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Valentine’s Day Book Roundup

January 5, 2009

Written for the Star-Ledger”s Book Page, February 2009
Who wrote the books of love?

Beautiful Americans
Lucy Silag
Razorbill, 304 pp., $16.99

“Beautiful Americans” follows four teenagers on their high school year abroad at the prestigious Lycee de Monceau in Paris. There’s Olivia, who has always dreamed of dancing — and of escaping some of her responsibility for her disabled younger brother. Spoiled rich girl Alex wants to shop her way across the city, until her reality check bounces. Zack dreams that Paris will be the city of love for him, daring to find the love of another boy. Penelope Jane, “PJ,” has come to Paris to learn the truth about her family’s mysterious past, but worries her secrets will get her kicked off the program. Their stories alternate and interweave in this enjoyable romp through the City of Lights.

Don’t expect too much substance, even in the deceptions and romantic tribulations, but it’s a good read nonetheless. Not unlike “Gossip Girl” with a French accent, these teens navigate Paris with the kind of glossy social upheavals that belong to a season of your favorite guilty-pleasure TV drama.

Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems By Teenagers
Edited by Betsy Franco
Candlewick Press, 106 pp., $15.99

Teenagers offer honest glimpses — captured moments of love, sex, first kisses and shy dreams — in poems as intimate as reading their diaries. Or remembering your own first love. Like high school literary magazines and locker graffitti, some poems are unpolished, awkward or weighed down with SAT words, and almost embarrassingly confessional in ways only teenage love can be. The reader will only know these poets by their names and ages, and their confessed truths of the heart.

Ellie Moore, 16, makes a daring move in “Making Love to Shakespeare.” “A Broken Snow Globe” by Mehron Abdollomohammadi, 15, seethes with anger and longing for another boy. Johaina Christiamo, 16, packs a detailed snapshot of longing into the simple act of unpacking groceries. The whimsical metaphors of “Look at My Feet,” by 16-year-old Seph Kramer, include a chicken salad and a stegosaurus. A standout in its simplicity is Juan Nunez’s “Love Poem’:

I am
the flour
to your tortilla
baby

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine
Lauren Willig
Dutton, 400 pp., $25.95

The fifth in Lauren Willig’s series that started with “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” (NAL Trade, 2005), “The Temptation of the Night Jasmine” is an engaging historical romance, delightfully funny and sweet. Contemporary grad student Eloise Kelly continues her research into early 1800s espionage in England. The gentle Regency romance between gallant Robert, Duke of Dovedale, and dreamy, bookish young Lady Charlotte Landsdowne doesn’t need that 21st century setup to be a thoroughly charming costume drama. Romance’s rosy glow tints even the spy adventure that unfolds as Robert and Charlotte begin their courtship in the drafty Girdings Manor. Between stealing kisses, Robert investigates blackmail, betrayal and exotic Indian occult rituals to avenge the death of his commanding officer and friend. Against the romance of Willig’s fine historical fiction, these obstacles are thrilling, but seem none too perilous. Despite jarring modern interruptions, readers won’t be able to resist this excellent historical romance — or, for the uninitiated, its prequels.

Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire
Flora Fraser
Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp., $28.95

Accomplished biographer Flora Fraser has written biographies of Queen Caroline, wife of King George IV; King George III’s three daughters; and Emma, Lady Hamilton. She turns her attention to the French Revolution and Pauline Bonaparte, younger sister of Napoleon. This biography chronicles her transformation from a semi-literate teenage bride, baffled by the salons of Paris, to a savvy and passionate member of the aristocracy.

In excerpts from letters and diaries, a fun-loving spirit shines through Fraser’s meticulous and somewhat dry accounts. She portrays Pauline’s transformation from a somewhat frivolous girl to a canny and independent player in the social arena of French 17th century culture. The legendary beauty becomes more savvy through marriage, widowhood and a second marriage, skyrocketing to fame as a member of high society. Readers looking for a good biography will find this account intriguing, and also will enjoy anecdotes that enliven the character of Napoleon himself, with sometimes funny glimpses of his domestic life away from the battlefield.

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran
Azadeh Moaveni
Random House, 352 pp., $26

“Honeymoon in Tehran” picks up where Azadeh Moaveni’s honest, insightful first memoir, “Lipstick Jihad,” left off. A journalist trying to make a life for herself in transition between two cultures, she turns her keen observation and clear prose to the stress of trying to reconcile government restriction and Islamic faith with a meaningful family life and career. As in “Lipstick Jihad,” longings for a sense of home and connection to her roots complicate Moaveni’s thoughts as she navigates cultural milestones like love, marriage and the birth of her child in Iran. She evokes her own wonder at the foreign romance of life in Iran, while maintaining an honest appraisal of the culture’s flaws and shocks. Ultimately, this is a chronicle of love on two levels — Moaveni’s love for Iran, despite its flaws, and the romantic love, marriage and motherhood that calls her to reappraise her ties to Iran as the political climate darkens.

Reviews by Elizabeth Willse

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