I COULD HAVE SWORN I’D ALREADY DONE THIS TAG.
I COULD HAVE SWORN I’D ALREADY DONE THIS TAG.
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!!
If you want me 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!?
Somebody solve THAT mystery.
Good ol’ genre fiction. The stories I love tend to be more plot- than character-oriented, promising a fun ride. My favorite genres include chick lit, mystery, romance, and adventure.
Meet the biggest offender for each of the above genres.
In my defense, I was going through a breakup when I bought this book.
I LOVE breakup lit. And revenge stories. And, again, I was in a bad place.
I bought this book during the summer, the perfect season for fun, fluffy literature. Not only did I find the title hilarious, I loved the idea of two girls creating their own smoothie business as part of an elaborate scheme to destroy an ex.
I was so ready.
I ended up finishing this, partly fueled by rage. The writing offended me. Completing this book become a test of will: could I finish a novel this awful?
Listen, if you’re going to sell me a fresh plot, you better deliver. Don’t promise me a smoothie stand if all you’ll give me is gross teenage romance and friend fights. I don’t care about these characters. YOU don’t care about these characters. Why develop them at all?
Both protagonists find love in this book, which…okay, one of them just went through a break-up, but you know what? Go for it.
Both romances were disgusting. The author amped up the awkwardness of teenage boys by a thousand. Normally cringeworthy lines became unbearable. “Quirky” behaviors multiplied like rabbits. One of the guys used flashcards as his “in.”
AND NO ONE CALLED THEM ON IT. Neither protagonist said, “Huh, that was kind of gross,” or “Is he hitting on me using trivia?”
Instead, both girls found the weird pick-up lines, moves, and excuses “kind of sexy.”
I now understand asexuality.
The VERY worst part of this book (and this is a spoiler): the girls blow all their hard-earned smoothie money on a helicopter ride to school. Now everyone will know who they are!
WAS THAT THE MESSAGE THIS WHOLE TIME?
WAS THAT WHAT WE WERE SUPPOSED TO LEARN???
All that time getting revenge on the ex, hooking up with gross boys, and rewriting your friendship dynamic…the real goal was showing up the jerks at your high school!?!?
I can’t. I can’t anymore. I’m done.
Looking at this book as an adult, I can see where I went wrong.
I love a good mystery; give me plot twists and whodunnits and thrills. Tipped off by the symbolic pumpkins, I realize now the author never intended the mystery to be the main focus.
I missed that detail as a 14-year-old.
After one or two mentions, the promised ballerinacide gave way to:
As a former completionist, I read the whole thing (it was a dark time.)
I remember best the disappointment. In my view, Dorian Cirrone LIED to me: if you wanted to write about censorship and body image, why didn’t you just tell me??
Can we mark this as the official moment where I lost my innocence? That seems healthy. Let’s do it.
I’ve noticed book reviews use the word “lyrical” when they have nothing nice to say about the story.
Everything I read about this book continued in that vein: the prose was “lush,” the love story “magical,” the world “fantastic,” all very impressive descriptions for a debut novel. From all appearances, this looked to be a whimsical romantic journey.
None of the reviews mentioned how harsh this book is.
I will put up with a lot if like a story enough, but I draw the line at abuse.
This book isn’t very long, only about 300 pages, and yet unnecessary acts of violence comprise most of the plot: the chemical rain that burns the protagonists; the physical deformity Cluck received from a family member; Cluck’s older brother stabbing his sibling’s hands with a needle.
The promised romance covered 40 pages. In those pages, the leads went from enemies to lovers to back to enemies. The author packed too much relationship into too few pages.
After the aforementioned needle stabbing, I couldn’t continue.
I’m torn – McLemore also wrote a trans romance that sounds great, but after this? I expect 200 pages of physical violence capped by a single kiss between the leads.
Not worth it.
Squandering solid ideas infuriates me.
