February 21, 2013

Happier Bride: A Guide to Happiness and Planning Your Wedding by Minna Sithep

Happiness is one of the fundamental components for a truly memorable wedding. But, it is often overlooked because people assume happiness is a given. The truth is, happiness is an action. You must allow yourself to be happy and you must actively pursue happiness. 

Before I send friends and family into a tailspin of questions focused on why I'm reading a wedding planning book, let me say: I am not engaged. The engagement phase of my life doesn't seem too terribly far down the road, but I am contentedly not there yet, so don't freak out! However, I don't think any girl can be too prepared for their wedding and Mina Sithep's guide, Happier Bride, only proved that to me.

Happier Bride: A Guide to Happiness and Planning Your Wedding is truly what it says it is: a guide to happiness, a very basic idea in conjunction with weddings that sadly is often forgotten about during the frenzy of wedding planning. I'm sure there aren't many brides who start their trip to the altar by deciding, "This is NOT going to be a happy experience," but too often than not, it becomes the reality. What Sithep offers is more than just a wedding planning guide; she's more of a wedding coach who infuses you with positive energy throughout the entire process. Just when a task is completed and the bride is on to the next daunting wedding challenge, Sithep inserts some positive tips for persevering through the stress (like eating right and exercising) and offers pep talks that help the bride recenter on the important things. This constant thread of positive energy throughout her book sets Mina Sithep's guide apart from all the other books on the market. 

My favorite parts of the book included the idea of setting a personal mission statement to "help motivate you and keep you centered" (7) and also the emphasis to "make it work" rather than keep completely balanced throughout the wedding process. Utilizing these ideas alongside Sithep's cheerleading and direction in the book help a bride to maintain her focus. 

While this book contributes a great amount of encouragement throughout the process, I can't forget to mention that this is still a wedding planning guide and it delivers above and beyond in this department as well. Each chapter counts down to your wedding day so that you can focus on a certain chapter depending on how many months or weeks away you are from your wedding day. In these chapters Sithep breaks down the big things and the minute details you'll need to remember to make your day a dream come true. For example, Sithep gives a list of important questions to ask each vendor and tips for negotiating, even if you're not the negotiating type. She offers lists of websites for everything, from calligraphy to new wedding technology and everything in between. She also gives tips for things you might not think about, like to consider postage when choosing invitations or what should be in your thank-you card kit. Without this book it would be impossible to remember everything, especially for the bride trying to stay on budget; but with this book, Sithep makes it manageable to assemble a wedding of any shape and size. I especially liked the ideas on how to assemble the guest list and learning about Evernote

I'm really glad that I had the opportunity to read the Happier Bride wedding planning book before I entered into wedding planning, but if you're already on your way to the altar it's not too late to utilize everything this book has to offer. The concepts about staying positive throughout the book are great motivators even if you don't intend to plan a wedding in the future at all. You could also use the tips for planning pretty much anything! Rather than overwhelm, this book has excited me to enter into wedding planning some time in the future!

Bottom Line: If you plan on planning a wedding in the next 5 years, I highly recommend reading this book! The cost far outweighs the return you will get for making your wedding, or any event, easier to manage. This would also make a great gift! 5/5 stars!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

February 15, 2013

The Selection by Kiera Cass

I whipped my head back around, and there it was [on the television]. The picture of me just after I'd found out Aspen was saving up to marry me. I looked radiant, hopeful, beautiful. I looked like I was in love. And some idiot thought that love was for Prince Maxon
-from The Selection by Kiera Cass

Similar to The Hunger Games, The Selection uses a futuristic dystopian America to critique the flaws of American society today, most notably our obsession with voyeurism and reality television. While I know this specific critique is one of many, it's hard to resist comparing The Hunger Games to Survivor and similarly, The Selection to The Bachelor.

In the country of Illea, the prince chooses a wife by way of The Selection: a televised competition between 35 randomly selected young women spanning the eight social castes. The benefits of being chosen for The Selection are great: the selected get to live in the Illea Palace alongside the royal family, are trained to be royalty themselves, they are all courted by the prince and their families are handsomely rewarded with a check each week their daughters remain in the palace. Even the women who are dismissed and do not win the prince's hand in marriage gain an elevated social status in an otherwise immobile caste system. But for America Singer, none of that means anything in comparison to marrying Aspen, her secret love a caste below her. When America is chosen in The Selection it goes against everything she thinks she believes in. However, when Prince Maxon proves to be much more than she bargained for (in a good way), America finds herself torn between the different paths her future can take. The first in a series, I promise the ending will make you demand Kiera Cass give you her sequel, The Elite immediately since it doesn't come out until April (this review is my demand! Haha!)!!

