FBI profiles are almost always the same: White men. Age twenty-five to forty. Female serial killers account for only eight percent of all American serial killers. And they are white too.

White people get to have all the fun.

For once, I'd like to hear "The unsub is most likely female. Asian. Age twenty-five to forty."

Unlikely. Just look at Hello Kitty.

I hate Hello Kitty.

I hate her for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty. She can't eat, bite off a nipple or finger, give head, tell anyone to go and fuck his mother or lick herself. She has no eyebrows, so she can't look angry. She can't even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless, with that placid, blank expression topped by pink ribbon.

Fiona has second thoughts about her hymen -- mostly irritation that apparently didn't have one to start with, and decides that she must have one. Enter Dr. Sean Killroy, plastic surgeon, who turns out to be a childhood friend Fiona lost track of. (Because he set a classmate's hair on fire and was sent off to juvenile detention.) In your average chick lit book or romance, he'd be the main love interest, the True Love Fiona should be with, despite her parents' match making, despite the awkward meet cute. And when Fiona ends up going over to his place and finding him waiting for her naked, it does seem like that's where this is heading. But no.

Fiona and Sean are soul mates but not lovers. The romance trope is that meeting your soul mate makes you more fully yourself, makes you a better person in some ways. Sean and Fiona do this for each other, egging each other on, bringing out pieces of themselves suppressed by civilization, by programming, by weight of humanity and social expectations, into daylight, for better or worse (mostly worse). The closest relationship that I can think of is that the twisted dynamic of Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell in the HeartSick series...except Fiona's not trying to catch a killer. Fiona loves Sean and fears him, likening the feeling to someone who keeps a dangerous pet snake -- loving it but being vulnerable to damage if the snake isn't properly contained and fed. Readers never get Sean's point of view independently of Fiona's narration, but he does seem to feel something for her. Is it love? Or the relief of having a partner in crime? I don't know. Certainly his "tokens" to her put me in mind of a cat presenting its owners with dead mice or birds in tribute.

Choi basically takes all the tropes and cliches of chick lit, uses them, ties them in a knot and lobs them back at readers like a grenade. Narrator/heroine set free and empowered? Check. Able to take action for the things she wants in her life? Check. Hero who *gets* her? Check. But it's like an impressionist painting or one of those optical illusion posters that were popular years back -- look at a different angle and what you'll see is not what you expected and might shock you.

Grade from me: A

Blurb from Choi's website: 
On the outside, 28-year-old Fiona Yu appears to be just another Hello Kitty – an educated, well-mannered Asian-American woman. Secretly, she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of being an American girl.

To escape the burden of carrying her family's honor, Fiona decides to take her own virginity. In the process, she makes a surprising discovery that reunites her with a long-lost friend, Sean Killroy. Sean introduces her to a dark world of excitement, danger, cunning and cruelty, pushing her to the limits of her own morality. But Fiona's father throws her new life into disarray when he dupes her into an overnight trip which results in a hasty engagement to Don Koo, the spoiled son of a wealthy chef.

Determined to thwart her parents' plans to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. How far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever? Follow Fiona's journey of self-discovery as she embraces her true nature and creates her own version of the American Dream, eliminating anyone who stands in her way without fear or remorse.

Excerpt here.

jmc_bks: (Default)

Avid Reader's TBR Challenge is good for me and my TBR.  It is slowly (very slowly) winnowing down the TBR mountain.  Sometimes I wonder why some of the occupants are on the shelves, though, since so many of the books I select for the challenge wind up unfinished.

This month's book:
Fashionably Late by Nadine Adjani

(c) 2007 by Forge/Tom Doherty Associates

Convinced you're having a quarter life crisis? Think maybe a soul-searching trip might help?

Aline Hallaby, a nice, obedient Arab girl, has it all - a budding career at one of Montreal's most prestigious accounting firms, a loving family, and a boyfriend of three years who has finally proposed. To top it all off, she's about to fly to Cancun with her accounting classmates to celebrate passing the Uniform Final Examination. There's just one tiny problem: Ali has failed the exam. She hasn't told a soul. Not her parents. Not her boyfriend. And definitely not her boss, who will boot Ali out the door as soon as she finds out.

So rather than suffer through seven days in Cancun with her drunken-yet-successful classmates, Ali grabs her best friends, Sophie and Yasmin, and flees to the farthest place her airfare cancellation insurance will carry her: the resort town of Varadero Beach, Cuba . . .

