Friday, February 5, 2016

Book Review: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With Me
Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, but now she’s writing her first book in decades and to ensure timely completion her publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noël Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.

As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Full of heart and countless only-in-Hollywood moments, Be Frank With Me is a captivating and heartwarming story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.
I was super pleased to find that this debut novel lived up to the promises of being similar in writing style to both The Rose Project and Where'd You Go, Bernadette?  I thoroughly enjoyed both of those, and I was excited to try this one after seeing the comparisons.  It didn't let me down either - there's tons to love in the quirky and unique characters, and I loved seeing the way they changed and grew over the course of the book.  I had a particularly soft spot for Mimi, who seems hard to please, but has a soft side when it comes to her son.

Entertainment Value
I think this one definitely works in the feel good fiction category.  I read a blurb from Joshilyn Jackson, another author whose work I'd compare it to, and whole heartedly agree that this is just a book that makes you smile.  It's fun to read, hard to put down, and has characters that are delightful and believable and fun to spend time with.

If you're fans of women's fiction, you enjoyed the quirky characters of The Rose Project, or you enjoy writers like Joshilyn Jackson or Elizabeth Berg or even Jojo Moyes, this is going to be one you'll enjoy.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see a list of all the stops on the tour!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: Spark Joy + Free Bookmark Printable!

Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up
And printable bookmarks...scroll to the end for the PDF!

Marie Kondo’s unique KonMari Method of tidying up is nothing short of life-changing—and her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has become a worldwide sensation. In Spark Joy, Kondo presents an in-depth, illustrated manual on how to declutter and organize specific items throughout the house, from kitchen and bathroom items to work-related papers and hobby collections. User-friendly line drawings illustrate Kondo’s patented folding method as it applies to shirts, pants, socks, and jackets, as well as images of properly organized drawers, closets, and cabinets. This book is perfect for anyone who wants a home—and life—that sparks joy.
The spate of self-help reading continues.  I'm just so inspired right now, Reader Friends.  I truly feel like this is my year.  I'm thirty-two, I'm not getting younger, and I have everything I need to really go after the things I want.  This is the year of getting myself together in every area of life: my health, my fitness, my home, and my attitude.  I've had enough time of just letting things slide, now is my time to pull it all together and make life happen.

And a major part of that will be my home.  I have a clean house.  There are only two of us and no kids, so that automatically cuts down on a lot of the clutter issues others have to deal with.  But it's just so easy to let the little things slide.  By that, I mean, I just cleaned my blinds for the first time.  Ever.  I've lived in this house for almost six years.  And never cleaned the blinds.  So yeah, it's not gross and we aren't living in squalor, but things slip by pretty easily.  And it's so easy to say "i'll get that later" and later just never happens.  Enter Marie Kondo.

Last year I read and reviewed The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I'm not going to bother with basically rewriting that same review for this one.  Kondo remains absolutely adorable and delightful, if a bit insane, and her advice had me rolling with laughter at times and taking inventory of my life at others.  Rather than the general principles of her first book, this one delves more into specifics, with illustrations for things like folding clothes the KonMarie way.  I'm not going to lie to you.  I laughed like a hyena during my initial read of this book and the way she teaches folding.  It seemed so intense.  And then I tried it?  And my closet looks like a clothing store.  It is the happiest feeling to open my drawers and see them looking like a showroom.

It doesn't hurt that two of my very best friends in all the world are finally coming to my house for the weekend later this month.  That's what motivated the home phase of the get it together kick.  They've never seen my house before and I want my home to be inviting and welcoming, not cluttered and messy.

I highly, highly recommend taking a look at these books if you're at all interested in getting organized and making organization a habit in your life.  Also, they are so much more fun to read than any other straightforward guide, because Kondo is so adorably insane.  In a fit of inspiration, I made a few bookmarks for myself to help me remember my motivation.  I'm attaching them here as a PDF and you can feel free to download them and print them off for yourselves!  Just don't steal them or sell them or say you made them or any of that rude stuff.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives
...if habits are a key to change, then what we really need to know is: How do we change our habits?

Better than Before answers that question. It presents a practical, concrete framework to allow readers to understand their habits—and to change them for good. Infused with Rubin’s compelling voice, rigorous research, and easy humor, and packed with vivid stories of lives transformed, Better than Before explains the (sometimes counter-intuitive) core principles of habit formation. 
Whether readers want to get more sleep, stop checking their devices, maintain a healthy weight, or finish an important project, habits make change possible. Reading just a few chapters of Better Than Before will make readers eager to start work on their own habits—even before they’ve finished the book. 
Even though it's only February 2nd, I can go ahead and put this one down as the book that changed the way I live this year.  I'm confident enough to commit to that in writing.   In fact, I immediately upon finishing started a close reread, where I'm doing just a couple pages each night to really let it sink in and allow me to take notes.  So far?  I've worked out every single day this year, lost ten pounds, and I feel amazing.  More on that in a minute...