Sometimes I feel like coming up with ideas is the hardest part of writing. Even if something excites me, I wonder, “Is it strong enough to fuel an entire story?” If it’s an idea with a lot of required research or moving parts, I wonder, “Am I motivated to complete this?”
I’d like to be a great little cheerleader who supports other writers and their attempts to create, no matter the quality.
Instead, I’m the slackjawed critic made sick by wasted potential.
If someone publishes a unique idea – an unusual setting, a specific historical retelling, an unlikely perspective, a speculative bent – that idea is now timestamped with their name on it. Others can be inspired by this idea or use similar elements to make their own stories, but they can’t use that idea without someone crying foul. The original, amazing idea belongs to whichever author thought of it first.
How does this relate to my rant?
Before I answer, I have a letter to write:
Dear Heidi Heilig,
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
Let’s take an inventory:
Look at all these DELICIOUS ingredients. SURELY all these separate parts would yield a wonderful recipe. Just let that tension simmer…
No? You’re not even going to turn on the heat? I mean…okay, Heidi, it’s your story.
The pirates…the pirates aren’t even gonna pirate anything? Just talk about it? Geez, hope the father-daughter conflict is better than this…
WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO CONFLICT? Why is the protagonist RESIGNED to her fate? WHY IS SHE HELPING HIM?
At least we’ve got that love interest kicking around. Surely… Oh, he doesn’t care about her. RAD. Wait, Heidi, are you trying to push a race angle with him? Stick to sucking the tension out of your story.
Okay, we’re switching locations!! It’s time for some action!
…OR the protagonist can go shopping. That’s cool, too.
Ew, who’s that freckled kid? WHO’S THAT FRECKLED KID? HEIDI! ARE YOU THROWING A ROMANTIC FALSE LEAD AT ME RIGHT NOW? HEIDI! ANSWER ME! I’M NOT STUPID, HEIDI. DON’T TRY TO DISTRACT FROM YOUR THIN PLOT! HEIDI! GET BACK HERE!
I gave up after 80 pages. Once Freckle McPonytail showed up, I knew Heidi didn’t have anything interesting planned. With the plot at a dead halt and the characterization barely present, I couldn’t see anything promising on the horizon.
So I abandoned this book with all my hopes and dreams.
I hear you wrote a sequel, Heidi. I hear you duologied this garbage.
I wish I could go back in time to the moment I bought this book as a depressed, unemployed recent graduate. I would MOVE BACK TO BREMERTON if it meant I could ERASE THIS BOOK FROM MY MEMORY.
You betrayed me and I don’t care anymore.
Read part 1 here.
I have yet more literary disappointments to unearth.
Thankfully, queer literature has never let me down.
HAHAHAHAHA just kidding.
I’m using Ash to represent all of Malinda Lo’s books.
Malinda Lo writes excellent nonfiction; I keep entire anthologies for her essays alone.
Her fiction is just so boring.
Right? Sounds awesome.
I just reviewed the plot summary on Lo’s website – apparently there was an evil fairy in this and I COMPLETELY FORGOT.
Nothing about this story felt urgent or exciting. What could have been a fresh take on the Cinderella tale came off as dry and lifeless as ash.
I am often, though not always, swayed by aesthetics.
If I’m going to buy a book, I need an eyecatching cover and an interesting cover blurb.
As soon as I read this book’s plot synopsis, I had to have it. You couldn’t have engineered a more perfect story for me: princesses, queer romance, elemental magic, and HORSES? Cap that off with mystery, action, and intrigue and I was MORE than sold.
Too bad the book failed to deliver on the last two points. I got almost halfway through this clunker without anything of interest happening. All the plot points felt mechanical, like the author ran through a checklist of what she thought she needed for an interesting story. It felt similar to “The Greatest Showman,” full of tropes added for manufactured authenticity.
Which, with such a refreshing plot, is a SHAME.
I go into more detail with this idea later on, so I’ll be brief: it bothers me when authors receive praise for unique ideas or props for representation with no consideration given to the story’s execution.
