Review: The Moon And More

The Moon And More by Sarah Dessen. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation, and everything in Emaline’s life is the same as it ever was. She’s working at her grandmother’s beach rental property business. She’s hanging out with Luke, her boyfriend since ninth grade. Even the arguments with her older sisters are familiar, even if they are about new things. Things in the beach town of Colby are always a certain way, and that’s how it’s always been and always will be.

Or will it? Emaline feels an edge of something, she’s not quite sure what. Dissatisfaction? Yearning? Wanting a change? And the knowledge that when summer ends, she’s going off to college (one of the first in her family to do so), doesn’t help. It’s East U, the same place her oldest sister went, the same place most of her classmates will go, so how will her life be anything different than it is now?

Emaline meets Theo, the assistant to documentary director Ivy, two New Yorkers in Colby for the summer to make a documentary about a local man who, years before, left Colby, became a well regarded artist, and then turned his back on it all to go back to the small beach town. Seeing herself, her town, through their eyes: what is it, really, that Emaline wants? To stay or go? What life does she want?

The Good: The main difficulty I had with writing about The Moon and More is that it’s not a simple book. It’s not so much about Emaline’s “coming of age” (whatever that means) as Emaline being on the cusp of something and not knowing what it is; it’s about Emaline not looking for answers because she is still trying to figure out the questions.

Emaline’s roots in Colby run deep. She works for Colby Realty in the summer, just like her mother and her sister Margo. Everyone knows the story of her mother and Emaline: how, while still in school, younger than Emaline is now, Emily fell in love with one of the tourists, one of the summer people who are down for a season, and ended up pregnant and alone and left. No, this isn’t that sort of book: Emily had a child to take care of and she got her act together and married a man from Colby with roots of his own, a widower with two young girls who adopted Emaline and has been as much a father to her as his own girls. It’s a blended family that is happy and loving and, yes, sometimes they fight because that’s what families do. One of the big things I loved about The Moon and More was Emaline’s family.

Another thing I loved? The portrait of a beach community, with the locals being mostly working class and the tourists being mostly rich. Emaline has always known better than to get involved with a tourist — look what happened to her mother. She sees it also in classmates, who date a boy in the summer and then the gradual disintegration of the relationship once summer ends. Yet, despite that, despite Luke, she finds herself drawn to Theo. He’s not like the local boys and she yearns, in a way, for that which is different from the life she knows. The tension that any about-to-leave-for-college teenager feels that summer before college is played out on a slightly bigger canvas, because of the tensions that exist between the locals and the tourists. What does it mean to be from someplace? What does it mean to want to leave? And can one really leave?

Another strength is Emaline’s friendships: her two best friends, Daisy and Morris, and Luke, her boyfriend. And this is the moment where I get a bit spoilerish — no, a lot spoilerish.

Here’s the thing: The Moon and More is classic Dessen, creating a girl so real the reader knows Emaline’s strengths and weaknesses and loves her anyway. Emaline has to learn a thing or two or three about people in this summer’s journey, and that I saw some truths before she did? Well, sometimes we all have things we have to learn the hard way.

So, stop reading now, if you don’t want a bit of an analysis on just why The Moon and More is, I think, one of Dessen’s best books.

First, it’s not a romance. Oh, there is a romance in it — Emaline and Luke break up and Emaline starts dating Theo. But, this is not a romance. I felt none of the “wowza” I’ve felt with past Dessen boys. Luke felt, well, like a familiar sweater, something nice enough and reliable enough but no spark. And Theo: Theo is a boy pretending to be a man, and what better way for an insecure out of towner to feel smarter and brighter than to date someone a few years younger? Emaline does not know this, as she drinks red wine because Theo likes it and goes to the restaurants Theo likes. Emaline has to figure it out for herself. Figuring it out, though? That’s part of the point of The Moon and More and it’s watching Emaline realize this that makes this book bittersweet.

The other point of The Moon and More is watching Emaline work out her relationship with her birth father (as opposed to her Dad, the man who raised her). Who her father is, who he wishes he were, who Emaline wishes he were, is as complicated and messy as you would expect it to be. I love that here, with Emaline’s father, Dessen gave no simple answers, no easy reunions, no miraculous changes of heart. Just, flawed people with weaknesses who do the best they can and make the best of what they have.

Usually I’m pretty good at thinking of the teen audience and intended audience when I read a book. Here, for example: reading it and loving it as a teen reader would; also thinking, hey, this may work for those readers wanting “New Adult,” whatever that is; but sometimes I cannot turn off my “but I’m an adult reading this” brain. Here, it means, I think, that I figured out certain truths about Theo and about Emaline’s father before she did. I wonder if teen readers will be following Emaline’s journey more than I was able to , or if it’s part of the intended reader experience to know things before Emaline. Also, to be honest — I find myself curious about Emaline’s mother, and her choices, and find myself, for the first time, wishing Sarah Dessen would consider writing a book or two for the grownups. Dessen does a great job of painting nuanced, flawed parents without making them “evil” and I wish there would be a book just about those grownups. Selfish, I know.

And of course — it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Review: The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. Viking. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays.)