I hate comparing every dystopian novel of this decade to The Hunger Games, but let's face it - most everyone is familiar with it enough as a comparison, whether they've read the series or not. I think that if THG was too graphic and gory for you, The Selection is a great, soft-and-sweet alternative. But that doesn't mean The Selection lacks depth. While romantic love is the engine that drives this story forward, Cass executes a love story without laying it on too thick or making it too unrelatably romantic. I was especially impressed that I was sucked into a love triangle when I'm so strongly opposed to buying into them. Let's just say The Vampire Diaries has nothing on Kiera Cass!

While there was a lot of love, there was also a fair share of commentary about deeper things, like America's current debt to China and the lack of funding in education systems. I really enjoyed the depth of background on this futuristic America Cass creates. I also liked that Cass wasn't afraid to make the Illean goverment impenetrable as we read about frequent attacks on the palace. I hope the sequel fleshes out the political struggle a little bit more so readers can learn more about the rebels and why they attack.

My only complaint might be the pedestal on which this book places finding love at such a young age; I mean, I'm 29 and I was obsessed with this love story like a lovestruck teenager (I read the book within 24-hours). I can only imagine the impact it would make on a romantically vulnerable 16 year old. However, I think this complaint is reconciled by the fact that America Singer isn't a damsel in distress: she's a strong, opinionated, compassionate and stubborn heroine that young girls can look to as a positive literary role model. I love the contrast between America and the other girls who try to change themselves depending on what Prince Maxon wants in a wife; America doesn't really change for anybody, yet she's not afraid of change on her own accord. I like that young adult authors are creating strong women, not afraid to love but also not afraid to be themselves.

Bottom Line: If you like dystopian young adult and you love romance, you have to read this! I highly recommend it in general to anyone who loves a good love story or even anyone who watches The Bachelor (I don't, for the record lol). 4.5/5 stars

February 8, 2013

The Promise by Danielle Steel

"Now let's make a promise. I promise never to forget what is here, or to forget what they stand for. Now you." She touched his hand, and he smiled down at her again. He had never loved her more. "And I promise... I promise never to say goodbye to you..." And then, for no reason in particular, they laughed. Because it felt good to be young, to be romantic, even to be corny.
-from The Promise by Danielle Steel

So the rumor is that when my mom was a teenager she read this book and it's where she got the idea to name me Danielle. I even have a copy of her original book and I'm pretty sure I read this book when I was a kid (yes, I had advanced taste in books when I was younger!). I found it on OverDrive and decided to give it another read now that I can better understand it. I have very mixed feelings about it. 

The Promise starts off as your typical rich boy/poor girl love story. Mike, weeks away from receiving his doctorate in Architecture, proposes to Nancy, a poor artist orphaned as a child, despite the strong disapproval of his cold, widowed mother who runs their family Architectural firm with an iron fist. Foreshadowing their tragic love story, Mike and Nancy make a promise to never forget about their love for each other. That same night, on their way to their wedding, they are involved in a terrible car accident leaving Mike in a coma and Nancy's face horribly disfigured. In an attempt to get rid of Nancy as amicably as possible, Mike's mother offers her a deal she can't refuse: she will pay for Nancy to relocate to San Francisco where the top facial reconstructive surgeon in the nation will spend years rehabilitating Nancy physically and emotionally. In return, Nancy must never contact Mike again. In hopes that Mike will remember their promise, Nancy takes the offer. 

Where do I even begin on how ridiculous this story is? Even though it's late-70's Danielle Steel (where everything is Architects and upper-class snooty matriarchs), I can't even wrap my head around how over-the-top this book is. First of all, I'm reading this more than 30 years after it was published and I don't think there is facial reconstructive surgery now that could transform Nancy's face into that of a supermodel within 18 months. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it would be front page news if it were possible and the Real Housewives of Everywhere would look a whole lot more natural. 