The romance between Mare and Denna hits so many familiar notes. You can’t rely on the novelty of same-sex YA romance to make your relationship compelling. Novelty is not enough.
This book reeks of wasted potential. Someone PLEASE rewrite this.
Whoever designed this book deserves a medal. Overlarge, with weathered pages and a pleasing weight, this book felt right in my hand.
Reading the plot summary, I came away thinking this book would be a zany comedy about the wacky hijinks of a gay teenager. I mean, come on – the coffee stain? The cutesy font? The exclamation point? The use of the phrase “how in the name of caramel milkshakes?”
I was so, so wrong.
This book isn’t bad so much as different from what I expected. Yes, the cover blurb mentions Delilah managing her father’s cafe while he goes on a trip. I didn’t realize he was depressed – as in, get your doctor to prescribe some Citalopram STAT. I didn’t think Delilah would hide her various struggles to keep from aggravating her dad’s mental illness. NO PART of me expected my own daddy issues to be triggered. If I’d known THAT, I WOULD NOT HAVE PURCHASED THIS BOOK.
I went in expecting laughs and found myself STRESSED OUT. The story’s combined stresses of parental abandonment, financial insecurity, failure, and hostile work environment proved too much for my psyche. Know what’s hilarious? Employees taking advantage of their teenage bosses. Here’s a joke for you: CULTURAL HOMOPHOBIA. Isn’t it hysterical when closeted lesbians make others’ lives hell? The onslaught of misery never ended.
As soon as I finished this book, I hurled it onto my Books to Sell pile and never looked at it again.
For someone with no interest in astrology, I have a pretty huge obsession with the zodiac. I buy pretty much anything zodiac-related, including fiction.
I’m also fond of the magical-girl genre, having grown up on “Sailor Moon.” As a kid, I loved watching powerful women fight the forces of evil and win the hearts of tuxedoed men. This series may have fueled my not-so-secret desire for a magical girl squad, a dream that dies a little bit every time one of my friends gets married. (#stop)
I drooled over this graphic novel for months. Star signs AND magical girls? COULD THIS BE??
The store I frequented shrinkwrapped their copies, so I couldn’t peek at the pages. I ended up buying a copy for my best friend’s birthday, telling myself I would borrow it once she finished.
A week later, I decided I couldn’t wait that long.
This novel isn’t…bad? I guess? The art is great? The concept is interesting?
I just don’t care.
My friend and I tried to play “Who Would You Be?” and found we couldn’t remember the characters’ names. A huge plot twist happens near the end and I could only think, “Wow, this would have been more interesting had I been invested…”
It breaks my heart to think this idea was only ever good in theory.
And now my squad dreams are completely dead.
Before we talk about this book, we have to talk about infamous YA author Alex Sanchez.
Alex Sanchez wrote the Rainbow Boys series in the early 2000s. While researching my thesis, I found out his books have been banned numerous times, making Sanchez something of an anti-censorship hero. Sanchez’s books have been praised for tackling the topic of homosexuality in the mainstream at a time when not much queer YA literature existed.
Unfortunately, Sanchez doesn’t write…well.
Granted, I read his books more than a decade ago. My dislike can be attributed to my age, the timing of my reading, or my style preferences. Even though I don’t like his books, I don’t want to dismiss what Sanchez has done for the queer canon.
However, reading Sanchez’s work has left me with an impression of Sanchez as an author more valued for subject matter than skill.
What the culture considers groundbreaking isn’t always good.
(*cough cough* DAVID LEVITHAN. *cough cough*)
So, when I read Benjamin Alire Saenz’s award-winning 2014 novel about gay teens, I found myself feeling the exact same way.
LOOK how many awards grace that cover!
James Howe called this book “breathtaking.”
The friend who recommended it to me used words like “beautiful” and “precious” and “perfect.”
BookTubers I respect cite this book as one of their favorites.
I hated the clunky prose as soon as I started reading.
