Monday, February 29, 2016

Book Review: American Housewife by Helen Ellis

American Housewife: Stories
Meet the women of American Housewife: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it's cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like it's a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. These twelve irresistible stories take us from a haunted prewar Manhattan apartment building to the set of a rigged reality television show, from the unique initiation ritual of a book club to the getaway car of a pageant princess on the lam, from the gallery opening of a tinfoil artist to the fitting room of a legendary lingerie shop. Vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster, American Housewife is an uproarious, pointed commentary on womanhood.
So much funnier than what I expected!  I had heard a lot about the literary-worth of this book and was assuming that the stories would be super deep and meaningful, but maybe less than entertaining.  I was thrilled to discover that, in fact, the stories are both.  I laughed out loud more than once, but also felt like I really connected with the author's commentary on being a woman, and especially being a Southern woman.  I want to be clear that it is literary in tone - this isn't another iteration of a GRITS book or the Sweet Potato Queens - but it has an undercurrent of humor that I thought was delightful.

Entertainment Value
Couldn't put it down.  I thought I'd read a story or two each night, but instead read it in its entirety without moving from my spot.  My personal favorites are "Dumpster Diving with the Stars" - a reality TV satire, "Hello! Welcome to Book Club!", and "Southern Lady Code".  That said, there honestly weren't any that I didn't thoroughly enjoy.  This one has earned a permanent spot on my shelf and it's something I'll come back to again.

I give it a resounding yes.  It's just the right amounts of humor, social commentary, great writing, and thinky parts.  You'll use your brain, but you'll also get a lot of good laughs, and really, what's better than that.

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Royal We
American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it's Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain's future king. And when Bex can't resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick's sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he's fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she's sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.
I'm not super into the royals thing (I didn't even watch Will and Kate's wedding and had no interest in the fuss surrounding all of it).  I was interested because I enjoy Go Fug Yourself, but I probably would have put it off indefinitely if it hadn't been an FYA pick for the month of February.  I'm so glad it was and that I was forced to read it sooner rather than later because it really is delightful.

I knew I could expect plenty of snarky goodness from the authors, who are behind the hilarious blog Go Fug Yourself, and I was not disappointed.  I loved Bex and Nick, but the supporting characters really made the book for me, especially Cilla and Gaz and Freddie.  The characters are amazingly well written and I think the authors captured a wide range of situations in a very consistent and believable way.

My one critique of the writing itself is that I think it could have been shorter. By the time I made it to the end, I was ready to be finished.  I think just a few too many plot elements were included and it would have served the book better if it were shorter and had a few less plot threads.  They do manage to wrap it up well and I loved the ending, but I wish we had gotten to it with a few less hoops to jump through.

Entertainment Value
Because I'm not all that interested in the royal romance element, I found myself most enjoying the portions of the book where we saw the struggles Bex and Nick faced in the public eye.  From paparazzi to disapproving family to having the entirety of their lives planned and scheduled for them, the authors did an amazing job of capturing the helplessness and lack of agency that comes with being in the public eye on both a personal and political level.  I was struck by how sad it was for Nick to have no choice about what he would study, what interests he would pursue, or when he could take time for himself.  It was equally fascinating to watch Bex come into that same situation from a background that had no way of preparing her for the level of scrutiny.

I loved the book and I highly recommend it, although my reasons may be very different from some others in the book club (I was sick and missed the discussion, but I know the romance angle was a big deal for some).  The romance was fun, but it really wasn't something that took my breath away or brought a big emotional pull for me.  I really just couldn't get enough of the exploration of fame and royalty and duty that you choose versus duty that you are born into.  I recommend it for fans of contemporary romance, those who were enthralled by the royal wedding, and also those who have an interest in the price of fame and power.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Book Review: The Ex by Alafair Burke

The Ex
Widower Jack Harris has resisted the dating scene ever since the shooting of his wife Molly by a fifteen-year-old boy three years ago. An early morning run along the Hudson River changes that when he spots a woman in last night’s party dress, barefoot, enjoying a champagne picnic alone, reading his favorite novel. Everything about her reminds him of what he used to have with Molly. Eager to help Jack find love again, his best friend posts a message on a popular website after he mentions the encounter. Days later, that same beautiful stranger responds and invites Jack to meet her in person at the waterfront. That’s when Jack’s world falls apart.