The sea, sand, and sun, not to mention the attention of a certain Cuban dive instructor, soon have Ali feeling wonderfully careless and increasingly reckless. Caught up in a whirlwind of rum-soaked nights and moonlit Havana strolls, this good Muslim girl gets her very first taste of what it would be like fo be bad, really bad. But will what happens in Cuba stay in Cuba? Or is Ali finally ready to break out of the good-girl mold and grow into the woman she's meant to be?

I don't know the answer to those questions, since I grew bored and irritated by Ali by the time she arrived in Cuba.

Why this book? I think I read a recommendation somewhere in blogland. And it seemed like a slightly different chick lit offering: heroine of Lebanese descent, set in Montreal and Cuba. But in the end, not so much. Ali just came across as spoiled, self-absorbed, and not very sympathetic.

I felt sorry for her exam failure, remembering how certain I was that I'd failed the bar when my results arrived on Saturday rather than Friday like all my friends. But impatient with her otherwise, and rather disgusted by her treatment of her boyfriend (whose sole offense seemed to be proposing during her meltdown) and her parents (who wanted her to be successful and to marry well - fairly average parental dreams). Mostly, as I read I wanted to tell her to grow up and behave like an adult. My expectation of chick lit heroines is that they behave like adults, even when making bad choices and then fixing them. Ali never seemed to get past adolescent. Of course, that may have happened after I abandoned the book.

Anything else? Am curious about how "good Muslim girl" is defined, because Ali did not seem particularly defined by her faith or culture. She drank, she dated a Catholic boy, she never went to mosque, etc. She seemed Arabic and Muslim in name only.

Keep or pass on? Pass on.

Read this author again? I'd try her again but won't buy unless I *love* it.

jmc_bks: (title)

It's a St. Patrick's day SBD.  Maybe I should drink some green beer?  Eh, no.  But I have some Irish whisky at home, so I'll pour a glass this evening in honor of the SBD-ery.

I skimmed Jo Barrett’s This Is How It Happened (not a love story) last week. It wasn’t a love story, and I had no HEA expectations of it. When I first finished the book, I probably would’ve graded it as a B-. The language was okay: it didn’t stand out as particularly lyrical, nor did it make me want to break out a red pen. I liked the narrative style, in which the chapters alternated between the past and present. The characterization seemed a little weak and the plot a bit tired (A Comedy of Errors and Anger), but I liked the idea of it – a woman getting over her ex and her need for bitter revenge by moving on with her own life. But after reflecting more on the characters, I found myself becoming more and more irritated and disappointed by the heroine.

Show, don’t tell is one of the primary rules of characterization and narration. I thought that what Barrett told the reader about Maddy as a heroine (that she was strong and smart) was completely undermined by what she showed the reader (that Maddy had no self-respect and no common sense). The evil ex was so Utterly Evil that Maddy’s clinging to him came across as pathetic, naïve and downright stupid.

1. She does his homework and projects through their entire MBA program because he has to work. WTH? She worked, too, and managed to keep up with her classwork.

2. His comfort is more important than her health? He doesn’t like to wear condoms even though she is unable to use hormonal birth control, so he just doesn’t. Screw that. Or rather, don’t screw him.

3. He had genital herpes and didn’t tell her. To use a Dan Savage acronym: DTMFA. Not because of the herpes, but because he didn’t ‘fess up about it until she found his medication and called him on it. A guy who cared about you would not knowingly endanger you or your health.

4. He manages to get “their” business (which she conceived) in his own name, perpetually putting off “giving” her any share because of the way the investors want it, and besides, she’ll get half when they get married. That’s a two-fer, because it includes his dangling carrot of marriage, which he brings up to keep her in line but then ignores when she wants to set a date or talk about their relationship. <bangs head on desk>  If it isn't in writing, it didn't happen. 

5. Having a CFO leave because the CEO is cooking the books is bad. Not bothering to look, just accepting “he was too conservative” is sloppy, lazy business. Hello, Enron?  Worldcom? 

6. Your boyfriend fired you by email and told you to come in so you could work out your severance…and you believed him when he said the English-less janitorial staff threw away your portfolio of work?  <more head to desk> 

Frankly, after all that, I didn’t understand why Maddy hadn't kicked him to the curb years earlier. And I found it hard to believe that she had all that much business acumen or judgment of any type. I certainly wouldn’t want her running my Fortune 500 company (which is what she’s doing at the epilogue).