Let's say it was totally possible for Nancy to go from zero-to-Angelina with a couple surgeries; I am still annoyed that the girl takes ballet and gets a bangin' body, picks up a camera and is suddenly a pro, and sees a voice coach to change her voice. All of these things are just too easy to help transform her into a completely new person. While I understand that in the world of Danielle Steel voice coaches and art galleries are the norm, this makes the story so unrelatable. In the end I couldn't stand Nancy (or, Marie as she later changes her name!). I know she's been through a traumatic experience and for all intents and purposes she's a brave girl for dealing with it ultimately alone, but everything she does while rehabilitating is perfect and easy. She has no redeeming qualities other than being a sweet, boring artist. 

Mike on the other hand, who is told by his mother that Nancy died in the accident, is much more lovable. He throws himself into his work to avoid feeling, but it's inescapable how much he still loves Nancy and continues to mourn her. This makes Nancy's frustrations that Mike hasn't pursued her sound like a whiny baby, despite them being completely understandable (oh, the dramatic irony!).

The next paragraph contain mild spoilers, but honestly, you've probably already anticipated what I "spoil"!! This is your warning!! 

The most abruptly jarring point of the whole book is when Marion, Mike's cold and calculating mother (think Anjelica Huston in Ever After or heck, Anjelica Huston in Smash!) suddenly has a change of heart and wants to try to make things right. Sure, she doesn't have the guts to do it herself (most understandable part of the whole ordeal), but it's so quick that she changes, there's no slow realization of conscience that I think her personality change deserves. Her change of heart leads to what we all know was going to happen from the beginning: the reunion of Mike and Nancy/Marie, which is the most redeeming point of the whole book and even that falls flat. I must admit, I was giddy while reading this because it's what I had been waiting for throughout the whole book. Unfortunately this reunion only lasts a few pages and then the book suddenly ends without any indication of how things proceeded with Mike and Nancy/Marie. Although if it's anything like the rest of the book, I imagine they lived happily ever after with Mike's Mommy Dearest and had absolutely no psychological repercussions for their traumatic ordeal. 
-------------------- {end spoilers}--------------------

I'm not gonna lie, I didn't think I'd rip the book apart so much before I started this review!! While it has its atrocious short comings, this book is, after all, a love story and it will have any normal girl swooning and gushing in every chapter. I am not above that, I'll admit with some shame. I think I want to read another Danielle Steele book to see if they're all this far-fetched, especially considering I read her books regularly when I was 12! I guess I should be especially happy that my mom didn't name me Nancy or Marie! ;) 

Bottom Line: Read this if you want to laugh about a cheesy romance novel. If you're really interested in it, you can probably read the first 7 and the last 7 chapters to get the best of the story. »» ★ ★½ {out of 5}

February 1, 2013

Book Tour: The Second Daughter by J. Jeffrey

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Theodore’s support was essential those first weeks. And thus one would so dearly like to say—and Theodore did imagine himself saying to his one-day future biographer—that by means of his heroic support they were able to reach that happy ending; that after the trials and tribulations the new baby was finally to figure out what to do with her mother’s breasts, that those breasts were finally to figure out what to do with the new baby, and that they were all to start building their new life as a truly complete family of four auspiciously approaching the Age of Aquarius.
 Alas, that was not to be.
-from The Second Daughter by J. Jeffrey
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Publisher's Synopsis:
           You try turning out all right after you overhear your mother wishing you hadn’t been born.
            It had started out well. Umbrellas tangled. A storybook romance followed. A wonderful wedding. A beautiful, sweet first daughter. They were complete, a family, happy.
            And then they went and had another daughter.
            Her charming and witty father Theodore starts disappearing, then worse, starts coming back. Her once allegedly sweet older sister Regina angrily resents her, and the sisters are at constant war. Her mother Helen is so busy what-iffing about the life she might have had that she overlooks the life she is actually having. Everyone blames Debra for pretty much everything as the family slowly, then quickly, then one day explosively disintegrates. Along the way there are secrets and lies, heartbreaks and betrayals, plus the dramatic unexpected death of a central character at a pivotal moment. The now young woman finds herself living awkwardly alone with her embittered mother when the phone rings—and her mother’s secret past suddenly crashes back into the present.
            Their life may be about to change forever; or rather, perhaps, revert back to what it should have been all along.
            But not exactly because of that phone call, as it turns out.
            Because of the remarkable second daughter. For what Debra Gale has is unyielding determination. What she has is an irrepressible capacity to love. 
            And now at last what she has is a chance.
            The complex dynamics of a changing family. Mother, daughters, sisters, and the father who both divides and unifies them. That dramatic unexpected death, plus more than the ordinary amount of banana cream pie. Welcome to The Second Daughter: a funny but poignant, unusual but beautiful love story.