I often hear the argument that simplistic first-person YA prose “nails the teenage voice.” “Real” teenagers don’t sound like award-winning novelists; they sound like teens with underdeveloped frontal cortexes. So you can’t blame writers for coming off as awkward, dramatic, or stupid – that’s just how teens ARE.
To convince me with that argument, you better back a strong character. Well-written, believable characters can excuse “simplicity” in voice, tone, style, or plot.
I don’t find Ari compelling enough to carry an entire story. Much of the time, I found it hard to sympathize with him. I seemed to be missing the emotional connection others felt.
I also think the “teenage voice” argument misses the fact that writing is an art. It’s not enough to have your narrator say, “I feel sad sometimes.” Sure, real teens feel sad sometimes, but this narration doesn’t fully portray their perspective or capture the nuance of the teenage experience. Stating facts doesn’t make a work feel real.
So while I tried to connect, I found the writing too simplistic to enjoy. I’ll be avoiding Saenz’s work in the future regardless of the awards it wins.
The search for good books continues.
When it comes to books, I am a cheapskate.
In this area of my life, I value quantity over quality, blowing my budget on thrifty, vaguely-interesting paperbacks rather than the one or two pricey hardbacks I really want. Why bother when I’m going to switch them out for cheaper, less bulky, better-looking copies in six months?
If I feel I can’t live without a book, I’ll splurge. Sometimes I’m too impatient to wait for the paperback release; other times I buy on impulse, swayed by a perfect plot summary or a pretty cover.
When these books disappoint, it’s agony. It feels as bad as a breakup; all that effort and emotional energy for nothing. WE COULD HAVE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, AND YOU RUINED IT.
Though this isn’t a complete list of past offenders, be warned: these books broke my heart.
The fact that I talked this book up to my friends before I read it makes the the memory of this purchase especially embarrassing.
I bought what sounded like a female-led remake of “A Horse and His Boy” with foreign fugitives, fleshed-out romance, magical mounts, and GUNSLINGERS. Make no mistake: throw ANY of those elements in a book and I’ll whip out my debit card. Add all four and you find me saying things like, “I feel like this book was written for me!” to my skeptical friends.
As always, the cover played a big part in my decision. In my heart of hearts, I prefer pretty books. And LOOK AT THIS THING.
(Author’s note: Free punch in the face to anyone who smugly comments, “That’s why they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover!'” No one wants to read a $2.00 copy of Pride and Prejudice; Barnes and Nobles makes special editions for a reason.)
I gave up after 80 pages. I didn’t even make it to the horse. (I don’t think. See? I CAN’T EVEN REMEMBER.)
I didn’t enjoy the world or the characters, and I DEFINITELY didn’t appreciate the rushed romance with a heavy helping of denial.
A year later, I saw this book on Barnes and Nobles overstock table for $6. No one should have to pay that much for this letdown.
I find it harder and harder to like YA romances.
I had a heartbreaking moment the other day when I realized one of my all-time favorite ships isn’t healthy. I’ve become a more moderate shipper and I don’t like how it feels.
All that to say I hated the romance in this book.
The protagonist ends up married to a mysterious man who claims they were a couple in a past life. Whenever she asks for details, he says, “Just trust me.” RED FLAG #1.
The guy gets way too intimate way too fast and repeats the same justification: “No, we used to be in love! Trust me! I’m not a bad guy!” RED FLAG #2.
Nothing he did showed care for the protagonist. She spent the bulk of the novel confused, avoiding his touch and flowery sentiments. Yet he never apologized or agreed to take it slow. He practically begged her to sleep with him with the argument that he can’t help it – he loves her too much. RED FLAG #3.
Halfway in, I decided he was really the villain. The narrative purposefully muddied the waters, casting this creepo in a suspicious light.
I wish the author had followed through.
Listen, love interests: The best justifications and purest feelings don’t excuse overwhelming your partner. If she feels uncomfortable or confused, BACK OFF.
The creepy persistence paired with self-centered reasoning turned me off this series.
I won’t be picking up a sequel, no matter how pretty the cover.
