Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Icing on the Cupcake by Jennifer Ross

Truth be told, I finished this book a week or so ago. You're probably wondering why I didn't jump on my computer and frantically begin reviewing it (ok, so you're probably not) but my reasoning is sound: it was probably one of the worst books I've ever read.

Books like that tend to leave a bad taste in your mouth, and because of that you generally don't want to re-visit it again and again. In fact, I spent a few days considering whether I would just pretend like it never happened and vow to only review the good books from here on out, but I realized that would make for a very lopsided, biased book review blog.

So here I am.

The general story line wasn't too bad, actually. It goes as follows: Ansley (I even had a beef with the character name because how do you pronounce that? Is it a misspelled Ainsley?) is a sorority sister/debutante from Texas who is, for all intents and purposes, the B word, and upon graduating college and letting her true colors show, is dumped by her fiancee. Unsure as to what she will do now that her life goal is shattered (ie: marry a man who will maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed so she never has to work - doesn't sound too bad) she decides to move to New York City and live with the grandmother whom she's never met (and who is estranged from her daughter/Ansley's mother for some secretive reason). But Vivian (grandmother) isn't willing to put up with Ansley moping around and gives her an ultimatum: six weeks to find a job or she's moving back to Texas.

This had the potential to be a cute book.

There are two glaring problems with it, however, that keep it from being so. First, the author has never penned anything in her life prior to this (at least, nothing worth mentioning in her About the Author segment of the book), but is an avid baker, and I'm pleased to say that at least the recipes at the end of each chapter are decent - I tried one out the other day and found it quite tasty. Second, the editor has apparently never edited anything in his/her life prior to this and I found multiple instances in which words or proper punctuation were missing in order to help things make sense. This is a genuine problem.

Spoiler alert (oh wait, the book was rotten from the beginning...but if you really, really don't want to find out the ending because for some reason you will actually attempt this book, then stop here)! I have to share the ending of this book because it's just that bad.

Ansley's archnemesis, Patty, who of course got engaged to the ex-fiancee as soon as Ansley moved to NYC, is apparently very unhappy with the success Ansley finds. Oh right, we don't know about that yet. She decides to open her own cupcake bakery, with the assistance of a newfound friend, Dot, surprises grandma with it, she has a great new life, etc. etc. And in a couple very action-packed chapters, we discover that Patty and Dot are cousins, that Dot was sent to spy and ruin Ansley's life, that Dot decided Ansley wasn't too bad and wants to stay BFFs, that Patty COMES TO NEW YORK AND HITS ANSLEY WITH HER CAR, and that ex-fiancee finds Patty to be crazy out of her mind but is pleased with her commitment and loyalty (although he initially wants Ansley to take him back because clearly she's the woman for him). We discover the big "secret" of Vivian (not interesting at all - she cheated on her husband, the man was wealthy and powerful and made her marry him instead - nice little doormat character - she tried to get in touch with her daughter, to no avail, because her ex-husband wouldn't have any of it), and the book ends with Vivian and Ansley all happy go lucky.

I'll give you a minute to soak all that in.

I'm unsure why I finished the book in the first place, but I suppose I was holding out real hope that it would somehow get better. Instead it continued to spiral downward. The prose was a combination of "One Tree Hill" and extremely technical baking tips, proving that Ross should have tried for a cookbook rather than a novel. I can't give this book any stars whatsoever.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Well, I tried the month long compilation and didn't like it, so I'm going back to posting a review on every book I read, but they will be a little shorter this time around.


This was the only Sarah Addison Allen book I hadn't read, and it absolutely did not disappoint. Her sophomore debut, The Sugar Queen was charming, full of magic (literally and figuratively), and filled with characters I actually miss since finishing it.

Josey, a 27 year old living with her demanding mother, suddenly finds herself with a stranger from her town living in her closet. Blackmailed by the hoards of candy, romance novels, and travel magazines she hides there, Josey lets the woman stay, much to her chagrin. But this woman, along with a mysterious past, seems to have a lot to teach Josey to help her live a happier, fuller life.

Along the way, Josey also befriends Chloe, a sandwich shop owner who has books follow her wherever she goes, and a relationship on the rocks. The two women forge a strong friendship, helping each other learn about themselves what they couldn't learn alone.

