Perhaps “love” is a strong word for the conflicting emotions I feel. I went in expecting a different story, but rereads have shown the prose gets stronger with age. I appreciate what Bender does with her character’s emotions, even if the symbolism goes over my head.
So no, this book never betrayed me.
It betrayed my friend Laura.
That spring, nine of us traveled to Chehalis for a college mission trip. For our free day, we walked on the beach, bought ice cream, and hit up a book store. While Laura giggled at the serious titles, I stumbled onto this book:
A couple of things:
I love anything with a birthday motif. I’ve bought MANY books because of promised birthday adventures. I’m just now noticing the similarities:
Maybe I’ve been collecting these books as a way to relive this reading experience? So far I’ve failed; I haven’t liked a single one of the above books.
I get a sense of the story’s sadness from the cover, perhaps because of the creepy, looming shadow I just noticed. But the alternate cover?
Girl! It’s just cake! Chill!
Sadness? Cake? Magic? I didn’t care how much the book cost; I wanted it.
I showed this book to everyone in my group. Reactions ranged from “Huh,” to “THAT’S SO WEIRD.” (Conservative Christians have a low tolerance for whimsy.)
I passed the book to Laura.
To my surprise, she laughed. “That sounds HILARIOUS.”
We were stuck together for the next week, so I agreed.
We went back to our lodgings. While everyone else made dinner, I locked myself in my room to read. I was too young for Aimee Bender’s brand of deep melancholy, but I found the story “enjoyable” and “interesting.”
The next day, Laura asked for an update each time we passed in the hall on the way to our respective projects. “How’s the book? Hysterical?”
I struggled to temper her expectations without shutting her down; more often than not, I smiled and said, “It’s great!”
“Can’t wait to read it!” Laura would call over her shoulder.
I finished the book sometime tthat night. I lay in my bed for as long as I was allowed, absorbing the Great Sadness of the World.
I handed Laura the book the next morning over breakfast. “It was good,” I said, still carrying the Great Sadness of the World. “I liked it.”
When friends say this to me, I assume a “but” is coming.
Laura wasn’t nearly as cynical as I am. “Great! I can’t wait! It looks SOOOOO funny!”
At this point, I’d started to have some dark thoughts. I’d spent five days with these people sharing meals and bathrooms and tools, listening to the same 20-song playlist for the whole of our 8-hour workday, hauling firewood to avoid another tense afternoon in the linen closet. I only had an hour or so to myself where I tried to squeeze in some quality reading time before my body shut down; even then I could heard my team members laughing and making fart noises in the hallway.
So when Laura insisted yet again that a book with “sadness” in the title would be a jolly good time, I did worse than snap: I refused to warn her. “HAHA, YEP, ENJOY!” I said, sprinting off to scarf down another Costco muffin.
I watched Laura over the next couple of days for signs that she was carrying the Great Sadness of the World. While we repainted some walls, I asked, “So…how’s the book?”
Laura’s personality was 90% positive adjectives. It was hard to get recommendations from her that weren’t “AWESOME” or “FANTASTIC” or “AMAZING.” Everything, from K-Pop to J. J. Abrams, astonished her. “It’s…interesting.”
I saw the betrayal on her face. I should have felt guilty. I didn’t. I still don’t.
She handed the book back to me without a word a day later.
“Is that the cake book?” a teammate called. “It looked SO WEIRD!”
Laura said nothing. I enjoyed a brief pocket of silence, my “weird” book shielding me from my teammates’ conversation.
Good thing I minored in drama. (Only metaphorically. Just go with it.)
Which book destroyed my reading freedom like a terrorist?
WELCOME, FOLKS, TO JUDITH FERTIG’S THE CAKE THERAPIST!!
The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig
If you want to like you, buy me books.
If you want me to love you, let me buy my own.
Graduating from college netted me cash and gift cards from various relatives, including my brother’s-in-laws. Because they don’t know me well, they sent me a nice note and a Barnes and Noble gift card.
I couldn’t wait to spend it.
With celebratory spirit I entered Maplewood Mall’s giant Barnes and Noble, skirting away from my aunt’s beloved used section to ogle the New Releases.
There I saw the perfect book.
An imaginary salesman popped up next to me as I drooled over the cover: “This book has EVERYTHING: rainbow cakes, magical realism, plot for DAYS…just LOOK at that cover!”
My aunt came over to squint at the price tag. “You could get FOUR used books for this price,” she muttered.
I ignored her and bought the book anyway.
I should have listened.
