5.24.2018

Ten Books for Summer 2018 (five I would recommend, and five I'm looking forward to!)

Another Memorial Day weekend is approaching, and another barrage of summer reading lists have arrived. As per usual, I'm adding my list to the pile: five books I'm hoping to read this summer and five I've read (since last May) that I would recommend. Looking at last year's list, I realized that each book on my 'looking forward to' list had a publication date past Memorial Day. This year, in addition to the list of books I'd recommend, all the books are available RIGHT MEOW for loading up the Kindle or library tote - with the exception of the new Elin Hilderbrand. However, if you haven't read her novels, there is plenty of backlist to choose from while we wait just a couple of weeks for the June release. (There are lots of reviews for her books in my 'reviews by author' list.) 

Books I'm looking forward to:
 The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin got a lot of social media buzz this winter, especially with such a gorgeous, Instagram-worthy cover. Apparently the inside is worthy of the outside, as some of my most trusted sources gave this novel the thumbs up (Megan's reviewTara's review and Anne Bogel's Summer Reading Guide). A Grey's Anatomy-esque drama sounds perfect for summer.
It wouldn't be summer without a trip to Nantucket! I didn't go for Hilderbrand's new book last summer, as I was catching up on some backlist that helped prep me for the final Winter Street book. This summer's The Perfect Couple is her first Kirkus starred review (after 21 books!) so I am definitely adding it to the beach bag.
 The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark is my pick for a debut author read. This story about the emotional bonds versus the DNA that bonds family sounds intriguing and hopefully a family drama with a little heft.
I have yet to read a Jenny Colgan novel, but from what I gather, they are perfectly cozy and sweet reads. I'm hoping  Little Beach Street Bakery will be the perfect summer treat that the title evokes.
 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is hitting the big screen this summer and looks like so much fun! I don't know how I missed the boat on this one years ago, but I hope to make up for it in time to watch the movie.

Books I would recommend:
Castle of Water by Dane Hucklebridge is a fast paced, tearjerker love story of two complete opposites stranded on an island. It's melodramatic and a little hard to suspend disbelief in parts, but it's a quick and romantic read. (my review)
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen is an adorable, magical romance set in the south. Definitely recommend for those who loved Practical Magic. (my review
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a must read, full of fabulous old Hollywood glam and drama. I think every summer should include a novel by Reid. (my review)
I just read The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy and if you are a fan of domestic thrillers poolside, this is definitely the summer book for you. (my review)
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett is my off the beaten path book for summer. A story about a girl navigating life after her mother's death does not scream SUMMER. But, there is so much warmth and hilarity in this quirky story about a girl named Elvis trying to bake a world record number of rabbit shaped cakes. (my review)



5.17.2018

Monthly Meal Wrap Up for April

I checked out a bunch of cookbooks from the library again and this month I made a couple things from Katie Lee's Endless Summer Cookbook. The biggest success were these healthy banana oat muffins!

