Friday, January 23, 2015

The Cake House by Latifah Salom

Am I really the first person to review this? HOW EXCITING.

So, THE CAKE HOUSE is a loose retelling of HAMLET. Except Hamlet--Rosaura--is a girl, in this case, and Ophelia is a boy.

Rosaura Douglas is not happy when her mother marries Claude Fisk. She blames him for her father's death, although to what extent, it isn't quite clear. He was supposed to be the answer to their money woes, and he is, but now her father isn't in the picture.

...Well, at least, not alive. Because Rosaura still does see her father. She sees his ghost, anyway. When Claude marries her mother he takes them all to the gauche pink house in the L.A. hills that's known, derisively, as "the cake house."

It's also where her father died.

Rosaura goes to a new school and deals with her complicated feelings for her mercurial step-brother (Alex), while trying to disentangle the knot of lies and secrecy that her new family has become. Why does her mother always look resigned and afraid? Why is her stepfather so secretive? And why does Alex seem to hate his father?

I think THE CAKE HOUSE is a debut, and for a debut -- for a book in general, let's be honest, I liked this, even if I didn't love it -- it's pretty good. I definitely think it manages to stand on its own two feet. The loss of innocence motif gives the book a kind of WHITE OLEANDER vibe, which is actually a little hilarious because I happened to be reading the acknowledgements section, and she thanks Janet Fitch (author of WHITE OLEANDER) for helping her with her writing.

Unlike HAMLET, THE CAKE HOUSE has a happy ending. The first half of the book parallels the play pretty well, although the author makes a lot of changes, but the second half peters out, and it just becomes another gritty new adult/young adult book about a girl who thinks her family is up to no good. In fact, by the end of the book -- with the exception of her father's ghost -- the storyline has so little to do with HAMLET that it seems disingenuous to call THE CAKE HOUSE a retelling.

I did like the magic realism element and the writing is very well done. I kept thinking, "Why can't I write like this?" The descriptions were great and flowed smoothly. I actually think the comparison to Shakespeare is to this book's detriment because comparing a debut to one of the most brilliant masterworks of all time is never a good idea, especially if the retelling thereof is half-assed.

Overall, this was a good story but it could have been better executed.

3 out of 5 stars!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Disappear Home by Laura Hurwitz


I'm so wary of books with beautiful covers -- I don't know what it is, but they tend to be disproportionately horrible. It's like dating: you go out with a cute guy or girl and nine times out of ten s/he's either a) so full of himself that if you pricked them, ego would gush out or b) they don't have anything intelligent/nice to say.

DISAPPEAR HOME definitely would have failed the blind date test. It has a good premise -- set in the 1960s, a mom and two little girls escape the tyrannical reign of their abusive father's hippie commune -- but it just didn't pan out.

I'm feeling a bit lazy so instead of giving a whole long summary & then my analysis, the way I usually do (let's face it; my reviews are basically essays), you're getting a list.

-Whiny, precocious children. Nenia and children don't really get along, even in fiction. These children were especially annoying, always whining and crying, or trying to sound profound.

-NOTHING HAPPENS. I have a short attention span. When I'm lured in by a premise that sounds exciting & full of tension, I expect it to be exciting and full of tension. Obviously, this is a highly subjective measure, but man, all anyone did in this book was talk, talk, talk.

-Judy, the mother's friend, is a big fat deus ex machina. The development of the book and characters falls on her shoulders like Atlas, the poor woman.

-The emotionally manipulative ending. If you read my review of ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, you will know that I am not a fan of sub-par books trying to be less sub-par by making their audience cry. That's the literary equivalent of punching smaller kids on the playground for their lunch money.

-I would have liked more emphasis about the commune life. I feel like Adam (the abusive father) was this dark shadow that hung over most of the book, but because we were told why we had to fear him rather than shown why we had to fear him, I just wasn't feeling it.

0 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker by Ed Piskor

At the end of the book I was informed that I had not received a full copy: no, as an advance reviewer, I would only receive half the book, and yet would still be expected to write a cohesive review based on an incomplete sample. Huh.

Well, since I'm supposed to write a review for this book same as I would a "complete" work, I'm going to have to say that as it stands now, the graphic novel lacks closure. It cuts off in the middle of a plot line.

WIZZYWIG is about a computer hacker who calls himself Boingthump. I'm not sure why the book is called Wizzywig. That must be discussed in the second half of the graphic novel that I was not privy to as a Netgalley reader.

We know that Boingthump was arrested but again, the graphic novel cuts off before we find out why, or how.

Basically, this portion is the prologue. We see the hacker as a boy in the 80s, when technology and computers are new and terrifying. I liked the trivia about phone phreaking and computer hacking in its infancy, but the storyline itself was pretty dull. Sometimes the panels had nothing to do with the text, and I'm not sure why, but the result was like listening to someone telling a story while watching them doodle on a cocktail napkin.