I’d purchased a similar book three years earlier called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (and I have a great story about how that book betrayed someone else…but now is not the time.) In it, the protagonist learns she can taste others’ emotions in the food they make, something she discovers after her dissatisfied mother bakes her a birthday cake. I read that book expecting it to lean into the magical realism and found a very different story waiting for me. Though the story’s magical elements play less of a role than I expected, they still serve a purpose in exploring the emotions of the protagonist and her outlook on the people in her life.
Long story short: the flavor ability functions as an exploratory tool rather than a gimmick.
Here’s how The Cake Therapist betrayed me:
Judith Fertig used an interesting premise to sell a boring 1940’s mystery.
Much like the character I described above, protagonist Neely can taste feelings in food. More interestingly, she can pinpoint the particular flavor someone needs to either incite or quell a specific emotion. I thought that sounded PRETTY NEAT, like this decade’s Chocolat. Right? RIGHT, JUDITH?
A look at the cover reveals specific uses for different flavors: cinnamon for remembrance, orange for wake-up calls, and plum for…pep, I guess?
Surprise! Those are the only three flavors discussed in the book!
I’d pictured Neely acting as a therapist in secret; she’d listen to her friends blab about their problems and make them a “pick-me-up” that, through unique flavor combinations and witchery, would tap into their emotions and make them feel better.
I was excited to see what flavors Fertig assigned to different personalities. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW FASCINATING THAT PROSPECT IS TO ME, JUDITH? YOU ESSENTIALLY UNLOCKED A NEW SORTING HAT. IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: VANILLA LOVERS LACK DISCIPLINE, RED VELVET EATERS NEED AFFECTION, AND SO ON AND SO FORTH.
Neely pulls the “therapist” act maybe twice, though I can’t remember in what context. She spends most of her time trying to remember a flavor she just can’t recall.
But enough of that noise; there’s a mystery afoot!
The novel kept jumping back in time to the 1940s to take a not-so-interesting look at a poor Jewish family living in Neely’s hometown. I knew the flashbacks had to have some importance, but I couldn’t figure out what this gritty historical tale was doing in a chipper magic cake novel.
At the very end, Fertig tried to tie the two stories together by having Neely solve a decades-old mystery with her magic powers. I felt gypped. Where was the cake therapy? Where were the flavor assignments? If anything, the “cake therapist” portions felt like padding for a poor man’s Brooklyn.
All along, Neely’s magical reputation was a gimmick. Fertig showed no actual interest in the idea beyond using it as a framing device for her actual plot.
How DARE you, Judith.
Oh, and the flavor Neely was trying so hard to remember? Cinnamon.
Girl, how could you not remember cinnamon!? What is wrong with you!?
While making mylastfewlists, I realized I’d had a pretty good life. The bulk of my book betrayals occurred after I turned 18; I couldn’t recall any hurtful childhood reads.
Then I remembered.
There were betrayals, all right.
And they started early.
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan
I was 6 when the school librarians tricked me.
“Hi, Lauren,” they said as I approached the checkout counter. “You like horses, right?”
I looked down at the stack of Saddle Club and Marguerite Henry books in my arms. “Obviously” felt like an overstatement.
They slid a slim volume across the counter and smiled. “Then you’ll love this book.”
The librarians knew I only read horse literature, a genre I clung to until I turned 10. We’re not talking horse-adjacent literature – the horse had to play a large role or I lost interest. (Think The Horse and His Boy.)
Call me paranoid, but my teachers must have been in talks with the library to get me to read more “substantial” stories. They tricked me the only way they knew how: by bribing me with horses.
I never saw it coming.
Three revelations about this story:
The plot focuses on the life of Charlotte (later called Charley) Parkhurst
Besides being a metaphor, the title refers to Charley’s favorite childhood horse
The horse dies in the first 20 pages
Thus begins Charley Parkhurst’s life as a runaway and the last time a specific horse is mentioned in this book.
I was too young for symbolism. All I felt was horror.
Not only was the horse DEAD, I’d wasted my time reading about a boring REAL person who disguised herself as a MAN for some reason??
“How did you like the book?” the librarians asked on my next trip.
“HATED it,” I griped as I checked out another Saddle Club, little knowing how my interest in trans characters would skyrocket in the years to come.
I could tell my librarians weren’t sorry; they thought they’d done me a favor.
Maybe they had.
Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder
Many of these betrayals were born out of misunderstandings.
Careful reader that I am, I believed this book would take place during the Civil War, an impression not helped by my classmates (who thought the same thing) and my eighth-grade teacher (who deliberately fueled those misconceptions.)
