Christina’s Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho


Christina’s Review: The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist - 10th Anniversary Edition by Paulo Coelho
Published by Harper Collins on 2009-10-13
Genres: Body, Mind & Spirit, Fiction, General, Inspiration & Personal Growth, Literary, Spirituality
Pages: 208
Format: eBook
Goodreads
three-half-stars
Paulo Coelho's enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

April’s VA Wine and Book Club pick was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. A couple of the club members have read this book before and enjoyed. When starting the book myself, I met many others who have either read the book themselves (for fun or through school), or who have heard of the book and were interested in talking about it. The book was a quick read (I finished it in my short metro commute over a few days) and it was fast-paced. I am still trying to decide how I feel about the book – I have mixed feelings and cannot decide if I totally liked it – but overall I thought it was worth the read and a good lingering-thinker.

The story has been translated from Portuguese into dozens of different languages (I read the English translation). Coelho introduces the reader to Santiago, a shepherd in Spain who wants to travel and explore the country. This shepherd meets a Gypsy who helps to decipher his dreams and sends him off with his vision of a buried treasure he will find in the pyramids of Egypt. Soon after meeting the Gypsy, Santiago then meets a King who talks of life and this same destination. In pursuit of this treasure, Santiago then meets the alchemist who helps to guide him along his journey. The reader has the pleasure of following this boys journey has he seeks the meaning of life and buried treasure. It is a tale of exploration, understanding, diligence, dreams and of following one’s heart. The end features a nice twist I found humorous and profound at the same time.

If you do read this book, I recommend either reading it on as an e-book so you can highlight and mark pages or buying the book and keeping a sticky pad and pencil by you to mark pages and keep notes as you read. You’ll want to own this book because it is stock-full of life quotes. These quotes ranged from motivational to “follow-your-dreams” and other parts of life.

One lesson I took away to share was to never loose focus or abandon your dreams. The story of Santiago read fast and was almost exhausting as he followed this life-lesson. I am still pondering the author’s intentions with this book… Was it meant to be a satire? Was it supposed to be philosophical? Did he pile on the quotes as a life’s lessons book? Was it just supposed to be a fun read?

I am very much looking forward to the book club’s discussion on this read. I think this book makes a great club pick because it was short and posed a lot of questions that could be answered differently. The book’s ending and purpose is also up for debate. I cannot wait until our April meeting.

pj - christina

 

Christina’s Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas


I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Christina’s Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal ThomasThe Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas
Published by OTHER PressLLC on 2015-07-07
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Pages: 329
Format: ARC
Goodreads
four-stars
Set in the French and Spanish courts of the eighteenth century, this novel is based on a true story about the fate of two young princesses caught in the intrigues and secrets of the moment   Philippe d'Orléans, the regent of France, has a gangrenous heart--the result of a life of debauchery, alcohol, power, and flattery. One morning in 1721, he decides to marry eleven-year-old Louis XV to the daughter of Philippe V of Spain, who is only four. Orléans hopes this will tie his kingdom to Spain. But were Louis to die without begetting an heir--the likeliness of which is greatly increased by having a child bride--Orléans himself would finally be king. Orléans tosses his own daughter into the bargain, the twelve-year-old Mlle de Montpensier, who will marry the Prince of Asturias, the heir to the Spanish throne.   The Spanish court enthusiastically agrees and arrangements are made. The two nations trade their princesses in a grand ceremony in 1722, making bonds that should end the historical conflict. Nothing turns out as expected.

Before beginning, I wanted to note I received this review from the publisher, The Other Press, which has no effect on my review. This book is set to be released in the United States on July 7, 2015.

The Exchange of Princesses is a historical fiction by Chantal Thomas set in France and Spain, 1720s. The main characters of focus include: Louis XV (to become King of France) and Luis I (to become King of Spain); and the princesses Mariana Victoria de Borbón (to become the Queen-infanta of France) and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans (to become Queen of Spain).

The story is one of: politics, scandal, love, hope, passiveness, deceit, and a touch of disease thrown in during this tumultuous time of history in the two countries. The Exchange of Princesses started off so politically with the marrying off of children (the two princesses; one of whom was only four years old) and the crossing of the border between France and Spain to exchange the two of them. The children did not seem to grasp the full meaning of this exchange at first. It was so interesting to compare the attitudes of the children with those of the parents during the performance of the exchange.

It took me a couple of chapters to adjust to the writing style (it is a book that has been translated by John Cullen from the French) and to pair out the characters. It may have helped if I had a background in French or French history from this period to help with the titles and small formalities, but after a few short chapters in, that was no longer an issue for me. I found myself enjoying the book and especially looked forward to reading the chapters on the infanta, whom I had grown attached to.

It was startling for me to discover how protected these princesses were from the outside world, which added to the comprehension of the politics behind their marriages off. In one chapter on the infanta, it was noted in her travels that she would cover her eyes from the outside world of her carriage because “[t]he outside world is too ugly.” (61) This line really caught me and caused me to linger for a moment on the page. Leading up to the exchange of princesses itself, it was so ceremonious. Within seconds, it was over as the princesses crossed each others’ path over the border of the two countries.