This book absolutely gets five stars from me and deserves it. Be forewarned that there are a couple instances of strong language, about the equivalent of a PG-13 movie, but if that bothers you then generally speaking Allen's books won't be for you. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

I am sorry to say I literally only read one book this month (although I am in the process of reading another, so that's something...right?) What with the Thanksgiving weekend and the possibly errant decision to attempt to step into the world of professional blogging by way of Wordpress, I have found myself lacking in time to sit down and use my brain to read books. TV is easier. Stop looking at me like that.

Luckily, that one book was quite good. This is largely because it was all about food and I love food and I love, even more, books about food. Bauermeister (I'm still debating whether this is a great last name or a tragic one) has a fairly simple approach to writing and her book read cleanly and easily. Each chapter is based upon a different character, which in other books often bothers me, but in this particular novel works very successfully because she intertwines them all together. The overarching scope is the cooking class in which it is set, but you get an excellent background of each character, what has shaped his or her life, and what led them all to the class.

It's a short review, but it was a pretty short read and not extremely complex. I'll give it three stars out of five; I desperately wanted recipes at the end of each chapter and its simplicity felt like a hindrance at times. But it was still solidly good and I would recommend it to any of my friends.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Five books, four authors. I get things done.

I decided, after my big book review binge (care of the public library's requirement to write a review for every book I read to qualify for a big grand prize - ironically enough, an e-reader for pete's sakes, but let's not get me started) that I would slow things down a bit. Instead of writing a review for every single book I read, on the day I finish reading it, I'm going to write one post per month that includes everything I read (with Amazonian summations) and a short review on my favorite.

Of course I made this decision the same month I read books by my four favorite authors of all time, so I kind of kept putting it off...and off...and off. But, the new month begins in about 38 minutes and I'm going to pick up some new books after work so I need to, you know, get on this thing.

Here's how it went down: I read Love Goddess, and immediately thought to myself, "Oh this is going to be the book I'll review...no question." (Disclaimer: that might not have been the exact phrase I thought in my mind, but it was really similar.) Then I read Chased the Moon and thought, "Oh...actually this is going to be the book I'll review." When I started Falling Together, I thought there was the high chance that my decision to re-format my blog was a horrible decision, but just thinking about having to go back and write long reviews on the three books I'd already read was just too much.

I determined, after all was said and done, two important things. One, Sarah Addison Allen is unquestionably my favorite author as of now, writing books that make me love reading in a way that I've never loved it before. Two, I'm finally too old for Sarah Dessen. Kind of funny, when you think about it since their names are so similar. You know...Sarah/Sarah, Addison Allen/Dessen. Whatever.

So, for the month of October:

The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate - Holly Maguire's grandmother Camilla was the Love Goddess of Blue Crab Island, Maine--a Milanese fortune-teller who could predict the right man for you, and whose Italian cooking was rumored to save marriages. Holly has been waiting years for her unlikely fortune: her true love will like sa cordula, an unappetizing old-world delicacy. But Holly can't make a decent marinara sauce, let alone sa cordula. Maybe that's why the man she hopes to marry breaks her heart. So when Holly inherits Camilla's Cucinotta, she's determined to forget about fortunes and love and become an Italian cooking teacher worthy of her grandmother's legacy. But Holly's four students are seeking much more than how to make Camilla's chicken alla Milanese. Simon, a single father, hopes to cook his way back into his daughter's heart. Juliet, Holly's childhood friend, hides a painful secret. Tamara, a serial dater, can't find the love she longs for. And twelve-year-old Mia thinks learning to cook will stop her dad, Liam, from marrying his phony lasagna-queen girlfriend. As the class gathers each week, adding Camilla's essential ingredients of wishes and memories in every pot and pan, unexpected friendships and romances are formed--and tested. Especially when Holly falls hard for Liam . . . and learns a thing or two about finding her own recipe for happiness. (My only complaint about the entire book, literally, is that it really should be titled The Love Goddess's Cooking School. No, really.)

