Book Review, Fiction, thriller, Uncategorized

A Stranger on the Beach by Michele Campbell ~ Book Review

A Stranger on the Beach

St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: July 23, 2019
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

Caroline is the proud owner of a lavish new beach house that overlooks the sea. Not only is it exactly what she wanted, it is also a splendid status symbol. Aiden, a local bartender, is similarly enthralled with the home, but for an entirely different reason. The land on which the home is built belonged to his family for years. He has myriad fond memories of staring out to sea from the spot that Caroline’s new mansion now occupies.

Caroline takes note of Aiden, watching her house. When she realizes that her husband has (probably) been cheating on her, and happens to stumble into Aiden’s bar distraught, one thing leads to another, and they tumble into bed together. Aiden and Caroline’s story is odd. The way Campbell wrote Aiden’s obsession seemed to come out of nowhere. Even if he had a history of instability, it wasn’t believable. Everything lined up much too perfectly to try to convince the reader that they were being told a certain story. It was very obvious to me what the twist was going to be, and I felt like I was just waiting for it to unfold. I’ve read a lot of thrillers, so I’m not easily tricked by predictable false perspectives.

When Caroline’s husband Jason goes missing, I was a little more intrigued, I couldn’t figure out how his storyline would quite fit in with Caroline and Aiden’s. His ongoing excuse for his shady behavior was that he had work obligations. Not actually knowing what he did, this always seemed a little too vague.

Ultimately, I was intrigued enough to finish this book. I was desperate to know how Campbell would unveil the truth. That being said, I would pass on this one if you’re weighing thrillers. The structure is too predictable, even if the plot is, at times, riveting.

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My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

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Book Review, Fiction, Romance, Uncategorized

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston ~ Book Review

 

Red, White & Royal Blue with Doughnut

Griffin
Release Date: May 14, 2019
Genre: Romance
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪

I know it’s not plot relevant, and I know (probably) no one else cares, but can we start by addressing the lack of an oxford comma in the title? There’s a constant battle between those of us who stand by that pesky punctuation mark and those of us who don’t, but every time I look at the cover of this book it’s all I can think about. Okay, now on to the review, which I would like to give the sub-title: ‘Morgan reads a romance novel.’ This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that is firmly planted in the romance genre. I won it in a giveaway, (and, of course, saw glowing reviews splashed here, there, and everywhere), so I decided to give it a go.

I could not put this book down. It sucked me into a warm happy place that I could only emerge from once there were no more pages left to read. McQuiston brings the reader into the world of Alex, the First Son of the United States of America. We get to know his sister, June, and his best friend, Nora, and how his life has changed since his mom (!!) became the president. Following an unfortunate cake-related debacle while attending an event in London, Alex is forced to forge a fake friendship with Henry, the Prince of England, to help clear his image for the press. As their relationship grows, Alex learns a lot about himself, and the future he always envisioned begins to transform.

McQuiston’s descriptions of Alex’s friends, both employed by the White House, and not, were vivid, realistic, and often humorous. She paints June and Nora as hugely different personalities with equal influence on Alex’s life. Their support and friendship was truly heartwarming. Okay, the entire book warmed my heart, not just that part. President Mom, as she’s often called, was also well created as a badass career woman in politics, who can whip up a PowerPoint presentation in under 10 minutes for any given occasion.

Some of the political details in the narrative felt a little too on the nose, for instance, the mention of personal email servers. We get it. The book talks extensively about the 2016 election, the subsequent 2020 election, and the first female president. Trust me, I see the connection to real life, but the way it’s written makes me feel like McQuiston is trying very hard to wipe away the reality that is 2019 America. I would rather have had the politics seem less ‘what could have been,’ and more entirely fictional. 

The other caveat I would like to make is that the word ‘wet’ should not be used to describe everything. Wet hugs, wet eyelashes, and wet mouths abound in McQuiston’s prose. All authors have words they fall back on time and again without realizing it, but this one really stuck out to me. Please find a new descriptor for your next book (side note to scream about the fact that this is Casey McQuiston’s first!).

Despite my trepidation at delving into a romance novel, this one has my support. If you don’t consider yourself a “romance novel” kind of person, do you like being happy and warm and idealistic for a little while? If the answer is yes, pick up this book. (Fair warning though that evidently romance narratives do include sex scenes, so if you’re a newbie to the genre, put on your seatbelt).

