Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

28151220_2066388013594152_6146061096353529856_nThe other evening, a friend asked what I’m currently reading. I had just finished Rabbit Cake that very morning. When she asked how it was, I told her that I had trouble getting into it. I’d read another book somewhat recently that I loved, and it temporarily broke me; I was having trouble enjoying anything I picked up next. My friend said there’s a term for that ailment.

Apparently, I had a book hangover. Like a greasy-spoon-breakfast after a night of tipsy tomfoolery, Rabbit Cake pulled me from my funk.

A little girl named Elvis, her older sister Lizzie, their father, and their pet dog Boomer, are grieving over the loss of their wife and mother who drowned while sleepwalking. Elvis is the youngest in the family, and yet finds herself in the position of holding everyone together. Like her deceased mother, older sister Lizzie also suffers from sleepwalking episodes. Equally she is a handful in her sleep as she is in her waking life. Their dad is heartbroken over the loss of his wife, and deals with it by wearing her lipstick and bathrobe. They adopt a parrot from the local pet shop, who has begun imitating the voice of their lost loved one. Lizzie drops out of school and begins obsessively baking rabbit cakes, something their mother used to do for special occasions. On the advice of her school counselor, Elvis assigns herself 18 months to grieve.

Not surprisingly, the book is a little sad; especially in the beginning. At times, I found it a bit morbid. For example, Elvis loves animals (her mother was a biologist), and she frequently shares random animal facts, such as:

“A naked mole rat cannot feel pain, I remembered. It is one of the reasons naked mole rats are studied so extensively in labs. The rodents are missing some neurons or something, scientists aren’t sure, but you can dribble acid directly on their skin and they won’t even shudder”.

Despite the occasional dark moment, the story pulled me in. A dry humor settles in, and the characters begin to heal in their own unique ways. Elvis starts working on the biology book her mom was writing before her death, Lizzie decides to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, their dad starts dating again.

Through it all, Elvis is wise beyond her years. In the way of precocious narrators, she often provides moments of wisdom and sweetness, such as when she describes an incident between her sister and her sister’s best friend:

“Lizzie should never have hurt Megan, especially not for something that sounded like it was partly our mom’s fault. But I understood why she did: you want to defend those you love, even if the ones you love aren’t very good all the time, and sometimes they are even downright awful”.

This is a story of slightly flawed people coming to terms with a terrible tragedy, yet the story itself doesn’t feel too heavy. It balances darkness with a good dose of levity. The characters will win you over. It you need it, it might be the perfect book to get you over a book hangover.

{Have you suffered from a book hangover? What book did you in? Put the title in the comments; I might add it to my reading list!}

Review: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Review: The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson

27891869_223923958169148_6272060361482960896_n-1This book reads like the little sibling of a John Hughes movie. It’s not as inspired or accomplished as its older brother, but it is loveable in a similar way.

Trixie and her two best friends, Harper and Meg, are in the top 10 of their class. They study hard, make weekly trips to their local comic book store, and decide to become interested in boys. Trixie is reluctant to spend her energies on the opposite sex despite a very obvious budding romance between her and her arch-nemesis, Ben West. While the girl trio focuses on attaining boyfriends, several of their classmates are caught allegedly cheating. It isn’t long before someone in their group of friends is dragged into the mess.

This is the story of a privileged group of kids getting into the kind of trouble that has low-stake consequences. It is done in the best possible way. The characters are privileged without being bratty. For the most part, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. It has just the right amount of teen angst – a titch of angst rather than a heaping spoonful.

This is a book that knows its niche without being overly derivative of its predecessors. Though I found some of the nerd-girl references overdone, overall the dialogue is well written. It’s feel-good, easy reading. It’s also surprisingly wholesome. The most the main characters get up to is a little snogging. If you are a parent who worries about the content of your teenager’s reading material, you can rest easy on this one.

Now that I’ve said that, there will undoubtedly be some parent, somewhere, who chooses to disagree with me. Please spare me your outraged email.

Review: The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson

Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

27892561_1561114333925336_3763349824787709952_nI was in the mood for some light reading, and thought a cozy mystery might hit the spot. Browsing the aisles of my favorite bookstore, A Murder of Magpies jumped out at me. The cover art pops – robin’s egg blue background with bright orange birds (magpies, I assume) perched above a typewriter. It certainly looked like a light-hearted mystery, and the back cover made claims of wittiness and humor. Perfect.

