The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

I’ll keep this review short and sweet — kind of like Sarah Addison Allen’s books.  This is Allen’s third book and much like Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, it has elements of fairy tale mixed with small town North Carolina flavor and a pinch of romance.  Emily Benedict returns to quirky Mullaby, North Carolina in search of a solution to the puzzle of her mother’s life.  Why did Dulcie Shelby leave Mullaby and never return?  Why was she so reluctant to discuss the grandfather Emily never knew, or the house she grew up in?  And why are the eccentric townspeople so angry at Emily for something that Dulcie did years ago?

Like the two other books before it, The Girl Who Chased the Moon is filled with magic, like the wallpaper in Emily’s room that changes with her moods, the bewitching aroma of the sugary cakes that  Julia, owner of the local barbeque joint,  bakes in an effort to lure lost love back to her, and the mysterious Mullaby lights that appear in the woods outside of Emily’s window each evening.  Emily’s grandfather is a gentle giant and her boyfriend’s entire family mysteriously refuses to be seen by moonlight. 

Even though this time around Allen’s book was a bit predictable and some of it was a little silly (the explanation of the Mullaby lights for example), I still enjoyed it for what it was — a light enjoyable read as sweet as one of Julia Winterson’s cakes.

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College Girl by Patricia Weitz

Shy and awkward Natalie Bloom arrives at UConn, her dream school, as a junior after attending community college for two years.  The youngest of seven children, Natalie is the first in her family to seek a higher education.  Majoring in Russian history, Natalie spends literally all of her time in class or in the library studying, and just as studiously avoiding social contact with her fellow students.

One day she meets tall, handsome Patrick in the library (where else??) and soon she’s on her way to her first romance.  If you can call it that.  Patrick is interested in Natalie at first, but soon it becomes obvious that he is using her for sex and is really quite contemptuous of her modest circumstances and her blue collar upbringing.  Natalie remains awkward and uncertain, and it’s literally uncomfortable watching her spiral downward as she gets wrapped up in Patrick and loses her focus on school.

If you’ve ever been the one at school that hangs around on the periphery and never quite feels like you fit in, then you may well relate to Natalie.  I think her character was believeable to anyone who has been to college and struggled to find their way.  The other characters in the book were fairly one-dimensional and interchangeable and I never really understood why Natalie’s family, especially her six older brothers, treated her so badly.  A subplot focusing on the suicide of one of Natalie’s brothers when she was a child and how it affected her later wasn’t really fleshed out as well as it might have been either.

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The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen takes chick lit and mixes it with a pinch of magic and a good dollop of whimsy to give us her second novel, The Sugar Queen. Josey Cirrini is 27 years old, unmarried, living with her mother, and she has a secret. Hidden in her bedroom is a closet filled with all the sweets the sugar queen can’t live without. Mallomars, Little Debbies, candy corn, cookies. She secretly munches on these delights as she waits for the highlight of her day — the arrival of Adam, the hot ex-ski bum who now delivers mail.

One day she opens the door to her secret stash and is startled to find Della Lee, a rough-around-the-edges waitress, who has decided to crash in Josey’s closet indefinitely, hiding from problems of her own. Over time, Della Lee encourages Josey to expand her horizons and literally “get a life” outside of her closet and house.

Allen’s book, Garden Spells, (reviewed here) was a delightful first effort and The Sugar Queen is just as charming. I love the magic interwoven into each of the books (Josey’s friend Chloe attracts books — they literally show up out of the blue and place themselves where she can’t miss them). I also love the detailed artwork on the covers of each book, and the North Carolina setting (one of Josey’s secret treats are Moravian cookies!).  An easy, fun read that is highly recommended.  Update 4/26/2010:  Read a review of Allen’s newest book, The Girl Who Chased the Moon here.

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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Every once in awhile I find a book that puts me into a quandary.  Do I keep reading, discovering what’s around the next corner (or page as the case may be), or do I ration it out, chapter by chapter, prolonging the enjoyment?  This book caused me just such a dilemma.  Margaret Lea,  an unassuming,  intellectual young woman, receives a letter from the reclusive and mysterious author Vida Winters, and is summoned to her remote estate.  It seems Miss Winters is finally ready to tell her life story, and she has chosen Margaret be her biographer.  Little by little, the story is revealed with a cast of characters reminiscent of a Bronte novel and, in fact, there are many references to Jane Eyre within The Thirteenth Tale.  Characters include the master of the house, Charlie, driven mad with incestuous passion for his sister, the impetuous and free spirited Isabelle, the feral twins Emmeline and Adeline, bookish Margaret who has her own secrets, eccentric Miss Winters, and an abandoned baby boy, Aurelius.  The crumbling house itself, Angelfield, is also a major character in the book, along with its ghosts.  The story reminded me of a C. S. Lewis quote, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”  Highly recommended.

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Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

 Garden Spells would make a great “chick flick”.  If it were one, it would be a cross between Chocolat and Sleeping With the Enemy.  Bascom, North Carolina is home to an odd assortment of citizens, and none are more eccentric than the Waverleys.   Each Waverley has a special gift.  Claire caters the affairs in town with her magical dishes made with edible flowers and Evanelle always seems to know, even before they do, when someone will need a certain kitchen gadget or an extra quarter.  Strangest of all is the apple tree in the back yard of the Waverley house which bears very unusual apples.

When Claire’s sister Sydney returns home after a long absence, on the run from an abusive relationship, it shakes up Claire’s lonely but safe life.  Will Claire take a chance on love with the sexy artist next door?  Will Sydney find love in the safe haven of her hometown and discover her Waverley “gift”?  Will that apple tree ever stop butting into thier lives?  This is a quick and enjoyable read.  Recommended.   Read a review of Allen’s book, The Sugar Queen, here and her newest book, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, here.

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