Sunday, January 17, 2016

Recently Read: In-Depth Reviews - January 2016 Edition

As I said in my Show Us Your Books! post earlier this week, I'm doing something new with my book reviews this year.

Instead of linking up with the longest post ever, I'll be sharing condensed reviews on Tuesdays and posting my more in-depth reviews of each book in that post the following Sunday.

As many of you know, I love talking about books. However, I think reviews with this much detail aren't necessarily the best idea when joining a link-up. Most people want a general overview and then want to move on. I mean, there are usually at least 30 people participating in Show Us Your Books!, and I know I wouldn't have the time or focus to read posts this long if I'm trying to check out multiple blogs for recommendations.

But, like I said, I love talking about books, so I didn't want to abandon my lengthy reviews completely. As you can see, this post is long ... And that's exactly why I saved it for a weekend!
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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - 292 pages

Completed on 12/12/2015
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I'll start by saying that I probably never would have read (or even heard of) this book if it wasn't for the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge. Faced with the task of finding a food related book, I scoured Goodreads for something that sounded remotely interesting.

And, while the majority of the books that popped up didn't really sound that appealing, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, the title ... It was kind of unusual, and it made me want to find out more about the book. And when I read the summary, I was sold.

This is a coming of age story in many ways, but it's anything but typical.

The week of Rose Edelstein's 9th birthday, her mother offers to make her birthday cake. Since she doesn't often bake from scratch, she decides to do a practice run. Like most kids, Rose is excited about the prospect of an extra cake. However, when she takes a big bite of that chocolate frosted lemon cake, her excitement dissipates.

It's not that the cake is bad ... But something is off. As she eats, she realizes that what she's tasting isn't just cake ... She's tasting her mother's innermost feelings.

Imagine having the ability to know someone's deepest thoughts and feelings and their most intimate secrets simply by tasting the food they've prepared. For Rose, this is both a gift and a curse.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is unlike any book I've ever read. I've read a lot of stories about families with secrets, families slowly unraveling, etc., but this one was different. While certain elements of the story were incredibly realistic, others were not (such as the aforementioned ability to taste someone's feelings). I don't know how she did it, but Aimee Bender was able to effectively juxtapose realism and surrealism to create an interesting and effective story.

There were, however, a couple of things I didn't like about the book.

The first is the fact that Bender chose not to include quotation marks when her characters were speaking. While this isn't a huge deal, there were several times when I had to reread certain sections more carefully because I couldn't tell if a character was thinking or actually speaking. It was just kind of annoying.

The book also ended kind of abruptly. It didn't necessarily feel rushed ... Just incomplete somehow. I don't know how to explain it without spoilers, but I definitely think it would have benefited from another chapter or two.

Overall, I thought The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was enjoyable. The story was unique, the characters (especially Rose and her brother's best friend, George) were likable, and I thought it was well written (minus my issues with the lack of quotation marks and abrupt ending, of course).

But, while I liked the book, I didn't love it. Because of this, I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads.

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton - 325 pages

Completed on 12/19/2015
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It's almost impossible for me to think of an appropriate way to rate and review this novel. I have so many conflicting feelings about it.

I'll start by saying that, without a doubt, John Dalton is a talented writer. I was immediately transported into the summer camp he built his story around, and, although his foreshadowing allowed me to make an accurate guess as to how things might play out, he still managed to surprise me throughout the novel.

For two weeks in the summer of 1996, Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in rural Missouri opened its doors to a group of mentally challenged adult patients from the State Hospital. After firing his first group of camp counselors, Schuller Kindermann, the elderly camp owner, has to scramble to assemble a new set of competent counselors. Unfortunately, this new group is ill prepared for the rigors of working with these adults.

One of these counselors, Wyatt Huddy, is a genetically disfigured young man who has spent his life worrying that his intelligence might be abnormal. His anxiety intensifies when he's informed that the campers will not be children, as he initially believed. Wyatt fears that he'll be confused for a camper due to his appearance, and he's determined to prove himself as a competent caretaker.

As the two week session draws to an end, Wyatt suddenly finds himself called upon by the staff nurse, Harriet Foster, to help prevent a terrible tragedy from happening. In doing so, a series of events is set in motion, forever altering their lives.