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller, Uncategorized

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing ~ Book Review

34101248_Unknown
Berkley
Release Date: March 26, 2019
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

Fast read alert! I sped through this book, and suggest not starting it unless you’ve got a good chunk of reading time to devote to it. This story is very dark, and very Dexter. If you’re not into that sort of thing, or are a newcomer to the thriller genre, maybe take a step back to assess what you’re about to get yourself into. 

Millicent and her husband (our narrator) are a typical looking couple from the outside. In their spare time, however, they have developed an unusual extracurricular activity together: murder. When I sat down to write this review, I found it odd that I couldn’t remember the narrator’s name until I realized that he doesn’t have one. Obviously an intentional choice on Downing’s part, the realization left me feeling the way everyone in their town who was searching for the killer must have felt: he could be anyone, he is anonymous.

Yet, our narrator is not the main murderer. Although he and his wife choose their victims together, she is the one who does the killing. Our narrator doesn’t ask questions about this part. He assumes it is straightforward and completed quickly, a laughably simplistic assessment of how killing someone must go down. He aids mostly in the selection of the women, ensuring they don’t have too many friends who will notice they are missing. Occasionally, his involvement with them goes a step further. He will often assume his alter ego Tobias, a deaf man who communicates with ladies using his phone and sometimes gets carried away and sleeps with them.

The couple’s children, Jenna and Rory, are typical teenagers: they just want to fit in at school, and experiment with romance. Millicent runs a strict household: very limited sugar, all meals eaten together, and weekly movie nights, yet the kids are generally content. That is, until their town is suddenly plagued with murders, and the suspected return of a serial killer named Owen. 

As his family life starts to spiral out of control, our narrator begins to question exactly what his wife has been up to after they choose their victim. Where is she keeping these women, and what is she doing with them? As his concerns grow, their little pastime seems less sexy and more horrifying. I knew this story was going to be dark from the start, but the extent of it was unexpected. This was an exploration of the most evil of human psyches and I ate up every minute of it. The layers and levels of detail that Downing incorporates and brings back around in this tale are incredibly impressive, and I was shocked when I read that My Lovely Wife is her debut novel. I tend to hold high standards for thrillers since I read so many of them, but this is definitely near the top of my recommendation list!

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

Normal People: A Novel, by Sally Rooney ~ Book Review

Normal People and DonutFaber and Faber
Release Date: August 28, 2018
Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

Given all the hype surrounding this book, I was disappointed. The first thing that really stood out to me was the stylistic choice to omit quotation marks, making the narrative feel very stream-of-consciousness. This was a little jarring at first, but I came to like it. For me, it made the story feel more personal to the characters, as if experiencing conversations the same way they would.

The book follows the relationship between Connell and Marianne, beginning in High School. Connell’s mother works as a cleaning lady, and one of her clients is Marianne’s family. The two of them seldom interact at school, Marianne is a loner without friends, and Connell is popular. Nonetheless, a romance sparks between them. A romance that they only acknowledge when they’re alone together.

Connell’s mother is skeptical of the scope of the relationship: she loves Marianne, and she loves Connell, but she is concerned that he is mistreating Marianne by only paying attention to her in public. I mean, agreed. I loved Connell’s mom.

Unsurprisingly, the two have an on-again-off-again relationship. They seem to always be judging the people the other one surrounds themselves with. It all felt very repetitive to me. There was a constant struggle about whether or not they should hook up, and endless miscommunication. That’s what annoyed me the most. They kept breaking up just because they were bad at communicating. Like one person heard one thing and the other one heard something else and no one asked for any clarification. They were infuriatingly passive. Their relationship felt unbearably toxic, and I was deflated by the thought that they wasted so many years chasing each other in circles regardless of their fictional-ness. 

The writing in this book was exceptional, and the style was unique and interesting. The characters were detailed and vivid. The focus on their strained relationships with sex and violence was powerful and added a lot to my perception of Marianne and the household she was raised in. With all that being said, this story really didn’t blow me away like I was anticipating based on how much acclaim it has received. The maple bacon doughnut that I had to accompany it, however, absolutely did blow me away.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

This is How it Always is by Laurie Frankel ~ Book Review

This is How it Always is with blondies

Flatiron Books
Release Date: January 24, 2017
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪

Frankel’s illustrative writing style drew me into this story from the get-go. I keep a note on my phone where I write down interesting descriptions while I’m reading, and I’ve never had so many come from the same book before. Her prose is unique, imaginative, and often humorous. Her ability to write childish conversation is impeccable and sometimes amusing, sometimes heartbreaking. 

