Holiday Wish List 2017

As holiday shopping starts up, I like to compile a little gift guide (here's 2015 and 2014). It's really been just a guise for putting my wish list together, so I'm calling it like it is this year. Since I didn't get around to it in 2016 (I wasn't in the best of moods last November) I thought I'd resurrect this rather fun exercise. Pictures are via the websites linked and Amazon affiliate links are included, as well as a couple others I've noted. Without further ado...

If you, too, are an avid What Should I Read Next listener, this should come as no surprise: I want ALL THE THINGS from CW Pencil Enterprise! So many fun pencil items that I should probably buy for my kids (erasers, pencil caps, cases, travel size colored pencils) and that I want to keep for myself. This vintage Viarco set of pencils is calling to me...

Usually I get the Harry Potter illustrated editions at Christmastime. However, my husband gifted me The Prisoner of Azkaban early this year. Instead, I shall request Pete Souza's Obama: An Intimate Portrait! If you are not following Pete on Instagram, you should rectify that situation.

These jammies from Nordstrom are already in my rotation, but I love them so much that I needed to share the info as such a great gift!

Our short cocktail glasses are flared and I've been wanting to get some straight sided glasses for whiskey drinks. There are so many fun options out there, and I'm leaning towards these ones with a PNW vibe.

Sephora gift sets are always a hit with me, and this year I'm eyeing the nude lip set or really just a gift card in general!

Emily McDowell studio is a fantastic site for gift giving. I sent my mom the Kicked Cancer's Ass pin last year, and I'm thinking I need to get some of her wisecracking in my life. I keep coming back to this pouch...

OK, here's another thing I already have, or rather, I caved to the Fab Fit Fun box. I saw that the winter edition has the Kate Sommerville ExfoliKate and decided it was worth the whole box! If you want to gift yourself this subscription box every season (it comes four times a year, and makes the price tag easier to bear) here's my referral link.

And, speaking of referral links, I must end on a book note! Here's one for Book of the Month and it's $10 for your first book and a free tote, which also makes an excellent gift. I always think that I should just give it up, but then they have the most excellent selections and I can skip as many months as I want. I mean, five of the top ten Amazon editors picks for 2017 were BOTM offerings, including the #1 and #2 spot - the best nonfiction and the best fiction of the year, respectively. 

OK, I should reign it in now. I hope everyone has a safe, healthy and happy Thanksgiving!


Artemis by Andy Weir (NetGalley Review)

Artemis by Andy Weir
Publisher: Crown (November 14, 2017)
Description from the publisher:

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.
Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.
Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Oh, how I wanted to love this book! One of the reasons that the majority of advance copies I request are from authors I've read and enjoyed is because I really hate giving a negative dedicated review. I absolutely devoured The Martian, and it was one of my favorite books of 2014. The idea of a female protagonist who was going to 'science the sh*t' out of things on the moon was also very appealing. Alas... 

Let me start with the good: Weir is SUPERB at world building. The city of Artemis is fully realized in my mind and full of fun and unique details about the way people live, eat and entertain themselves on the moon. Like many great sci-fi novels, I can ABSOLUTELY picture the inevitable movie version. And, like Mark Watney's character in The Martian, Jazz's ingenuity was compelling. However...

The main character has a similar irreverent shtick that worked in The Martian, but didn't work for me in this novel. The salty language was not used to any kind of great humor - I just felt as if Jazz somehow needed it to make her seem tough and have a chip on her shoulder. For the life of me, I never really figured out why she was so angry at the world or her dad. If I did, it might have gone a long way to make me want to pick up the book more often and care about her plight. The action was fun, but I didn't care how it would play out. It's one thing to think about being stranded on another planet, trying to get home to your family. That has drama and heart. An inexplicably angry woman trying to pull off an illegal heist? Not so much.

If interesting science (lots of stuff about heat, atmosphere, how things would work on the moon in zero gravity - like the way dust settles, which was really interesting!) or a cinematic heist sounds like fun fare, by all means, you should definitely read Artemis. These are things I nerd out on as well, but I just wanted a little more.