I love, love, love Rubin's writing style.  She's so conversational and down to earth and can take information from a huge variety of sources, including scientific research and professional journals and make it understandable to any reader.  I love that she combines her research and analysis with stories from her own life and ways she has applied the things she learned about habits in her own life and how they worked in the lives of others.  It's the perfect balance of narrative and how-to and presented with humor and warmth.

Entertainment Value
This is some of the best non-fiction for me in terms of entertainment value.  I'm not only learning new information and how to apply it to my life, but I'm hearing stories of how other people have used that same information in their lives.  I get to study a subject and I also get practical application for myself.  It's not a rapid read, and even without stopping to take notes it took me a few days to work my way through, so I'm not sure I'd classify it as a page-turner.  That said, it completely held my attention and fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations.

My major, major takeaway from my initial read was that when something is a habit, you don't choose to do it.  If you want daily exercise to be a part of your life, you don't wake up in the morning and ask yourself if you'll go to the gym.  You already know the answer because it's a habit - you do it daily and you never question whether or not it's something you'll get done.  Your day isn't complete until it's finished.  I realize not everyone needs a daily workout, but, as I learned in the book, my personality type won't work with a five day a week schedule - it gives me way too much wiggle room to make excuses.

After my next read, I want to revisit this again and talk more about specific aspects of the book that helped me, but for the purposes of review, just know that this book falls into the category of life-changer and that I don't think you'll be sorry you read it.  I started with a library copy and had to have my own copy before I was even halfway finished.  It'll have a permanent spot on my shelf.

Friday, January 29, 2016

How to Be Alive: A Guide To The Kind of Happiness That Helps The World
In How to Be Alive, Beavan shares his insights on finding the path that’s right for you. Drawing on everything from classic literature and philosophy to current science, and combining that with his own experiences alongside those of the many people he has met along the way, Colin explores a broad array of transformational lifestyle adjustments—small and large—that offer security and meaning in a world confronted by ecological crises, economic upheaval, and ongoing war and social injustice. In the process, he helps readers embark on the quest for a “good life” of their own—lives both better for them and the planet. 
I'm kind of on a self-help kick lately, but I've been focusing more on books like this one that are less traditional.  I love that Beavan is looking for a plan that not only provides individual happiness, but a plan that also helps the other people who share our space and the world as a whole.

No complaints at all - Beavan is obviously a skilled journalist and has experience writing both memoir and inspirational-type non-fiction.  He does a great job of integrating information from a wide array of sources, including various religions, works of literature, and history to find what works best from each tradition.  He's able to incorporate all of these in ways that remain respectful to the beliefs of the tradition he's drawing from, but also apply to a wider audience, which I appreciated.

Entertainment Value
At almost 450 pages, it's a bit dense for a self-help book.  There's a lot of information and sometimes it does feel repetitive and/or generic.  One of my pet peeves is the use of "self help" lingo and this does fall into that trap sometimes.  That said, those are really personal preferences of my own.  I think it's a great guide to living in a way that honors who you are as a person and your own goals and aspirations, but also honors the people we live with and the world around us.  I really appreciated that emphasis on being a person who isn't just striving after personal happiness.

I recommend it to those like me who are enjoying the wide array of non-traditional self-help books currently on the market and to those who are looking to make some life changes in the new year.  It's always great to be in a place of newness and inspiration at the beginning of the year and Beavan provides that.  My only hesitations are in the length and the fact that some of the information could be better condensed.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour!  Click herefor the list of other tour stops and links to other reviews!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Choose Your Own Adventure Book Club: Adventure 7 - Books Authored by Bloggers

Our December CYOA meeting was derailed by the appearance of the 2015 End of Year Survey and the fact that none of us really read what we were supposed to read.  We did, however draw our choice for January - "Books Authored by Bloggers".  We're all pretty book-ternet involved, so this was a pretty easy one.

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives
I chose Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (click here to see her blog).  It was amazing and life-changing and has made a huge difference in the way I'm living so far this year...but you'll have to wait till the end of the month for my full review.  I can't say enough great things about it.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
I also read a few excerpts from Hyperbole and a Half (click here to see the blog), but didn't finish all the way.  It was a reread, so I'm already familiar with the hilarity of her work, but a refresher of the joy in this book is always nice.

