Category: Reviews I’ve written

REVIEW: DARE ME by Megan Abbott

From the Publisher, Reagan Arthur Books: “Beth and me wedged tight, jeaned legs pressed against each other. The sound of our own breathing. Before we all stopped believing a tornado, or anything, could touch us, ever. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are tough, inseparable, invincible. No pair more charismatic or sophisticated. No pair more dangerous. But with the fall term, their new coach arrives and things begin to change. She has plans for the cheer squad: all sleek poise and cool command, the girls are soon entirely in her thrall. Faster, harder, higher, thinner, the stakes raised, their world contracting, they compete to risk – everything. She, meantime, has been crossing a line of her own. From the brilliant author of “The End of Everything“, “Dare Me” is a searing novel about the allure of adulthood and the dark heart of adolescence: the fierce bonds between girls, their bitter rivalries, and their power to transform one another.” This is one disturbing book.  It’s a book that starts out with a scene that lets you know something has gone horribly wrong, you’re just not sure what.  So you have that weight on your shoulders as you read.  And as Abbott writes, on page 5, “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”  These high school cheerleaders – the way the talk, the things they talk about and the things they do – are simply disturbing in and of themselves.  As a mother of two tween girls, the book kind of freaked me out.  I kept thinking, is this realistic at all?  Are there squads of girls out there who are so casually cruel in they way they binge and purge, take drugs and drink, seduce grown men, and generally scheme and manipulate everyone around them, mostly via the effortless and ubiquitous text?  And where the %#$& are the parents!? Although reading Dare Me was a pretty uncomfortable experience, the writing is so compelling that I couldn’t stop.  The characterizations are so craftily layered that it’s very difficult to predict who it is that is responsible for the bad things that happen (and they just keep happening.)  The use of language is gorgeous.  Though the teen-speak and cheer terminology lost me at times, the intent is clear enough and the images evoked throughout are moving and striking.  I marked little passage after passage, images that evoke all the crazy things these girls are feeling and creating.  Just a few samples follow: On the Queen Bee, Beth: “…Beth with her clenched jaw, about to unsnap.  It reminds me of something I learned once in biology:  a crocodile’s teeth are constantly replaced.  Their whole life, they never stop growing new teeth. I get . . .

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REVIEW: SAVING RUTH by Zoe Fishman

I won a copy of this book from Liz & Lisa at Chick Lit is not dead, courtesy of Harper Collins. From the Publisher: “Growing up in Alabama, all Ruth Wasserman wanted was to be a blond Baptist cheerleader. But as a curly-haired Jew with a rampant sweet tooth and a smart mouth, this was an impossible dream. Not helping the situation was her older brother, David—a soccer star whose good looks, smarts, and popularity reigned at school and at home. College provided an escape route and Ruth took it. Now home for the summer, she’s back lifeguarding and coaching alongside David, and although the job is the same, nothing else is. She’s a prisoner of her low self-esteem and unhealthy relationship with food, David is closed off and distant in a way he’s never been before, and their parents are struggling with the reality of an empty nest. When a near drowning happens on their watch, a storm of repercussions forces Ruth and David to confront long-ignored truths about their town, their family, and themselves.” I finished this book several weeks ago, and have put off writing a review.  Partly because I wanted to have time to write it thoughtfully, but I think I also needed some distance from it as so many elements hit so close to home for me. Fishman is a fantastic storyteller – I was easily and instantly swept up into the drama of a family inelegantly stumbling through the adjustments of an empty nest refilled for the summer.  Everyone is pushing everyone else away and then struggling to pull back together:  the siblings, once close, can’t seem to find each other again.  Their parents are not quite ready to let Ruth and David go, but don’t really know how to handle the new versions of them. All the characters are loveably flawed, but Ruth had me from: And then there was my outfit.  If I had deliberately planned to look this way, I could see how my parents might take it as a giant “fuck you” (p1) Ruth is painfully empathetic with everyone around her, and painfully unaware of her own self-torture. I connected deeply with her.  As someone who struggled with body image and eating from adolescence on, my heart went out to Ruth.  Looking in the mirror and not being sure if what you’re seeing is the truth is a scary thing. Ruth’s family struggles with how to deal with her weight loss and obviously unhealthy eating habits.  There’s a wonderful scene where Ruth’s mom impatiently comes into a dressing room where Ruth is trying on clothes and is shocked to see how thin she actually is.  As she cycles through a . . .