Many thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!


October Monthly Meal Wrap Up

My husband and I kicked off the month with a day date to Rattlesnake Ledge for some hiking and our first visit to Twede's Cafe: home of the 'damn good cherry pie' of Twin Peaks fame. It was damn good, as was the club sandwich and my spinach omelette the size of my head!
 I didn't try many new meals this month, as it was pretty hectic with school commitments and my husband taking back to back business trips. I did make Skinnytaste's baked potato soup with cauliflower for a few solo dinners and it was super easy! I added some sauteed garlic and onion to give it a little more depth and it turned out quite tasty.
 For solo dinners when my husband is MIA, I almost always grab a Tarte D'Alsace from Trader Joe's. However, this year I had to try the seasonal tarte with gorgonzola and butternut squash. Sooooo good! I stocked up on a few before they are gone for the season. They're perfect with some roasted greens, brussel sprouts being a favorite.
Speaking of Trader Joe's, they remodeled my local store in a new shopping development across the street from the old one and it is GLORIOUS. Of course we went on opening day to pay our respects!
 And to finish out the month, we dealt with my least favorite holiday - yay! I know, I know. I am a Halloween scrooge, but I make up for it tenfold over Thanksgiving and Christmas. We get our pumpkins at the local fruit market which has plenty of fun for the kids with games, free popcorn and cider.
 And then I hand the reins over to my husband for the carving assistance. 
 This year, though, my son did it entirely on his own and I think he did a pretty good job replicating his toy sloth. And my husband did a lovely job replicating my daughter's Pusheen.
Now it's time for planning menus for the most wonderful time of the year, starting with Thanksgiving!


Books I Read in October

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I don't know if there's anything more I can add to the conversation about this fantastic novel! I also got a signed copy and heard her discuss the book, which was wonderful.
The story of these two starkly different families that come together in an affluent American suburb is a blistering take on privilege and class. My only small critique would be that it felt more like allegory than story. You will not finish the book wondering what the message is that Ng is trying to convey, especially in the case of the two mothers. However, it is a very worthwhile one. I am probably in the minority when I say that I loved Everything I Never Told You (a favorite from 2015) a smidge more - also definitely worth a read.

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by Katy Tur
Yes, this was a HIGHLY frustrating read about the Trump campaign. I'm thankful that my main takeaway from the book was a glimpse inside the life of a campaign reporter, which was surprisingly fascinating stuff. The focus on small, yet intimate stories on food (seriously, she talks about food A LOT), travel horrors, mirror-less curling iron conundrums, and thousands of cups of coffee made this such an enjoyable read. And the stories about her personal life, especially the chapter about her parents who are also journalists, were heartfelt. In the end though, fair warning, having to look some terrifying and grotesque realities in the face is difficult: "I will never unhear him, not the man's message, and not the thousands of other voices that summarize 2016 by not shouting him down. 'Assassinate that bitch,' the man said, and the crowd said nothing. 'Assassinate that bitch,' and the crowd cheered on."

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
This sequel did not live up to the excellent Garden Spells, but it was fun to immerse myself in the world of the Waverly's again. There were a lot of plot points that seemed scattered, meandered a bit, and didn't have a clear sense of urgency. The only fun was catching up with all of the characters and her whimsical writing. I definitely plan to read more of her work, though.