It’s About: The designated heir of England dies in a shipwreck; England is plunged into civil war as descendants of William the Conqueror fight for the right to the throne; and the winning family is the Plantagenets.

Starting with Henry II, son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and Empress Matilda, wife of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and father of Richard the Lionheart and King John, and ending over two hundred years later with his many times great grandson Richard II, The Plantagenets tells of the men, the women, the battles, the politics, the murders, the laws and even the finances that created and shaped both England and its relationship with its kings.

The Good: Didn’t you see the title? THE PLANTAGENETS! Henry and Eleanor and Richard, and, well, another Henry and some Edwards tossed in, also. And of course JOHN. We can’t forget him.

For those who aren’t captivated at The Plantagenets, I give you this: It starts with a mega disaster of epic proportions. The heir to the English throne is on his way home, along with friends and relations, and of course when you’re seventeen and the world is yours what do you do? You party like a rock star. The fatal flaw in that plan is when the crew of your ship parties with you, crashing the ship before it leaves the harbor, and the heir, his family and friends, and the ships crew, all drown.

No, really. The heir’s death results in a “who gets to rule” game; and any game for a throne is a game played out in blood, and death, and battles, and treachery, and loyalty. And that’s just the start of it.

The Plantagenets covers a lot of kings: Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II, and their wives, children, cousins; those loyal to them, those who turned against them. It ends on a cliffhanger of a sort: the defeat of Richard II by Henry IV, resulting in the end of the Plantagenet reign and the start of the House of Lancaster.

All these people in one volume is pretty amazing; it’s almost impressive that it’s “only” 500-odd pages. And let me add: it’s an intense 500 pages. Each of these men and women would warrant a book of their own (and yes, there is a “Further Reading” section for those who want to know more). Heck, specific events within the reign of any particular king would warrant an individual book. Jones does the impossible: providing a lot of information about people with the same or similar names in a way that is both clear and concise and at the same time explains the complexity of a situation. And he does that for an incredible time span. An ally is not just an ally: it’s the grandson of someone significant.

The amount of information in The Plantagenets means a careful reading is needed. I found The Plantagenets best read in chunks: I’d read about one ruler, then put it down for a couple of days. A family tree is included, showing the important people mentioned, as well as maps to help explain the battles being fought, especially those on the Continent as the Plantagenets repeatedly clash with the kings of France. Despite the length, sometimes I did want “more” and got a quick fix going over to Wikipedia to find out more about a particular person. I don’t think this is a bad thing: there’s a limited number of pages, and Jones made me care so much about the people he mentioned that I wondered about them and wanted “more.” Wanting “more” is a good thing in a history book, because it means the book has achieved its goal of getting the reader excited about the topic and hungry for information. (Also, I cannot be the only reader who wonders, have any of these families survived to modern times? Or did battles for property and titles result in the death of these powerful families?)

An example of something that gets mentioned that I want to know more about: money. Kings needed money to wage war. Tax too much, and subjects get unhappy, especially if they feel uninvested in the war. So, what do you do when you need money? Borrow. Don’t ask me why, but the idea of the kings of England borrowing money from Italian banking families stunned me. I had no idea. And that defaulting ruined those banks, which led to the rise of the Medici family. Seriously, I did not know this!

I knew this was a violent time, and I knew that it was a time when kings still fought in battles. That is why they were kings, after all. What The Plantagenets does is make those battles and that violence real. When people were fighting for power, it was actual fighting. It wasn’t through political manipulations or game playing at court. Or, rather, it wasn’t just that. A ruler couldn’t just talk, he had to actually go out and make stuff happen.

I’m only half-kidding about the book ending on a cliffhanger. This covers just the Plantagenets; Jones plans a book about the War of the Roses and the Tudors. I cannot wait for his next book, even though the more I read about the Tudors the less I like them. Henry VIII just seems like a bit of a poser next to all the Plantagenets, even the weaker kings.

In the meanwhile, I’ll be content with this one and with calling it a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

My only disappointment with reading the electronic ARC of this book is that it doesn’t have the eight pages of pictures that are in the hardcover. I know, I know — I’m not that silly person asking for a photograph of Alexander the Great. But, there are castles or ruins of castles; stained glass and tapestries; objects that have survived the centuries. I want to see these, so will be pursuing finished copy! (Note: I made an error about the lack of illustrations, and corrected this sentence to reflect that pictures appear in the final version. Sorry about that!)

Other reviews and interviews: Author interview at Library Journal; Open Letters Monthly.

Long time readers of this blog may remember that one of my favorite books from childhood is as A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg; it started a lifelong love of English history, helped along by films like The Lion In Winter. In my teenage years I read a lot of Jean Plaidy, loving the historic details that brought the time periods alive as well as the attention paid to the women in history. Another book I read in my late teens was Susan Howatch’s The Wheel of Fortune. I didn’t realize it when I began reading, but it takes the story of Edward III and sets it in the early part of the twentieth century, leading up to the 1960s.

So, here’s my question to you: what are some of your favorite books set during the Plantagenet period, from 1154 to 1399?