This is How it Always Is explores the story of Rosie and Penn and their children: four boys, and then Claude. From a young age, Claude has a preference towards things that are stereotypically associated with females. He loves wearing dresses and putting barrettes in his hair, and would rather hear bedtime stories about princesses than princes. Rosie and Penn try to be as accepting of his choices as possible, but there is an ever-present fear in the back of their minds: a fear of what everyone else will think, and how he will be treated, or mistreated accordingly. After Penn and Rosie uproot the family to Seattle, Claude chooses to go by Poppy and proceeds to go to school identifying as a girl. 

One of the great struggles that Penn and Rosie grapple with is whether lying by omission really constitutes lying about who Poppy is. They think that by allowing her a fresh start in a new place where everyone assumes she is a girl, things will be easier and less confusing for her in the long run. It also means, however, that they spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop. The conversations between the two as they try to grapple with a layer of parenting they have never dealt with before was eloquently depicted and gave insight into the different possible approaches to their situation.

A steady thread throughout the plot is bedtime stories. Penn, an aspiring writer, makes up tales for his five kids before bed every night. He tells the story of Grumwald and, at Poppy’s insistence, Princess Stephanie. The story emulates the children’s own lives, with Princess Stephanie scared to admit to her friends that she is secretly a night fairy. I loved the image of all five kids curled up to listen to these thinly veiled life lessons that Penn tried to parse through along with them. 

I also enjoyed getting to see Rosie and Penn’s love story, and how their career choices make them question how their family has turned out. Rosie is a doctor, while Penn stays home with the kids, and writes on the side. They wonder if the way their gender roles don’t conform to norms is confusing for Poppy. I thought this was an interesting and heart wrenching addition to the book, as was the children’s naivity as they learn about gender discrimination in the workforce.

This book covered a lot of ground. Overall, it was an exceptional exploration of parenting, not only of a transgender child, but of any child, especially those who might be considered different in any way. 

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪
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(My FAVORITE blondie recipe)

Book Review, Memoir, Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Educated by Tara Westover ~ Book Review

Educated Book

Random House
Release Date: February 20, 2018
Genre: Memoir
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

I am going to start off this review by addressing the half a star (err cookie) that I knocked off my rating. The only reason this memoir wasn’t a full five out of five for me is because of my own personal discomfort when reading about the violence and abuse Tara was subjected to. Her experiences are, of course, the essence of the book. The stories are told in a matter of fact and straightforward manner, but the descriptions of injuries and accidents were hard for me to swallow. That’s my problem, and not a problem with the writing or the book as a whole. That being said, this was an incredible book. I doubt there is much I can get down in a review that hasn’t been said already, but I’ll do my best.

Educated is a memoir about a girl growing up in rural Idaho. She is raised Mormon, with a father who is convinced the government is inherently evil, and the End Days are imminent. He works hard to try to prepare his family for the impending end of life as they know it, making sure they have access to weapons and water. For an income, he scraps metal, and employs his children as his team in this dangerous endeavor. The kids do not go to school. The education system is understood to be a means of government control. Most of the children don’t even have birth certificates, and, at least for a while, there is no record of their existence.

That thought in and of itself terrified me. If there’s no record that you are a person, no one external from your life is able to look out for you. Tara doesn’t even know her own birthdate, nor do her parents. One by one, Tara and her siblings become curious about education. Tara and several of her brothers take it upon themselves to study for the ACTs and enroll themselves in college. Despite not having any formal education until she steps into a college classroom for the first time, Tara becomes committed to her education. To me, the narrative read as if she were so starved for knowledge that she couldn’t get enough of it. She wanted to make up for the years when she had so little, and learn it all.

Cookie Bars with Educated Book

This is a story of incredible triumph as Tara studies abroad in England, and goes on to receive her PhD. There is an endless push and pull between her education and her family. The unbelievable abuse and closed-mindedness of her family, and her mother’s inability to stand up for herself were relentless. I kept hoping for Tara to see it, to see that she could walk away.

The writing in this memoir is elegant and straightforward. It is not meant to elicit pity, it simply outlines Tara’s life thus far. Almost as amazing as this book, were these Congo Bars. I made this particular batch with mini milk chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s, instead of the baking melts called for in the recipe, and it is definitely a swap I will be making again in the future.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

Montauk by Nicola Harrison ~ Book Review

Montauk and Coffee Cake

St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: June 4, 2019
Historical Fiction
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

Montauk was kind of a flat, steady read for me. I was not immediately drawn into it, and once it did capture my attention, it didn’t really build to any excitement. Set in the 1930s, it follows Beatrice Bordeaux, as she summers in the seaside village of Montauk, specifically, the Manor inhabited by wealthy patrons from Manhattan. Her husband, Harry, spends each week working in the city, taking the train back on weekends during which he drags Beatrice along to a series of social engagements and shows her little real interest.