Looking back, I think our teacher felt insecure about her choice of book and needed any encouragement, genuine or manufactured.
She was right to be uneasy.
The story does NOT take place during the Civil War, automatically lessening the tension. Think of how good this book COULD have been if Southern-sympathizer Will moved in with his abolitionist uncle DURING THE WAR! Then, as the conflict raged on, Will would have to reconcile his limited view of freedom with the ethics of slavery.
Unconcerned with notions of “stakes” or “plot,” author Carolyn Reeder set her story after the Civil War. The bulk of the plot focuses on Will’s struggles with chores (“WHY CAN’T SLAVES JUST DO THEM FOR ME?”), his crush on his cousin (…ew?), and his battle with local bullies.
His moral conversion takes place in a series of preachy conversations with his uncle Jed. Eventually, Jed convinces Will that Slavery is Bad, Freedom is Good, and sometimes Courage is needed for Hard Things. Inspired, Will does his chores and stands up to his tormentors.
Imagine if Will’s conversion had had an impact on his actions ASIDE from the requisite bully defeat.
I was 14 when my teacher forced us to read this. I’d been in school long enough to learn that Slavery is Bad. The book tried to convince us of this obvious fact without addressing the historical nuances.
When the class rebelled and began trash-talking this book, our teacher lost it. “THIS IS AWARD-WINNING LITERATURE!” she screamed.
She’s right: this trash won awards for telling an anti-bullying story with the moral “Slavery is Bad.”
I now know where my cynicism comes from.
The Sky Inside by Clare B. Dunkle
Y’all remember this book? No? Good, because I’m about to trash it ALL OVER AGAIN.
As always, the cover drew me in.
I noticed my friend Amby reading this book during math class (in the front row, no less!) She glared when I reached out to touch the shiny cover.
I had to know what it was about. “Amby!” I shoutwhispered. “What’s it about!?”
Rolling her eyes, Amby handed me the book.
I scanned the details, attention snagging on the words “fast-paced science-action thriller.” “Can I borrow this?”
For reasons I will never understand, Amby agreed. I read the first few chapters in awed silence. Protagonist Martin and his family lived under a dome with simulated weather. Instead of favoring natural birth, parents genetically engineered children. Instead of actual pets, people owned robotic dogs.
This, I thought, had never been attempted in all of fiction. (I was 14.)
After the initial set-up, a stranger appeared under the dome, promising to take the genius children to a “special school.” After discovering no such school existed, Martin and his robot dog Chip left the dome to rescue his sister.
The rest of the novel read like a survivalist manual.
“Protagonist must brave elements” is one of my least favorite tropes. During elementary school, I opted out of reading “Hatchet,” “Guts,” “My Side of the Mountain,” and any other boy-oriented adventure novel published between 1950 and 2005. I don’t want to read an entire book about a character’s struggle to stay warm during harsh mountain winters.
The bulk of The Sky Inside follows Martin as he hoofs it outside (odd, considering the title.) He might have encountered genuine stakes at some point, but I only remember him falling down hills and talking to his robot dog.
Good gravy, that last part.
In its first act, the musical Murder for Two introduces a mute, invisible cop named Lou. The other characters interact with Lou, joking that if it wasn’t for him, they’d be talking to themselves.
Martin’s robodog Chip serves the same function without the humor brought by Lou. Any thought Martin has, he directs at Chip. “Gee, boy, why hasn’t the sun gone down?” “Golly, Chip, it sure is cold out here!”
I’d guess Clare B. Dunkle wanted to avoid writing “he thought to himself” over and over again, yet having Martin talk to a dog doesn’t feel any more natural than hearing Martin’s inner monologue. In fact, I’d rather Martin talk to himself than have inane, one-sided conversations WITH HIS ROBOTIC DOG.
Both Martin and I survived this reading experience, but it tarnished my view of sci-fi forever.
Forever Princess by Meg Cabot
My favorite book in The Princess Diaries series is Princess Mia.
In the series’ penultimate book, Mia battles depression, copes with a breakup, reconciles with her enemies, loses a friend, and upends her country’s government.
I remember bursting with hope when I finished the book. I’d never been more invested in Mia’s struggles or felt so proud of what she’d accomplished. It was the perfect end to a long journey.
Then the final book of the series came out.
Forever Princess isn’t awful, if my umpteen rereads are any indication. It has all the jokes and drama you’d expect from a Princess Diaries novel. I made my peace with this ending a long time ago.
I wasn’t so understanding when it first came out.
