Audio book: My Kitchen Year

mykitchenyearby Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
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Content: There’s no swearing. It’s a cookbook, so it’s not something one typically reads, but her story is fascinating. It’s in the cook book section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because I was looking for something to read. I knew it was a cookbook, but it’s Ruth Reichl, and I have loved her writing in the past. I figured it was worth my time.

And, for the most part, it was. It’s the story of the year following the folding of Gourmet magazine, of which she was editor, and how she found purpose again. And, because it’s Reichl, she found it through food.

I think, when I picked it up, I hoped there would be more stories and less recipes, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t mind the recipes. Reichl reads them as if she’s your friend, telling you how to make something (no list of ingredients at the top; I wonder what the print version looks like…), complete with advice and variations, in case you don’t like things the way she does. She has such a comfortable, familiar writing and reading voice, it was almost like spending time with a friend.

She made the food sound delicious, as well; thankfully, tis was a cookbook of the month at the store a while back, and so I know the recipes are good (especially the chocolate cake!). And the stories that accompanied the recipes — the book is organized by timeline rather than by recipe — are classic Reichl: simple and yet evocative.

So, even though listening to a cookbook is an unusual choice, I don’t regret picking this one up at all. It was delightful to spend some time hearing Reichl’s story.

Thieving Weasels

thievingweaselsby Billy Taylor
First sentence: “I would have killed to go to Princeton.”
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Content: There’s a handful of swear words (no f-bombs that I remember) and some off-screen, implied sex. Plus drug use and teen drinking. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Cam Smith has a goal: finish up at his boarding school, Wheaton, get into Princeton with his girlfriend, and leave his dirty, awful past behind. Then: his dirty, awful past comes for him. In the form of his Uncle (Wonderful, meant very sarcastically), his cousin Roy, and his mother. Who supposedly attempted suicide and is in a mental institution. It turns out that Cam — who is really Skip O’Rourke — is needed for a Big Job, one that will pay everyone lots of money and so they can all be Very Happy. What it turns out to be is a royal mess.

I was torn about this one. On the one hand: long con books. I love heist and long con books. It’s fun to follow the clues, to figure out who is conning who (in this case, everyone is conning everyone) and to see who comes out on top. This one, as far as cons go, was probably overly complicated (it kept twisting and turning), but in the end, very satisfying.

On the other hand: Cam/Skip’s mom was AWFUL. Beyond awful. Neglectful and borderline abusive (“I’m doing this for your own good”), in the end I just couldn’t handle her. (Maybe my opinions on bad mothers have changed since having E in the house…) I not only wanted to smack his family, I actively despised them. The uncle was awful, the cousin was a brat. But his mother didn’t deserve anything but scorn. And perhaps Taylor meant it to be that way, to have someone so awful that the illegal things Cam/Skip did weren’t “too bad”, but it grated on me. In the end, I think it was supposed to be humorous, but I found myself often annoyed. Which is never a good sign.

So: not bad, but not the best con book I’ve ever read, either.

Nine, Ten

ninetenby Nora Raleigh Baskin
First sentence: “Everyone will mention the same thing, and if they don’t, when you ask them, they will remember.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It handles the tragedy of 9/11 on a level that is appropriate for the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’d also make an excellent read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Everyone (well, everyone of a certain age and older) knows the story of what happened on 9/11. But fifteen years on, there isn’t as many of the kids who know about that day. And so, Baskin helps introduce the tragedy through the stories of four eleven-year-old kids for the forty-eight hours before the planes hit. There’s Sergio, an African American kid from Brooklyn who is trying to make a better life for  himself but whose deadbeat dad is getting in the way. There’s Aimee, who has recently relocated from Chicago to L. A. and whose mother has a meeting in New York City that week. And there’s Will from Pennsylvania, whose father died in a freak accident and who is trying to get over that. And there’s Nadira, a Muslim girl from Ohio, who is trying to figure out the whole middle school thing. 9/11 changes each of their lives — though I’ll spoil it: no one has anyone they love die — in ways they could not have expected.

The thing I liked best was not so much the stories, or wondering how it would all play out (and wondering if Baskin would kill anyone). It was that Baskin caught the emotion of the day so very well. I was in Mississippi, having recently moved from DC, and I remember being caught up in the worry and horror and concern during it all. I wasn’t in the middle of it; I couldn’t imagine being in the middle of it. But, I, like many Americans, was affected by it. And Baskin caught that feeling perfectly.

I’m hoping this, along with Towers Falling, will spark a discussion about unity and how, no matter what we look like or believe, we can work to get past anger and mistrust and hate and be better citizens together. I hope, at the very least, that this one gets read and discussed.