Beatrice and Harry married young, and Beatrice’s social status and wealth skyrocketed as a result of the union. Their social status also means that it is unthought of in Harry’s family to consider divorce, despite the couple’s rapidly declining interest in one another, and their inability to have a baby. Beatrice is largely disinterested in the various committees chaired by the other society women, and quickly befriends Elizabeth, who tends to the laundry of the Manor visitors. Although hesitant at first, Elizabeth warms up to Beatrice and welcomes her as a friend, introducing Beatrice to her family, as well as to Thomas, who tends the local lighthouse. 

Beatrice feels an immediate spark with Thomas and is inexplicably drawn to him. When he suffers a fall which results in injuries bad enough to prevent him from working, she takes it upon herself to tend to him and help ensure he can do his job. Their romance blooms from there, especially once Beatrice discovers that Harry has been having affairs of his own. Beatrice’s unconventional friend Dolly, encourages her infidelity, but the extent of Beatrice’s feelings for Thomas remains a secret.

Harrison did a remarkable job of creating realistic and vastly varied characters. From Dolly, who steps outside the role of what’s expected of a woman at the time, running her own business and encouraging sexual promiscuity, to the stuck-up, gossipy society women, everyone was distinct and interesting. The actual plot wasn’t really riveting for me. It was pleasant and easy to read, but the various twists seemed unnecessary and didn’t add anything to the story. The continued discussion of the death of Beatrice’s brother at a young age seemed like an unnecessary attempt to add dimension to her character. It was woven throughout the whole story, but even after having finished the story, I can’t understand why it was made into such a big part of the narrative.

The ending of this book left me baffled. After such a (relatively) calm read, I have no idea why a sudden catastrophic and destructive storm was needed to wrap it up. It seemed like a sort of clichéd way to take care of all the loose ends without actually addressing underlying issues. 

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller

29 Seconds by T.M. Logan ~ Book Review

29 Seconds and Cupcake

St. Martin’s Press
Release Date (USA): September 10, 2019
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

This book gave me whiplash in the best of ways. The premise of the plot was simple: After an act of good faith, Sarah Hayward finds herself with the unique opportunity to name one person, with the guarantee that they will vanish without a trace. Although she initially dismisses the idea, insisting that there is no such person in her life, Sarah struggles each day at work against the increasingly deplorable and despicable sexual harassment from her boss, Alan Hawthorne. As Hawthorne’s actions take more and more of a toll on Sarah’s mental and physical health, and threaten her career, she makes one 29-second phone call that changes her life.

A phone call naming Hawthorne as her chosen victim.

From there, Sarah is catapulted into a whirlwind of emotion, during which she constantly second guesses her choices. Every time the reader was led to believe that the deed had been done, and Hawthorne was gone from her life, he would pop up again — almost as unwanted to the reader as he was to Sarah.

The sexual harassment that Sarah and her fellow female colleagues faced is timely in topic, and heartbreaking in description. Logan has insightful narrative surrounding Sarah’s internal struggle between trying to protect her career and reputation, and wanting to stand up for the respect she deserves. The extent of Hawthorne’s power throughout the university the two work at at became increasingly clear, and one by one, the paths Sarah thinks she might be able to take to stop him are closed off to her.

I fully expected the outcome of the 29-second phone call to be exactly what was offered to Sarah at face value. I assumed that the remainder of the book would focus on any backlash or guilt Sarah felt, or perhaps there would be one person who somehow caught wind of what had happened. Surprise, surprise, this book was nothing close to predictable. The twists were well incorporated and very different from thrillers I’ve read in the past.

The only negative comment I have about this book is that some scenes seemed repetitive. Every time Sarah’s rowdy children were discussed, I felt like I was reading the same scene that had already been described several times over.

Despite the fact that I don’t quite understand the details involved in this book being published for the first time in the United States when it has already been released elsewhere, I’m glad that is the case, and that this ARC made it into my hands in time for the U.S. publication date (Today!).

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Memoir, Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl ~ Book Review

Save Me the Plums

Random House
Genre: Memoir
Release Date: April 2, 2019
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5

To say that Ruth Reichl’s career trajectory is impressive is an understatement (at least coming from the point of view of an avid reader and writer). Her memoir illustrates the myriad of ways that Gourmet magazine has played a role in her life, beginning in childhood, when she idolized the pages of her Grandmother’s copies. As a burgeoning writer, she visited the magazine’s office to pitch an article idea, but was sorely rejected. From there, she takes the reader through her time working as a restaurant critic. Her experiences there, and at the L.A. Times, are woven into small flashbacks. When she is eventually offered the role at Gourmet, Ruth is skeptical. The magazine as she sees it at the time, is no longer that which she adored as a child, it has become predictable, and she isn’t sure she has the means to make the types of major changes it would need to make it successful again. The fact is, she has no such experience. 