 Olivia Randall is one of New York City’s best criminal defense lawyers. When she hears that her former fiancé, Jack Harris, has been arrested for a triple homicide—and that one of the victims was connected to his wife’s murder—there is no doubt in her mind as to his innocence. The only question is who would go to such great lengths to frame him—and why?

 For Olivia, representing Jack is a way to make up for past regrets, to absolve herself of guilt from a tragic decision, a secret she has held for twenty years. But as the evidence against him mounts, she is forced to confront her doubts. The man she knew could not have done this. But what if she never really knew him?
This is only my second book by Alafair Burke, but I feel like I'll most likely be adding her to my list of authors to keep an eye on - as well as to my Scanning the Backlist feature.  I was excited when I looked her up on Goodreads to see she has quite a few books published, including a few series.  I think she writes an excellent psychological/legal thriller.  I like her characters, particularly the nuance and balance she develops.  You don't have purely good and purely evil stereotypes - everyone is believably flawed.  I also think she does a good job here of building suspense, keeping the reader engaged, and providing a twist ending (which is critical for me in my enjoyment of this type of book) that I, for one, did not see coming.

Entertainment Value
Again, this is just super fun to read.  It's well-written, but that's not the highlight for me, and I don't expect it to be in this genre.  I think well-written for crime writing means entertaining.  Could I put it down?  The answer here is no, which means it's well done on both levels.  I binged it after my BFFs left Sunday morning and it was total distraction therapy.

If you're a fan of legal/psychological/procedural thrillers, this is one you'll want to read.  I'll be adding Burke to the list of authors I can reliably turn to and whose backlist I need to examine, because this is exactly what I enjoy when I'm in the mood for some distraction.  I loved that I didn't see the twist coming and that the ending felt well-crafted but also had some shock value.

A big thank you to TLC for having me on the tour and providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the other stop on the tour!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Be Frank With Me Giveaway Winners!

Thank you to everyone who entered and, of course, to William Morrow for providing the books to giveaway and providing readers with amazing books like Be Frank With Me!  The winners are:

The Many Thoughts of a Reader

Kelly at The Well Read Red-Head


Kim D.


I'm sending out emails this morning to each of you asking for an address.  You've got until Monday to reply, and if I don't hear by then I'll redraw a new name!  Congratulations winners!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Starflight by Melissa Landers

Starflight (Starflight, #1)
Life in the outer realm is a lawless, dirty, hard existence, and Solara Brooks is hungry for it. Just out of the orphanage, she needs a fresh start in a place where nobody cares about the engine grease beneath her fingernails or the felony tattoos across her knuckles. She's so desperate to reach the realm that she's willing to indenture herself to Doran Spaulding, the rich and popular quarterback who made her life miserable all through high school, in exchange for passage aboard the spaceliner Zenith.

When a twist of fate lands them instead on the Banshee, a vessel of dubious repute, Doran learns he's been framed on Earth for conspiracy. As he pursues a set of mysterious coordinates rumored to hold the key to clearing his name, he and Solara must get past their enmity to work together and evade those out for their arrest. Life on the Banshee may be tumultuous, but as Solara and Doran are forced to question everything they once believed about their world—and each other—the ship becomes home, and the eccentric crew family. But what Solara and Doran discover on the mysterious Planet X has the power to not only alter their lives, but the existence of everyone in the universe...
I always try to be upfront anytime I review something by a person I have a personal relationship with, so just know that I consider Melissa a friend outside of the writing/blogging/reading world - which also means I won't be doing my typical critical review here.  There's just something squicky about judging the quality of a friend's creative work, even when there's nothing to judge.  Disclaimer over.