I was feeling a bit under the weather when I started reading. Thus, I can’t entirely blame the book for my mind continually wandering. Then again…

The main character is Sam, an editor working on a fashion-industry tell-all. When the author of this tell-all disappears, Sam is soon drawn into a convoluted case that could be missing person, murder, money laundering, or stalker, in essence. Quite predictably, the main character begins some minor investigations of her own. Her mother, a high-powered lawyer, helps her out; including a little mother-daughter breaking and entering. How many lawyers do you know getting down with light B&E on the weekends? With their daughters?* Of course, there is also an actual member of the police force on the case, or cases, or whatever is going on… He’s on the job, and in more ways than one. Without preamble the lead Inspector becomes romantically involved with Sam. Although this type of liaison is common enough in the mystery genre, their relationship comes out of nowhere. One minute they have a few polite interactions, then the next they are sleeping together, and within one or two hook-ups the main character is already having commitment issues and they sort of have “the talk” to define their relationship. It’s weird.

Okay, so here is where my review gets a little messy; as messy as the plot. There are all these sub-plots that have no bearing on the main mystery. In addition to the sudden romance, there are story lines with Sam’s neighbors, with coworkers and industry acquaintances, and a plot line between Sam and her biggest author who wrote a chic-lit book of questionable quality. There is little reason for these sub-plots to cross paths, or in some cases, for them to exist at all. For example, at one point Sam goes to visit her chic-lit author. During the visit, she shares some of the details of the mystery with the author and her husband. Their sole response is to suggest to Sam that she should not trust someone from one of the other sub-plots – an elderly agoraphobic neighbor whom the author and husband have never met, and have no reasonable cause to mistrust. Presumably, Judith Flanders threw in the chic-lit author for the primary purpose of introducing a red herring into the story. However, she chose as her red herring, arguably, the most unlikely character for the job – someone with no connection to the main mystery. Furthermore, it turns out that the agoraphobic neighbor was at one time a well-known architect. And one of the plot lines from the main mystery is related to money laundering through bad real estate deals. It would have been cleaner to hint that the agoraphobic neighbor may have been involved with shady real estate practices back in his architectural career. The chic-lit author sub-plot could have been omitted altogether.

I don’t want to spoil the ending. It can do that for itself, after all. I will say that once the actual crime is revealed, the motivation for it remains elusive. Further, it doesn’t really tie into what I thought was the main plot of the book.

It is all utterly, confusingly, random.

While we’re on the topic of random… After finishing the book, I realized I had no idea what the title had to do with the story. It made me question if I was, in fact, under the weather, or if I had come down with a full blown cold that was addling my brain. So I jumped online for some answers, because I typically find the Internet is chalk-full of ’em. I was pleased to see that other reviewers also took issue with the great mystery of the title that has no connection to the book upon which it is affixed. Thanks, Internet!

This book about an editor could use some editing; as if it was published one or two drafts shy of final copy. It wasn’t terrible. It also wasn’t funny. I would call this book mildly amusing. If you’re at home, under the weather, looking for a book that doesn’t require you to think too hard, you might enjoy it.

* Mom, in case you’re reading this post, please don’t get any bright ideas. I may be the Ethel to your Lucy, but I draw the line at burgling. Probably.

Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

Review: Snow & Rose By Emily Winfield Martin

IMG_20180209_123052After the mysterious and tragic disappearance of their father, sisters Snow and Rose are forced to move with their mother to an old cabin in the woods. The girls soon venture into the depths of the forest where they find a host of strange and magical things: a cozy house buried in the ground, a library of found objects, a bear with kind eyes injured in a hunter’s trap, and a little man with oddly bent legs whom they repeatedly rescue from bizarre situations. Here lies the strength of this story – it is fantastic in the way of all good fairy tales, with richly imagined details.

When I’m reading children’s or YA books, I sometimes like to imagine how I would have reacted if I’d read the book when I was young. In youth it is possible to become so lost in a book that you momentarily forget your physical existence. I imagine this is the kind of book that will entrance young readers to the point they lose themselves in the pages. In the spirit of so many fairy tales before it, young readers may be forever after intrigued by forbidding forests.