The author keeps foreshadowing Boingthump's imprisonment, but the book sample cuts off before we find out why. This seemed like a cheap way to get the reader to buy the book, and I don't really like that. How will I know if it's for me if I don't know whether the author knows how to tell a complete story?

1 out of 5 stars.

The Untouchables by J.J. McAvoy

So, before we get down to brass tacks, yes, I read book one, and no, I did not like it. Yes, I read book two anyway. It was on Netgalley and I was feeling bored and masochistic, which is never a good combination. Some people drink or have sex with their exes -- I read books I know I'm going to hate. Choose your poison.

Initially, I thought the writing in this book was a significant improvement over the first book, RUTHLESS PEOPLE. I thought, "Hmm, wow, this book may even get two or three stars out of me." But this improvement only lasted about fifty pages, and pretty soon the awkward sentence structure and typos and misused apostrophes from book one were back, which made me wonder if maybe the author only edited as far as the Kindle sample would reveal. (Unfortunately, some people do do this, and however sneaky they think they're being, it's pretty obvious...)


Melody and Liam are married and in addition to the normal married people problems (we're having too much sex, honey! *cough*), they're having mafia people problems as well. Patriarchs who think that the younger generation is too soft, traitor family members, bloodied carpets, etc.

I've decided that I'm not going to finish this book because frankly, I don't have the patience. It isn't an improvement over the first book -- all the old errors still stand -- and since this book is being released into the public, for money, my rating is a reflection of what I feel is an unpolished and unsatisfying work.

Because while in some ways, THE UNTOUCHABLES is a better book than RUTHLESS PEOPLE (slightly better writing, fewer pointlessly offensive descriptions, less slut-shaming), it is still not a good book.

There is a lot of telling and not showing. The Callahans are always going on about how much money they have, and how bad-ass they are, and how much they rule at sex. (Oh yes, they love to revel in the juices, these two.) I felt like I was being told these things without being shown them.

Every single character in this book has their own POV, regardless of whether it's necessary or not. POV swaps are always a tricky thing in fiction because, unless they are done very carefully and very well, they can come across as repetitive and annoying. In this case, it was the latter; every character sounded the same, and I was left with the impression that these endless POV swaps were less for narrative integrity and more for bulking up the page count of the novel.

Because, to be honest, not a lot happens. I checked out my friend Kat's review -- she actually liked the book -- and despite some twists that I will not be privy to, apparently, since I am not finishing the book, even she concedes that not much happens. Which is nice to know. Sometimes I wonder if my thoughts are biased (which they are, obviously), but nope, apparently it wasn't just me.

Having read book one and most of two, I think it's safe to say that I'm done with this series, and probably the author, as well. I really don't like her style, and she doesn't seem to be improving at all as a writer, which is sad, because the idea for this series had a lot of potential.

1 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pretty Ugly: A Novel by Kirker Butler

I don't think I've read such a hilarious, mean-spirited satire since Christopher Buckley's THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.

I'll admit, when I found out that the writer was a producer for Family Guy, I was kind of like, "Uhhh..." Because Family Guy has become pretty tasteless lately, especially in its treatment of Meg Griffin, but also with rape, misogyny, and insensitivity. (In fact, I actually wrote a blog post about the show's terrible treatment of Meg called "The Dregs--I Mean, Megs, of Society: The Not So 'Family' Aspects of Family Guy.")

But I loved the concept. Because it's so relevant. I think most of us know about Toddlers and Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It's sickening to do that to a child, and part of me was really, really curious to see what Kirker Butler would do with that subject. And d'you know what? I was pleasantly surprised.

Miranda, the mother in this book, has always had a hankering for fame. When she's a runner-up as a young girl, she thinks that the gateway to this elusive holy grail might be pageants. But not her, no; she grows up and has kids -- and puts the kids through pageants instead. Specifically, her daughter: nine-year-old Bailey. Her two sons, she doesn't care about, because they can't be entered in pageants...not unless she's willing to let them catch the gay (and as a Southern Christian mom, she isn't willing to see them prance through hellfire in Abercrombie and Fitch jeans).

Ray, her husband, has had it up to here with pageants. He's seen them taking over his life and he doesn't like it. Once a doctor who got barred for malpractice, Ray is now a hospice nurse, which is okay, because now it's his job to kill people. For fun, he takes random pills he finds in sample packets and tries to guess what they are based on the side-effects. Hey, everyone needs a hobby. Although Ray's recently decided to branch out and have sex with the underage granddaughter of one of his hospice patients. Oh no. And the hospice patient actually sees him. Oh no.