The Party by Elizabeth Day
I burned through this dark and compelling psychological thriller. It's one of those stories that starts with the feeling that something is 'off' that you can't put your finger on and becomes more and more ominous as it goes on. Similar to Big Little Lies, it starts with an incident at a party that gets the police involved and flashes back in forth in time to drop clues for the reader to piece together. I loved Day's vivid scenes and searing commentary on sexism and class politics. I wrote more extensively about it here.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstoree by Matthew J. Sullivan
I'm not usually a big mystery fan, but I'd been hearing about this one a lot and it was on the lucky day shelf at the library. I'm glad I picked it up, it was a perfectly quick October whodunit. It was smart with well fleshed out characters and great atmospheric writing. Sullivan had me guessing until the last, and it was a pretty big shocker that also made perfect sense - which I feel is lacking in a number of contemporary thrillers/mysteries. It is also a little more maudlin than the title and cover lets on, FYI.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
This was my Newberry pick for the month and it was a sweet and touching story of a girl trying to find her 'higher power' in the aftermath of her mother's death, while being raised by her father's ex wife. It reminded me a lot of the themes from Flora and Ulysses, as well as the eclectic characters and the 'magical thinking' of children. It's a little on the morose side and the atmosphere that Patron conjures up is so evocative of Lucky's desolation, literally (set in the Mojave desert) and figuratively, yet also her optimism. 

I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly quick lit - be sure to check out all the great book recs!



On Unlikeable Characters

As I was (voraciously) reading my copy of The Party by Elizabeth day (provided as part of my Little Brown & Company ambassador program), I couldn’t help but think about the effect of an unlikable character on a narrative. Martin, the main character, is morally ambiguous at best. But this information is delivered like breadcrumbs left in a trail for the reader to piece him together, as well as the mystery of why the story begins with his police interrogation.
Unlikeable characters seem to be an obstacle for many readers and, for the most part, I would include myself in this assessment. At least I thought so. But there are exceptions, including the aforementioned book, as well as the ultimate example that leaps to mind: Gone Girl (which is always excellent food for thought). Funny enough, The Party is the first book the TRULY reminded me of reading Gone Girl. Something sinister is afoot from the beginning, and the tension builds as you learn more about the past and all of these ostensibly irredeemable characters. Additionally, part of the story is told through flashbacks, police investigation, and the diary entries of Martin's wife. And, like Gone Girl, I devoured it! It was really compelling stuff. 
Of course it's had me thinking about what makes these characters readable for me, and other 'unlikeable' characters infuriating?
The first realization I had is that they are thrillers and I tend not to put myself in the shoes of someone who is, for lack of a better word, crazy. So the suspension of disbelief is built in: this is totally not who I am, nor anyone I know, and it is FASCINATING. Clearly Amy Elliot-Dunne is a unique character and I can't identify with her motivations, but I CAN furiously turn the pages to see what she might do next. 
Second, thrillers have plot and a sense of urgency. Many of the books that center around a character I did not care for seem to be more of a sociological study than a story - such as Hausfrau or Rich and Pretty. I have a hard time with this type of book as it is, so not having an emotional investment ruins the reading experience. 
Lastly, the characters that inevitably ruin a book for me are the kind that make repeated stupid mistakes and never learn from said blunders. Yes, we all make mistakes and the plot of a great story usually revolves around one. Yet either you can identify with choice the character makes (however stupid), or he is penalized, or learns from his transgressions. In the party, Martin is a very unlikable guy, but it is easy to see why he does the misguided things he does, which in the end, leads him down a dark path that is revealed by inches with searing commentary on current culture, including class and sexism.
OK, obviously I enjoyed The Party. Any recommendations for other despicable, yet fascinating characters? Would love to hear more thoughts on on this pervasive trend in books!


Rainy Day Books

The 'Big Dark' has descended upon my neck of the woods, in the Pacific Northwest, and I kind of love it. I am a homebody and love nothing more than to sit with a hot beverage, under a cozy blanket with a book - bonus points if it's on a Friday night! My mom can attest to the fact that I was basically a Linus growing up and constantly wrapping myself in a blanket - and reading, of course. Fall reading is the best time for reading - here's an article from Bustle to back up my hypothesis. 
Since I've covered summer reads and winter/holiday reads, I figure it's time to pull together a nice list of 'cozy up with a blanket while the leaves fall and rain patters the window' kind of read. To be honest, for a long time, I thought that seasonal reading was sort of ridiculous. A good book is a good book, no matter what time of the year. That definitely still holds true, but I think you can certainly elevate your reading experience with certain books. I read Still Life, Louise Penny's first novel in her Inspector Gamache series, during the summer last year. I enjoyed it, but can't help but think I would have enjoyed the atmosphere of Three Pines a little more if I had saved it for a rainy fall day.
My thought process on this list was something atmospheric, perhaps a mystery, but nothing terribly gruesome. Gillian Flynn is perfect dark and stormy night reading, but far from cozying up with your blankie...