If I review this book through the filter of adulthood, I find several things worthy of criticism. The dialogue is a bit stilted, at times. Occasionally, transition from one plot point to the next is jumpy and jarring. The story is sprinkled throughout with brief, one page interludes from “the trees”, which in an oracle style hint at what is to come. Personally, I found the inclusion of the trees as a foreshadowing device too convenient. Most perturbing, the story concludes far too rapidly and neatly. The crux of the main conflict is established, and in a blink all is resolved. I wish the ending had drawn out with a touch more danger and suspense. Instead, both the build of conflict and the resolution felt slightly casual. If there is something big at stake, the reader doesn’t have much time to feel the weight of potential doom.

It is easy to ignore such elements though, as this book is so exquisitely designed. Reading the hardback, first edition, the pages have a lovely weight to them. There are beautiful illustrations throughout, including little floral flourishes under each chapter heading. The interludes from the trees come in white text on a black page, which nicely offsets the rest of the story in traditional black text upon white pages.

It is an excellent book for elementary-school-aged children, who will most likely love the story. And though I found some plot elements underdeveloped, the overall narrative tone is strong, and most definitely rooted in fairy tale tradition.

Review: Snow & Rose By Emily Winfield Martin

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

IMG_20180125_104144I feel as though I am on a first date with this book. Externally, I am doing my very best to keep it cool, whilst my inner dialogue shouts, “I think I’m in love!!!”. Which may explain why it was so difficult to write this review. I read the book two weeks ago, but have been unable to produce a decent write-up. Oh, well. Here goes nothing.

It is worth noting that Ms. Eleanor Oliphant would not wish us, complete strangers to her, to presume a first-name basis. Begging her pardon, and keeping in mind that she is, after all, a fictional character, let’s call her Eleanor.

Eleanor is proper, opinionated, and entirely unable to read social cues. She is prone to blurt out whatever comes to her mind, and frequently finds fault in others. Her coworkers make fun of her when they think she is not listening. She speaks with her mother, regularly on Wednesday evenings. Her mother (incidentally, one of the most deliciously hateful characters I’ve encountered in a book) seems even less fond of her than her coworkers. Not surprisingly, Eleanor lives alone. She is filled with heartbreaking loneliness. She questions her own existence:

“It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar”.

Then, two things happen. First, she goes to a concert and sees onstage, leading the band, her soul mate. Never mind that he’s unaware of her existence, Eleanor is infatuated:

“His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown”.

Secondly, she meets Raymond, the IT guy for her office. Though Raymond falls short of Eleanor’s standards of attire, hygiene, and social graces, they become friends:

“He had his hands in the pockets of his low-slung denim trousers, and was wearing a strange oversized woolen hat that I hadn’t seen before. It looked like the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it”.

Through her friendship with Raymond, and a series of other new relationships and experiences, Eleanor’s life slowly begins to transform.

It is difficult to fault Eleanor, despite the fact that she is deeply scarred by a childhood tragedy that she either can’t or won’t recall, her personality can be a bit off-putting, she may be an alcoholic (at least on the weekends), and she is most certainly delusional. She is also outrageously funny, intelligent, strong, and touching. She may not be completely fine, but she is certainly doing her best. In this way, the book is a kind of root-for-the-underdog, late-blooming coming-of-age story, that will captivate you from start to finish.

This is a debut novel for Gail Honeyman. I hope she’s started writing another book, because, (though I’m trying desperately to keep it cool), I’m in love.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

IMG_20180119_125026The most complimentary thing I can say about this book is, I finished it. I’m not sure why I picked it up in the first place. Certainly the provocative, high-gloss cover was a selling point. I like the underwear the cover model is wearing? The title? I don’t know. My indifference to this book prevents me from providing reasonable answers to my own questions.

The novel is written in a series of short paragraphs which weave in and out of at least half a dozen different story lines all pertaining to the main character – a prostitute and heroin addict living in New York. The opening paragraph is instantly intriguing:

“I met a man, when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He was trying to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.”

Possibly, this is the best written paragraph in the entire book. Maybe there were others, equally well-crafted, and I was too disenchanted to notice.