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Review: WIFE 22 by Melanie Gideon

I received a lovely hardcover of this book courtesy of Random House, via a giveaway at Linus’ Blanket. “Congratulations!  We’re happy to inform you that you have been selected to participate in the Netherfield Center Study—Marriage in the 21st Century. You have successfully met three of the initial criteria for inclusion in this study:  married for more than ten years, school-age children, and monogamous.” (p.22) The main thing I have to say about this novel is that if you fit the criteria above, you must read this book, and you must stick with it the whole way through.  It will undoubtably make you: blush with uncomfortable recognition, sigh with longing for the romance of courtship days, giggle and/or howl with laughter and harrumph at the inevitable foibles of married folk.  And it might give you a chance to appreciate the paricular ups and downs of your own marriage.  (And perhaps take a good hard look at your addictions to the online portals of your choice.) ‘Nuff said.  I cannot recommend this highly enough! p.s.  At the end I read Ms. Gideon’s bio and realized that she had written The Slippery Year, a memoir I’d been curious about.  I will definitely be checking that out as well as her YA novels.

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Review of THE ABSOLUTIST by John Boyne

From Other Press, New York: “The Absolutist is a novel that examines the events of the Great War from the perspective of two young privates, both struggling with the complexity of their emotions and the confusion of their friendship.” I received a copy of this book as part of my participation in Book Club hosted by Devourer of Books and Linus’ Blanket.  Although I must have read a description of it at some point, I’d forgotten it by the time I started the book, and the title didn’t give me any clues, so I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  The opening sections of the book tease:  you learn it’s from the point of view of an older man looking back on events of his youth who drops phrases that hint of what’s to come, “aware of the mess that I had left behind me and embarrassed by it.” (p 13) I have conflicting feelings about this book. Although the subject matter is painful:  trench warfare in WWI intertwined with a homosexual love affair that is hampered at every turn, I was also infuriated and lost patience with the stiff-upper-lip-hold-in-the-emotions British characters. And although I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading it every night as it is so emotionally unpleasant, I did find myself haunted by the main character and his stories, so full of palpable shame, self-loathing and guilt (the mystery of what’s behind his shame is dealt out in tiny tiny bits). I think I would recommend this book – but not in the summer, and not in a time when you might be distressed about the state of the world.   It takes a hard look at some of the nastiest elements of human nature, without a great deal of hope attached.  Perhaps one just has to be prepared for that. Such irony to me that Boyne’s character Sadler finds such solace and escape in books, the works of writers, “such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.” (p.114) When this book puts us boots-deep in the horrors, with little hope of getting out.

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Review: THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY by Sere Prince Halverson

From the publisher: To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves. This book lets you know things are gonna go from bliss to bad pretty quick for protagonist Ella Beene.  In fact Halverson lays out her premise at the top: For three years, I did back flips in the deep end of happiness…I also know now, years later, something else:  The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind. (1) And then I think Halverson does a bang up job of taking us through the proof of her theory.  Happiness doesn’t exist without sadness or loss, just as all light only exists in balance of dark. Halverson’s language is evocative, not only of the verdant Northwest of California with its redwoods and chickens and cool streams, but of feeling, especially her feelings as a mother.  She describes playing sailboat with her step kids in bed: “Even before breakfast, we set out across an uncharted expanse, a smooth surface hiding the tangled, slippery underneath of things, destination unknown” (2) even as she presages what’s to come. There’s a great sense of place to this novel, in the loving way that Halverson describes the town of Elbow and its surrounding wine country, as well as being “of” a place.  She explains the concept (which Ella sees as relating to her children as well as to wine): “Terroir is the sense of place that you experience when you drink a glass of wine…the expression of the land it comes from…some say it’s everything – from what occurred here throughout the ages to the moment the bottle is uncorked.” (86-87) Ella deals with the loss of her picture perfect husband in all too human ways, which leads her into further darkness.  When she loses it while driving the car home after a long day at an amusement park in an attempt to distract the kids, concluding with, “Goddamn it! I can’t drive! Now, you two shut up! Shut up!” (66)  I thought, No, no, don’t do that, you have to be the perfect mom right now or you’re gonna lose the kids.  And in fact, as Ella’s . . .