Review: Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor by Tana French. Viking Adult. 2012. Personal copy. This is my Thanksgiving Holiday Read, a review of something that is not a YA book. (Yes, it’s the day after, but you have the weekend to read it!) Book 4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. Previous books: In the Woods; The Likeness; and Faithful Place.

The Plot: Patrick Spain is dead, as are his two small children. His wife is in critical condition. They were found in their new house, in a development never finished, one of Ireland’s “Ghost Estates.” Mick Kennedy (nickname Scorcher) is the investigating detective. taking a risk on Richie, the rookie on the team.

Mick takes pride in what he does; and he follows the rules; and he gets the job done. Not many could take a case with dead kids, for instance; Mick does.

The Spains lived in a development called Brianstown. Before the fancy, unfinished, poorly built Brianstown, though, it was called Broken Harbor. Broken Harbor was where Mick’s family spent a week of vacation each summer, back in the day when families where happy with a week in a caravan and the beach and ice cream. Something happened to Mick’s family back then, but Mick isn’t going to talk about that. He’s not going to think about that. He’s going to solve the case, of what happened to the Spains.

The Good: Yes, I skipped the middle two books in this series. It was no problem, really; each book stands alone, loosely tied together by the members of the murder squad, yes, but with shifting main characters. So while I didn’t experience Mick as seen through the eyes of others in the earlier books, it didn’t impact how I read this. I could tell from how Mick treated Richie that Mick could sometimes be a bit of an annoying stick in the mud, particular about things being done the right way and only he, Mick, knowing that way. Of course, now I want to go back and read the two that I skipped!

They mystery is, of course, who killed the Spain family, who left Jenny Spain for dead? Mick is a by-the-book man, who believes that usually people “invite” crime in. There is something, somewhere, that made the crimes happen; it doesn’t come out of the blue; if a family member usually did it, look at the family; and these are what guides his investigation. Richie, younger, questions why Mick isn’t open to more possibilities. The tension between the two, the disagreement on what to look at and what to not look at, creates some of the tension in this novel. Even though this is told by Mick, at times I was sympathetic to Richie’s arguments, or saw the things Mick couldn’t recognize.

The other tension comes from Mick himself. What happened to his own family, years ago, at Broken Harbor, is a secret he slowly reveals to the reader. What is more quickly shown to the reader is Mick’s younger sister, Dina, who is flighty, irrational, mentally unstable, and has only her family to take care of her. Since their other sister has her hands full with her husband and children, it’s up to Mick to caretake Dina while delving into the murders of the Spains.

There are several ghosts in Broken Harbor. The Ghost Estates: the ghost of the broken dreams of posterity and promise, the ghost of success and happiness. It is Mick’s own ghosts, too, of what happened to his family. It may be even more than that. One of the things I loved about In the Woods is that there was a possible fantastical element to it, if the reader wanted to believe in it. Children disappeared, and was it for something a bit unreal, something pagan leftover in the woods? Here, Mick discovers that the house the Spains lived in, like that of their neighbors, was poorly constructed. The Spains tried to hide it with furniture and paint… except for the holes in the walls and baby monitors in odd places and a trap in the attic. What was going on in the Spain house?

Mick grew up in before the success a younger generation knew; the loss of that, perhaps, hits him and his generation a bit less than those who always knew plenty. He and his knew about wearing hand me downs or second hand clothes; for someone like Jenny Spain, though, those things would be a sign of failure. Broken Harbor isn’t just a murder investigation: it is also a look at economic prosperity and it’s loss. It’s a look at what that loss does to a person.

Broken Harbor is also a glimpse at the Ireland before that success, in the story of Mick and his family. Let me tell you: I really liked Mick. When I couldn’t understand his relationship with his sister, Dina, I reminded myself that (while he is roughly my age) his was a culture of  “what would the neighbors say” and “we take care of our own.” That, I could understand, and Mick’s and Dina’s tragedy is that neither of them can move beyond that. Still, they take of their own. That’s something, right? Broken Harbor, or broken people, and which people can put themselves together and which people don’t? What do you do when the wolves are at the door? For all that Jenny Spain doesn’t want to buy used clothing, who am I to judge, because neither do I.

Because this book has just the right mix of elements to intrigue me, because I liked Mick, because I felt sorry for the Spains, because the story haunts me, because I want to read the books I missed, because I want to read more about Ireland and the ghost estates. And because I was reminded of Ken Bruen‘s books. (Note to self: need to catch up with Jack Taylor and see how he’s doing.) This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: S. Krishna’s Books; Rhapsody in Books; NPR.

Review: Gilt

Gilt by Katherine Longshore. Viking. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: England, 1539. Kitty Tylney and Cat Howard are two teenage girls, living at the home of Cat’s grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess may be rich and powerful, but she is also old and absorbed in her own affairs. Kitty, Cat, and the other girls who live crowded together in the maiden’s chamber are there because they have no where else to go. No one is really interested in them. Some are like Cat, younger sisters of younger sons, who have a name and connections but hand me down clothes and neither money nor power. Others are like Kitty, sent away from home simply because her parents don’t want her. Then there are girls like Joan and Alice, married off by their parents to husbands who have left their wives behind as they pursue their own interests.