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen - review below

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos - What if saying hello to an old friend meant saying good-bye to life as you know it? It’s been six years since Pen Calloway watched her best friends walk out of her life. And through the birth of her daughter, the death of her father, and the vicissitudes of single motherhood, she has never stopped missing them. Pen, Cat, and Will met on their first day of college and formed what seemed like a magical and lifelong bond, only to see their friendship break apart amid the realities of adulthood. When, after years of silence, Cat—the bewitching, charismatic center of their group—e-mails Pen and Will with an urgent request to meet at their college reunion, they can’t refuse. But instead of a happy reconciliation, what awaits is a collision of past and present that sends Pen and Will, with Pen’s five-year-old daughter and Cat’s hostile husband in tow, on a journey across the world. With her trademark wit, vivid prose, and gift for creating authentic, captivating characters, Marisa de los Santos returns with an emotionally resonant novel about our deepest human connections. As Pen and Will struggle to uncover the truth about Cat, they find more than they bargained for: startling truths about who they were before and who they are now. They must confront the reasons their friendship fell apart and discover how—and if—it can ever fall back together. (de los Santos suddenly started using the f word extremely liberally in this book (it had only made a small guest appearance in her two previous novels), which is a pity, because now I'm limited to who I can recommend this to. I didn't love it as much as her first adult novel, Love Walked In, but it was still a great read with a satisfying end and a lovely main character with an equally lovely daughter.)

Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen - Halley has always followed in the wake of her best friend, Scarlett. But when Scarlett learns that her boyfriend has been killed in a motorcycle accident, and that she's carrying his baby, she's devastated. For the first time ever, Scarlett really needs Halley. Though their friendship may be tested by the strain, like a true friendship, it will endure. (This was the book that made me realize maybe I didn't love Dessen as much as I used to. I read about 80% of it, 'remembering' everything as I read, only to realize I'd never actually picked this book up before. Thus, all her characters kind of...blend together. It's formulaic writing: angst-ridden teenager, annoying mother, angst.)

That Summer by Sarah Dessen - For 15-year-old Haven, her summer is framed by two weddings--her father's and her sister Ashley's. Nothing seems stable except for her memories of the summer that Ashley dated Sumner Lee, who suddenly reappears in Haven's life, giving her a perfect link to that perfect past--and her future. (Wow, Amazon, don't hold back or anything...)

The Girl Who Chased the Moon is probably my absolute favorite by Addison Allen, although I haven't read The Sugar Queen as of yet, so I'm withholding my final decision till I do. It all started with The Peach Keeper, and I figured, at that point, there was no possible way she could author anything more charming. Garden Spells was wonderful, as we all know, but Peach was still the frontrunner, and then came Chased the Moon. I mean, just writing the title right here, on this blog, makes me sigh with extreme content. Kind of like when I've eaten a really delicious, fabulous meal, and have come to the end, with a full belly and this feeling of...completion. No, completeness. What makes Addison Allen's books so wonderful is her ability to throw magic into the plot without it being hokey. I'm not talking weird man in a cape, skanky older woman in a leotard magic, of course. I'm talking the type of fantasy that could, for all intents and purposes, be possible. Then there's her way to turn the American English language into pure poetry. I love this woman's books. Love them. Want to hug them.

Chased the Moon is about a teenage girl who moves in with her real-life giant grandfather after her mother's passing (when I say real-life giant, I mean like, nine foot tall man). Within only a couple days she discovers his hometown, Mullaby, North Carolina, has a lot of secrets and a hint of magic. See also: wallpaper that changes with the tenants' moods. Emily finds herself to be a misfit fairly quickly, fitting in with the other town misfits, and really only wanting to understand why her mother's past is so sensitive a subject. Meanwhile (whenever I type this I want to immediately follow it up with "back at the ranch" or "back at the motel" if you know Ray Charles, but there was neither a ranch nor a motel in this book, so that's moot) Julia, the town baker and restaurateur, is working out her own past and secrets, trying to make it all...work in the way she wants it to. The two women forge a camaraderie, but Addison Allen manages to brilliantly keep their stories intertwined and also separate.