I think Barrett was trying to make the ex as sleazy as possible and show that he really did her wrong, so the reader could see that Maddy going off the deep end was an understandable reaction. But she made him so sleazy that I couldn’t respect Maddy for staying with him.   And what she showed me as a result of his character was in opposition to what she told me about Maddy.  In the end, what Barrett showed me about the bad guy overroad anything that she told me about the sterling qualities of the heroine.

The malaprop wannabe convert to Judaism? Too painful. “Bagels and lockets” was supposed to be cute but just made me cringe.

In retrospect, I’d downgrade this to a C-, but only if I was feeling charitable, or grading up because I like the book cover (mmm, brownies). Otherwise, a D+.

jmc_bks: (barbapapa)
The holiday weekend in books: not very felicitous.

1. Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair. CBA --> DNF. Which is a shame because I’m sure this is a good book. 

2. Under the Rose: An Ivy League Novel by Diana Peterfreund. C. I didn’t hear much about this follow up to Peterfreund’s debut, which was promoted all over the place. No budget? Or was she burned by the overexposure? (I thought it was average.) Also curious about the format change – from hardback to trade paperback. The book itself? Eh. I didn’t mind spending 3 hours on it; I’m glad it was a library book, though. It seemed predictable to me, and I have an inkling about where it is going in the future (also predictable). Mostly I just felt impatient with the narrator, who never struck me as being as smart as I was told she was. 

3. If You Could See Me Now by Cecilia Ahern. DNF. Pretty cover. But if I had known from the backblurb that Ivan was imaginary, I wouldn’t have bothered even borrowing it from the library. Imaginary friends are okay for children but scream mental health problems to me in adults. Requires a suspension of disbelief that I can’t manage. 

4. Murder in Chinatown by Victoria Thompson. C. Interesting glimpse of turn of the century Chinese-Irish community. Okay mystery. All of the personal stuff that is hinted at between Sarah Brandt and Det. Sgt. Malloy? Eh. In the indelicate words of my impatient grandfather: piss or get off the pot. UST shouldn’t be stretched out forever; my limit is about 4 or 5 books; this series is long past that point. 

5. The Food of Love by Anthony Capella. DNF – not because it was bad but because I realized that I’d already read it. Went looking for a copy after reading Capella’s The Wedding Officer; realized I’d already read it a couple of chapters in. Good but not really worth a re-read IMO. B-/C+ 

6. Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas. I actually have a bit to think about and to say about this book, but I’m saving it for Monday’s SBD. Unless I come up with something better for SBD, then I’ll post my opinion about Sugar Daddy earlier.

However, I did receive a Barbapapa book for Christmas! And a copy of Allende's YA book La ciudad de las bestias. And two Borders gift  cards.  Yay!
jmc_bks: (Default)
Drive by review...

Title: Girls of Riyadh

Author: Rajaa Alsanea

Copyright: 2007 for the English translation and publication; originally published in Arabic in 2005

Why did I pick it up? I read a review in The Economist (part admiring, part dismissive) and decided to pick up a copy.

Did I like the cover? No, the cover art/design would’ve put me off picking up a copy if I hadn’t read a review already – I thought it was a bit tacky.

Summary: Through the medium of a yahoo group, an anonymous Saudi woman of the upper “velvet” class narrates the lives and searches for love of four “fictional” young women. Her intros include snips of information about the feedback that she gets from readers and about her preferences in lipstick, etc. The cast of characters includes: Michelle, a Saudi-American who doesn’t quite fit in; Gamrah, who marries first but not happily; Lamees, the medical student who bounces around trying to figure out what she wants; and Sadeem, who is rejected by one suitor and strung along by another.

What did I think?   If the glimpse into the in-some-ways very sequestered lives of wealthy Saudi women is accurate, I can see why the book caused a stir when it was published in Saudi Arabia. Having said that, most of the contents were pretty average chick lit; the only difference was the culture in which it was set.

Perhaps it is simply my western outlook, but I had a very hard time feeling sympathetic to Gamrah, who seemed to make little effort to earn or work toward her own happiness. She was utterly dependent on her family and her husband, and although she wasn’t happy, she didn’t make any effort to change that. She didn’t deserve the poor treatment she received, but she also never really stood up for herself. The other three were more sympathetic, in that they weren’t just going through the motions while waiting for an arranged marriage that would bring them their Princes Charming.