Young, pretty, bored. Dreaming of life at court, with dances and pretty clothes and handsome men. In the meanwhile, making their own fun, in ways not quite proper. Late night festivities that include dancing and drinking and boys.

Kitty, abandoned by her family, values Cat and her friendship more than anything, because it’s the only thing Kitty has. She’ll do anything for Cat, follow her anywhere, help her with anything. All of Cat’s dreams come true when she captures the eye of the King, and she brings her friends along for the good fortune. Dreams sometimes turn to nightmares; how far will Kitty go to help her friend?

The Good: It’s not a spoiler if it’s history. Wait, was I the only teenager who adored English history?

Some books, like Grave Mercy, are about historical time periods that are not well known. Others are about more famous time periods. Longshore plunges into the Tudor Court, one of the more fascinating time periods in English history. It is the court of Henry VIII, known for his six wives. Catherine Howard was one of them. Henry’s wives get labels, and Catherine’s is flighty. Or young. Or guilty. The challenge, here, is how to tell the story of the tragedy of Catherine Howard? A teenage girl married to an older man, in a court where intrigue ruled, family mattered, connections were everything, but when push came to shove it was every man (or woman) for himself. A place of beautiful clothes, rich food, and elaborate etiquette. Love, lust, sex, and marriage were four very different things. Romance and relationships were not simple, and politics, power, and the long game mattered more than feelings or one individuals wants or needs.

Gilt is told not through Cat’s eyes, but through that of her best friend, Kitty. One of the fascinating parts of Gilt is the details about the daily life of Kitty and Cat, starting with the maids chamber, one room with a hodgepodge of beds. Chores or other duties may occupy the day, but at night Cat turns the room into party central, full of young men and dancing. Kitty and Cat have less (privacy, room, clothes, and jewels) than the Duchess; yet they have much more than others. They are the fortunate girls:  they have a place to sleep, even if its a crowded chamber; they have clothes, even if they are hand me downs. They have something else: hope of one day, somehow, escaping by going to the King’s Court, where anything is possible. Raised to marry who their families decided, with little or no education, the best they can dream of is the parties and dancing of court life. As Cat describes it, “The English court is beautiful and cut throat, and anyone going there has to be both. Or at least act as if she is.” Cat’s goal is to get there; Kitty’s goal is to remain friend’s with Cat.

It’s not a spoiler that Cat gets to court; her family ignores her earlier wild days and presents her to the king as young, virginal girl. Cat is the life of the party, and the king falls for that vibrancy. “Former queens had helped the poor, changed the king’s view on religion, or begged for mercy for rebellious commoners. Cat enabled him, in his decrepit old age, to enjoy life again.” Cat is also a teenager; about fifteen at the start of the book, and the book explores just why Cat does what she does. Trouble comes from two fronts: her relationships before she met the king, which she and her family hid; and, then, what she does at court. On paper, knowing what happens, it seems stupid for Cat to do what she does; Longshore shows a Cat who is impulsive and self-centered, who isn’t sure who to trust or what to do so does what she wants. In other words, she is a typical teenager in a very untypical situation. She realizes there is danger (“all talk is dangerous“) yet just can’t help herself.

While Cat’s fate is known to the reader going in, Kitty’s is not. I’d guess that most readers may be familiar with Cat’s place in the wives hierarchy, but not as familiar with the other players. Kitty is based on a real person, as are almost all of the characters in Gilt. Every now and then, a name is tweaked or an age made more convenient. The question becomes, then, not will Cat survive, but will Kitty? And at what cost?

Along the way, Kitty has her own romantic intrigue: two different men that she likes, in different ways. Upon meeting one for the first time, “I pressed the name into my memory like a late summer bloom into the leaves of a book.” I won’t say that one is “good” and one is “bad,” but, rather, they each are trying to work the system of the Tudor Court. Do they like Kitty — or do they like that she is Cat’s friend? Who will they be loyal to, when the end comes? And when the end does come — ARGH. I want to say specifically why I adored the ending, but I don’t want to give the ending away.

Gilt is part of a three book series; I love that it covers 1439-42,when Henry was in his late 40s/early fifties, rather during his younger, handsomer time period. It also makes me very curious as to who the next book will be about! Because, and you know I love this with a love that is pure and true, the Tudor Series are a series about a time period not one person. From the author’s website: “All the books are set in the court of Henry VIII. They are all about real people and actual events, embellished by my imagination. They won’t be follow-on stories, but some characters will pop up in all three books with varying degrees of importance.”

If you haven’t guessed from all the gushing so far: yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Girls in the Stacks review; Author Interview at Omnivoracious; Kirkus blog review by Leila Roy.

Review: Radiant Days

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: 1977. Merle, 18, is in Washington DC to attend the Corcoran School of Art. Art is her ticket out of nowheresville Virginia — but not the way some would think. Not in a make money or become famous way. Art is her way out because art is her life, it’s what she lives for, it’s what drives her.

1870. Arthur Rimbaud, 15, is running away from provincial Charleville, France to Paris. Poetry is what drives him and pushes him.

Separated by contents and a century, two artists struggle to find a way to express themselves, to leave a mark, to become.