I give this book literally five stars. I never thought I'd do it. But I think there's a very real possibility that if I don't own it in the next few months, I will slip into some sort of literary depression because I need the characters in my apartment with me. Yeah, it's one of those books.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate

I'd heard a lot of good things about this book from family and friends, so I was looking forward to checking it out. I didn't think it would be as good as it was, however, and I certainly did not plan on laying down around 10:15 pm to start it and finish it at 1:50 am. There were points during the night at which I thought, "in five minutes I will set it down" all to no avail. At 11:45 I was convinced that I'd stop around midnight and at 12:41 I realized I might as well just finish the darn thing. The experience was a lot like watching a Nora Ephron movie; you know it's going to turn out well, and most likely you know how it's going to turn out in general, but you still watch it every few months because you love the story.

I can see this book being a lot like that for me.

Melissa Senate writes a lot like Sarah Dessen, without the teenage angst and geared towards adult women who have actually had their hearts broken and have actually found love with people older than 20. It was a page turner with pretty stress-free anticipation (again, you know how it's going to turn out but you totally don't care) and was extremely charming. And we know that I love a charming book.

The female characters were real, and I appreciated that. Too many times women are either not quite successful or kind of idiots or only looking for love, thinking it's the one thing that will make them truly happy, so this was refreshing. The main character, Rebecca Strand, certainly had her own set of problems she was dealing with, and some feelings of inadequacy, but find me a woman who doesn't fit within those parameters and I will truly be floored.

So I suppose you probably want to know what it's about since I have gone on and on about how fabulous it is. On her father's deathbed, he reveals to her a long-held secret: he once had an affair that resulted in a half-sister. At 28, this is beyond revelatory and more shocking and disarming. Rebecca isn't entirely sure where to begin; her father passes away from a terrible battle with pancreatic cancer, work has become difficult, and her long-time relationship with her live-in boyfriend is on the fritz (I should just put it out there right now that her boyfriend is, as my good friend aptly put it, a tool). It could be argued that all these things kind of pushed her over the edge; that as an only child she romanticized the idea of a sibling too much, and she decides to rent a car on a whim and drive to her half-sister's home in Maine.

She is not well received.

Her half-sister, Joy Jayhawk, has a life, a family, a career, and little need or interest in a relationship with a woman with whom she only shares a small portion of her DNA and is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. But when she decides to invite Rebecca along on her singles tour (she's somewhat of a modern-day matchmaker), it seems as though she might just open up. Of course, it's not that easy (it never is) and it takes practically the entire book for things to come to a conclusion between them. Along the way Rebecca finds what I am certain Anne Shirley (of Green Gables, for those of you who have never read before in your lives) would refer to as bosom buddies - a group of women who are divorced and proud and looking for love. And then she meets Theo, a strong, good-looking, blonde carpenter (although with that name I envisioned a brunette the entire book), which makes her relationship just that much more complicated.

I look forward to reading Melissa Senate's other books and wonder if I have found a new favorite author. But I won't jump to that conclusion too early. I give this book four and a half stars out of five.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Well, she did it again. My favorite author has written what has become my latest favorite book by her (yes, it's true, I admit it, every book she writes becomes my favorite by her...till she writes another. Except, of course, that one I previously mentioned that I actually thoroughly disliked.)

Dessen has a very formulaic style of writing, but she does it in such a charming way that I, along with all other young women who read, can overlook it quite easily. The formula is as follows: girl next door as main character, mother who's kind of a schmuck, father who's a good parent but overly busy, coming of age, getting to know herself, budding relationship, and a motley crew of friends who are both eccentric and terribly lovable. But every book's characters, while similar in foundation, are all very different. And, in true Dessen form, all the characters in What Happened to Goodbye are fabulous.

Meet McLean Sweet, a young woman who travels the country with her father, a busy businessman with little time for anything other than work. In each city, she transforms herself, taking on a new name (some form of her middle name, Elizabeth) and a new personality. But when she arrives in their latest town (after Florida and pink flamingo decor and a school where she was incredibly popular), she becomes...herself.

The daughter of divorced parents (see also: mom cheated with husband's idol and then got pregnant), she has more or less sided with her father. And like most of Dessen's books, this is totally understandable. Her relationship with her mother is about one ignored phone call away from being estranged, and she severs ties with each of her friends from each town upon moving. But this new town, with new people and new business for her father (he's in the restaurant industry) proves to be a little different than all the rest. As though it has some sort of gravitational pull on her and her father, as though it will be more difficult to leave than all the others.