GoR is not a romance, it is chick lit, so I didn’t expect HEA for everyone…but it felt unfinished to me. Not because I needed to know if Michelle ever figured herself out or if Ganmah ever remarried, but because it seemed to stop in an awkward place.

I liked the narrative style, with interruptions and asides from the narrator in the form of email. The language itself didn’t strike me as either particularly lyrical or especially clunky; I’m not sure what that says about the translator, though. I wish my Arabic was good enough to read an adult book so I could compare the two (I’m only able to stumble through kids’ books, elementary ones at that).

New to me author?   Yes. I think this may have been her debut, also.

Keeper? Nope, it was a library book.

Anything else to say?  I was trying to figure out how to do a dueling review of Girls of Riyadh and The Saffron Kitchen, because they both said something about women in the Middle East and their positions in Islamic societies, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it right. And frankly, after I thought about it, I decided that it would be like comparing Sex in the City to a Barbara Samuels WF book ; the fact that the two books include underlying themes about the social position of women doesn't mean that the books themselves have anything else in common.  Apples and oranges. 
jmc_bks: (Book on table)
I've read a bunch of books in the past week or so, some good, some not so much.  The slump, I think she is over!

jmc_bks: (flaming june)
I’ve heard such good things about it. And the premise seemed interesting, a meta-romance, I think it's called, with the narrator entering the world of romance reading and writing. Keishon, in case you’re blog-hopping, I’m not wondering why so many others love it and I don’t.  I just don’t -- there’s no accounting for taste, and this book just doesn’t suit mine at the moment.

Another book with an interesting premise that just didn’t hold my attention. This is the second Bird book to do so, the first being The Flamenco Academy which was too W/F for me. I’ve got a couple of other books, The Mommy Club and Alamo House, TBR, but I think I’ll be posting them to my swap group or PBS.
jmc_bks: (star fort kinsale)
Has anyone read Whitney Gaskell's Testing Kate? I liked Gaskell's Pushing 30 and thought her follow up book, True Love and Other Lies was good too...but I hated Me, Myself and I, in part because of the choppiness and perspective shifts. So I'm waiting to see what others think but haven't found any reviews.
jmc_bks: (title)
Elite Eli University junior Amy Haskel never expected to be tapped into Rose & Grave, the country’s most powerful – and notorious – secret society. She isn’t rich, politically connected, or . . . well, male. So when Amy receives the distinctive black-line invitation with the Rose & Grave seal, she’s blown away. Could they really mean her?

Whisked off into an initiation rite that’s a blend of Harry Potter and Alfred Hitchcock, Amy awakens the next day to a new reality and a whole new set of “friends” – from the gorgeous son of a conservative governor to an Afrocentric lesbian activist whose society name is Thorndike. And that’s when Amy starts to discover the truth about getting what you wish for. Because Rose & Grave is quickly taking her away from her familiar world of classes and keggers, fueling a feud, and undermining a very promising friendship with benefits. And that’s before Amy finds out that her first duty as a member of Rose & Grave is to take on a conspiracy of money and power that could, quite possibly, ruin her whole life. (Bookflap summary © Diana Peterfreund, Delacorte Press)
Review follows. )
jmc_bks: (star fort kinsale)
LibraryThing is my new favorite website. I found it originally via Rosina Lippi's blog. I added a whole bunch of books from my library -- with many more to go. I really like the widget that posts random bookcovers from your library . . . except the javascript doesn't work in Live Journal. So I've posted it to my blog over at blogspot . . . which gets very little traffic (intentionally so). According to a note at LibraryThing, they are working on a widget that will be compatible with LJ.

Short book report:

To the Tower Born by Robin Maxwell. Tale of what really happened to the two princes in the Tower, with an alternate bad guy in lieu of Richard III. Narrated alternately by Queen Bessie, sister of the two princes and wife of Henry VII (Tudor), and Nell Caxton, daughter of William Caxton, printer/publisher of books translated into English. Liked it lots, thanks to Jay who posted about it a while back. B

The Younger Man by Sarah Tucker. Published by RDI, the title and back blurb make this sound like chick lit. But it's not, it is very much Women's Fiction; the romance is a very small piece of the story; the reader spends a great deal more time with the heroine's friends, daughter, esthetician (sp?), and memories of her defunct marriage. Got the feeling that the heroine didn't really like men; she seemed to have no respect for them. I know, there is no black/white, just shades of grey, but the men in the novel were none of them particularly charming or likeable. C-.
jmc_bks: (title)
Finished reading Beth Kendrick’s Exes and Ohs, which I enjoyed. It is a 2005 chick lit book that, if I had read in time, would probably have given If Andy Warhol Had A Girlfriend serious competition for my vote for Best Chick Lit in the AAR poll.