Fine, let’s get this cover out of the way:
Not only is the cover WONDERFUL, this book was released around my birthday; looking at it felt like a celebration.
I loved Chelsea Sedoti’s first novel, the deeply-weird-yet-emotionally-affecting The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett. When I heard she’d written a follow-up, I was immediately on board.
I have nothing good to say about this book. I read it while on vacation and found myself becoming more and more disillusioned.
Compared to Hawthorn Creely from Lizzie Lovett, this protagonist had nothing going for him. I can’t even remember his name. Connor, maybe? I don’t often notice when authors write from an opposite-sex POV, but Sedoti’s writing of Connor felt particularly self-conscious, i.e., “Yo, I’m a dude, this is how dudes think.”
If I had to sum up the plot, it would be “Brainwashed town keeps magical secret on orders from power-mad mayor and everyone learns a lesson at the end.”
That sounds more like a TV episode I’ve seen 1000 times than a compelling idea for a novel.
This concept had so many possibilities and Sedoti chose to tell a standard fable. Too bad.
I haven’t thrown enough shade at this novel.
I love alternate histories. I find speculative fiction fascinating because it examines extremes. I don’t remember the exact plot of this book, but I remember the ban on caffeine being part of a religious revival. The ban results in a new Prohibition era with Mafia members smuggling chocolate and opening coffee shops around the city.
Also, a girl becomes a crime boss, which is in no way a power fantasy of mine.
The first third of this book was solid, with a great set-up, interesting characters, and the promise of romance.
I hate, hate, HATE when an author rushes a potential romance. The star-crossed, slow-burn sexual tension ramped up to true love way too early, shunting aside the more interesting crime plot.
AUTHORS! Stop using your plots as elaborate vehicles for more typical fare! ENOUGH WITH THE FALSE ADVERTISING.
I wouldn’t have been bothered if this had a been a romance/crime combo. Had both parts been equal, I could have maintained my interest. But the crime plot became an afterthought, the stakes plummeted, and the leads wasted their time on dramatics.
In an extra disappointing twist, I love (er, loved) Gabrielle Zevin’s work. In the past, she’s delivered high concept character studies. I took her name on the cover as a sign of quality.
This is why I have trust issues.
Get out of here with your stupid cover and your stupid circus, you worthless, worthless book.
Of all the books on this list, this one makes the angriest.
I love the hell out of magical realism, okay? Magic and romance and circuses and book covers inspired by The White Stripes are my favorite things.
I saw this book everywhere for TWO. YEARS.
Every time I went to Target, I glimpsed it on the shelf.
Every time I turned around, it had won another award.
Every encounter increased my desire to read it.
Finally, I got it.
I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MOVED BY THE CHARACTERS AND INVESTED IN THEIR LOVE BUT ALL I FELT WAS EMPTINESS AND RAGE.
IT REALLY MADE ME BURN.
My low-level annoyance didn’t escalate to blinding anger until the climax.
First of all, I COULD NOT understand what was going on. It felt like hearing a bomb go off without being sure it was a bomb. The other characters kept reacting as if to tragedy without ever revealing what had happened. I felt panicked, scouring for clues and not finding any. Something big had happened in the climax; I just didn’t know what or why or how.
Then one of the characters, a creepy redheaded child (let’s call him Pickle), sat down and preached the theme of the novel to me. Nothing Pickle described matched the events I’d witnessed. WERE WE READING THE SAME BOOK, PICKLE?
(I want to say this is the moment I turned against ensemble casts.)
AND YOU, ERIN MORGENSTERN: YOU DON’T JUST PICK A THEME OUT OF THE BLUE. YOUR ENDING HAS TO MATCH WHAT CAME BEFORE.
I remember throwing this book across the room during Thanksgiving dinner.
Forget this book. Forget the glowing reviews. Forget its best-seller status. I curse this story and all its success. MAY YOU NEVER KNOW TRUE LOVE OR FRIENDSHIP.
To be continued…