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THREE UNLIKELY VACATION READS: Reviews

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I need to have books to read on vacation.  For the plane (how do people not read on the plane?), for at-the-pool, for bed time, etc.  I’m a fan of the “beach read” but for our recent belated spring break trip to Hawaii (first time, very exciting), it seemed a little early for the beach read, plus I had a big pile of TBR books on my bedstand.  So this is what I brought with me (mostly because they were in paperback): The Book of Salt: A Novel, by Monique Truong A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown. And as it turned out, they were each, in their own particular way, lovely vacation reads.  Not mindless, easy reads – each had its puzzles and complex language and serious themes.  But entertaining nonetheless, as well as having that je ne sais quoi that keeps you thinking about a book when you’re not reading it. I started with The Book of Salt, lent to me by a writing group friend, who knew that I like historical fiction.  This debut (published 2004) novel is a first person narrative written from the point of view of Binh, the Vietnamese live-in chef employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris in the 1930s.  Ranging back and forth from his life as a young man working in the Governor-General’s kitchen in Saigon, where scandal led him to flee to the sea and eventually to Paris, to his current work for his “Mesdames” in their home in Paris, still haunted by the harsh voice of his “Old Man”, we experience with Binh the humiliations and stolen pleasures of the servant class.  His tales of food are mouth watering and precise.  The stories he tells of his past and present passions and the prices paid for them are languid, imagistic and a puzzle that we gradually see come together over the course of the book. Requiring some patience and a willingness to not always know exactly whom we are hearing about, as well as bits of the languages of French and Vietnamese, this is not a book to rip through.  It is a book to savor, to let wash over you.  And then you’ll want to go and eat some really good (hopefully French) cooking. Next was A Visit From the Goon Squad.  I’d been meaning to read this one for a while, but had somehow gotten in into my head that this was some sort of police drama.  And then, when I started in and read that it was about the music business, I almost put it down again.  . . .

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Review: ACCIDENTS OF PROVIDENCE by Stacia M. Brown

I read this book at the suggestion of Jennifer from LiterateHousewife.com, who set up a readalong so she’d have people to talk about it with.  So glad I joined in.  I agree, it warrants discussion.  Without the readalong, I might never have gotten around to reading it. This is a debut novel from Stacia Brown, but you’d never know it.  Her incorporation of historical detail, including legal case histories, is blended seamlessly with the imaginings from her own fertile mind.  I found the prose to be a bit intellectual and distant at first, but I think now that that has to do with her main characters and their states of mind at the beginning of the book.  And while the world of 17th century England may seem far away from us 21st century Americans, the power plays between women and men on the stages of the law, politics and religion have changed far too little.  In fact, I was able to see connections to some of the dystopian fiction I’ve read in the past year, especially WHEN SHE WOKE by Hilary Jordan, where the birth of a bastard child with an unacknowledged father leads to a young woman’s extreme punishment.  We can’t seem to get away from laws that threaten to control the rights women have over their bodies, and the fears that men have of the mysterious power a woman has the creation of a child within her body. This book starts out with the curmudgeonly character Thomas Bartwain, 17th century detective, as he sorts through the facts of Rebecca Lockyer’s case.  She has been accused of murdering and secretly burying her bastard infant, a crime punishable by hanging.  At first I was very impatient with both of these characters.  Bartwain so rigid; Rachel so vague.  But both go on a journey in the book.  Even after his duty is done with Rachel’s case, Bartwain continues to be drawn to it, and finds himself questioning his belief that “the law is beautiful; the law is order” (94).   Rachel suffers a great deal through her imprisonment and trial, but in the process finds clarity in her own beliefs and her own strength. When we meet Rachel, she’s in the throes of a horrible post-partum depression as well as the shock of losing her child.  But as she begins to claw herself back to the world, and relives the events that have led her to this trial, an uneducated but probing mind is laid bare.  At moments I wondered if she was perhaps too intellectual to believe.   But then, something has allowed her to survive in this world alone, a single woman.  A train of Rachel’s thought that really made me ponder . . .