It was difficult to settle into the characters, because the book keeps jumping around from story line to story line in short bursts. Doubtless, the fractured framework was intentional. The main character’s personality, like the flow of the narrative, is rather splintered. There will be some readers who are deeply satisfied, and find hidden depths in this literary structure. I would argue that such depths are very well hidden, indeed. Usually, I’m down with a story that ticks back and forth between narrative elements. In the case of this book, however, everything felt supremely underdeveloped. It was as if the author apathetically threw out each paragraph with nary a care for the arc of the story, nor character depth. It read as such:

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with client and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with another client, and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute meets equally broken army vet in bar and begins to date him, but not really date him.

Paragraph: Prostitute partakes, often in large doses, of drugs; usually heroin, sometimes coke.

Paragraph: Prostitute flashes back to memories of a bomb-making Sheikh she dated in Dubai. She loved the Sheikh; it’s not clear why.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute gets her nails painted.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute agrees to be physically harmed for money, and pretends to like it.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute buys some groceries.

I’ll stop before revealing the ending, lest I give away the entire book. I’m sure, by this point, you’re itching to know how it ends.

If you turn to the copyright page, it lists the “Subjects” the book should be filed under – “Prostitutes – Fiction. | Terrorists – Fiction. |GSAFD: Suspense fiction.”. That is a scintillating combination of subjects. Then again, I don’t know that I’d call this book suspenseful. I think it’s mostly dull with a few salacious details thrown in. The suspense part comes in the last five pages of the book – the first time the plot picks up at any noticeable pace. By then, unfortunately, it was too late for me to care.

To be fair, I do think there are people who will really enjoy Ultraluminous. It was compelling, in its own way. There was a clear narrative tone; a bit of a dark, ambivalent ambience that carries through from start to finish. It seemed as though the author knew where she wanted the story to end, but struggled a bit with the getting there. You may find it entertaining. It wasn’t my cup of tea, or rather, coffee.

Happy reading?

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

The Stories We Tell

This time of year (in the Seattle area, at least) I notice a greater representation of multicultural book selections all around me; featured in bookstores, libraries, my child’s scholastic order form from school. This increased diversity in book recommendations is inspired by, and in celebration of, Martin Luther King Day.

When the President of the United States spews racist comments less than a week before the national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is increasingly important to think about the stories pervasive in our culture. What stories were we told growing up? Were they accurate? What stories are we telling our children?

Today, I’m posting a bit of a mash-up. I want to talk about the book that inspired this post, and offer a selection of stories for children appropriate for every single day of the year, not just the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

The Book that Inspired the Post:
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

IMG_20180115_073318My daughter attends preschool in the basement of a Lutheran church. Next to her classroom is a lovely little library for those in the church community. One side of the library is flanked by windows, typically displaying key book selections. Walking past the library a couple weeks ago, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race caught my eye. Nearly a month prior, a friend of mine had attended an author event at the University of Washington for Dr. Tatum, and she spoke very highly of the event. Do you ever come across the same book over and over again, until it feels like it’s following you? This has happened to me numerous times, and before this book began its inevitable haunting, I checked it out from the library.

The main topic is racial identity development, and it offers many suggestions on how we (parents and educators, in particular) can positively nurture the development process. The book touches upon numerous factors which influence racial identity development, including systemic advantages and disadvantages in the United States, exposure to racial stereotypes, various socioeconomic factors, etc.. It is an extensive topic, and rather than cover every point, I will simply encourage you to read it. It is thought-provoking. It provides a broad context for discussions about race, offers insights into how children developing their racial identities can be supported, and it encourages self-reflection and activism.

Dr. Tatum begins the book with some general discussion about prejudice vs. racism. She explains it succinctly:

“… racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals.”

She makes a particularly good analogy that racism is “like smog in the air” which we are all perpetually breathing whether we realize it or not. Because racism is a system – embedded in our institutions, in what we watch, and in what we read – it is constantly influencing us in obvious and nearly imperceptible ways. Though it is all around us, and though we may not always notice it, Dr. Tatum beautifully writes, “We may not have polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up”.

How do we accomplish cleaning up the smog? Dr. Tatum offers a plethora of clear and concise suggestions to a complex, multi-faceted issue. Her book is not a quick-fix to a large problem; it is merely a good place to start. In fact, she includes an appendix  of continued reading about: racial history, activism, books for educators, books for children and young adults, etc..