Nonetheless, when faced with an offer for a salary six times what she currently making,  along with a driver and yearly clothing allowance (how is that a real thing?!), Ruth takes the plunge. The rest of the book chronicles the ups and downs that Ruth, and Gourmet face. Her palpable fear when faced with her new staff for the first time gave me major secondhand embarrassment. Ruth jumps the gun, trying to please her new colleagues by agreeing to start her new job three months early, while finishing up her current job. Ruth’s people-pleasing qualities were all too relatable.

The ebbs and flows in Ruth’s experience at Gourmet were remarkable. I ate up every detail (pun intended) from the ultimate success of David Foster Wallace’s game changing article on the ethics of human eating habits, to the unexpected outrage that followed the decision to put a cupcake-covered cake on the front of the magazine. The struggle with keeping a constant staff was especially eye-opening, as was the insight into the way that Condé  Nast runs, seemingly swapping around upper management from publication to publication with little warning or explanation. Those segments of the memoir were disheartening, and I could feel Ruth’s frustration.

I also loved the way Ruth tied her family life into writing that was primarily career oriented. Her son’s relationship to food was interesting, and especially how much he longed for his mom to stay home and cook for him. This was a unique contrast to my childhood experience of longing for a chance to eat at restaurants.

The descriptions of food throughout this memoir were, of course, mouthwatering. It’s obvious that Reichl has spent much of her life writing about food: she knows exactly how to make her words succulent and enticing.  Overall, this book was, in and of itself, a delicious treat. It far surpassed my expectations, especially as an ARC I received, and did not seek out for myself.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪🍪.5
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Book Review, Fiction, thriller, Uncategorized

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall ~ Book Review

They All Fall Down with candles

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
Forge Books
Genre: Mystery
Release Date: April 9, 2019
My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪

This book is a (somehow) light-hearted, modern twist on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. I’m not sure if it was literally billed as such, but that’s exactly what it is. Miriam Macy believes she has been selected to be on a reality show, and in the face of her newly estranged relationship with her daughter, Morgan, her divorce, and the allegations that she bullied a girl to the point of committing suicide, Miriam happily jets off to Mexico in the hopes of restoring her image. She decides that if she plays her cards right, her daughter will soon see her as being cool and fun again, and, she will win the prize money she is told might await her at the end of the competition. Miriam is adorably delusional, which is part of her charm as a character, and also part of the reason I was ready for this book to end when I neared the final chapter. Although her lack of clarity on anything in her life is what defines Miriam, it became frustrating, rather than humorous, by the tenth time she misinterpreted her situation.

The actual plot of the book made for an easy summer read. Miriam and a series of other guests are boated over to a private island which holds a gorgeous mansion. Each one believes they were brought there for something that would deeply appeal to them, personally, be it a relaxing vacation, a business meeting, or a television competition. They soon find out that they were actually brought there as the dying wish of the lawyer with whom they all worked, and who recently passed away without any of their knowledge. Miriam is confused, but quickly readjusts her mindset, telling herself she’s honored to have been considered close enough to be invited to a memorial.

They All Fall Down Flatlay

The dining room of the mansion boasts an ornate table with imagery of individuals depicting each of the seven deadly sins (major flashbacks to the movie Seven when I read that part). As one by one, the guests begin to show up dead, the corresponding pieces of the table disappear, and it becomes clear that each guest represents one of the sins. I have to commend Rachel Howzell Hall for her incredible ability to write descriptive narrative. Each character was vividly different from any of the others, and they were all unique caricatures who were truly a joy to read (minus Miriam when she got annoying). I do want to make a clarification here: they were enjoyable to read because they were so detailed and so awful! I saw this book as a humorous update of the Christie tale, and in this case, I truly didn’t care that characters died because they were all the worst. The fact that Hall was able to make me despise so many people in different ways speaks to the quality of her prose, and added to my enjoyment of the book.

The final twists defining why this particular group was brought to the island were original and interesting, and the ending did manage to surprise me. Overall, I would recommend this book if you want a quick, lighthearted read, but other than that, it wasn’t standout.

My Rating: 🍪🍪🍪
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