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REVIEW: A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY by Joshilyn Jackson

I read this book for our April group read in the “Southern Lit Lovers ” Goodreads group.  I’d heard good things about it already, and had read Jackson’s earlier book, THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, and had liked how she intertwined a mystery with a story of family dynamics.  She returns here with the same sort of story: a complex web of secrets old and new that get so complicated I had to look back and see who knew what when at times. This was a book that grew on me.  It’s written in chapters that rotate between the perspectives of the three members of the Slocumb family: Big, her daughter Liza and her daughter, Mosey.  At times, the overlaps of time were confusing, but most often these overlaps paid off in delayed gratification of understanding, especially in terms of the set-ups in the prologue. In the prologue and her early chapters, I felt distanced from and impatient with Big.  Both Big and Liza gave birth at the age of 15, and Big blames their misfortunes on a curse that happens every fifteen years.  In addition, Jackson loads the prologue up with people and information that come clearer as the book goes on, so I kept having to re-read to take everything in, which kept me at a distance. As the story spooled out, and I got comfortable with each character’s voice, I got more and more sucked in.  There’s a sense of doom from the beginning, but it’s tempered with hope (keeping Big in particular from turning into a whiny victim, thankfully).  The relationships between the three women are prickly, but fiercely loving and loyal.  We quickly learn that Liza has had a stroke that paralyzed her on one side and left her unable to speak.  Mosey has transferred her teenage rejection from the helpless Liza to her grandmother Big, as she works through an enforced state of innocence to experience of the larger world. Big is doing her best to make rehab happen for Liza with limited financial resources, and decides to cut down the huge willow in their yard so that they can put in a swimming pool (Jackson must have some sort of unconscious need to include pools in her stories!) because rehab in the water yielded promising results.  But in the process, a horrible secret is revealed that sets each of the three women on separate path of difficult and even dangerous discovery. At this point, the book delves inside Liza’s broken brain and I was sold.  Liza has things she desperately needs to communicate, and her effort to swim up out of the morass of her stroke-injured mind is beautifully rendered and adds a . . .

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REVIEW AND GIVEAWAY: GODS OF GOTHAM by Lyndsay Faye

This is the first of occasional reviews that I’ll be posting here at Home Cooked Books.  I’ll only be reviewing books that I’m NOT narrating or directing for audio.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know so many book bloggers over the past year, and thanks to them, I’m inspired to add my two cents to the kitty.  This book in particular wowed me, and I hope that others will consider reading it. From the Publisher: 1845. New York City forms its first police force. The great potato famine hits Ireland. These two seemingly disparate events will change New York City. Forever. I was surprised by how much I loved GODS OF GOTHAM.  Though I love historical fiction, I knew next to nothing about New York in the mid-nineteenth century, even less about the potato famine.  In addition, I am not one who generally seeks out mysteries (they often give me nightmares).  I think what really got to me with GODS OF GOTHAM was Lyndsay Faye’s dense and enthralling creation of this world.  As I read I could see, smell and hear the filth, stink, and clamor of New York City in the summer of 1845 (detailed down to the speckled pigs trotting about, “mud-crusted and randy and miraculously nimble”).  Her main character Timothy Wilde completely captured my heart.  A natural poet (and detective), the world was painted via his senses.  I felt the myriad tragedies, discoveries and wonders as urgently as he did. I fell in love with Tim and Bird, the young girl he inadvertently rescues, almost immediately.  With his ability to see people and situations with clarity and beauty, with her strength and courage in horrific circumstances. As an example of the dense lyricism of Tim’s observations, here’s his description of his fellow copper stars at first glance: I raked my eyes across my new cohorts.  A fool’s motley coat would have looked uniform next to the seated mob.  There seemed to be about fifty of them, and again I felt like a patch of vacant silence in the middle of a tumult. To me, this novel was as much about relationships and politics as it was about the nasty crime that Tim is challenged to solve before its discovery blows up an already roiled religious and political climate. The battle for supremacy between the American Protestant “dead rabbits” and Irish Catholic immigrants underlies a great deal of the drama, with good guys and bad guys on both sides of the aisle. Timothy and his elder brother Valentine, orphaned when their parents are killed in a house fire, have a tempestuous and compelling relationship.  Tim cannot bear to be with his brother, who seems to torment him, nor . . .

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