Who knew that spelt flour bakes so nicely? I'm super glad this recipe gave me the excuse to buy some, and now I'm going to use it instead of whole wheat. We also made her recipe for a creamy chipotle sauce to use in lieu of our usual cilantro lime sauce on fish tacos and is was delicious. 
We also tried this Mexican Lasagna recipe from The Kitchn. It was tasty, but I'd use almost half the suggested noodles next time.
I happened to catch Trisha Yearwood's show on Food Network and decided to try her Pork Medallions recipe which we'd definitely make again! 
I didn't catch what the 'ginger sauce' was or where to find it, so I used Trader Joe's Soyaki for both the Teriyaki and ginger sauce the recipe calls for and it turned out great.
Speaking of Trader Joe's... ZOMG, the cauliflower gnocchi is TO DIE FOR - that is, if you are a fan of gnocchi. 
I do enjoy cauliflower, but if it's not your thing, I'd still try them. They taste like perfect pillowy gnocchi, with the added bonus of more fiber and veggies! As per the advice from the peeps at Trader Joe's List, I just sauteed them from frozen instead of steaming them in water per the package directions and they come out great. I've been heating them up with some sauteed onion, garlic and butternut squash.
And last, but not least, we went on our first Spring Break family vacation in April! Since this focus of this trip was sightseeing and family fun, I didn't delve too deep into foodie mode like our previous trips. However, we did enjoy some fun local eats. On advice from a San Diegan friend, we hit up Mona Lisa Pizza in Little Italy which was so adorable, so reminiscent of little family owned Chicago eateries, and delicious comfort food: chicken Parmesan, stuffed shells, lasagna, garlic bread and of course, the kids (and adults) loved the pizza!
Another recommendation that was a hit for brunch: Breakfast Republic. My kids were over the moon for the pancake trio with choices like cinnamon roll, Oreo cookie and strawberry cheesecake.
I cannot resist eggs Benedict and their mushroom and pesto version with SPINACH HOLLANDAISE was to die for. Plus you can upgrade your potatoes with Brussels sprouts!
At the end of our trip, we decided to take the kids out for a 'fancy' dinner. Since they both eat steak at home, we decided on Ruth's Chris as they actually have a kid size steak on the kid's menu. Although, in the future we'll probably have to order the eleven year old the adult size portion! They were so adorably striving to act like grownups in the 'fancy' restaurant, and the looks on their faces when their virgin daiquiris arrived were priceless. Of course, that's a picture I didn't take! They discovered the allure of virgin drinks at the pool and asked if they could order one at the restaurant. Ruth's Chris has a slightly elevated presentation compared to the pool bar, and I think my kids now have slightly elevated expectations for our next restaurant adventures!

5.08.2018

What Should Be Wild (ARC Review)

What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine
Publisher: Harper Books (May 8, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Cursed. Maisie Cothay has never known the feel of human flesh: born with the power to kill or resurrect at her slightest touch, she has spent her childhood sequestered in her family’s manor at the edge of a mysterious forest. Maisie’s father, an anthropologist who sees her as more experiment than daughter, has warned Maisie not to venture into the wood. Locals talk of men disappearing within, emerging with addled minds and strange stories. What he does not tell Maisie is that for over a millennium her female ancestors have also vanished into the wood, never to emerge—for she is descended from a long line of cursed women.
But one day Maisie’s father disappears, and Maisie must venture beyond the walls of her carefully constructed life to find him. Away from her home and the wood for the very first time, she encounters a strange world filled with wonder and deception. Yet the farther she strays, the more the wood calls her home. For only there can Maisie finally reckon with her power and come to understand the wildest parts of herself.

This book was a definite departure from my normal fare of mostly literary and contemporary fiction. But, when I do find a fantasy novel that speaks to me, I love it with my whole heart. I have the most success with character and relationship driven stories, whether they are fantastical or not.  (The Raven Boys and The Night Circus are great examples of magical realism/fantasy that worked for me.)
There is certainly not a lack of unique characters in Fine's novel, and a great deal of them are quickly introduced at the beginning of the novel, as part of Maisie's family tree. At first, I had a hard time keeping the stories of her ancestors straight. Though, as the present day plot moves forward, interspersed are chapters dedicated to each of these women that were cursed and how they disappeared into the forest. This was my favorite aspect of the book, told like fables that engendered so much empathy for each of these women. The pace picks up as Maisie begins to interact with the real world in order to find her father. Her exceptional power, or curse depending upon how you look at it, is an engaging aspect of the book and makes for interesting interactions and I wished there were more scenes of Maisie navigating the outside world. 
Alas, I felt as if the main plot didn't have the same heft and emotional pull as the legends of her ancestors. There were so many abstract ideas, situations wherein it was tough for me to suspend my disbelief, and plot points that didn't seem to coalesce - nor did Maisie's relationships. There was so much potential for her romance with Matthew, her caretaker's nephew, as they join forces to find her father, but he is absent for a large part of the book and the time they do spend together is never really fleshed out. Three days waiting for at a mechanic's for a car part is rife with potential bonding moments, yet this time together is not delved into and is over in less than two pages. The same can be said of her relationship with her father. He disappears pretty early in the book, and their interactions told in flashbacks are brief. 
That being said, I thought much of the writing to be lovely, enjoyed the creepy atmosphere and can pretty confidently say that it will go over well for those who really adore fantasy. I also found what Fine was trying to convey about the dangers of the stories we tell ourselves, living our truth, of embracing womanhood, and feminism admirable. Though I wasn't entirely sure of what was going on, I desperately wanted to - and furiously turned the pages until the end. Overall it was an intricate and thought provoking story and I'd love to hear other readers thoughts - and maybe answer a question or two for me! 
Many, many thanks to the wonderful people at Harper Books for an advance review copy!

