Friday, July 19, 2013

The Chocolate Money Review

I read most of this book yesterday while recovering from an IVF retrieval. It was a good distraction and went by fast. The Chocolate Money follows chocolate heiress Tabitha "Babs" Ballentyne and her daughter, Bettina, through their Chicago life. Left her parents' money at a relatively young age, Babs bought a luxurious apartment in Chicago, which she refers to as the aparthouse because of its size. Her daughter, Bettina, is witness to her mother's ostentatious lifestyle and ridiculous rules.

The first part of the novel follows Bettina at the age of 11. Babs is pretty much a horrific mother - sharing way too many personal details about her sex life, waking Bettina up at all hours to be punished over the smallest infractions and pulling her out of school to go shoe shopping. Bettina is desperate for her mother's love and affection, which so very rarely comes. She ends up forming an attachment to Mack, a married man who Bettina is having an affair with. Even when the affair winds down, Babs uses Bettina to get at Mack and his family.

Fast forward four years to Bettina's entry into Cardiss, an east coast private school. Part II covers her first two months at the school. Babs doesn't make an appearance until the end of that part but her presence is impossible to forget, especially as you see the damage that she inflicted on her daughter over the years. I found this section to be very similar to my memories of Curtis Sittenfield's protagonist in Prep, (which I wrote before reading this description of the novel on amazon: "As funny as it is scandalous, The Chocolate Money is Mommie DearestPrep, and 50 Shades of Gray all rolled into one compulsively readable book"). Bettina is similarly damaged and disaffected. She is incapable of forming real relationships and seeks out punishment (which is where the 50 Shades of Gray comparison comes in) through a pretty messed up relationship to a boy in her school. At Cardiss, she also comes into contact with someone connected to Mack, who she continued to be obsessed with over the years.

Part III takes Bettina back to Chicago and back under Babs' roof. There the story takes an emotional turn as Bettina tries to figure out how to live her life with or without her mother's approval.

I liked the novel a lot. Bettina is a bit of a frustrating character because she's so awful in so many ways, but it's clear that this personality was the result of being raised by Babs and therefore isn't really her fault. It's hard to sympathize with either woman, but like many scandalous stories, it's the drama that pulls you in, not sympathy towards the protagonists. I'd say this is a good summer read.

Review: "The Chocolate Money is anything but sugary"

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Fort Review

This, my friends, was a really good one. I noticed The Fort on a banner on my amazon page and since it was free to borrow for Prime members, I grabbed it. The novel takes place during a summer in the early 1980's in the suburbs. The Vietnam War is still an intense memory for a lot of people and has become the focus of three young boys' summer games. Tim, Scott and Luke built a tree fort in the woods and spend their days playing soldier, using air rifles to shoot at targets on the ground.

Meanwhile, a local detective detective named Van Endel is investigating the ongoing murders of prostitutes, whose bodies are found at a local park. The plot picks up when Tim's older sister Becca comes home from the movies with a ripped shirt and an explanation that rings false. The next day, her friend Molly is reported missing. The kidnapper is revealed early on (the book is told through various character perspectives, which the kidnapper being one of them). He has his own demons as a war vet and preys on women who resemble his sister who disappeared long ago.

The boys are in the fort one day when they witness Molly, who managed to briefly escape from the kidnapper, being led at gunpoint back to his house. They manage to shoot him (with a real rifle borrowed from Scott's stepdad) in the leg, which sets up many of the issues for the kidnapper later in the book and contact the police. However, when another badly burned body shows up near the drive in where Molly supposedly disappeared, the cops believe the boys are lying to them. Their parents are furious and forbid the boys from spending any more time together. This of course only makes them more determined to prove their innocence and save Molly before she comes to any serious harm.

The Fort is a great coming of age novel along with a thriller about a serial killer. The story flies by and left me wanting to read Aric Davis' other books (randomly I bought A Good and Useful Hurt back in April so I'm looking forward to reading that), which are all really inexpensive on amazon (all under $5 or can be read for free through Prime). I don't know if he is a self-published author, but he definitely has talent. Even Gillian Flynn, author of last summer's amazing read Gone Girl, agrees, saying: “Every so often you come across a book with a voice like a blast of pure oxygen. Aric Davis has that kind of voice: crackling, assured, energized.” 

Do yourselves a favor and pick up The Fort. It's a great summer read.

Buy it at amazon (only $4.99) and Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Review

I've been super behind on writing. We moved out of our NYC apartment on June 15th and relocated to a beautiful big apartment in Philly, so it took a while to get settled. And I took a little break from novels to read a bunch of graphic novels but I finally got back to Neil Gaiman's newest book. My husband has been harassing me to write this review since he's also a huge Gaiman fan and gave me orders to write a non-spoilery review.

So here goes... the unnamed narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is at his father's funeral, feeling a bit lost and he ends up driving to his old house, and then part it to the rambling old farmhouse at the end of the lane to visit a family that he once knew. He asks an old woman there if he can sit out by the pond in the back, the pond that his old friend Lettie Hempstock once claimed was the ocean. She agrees and he goes to sit, only to be flooded with memories of an incident that took place when he was seven.

He lived with his sister and parents who, when faced with financial difficulties, took in boarders. One of these, an opal miner from South Africa, ended up stealing the family car and killing himself in it. This death led the narrator to spend some time at the Hempstock farm where he met Lettie, who was 11, her mother, Ginny and grandmother, known only as Old Mrs. Hempstock. The Hempstocks are definitely magical somehow, although their role in the world is never fully defined. They determine that the death and other strange occurrences are due to an evil presence lurking somewhere on the Hempstock property (sort of). Lettie takes the boy with her to bind the presence, but in doing so, there is a moment where the boy's guard is down and that opens him up to be a door between worlds, and a means for the creature to access his life and the lives of those around him.

Gaiman is adept at creating creep characters and disturbing scenes. The children's new governess, Ursula, certainly seems like the other mother in Coraline. She has the same sort of malevolence that children can see, but adults ignore. The presence of the governess kicks off the real adventure. How can the boy seek help from the Hempstocks and how can they save him from his predicament? I'm not going into tons of detail here as per my husband's request, but the main theme of the novel is sacrifice. Is a great sacrifice worth it?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short little book, which is a bit disappointing given how infrequently Gaiman publishes anything these days. However, it is filled with lovely (and sometimes disturbing) imagery. The story isn't really a new one but despite its familiarity, it still feels interesting and unique. The Hempstocks are mysterious figures that like many Gaiman creations are just fleshed out enough to make them interesting but not so fully explained to make them fully understood, if that makes sense.

The end was sad and sweet and made me want to pick up one of his other novels again. Gaiman is really one of our most gifted writers and I definitely wish he wrote and published more often.

NY Times Review
The Guardian Review

Buy it at amazon or Barnes and Noble