Exit the groom...

Child psychologist Gwen Traynor has learned the hard way that "perfect" men aren't always what they seem. After being dumped the night before her wedding, she's understandably wary of diving back into the dating pool. But when she meets Alex Coughlin, she's convinced her luck is changing. He's smart, handsome, funny -- an ideal rebound guy. She doesn't intend to fall in love with him, but scintillating dates and mind-blowing physical chemistry have a way of winning a girl over.

Enter the ex...

Just as things are heating up with Alex, Gwen meets her newest patient -- a precocious preschooler whose chaotic soap opera-actress of a mother, Harmony, sounds an awful lot like one of Alex's crazy ex-girlfriends. Mostly because she is one of Alex's crazy ex-girlfriends. Unfortunately for Gwen, Harmony has a secret that plunges them all into a real-life daytime drama, complete with sex, lies, and Vegas elopements. With Harmony determined to reunite with Alex and Gwen's ex-fiancé begging for a second chance, only one thing is certain:
New loves and old flames are an explosive combination.

Actually, the hook for me wasn’t even the back blurb, it was the tag line on the front: Mr. Perfect’s past is about to ruin her future.

Gwen first meets Alex Coughlin on a very bad day: she’s in rumpled track pants, running late for a meeting with her academic advisor, having just run into her ex-fiance, and she’s basically having a meltdown. In a fit of frustration, she tosses her uncharged cellphone into the street, where it is run over. Alex witnesses cellphone destruction and stops to talk to her. Turns out that he recognizes her from a trustee tour of the clinic in which she is doing research. After rescuing her from her meeting, they have a good first date. Because of the meltdown he witnessed, Gwen explains about the ex-fiance and the dumping; Alex tells her about his last serious relationship, with a soap opera actress that he was thinking about proposing to when he caught her cheating.

Alex is a financial analyst, a nice guy with a desire to have a Leave it to Beaver family: house in Colorado, SAHW, multiple children. While thinking his dreams are deluded and doomed to disaster, Gwen decides that he’ll be a good rebound guy. But after the first official date, it turns out that she can’t use him to erase her ex, because she likes Alex. Their relationship develops fairly rapidly, but it’s clear that they have a lot in common. Kendrick shows (not tells) this with the stuff they do together and with conversations about tv, humor and other things they have in common (or not).

Enter Harmony, mother of Leo, who turns out to be Alex’s ex. Leo is having some behavioral issues, so he’s getting therapy. In the course of taking the family history, etc., Gwen learns that Leo’s dad isn’t around - because Harmony never told Leo’s dad that she was pregnant and they broke up in an ugly way. Harmony is fairly flaky and belongs to a New Age Cult that among its other tenets, does take the family role seriously. So she decides that it is time to tell Leo’s father about him. You can see what’s coming, can’t you?

Alex does not take the news well at first. After getting over the shock, his immediate instinct is to Do The Right Thing, to attempt to make a family. Gwen, of course, has mixed emotions. As a child psychologist, she believes that a stable home and family is the best thing for Leo, but does it have to be with Alex? She turns Leo over to another psychologist and tries to take a step back from being involved in the Harmony-Leo-Alex family experiment.

Despite her attempt to step back from them, Harmony and Leo and Alex keep appearing in her life. Gwen can’t go forward and she can’t go back, and is back to feeling as bad or worse than when the ex-fiance dumped her.

I really liked that Kendrick’s characters seem real. They all have good qualities and bad, behave well sometimes and poorly other times. Leo is a normal 5 year old, neither angelic nor demonic. Gwen is a nice person, but she doesn’t let people walk all over her; her original goal with Alex and her treatment of another character, Paul, are not so admirable, but most of the time she has good intentions. Alex has valid reasons for his dreams of a perfect family, even if he is kind of selfish about Gwen's role in all of this. [Stay friends? Sure, he gets hot wife and cool-gal-pal on the side, while she's stuck mooning over a guy she can't have. Great for him but not good for Gwen at all.] Harmony really does want to be a good mom and build a family for Leo, even if she is shallow, vain, and self-centered. I had a hard time disliking her, although I wanted to because of something she did near the end of the book.

