Book Review: “Summer Rental” by Mary Kay Andrews

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Synopsis (from GoodReads.com): 

Sometimes, when you need a change in your life, the tide just happens to pull you in the right direction….

Ellis, Julia, and Dorie. Best friends since Catholic grade school, they now find themselves, in their mid-thirties, at the crossroads of life and love. Ellis, recently fired from a job she gave everything to, is rudderless and now beginning to question the choices she’s made over the past decade of her life. Julia—whose caustic wit covers up her wounds—has a man who loves her and is offering her the world, but she can’t hide from how deeply insecure she feels about her looks, her brains, her life.  And Dorie has just been shockingly betrayed by the man she loved and trusted the most in the world…though this is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems and secrets. A month in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is just what they each of them needs.

Ty Bazemore is their landlord, though he’s hanging on to the rambling old beach house by a thin thread. After an inauspicious first meeting with Ellis, the two find themselves disturbingly attracted to one another, even as Ty is about to lose everything he’s ever cared about.

Maryn Shackleford is a stranger, and a woman on the run. Maryn needs just a few things in life: no questions, a good hiding place, and a new identity.  Ellis, Julia, and Dorie can provide what Maryn wants; can they also provide what she needs? 

Five people questioning everything they ever thought they knew about life. Five people on a journey that will uncover their secrets and point them on the path to forgiveness.   Five people who each need a sea change, and one month in a summer rental that might just give it to them.

One of Library Journal's Best Women’s Fiction Books of 2011



My Thoughts **spoiler alert**:

I really enjoyed this book. It is absolutely a summer read (and is advertised as such!), but the author has such a talent for description that she made me feel like I was AT Ebbtide and in Nags Head with the characters.

Ellis seemed to fall a little flat to me: I understood her angst, her torment over joblessness and manlessness. At times, it almost seemed like she was the main character, even though the story was supposed to be about the three friends- Ellis, Dorie and Julia. 

Dorie also didn’t do much for me. I could appreciate her unique life situation with her husband leaving her for another man just as she learned of her pregnancy, but as a person, I didn’t really feel much for her. Julia, on the other hand, procrastinator, model and pot-stirrer was a bit better. She certainly threw a few wrenches into the plot. 

The person I was most interested in, however, was Madison/Maryn, the woman on the run from her abusive and embezzling husband. Funny thing is, she was supposed to be a “sub-plot” but she was the most real of all of the characters. 

Of course, this isn’t supposed to be a work of literary genius: it’s pure entertainment. And entertain, it does! Recommended for a quick, easy, amusing beach-read.

Final Word: B+

"Keeping the Moon" by Sarah Dessen

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Synopsis (from Barnes & Noble): 

"Fifteen-year-old Colie has never fit in. First, it was because she was fat. Then, after she lost the weight, it was because of a reputation that she didn’t deserve. So when she’s sent to stay with her eccentric aunt Mira for the summer, Colie doesn’t expect too much. After all, why would anyone in Colby, North Carolina, want to bother with her when no one back home does?

But Colby turns out to be a nice surprise for Colie. Almost without trying, she lands herself a job at the Last Chance Bar and Grill. There she meets fellow waitresses Morgan and Isabel — two best friends who teach her what friendship is all about, and help her learn to appreciate who she really is.”

My Thoughts: 

Something to keep in mind: This book is definitely written for middle to high school aged readers. There are often books that I find in this genre of “Young Adult” literature that I think, “This really could be shelved in the general ‘Fiction’ section - it was really good!” This, however, is not one of them. Not that it wasn’t good, it just was very juvenille.

I certainly would recommend it for readers who are in 7th - 10th grade who are feeling the oh-so-common angst of that age. It might help them gain a new perspective to have a main character as relatable as Colie. It is certainly a “surface read” - that is, what you see is what you get. There isn’t a whole lot of “deeper meaning” to be found within these pages, but with the target audience presumably having their own adolescent traumas occurring, that might be a good thing.

It is fairly well written, but again, very simplistic. It touches on friendships, romances, and self esteem among other popular teenage topics. My favorite character was Aunt Mira: self assured, eccentric, creative, heart of gold. But overall I felt the story was a bit cloying and I lost interest a few times. Cute gift for the misfit teen in your life…

Final Word: C+

Mountains of the Moon by I. J. Kay


I won the book Mountains of the Moon by I. J. Kay from GoodReads First Reads (along with another, which I’m reading now!) and I was really excited to read it. Here’s why…

Synopsis (from GoodReads.com): 
A highly original novel about a young woman’s journey from shattered youth to self-discovery.