Leave Me

leavemeby Gayle Forman
First sentence: “Maribeth Klein was working late, waiting to sign off on the final page proofs of the December issue, when she had a heart attack.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a handful — maybe a dozen? — f-bombs as well as some other mild swearing. The subject matter is more mature, than Forman’s other books, and it’ll be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Maribeth figures she’s living the life: she’s got a Great Editing Job at a fashion magazine, she’s got a beautiful pair of twins (that she and her husband were happy to have). She’s managing to juggle work, parenting, home life, a marriage. It’s what women are Supposed To Do, right? Then, at age 44, she has a heart attack. It sends her into a spiral, first because she’s trying to heal and no one’s giving her the support she wants/needs, and then because she just can’t seem to Care anymore. So she does what so many overworked women dream of doing: she leaves.

Nominally, she heads to Pittsburgh because, being adopted, she doesn’t know her genetic history and she is looking for her birth mother. But really, her life is too much for her to handle and she wants to try something else on for a change. She goes cash-only, she sheds her name, she wants to start over. And it seems that’s what she needs: through making new friends, taking a step away from everything, she figures things out.

When I first started this, I thought it would completely wreck me. Being an overworked and underappreciated working mother is something I definitely can identify with. But, rather than finding it difficult to get through, I found myself drawn into Maribeth’s story, her history, her fears and hopes, and the ways in which she was carrying her grief and anger. I was pulled into the characters that Forman created for Maribeth to befriend in Pittsburgh. I appreciated that everyone was complex and multi-faceted; no one was wholly in the wrong, including Maribeth herself.

I truly enjoyed it, which is unusual for me when it comes to adult books. Perhaps it’s because Forman is generally a YA writer, and this just felt like a more mature YA — a focus on character and moving the plot forward, rather than just pages and pages of, well, boring drivel. Either way, this is definitely one to check out.

The Magicians

magiciansby Lev Grossman
First sentence: “Quentin did a magic trick.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs, some references to drugs and sex (off screen). It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I’ve been told for years that I would like The Magicians. It’s been billed as Harry Potter for adults, and I’ve been curious about it. So, I finally got the time/nerve/inclination to pick it up, just to see what all the fuss is about.

And it’s everything I hate about adult fiction: pretentious kids, a complete lack of plot, inadequate world building, covered in “good” writing.

Ugh.

I admit: I bailed less than halfway through. I just didn’t care enough to  keep going. It was, quite frankly, Boring.

I’ll stick to Harry Potter, thanks.

The Museum of Heartbreak

museumofheartbreakby Meg Leder
First sentence: “In her junior year of high school, Penelope Madeira Marx, age sixteen going on seventeen, experienced for the first time in her young life the devastating, lonely-making, ass-kicking phenomenon known as heartbreak.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Lots and lots of swearing. So much that it landed itself in the teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Penelope has been friends with Audrey and Eph for forever. They’ve been a trio, with traditions and in-jokes, and Penelope loves it that way. She loves the consistency, the predictability, the comfort of it all. Except, in their junior year, things aren’t right. Audrey has been going off with another girl, one who is mean to Penelope, and Eph is, well , increasingly distant. Things just aren’t the same.

The best thing about this book (well, aside from Pen and Eph; they’re both fantastic characters) is the format. Every chapter starts with an “artifact” from Pen’s friendship history. A sweatshirt, a piece of paper, a toy. A memory, a connection. It’s very much a book about things falling apart, about changes that are spiraling out of control. The format fit the theme of the book, which I found wonderfully delightful.  (Even the douchebag characters who totally deserved everything.)

In fact, I found the whole thing delightful. A perfect summer read.

Counting Thyme

countingthymeby Melanie Conklin
First sentence: “When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a slight bit of romance (no kissing, just like likeing), but otherwise, it’s great for 4th grade on up. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Thyme has a good life: a best friend, a home near her grandmother in sunny San Diego. But her younger brother has a rare form cancer, and an opportunity for a new treatment has opened up in New York City. Suddenly, Thyme’s good life is taken away from her: in the middle of her sixth grade year her family up and moves. To say she’s not happy with this is an understatement.

It doesn’t help that home isn’t the best place. The treatment is hard on her younger brother, which puts everyone on edge. Her older sister is lobbying for more freedom, which terrifies her mother. And Thyme is just trying to find a place to fit in at school; it’s so very different from home. Which is where she’d rather be.

Cancer books are a dime a dozen, it seems like, so it takes something different to make one stand out. Told from the perspective of a sibling rather than the cancer patient helps. But it’s really the fish out of water theme that makes this one stand out for me. Sure, Conklin captures the stress cancer treatment puts on a family and how difficult it is for everyone, not just the cancer patient. But the parts I liked better were the ones where Thyme was torn between her old life and making a new one. That feeling of being in two places, of having to start over when you move is one that’s hard to capture. And I think Conklin did that well. I liked the variety of people — from the grumpy downstairs neighbor to the Italian babysitter to the friends the Thyme made at school — that populated the book.

A good read.