Her newfound friends - Dave, the genius, Heather and Riley, the rebels, and Deb, the goody-two shoes who is also very lonely - help McLean learn more about herself than she had before. This scares her, particularly since she knows how transient and temporary her life there will most likely be. But, without realizing how soon she may leave, they forge on, forcing her to become part of their tight-knit group, growing to love the town and her new/old life.

When it comes to language, this book is technically within the realm of PG, but if swearing bothers you, then be forewarned. Nothing too harsh, though, which surprised me as Dessen often includes a little PG-13 language in her books. I'd give this book four and a half stars out of five.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

After reading the Peach Keeper, I realized I had to get my hands on the rest of Addison Allen's books. There aren't a lot of authors whose other books I seek out so fervently; in fact, Sarah Dessen is pretty much the only one. But when you come across a book that envelops you so much, and you know that author has written more, it's natural to want to be enveloped all the time.

Luckily, there are two other books left for me to read (and hopefully at some point she will come out with even more books). And the best part of it all is that none belong to a series (I don't necessarily have anything against series, but let's all be honest - we haven't read a whole lot of good ones, now have we?)

In trying to describe just part one of Garden Spells to a friend, I felt as though I'd described a trilogy, there's so much going on. It reads like The Peach Keeper in that you can sense it's the same author with the same deftness of American English prose, but they have a very different feel. At their core, they are both fairly charming and both have a little bit of a magical element. I typically only read fiction that's based upon reality; the stuff you read could actually, feasibly occur. And sometimes I will stray and read some fantasy; something about dragons or witches or Narnians because I've always had an active imagination. I draw the line at Muggles. But not Muppets. Anyways, I digress. Garden Spells really bridges the gap between reality and fantasy; magic that is still completely entrenched in reality. This town isn't full of Wiccans, it's simply full of people with magical instincts.

Claire, Sydney, and Evanelle all belong to the Waverly family. And while Claire and Evanelle remained in Bascom, North Carolina, accepting their powers and utilizing them, Sydney disappeared after high school, living a life much like her own mother's. But when something occurs in her life that puts both her and her daughter in danger, she leaves early one morning, to return back home. This throws Claire for a real loop.

Things are tense between the two women and it remains that way for much of the book, till they finally realize they can trust each other enough to open up about their secrets. The unspoken bond of sisterhood, I suppose. But things aren't peachy (ha! An Addison Allen pun!) - there's an antagonist you just genuinely don't want to like in any way, even when you get little glimmers of reason to feel sorry for her, her even more diabolical mother, and the secrets their family share. And when Tyler Hughes moves in next door, falling in love with Claire, who believes all relationships are temporary and has a bomb shelter built around her heart and emotions, her head is left spinning.

The entire town is laced with magic, but it doesn't feel all Harry Potter. Claire's garden is full of magical fruits and herbs that, once baked together in a dish, can help people recall past good memories or become full of regret or see in the dark or fill with understanding. Sydney has a way with hair, and while that sounds kind of hokey when I write it, there's something very electric about a really awesome hairstylist. Her daughter, Bay, knows where things belong. Evanelle gives oddball presents to everyone in the community before they even realize they might need them. The Clark women are historically known to have the most incredible sexual prowess in the world. Henry Hopkins's grandfather burned a tree down with only his love for his girlfriend the night he proposed.

And then there is the apple tree in Claire Waverly's backyard.

This is a magical, fantastical book that still has enough realness to it that you don't feel like you're reading fantasy. At no point did I expect a unicorn. And the characters are delightfully complex; they all hold their own secrets from each other, but not to the point where you feel frustrated as the reader, a voyeur into their lives. There was a bit more language and adult themes (see also: mild-medium sex scenes) than The Peach Keeper, so it's solidly PG-13. In fact, speaking of which, upon finishing it, I was thinking how it would make for a really excellent movie, but only if they followed it exactly. And we all know that doesn't happen, ever. So let's all hope Addison Allen doesn't strike any deals with moviemakers soon.

I give this book four stars out of five. I almost gave it three and a half, but the ending was so remarkably wonderful that anything less than four would be criminal. It was a literary equivalent to the end of "Big Fish."