Continuing the read, Thomas alternated chapters between Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth. Following each character and their interactions with their princesses (soon to become Kings) and their new surroundings, I started to sense the difference in relationship perceptions of the princesses and their future kings. For example, when reading the infanta’s chapters I sensed the child-innocence and the little girl’s infatuation with her future husband and King. She was the youngest of the four (and her betrothed was eleven).

As the story progressed, I discovered the relationships and behaviors were not all that was hoped for in each relationship. Could two people in a political arrangement come to love each other? Would the age difference have any effect? How would these exchanges affect the futures of the two countries? For myself and other readers, did one feel sympathy for the two princesses, the kings, or the couples in general? The story was a fascinating one. Thomas did a wonderful job transitioning between the two princesses and their developing situations. I found myself growing attached to the book as I continued to read and infatuated with how the story would end and what would happen to the two relationships.

Outside of the formalities, the writing was different – more straight-forward and to the story. Whether this was with the translator or the original story, I cannot say. But I found it easy to play the story out in my head and attach myself to certain characters. (I may have almost cried at one point too…) In the end, there was a note on the sources from the author, including the fact that “[a]ll of the extracts and correspondences quoted in this book are authentic.” I appreciated this addition and found the history-lover in me grow all the more attached with the book. One thing I would have liked to have seen, although I do know I had the “Advance Uncorrected Proof” copy that was not for sale, was the addition of footnotes. To see where these sources came from and piece out what exactly were the authentic quotes would have been more enjoyable and helpful for me. Following this author’s note was also a brief history of the main characters (the two Kings and two Queens). I loved this addition as well – it allowed for both a good history refresher as well as a satisfying end to their stories. Do not read these until you have finished reading the book itself or the story will be spoiled.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing style took me a moment to adjust to, but once I did I found it difficult to put the book down. It was a tale of politics and arrangements, differences in emotions and in how things can be unpredictable and be changed. I have already recommended this book to two friends I think would enjoy the story very much. I cannot wait for the book to be released in the U.S. this July and see what others have to say. For me, it was a captivating, refreshingly different, and a unique read I will continue to recommend for both the historical fiction lover and the casual reader.

pj - christina

Michelle’s Review: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon


Michelle’s Review: Voyager by Diana GabaldonVoyager by Diana Gabaldon
Published by Delta Trade Paperbacks on 2001-08-01
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary, Romance
Pages: 870
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
three-stars
In this rich, vibrant tale, Diana Gabaldon continues the story of Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser that began with the now-classic novel Outlander and continued in Dragonfly in Amber. Sweeping us from the battlefields of eighteenth-century Scotland to the exotic West Indies, Diana Gabaldon weaves magic once again in an exhilarating and utterly unforgettable novel.... Their love affair happened long ago by whatever measurement Claire Randall took. Two decades before, she had traveled back in time and into the arms of a gallant eighteenth-century Scot named Jamie Fraser. Then she returned to her own century to bear his child, believing him dead in the tragic battle of Culloden. Yet his memory has never lessened its hold on her ... and her body still cries out for him in her dreams.When she discovers that Jamie may have survived, Claire must choose her destiny. And as time and space come full circle, she must find the courage to face what awaits her ... the deadly intrigues raging in a divided Scotland ... and the daring voyage into the dark unknown that lies beyond the standing stones.

*Because this is a review of a book in a series, there are some spoilers regarding the previous books in the series, not this one.*

At this point in the Outlander series, I’m becoming quite torn about them.

I was able to defend the series when I had already read the first one. Outlander was unlike anything else I had read at the time and I was definitely hooked. It was romance, it was adventure, historical fiction, and science fiction. It was basically everything without being too crazy.

Dragonfly in Amber was a struggle with France but I still enjoyed it and wanted to continue.

Now with Voyager it was back to being an adventure and it was still enjoyable, but now I have found myself having a hard time defending this book against those who call it drivel or far-fetched.

“Well, Jamie survived Culloden, and then he went and lived in a cave. But he kept living and then became a smuggler and now they’re dealing with pirates…”

There’s no way for it to not sound ridiculous. Which unfortunate because it’s still enjoyable book, it’s just no longer at the same level as the first book.

Another thing that detracted from my full enjoyment is the way the language seemed to skip to me. I know that I have the tendency to read paragraphs out of order, but I swear that too often I thought the characters were in one place only to learn that they were somewhere else. It was like certain details were missing.

All that said, I loved the return to high adventure and I went ahead and bought the next book in the series. Because I’m a sucker for Jamie (as he was manufactured to be irresistible).