The book ends with a call to action. Dr. Tatum acknowledges that speaking up “requires courage”, and that it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when we are fighting the smog we’ve breathed in all our lives. She writes:

“… we can learn the history we were not taught, we can watch the documentaries we never saw in school, and we can read about the lives of change agents, past and present. We can discover another way. We are surrounded by a ‘cloud of witnesses’ who will give us courage if we let them.”.

She then asks us to consider our “sphere of influence”. What do we have the power to change? As a mom of a preschooler and a kindergartner, my sphere of influence starts with my children. I want to be mindful of the stories I share with them. One way to accomplish that is to ensure that my children have access to multicultural stories. Another is to talk to them about issues as we encounter them. Dr. Tatum recounts reading The Boxcar Children series with her son, and realizing that parts of the series are sexist. Her solution was to talk to her son about it. Dr. Tatum suggests that:

“Children can learn to question whether demeaning or derogatory depictions of other people are stereotypes. When reading books or watching television, they can learn to ask who is doing what in the story line and why, who is in the role of leader and who is taking the orders, who or what is the problem and who is solving it, and who has been left out of the story altogether”.

Dr. Tatum points out that it is a misconception that children are colorblind. Rather, she states that they begin to notice physical differences by age 3. At ages 4 and 5, both of my kids are watching cartoons, reading tons of books, and learning about world history in school. These are the years they begin to breathe the smog. Which got me thinking about the books we read together.

A List of Books to Add to Your Shelf:

Today, the kids and I gathered every book in the house that features a main character who is a person of color. We noticed and talked about the imbalance on our bookshelf; how many more books we have about white characters. We went to the bookstore and bought new books so that over time we can shift the imbalance. We spent the afternoon reading, talking about books, and about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. We sang him happy birthday.

In my free time, I wrote this post. I am going to keep thinking about my sphere of influence. I will keep assessing my children’s bookshelf, as well as my own, and reflecting on the stories we tell in our family.

Here are some of my favorites:

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
This book is both incredibly sweet and empowering. With each turn of the page, readers will be treated to a one page biography accompanied by a full page illustration of black female leaders. In each illustration the women are depicted with their eyes closed and smiling; they look happy and fulfilled. Each page manages to depict something about what they accomplished, often through an object held in their hand. It covers a range of women, both contemporary and historical. It is fairly magnificent.

Love by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Loren Long
This book was just released, and I watched it sell out at my local bookstore today. I nabbed their second-to-last copy. It features a person of color on nearly every page. It shows people and families experiencing love through everyday, mostly ordinary, moments. It is a little sorrowful in parts, but overall joyful. It is the sort of book that might choke you up, and make your voice shake a little as you read it aloud. It is beautiful.

Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane
This story is about as sweet as it gets. A little girl finds a duckling and raises it. The little girl’s relationship to her duckling mimics a parent’s relationship to their child, with all the joys and pains of watching someone you love grow up. It will be one of the books you don’t mind reading over, and over, and over again.

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez
This is the story of a Mexican girl who wishes to be a superhero. When some boys try to tell her she can’t be one because she is a girl, her grandmother comes to the rescue letting her in on the secret that she descends from a line of luchadoras. Lucia is bold, strong and brave. She is a wonderful role model.

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Nerstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
A little boy gets eaten by a snake while skipping through some eucalyptus trees. From inside the snake’s belly, the boy bravely outwits the snake, freeing himself and all the animals. It is fun to watch the little boy, unafraid despite being eaten by a snake, able to keep his wits about him and escape.

Ruby’s Chinese New Year by Vickie Lee, illustrated by Joey Chou
A little girl makes a card for her grandmother to celebrate Chinese New Year, and then ventures out to deliver it. Along her way she meets various animals (all from the Chinese zodiac) who help her in her journey. After the story, an explanation of the Chinese zodiac can be found, along with instructions on how to make paper lanterns, fans, and good luck banners to celebrate the holiday.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt Lamothe
This book shows one child each from seven countries: Italy, Japan, Uganda, Russia, Peru, India, Iran. It gives a brief illustration and explanation of various aspects of their lives such as where they live, the clothes they wear, what their families are like, where they sleep, and so forth. It is a story of what makes us different, as well as what connects us to each other.

Happy reading!

The Stories We Tell