My heart ached for some of these characters, particularly Wyatt. He wanted nothing more than to live a "normal" life, but because of his outward appearance, he was constantly misjudged and treated unfairly. Harriet was my other favorite character, a young single mother who also often felt the need to prove herself.

I thought Dalton did an amazing job creating believable characters. These weren't perfect people. These were people with realistic flaws and inner conflicts. Some of the characters, like Wyatt and Harriet, were overall good and decent people. Others, like Christopher Waterhouse, were not. (I don't want to say any more about him, though. If you decide to read this book, then we'll talk.)

My mixed feelings are with regard to some of the wording choices. The "r" word was tossed around a lot throughout the book. There were also several instances of blatant racism that were difficult for me to swallow. And, while I understand that the author likely chose to tell the story in this way for a reason, it often left me feeling very unsettled and disgusted.

That being said, I thought The Inverted Forest was a great novel. I felt a little conflicted about giving it a high rating on Goodreads because of the issues I mentioned above, but, at the same time, I couldn't deny that I really enjoyed it overall. The story was unlike anything I'd read before, the writing was fantastic (minus those issues above, of course), the characters were well developed, and I was really invested in the book. It took me a while to get through it (probably because at some points I just really couldn't take the racist comments and "r" word being tossed around by some of these characters), but I never felt as though I was wasting my time.

I would recommend it with hesitation. Like I said, I gave it a high rating (4 stars) and thought it was a good book. However, there were more than a few times that I felt disgusted with the treatment of the mentally challenged campers and the awful things some of the characters said. (So much so that I'd often have to put the book down because I just couldn't deal with it.) It's a very well written and interesting novel ... But I can say with certainty that many people (obviously myself included) might find it a difficult read.

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King) - 370 pages

Completed on 12/20/2015
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Holy shit, I can't believe I read this book in less than 24 hours. That's almost unheard of for me! But, faced with a library deadline (#libraryproblems), I was able to make it through the novel in record time. (It didn't hurt that it was a very quick and easy read.)

I chose this book for one of my Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge categories, and I'm really glad I did. The Long Walk is one of those books that you really don't want to put down because you're completely engrossed in the story ... You feel like you're actually on the walk with these teenage boys.

I know this is a pretty famous book, but for those unfamiliar with the plot, here's a quick summary:

Every year on May 1st one hundred teenage boys show up at the starting point for The Long Walk. Although they were chosen at random, they were not forced into participating. In order to be chosen, the boys had to willingly sign up and complete a full physical and mental/psychological examination. If they were considered "fit," their names were entered to be drawn. Two hundred were chosen: one hundred "primes" and one hundred alternates. If a prime backed out prior to the start of The Long Walk (yes, this is an option), an alternate would take his place.

So what is The Long Walk? It's exactly what it sounds like: a long walk. The boys begin in Maine and continue walking for hundreds of miles without any sort of rest period until only one is left. The boy left at the end will get to claim the ultimate prize: anything he desires for the rest of his life.

Each boy is allowed 3 warnings before he "buys his ticket" and is out of the walk. After an hour has passed, a warning will drop off. The rules are pretty simple, but this is far from a game.

This may be a Stephen King novel, but there are no supernatural forces at work here. Don't be fooled, though ... The Long Walk is still chilling in its own right.

This book is interesting because it digs into the darker areas of human nature. Yes, these boys willingly signed up to be part of The Long Walk, but as we get to know the characters, we realize that some of them genuinely had no real idea what they were getting themselves into.

King (or should I say "Bachman"?) does an excellent job pacing this book. I constantly felt the need to turn the page and see who bought his ticket next, what new things would be revealed amongst the group of boys, and how far they could actually walk without resting. His descriptions of the aches and pains were so vivid, I could almost feel them myself.

Although it's very chilling at times, I would never classify this as horror or even mystery/thriller, so if you're turned off by those things, this book still may be for you. It's a little suspenseful, in that you don't know who will ultimately win the prize (though I'd say you'll get a pretty good idea as you continue to read), but it's mostly a dystopian sort of book. I'm sure it has been (and probably will be) compared to The Hunger Games, and while they do share some similarities, I think the stories are very different. (That's probably the closest thing I can think of, though, so that's why I mentioned it. It's a decent comparison if you're on the fence about this one.)