Review: The subject of "family" is so vast and complex, it gives authors endless material to explore and weave into stories for readers to consume. Large personalities alone are sufficient subjects for great novels; but when an author is able to examine the intricacies of familial relationships and uncover the layers of emotions coexisting on tipping scales between a cast of characters, that is where I am most impressed, intrigued and enriched as a reader. Furthermore, when a novel about family is well executed, all of the characters exhibit large enough personalities to entertain and carry a story because of their transparency and vulnerability as illustrated through their family experience. J. Jeffrey's novel The Second Daughter is a wonderful example of such a novel.

As with most novels about family, it's not big twists and turns that make them impressive, it's the attention to detail the author pays to the nuances and emotions that make up each character's individual experience. In The Second Daughter, every character (major and minor) exhibit large personalities because of the nuances Jeffrey develops through their experiences with each other. Parents Helen and Theodore jump off the page as a real couple because readers experience the simple, relatable details of their courtship and their relationship offers a transparent view into their individual psyches. The separate defining experiences of sisters Regina and Debra are stunning in their simplicity and capable of making the reader feel rage and sadness within a single page. Stories of sibling rivalry are some of the oldest ever told, but Jeffrey rejuvenates this novel with his layers of perfectly placed details, ideas, emotions and effects of another character's actions. At the end of the story you not only see how vividly the Gale family is painted, but you feel their experience.

While this novel is everything described in the above synopsis, it is also so much more. I feel that The Second Daughter can be broken into two parts: before Debra finds her place in her family and after. Without spoiling too much of the story, I was most entertained by Theodore, the father. I can't say he was my "favorite" character because almost everything he did made me angry and boiled my blood (In fact, the phrase, "He boils my blood!!" appears more than once in my reading notes). But it was because Theodore elicited so many emotions from me as a reader that caused me appreciate him so much as a character. Aside from him literally being the largest personality in the book, his ability to convince himself of his own self righteousness was as fascinating as it was appalling. (I must note, Theodore reminds me so much of my own father that I may have somewhat of a bias when relating to him.)

My favorite part of the book is when Helen tells her young daughter Debra, regarding bringing home animals, "You are not capable of caring for them. Loving something is not the same as taking care of it" (87). This is one of my favorite examples of Jeffrey's skill as a writer because Helen shows a lack of love for Debra. In contrast to Debra and her animals, Helen shows an incapacity to love her daughter and caring for her is not the same as loving her. I think it's a much more understandable point made if you read the novel, but it was too beautiful of a line in the story to omit in this review. ;)

What pushed this novel from a 4 star to a 5 star for me was the Postscript by the author. While I can't explain why it made the book so much more enjoyable for me without spoiling the book altogether, I can say that this book is definitely worth reading!

Bottom Line: If you love books about family dynamics and psychology of personality in relation to family, I think you will truly love this one! Even if you don't ordinarily care for family themed novels, this is a great story overall! 5/5 stars

About the Author:
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J. Jeffrey stands about six foot three and likes poetry. He has been known to climb the occasional mountain and tame the occasional lion. He sings opera as an amateur but is trained as a masseur, and he is extremely partial to his wife’s green tea perfume. He drinks too much coffee, and gets lost a lot. Two words: Florence, Italy. Pastry for breakfast, over the crossword puzzle, preferably after noon. Soup for lunch, preferably late afternoon, over another puzzle (the first having been solved). His favorite drink (after coffee) is red wine. He knows a word or two but will not play scrabble. Regrettably, he believes he might be happy if only you would think him as funny as he thinks he is. But most importantly, he is not to be trusted. He writes biographies full of lies, or are they novels full of truths? Such a fine line.