The Good: OK, here’s the thing.

I just want you to go read this.

It is an amazing, awesome, scarily brilliant book. Scary because it is so flawless, so exciting, so magical. Scary because I’m not sure how to capture that magic and show it to you.

Hand pulls the curtain back to expose the magic of what makes someone an artist, a poet; and in the case of Merle and Arthur’s dual stories, which, yes, eventually intertwine, magic is at work. Both the magic of what they create and the magic that inspires. “Magic” for both can be as simple as a blank wall and spray can (Merle) and a pencil and scrap paper and the world around him (Arthur).

Magic is also a time in life: the time of becoming. Not just an artist; of becoming oneself. As Merle says, “[t]hose were radiant days, sun streaming through the scrim of new leaves on the ailanthus outside and igniting dust in the air once the rain stopped.” Neither Merle nor Arthur care much for material things. Merle rents a room with a mattress on the floor, basically squatting in a falling down house, her main concern her paintings and brushes and paint. Arthur repeatedly runs away from home, with little money in his pocket, and just a need to experience  life to fuel his poetry.

So many magical quotes. Merle on what drives her to paint yet to also almost abandon her classes: “Clea said I need to learn the rules before I break them, but I think that’s total bullshit. That’s what my tag means — radiant days. Because right now I’m burning and live . . . So I only have this one day to paint, all these radiant days . . .

When Merle and Arthur try to understand their meshed worlds: “Have you ever noticed how minutes or hours seem to speed up sometimes, but other times they go really slow? And how you remember things that happened a long time ago and it was like only yesterday? Ever think that maybe it doesn’t just seem that way? That time really does speed up and slow down?”

There’s so much more here: the time periods and places; the affair between Merle and her teacher; Ted; but part of the magic of this book (and yes, I use this word over and over) is that it brings the reader into the story, so that the reader is with Merle and Arthur, feeling and believing what they do.

Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012. Why? “What’s important is to keep your eyes open and keep moving. Don’t ever stop. And don’t look back. Looking back is deadly.”

Other reviews: Bookslut, by Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray.

Review: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn. Viking. 2011. Review copy from publisher via NetGalley. Holiday reads. Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays

It’s About: Cooking! Flinn, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, sees a woman in the foodstore stocking up on preprocessed and frozen meals and convinces her to try a few easy, simple substitutes. This leads her to wondering people don’t cook more and why they rely on prepackaged food; Flinn then puts together a group of people who don’t cook, for various reasons, and conducts a series of lessons starting with the right way to use a knife. Will they be transformed into fearless home cooks? Will the reader be?

The Good: I like reading about cooking much more than I like to actual cook. As I once said to someone, I shelve my cookbooks next to my fantasy books. (No, not really. I sometimes exaggerate, but you get the point.)

Flinn’s book is part memoir, part how-to, part recipe, part history. Yes, she wants to know why people don’t want to cook when it’s just as easy to cook; but she is also wondering what she’ll do next with her life.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School didn’t insult me. Sometimes, when people talk about the benefits of home cooking over store bought or preprocessed, they include the opinion that baking or cooking is morally superior than store-bought or packaged. Flinn did not do that; her argument is that it is just as easy to do it yourself, with the additional bonus of being cheaper and healthier and tasting better. These are the things that sway me.

I mentioned history: the history of prepackaged food is fascinating. Reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School makes me want to find out more about the history of food and cooking;

Will this turn me into a fearless home cook? Well, I don’t always agree with some of Flinn’s conclusions. Fear isn’t a reason I don’t cook; time and energy is. Familiarity, too; something is “easy” once you’ve seen it done, and do it yourself, which is why Flinn’s lessons were successful. Following a recipe for the first time adds time and lessons the “this is easy” element.

Did this book inspire me? Heck, yes! I want to go get some good (yet not terribly expensive) knives. I want to experiment with the simple pasta sauce and salad dressing recipes in the book.

Any recommendations for other books about food and cooking?

Review: In The Woods

In the Woods by Tana French. Viking. 2007. Library copy. Holiday reads — a grown up book to read over the holidays.

The Plot: 1984, a summer day, a Dublin suburb. Three twelve year olds, Germaine (Jamie), Peter, and Adam, go in the woods to play. They don’t come home. Adam alone is found; slash marks on his back, blood in his sneakers, no memories of what happened.

Twenty years later, the body of Katy Devlin, twelve, is found, near the woods where the children disappeared years ago. Police detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate. By Katy’s body they find a clue: an old barrette. Jamie’s, the missing girl from decades before. It’s not the only link to the earlier crime.

Rob Ryan is Adam. Grown up, change of name, even a change of accent from the schools his parents sent him to to keep him out of the public eye. Rob Ryan, who despite his lack of memories of that fateful day is determined to not just solve the crime of Katy’s murder but also that of his missing friends.

The Good: A deliciously good, ice-chilling mystery. This is Rob’s story, and he is a storyteller, knowing just what to tell us and when. “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.” The reader is warned, but there are surprises to be had.

The setting is Dublin; and I’m a mystery lover who likes mysteries set in other countries. Having visited Ireland more than once, some descriptions of towns and landmarks were familiar, which is an added bonus for me.