Now stop everything you're doing and go out and get a copy of this book - on audio if at all possible.  It is one of the most fun books I've read this year and will definitely have a place on my end of the year list for pleasure reads.  Space, pirates, romance, a western/outlaw feel, corporate intrigue, and family secrets - there is basically nothing this novel is missing.  And if you're a fan of romance, Melissa has you covered.  She has a great way of writing romantic tension and creating romantic suspense - and then delivering on all the buildup!  Her experience as a romance author really shines in this book, but that doesn't mean her sci-fi elements are at all lacking.  You've got a great ragtag crew of maybe outlaws all hiding secrets, a ship in constant need of repairs and boosts, and an epic quest.

As far as the audio narration is concerned, it was perfect.  I loved the reader's voice and tone and would gladly listen to her again.  My fingers are crossed that she'll narrate the sequel.  I highly recommend this to fans of Star Wars (the Banshee totally reminded me of the Millenium Falcon), Firefly (space western), and YA adventure/romance.  I think I've convinced my entire book club to read it and those who have finished are also raving.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Be Frank With Me Giveaway!

You might remember that last Friday I posted my review of Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson.  This week, I am so thrilled to be able to offer five readers the chance to win a copy of their own!  

Each of the characters in this book is delightful in his or her own way, but of course Frank really is the show stealer.  This book is a must read for fans of The Rosie Project.  It also had hints of About a Boy by Nick Hornby or even Matilda by Roald Dahl.

Interested in owning a copy?

The rules are simple - just leave a comment below with a way for me to contact you - preferably email, but feel free to leave a twitter or IG handle too.  I'll choose five random posts and email the winners for addresses.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider
Frances Barnett and Abby Bernacki are two haunted young mothers living in the same house in two different centuries.

1885: Frances Barnett is in the Northampton Lunatic Hospital, telling her story to a visitor. She has come to distrust her own memories, and believes that her pregnancy, birth, and early days of motherhood may have impaired her sanity.

During the earliest months of her baby’s life, Frances eagerly followed the famous murder trial of Mary Stannard—that captivated New Englanders with its salacious details and expert forensic testimony. Following—and even attending—this trial, Frances found an escape from the monotony of new motherhood. But as her story unfolds, Frances must admit that her obsession with the details of the murder were not entirely innocent.

Present day: Abby has been adjusting to motherhood smoothly—until recently, when odd sensations and dreams have begun to unsettle her while home alone with her baby. When she starts to question the house’s history, she is given the diary of Frances Barnett, who lived in the house 125 years earlier. Abby finds the diary disturbing, and researches the Barnett family’s history. The more Abby learns, the more she wonders about a negative—possibly supernatural—influence in her house. She becomes convinced that when she sleeps, she leaves her daughter vulnerable—and then vows not to sleep until she can determine the cause of her eerie experiences.

Frances Barnett might not be the only new mother to lose her mind in this house. And like Frances, Abby discovers that by trying to uncover another’s secrets, she risks awakening some of her own.
It's always hard for me to figure out a way to review a book where the writing was fine and pleasant and easy to read, but not extra-spectacular without sounding like I'm damning it with faint praise.  In this case, there is nothing about the writing to turn a reader off, no glaring plot holes, issues with characterization or dialogue, or slow points.  It reads perfectly fine, but there wasn't anything about it to set it above other books in a similar category.  It was perfectly fine and enjoyable, but not something I'd gush over.

Entertainment Value
This, rather than the writing, is where the novel shines.  I loved the combination of historical fiction, ghost story, and modern mystery.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the characters and loved the way that Abby interacts with Frances through her journal.  I also enjoyed getting the inside perspective on Frances and what was going on in her mind as well as what she recorded in her journal.  It has a very New England gothic feel, which was perfect snowy day reading.  There were a few threads I honestly could have done without, but none that were so distracting that it took anything away from the novel. I completely enjoyed my read and found it hard to put down - and it even gave me a couple moments of the good kind of fear, which is hard for me to find.  I also loved the format of the book - the super short chapters and alternative viewpoints really kept things moving.