5.04.2018

Books I Read in April

This was an unprecedented month wherein I read THREE advance reader copies from publishers. I usually do not stray from one a month, tops, but I couldn't help myself requesting all the great spring reads! I have one more in the pipeline for next week and then I'm taking a break until mid June.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
This book was such a cool departure from my usual literary fiction. I went in without knowing much about the premise and found it to be amazingly creative fantasy. It's thoughtful, entertaining and super creepy. In addition to the excellent world building, McGuire has some searing observations in her writing:
"Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women."
"Parents don't always like to admit that things have changed. They want the world to be exactly the way it was before their children went away on these life-changing adventures, and when the world doesn't oblige, they try to force it into the boxes they build for us."
Now that I have the lay of the land at this school for 'wayward children' I think I will most likely check out the other books in the series that give them some more back story. At only 173 pages, McGuire was able to create vivid characters that I want to get to know. 

Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly
Not only was this an unprecedented month with so many ARCs, but I read TWO story collections. I honestly can't say when I last read a short story collection! Heating and Cooling is a memoir written by Fennelly in these amazing little snippets that had me guffawing (her 'Married Love' stories are a hoot) and then holding back tears (mostly stories about her mother). It is uproarious, emotionally raw and searingly witty. It took me just over an hour or so to read it, and I would have spent ten hours reading her work - absolutely a favorite read this year.

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
This was a surprisingly dark, yet mesmerizing novel - you can read my full review here.

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
I gathered going into this that the second Anne of Green Gables is kind of an in-between book, before Anne really goes on her next big life adventure. Though it wasn't as linear with a clear story arc like the first book, I love, love, loved it all the same. One of the many reasons I enjoy the series, is that most of the chapters are fantastic little anecdotes in the life of the main character. I pick it up and feel like I check in on how my beloved friend is doing. The lovely, warm and humorous Anne is like a balm. It is the definition of comfort reading and solidified my decision to treat myself to the gorgeous Boxed Set with cover art by Elly Mackay.

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
The second of the aforementioned short story collections I read this month, and I give it ALL THE STARS. It's totally going on my end of year favorites list and you can read my full review here. I suppose I should start reading more short story collections...

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy
This was a fun read, despite the fact that I'm not usually a fan of thrillers! Full review here.


5.01.2018

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (ARC Review)

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy
Publisher: Harper Books (May 1, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
They call themselves the May Mothers—a collection of new moms who gave birth in the same month. Twice a week, with strollers in tow, they get together in Prospect Park, seeking refuge from the isolation of new motherhood; sharing the fears, joys, and anxieties of their new child-centered lives.
When the group’s members agree to meet for drinks at a hip local bar, they have in mind a casual evening of fun, a brief break from their daily routine. But on this sultry Fourth of July night during the hottest summer in Brooklyn’s history, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is abducted from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but the May Mothers insisted that everything would be fine. Now Midas is missing, the police are asking disturbing questions, and Winnie’s very private life has become fodder for a ravenous media.
Though none of the other members in the group are close to the reserved Winnie, three of them will go to increasingly risky lengths to help her find her son. And as the police bungle the investigation and the media begin to scrutinize the mothers in the days that follow, damaging secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are formed and fractured.

My (first) birth story in a nutshell: I developed preeclampsia, had eclampsia by the time I checked in to be induced, baby did some poopin' in utero, and after 12 hours of labor/putting it off/much to my disappointment - I had a c-section. The mother's group which the novel centers around has a ritual of everyone telling their birth story, so I thought I'd share the short version of mine! Dealing with the recovery, hormones, sleeplessness and EVERYTHING after becoming a first time mom was really, really hard - as it is for the characters in this book. Many new moms, myself included, join a group of mothers to help each other through the difficult transition to motherhood. 
Being able to identify with this group as a whole and each woman's struggles, at least in some small way, pulled me into this story. Molloy takes on the themes of modern motherhood with some seriousness and a lot of satire. Most of the chapters open with one of those ubiquitous baby website emails chronicling the stages of your child. Missives that usually drive parents mad: 'time to get on a schedule!' 'more tummy time!' 'get back in the bedroom with your partner' or, maddeningly, 'get in your pre-pregnancy jeans!' They are juxtaposed against what start as everyday newborn woes with the 'May Mothers' group, and then the unthinkable when one of the babies is abducted.
The narrative quickly goes into full on thriller mode and the rabbit hole these women go down as they try to cope with postpartum delirium, as well as deliriously try to figure out the crime. It is certainly a fun read, I finished in few days, was eager to follow the plot twists and DID NOT predict the ending. 
Although, like many thrillers, I didn't fully connect with any one character on a deeper level and, at times, they bordered on caricatures. They had a lot going on - a rape survivor, a woman in hiding from a public scandal, a retired actress with a stalker, a stay at home dad... I feel as if the novel only scratched the surface of their lives, in service of moving the plot forward. Though, I absolutely identified with their plights as new mothers and women in the world (there are obvious feminist themes relatable to most women) which made this thriller a cut above others I've read. 
This would be a perfect summer beach read. I would compare it to another favorite brain candy domestic suspense novel, The Couple Next Door, unlike the pervasive comparisons to Big Little Lies, which I think is more literary than thriller. On that note, I will say that this looks like it will make a terrific screen adaptation, and I look forward to Kerry Washington's starring and producing! Perhaps we will get to follow the character's individual story lines in more detail. If, like me, you must read the book before the movie - definitely pick up The Perfect Mother.
Incidentally, this is a May Book of the Month pick - if you are interested, you could get this one for free (or any of their current and past selections) if you sign up using my link and code: YESPLZ
Thank you so much to the awesome people at Harper Books for an advance copy to review!

4.24.2018

You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (Netgalley Review)


You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House (April 24, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Throughout the ten stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It, Sittenfeld upends assumptions about class, relationships, and gender roles in a nation that feels both adrift and viscerally divided. In “The World Has Many Butterflies,” married acquaintances play a strangely intimate game with devastating consequences. In “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” a shy Ivy League student learns the truth about a classmate’s seemingly enviable life. In “A Regular Couple,” a high-powered lawyer honeymooning with her husband is caught off guard by the appearance of the girl who tormented her in high school. And in “The Prairie Wife,” a suburban mother of two fantasizes about the downfall of an old friend whose wholesome lifestyle empire may or may not be built on a lie.
With moving insight and uncanny precision, Curtis Sittenfeld pinpoints the questionable decisions, missed connections, and sometimes extraordinary coincidences that make up a life. Indeed, she writes what we’re all thinking—if only we could express it with the wit of a master satirist, the storytelling gifts of an old-fashioned raconteur, and the vision of an American original.

Curtis Sittenfeld is an auto-read author for me. I didn't even read the blurb from the publisher until just now and, yes, You Think It, I'll Say It is all of the above. She is MASTERFUL. I think this just tied with Prep for my favorite of her books.
Short stories are not usually my jam. I love great plot, and I feel that short stories can be unsatisfying in that regard and oftentimes abrupt. Leave it to Sittenfeld to change my tune about short story collections. Each story is certainly self contained, yet there is an underlying similarity that underpins them all. She examines the minutiae of everyday life and our inner turmoils and turns the ordinary into extraordinary with her unique brand of crazy storytelling. Most of the narratives revolve around women in their early 40s (my and Sittenfeld's age) and are so identifiable to me, but should really be to anyone. She tells some stories from the man's perspective, reminisces about high school love and politics, newlywed dynamics, first babies, and even a trip to summer camp run the gamut of experiences that will probably spark a feeling of empathy from any reader. Until they are NOT empathetic - characters id's and ego's start to go off the rails and she examines them in a deliciously scandalous way. I couldn't put it down! From stories about college friends, one night stands, social media woes, mommy wars, she touches on all things we can relate to and then takes them in such unexpected ways.
I am praying that she comes to Seattle on book tour so that I can get myself a signed copy and ask how many ideas germinated from real life experiences. Though the stories are completely strange, they appear to fall into the stranger than fiction category. Did she meet a lifelong friend in a lactation group? 'Bad Latch' was one of my favorites and I love how the dynamic of female friendship felt so real. Did she ever interview a celebrity ingenue? 'Off the Record' seems like a celebrity blind story. Does she know something about The Pioneer Woman that we don't know? 'The Prairie Wife' feels like a fun and shocking fictional take of such a celebrity.
If I haven't made it abundantly clear, this book is phenomenal and you should run right out and get it for some stellar summer reading. Thank you SO MUCH to Random House and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!

