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: 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 | Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

20180105_094927~2I fell instantly in love with this book. In the introductory note from the author, Taisia Kitaiskaia claims to have “communed” with the spirit of Baba Yaga, a mercurial witch from Russian folklore. On each page that follows a question is posed in the form of an advice column query, and the answer reads like the poetic evocation of an old world medium.

According to lore, Baba Yaga is unpredictable; both kind and mean. The answers throughout the book are true to her character. She is, in turns: impatient, dismissive, funny, gentle, and compassionate. At nearly all times, she is profoundly insightful. I chuckled when Baba Yaga pronounced, “You cannot choose the fly that mucks up yr stew, but you can choose to throw the pot out the window”. And I read certain passages over again before moving on, as though Baba Yaga were speaking her truth directly to me:

“There is a field in the middle of my wood where no one goes. It is the heart of my loneliness. I go there to dance & be quiet. & I love the intensity of its silence. If I were human I would wish to take another there. You must know every contour of yr emptiness before you can know whom you wish to invite in.”

This book is like the field in the middle of Baba Yaga’s wood, with Taisia Kitaiskaia inviting us in for a peek.

In addition to loving the content, I also appreciated the overall design. The cover is a bright and inviting red, the pages are glossy, the text is a typewritten font, and beautiful folkish illustrations are interspersed throughout the book. It is altogether charming.

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles was my first read of 2017. It felt like a good omen for the new year. I think you will feel the same.

Happy reading!

Review | Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia