Review: Christmas Edition

Whew, it’s been a while, friends! But I’m back and ready to supply you with some new reads. This go round is actually a double review of two wonderful little seasonal reads that are perfect for Christmas time: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham and Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand. Both are fairly short, quick little reads perfect for curling up next to a well-lit tree and a warm fire (and a toasty cup of cocoa too). So pull out your Christmas sweaters and stockings, and put on the carols, because it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Skipping Christmas – John Grisham

Yes, you read that right. This christmas book was written by THAT John Grisham. Skipping Christmas is far cry from a legal thriller, and if you’ve ever watched Christmas with the Kranks a lá Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis, then you’ve essentially read this book. That being said, it still stands on it’s own in the best way. If you’re just looking for a fun, quick story that is the equivalent of watching Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas, and is well written and leaves you satisfied, John Grisham delivered.

I love Christmas with the Kranks, I think it’s a funny Christmas movie that holds up well even while competing against the big whigs like White Christmas and Christmas Vacation. I’ve seen the movie countless times, so I was interested to see what it’s literary precursor had to offer. The movie stayed pretty true to the book; Luther and Nora have decided to forgo Christmas and take a tropical cruise now that their daughter Blair is off with the Peace Corps through the holidays. They say no to all of their traditional Christmas goings on and whatsits: no party, no tree, not a thing. When you live in a very Christmas-oriented neighborhood with holiday obsessed friends, coworkers, and neighbors, you’re obviously going to get backlash. The characters are funny, quirky, and just trying to figure out how to navigate riled teens, questioning adults, and people who really just want Luther to Free Frosty!

Like I said, if you’ve seen Christmas with the Kranks, you’ve basically read this book. Book Luther is quite a bit more strict about forgoing Christmas fun than his Tim Allen counterpart, and unfortunately we don’t get a funny botox scene, but all in all, it reads wonderfully.

The book is rather short, perfect for a chilly afternoon. You could easily read this in one go. And if you never grow tired of Christmas hi-jinx like myself, then this is a perfect little read. If you’ve absolutely never seen the movie, then definitely grab this book, because it is a wonderful Christmas story that leaves you all warm and fuzzy at the end, all that true meaning of Christmas and whatnot. If you’ve seen the movie, give it a go anyway. With Grisham having penned it, it’s definitely not lacking some great writing.

Winter Street – Elin Hilderbrand

I have never read a single thing by Elin Hilderbrand, never even heard of her until I saw this book plastered all over bookstagram. The raving fans left me wanting, so I grabbed a copy for FOUR DOLLARS at our local bookstore and pushed it to the top of my TBR list.

This is actually the first of three books about the mildly dysfunctional Quinn family. Dad, Kelley, owns a little B&B on Nantucket, Mom is an illustrious news anchor for CBS, the daughter is a music teacher, the oldest son works in investments, and the middle son is a bartender with a track record of giving up. The story begins just a few days before Christmas as Kelley discovers his current wife, Mitzi, is leaving him. Winter Street follows each family member in the days leading up to Christmas as they all deal with trials, tribulations, and dysfunction individually and with each other. Patrick, the eldest son is facing major illegal activity, while his younger brother, Kevin, is planning for the future.

If you enjoy love, dysfunction, and a good outburst of drama at dinner, than this book is for you. It’s a great contemporary drama with the warmth of Christmas and wintery Nantucket thrown in. I do recommend making sure you have access to all three books, because Winter Street leaves you absolutely wanting more. The cliff hanger at the end made me so upset that I didn’t snag the other two when I grabbed the first one.


If you’ve got a favorite seasonal read or Christmas story, let me know! This is the first year I’ve attempted to read something seasonal, and I really loved it.

 

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Review: The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey

In this science fiction thriller, Carey takes ‘Zombie’ to a whole new level.  It’s the perfect mix of futuristic wasteland and childhood innocence. I must admit this sat on my shelf for a while, but I’m so glad I picked it up when I did. It’s perfect for those colder winter nights when you’re ready to get cozy and read a great book.

The Girl with All the Gifts follows young Melanie as she navigates a post-apocalyptic world she knows nothing about. Full of curiosity and a love of Greek mythology,

She and her fellow classmates are treated like monsters; they awake each morning in their tiny rooms, are strapped to chairs and carted into a classroom with guns to their heads. Full of curiosity and a love of Greek mythology, Melanie just wants to keep learning from her wonderful teacher Miss Jusineau (even if it means getting yelled by soldiers). This routine never changes, until one day all hell breaks loose and Melanie is thrust out into the open and faces the truth of her own humanity as well as those around her.

The story takes the wildly common zombie/world virus theme and turns it sideways, giving us action with a little philosophical discussion on humanity tossed in. It weighs the age old argument of ‘for the greater good’ against this concept of self reliance. Can humanity perform minor atrocities if they believe it will pay off in the long run? Does being human really make you inherently good? Carey’s book is more about character development and existential philosophy than it is about zombies, but he gives the reader an exciting setting to explore these topics. I mean, if I had to choose between nonfiction existentialism and zombie existentialism, I’m going to choose the latter.

The writing and the characters get you hooked from the start and keep you hooked all the way to the unconventional ending (that I would give away in a heartbeat if I could). Carey even takes the time to develop the characters you’ll hate with a passion, and the depth he gives them will make you hate them all the more. If you’re looking for zombies, blood, and gore, this might not be the book for you. But if you want to read a character-driven story that also includes zombies and mentally twisted scientists who will stop at nothing to finish their research, then this is the perfect book for you.

There is also a movie adaptation for anyone who might prefer zombies in a more visual media format (and with Glenn Close).

 

 

Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

IMG_2770This was not my first Stephen King novel, in fact I read Dreamcatcher back many eons ago. I’m really glad I gave King another shot, because my opinion of him was soured after the off the wall ridiculousness of Dreamcatcher.

You will hear people talk about how wonderful 11/22/63 is, and let me tell you what, they are NOT wrong. The book is fantastic, even at almost 900 pages it only took me two weeks to read. And that was me just setting aside half an hour a night to read. I flew through this thing, and never looked back.

Jake Epping is your typical high school English teacher. He lives in a fairly nondescript New England town, and lives a fairly nondescript life until the owner of the local diner, Al, reveals that the back of his storeroom is actually a portal to 1958. Al enlists Jake’s help and requests that he go back to 1958 and change the past and hopefully save the future. What follows is a wild ride through the past as Jake tries to alter a past set in stone to save those around him, all of it culminating in the take down of Lee Harvey Oswald before he can assassinate President Kennedy. But what happens when life, love, and a past that refuses to change gets in the way?

I loved everything about this book. I often find that when fiction meets real world history, things get mishmashed and it usually leads to disappointment. But King does such a good job of seamlessly meshing the two together. It’s honestly the best science fiction meets history meets romance meets action/adventure book I’ve read to date. The writing is impeccable, the characters give you so much depth it hurts, and the story takes you up, down, and all around. It’s toted as time travel to save Kennedy, but damn do you get all kinds of plot twists that have nothing to do with Kennedy (in the best way). You know the whole thing where it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey? This book is the actual literary example of that phrase. It’s allllllllllll about the journey in this one.

There are great books and then there are great stories. This is the latter. It’s not a critically acclaimed novel that touches on social issues and family dynamics, it’s simply a story that is woven so well it pulls you in and never lets go. So to the people who say Stephen King is merely an okay author, to you I say “so what? he’s a damn good storyteller”. This was the perfect read I needed after endless “great books”. I’m deeply saddened that it’s over and I can’t read it for the first time again. Unless I find a time portal…

Anyway, this baby gets five out of five stars. I recommend this to everyone, because it’s honestly got it all. Everyone should be able to at least find one thing in the book they like. And I promise, it won’t even take that long to read, even if it is the size of a medical textbook.

 

October Wrap Up

img_2748.jpgI miraculously read SEVEN books in October, which is shocking considering how busy I was. As far as reads go, October was all over the map. There were thrillers, love stories, mysteries, more love stories… Anyway, here’s the complete wrap up if you’re looking for a new book to read!

Starting from the top on down, The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey was a pleasantly surprising read. It popped up my various peoples’ read lists, but it didn’t seem to have glowing reviews. I picked up knowing full well there was a good chance I’d dislike it. I don’t know, call it morbid curiosity. I went in with low standards and came out having finished a great book. It’s a pretty original take on a common trope we see nowadays: zombies. To make a zombie book successful these days requires reinventing the proverbial zombie wheel, and I think Carey pretty much pulled that off. I gave it four stars overall.

I couldn’t get through October with quintessential Agatha Christie, so The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ended up on my list. It’s Hercule Poirot at his usual, a pretty standard Christie mystery. A bit predictable on my end, but still a fun autumn read. I do have to confess though that I love Ms. Marple more. HOwever, if you’re looking for a Christie mystery that isn’t Murder on the Orient Express (which has seen a huge surge in popularity thanks to the upcoming movie),Roger Ackroyd isn’t a bad choice. Honestly, you can’t really go wrong with any of Christie’s popular ones. To be far, she’s the most published novelist in history, so…

Love and Gelato was the perfect, light, sweet, adjective-inducing read. If you want a little romantic pick me up with beautifully written Italian scenery, this is your book. My full review can be found here. It definitely harkens back to the YA I read as a teen, maybe with less vampires and werewolves.

Since we’re on the love train, Paris for One and Other Stories once again gives us classic Jojo Moyes. The woman knows how to write about twenty-somethings trapped in less than stellar relationships, and gives them the romance of a lifetime. If you’ve not read Me Before You, I recommend it for sure. After that, it’s a slow descent into fantasies of being swept off our feet with a bit of reality thrown in. The great thing about Paris for One is that the initial story is fairly quick, so Moyes follows up with a handful of other short stories. They’re very real and raw, and just what the doctor ordered. Moyes shows that love isn’t always this fantastical fleeting moment in Paris with a hot guy. Sometimes it’s compromise after 12 years of marriage, or it’s realizing that what you’ve got is better than what you thought you wanted.

The Boundless was a guilty, but not guilty read for me. Kenneth Oppel’s writes wonderful YA books (among other things), and I adore them even though they’re clearly for someone ten years younger then me. I picked up The Boundless simply because I saw Oppel’s name on it, and he once again didn’t let me down. It’s a fun read if you’re into alternative universes where huge trains miles long and flying contraptions become our main form of transportation. I liken his YA books to fantasy meets science fiction meets steam punk meets the Industrial Revolution. His Airborn series is another of my favorites.

My suspense, psychological thriller for October was Lies She Told, which came in my Book of the Month box. My full review is here, but if you don’t want to read that, just know I really liked this book. Thrillers have a habit of letting me down, they become too predictable or they’re just poorly written. Lies She Told gave me hope for the genre. It’s not the longest book, and it was fairly predictable, but it kept me reading. I knew what was coming, I just didn’t know how Holahan was going to get there. And THAT is the sign of a good thriller.

Last, but certainly not least this past month was The Power by Naomi Alderman. It was released in the UK awhile back, and just finally made its way to the US. The writing is sometimes a little off, but the overall story is great. Feminism meets fiction. I did a full write up on my thoughts regarding fictional feminist prose here. Even though the writing was lacking in some spots, I still recommend this book because it gets you thinking. Alderman penned a thought-provoking take on modern feminism and role reversal, and it deserves a good read by anyone who can get their hands on it.

I didn’t have any disappointments in October, every book was a winner. No reading slumps over here! Whether you’re looking for soft romance or a murder on a train, I highly recommend checking all of these books out.

Review: Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

IMG_2460Clearly I chose wisely with my Book of the Month picks this go round, because I hit the jackpot with The Power, and then hit it again with Lies She Told. I haven’t had a good track record with suspense thrillers, but this one definitely won me over.

Lies She Told follows Liza Jones, a thriller writer who had a one hit wonder, and is now struggling to come up with the next best thing. Liza is given thirty days to write a new book, all while trying to start a family with her husband, who is growing distant as he deals with the disappearance of his best friend. The story goes back and forth between Liza’s everyday dealings, and the chapters of the thriller she’s writing. As the stories start to merge, fiction begins to mirror reality, and it becomes hard to decipher between Liza and her main character, Beth.

The biggest issue I run into with thrillers (psychological or suspense) is that I can figure out the end really easily. They’re so predictable. The beauty of this story is that it’s written to be eventually be predictable, but the writing is so great and there’s just enough twists to keep you excited. The closer I got to the end, the more interested I was to see how Holahan was going to wrap it all up. This was the perfect fall read, realistic, dark, and well written. It definitely redeems the predictable ending. Some of the plot twists were a bit of a stretch, and it does feel like Holahan pulled from the grab bag of plot devices (marital struggles, psychological problems, missing person, etc.), but overall they flow together quite nicely.

I do wish it had been longer. I don’t know if it’s just that Book of the Month only sells short thrillers or what, but every one I’ve chosen from them has been 300 pages at most. This is probably why they end up so predictable, they gotta wrap up quickly. Since I’m clearly starting to enjoy this genre, I’m going to start searching around for some more that maybe aren’t Book of the Month suggestions…

I want desperately to give away the story and continue spouting how much I enjoyed this book, but because I’m a nice person, I won’t. I do however highly recommend this to anyone looking for a quick thriller read for these upcoming cold months. I ended up giving Lies She Told four stars. I’ll be shocked the day I find a thriller that earns fiver stars from me, but they seem to be rare creatures that only appear once every twenty years. If you have a favorite thriller, let me know, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

To All the Books I Loved Before: Harold and the Purple Crayon

Next up in the series is a childhood favorite that is small in page numbers and actual words, but big in how absolutely wonderful it is. Harold and his purple crayon, birthed from the imagination of Crockett Johnson, have been staples in children’s literature for the last 5o years. They entered the literary word in 1955, and can be found in the hands of young children to this day.

I still remember the moment I discovered this book on the library shelf, kneeling down browsing the books on the bottom. There was Harold, tucked away in a plain brown cover. Harold and that trusty purple crayon of his took me on a monochromatic adventure that has stuck with me all these years. Harold is a curious and rather imaginative four year old boy in the possession of a magic purple crayon. Anything he dreams, he simply has to draw and it comes to life. He sails a purple boat on a purple sea, and draws the moon and the home he’s been looking for.

Harold became so popular, Johnson eventually wrote six more books around Harold’s world. I must admit, I don’t remember reading those, most likely because original Harold was the only one for this girl.

Though I apparently carried blind ignorance, I have discovered that some people didn’t like Harold or his purple crayon as kids. They found it bland and unoriginal. To them I say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this children’s book. The beauty is that there are millions of other books out there for you to enjoy, and hopefully you found one as a child that you loved as much as I love Harold.” To them I also say, “what the heck is wrong with you?”

I recently bought a new edition of Harold and it sits in a special spot at the top of the bookshelf, ready to be introduced to any children who may wander through our home. Okay, maybe not wander, because that just sounds like I have young children haphazardly entering my home whenever they feel like. Which I don’t know about you, but I prefer that my home stays fairly free of free range children.

 

To All the Books I Loved Before: The Cat Who series

Next up in the love letter series is the entirety of the The Cat Who series by Lillian Jackson Braun. A series of mystery novels, the books follow James Mackintosh Qwilleran (Qwill) as he solves murders and other mysteries with the help of his two siamese cats, KoKo and Yum Yum.

The premise sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I was obsessed. I discovered the books quite unexpectedly at my public library, and I flew through them. Our library had almost every book in the series, and I read every single one. They even caused me to branch out to other mystery series based around cats (Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series). For an author project in middle school, I reached out to Ms. Braun through her publisher. They were kind enough to send a letter and a brand new book (at the time). It was very exciting for 12 year old me. And I basically had the best project in the whole class, so…

The Cat Who series essentially introduced me to the world of adult mysteries, and I fell in love with Qwill, his cats, and their adventures. Qwill is a middle aged gentleman with a rather incredible past. In the books, he lives in Moose County, a place “400 miles north of everywhere”, has inherited a fortune, and lives in a converted apple barn just outside of his small town. He even has a relationship with the local librarian, but refuses to re-marry (another fun back story). KoKo appears to have rather special abilities that somehow help Qwill solve the mystery each time. Yum Yum doesn’t really have much by way of detective skills, but she’s a sweet and affectionate mate for KoKo, and cuddle companion for Qwill. It honestly had all the trappings a pre-teen girl with no friends and a lot of free time to read could want.

Ms. Braun wrote 29 of the books before she passed, and every single one is a winner. All of them can stand alone or be read continuously, not unlike the queen of mysteries, Agatha Christie. Braun’s creativity and originality was a huge draw for me, but the cats really sealed the deal. Who doesn’t enjoy cats just being cats, and somehow managing to solve murders in the process? Obviously, KoKo and Yum Yum were based on the author’s own cats, which just makes the books even sweeter.

So thank you Lillian for letting me live in Moose County and the apple barn for awhile with Qwill and KoKo, and letting me come along on searches and adventures to find the answer to who killed the gardener.


You can read the first installment of To All the Books I Loved Before here.

From Dark to Light

Thank you to Pink Umbrella Publishing for sending me the sweetest little fall book, From Dark to Light by Isabella Murphy.

IMG_2521From Dark to Light follows a little pumpkin, Pumpker, as he grows from a tiny little seed to a big pumpkin in the pumpkin patch. Pumpker dreams of being picked by a loving family and carved with a funny face, so he too can sit on their lawn like the other pumpkins.

Pumpker grows alongside his two sisters, Plumpalicious and Plumpilina, who are not always the nicest to him (but he loves them anyway). All three grow from seeds and are picked by a happy little girl and her parents. They go home with the family and become jack-o-lantarns, just like Pumpker always wanted.

It’s a lovely little book for children, and perfect for this season. I’d definitely recommend this for a day filled with pumpkin patches and pumpkin carving. Maybe burn a pumpkin candle and sip a pumpkin spiced latte while you’re at it. You can never have enough pumpkin themed things in autumn (my boyfriend would disagree, but what does he know?).

The neatest thing is that From Dark to Light was penned by Ms. Isabella Murphy, who is TWELVE. She’s quite the creative middle schooler, and she has given us a wonderful children’s story. I look forward to her future writings, she’s clearly going places!

If you’re interested in the book, you can purchase it here. A portion of the proceeds from the book will go to World of Children, a global non-profit that is focused on children’s education and health. I definitely look forward to sharing this book with the children in my life.

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

IMG_2404I made a fantastic decision when I chose The Power as my October Book of the Month choice. Holy moly.

If you haven’t heard of this book, then let me quickly catch you up to date. Naomi Alderman has penned what some are calling the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ of the decade. Where Margaret Atwood took the patriarchy and turned it into a dystopia, Alderman has taken the gender power dynamic and turned it on it’s head. It was released in the UK awhile back, and is now available here in the US, and it’s taking the country by storm.

In The Power, Alderman creates an alternate universe in which the young women of the world discover they have the power to create electricity with their own bodies. They can cause pain, devastation, and death with a single thought. Overnight the most powerful men in the world are toppled, and in their place the beaten and oppressed women rise. But can women create a feminist utopia? Or are there those amongst us who fall prey to power as easily as the men they destroyed?

First off, I adored this book. It was extremely well written and was socially relevant in all the best ways. Alderman manages to sneak several different social commentaries into the story in such a subtle manner. If you catch them, they’re fantastic little additions. The story provides us with a real opportunity to address the ever changing face of feminism. In today’s world, we’re working towards a more progressive feminism that embraces all women (cis, trans, black, white), and we see that reflected in the beginning of the book. Women across the world work together to rise up, they embrace their femininity across borders, a lá the Women’s March. I’ll admit the first portion of the book was giving me all kinds of female empowerment vibes. I caught myself whispering “Yeah!”, and “Men can suck it!” a few times (sometimes you just get really caught up in the narrative).

You’re riding an empowerment high, and then Alderman hits you in the face with the downfall of first wave feminism. What if not all women can control their power? What if your power is inconsistent and weak? What if your power is taken from you? What if a man possesses the power? What if this ideal is more than was bargained for? Suddenly you have a very realistic look at today’s challenges, just set in an alternate universe. Men become terrorists trying to take down the women in power, who in turn are abusing their power. Women who cannot control their power are mocked. The men who possess the power are shunned and laughed at. Is this ideal world run by women a true utopia, or is it simply a mirror of the world before?

It’s an intriguing take on if women ran the world, would it embody the kind, nurturing, and gentler qualities women possess? Or does absolute power corrupt absolutely? I know, this review is giving a lot of questions, but the book left me with a lot of questions, I’m just passing them along. Alderman’s twist at the end is the final point that women are humans too, and will eventually fall into disgrace the way men in power have.

The only thing keeping this book from being a five star read is that it inevitably falls a little flat at times. Some chapters tend to lull, and the ending leaves the reader wanting. The characters are all unique and intense: an abuse victim, a member of an organized crime family, a politician trying to balance motherhood and career success, and my personal favorite, a young male journalist who becomes a neutral observer of the everything that occurs. Their intertwining story lines are the lens through which Alderman tells the story. The downside is merely the little rough spots in between. The lulls are not enough to make you drop the book, and certainly do not keep you from enjoying the story, they’re just simply there. If anything, you hope to skim through them quickly to get back to the meat of the store.

Overall, it’s fairly well written and gives us such a unique story concept and social commentary. It might demand a re-read eventually, once I have wrapped my head around it all. I must put a disclaimer that men should not be put off by reading this. It really is a great work of fiction, and is not a feminist ‘how to’ book. I gave it four stars with note that it was really close to a full five stars.

To all the books I loved before: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Annie Spence just released a book titled “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks”, and it’s a collection of love letters and break up notes to books in her life. I loved the idea, and decided to channel it for this. To all the books I loved before is simply a brief love letter to my favorite books. The sweet books that I enjoyed through childhood, adolescence, and my sometimes uncomfortable adulthood. Let’s begin, shall we?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I picked this up for the very first time the summer before eighth grade. To put that into perspective, my original copy of the book is a teenager now. If you’ve never read it, it’s a lovely and very relatable coming of age story set in early 20th century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The story follows Francie Nolan from birth to her late teenage years as she discovers the world around her, navigates love and life, and faces immeasurable heartbreak and struggle.

I had no expectations about this book when thirteen year old me picked it up. It was simply something I had to read for my Battle of the Books team. And then I ended up crying when I finished it, so…jokes on me, Betty Smith. Good work. My copy is worn from use, yellowed and dog-earred, well loved, and placed

Francie is my literary heroine, my favorite above any other. Smith weaves a beautiful multi-generational tale of the dysfunction of families, and the reality of our parents turning from heroes to human as we grow. Francie’s unending love for her father and struggles with her mother were so relatable to me as I got older. The quintessential coming of age story, we watch as Francie sees the larger than life parts of her childhood become small and almost insignificant.

One of my favorite passages is during Francie’s time at her job clipping newspaper articles for readers. War is declared, and Francie attempts to take in all of the details surrounding the moment she hears the news. The hope is that she can recall everything down to the lipstick she was wearing and the grain of her desk, so that one day when she is old she can go back to that moment. Existing in that one moment was so significant to me. To take a moment and give it depth, to make it so brilliant you can summon it and relive it all again. Dear, sweet Francie, how badly I wanted to be like you.

This book was truly the story I needed at 12, and 18. It put so many things into focus, and in some ways prepared me for growing up. I can say that at 26, re-reading it is a lot like driving by your childhood home; it’s familiar and strange all at the same time. You remember how it felt at the time, but you have trouble calling it all back in the moment. I’m now well past the age Francie was at the end of the book, but she still teaches me many things about growing older.

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”