I loved the multiple mysteries going on here: the present one, the murder of young Katy; and past one, the disappearances of the twelve year olds. There is added twist that Adam/Rob is the narrator, someone who should have the most information to share yet who suffers amnesia for the time he and his friends went missing. Rob also has incomplete remembrances of his childhood before that time, so he’s lost not just his two friends but the friendship they shared as well. When thoughts of that time period are shared, I was reminded of Stephen King and when he writes about childhood friendship: the magic, the fierceness, the loyalty. Some of this is then oddly mirrored in the working dynamics in the present between Rob, Cassie, and a third police colleague working on the case.

Rob is also not always honest with himself or the reader; he reveals information in dribs and drabs. By the end of the book, I wasn’t quite sure what to think about him, except that I felt sorry for him, both the child Adam and the adult Rob. The mystery of In The Woods is as much about who Rob is and why as it is about the dead and missing children.

For the Katy mystery, I made some correct guesses about what had happened to her. For me, mysteries work for different reasons, and while sometimes I read to be surprised by whodoneit other times I read a book as if it’s a puzzle, to see if I can figure it out with or before the investigators. So, that I made some correct deductions meant that the book worked and I felt smart. Where I was surprised in the story? By what happened to the grownup characters, Cassie and Rob. For the Jamie, Peter, and Adam mystery, I’ll reserve my thoughts for the comments. That way those who don’t want to be spoiled, won’t, but those who need to discuss it, can.

I read this using my phone as an ereader. It’s not a way I’d want to read all my books, but it was nice to have a book on my phone for when I wanted a book to read and  hadn’t brought one.

Review: What Happened to Goodbye

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen. Viking, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: Mclean has spent the last two years at four different high schools. At each one, she tries out a different personality: different name, different interests, different clothes.  The most recent move lands her at Lakeview in her senior year and she’s not sure who she wants to be this time around. She’s been the cheerleader, the drama girl, the super involved student government member. She knows who she doesn’t want to be: Mclean, the girl whose parents’ divorce was very public, whose mother betrayed her father, who was talked about behind her back. For two years she’s kept her past, her self, her mother, at arm’s length — and also kept her present a comfortable distance, too, so that “goodbyes” are never said as she leaves one school for another. Mclean can only run from herself for so long.

The Good: For some people, like Alyssa at where I get my hair done, all they need to know is “a new Sarah Dessen? She has a new book out?”  Yes! Yes, she does.

While What Happened to Goodbye has a romance in it, this is not a romance. Rather, it is about a girl whose life fractured, whose sense of self fractured, and who spent two years hiding from what had happened by trying on and discarding new personas. Now, Mclean is at a time and a place, both physically and emotionally, where she can put those pieces together and become herself.

What happened a few years back that shattered Mclean’s life? Her parents, Gus and Kate Sweet, were college sweethearts who owned a restaurant. Gus Sweet was a huge basketball fan, especially for this college team; the Sweets stayed in that same town. Gus worked the restaurant, Kate did the books, Mclean (named after her father’s favorite coach) played there growing up. Money was tight but they were all happy. Then the local college got a new coach, Peter Hamilton, who came to dinner at Gus and Kate’s restaurant. Long story short; Kate and Peter had an affair, Kate and Gus got divorced, Kate and Peter got married, Kate became Katherine, wife of the famous coach, living in a big house with a housekeeper and soon baby twins completed the picture. Kate’s life was now fairy tale perfect, and she expected Mclean to seamlessly move into that big old house with a stepfather and ignore the fifteen years that had come before. Mclean, seeing her father abandoned and crushed (and her family the target of gossip and headlines), said no way; when her father got a job evaluating and saving (or ending) failing restaurants, Mclean went with him.

What Happened to Goodbye has exactly what one wants and needs from a Dessen book: Mclean finds herself; along the way she meets some true friends and has to learn just what friendship means — which means learning how to say goodbye instead of leaving and changing names. The setting — here, the failing restaurant called the Luna Blu and it’s cast of employees — is one that is so fully created the reader thinks they’ve been to that restaurant even if the food and service needs a little work. The romance is just the right touch, to say that it’s part of Mclean’s life and it impacts her but it’s not the only thing in her life and it isn’t the sole reason she finally rediscovers her self.

The part of What Happened to Goodbye that captivates me is not all that — though, rest assured, those are things that I enjoyed. What captivates me is Kate, the mother, and how Mclean views both her parents and how the reader views those parents. I was as angry as Mclean at her mother’s betrayal — cheating on her father, getting pregnant, leaving him. Her father loses everything: wife. home. restaurant. Even his love of basketball is gone, because the coach for “his” team is the man who took his wife. Gus Sweet now lives a semi-nomadic existence of living in rental homes, with all his possessions fitting in a small U-haul. Who wouldn’t get mad?