After ten years in a London prison, Louise Adler (Lulu) is released with only a new alias to rebuild her life. Working a series of dead-end jobs, she carries a past full of secrets: a childhood marked by the violence and madness of her parents, followed by a reckless adolescence. From abandoned psychiatric hospitals to Edwardian-themed casinos, from a brief first love to the company of criminals, Lulu has spent her youth in an ever-shifting landscape of deceit and survival. But when she’s awarded an unexpected settlement claim after prison, she travels to the landscape of her childhood imagination, the central African range known as the Mountains of the Moon. There, in the region’s stark beauty, she attempts to piece together the fragments of her battered psyche.

Told in multilayered, hallucinatory flashbacks, Mountains of the Moon traces a traumatic youth and explores the journey of a young woman trying to transform a broken life into something beautiful. This dazzling novel from a distinctive new voice is sure to garner the attention of critics and readers alike.
My Thoughts:
Sounds pretty intense and interesting, right? I was so wrong…

I don’t want to say it was “terrible” because it wasn’t atrocious. However, I did not enjoy this book much at all. The hallucinatory and fractured way in which the story is told is so complex and multilayered that even when paying attention, it’s nearly impossible to follow. Add (intentionally) misspelled words, (unfamiliar) British slang and fragments of song lyrics to the mix and it’s a complete nightmare. Maybe it’s just not my “cup of tea.”

If I had not read the synopsis, I would have absolutely no clue what this story was all about. Even after reading it I feel the description is a bit of a stretch. If you are going to read this book, read the synopsis right before you begin the book and then again immediately following. It will help put everything together. 

I will say this: the author is gifted with descriptions. Even though I usually had absolutely no idea what was going on in the story, I felt like I was there (where ever “there” is…) I wish I could say more about the story, but I couldn’t really follow it so I’ll just leave it there.

Final Word: D

"Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office: A Memoir" by Jen Lancaster

Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

This is the story of how a haughty former sorority girl went from having a household income of almost a quarter-million dollars to being evicted from a ghetto apartment… It’s a modern Greek tragedy, as defined by Roger Dunkle in The Classical Origins of Western Culture: a story in which “the central character, called a tragic protagonist or hero, suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected.”

In other words? The bitch had it coming.


My Thoughts:

I had high hopes for this book. It is the first one I have read by Jen Lancaster and her titles are always so funny. I will give her credit - she can be a pretty comical person. And she’s honest: condescending, egomaniacal and self-centered are all very good words to describe her. The first chapter alludes to “the bitch had it coming,” so as I was continuing with the book, I was hoping that at some point a lesson would be learned, she would change her ways or thoughts about others, etc. In the final chapter, she says something along the lines of “I’ve learned nothing.” It’s unfortunate and, again, true.

I found myself horribly irritated and trying to get through the middle part to find out how this horrible person would change for the better. I never fully got my wish. Granted, she does learn that money isn’t everything and learns to find value in small things in life (and even makes a major career change due to her learning) but the “I’m better than you” and “You’re disgusting, homeless, filthy, immigrant hippies” part about her never seems to go away. I can understand a certain level of aversion towards certain populations, but honestly much of this book bordered on offensive.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a worthless, cretin social worker (surely, in Jennsylvania this would be true…) and I have an ounce of empathy for others, but I just did not find her mean spirited comments or self pity that entertaining or hilarious. I suppose if that’s your type of humor, you’d enjoy this book. As for me, if I decide to read anything else by this author, I’ll be getting it from the library (you know, where the poor people go?) and not spending $13 on the download. Disappointed.

Final Word: C-

Skinny by Ibi Kaslik

Skinny by Ibi Kaslik

Synopsis (by Barnes & Noble): 

Do you ever get hungry? Too hungry to eat?

Holly’s older sister, Giselle, is self-destructing. Haunted by her love-deprived relationship with her late father, this once strong role model and medical student, is gripped by anorexia. Holly, a track star, struggles to keep her own life in balance while coping with the mental and physical deterioration of her beloved sister. Together, they can feel themselves slipping and are holding on for dear life.

This honest look at the special bond between sisters is told from the perspective of both girls, as they alternate narrating each chapter. Gritty and often wryly funny, Skinny explores family relationships, love, pain, and the hunger for acceptance that drives all of us.