The pacing was very well done and no part of the book dragged. The plot of the book is over a fairly short period of time, and the pacing and tone matched the fast passage of time in the book. It was a fairly quick read. I liked Kendrick’s style/voice, so I’ll probably pick up her other book the next time I see it at the bookstore. And I liked that her message wasn't that you shouldn't try to Do The Right Thing, but that the Right Thing may not be what you think it is and may not be the traditional RT.

My only knocks: the Vegas interlude was not needed and was a little distracting; I get that Kendrick was using it as a mechanism for Gwen to be living alone and be okay with herself, but why not just have the roommate move out or get married? Why have all of these unrelated people show up in Vegas? It reminded me of an episode of Friends. The epilogue, while nice, was also unnecessary. I felt like the books could have ended without it and I would not have missed it. Second knock: the point of view is first person, but Gwen’s sudden acceptance of her life/situation was very abrupt, with little or no lead in or development. She goes from being miserable to being okay with everything without any reflection on screen, so to speak.

The back blurb is a little misleading because the ex-fiance makes only two brief appearances, once at the beginning and once near the end. He does want to get Gwen back, but that is a very small part of the plot.

All in all, a pretty good book, so EAO gets an A- from me.
jmc_bks: (Default)
To begin, let me first acknowledge that I do read and enjoy books that are purported to be chick lit.

So why bitch about it? Well, my first gripe is the name "chick lit." It seems vaguely derrogatory to me, in the same way that "chick flick" is. Guys use that to classify a group of films that they think are sort of beneath them, and I kinda feel like that's the same thing tha publishers, reviewers and readers are doing to those of us who read these trade paper back sized books about young, urban women. Wouldn't the phrases "dick lit" and "dick flick" be considered a little offensive? But not the feminine alternative? Why not? Is this another case of taking a slur (of sorts) and subverting it, refusing to accept offense? Or am I reading too much into it, and calling a someone a "chick" isn't offensive to most women?

My next gripe: I think the writers and publishers of much of the recent chick lit are writing down to us as readers, dumbing us down. We (and they) are capable of putting better stuff in chick lit books, but they keep sticking to the tried and true, which has fans but also a lot of antifans. A lot of recent chick lit seems to be about shallow 20-30 somethings who live in the city (any city, but often NYC or London, depending on author/publisher), are clothing and shoe obsessed, and are underemployed, marking time in a deadend job with an abusive boss. [Devil Wears Prada, anyone?] Two books that I read recently that are chick lit with suspense were very good...but even those heroines were fashion-obsessed [The Givenchy Code and The Manolo Matrix]. When did owning a pair of $475 thongs become the symbol for coolness? There has got to be a better way of demonstrating youth, vitality, hipness, whatever you want to call it, without making clothing and shoes the main characteristic of a heroine. And why stick the supposedly smart heroines in a deadend job? Yes, we all pay dues with sucky jobs when we are young, but how many assistant editors at It magazine can there be? How many PR/ad goffers who aspire to the leadership position of the marketing group? How many people truly graduate with degrees in the liberal arts w/o recognizing that they need a plan for future employment that relies on more than their good looks or their parents' bank account? Seriously. I don't have to agree with everything that the heroine does or says, but I have to at least think she's got a plan (or is trying to get one together) and is not being TSTL...and buying shoes instead of paying your rent or staying in a job where your ideas are stolen and you are harassed count as TSTL to me.

I've read that the mother of chick lit is Bridget Jones' Diary. Or maybe Sex in the City. Haven't read either of them, although I've caught SitC reruns on TBS. The first chick lit book I ever knowingly read was Rita Ciresi's Pink Slip, which was set in NY in 1985. Ciresi managed to show the life and growth of a young urbanite, dealing with her family, her job, and a work romance, all without there being any significant amount of time spent on clothes or shoes. There were much bigger issues to address, like AIDS, death in her family, taking a step back from the brink of the mess she was about to become on several levels. If Ciresi could do that, why can't other writers? [Note: While I loved PS, I would not recommend the follow up, published 5 or 6 years later, but set in 10+ years later, Tell Me Again Why I Married You. It's WF, and not so uplifting WF at that.]