And yet. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult reader, more of age with Kate than Mclean. Maybe it’s because I picked up on the subtle clues that Dessen included, even thought it’s Mclean telling the story. Kate and Gus, together for fifteen years, had always been an odd couple. The restaurant was failing long before Hamilton came to town. Gus was a workaholic, with little time for his wife and child outside the restaurant/basketball world he loved. While Mclean sees the situation as pretty black and white (Mom = left = controlling & bad, Dad = abandoned = easygoing & good), she shows details that show more dimension to the complicated relationship than that. Don’t worry — Kate’s story doesn’t overly intrude on Mcleans, and wow, Mom needs some sensitivity to Mclean’s feelings.

What else, before the links? OF COURSE there are Easter Eggs. This is Dessen, after all.

Links: From Michelle at Galleysmith, “Mclean has a diverse circle of friends.  Each person is quirky in his or her own way but again not so over the top that interactions and situations are unrealistic.  Mainly created through her unique ability to bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise be so inclined she finds herself constantly surrounded by people who have problems of equal magnitude to her own.”

From Forever Young Adult: “Her dialogue continues to be natural, her characters real, her pauses thoughtful. Her habit of wrapping up each passage with a reflection stood out more to me in this book, and I don’t know if that’s because, as a swimfan, I’m hyper aware of her style, or because she employed that technique more frequently.”

Jinx! Bookshelves of Doom and I post about What Happened to Goodbye on the same day!

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

Tales of the Madman Underground (An Historical Romance 1973) by John Barnes. Viking. 2009. Reviewed from ARC from a conference.

The Plot: Lightsburg, Ohio, 1973. Karl Shoemaker has a simple resolution for his senior year: don’t get the “ticket,” the slip of paper from school that sends him to group therapy during school hours. Instead, be normal for just this one year.

Normal? Is normal his mother, sometimes drunk, sometimes stoned, sometimes stealing his money, sometimes talking about her flying saucers and Nixon theories? Is normal his five jobs that earns him the money he hides in jars around his house to stop his mother from stealing? Is normal his dead father, whose legacy was several pages of “how to fix things” to keep their falling down house in some semblance of order? What about the cats who treat the entire house as a litter box? Then there’s Karl’s own drinking which he stopped doing last year and he is now the youngest person at AA meetings with, perhaps, the most boring story there. What is normal?

The Plot: I wasn’t so sure about Karl at first. Didn’t know what to make of him. Karl narrates the story, which takes place from Wednesday, September 5, 1973 to Monday, September 10, 1973. While the story takes place during only a handful of days, Karl also fills us in on his past. Karl is not so much an unreliable narrator as one who takes his time telling you things, and doesn’t do so in a linear fashion. The story and narrative all make sense, and ultimately all the pieces fit together to give you a picture of Karl, his friends, his family, his town.

I went in with very little knowledge of Karl; it’s a Printz Honor, but I remained unspoiled. The “madman underground” is the nickname given to themselves by the students in group therapy; some have lives and friendships outside the group, some do not. All have their own brand of horror story, sometimes because of something they did, or something someone did to them. Karl’s fellow madmen are in group therapy for “weird” behavior or for issues of disrespect, anger, violence; the friends know there is more to each of their stories, including abuse, alcoholism, incest.  Because they know each other’s true stories, and because they all believe the hell they know is better than the hell they don’t, their stories aren’t fully known by adults. Even when they are known, the adults look the other way, ignore it, pretend it isn’t true. Take, for instance, Karl. His dead father, one-time mayor and recovering alcoholic, was well known and respected in town. His mother’s drinking and his home life isn’t exactly a secret. Yet all those “good buddies” of his dad do little to help mother or son. No wonder Karl is angry – angry enough that he has earned the nickname “Psycho.”

What Karl did to be called “Psycho” is shocking, softened only by it being something that happened in his past. When, in the present, people believe him capable of certain acts because he is “Psycho Shoemaker,” part of me also wonders. What is Karl really capable of? Tales of the Madman Underground gives us an answer: Karl is capable of taking care of himself and taking care of others.

Abuse, alcoholism, psycho. Sounds pretty heavy – but this book is also funny. Sometimes funny in a black humor type of way, sometimes funny in a laugh out loud way. Karl on his math teacher: “Mrs. Hertz wasn’t really a pushover. No math teacher can be because they can see your bullshit too easy. But she was nice, and she hated to say “you’re wrong,” and best of all, she was as heavy a smoker as my mother, so between classes she was always charging down to the teachers’ lounge to suck down those nasty skinny brown almost-cigars, and it usually made her a couple minutes late to class, so there was more socializing and less math in my life.”

Karl is trying to take steps to create a life for himself. One of those steps? He’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a bit refreshing to have a book where the teen is in AA, and the story is not about being in AA. It’s just a part of who Karl is.

Longtime readers know I tend to question why a book is set in the past, especially the past that just so happens to be when the author was a teen. Cynically I wonder, is it because they feel they don’t know about teens today? If that is the answer, their book should be for adults, not teens. Is it a sort of navel-gazing, “this was important to me so it’s important to everyone”? If that is the answer, well, it’s a bit self centered.

For Tales of the Madman Underground, the answer was simple. It is a book for teens; it is a book that had to be set in the past. These teens are broken and have put themselves back together, either by themselves or with the help of their friends. They are each other’s family. If this had been set in today’s world, readers would scoff, “someone would have called the police,” “that would never be tolerated,” “someone would have done something.” 1973 allows the reader to believe, “oh, it’s different today. Teens today don’t have to suffer in silence.” But teenagers reading this? Will know that what was true in 1973 is true today.