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom


I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Michelle’s Review: Lucky Us by Amy BloomLucky Us by Amy Bloom
Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2014-07-29
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, Sagas
Pages: 272
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads
three-stars
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND O: THE OPRAH MAGAZINE“My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”So begins this remarkable novel by Amy Bloom, whose critically acclaimed Away was called “a literary triumph” (The New York Times). Lucky Us is a brilliantly written, deeply moving, fantastically funny novel of love, heartbreak, and luck.  Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.   With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine though a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. Filled with gorgeous writing, memorable characters, and surprising events, Lucky Us is a thrilling and resonant novel about success and failure, good luck and bad, the creation of a family, and the pleasures and inevitable perils of family life, conventional and otherwise. From Brooklyn’s beauty parlors to London’s West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species.

The beginning of this book left me with a smile and feeling like I could finish this book real fast.

The middle and end disproved my theory.

I did not finish it real fast. I don’t know whether to blame feeling tired or stressed or if it was really that I was losing interest in the book. The beginning seemed like it was a story about these two girls and their crazy antics. There was a connection there with the characters and while it felt a little far-fetched, it was okay.

But then I started getting confused as more characters were added to the story, and not just as secondary characters, but sometimes switching to their point of view. Time raced by and I started to feel a little more disconnected from most of the characters. When bad things happened, my emotional reaction was just ‘ok’, instead of actually experiencing it.

That’s not to say that the book wasn’t good–there is a certain art to the way it is written and type of slice of life (but with a definitive and conclusive ending) style that is atypical. My experience of the book was just that the middle to end was less tight at the beginning.

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor


I received this book for free from LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Michelle’s Review: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. TaylorSing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara Taylor
Published by Akashic Books on 2014-07-01
Genres: Family Life, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
Source: LibraryThing
Goodreads
four-stars
Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Nightopens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy. Owen, the girls' father, "turns to drink" and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is "off being saved" at a Billy Sunday Revival. Inspired by a haunting family story, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night blends real life incidents with fiction to show how grace can be found in the midst of tragedy.

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night treaded water to avoid becoming too dark but never broke the surface of being completely happy. True to its title, it remained balanced precariously above that water level that makes a sad symphony into complete darkness. Yes, I am calling this book a sad symphony.

And I mean that in a good way! The book follows a family that is surely being plagued by some bad luck, between the recent loss of their eldest daughter, the mother descending not just into a depression, but what could easily be called more than a little mentally disturbed, the father taking to the drink, which essentially leaves the remaining daughter an orphan. I don’t even have to try to defend how this book could be sad.

But what I can state is how the book stopped itself from descending too far down that depressive hole and instead managed to tell a story about the resiliency of people and the town. There were a lot of delicate layers in this book: the town’s preparations for Billy Sunday and religion in general, the mining industry, addiction, mental health, and family. These were all layered in such a way that it at no point felt preachy, or overdone. I think it benefited from a third person narrative with different chapters or sections from different characters’ perspectives.

So yes, the title could not have been a better fit for this book.

pj - michelle

Calvert’s Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord


Calvert’s Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois LelordHector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated on 2010
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 165
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
three-stars
A charming fable about modern life that has touched the hearts of more than two million readers worldwide. Following on the success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and already a worldwide sensation, Hector and the Search for Happiness finally comes to America, where readers will delight in its uplifting humor. As Hector travels from Paris to China to the United States, he keeps a list of observations about the people he meets, hoping to find the secret to happiness. Combining the winsome appeal of The Little Prince with the inspiring philosophy of The Alchemist, Hector's journey around the world and into the human soul is entertaining, empowering, and smile inducing-as winning in its optimism as it is powerful in its insight and reassuring in its simplicity.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a very unique dichotomy. It covers adult themes like depression and love vs. infatuation vs. obsession, but is written like a children’s book. At first this was cute and quirky and I liked it, but as the story [as it is much closer to a short story than anything else] progressed it seemed out of place. The sentences were very stilted in a See Spot Run sort of way. This exhausts and bores the reader, as Gary Provost exemplifies in his 5 word sentence quote here, it also seemed borderline inappropriate and condescending when Hector encountered such things as prostitutes, drug dealers, and emotionless sex [which was ever so charmingly referred to as ‘doing what people in love do’]. The book is a great example of telling not showing. Francois Lelord makes a great deal out of the fact that Hector truly cares about people and that’s why everyone likes him, but instead of allowing the reader to come to that conclusion through Hector’s actions it is simply stated, several times. In fact, it is often stated, then paired with Lelord completely glossing over conversations and interactions by summarizing them in a sentence. This gave me the impression that Hector didn’t actually listen to anyone he spoke to, and instead just knew how to appear like he listened. I ended up finding Hector self-centered and condescending, instead of innocent and likeable.

The results of the eponymous search for happiness are nothing revolutionary. The same overly simplified ‘life hacks’ one would find on Pinterest: happiness is caring for other people, is not comparing, etc. They are repeated a bit too often over the course of the incredibly tiny book for my liking, but done so in a way that you can skip over and not miss the story.

In the end, I think Hector and the Search for Happiness, along with the rest of Hector’s adventures, are best suited as coffee table or bathroom books. Something to occupy your mind and maybe a little thought provoking, but not particularly engaging. Since they are so short, they are easily finished in an hour or two, making them a decent beach read.

pj - calvert