My Thoughts:

** spoiler alert ** I enjoyed this book at some parts and in others I wanted to throw it and shout, “Stereotypical! Overdone!” Of course if you’ve read several books on a certain topic (the Holocaust, Japan or, in this case, anorexia) certain things are going to overlap and be repetitive. This book stands out from the rest in the way Giselle describes her experience. Many people claim that when in the clutches of anorexia, it feels as though they are possessed by something other than themselves. This was certainly the case here, but the descriptions of actually looking in the mirror and seeing something completely different were interesting. 

It was also different from many stories in that Giselle seemed to genuinely want to beat this thing much of the time. I also enjoyed when the story was told from her perspective that she spoke as if she were the patient (she is a med student in the book) and was very much detached from things. Of course this theme of detachment is common among many anorexics, the style used in the telling here is refreshingly unique.

Of course there was the usual questioning sexuality, high academic achiever, poor relationship/deceased father, drugs and alcohol abuse - but not in the same devil-may-care recklessness as in “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia” by Marya Hornbacher. In this case, Giselle openly admits that the poor relationship with her late father affected her. She claims that she was basically self medicating with the drugs and alcohol. She also recognizes and agonizes over the fact that she sabotages relationships and struggles with her boyfriend.

On the other hand, her sister Holly is a sassy private school girl who excels in athletics far more than in academia. She had a good relationship with her father and is just entering the “world of boys.” Holly’s telling of the story mirrors the same frustration many similar characters in other books have in trying to understand and be supportive of this deadly illness. Add to this equation Giselle’s boyfriends open interest in Holly, her experimental and rash personality, a hearing impairment, and the world of private school discipline and it is clear that Holly has her own demons to battle. 

Perhaps what I liked most about this book is that it does not have a happy ending. Giselle dies. Plain and simple, the anorexia kills her. The way this story was written had me feeling pulled in many directions: Hopeful that Giselle would get better. Fed up with her whining and excuses. Slapping my forehead when Holly repeatedly got into trouble. Angry at their mother who did not even seem interested in trying to understand what was going on. Most books about eating disorders start out telling how the disorder started (some trauma, usually, or the also common “I didn’t even realize it!”), how someone intervenes, what help was given and how through struggles, hard work, tears and support from family and friends they are not living healthy and happy lives. This is not one of those books. Many loose ends are left that way, but in a good way. 

If you’ve read several books on eating disorders or anorexia in particular, this one is definitely worth taking a look at if for no other reason than that it is different on many levels.

Final Word: B+


Chocolate Malt Cupcakes

                           

I am no professional baker, cook, chef, etc. But when I saw the most adorable Chocolate Malt cupcakes on a blog I follow, I knew I HAD to try them. I made them for Father’s Day as my grandfather absolutely loves chocolate malts. The maltier the better! I followed the recipe for the cake exactly. The only thing I did different with the frosting was to add more malted milk and sprinkle crushed malted milk balls to the tops of my cupcakes. I didn’t have the gorgeous soda fountain style straws the original recipe showed, so I just cut some regular red and white striped plastic straws and used them instead.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t that impressed with the cake. With ingredients like sour cream, whole milk and brown sugar I figured they were going to be nice, heavy, moist cake. I was certainly wrong. However, I will say this: I used jumbo cupcake tins and wrappers so I had to adjust the baking time (maybe I left them in too long?). Also, it was incredibly humid. I’m talking condensation-on-the-wood-floors-so-your-bare-feet-squeak humid. I think the humidity affected the frosting and the malted milk balls more than anything else, but it could have been a factor with the cake as well. I did like the fact that the cake was not too sweet.

The frosting, on the other hand, was to die for. I had left over frosting when I was through with my cupcakes, so I put it into a plastic container and threw it in the fridge. I ended up using it on brownies (boxed, shh don’t tell!) as a way of dressing them up. They were ridiculously good and the frosting came right back to life from being in the freezer. If I made these again, I’d use this recipe for perfect chocolate cupcakes, but I would add the malted milk powder to them. I wouldn’t change a thing about the way I made the frosting!

If you live in a hot, humid climate: beware! This is a very touchy recipe! I am not sure how it would work if there was air conditioning involved as we have not turned ours on yet. If you try it, let me know how it turns out!

Get the recipe here: http://thatwinsomegirl.blogspot.com/2010/12/chocolate-malt-cupcakes.html

For the perfect chocolate cupcake recipe, follow this link: http://www.melskitchencafe.com/2012/04/perfect-chocolate-cupcakes.html