This is a great choice for fans of suspense/paranormal/thriller-lite.  Nothing hugely disturbing happens, no gore, nothing very dark, but there is a hint of the supernatural and a bit of creepiness that comes with any haunted house story.  It's not boundary pushing and I think most general readers would find it engrossing, but not upsetting in any way.  If women's fiction and gothic ghost stories had a baby, it would be this book.

Thank you to TLC for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the other stops on the tour.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What I Read in January

I'm kind of sad to report that my January reading got off to a rocky start.  I read very few books and even fewer pages last month.  It was a sad reading month, but we had a lot of other things going on - my brother and his family were in town, we threw a surprise 60th birthday party for my dad, I threw a baby shower for a dear friend, and, of course, hung out with my book club friends.

Between the crazy amount of driving places, playing with my niece and nephews, and loving my favorite people, I did manage to fit in a few books:

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart
Winter at the Door by Sarah Graves
Slade House by David Mitchell
Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton
Sex, Lies, and Online Dating by Rachel Gibson
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
The Little Men by Megan Abott
The Girls She Left Behind by Sarah Graves
The Substitute by Denise Grover Swank
Giant Days, Volume One by John Allison
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Total books read: 11
Of those books, four were audiobooks - because of all the driving I was doing I had plenty of time to listen in the car!

What did you read in January? 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Scanning the Backlist (5)

I always wait way too long between these posts, especially since it's a feature that I really enjoy working on.  Here's the latest round of backlist titles I'll be reading based on books I reviewed and enjoyed on the blog:

It's been a year and a half since I read and reviewed The Farm by Tom Robb Smith, and I'm still itching to get to his backlist title Child 44, which has been out for a while and begins his Leo Demidov trilogy.
Child 44 (Leo Demidov, #1) 
Stalin's Soviet Union is an official paradise, where citizens live free from crime and fear only one thing: the all-powerful state. Defending this system is idealistic security officer Leo Demidov, a war hero who believes in the iron fist of the law, but when a murderer starts to kill at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State's obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled. Now, with only his wife at his side, Leo must fight to uncover shocking truths about a killer--and a country where "crime" doesn't exist.

I loved S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep and enjoyed the more recently released movie adaptation of the book, so I want to include his latest book, Second Life.  It's not technically backlist since it was released after Before I Go to Sleep, but it's been out for a while and one I discovered when searching for his backlist.

Second Life: A Novel
...She loves her husband. She's obsessed by a stranger. She's a devoted mother. She's prepared to lose everything. She knows what she's doing. She's out of control. She's innocent. She's guilty as sin. She's living two lives. She might lose both ...

Kate Racculia's Bellweather Rhapsody enchanted me when I read it in 2014 and I was pleased to check Goodreads and find that her backlist title This Must Be the Place was already on my TBR.

This Must Be the Place

The Darby-Jones boardinghouse in Ruby Falls, New York, is home to Mona Jones and her daughter, Oneida, two loners and self-declared outcasts who have formed a perfectly insular family unit: the two of them and the three eclectic boarders living in their house. But their small, quiet life is upended when Arthur Rook shows up in the middle of a nervous breakdown, devastated by the death of his wife, carrying a pink shoe box containing all his wife's mementos and keepsakes, and holding a postcard from sixteen years ago, addressed to Mona but never sent. Slowly the contents of the box begin to fit together to tell a story—one of a powerful friendship, a lost love, and a secret that, if revealed, could change everything that Mona, Oneida, and Arthur know to be true. Or maybe the stories the box tells and the truths it brings to life will teach everyone about love—how deeply it runs, how strong it makes us, and how even when all seems lost, how tightly it brings us together. With emotional accuracy and great energy, This Must Be the Place introduces memorable, charming characters that refuse to be forgotten. 

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.