Where do I even begin? To parse out my feelings on Forever Princess is to unravel my psyche.
Let’s liken it to Winterto simplify things: like other series finales, Forever Princess is too happy. No bittersweetness here; the final book is all fluff with every plot line ending happily.
In some ways, this isn’t surprising: the reason I read the series is for its light-hearted tone.
After the previous two books, however, the fluffy optimism comes as a shock.
Mia deals with more complex issues as she grows older, as seen in books 8 and 9, which deal openly with heartbreak and mental illness. The realism in these books makes Forever Princess feel all the more jarring.
Most disappointing to me was Meg Cabot’s handling of the romance.
Suffice it to say Michael Moscovitz was never my perfect Prince Charming. The longer the series went on, the less I liked him. Meg Cabot argues for the “opposites attract” theory of romance, claiming that Mia and Michael’s lack of common traits makes them a perfect pair. Personally, I prefer couples that have more in common (which is why I shipped Mia and JP.)
Michael also makes some choices regarding his relationship with Mia that I found unforgivable at ages 14, 15, and 16.
At best, Michael is a clueless dud. At worst, he’s kind of a tool.
Luckily, there’s a way to fix that!
By book 9, Meg Cabot had broken up her beloved couple and paired Mia with theater geek John Paul “J.P.” Reynolds-Abernathy, another nice, if clueless, love interest who at least treated Mia well.
To make Michael the more suitable option, Cabot transformed J.P. from a rebound into a dastardly villain. Watch as he expertly manipulates everyone around him! Witness him booking a hotel room without Mia’s knowledge! Feel his arrogance as he climbs the stairs to accept his Prom King crown! MWAHAHAHA! It’s a full-on Prince Hans situation.
To contrast with his younger persona, Michael became buff, rich, and famous, and therefore more suitable for reasons that contradicted the series’ “Be Yourself” moral.
I’m not as anti-Michael as I was in 2009. Still, I’m unconvinced Michael is Mia’s perfect prince, especially as Mia was so anxious during the bulk of their relationship. I was more interested in seeing Michael get his comeuppance for the way he treated Mia, or SOMETHING aside from the “love covers everything” approach to their reunion romance.
At the time, Mia and I were both graduating from high school and dealing with all the emotions that come with change. After following Mia’s adventures for years, I watched my favorite princess earn a “majorly happy ending.”
I didn’t want a happy ending – I wanted a fresh start.
Almost a decade later, it still hurts to see my path diverge from Mia’s. I go back and reread the series from time to time to experience that same giddy, fizzy feeling I felt when I first read these books, but it’s not the same.
Princess Mia gave me the shot of hope I needed as an 18-year-old soon-to-be graduate. Peaceful as I pretend to be, part of me wishes Forever Princess never happened.
Scanning my bookshelf, I see magical realism and memoirs where I once kept wizards and fairies. I still love Harry Potter and I’ll take a good prophecy every now and again, but I avoid outright magical stories.
It’s possible these books are to blame.
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross
I bought this long-desired tome, along with many other books, after graduating high school. I splurged, spending $18 of my $200 limit on a single title.
Worth it, I thought, for my soon-to-be favorite book.
At the time, I hadn’t learned to be skeptical of ensemble casts. I’d fallen for the characters – including an Irish mechanic, a half-robot, and an American gunslinger– while reading the cover blurb. And…what’s this? A cowboy-robot-mechanic love triangle? Count me in!
I put this book in a place of honor on my dorm room shelf.
Much as I hate to admit it, I have to credit this book for stoking my interest in writing book reviews.
The positivity ends there.
Kady Cross treats the steampunk genre as license to write whatever she wants.
“Look at these badass Victorian wenches wearing pants on their MOTORCYCLES!”
“Not modern motorcycles. These are powered by MAGIC.”
“For historical accuracy.”
“And the women are wearing corsets.”
Know what, Kady? Do whatever you want. Throw cowboys and robots and serial killers in your book. I don’t care.
There were TWO in this book, and they added NOTHING.
Cross uses the X-men as inspiration without including the ideological tensions and personality clashes that make those mutants interesting. There’s a difference between, “Let’s throw these two in a room together and see what happens,” and “Let’s make these two hate each other, just to spice things up.” The latter choice means the characters haven’t been developed enough to create conflict on their own.
Full disclosure, I did read the sequel. Kady Cross threw out both love triangles with a casual, “Whatever, these are my ships now!” Admittedly, I was intrigued by Wildcat, the biracial Irish gang leader with…cat claws?
Then Cross introduced a Southern dandy as the villain and I couldn’t take it anymore.
The Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck
Once upon a time, I flew to Nellore, India over 36 hours.
Before my trip, my mom bought me several books of my choosing.
This is the one I remember.
By happy accident, it turned out the book was set in India. Cheered by this auspicious beginning, I started my adventure.
Let it be known, I have since tried and failed to reread this book, so props to 18-year-old Lauren for sticking it out. (Once again: former completionist, dark times.)
For all the uproar over Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011, people missed out on this junior version released the same year. This book oozes with wish fulfillment.
What’s that, teenage girl? You feel alone and unloved? Here, let me give you:
a handsome Indian prince who
is TOTALLY ripped and
has tons and tons of money that he uses to
buy you whatever you want, INCLUDING
four years tuition at an Oregon college, along with room and board, not to mention
he thinks you’re super sexy and
he tells you all the time how desirable you are and
he’s an AMAZING kisser but
he respects your desire to wait and
(…I don’t want to say it)
(…don’t make me type this)
…he has a twin brother
…who’s a bad boy.
I need a shower.
Is wish fulfillment the problem? No. The new “Star Wars” films show childhood dreams can still create compelling stories.
If you want to write a compelling story, you better go all out. I’m talking developed characters, believable romance, interesting conflict…PROPER GRAMMAR, at the VERY least.
If you just want to serve up pointless fantasy set in exotic locales? Post that online instead of charging $20 for subpar prose.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell/The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell writes a killer blurb.
On paper, his books sound amazing, promising grand cosmic adventures.
I remember being thrilled by the plot concepts of both books. As I’ve shown, great concepts always result in great stories! (Wrong.)
Both novels are a slog. I groaned my way through Cloud Atlas and gave up on The Bone Clocks.
I dislike when I engage with literature and don’t get much out of it. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what these books were trying to say.
I wonder, though, if David Mitchell has anything to say. In my view, he relies too heavily on creative formats and complex plots. Readers compliment the “accuracy” of Cloud Atlas’ different styles: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing reads like a journal, the Luisa Rey mystery reads like a cheesy 1970s mystery, etc.
Others who have read the book see six diverse genres forming a cohesive story.
I see six pointless, equally-dry sections devoid of emotion.
I had a similar problem with The Bone Clocks, where Mitchell pushes the promised cosmic battle to the fringes to focus on unlikable and uninteresting characters.
Patrick Ness attempted something similar with 2015’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, where the protagonists played bit parts in the “real” story. He chose to emphasize the emotional struggles of these “unimportant” characters, creating a moving story even as the “plot” carried on without them.
Mitchell’s writing makes it hard to care about his characters. With his books, I know I’m supposed to be wowed by what he’s accomplishing, yet come away confused about what he wants me to feel.
I wish I knew what he was trying to say.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I didn’t pay full-price for this book.
The book was $26.00 when it first came out. No WAY was I dropping almost $30 on a book! (Unless it was a textbook. Somehow that passed muster.)
But what a book it was! This stands out in my memory as the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. And I wanted it. I wanted it bad. Every time I saw it in a bookstore, I’d run my hands over its gold-flecked spine and ruffled pages, whispering, “Soon…soon…”
Miracle of miracles, I found an Advanced Reader Copy of this very book IN PAPERBACK for $8.00 at Half Price Books. Because I’m a slow learner, I bragged about the purchase to my grandparents. Not ONLY was this book going to be amazing, I’d gotten it on SALE!
While they were enjoying PLU’s annual Christmas concert, I cracked open my ARC and…
…I don’t want to say I was bored…
…but I was bored.
Not all novels start great. I kept reading.
It did not improve.
Helene Wecker writes stilted prose.
Instead of sweeping me away with her plot, she points out why I should be swept away. It’s hard to engage in a grand adventure when I’m constantly being reminded how grand the adventure is.
Despite this self-conscious self-presentation, this book is NOTHING special. It’s the tropiest bunch of tropey whimsy stuffed in a pretty cover. It’s not awful, but it’s so lackluster it might as well be.
NOTHING about it stands out. While reading, I checked off plot points as they happened: here’s the budding friendship; here’s the lost love episode; here’s the Heroic Sacrifice…
I just…didn’t care.
About any of it.
It always hurts when I get rid of a beautiful book. If I had the space, I might keep it around for aesthetic reasons… On second thought, I couldn’t do that. I don’t need a daily reminder of this disappointment.
To add insult to injury, I tried to sell this book back to Half Price Books, where the buyback attendant informed me they don’t take ARCs.