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I honestly didn't know how I'd feel about it before I picked it up, but I was pleasantly surprised that I found it engrossing enough to finish in less than 24 hours. I gave it a 4 star rating on Goodreads, though, because while I really liked it, I didn't think it was amazing. However, I think it's definitely worth reading!

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver - 400 pages

Completed on 12/31/2015
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I watched the movie version of We Need to Talk About Kevin a few years ago, and I loved it. The story was compelling, the characters were fascinating, and many of the scenes are still stuck in my mind.

Part of me wishes I'd waited to watch the movie after I read the book, though, because I remembered how things ended. (Though let me take a minute to say that casting Ezra Miller as Kevin was genius ... I couldn't get his face out of my head as I was reading this book!) Lionel Shriver does an amazing job building the tension throughout the novel and alluding to the things to come, but I couldn't fully appreciate it because I could already picture the ending in my mind. There were some differences, of course, but it was generally the same. (At least based on my memories of the film.)

That being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was still able to experience a variety of emotions deeply despite knowing what would come next (including crying over the part of the ending that I remembered most vividly).

If you're not sure what We Need to Talk About Kevin is about, here's a quick summary: Eva Khatchadourian never really wanted to be a mother. She was comfortable (and happy) running her business, traveling the world, and spending time with her husband, Franklin, and their friends.

After numerous discussions about having children, she reluctantly agrees with Franklin that it's time to start a new chapter in their lives and take on raising a child. Unfortunately, that chapter was much darker and more difficult than either of them had ever anticipated.

The story is told in incredibly raw and painful letters written from Eva to Franklin after their son is imprisoned for killing several classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker. As she writes, Eva begins to explore her relationship (or, perhaps more accurately, lack of relationship) with her son and wonders if she is at least partly responsible for his hideous crimes.

I'm going to tell you right now that if you don't like emotionally intense reads, this will not be the book for you. This will also not be the book for you if you aren't into dark and disturbing entertainment.

It took me a while to get through this novel because it's tough. It may have been personally tough for me because I can relate to the "I'm not sure if I really want to do this whole baby thing" mentality that Eva has at the beginning of the novel. And, while I could never be as cold or cruel as she was at times, one of my greatest fears of becoming a mother is that I simply won't be a good one.

As I said, this book covers some really difficult material, and, if you're like me and straddle the line of "I think I might like being a mom" and "I don't think I could ever handle being a parent," it's even more difficult.

I almost gave this book 5 stars, but I wound up giving it 4. I thought it was incredibly well written, but there were a few sections that just sort of dragged on. I understand that Shriver was trying to give readers background information and insight into each character, but I felt like there were so many unnecessary details. (And I'm a person who really appreciates details in a novel!)

Again, this isn't the right book for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. It's the kind of story that will make you think, bring potentially difficult emotions to the surface, and stick with you long after it's over. If that's the kind of thing you like, add We Need to Talk About Kevin to your "To Read" list.

Spin by Catherine McKenzie - 422 pages

Completed on 01/04/2016
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After a heavy book like We Need to Talk About Kevin I needed something light and fluffy, and Spin definitely fit the bill.  While it does deal with some real issues (mainly alcoholism and drug addiction), the book is written in a comedic, light-hearted way without completely glossing over the seriousness of addiction.

Kate Sandford gets the call she's been waiting for all her life the day before her 30th birthday: she's finally landed an in-person interview at her favorite music magazine, The Line. Currently a struggling freelance writer, Kate is beyond excited for the opportunity and is determined to get the job.

Unfortunately, she's a little too excited and winds up staying out late drinking with her friends. When her interview rolls around the next morning, she's still a little drunk.

She obviously doesn't get the job, but one of the editors calls back a few days later with another offer. Their gossip magazine needs someone to go undercover to get the inside scoop on "It Girl" Amber Sheppard. Amber is currently in rehab (again), and the editor thinks Kate would be "convincing" as an alcoholic entering the facility. If Kate can complete the 30 day program and get a great story, they'll reconsider giving her a position at The Line.

I'm not the biggest fan of chick lit, but I can appreciate some of it, particularly if the story is especially interesting or funny or the characters are really likable or relatable. That being said, I thought Spin was pretty good.