Might as well start off with some Louise Penny and the aforementioned Still Life, which is a perfect 'not too gruesome' mystery vividly set in this small town full of whimsical characters.

In my mind, Kate Morton is the perfect author for a rainy day read. Her novels are so intricately plotted and immersive. The Lake House is her book I read most recently, but I'd also recommend The Forgotten Garden. Now that I think of it, I have yet to read The Secret Keeper and may do that soon...

The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater is a series that all readers should experience, and fall is the perfect time of year. In this story about boarding school boys on a secret mission and the girl that befriends them, the author's character development, setting a scene and a FEELING is unparalleled. The whole series is gorgeous, unique, magical and unforgettable. Plus, boarding school and a magical forest, that figures prominently in the books, screams autumn to me.

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a delightful adventure mystery that begins in a dusty old bookshop and is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones caper. It's a fast read and under 300 pages - perfect for a one day sitting in a cozy chair.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters: Dickensian England, plots within plots, and a fantastic love story. Yes.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite classics and it is perfectly brooding, romantic on the rainy English moors kind of a read.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness has the perfect October vibe: witches, vampires, Oxford university in the fall, dusty caverns of the library. If you haven't read this one yet, you're in for a treat. I have yet to follow up with Shadow of Night or The Book of Life, but plan to eventually!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one that I always recommend and then bite my nails wondering how it will go over. It's a real love it or hate it kind of book, heavy on atmosphere and magic. But it's uniqueness and sublime love story just blew me away.

Technically I recommended The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield as a winter read. However it is so good, and equally delectable on a rainy day, that I had to add it to the list. It is a perfect Gothic mystery and another must read, if you haven't already.

I am now reading the first Harry Potter with my youngest and it continues to be a delight. Normally, we offer up reading these to the kids over the summer (we finished Goblet of Fire with my elder this year) but my daughter wasn't into it, so I didn't push. A couple of weeks ago, I suppose she heard more talk of Harry at school or something and asked if we could give it a go. YESSSSSSS. I had just purchased the Kazu Kibuishi set (if you don't know who that is, click here) and I am realizing how wonderful it is to read about the troll on Halloween leading up to the actual holiday. We might just move our summer tradition to the fall...

FYI, links above are to reviews I've written here or to Amazon affiliate links if they predate the blog!


Monthly Meal Wrap Up for September

We kicked the month off with a brunch outing the weekend before the school craziness set in. Mmmmm, huevos rancheros.

And it has indeed been a bit busy this month with school commitments and evening soccer practice times that necessitate tried and true easy recipes. So, I didn't get around to many new ones, however the few new things I DID try were delicious! 
Muffins (or a cookie variation) are a go-to breakfast for me: I like to make a huge batch to store in the freezer and pop in the microwave in the morning. I was looking for something new and seasonal - these Sweet Potato Date Muffins were PERFECT. It's from Sarah Britton's book Naturally Nourished, and you can find the recipe here
Also great this time of year are my lightened up version of Pumpkin Snickerdoodle Muffins!
As the days get colder, I'm always craving comfort soup recipes and this Coconut Curry Soup from Pinch of Yum was super easy (I highly recommend an immersion blender) and delish. 
I added shredded chicken in lieu of tofu and cooked veggies, but plan to give it a whirl with tofu another day. Also a great easy meal I usually rely on for lunches this time of year:
The Tomato Feta Soup from Trader Joe's has been a favorite for awhile, but this new Pumpkin Butternut Squash Bisque is equally delicious.

We ended the month with a trip to our favorite restaurant in celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary! Daniel's steaks can't be beat, plus the view of the sun setting on Seattle and the Olympic mountains isn't too shabby either.