Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Undomestic Goddess

Title: The Undomestic Goddess
Author: Sophie Kinsella
Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Pages: 371

Samantha Sweeting is a highly stressed attorney working for one of the best law firms in London. She has been working her whole life to become a partner at Carter Spink. On the day the firm is set to announce her partnership, she discovers that she has made a mistake that will cost one of the firm's clients millions of pounds. Suffering from a meltdown, Samantha walks out of the office and gets on a train to... well, she's not sure. She simply got off the train with a group of travellers without even thinking about where she was. When she stopped at a house to ask for directions, she was mistaken as an applicant for the housekeeping position. The owners love her and before she knows it, she has accepted the postion. The trouble is, Samantha can't even turn on her own oven or iron a shirt, much less take care of an entire house. Yet, through hard work and the help of some local people, she learns how to sew on a button, how to make bread, and how to work that stupid, high-tech washing machine. Things are going great for her as she learns her new skills and also finding love and warmth that she had never felt before. Yet, her past mistake is starting to catch up to her and she won't be able to hide who she truly is for much longer.

I feel that I should admit that I am really not a fan of this genre. I've never really been interested in reading books about Women's Lives and Relationships. Yet, in spite of myself, I actually enjoyed The Undomestic Goddess. Yes, it was full of cliches we've all come to expect in these novels: the hard-working, put-upon heroine, her vapid, career-oriented foil, the crazy and spontaneous best friend, and the hunky love interest. However, there was something more to this book that grabbed me at the very beginning. I actually identified with Samantha.

In the opening scene, she is trying to use a spa gift certificate in an attempt to relieve some stress from her job. Except she can't leave her job behind. Despite taking the morning off of work, she has snuck her cell phone and her Blackberry into the massage room and it turns out that she needed to as her boss calls her into work for a meeting that was pushed up. While my job isn't nearly as high-stress as hers, I can relate to her situation as I also get frequent calls from my office when I take a day off. Again, her life is far more excessive than mine, but I can relate to it nonetheless. I also felt a great deal of empathy for her in regards to her relationship with her family. They are all high-powered people who are also workaholics and don't really have time for anything but their jobs (and that includes Samantha's birthday). This is really the crux of the novel. Kinsella created a character that women could identify with or at least feel some empathy for. The entire book revolves around Samantha and her struggles and a book like this would fail the reader if he or she did not care for or about the heroine.

As a woman who wants a career, there are some disconcerting themes running throughout the novel. Outside of Samantha, the only women we see who had or were working towards a career were selfish, rude, controlling, and kind of bratty. The most likeable and happiest woman was the local woman who taught Samantha how to cook, sew, and clean. So, there seems to be this idea running through the novel that women are happier doing "domestic" work and are kinder and warmer towards other people than those who pursue a career. The feminist in me kind of growled at that. Yet, it is also very clear that Samantha's employer, a woman of leisure, is unfulfilled with just going shopping and getting her nails done. She comes alive when talking to Samantha about the business she and her husband built from the ground up and all the work she put into it before they sold it. She again comes alive when she takes on a charitable luncheon. As the story continued, it seemed to become clearer that Kinsella's statement isn't really that women are happier doing domestic work, but that everyone should do what makes them happy. Not that women can't have careers, but that everyone (women and men) shouldn't let the pressures of what everyone else wants from them affect what they do in life.

I think many women would enjoy this book if they're looking for a nice, quick read. It definitely strikes me as the kind of book one would read while on vacation or simply as an escape. Those who enjoy reading Janet Evanovich, Jane Green, or Helen Fielding would probably enjoy The Undomestic Goddess.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Haunting of Hill House

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publishing Co.: Viking Penguin, Inc.
Pages: 246

The Haunting of Hill House follows the story of four people, Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague, as they attempt to uncover actual evidence of a haunting in the old, abandoned mansion called Hill House. While the beginning of their stay only seems to involve odd and annoying encounters with mysterious noises and doors that close on their own, but the house is waiting and plotting. As their stay continues, the house begins to release its sinister powers and will not stop until it claims one of them as its own.

The Haunting of Hill House
is a classic in the horror genre and with good reason! This book grabbed me at the opening paragraph. There is something so chilling about the line: "Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone." With just that one line, Jackson sets the eerie atmosphere and creates an unmistakable sense of foreboding.

It is Jackson's ability to create atmosphere that makes this book such a worthwhile read. More impressively, she creates several different tones within this Gothic horror story. When Eleanor sets out on her journey to Hill House, her near giddy excitement at finally doing something in her life after years of caring for her ailing mother is palpable. Anyone who has set out on a new adventure or gone some place they never have before can understand Eleanor's happiness and Jackson enhances this with wonderfully descriptive words and whimsical daydreams. She also includes some elements of humor with Dr. Montague's crass wife and her laughable dips into spiritualism. Yet, despite these lighthearted images, Jackson never strays too far from that inescapable sense of doom. Throughout the story, she leaves little reminders to the reader that something is wrong and that all will not end well.

I would recommend this book to those who are in the mood for a meaty novel to sink their teeth into. This is not a fast read. In fact, the text is quite dense. There is so much dialogue, interior monologue, and description, that it takes a while to wade through everything. Yet, every word is so important and the text's density makes this book work.

I would also recommend this to anyone who is in the mood for "a good scare," but prefers subtle scares over graphic violence. Indeed, readers who enjoy graphically violent horror novels could also enjoy this story. I am not implying that they would not. However, for those who do not want such an explicit read but definitely want to enjoy a horror story would find this book to be a welcome solution.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Everywhere That Mary Went

Title: Everywhere That Mary Went
Author: Lisa Scottoline
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Pages: 356

Everywhere That Mary Went is a thriller with just the right mix of mystery and legal drama. Lisa Scottoline firmly establishes a realistic legal setting at the beginning of the novel with a painful-for-characters-involved courtroom scene with a bully for a judge, a smug lawyer for the plaintiffs and our protagonist Mary DiNunzio. Scottoline used this scene to demonstrate to the reader (me) just how talented and determined Mary is to great effect. In just the opening scene I was privvy to Mary's inner thoughts and was able to quickly feel that I could connect with this character. She is a very intelligent woman who is ambitious about succeeding in the legal world both by winning her cases and making partner in her law firm. Yet, Scottoline also showed just how conflicted Mary is about the ruthlessness that is sometimes required to win her firm's cases. She has created a very full and realistic character in Mary.

Her character development for Mary is excellent throughout the novel. As the mystery of who is stalking Mary unfolds, I was able to see Mary as resourceful, strong, scared, confused, suspicious, guilt-ridden, and confident at many different times in the story. The mysterious notes, the strange car following her, and the anonymous phone calls brought so much tension to the story and Scottoline used these things as a means to also explore Mary's thoughts and feelings towards the death of her husband, religion, her career path, and her relationships with those she loves.

While some might consider this novel to be a by-the-numbers legal thriller, I found that there were several elements throughout that makes this novel stand out as a truly enjoyable thriller. I think those who enjoy legal thrillers, quick-paced stories, well-developed characters, and/or mysteries would find this to be a very satisfying read. However, I would hesitate to recommend it to the very conservative readers as it does not shy away from issues such as homosexuality, religious doubt, adult language, violence, and other adult themes that might affect a very conservative reader's enjoyment of the novel. In other words, if a patron says that he or she doesn't want to read anything with a lot of sex, violence, or adult language, then this book is not for them. For everyone else, this book is a sound suggestion.