Oh, and let's not forget Miranda's mother, Joan, who talks to Jesus daily. And he talks back...

I think my thoughts & feelings about this book can eloquently be summed up as such:

I think the best way to describe PRETTY UGLY is Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) meets Toddlers and Tiaras. PRETTY UGLY had me snickering well into the night, but it's definitely not a book for everyone. I'm from California, you see. Urban California (there is a difference, you see. Rural California isn't all that different from the Midwest or, in some cases, the South). And one of the things we Urban Californians do is laugh at Rednecks. It's pretty much the worst thing you can be.

I mean, what else are we going to do? We can't fire guns at endangered creatures, and after a while smoking pot and having orgies on top of our hybrid cars and living the gay lifestyle (read: raising teacup yorkies and watching lots of musicals) and doing lines of free trade organic coffee gets boring.

So we make fun of rednecks.

And get high off the fumes of our own sense of smug self-importance, of course.


But PRETTY UGLY has a really great cast of characters, and it's full of dark, twisted humor (which, incidentally, happens to be my favorite kind of humor). Some authors don't do the whole "wry aside" schtick too well, but Kirker Butler does, which makes me happy, because when it's done right, it makes a book 10x more fun, like making eye contact with a comedian while he's telling an inappropriate joke and the comedian also happens to be really cute.

I could easily see PRETTY UGLY being turned into a movie. I think it would transition to the big screen well, especially with a good cast.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. I had a VHS tape of David Macaulay's Egypt, which I watched fairly religiously. In addition to this, I had a hieroglyphic stamp set which I used to write secret messages, I read The Egypt Game, and I dressed up as Cleopatra for my seventh Halloween. Basically, I was the painful stereotype of a precocious little girl, and if you got me started on Egypt (or dinosaurs) I would happily trot out all the facts in my little head for the pleasure of my captive audience.

What surprises me is that there really aren't that many books about Ancient Egypt out there. Ancient Rome, yes. Tudor England, yes. Ancient Egypt, no. Nobody else things this period is fascinating? I think it's worth reading about for the pantheon alone.When I saw NEFERTITI at the bookstore, I was really excited because oh my God, it's a book about Ancient Egypt give it to me NOW.

 NEFERTITI is really long -- almost five hundred pages -- and I felt every single page while reading. This book...was so boring. Part of the problem is that, while the book is titled "NEFERTITI", the book's narrator is actually Nefertiti's younger sister, Mutnodjmet. This proves to be prophetic, because it turns out that Mutnodjmet doesn't have very thoughts in her head besides Nefertiti apart from herbs, jealousy of Nefertiti, admiration for Nefertiti's perfect Nefertitties (did you see what I did there?), and thoughts of how that General Nakhtmin is hott.

Nefertiti was married to her cousin, Amenhotep, who I thought of as King Crazypants. There's some suggestion (in this book) that he killed his brother Thutmosis in order to take the throne, and as soon as he does, he becomes a religious nut-ball and decides to start a cult. He doesn't like that everyone worships Amun and decides that people should be worshiping a minor deity named Aten instead. His Aten worship is so intense that Amenhotep changes his name to Akhenaten and kills all the Amun worshiping priests in the Amarna and takes their money. As you can imagine, this pisses people off.

One of those people is Akhenaten's mother, Tiye. She agreed to the wedding mainly because she thought that Nefertiti would keep her son in check and persuade him to stop his Aten obsession, not whip him up into a religious fervor. Which she does. Because Akhenaten has other wives, and Kiya, his previous favorite, is all for Aten and so is Panahesi. Nefertiti cares more about power than she does about keeping her mother in law happy, and she fully intends to show Akhenaten's slut wife who's boss, and flips her the bird hieroglyph at every possible opportunity. (There are lots.)

Meanwhile, Mutnodjmet is unhappy because her mother doesn't want her to get married because she'd be so lonely. Also, Mutnodjmet is forced to wait on her sister hand and foot, which is what everyone prefers because they are sisters and blood is thicker than water, and with so many people wanting to kill Akhenaten for his new imposed religion it's nice to have a handy slave who is forced to be loyal because she's related to you. Nefertiti is therefore pissed when Mutnodjmet meets a general named Nakhtmin. Things between the military and Akhenaten are tenuous at the moment, because Pharaoh reneged on his promise to send them to war against the Hittites and when the army threatened to rebel, he threw their leader, General Horemheb, Nakhtmin's friend, in prison.