Dancing Barefoot
Stephanie read Dancing Barefoot by Wil Wheaton (click here to see the blog).  She said she enjoyed the collection, particularly the Star Trek essays, but that it lacked cohesion overall.  I'm still putting it on my list because, Wil Wheaton.  NFT.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Courtney was the smartest one of all of us and read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (click here to see the blog).  I think all of us listen to the Dear Sugar podcast and discuss her thoughts on things frequently.  I also think most of us have read the book and we had a great discussion about the way Strayed can convey even the hardest truths that people don't want to hear with love and compassion.  If you haven't read it yet, you must.  

Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck
Courtney's also working her way through Do Over by Jon Acuff (click here to see the blog).  In case none of you have realized it yet, figuring out what to do with your life is hard.  And this seems like an excellent book to read to motivate yourself to figure the hard stuff out.  It got tons of amazing reviews last year - and I made sure to grab a library copy for the library where I work!

Girl Online (Girl Online, #1)
Halina and Sarah both read Girl Online by Zoe Sugg (click here to see her blog).  There was a ton of talk when this was released about whether or not Sugg had help writing it and the ethics of blogger books, so I was glad to have a first hand account from actual readers of the book.  Both agreed that it was fun and easy to read, but definitely intended for a young audience.  

Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab
Rachel went with Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep, who isn't a blogger, but is an NPR/podcast host, which fit our very broad criteria.  Even though I'm not much of a reader of straight up history, Rachel convinced me to add this one to my TBR list when she told us how much of it is set in the area where we live.  It's always fun to read about the history of places we know and can go visit.

The Princess and the Pony
Rachel also read the Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton (click here to see her blog).  I'm obsessed with Beaton's cartoons about history and literature and general geekery and found this children's book as delightful as Rachel did.

And of course, we've got a list of books we discussed, but that did not fit the theme.  It had been over a month since we'd all seen each other so we had TONS of book talk to do.  Here's the list of what we raved about after we stopped talking blogger books:

The Lunar Chronicles - if read this series, let Stephanie know because she has FEELINGS about it.  I gave up after Cinder but she convinced me to give it another try based on said feels.
Six of Crows - Rachel's FEELINGSS book.
Emmy and Oliver
Daughter of Smoke and Bone - the whole world has FEELINGS about this one, myself included
This One Summer
Everything ever created by Brene Brown, but particularly The Gifts of Imperfection - so many FEELINGS I can't even take it.

Check back again next month when we'll be reading from the prompt: Book by a Southern Author

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Audiobook Reviews: Winter at the Door and The Girls She Left Behind by Sarah Graves

Winter at the Door (Lizzie Snow, #1)
From Goodreads:
Moving from Boston to remote Bearkill, Maine, isn’t homicide cop Lizzie Snow’s idea of a step up. But breaking away from tragedy and personal betrayal is at least a step in the right direction. Her dead sister’s fate still torments her, as does her long-missing niece’s disappearance. Lizzie hopes to find the mysteriously vanished child here, amid the coming ice and snow. But in the Great North Woods, something darker and more dangerous than punishing winter is also bound for Bearkill...

A rash of freak accidents and suicides has left a string of dead men—all former local cops. Now the same cruel eyes that watched them die are on Lizzie—and so is the pressure to find out what sort of monster has his hooks in this town, what his ruthless game is, and just how brutally he’ll play to win. Whatever the truth is, its twisted roots lie in the desolate backwoods of Allagash County: where the desperate disappear, the corrupt find shelter, and the innocent lose everything. It’s there that a cunning and utterly cold-blooded killer plans the fate of the helpless lives at his mercy—one of whom may be the lost child Lizzie will do anything to save. As a blizzard bears down, and Bearkill’s dark secrets claw their way to the surface, Lizzie gears up for a showdown that could leave the deep, driven snow stained blood red.
Anytime I can find another good episodic crime/detective thriller, I'm pleased.  It's like finding another show to binge like Criminal Minds or SVU.  It's perfect mindless listening - I like something that keeps me interested and has lots of twists and turns, but is easy enough to follow that it doesn't require my total attention.  I can clean the house or drive or color while I listen and not miss anything major if I'm momentarily distracted.  So I was pleased to find this series on Hoopla, my current go-to for audiobooks.

I wasn't, however, pleased with the book itself.  There's nothing super awful about it, but I didn't feel like it lived up to my expectations.  I wasn't super excited about the main character or her love interests, and I felt like the plot was all over the place.  There are about five major plot lines going on and only a couple of them wind up mattering.  All of the time spent exploring the extraneous plot lines dragged and left me annoyed when I found out they didn't even matter.  The characters are fairly cliche and pretty static.  I was unimpressed, but decided to go ahead and give the second book a try...