4.10.2018

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp (ARC Review)

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
Publisher: Harper Books (April 10, 2018)
Description from the publisher:
Esme Silver has always taken care of her charming ne’er-do-well father, Ike Silver, a small-time crook with dreams of making it big with Bugsy Siegel. Devoted to her daddy, Esme is often his "date" at the racetrack, where she amiably fetches the hot dogs while keeping an eye to the ground for any cast-off tickets that may be winners.
In awe of her mother, Dina Wells, Esme is more than happy to be the foil who gets the beautiful Dina into meetings and screen tests with some of Hollywood’s greats. When Ike gets an opportunity to move to Vegas—and, in what could at last be his big break, to help the man she knows as "Benny" open the Flamingo Hotel—life takes an unexpected turn for Esme. A stunner like her mother, the young girl catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the Strip’s most powerful men.
Narrated by the twenty-year-old Esme, The Magnificent Esme Wells moves between pre–WWII Hollywood and postwar Las Vegas—a golden age when Jewish gangsters and movie moguls were often indistinguishable in looks and behavior. Esme’s voice—sharp, observant, and with a quiet, mordant wit—chronicles the rise and fall and further fall of her complicated parents, as well as her own painful reckoning with love and life. A coming-of-age story with a tinge of noir, and a tale that illuminates the promise and perils of the American dream and its dreamers, The Magnificent Esme Wells is immersive, moving, and compelling.

I feel that I should preface this review with a full disclosure that I have a great amount of love and nostalgia for Las Vegas. I first traveled there with my mom for my 21st birthday many years ago (over two decades, gah) and going once or twice a year thereafter for at least ten years. I remember visiting several of the hotels featured in the novel, most which no longer exist. It's not high on my travel priority list anymore, but I think on it fondly and love most things associated with the City of Lights. 

Esme is a powerful narrator with a distinct voice. Sharp renders her with such strength and courage, while being one of the most tragic characters I've read in a long time. A dual timeline is employed to great effect, slowly gathering tension towards the conclusion of her mother's story in Hollywood during Esme's childhood, and the conclusion of her own story in Las Vegas as a young woman. I found myself more engaged with Esme as an adult in Vegas. Although I am a fan of old Hollywood historical fiction (see also: Beautiful Ruins, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and films like L.A. Confidential), the Hollywood storyline is centered around Esme's parents and upbringing which are both deplorable. The early part of the novel focuses heavily on this period, so it took awhile to warm up. Once things turn more towards her coming of age, and the crises Esme faces during the fascinating coming of age of Las Vegas, I began turning the pages in rapid succession, desperate to learn of her fate. 

"I didn't know yet how these men were protective of little girls but preyed upon them when they grew up. But you couldn't stop growing up. The transition from girlhood to womanhood turned on a pivot. One day you were a child and then, all at once, you weren't."

Esme's narration feels almost as if she is an outside observer to her own life. One could take that as detachment, but I thought that it lent even more empathy towards her character because she was clearly not in control of her life for much of the novel. And many of the circumstances in which she had to bear witness were so tragic that her detachment can be seen as a defense mechanism, the most pivotal of which is disclosed near the end of the novel and it brought tears to my eyes.  Overall, it was darker than I had anticipated, yet a mesmerizing read.

Many thanks to the great people at Harper Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!