So, chick lit books that I've enjoyed:
Mean Season
If Andy Warhol Had A Girlfriend
Pushing 30
Imaginary Men
Starting Over at Square Two
The Givenchy Code
The Manolo Matrix
...these last two despite their use of the fashionista as heroine.

Do you have any recommendations for me?
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I read a review of Imaginary Men online; I can’t remember where, so I cannot send an email full of gratitude to the reviewer, but will post them here: Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is my first A of 2006.

Lina Ray has a knack for pairing up perfect couples as a professional matchmaker in San Francisco, but her well-meaning, highly traditional Indian family wants her to get married. When her Auntie Kiki introduces Lina to the bachelor from hell at her sister’s wedding in India, Lina panics and blurts out, “I’m engaged!” Because what’s the harm in a little lie?

Lina Ray is an woman caught between two cultures. At her sister’s wedding, she makes up a fiancé to put off her Auntie Kiki, who wants to introduce her to an eligible bachelor who reminds Lina of an Indian Pee Wee Herman. Shortly thereafter, she encounters an interesting man by the name of Raja Prasad. Their encounter is brief, but he sticks in her mind, so when her aunt bugs her for a name, Lina says, “Raja.” In order to make sure all is proper, Auntie Kiki goes to the astrologer with Lina’s birth information and that of the fake Raja. Disturbingly, the results are vague. Auntie Kiki then decides that she must come to the US to inspect the fiancé, and to be sure that he is right for Lina. Lina’s parents, while less pushy than Auntie Kiki, are equally relieved to hear that their oldest daughter is engaged once again. You see, Lina was once engaged to wonderful Nathu, who died in a car accident.

Back in the States, Lina begins a campaign to find a man to live up to the imaginary one that she told her family about. While acting as a professional matchmaker, she also tries to matchmake for herself, with little luck. At the same time, her imaginary man (not the fiancé, but the one who lives with her and used to resemble Nathu) has begun to resemble Raja. The real Raja appears in San Francisco for business and family reasons: he wants Lina to find a proper Indian wife for his younger brother, Dev.

When Raja appears on the scene, Lina is prepared not to like him, despite his good looks and charm: a prince, CEO of the family business, well-to-do, semi-engaged to a princess, picking out the wife for his younger brother with very high standards without his brother’s input or consent merely because the auspicious date for his brother’s wedding is approaching. But as they spend time together, it is clear that Raja is trying to do what he thinks is best for his family. He wants someone (not only for his brother but for himself as well) who will fit into his family and with whom he can share his life in India. I’m not sure I can explain exactly how it happened, but I went from not liking Raja very much to liking him a great deal. Banerjee did a very good job of showing, rather than telling, that Raja is a good person, despite the initial interview in Lina’s office.

Of course, eventually Lina’s imaginary fiancé becomes a problem: gossip reaches Raja, who is offended on a couple of levels. First that Lina did not tell him, and second on her behalf that her fiancé should travel and leave her so often. But worse is to come when she has to tell him the truth, that there is no fiancé at all.

While her personal life is going nowhere, Lina’s professional life is foundering as well. Normally a very successful matchmaker, none of her clients or their matches are working out.

Ultimately, Lina gathers the courage (with some encouragement from Raja) to tell her family the truth and explain how one little lie got away from her.

The title Imaginary Men refers to several things, I think: the fiancé Lina invented; the imaginary man who lives with her, looking first like Nathu and then later like Raja; the men she dates imagining that they can become the fiancé she invented; the man she imagined that Nathu had been; and the man Lina imagines Raja to be before she gets to know him.

At first glance, the plot of this book seems like a typical chick lit scenario with a heroine creating a boyfriend to save face, but it was more than that, I thought. In addition to trying to work her way out of a lie, Lina is trying to figure out where it is that she belongs in the world. Although she was born in India, she is thoroughly American in many ways. She drinks cha and eats samosas, but she doesn’t speak Bengali and barely cooks. Trips to India are expensive and typically vacation-like; she feels alien there sometimes and alien in the US sometimes.

Normally I would point to particular things that I liked about a book to back up the grade, but in this case, I liked everything. The characters are very well done (although Auntie Kiki was a little bit of a caricature), the book flows smoothly, etc. Ultimately, this book gets an A grade because Banerjee makes me care about what happens to Lina, makes me hope she can somehow reconcile the Indian and American pieces of herself, makes me hope that off-scene she eventually gets her HEA.


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December 2011

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