The Girls She Left Behind (Lizzie Snow, #2)
For Lizzie Snow, the ice and snow of her first punishing North Woods winter are dreadful enough. But near the small town of Bearkill a stubborn forest fire now rages out of control, and as embers swirl dangerously in the smoke-filled air, a teenage girl with a history of running away has dropped out of sight again. The locals and the law both think Tara Wylie is up to her old tricks—until her mother receives a terrifying text message.

Equally disturbing: Henry Gemerle—a kidnapper and rapist who once held three girls prisoner for fifteen years—has escaped, and may be lurking in Bearkill. As the fire closes in, Lizzie teams up with her boss Sheriff Cody Chevrier and state cop Dylan Hudson to search for the missing girl and the wily fugitive. But they're blocked by Tara's mother, a frustrating teller of needless lies and keeper of dark, incomprehensible secrets.

Following a trail of grisly clues—a bloodstained motel room, a makeshift coffin in a shallow grave—Lizzie is drawn ever closer to the flames in her race to save an innocent and corner a monster. Someone else also wants to find Tara Wylie and Henry Gemerle, though, for reasons that have nothing to do with mercy or justice. And when they all meet, the inferno threatening Bearkill will pale in comparison to the hell that's about to break loose.
This one is better.  There are fewer plot lines to follow and every thread the author begins actually leads somewhere, which was nice.  It didn't take me as long to listen to this one because I was more involved in the story, since it was more concise and focused.  On more than one occasion I thought I had figured out who the bad guy was and what the motivations were only to be surprised by a twist I didn't see coming - which was a huge refresher after the first book.

I still didn't really love any of the characters or care about their outcomes.  I also thought it was interesting that the author chose to use another act of nature (a fire this time, rather than a blizzard) to add suspense to the climax.  It made me feel like she has to use something outside of the story itself to add drama and make up for what she hasn't achieved in the plot and characters.  If the series continues, I'll be interested to see if she has another natural disaster to keep things moving along.

As much as I enjoy small town settings, its also somewhat problematic to me that Bear Kill is a sleepy little town where nothing ever happens - until the main character moves there.  Then there are suddenly serial killers and kidnappers and organized crime members coming out of the woodwork.  It's not an uncommon thing to happen in a crime series set in the small town, but it always makes me cringe a little to think that suddenly EVERYONE evil in the world is coming to Bear Kill, Maine to commit their crimes just by happenstance.

This is a series I'll probably give up on.  I thought the second book was much improved, but neither thrilled me enough to keep reading.  I didn't like the main character and I feel like I could find something just as engrossing but without the problematic aspects that I found in these.  I WILL however be keeping an eye on the series, because I really want to know if there will be another natural disaster in the next book.

Thanks to my local library for providing me with access to these!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Short Story Review: The Little Men by Megan Abbott

The Little Men
In 1953, Penny is just another washed-up, wannabe Hollywood actress who is past her prime. She has settled in to a quiet lifestyle, and when she finds a low-rent bungalow in Canyon Arms, it’s a dream come true; Penny takes to the place instantly. But the dream cottage with its French doors and tiled courtyard may not be as perfect as it seems. Penny’s new neighbors start filling her head with stories about past tenants, whispering voices, and a suicide that may not have been a suicide at all. Soon enough, Penny starts hearing strange noises and she can’t help but wonder about the true fate of the bookseller who died in her home a dozen years earlier. Her suspicions are only fueled by the ominous inscription that she discovers in a book that’s closely guarded by her landlord. . . .
Megan Abbott is an automatic read for me and I was super excited to see this ebook short story released last fall.  She's already great at psychological suspense in the contemporary thrillers I've read and I knew she had noir thrillers in her past, but hadn't read them.  This book combines both genres into something really special.  There's gas-lighting, there's 1950's Hollywood, it's dark and eerie, and I had no idea where she was headed.  Excellent piece of short fiction and very well done.

Entertainment Value
See above, I guess?  The writing is great and the story enthralls from the first page.  The length is perfect for a half hour or so break in the workday, although it was hard to stop dwelling on it after I was finished.  She does a lot of great genre nods, but it also is its own unique work.  I'd take a million more like this any day.

Yes for fans of short stories, yes for fans of thrillers, yes for fans of noir, and yes for anyone looking for an excellent and fast story to completely suck them in for a short period of time.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.