I liked the fact that Kate was really into music and writing (obviously both relatable things for me), and, as I said earlier, I liked that the book was funny without completely ignoring the harsh realities of addiction. And, while Kate tried to downplay her issues with alcohol quite a bit at times, I felt like she grew as a person throughout the book (while still managing to fuck up on occasion, which just made her seem more human).

There were some completely unbelievable things in the book, but I kind of think that's the nature of a lot of chick lit. And, really, since Kate's job is to befriend Amber in rehab and learn all of her secrets, you have to assume that she can somehow pull this off.

There were a few things that were so over-the-top that I did get a little annoyed, though. I mean, I didn't expect this book to be incredibly realistic, but I also didn't expect it to have such ridiculous moments either. (Sorry to be vague, but I don't want to share every detail of the book ... I'm sure someone will read this review and want to check the book out for themselves, and I don't want to spoil anything.)

Overall, I liked the book and gave it 3 stars. It isn't the kind of book I typically go for, but it was nice for a change of pace (especially after reading a very serious and depressing book). If you like chick lit with flawed main characters (like Bridget Jones's Diary, for example), you'll probably like Spin.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough - 305 pages

Completed on 01/11/2016
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I was really looking forward to reading this book after I chose it for one of my Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge categories. While I'm not typically a huge fan of historical fiction, I can appreciate a book in this genre if it covers a topic of interest and/or is very well written. And, while Mayhem covers a topic I'm interested in, it was not very well written.

Dr. Thomas Bond often works closely with the police, but lately he's been putting in a lot of extra time. Between the serial murders performed by a man known only as Jack the Ripper and a new series of gruesome murders by the Thames Torso Killer, Dr. Bond has lost all ability to sleep and becomes dependent on opium for relief.

As the murders continue, Dr. Bond is drawn to a strange Jesuit priest who also frequents the opium dens. The priest has some strange ideas about the Torso Killer, but, desperate to get at least one monster off the streets of London, Dr. Bond finds himself willing to believe almost anything ... Even if these ideas lead him to suspect someone he knows very well of the murders.

As someone with an interest in serial killers (I even based my senior Honors thesis in college on an area of this subject!), I thought Mayhem was going to be my kind of book. I was beyond disappointed when it turned out to be incredibly boring.

I still don't know how Sarah Pinborough managed to make a novel featuring Jack the Ripper and the Thames Torso Killer boring. It seems impossible ... And yet somehow the book was so dull that I really struggled with finishing it. I just never wanted to pick it up. By the end, I really didn't even care what happened to the characters.

The characters were poorly developed, which may have been one reason I failed to care much about them. The writing also felt very sloppy and almost childish, which really surprised me since Pinborough has published quite a few novels (many with pretty good reviews on Goodreads).

My other main issue with this book was the introduction of supernatural elements into the story. I know I've mentioned this before, but I'm usually not a fan of supernatural stories. Unless they're really good (like The Shining, for instance), I just can't get into them. I think in this case it was especially difficult because not only did I already find the book pretty dull, but I also thought it seemed a little ridiculous to put that kind of spin on serial murders that actually occurred. I understand that the author was probably just trying to make her story more unique, but I thought it was a very stupid "twist." (I know I'm being mostly vague, but I stand by my dislike of spoilers ... Even when it comes to an awful book like Mayhem.)

I always have a really hard time quitting books (even really shitty ones), but there were so many times that I just wanted to give up on this one. I powered through mostly because I wanted to finish it for the book challenge, but also because I wanted it to get better.

Unfortunately, it never did. I very rarely give books 1 star on Goodreads, but I couldn't bring myself to rate Mayhem any higher. The book's only good quality was that it was written about a series of intriguing real life murders. Other than that, it was poorly written, boring, and, at some points, pretty ridiculous. Do yourself a favor and avoid this one.


  1. So I don't have it on my Goodreads, but I swear I read Lemon Cake.

    Kevin destroyed me for a while. It still hurts my heart to think about it.

  2. Your review of Lemon Cake was enjoyable to me because one of the things I enjoy about book challenges are searching for books to fit categories. Although Lemon Cake wasn't the greatest book you've ever read, it's still a bonus to read something you'd probably never had picked up if it wasn't for the challenge.

    As I was reading the beginning of what you had to say about Mayhem, I thought to myself "oh, I'm going to need to read this book." Then, as you described it after you read it, I'm glad I don't have to go through that disappointment.

    We've talked about Kevin (see what I did there).