Review: Illyria by Elizabeth Hand

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand. Viking, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from conference.

The Plot: Yonkers, New York, the 1970s. Rogan and Madeline Tierney are first cousins, the youngest son and youngest daughter of twins. They are best friends, deeply connected and attuned to each other. Their great-grandmother was the famous actress Madeline Armin Tierney, who gave up the stage when she married and whose descendants embraced money making and business. The Tierney’s family only connection to their theatre legacy are faded playbills and moth-eaten costumes.

Until Rogan and Maddy. Rogan, with a stunning voice. Maddy, who is only now leaving behind braces, pimples, glasses, and parental imposed bad hair. As high school freshmen, they decide to try out for their school play, Twelfth Night, looking for an excuse to share a stage, share time, share space. Needed excuses because their families and friends suspect – rightfully – that the close cousins are too close. Both win roles; both excel; and for both, it is a life changing experience.

The Good: Elizabeth Hand is such a gifted writer that nothing I write here can do it any justice at all. Here, a scattering of the poetry of her work: “Rogan looked like he’d fallen from a painting.” “Everywhere I touched him was like finding myself in the dark.” “Someone had set fire to him and burned away all his youth.”

Rogan and Maddy are cousins born on the same day; children of twins, almost twins themselves, and they both mirror and complement each other. Complement: to complete each other. Together, they are almost a whole. They escape from prying, judgmental eyes in crawl spaces and secret rooms, first kissing and then making love. (If you still think of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now as the cousins having sex book, and if right now your biggest reaction is “ick”, and you’re off to Google just whether or not that counts as incest, then no, this book isn’t for you.)

Rogan has a relatively easy life; his gifts come with little or no work, his looks, his singing, his acting. He can drink, smoke, stay out late and still deliver a stunning performance. Maddy has to work for it. Aunt Kate, who carries on some of the original Madeline’s love of theatre, is a fairy godmother to both, bringing them to plays, encouraging their dreams.

In a secret room in Rogan’s house – the house built by their actress great grandmother – they find a miniature theatre hidden in the walls. Maddy hears rustles of the audience, sees magical snowfalls in the attic walls. The fantasy of Illyria is hints, shadows, whispers: the hidden theatre and its sounds, Rogan’s description as “fey” and his gifts that take no work to achieve or maintain; Aunt Kate’s own mystery connection to the past and her sense of looking out for something unknown and unknowable about the family.

Putting the plot of Illyria into words almost diminishes it. What happens next does not matter so much; what matters is Hand capturing Maddy’s falling in love with the theatre, as strongly as she has fallen in love with Rogan. What matters is the sweetness and heartache and bliss of Rogan’s and Maddy’s love. What matters is the capturing of place, of the 1970s, where parents drank their whiskey sours, children had freedom to roam and fight, teenagers discovered rock and roll when it was still raw and dangerous and not packaged and dressed up as a pretty boy band or poptart; and pot and hash were casual among teens. And Rogan, Rogan, Rogan.  A character seen almost entirely through Maddy’s worshipful eyes; whose own path in life seems almost inevitable.

Illyria takes us through those decades after that one sweet fall of love and promise of a golden future. It captures the “after”, where not everyone who is gifted achieves; maybe the gift isn’t nourished, but maybe it’s just life happening and some of us become stars and some – don’t.

And after life has happened, after the miniature theatre is destroyed by hate and jealousy, can the magic ever be recaptured? Is golden promise only for teenage years?

One last bit of swooning over Hand’s writing. Illyria comes in at 135 pages; it is short, tight, beautifully crafted. Stunning to think of how much is put into so few words. And, in a way, I feel as if the story of Rogan and Maddy is part of a bigger picture. A short glimpse of a wider world. I’m not saying that I missed anything or felt that Hand left anything out; no, far from it. It’s just that Rogan and Maddy’s world is so complete, supporting characters are so full, even those who appear in memory, like Madeline and her husband Rosco, that you wonder to yourself, “what is the original Madeline’s story? What about Aunt Kate?” It’s a sign of how gifted Hand is, that so much is captured; and that she knows just how much to tell us and what not to. Because it is not original Madeline’s story; it is this Maddy, this Rogan.

Because I got to the end of this and was so blown away, wondering “what just happened to me?” from the reading experience, this is a favorite book read in 2010.

Bonus: I also want to touch on the meaning of rock and roll and music, without getting too spoilery about the plot. As I mentioned in the review, this captures that teens discovering their own music and creating a band. It also presents the adults in the world (and, possibly, Maddy) as viewing theatre as acceptable art and rock and roll as something less than. Seriously, an entire essay could have been written about the musical references in this book and their meanings.

Anyway, Hand refers to music, albums, song, but rarely  mentions the albums or artists.  I identified The Velvet Underground’s Loaded; and then yay, found this author interview that provided Hand’s songlist for the book (including more recent songs that influenced the writing): Large Hearted Boy blog.