But Mutnodjmet grows some balls for the first time in her life and ends up marrying Nakhtmin quietly, and shortly after Pharaoh sends them to war (I'm getting the timeline a little mixed up here -- this is before Horemheb gets thrown in jail). Mutny is upset because she thinks that Nefertiti is trying to kill her husband on purpose because she wants Mutny all to herself (and this is kind of true). Then when Mutny gets pregnant, someone poisons her and forces her to miscarriage -- and Mutny suspects it might have been Pharaoh or Nefertiti, because if she's taking care of a baby all the time -- a baby who might threaten their dynasty!! -- who will be their trusty slave?

This pretty much encompasses the first 300 pages, so if you're worried about spoilers (I see you looking at me), no worries. There's way more drama -- catfights between Kiya and Nefertiti, Mutny obsessing over her sister's tits, Akhenaten acting like a crazy psycho, there's some plague, Panahesi scheming over how to make his daughter Akhenaten's "bottom bitch," children being born, Mutny having no spine, etc. etc. That's not even the half of it, either. But despite all of this, NEFERTITI moved very slowly. Mutnodjmet was such an insipid character, and I was so bored with her. I didn't understand why Moran didn't just suck it up and make Nefertiti the narrator, since she obviously liked her character so much more. She was a bitch, but she was an interesting bitch.

I would probably read more of Moran's work, but it's definitely not a priority for me. I read part of her author's note and she was bragging that she changed certain details of history around for fun (like having Nefertiti have twins) and that didn't really impress me...

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Shape-Changer's Wife by Sharon Shinn

Stories don't always have to be free of cliches to be good. The problem is, most people don't make the effort for them to be good, relying instead on the cliches to do the brunt of the work and carry the story forward. It makes for some lazy reading, lemme tell you.


This is the first work of Sharon Shinn's that I've ever read, and I believe it's her debut, too, which can be kind of tricky, because how in the world do you judge the debut of an established author? (This is a rhetorical question -- I pretty much review it as I would any other book; tear the shit out of it and rant and post gifs if it was bad, and squee and rant and post gifs if it was good).

Aubrey is a promising young magician who has learned pretty much everything he can from his old teacher, Cyril. His teacher, who specializes in scrying, sends him to another powerful wizard, Glyrenden, a shape-changer: one of the trickiest and sketchiest magics there is.

When Aubrey gets to the wizard's home, he finds that the wizard is absent, but his wife, Lilith, is there. Aubrey falls in love with her immediately because Lilith is beautiful, and majestic, but oh, so cold, and he is puzzled why she stays with her husband, who is so enamored with her, when she seems so impassive about his advances and affections.

As time passes, and Aubrey learns more about the art of shape-changing and about Glyrenden and Lilith and the strange and odd servants in their employ, he learns a lot about nature, and good and evil, and also about himself -- and he realizes that in order to win Lilith's love, he might have to do what her husband never could: let her go.

It's funny that Peter S. Beagle endorses this book on the back because THE SHAPE-CHANGER really reminded me of THE LAST UNICORN, both stylistically and also (roughly) plot-wise. There's also elements of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE in here. What I loved about these books is that they all have a fairytale setting and story that have luminous prose and pretty powerful ideas about what it means to be human. That's one of the reasons I've been diving into older fantasy novels; they tend to have this isolated feel to them, as if you're on an island populated by wild and mysterious things.

And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I cried. This book made me cry at the end. A little. Actually, I mostly just teared up. I was gearing up for a full-on sniffle fest but Shinn kind of cushioned the blow a little and gave it a bittersweet ending. I was a little disappointed; it's not often I find the book that has the literary estrogen to give me the emotional kick in the ovaries I crave. SUCK IT UP AND WRITE YOUR SAD ENDINGS IF AND WHEN THE BOOK CALLS FOR IT.

Another caveat: this book starts off really slowly. I actually considered just calling it quits and reading something else, because holy shit, this was boring. But then about thirty or forty pages end things started to pick up, and I realized that this was going to be more than a simple medieval setting fantasy story with a man coveting another man's wife. No, this was going to be existential.

"I came to magic," he said at last, "with joy. I thought it was a splendid thing to take the well of power that I found within me and shape it to marvelous uses. I learned to call up wind and control fire, to draw flowers from barren soil and divert rain to the desert. I learned to exorcise madness from men's brains and to banish illness from their blood. I can create illusions, I can make a scrying crystal give me visions that are literal, that are true. And everything I learned made me happy -- made others happy. And that is what I learned magic for.

"But magic, I have discovered, is like any skill. It is not inherently good in itself. And some of it -- yes, some of it is inherently evil. There are wicked spells, savage spells, enchantments that are so black that even to know them withers the heart just a little, taints the soul. And yet to be a great magician, to be a sorcerer of any ability or renown, those spells must be learned as well. For if a magician does not know them, they can be used against him -- and what is magic, after all, but a man's power to change the world while it is incapable of changing him?" (162-3).

4 out of 5 stars.