Books I Read in December (and Kids Winter Break Favorites)

Yep, it's January 18th and I'm just getting around to writing up December reviews! I thought I'd jazz it up a bit with what the kids enjoyed reading over the holiday break, as it's been awhile since I touched upon what they've been reading. 
In addition to alllll the National Geographic Kids Chapters books and Magic Tree House adventures, my seven year old has now been introduced to Neil Gaiman and she thought Fortunately, the Milk was ridiculously silly and fun, just like her brother did when he read it a few years ago. And we decided that this Christmas was the perfect time to introduce her to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: a rousing success, not surprisingly. And, yes, that is my copy of the book from my well preserved childhood Narnia set!
I read The Mysterious Benedict Society along with my ten year old and he really enjoyed it. It starts out fantastic, with great imagination and humor with these misfit kids all coming together to be tested into a secret sleuthing society. The second half dragged a bit for me, but I'm sure it would enthrall the middle grade reader in your house! He's also been enjoying alllll the James Patterson silliness: all the I Funny and Middle School books.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
This seemed like a good winter read, and it was, if a smidge harrowing! I was curious about Benioff's story telling, as a fan of HBO's Game of Thrones, which he co-created.  A young Russian is thrown together with an army deserter during the Nazi seige of Leningrad, supposedly based on a story told by his grandfather, had a similarly visceral feel to Thrones - scenes that were downright horrible, now burned in my brain. The pair's questionable mission (to obtain a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel who wants them for his daughter's wedding cake) had shades of Saving Private Ryan. It was a sad and sincere read that made really want to know how much of it was embellishment, and how much was true the story of Benioff's grandfather.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
I finally started the Shades of Magic series, and it's one I think I will continue! It's been awhile since I read a fantasy novel that really grabbed me. The premise of the novels feels original and rife with possibilities: our protagonist, Kell, is only one of two surviving 'Antari' that can travel between the Londons (yes, plural) that exist in four separate universes. The world building is vivid and immersive,  while the plot moves quickly and had me turning the pages. I do love the characters, but would love to get more backstory. I felt like I got a good handle on their motivations, but only snippets of their past when I really wanted MORE. Lila is awesome and looks to be on the cover of book two, so I have hope.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Practical Magic is one of those novels in which I barely remember the plot, but do remember loving it unconditionally some twenty years ago. Needless to say, I had high hopes, especially with the added hype over this 'prequel.' I'd say that in the first three quarters of the book, I was feeling as if my expectations were not being met. It's a slow burn, to say the least. But, the writing is lovely and creates an equally lovely, albeit somber, atmosphere in which I enjoyed lingering. "Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality." My heart swelled at the conclusion and made the journey worthwhile.

Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand
I mean... What more can I say about this series that I haven't said already? Words that are on repeat for my reviews of Winter Street, Winter Stroll, Winter Storms and now Solstice: humor, heart, immersive Nantucket, lovable characters, fun, and perfect light fare. It was fun to learn the origins of the Quinn family books from Hilderbrand's author note, and I look forward to a new winter series with a new family set in the Virgin Islands!

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
You can read my review here!


The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (NetGalley Review)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (January 9, 2018)
Description from the publisher:

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

If you follow book social media, this novel has probably popped up on your radar as one of THE essential books to read this year. It certainly drew me in with the obviously intriguing premise of knowing the date of your death. The description gives off a sort of fantastical or whimsical vibe: what WOULD you do? Would you go crazy feeling invincible? Would you check off your bucket list as soon as possible if your day was sooner than you thought? Would you spiral into despair? Far from fantastical, Benjamin weaves this compelling family story with a surprisingly gritty and melancholy tone. 

Since I'm a fan of dysfunctional family drama, I got wrapped up in the journey of each Gold sibling and especially Klara the Vegas magician. Yes, I'm a big fan of Vegas, especially during the period of time in which Klara inhabits Sin City. But, I felt that this part of the book was the most wrenching collaboration of magic, spirituality and motherhood:

"She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory - to know that she connects a funture unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child."
"Always it's like this: the family that created her and the family that she created, pulling her in opposite directions."

The book holds up a mirror, sometimes harshly, to the ways in which we fail to fully live and embrace our lives. There is hopefulness, but it is rather on the depressing side. It would be an excellent pick for a book group with many big themes to dissect on God, fate, family bonds, faith and destiny, to name a few. If for no other reason, it would be fun to discuss the central question of whether you would want to know the date of you own death and why. As for me, that'd be a big fat nope! And if you read the book, you would probably understand why - Benjamin articulates these themes beautifully.

Thank you to Putnam and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review!


My Favorite Books of 2017!

I am a firm believer in waiting until the absolute last minute to pull together my yearly favorite reads. You never know what gem might be waiting for the final week of December and it's a time for me to take it easy, not time for composing posts or lists! This year I've read more than any year I can remember with 72 books total, averaging 320 pages each. I'll probably delve into my stats and goals at a later date. For now, here are the books I enjoyed the most this year and that I would HEARTILY recommend. This is also my longest list to date, which stands to reason given the long list of books I read. For funsies, I shall list them in high school superlative style. It is in no particular order, with one exception which I shall list first and should come as no surprise if you read my November reviews or follow me on social media.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne is "Most likely to become a classic." It is full of humor, heart, serendipitous/gut wrenching plot and great characters - one of the greatest. I love this book SO SO MUCH. (reviewed in November)

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig is "Most likely to make your heart race." I turned the pages of this story about a girl with autism, and a big secret, with more fervor than any thriller. It's really intense, but so worthwhile. (reviewed in November)

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is "Most likely open your eyes to the 'rules' of society and embrace nonconformity." Alternate superlative: "Most likely to make Celeste Ng your go-to author." This is her second novel  and second one that has landed on my best of the year lists (Everything I Never Told You being her debut that was on my 2015 list). (reviewed in October)

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is "Most likely to make you fascinated by old Hollywood and cry big fat tears." Reid is yet another author I will always pick up, and I love that she delved into some historical fiction for her latest thought provoking novel. (ARC reviewed in June)

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is "Most likely to put you in the shoes of what seems like an extraordinary family circumstance, but is beautifully ordinary." I feel so lucky to have heard local author Frankel talk about this amazing book and it's one that I wish every person would read to learn more about gender dysphoria, as well as enjoy an engaging family story. (ARC reviewed in January

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is "Most likely to make you rethink your reservations about magical realism." I highlighted so many beautiful passages from this book that felt so gritty and real, while also dreamlike and magical. (reviewed in April)

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin is "Most likely to be on the 'me, too' reading list." I flew through this refreshingly witty and wry 'Monica Lewinsky-esque' tale with an excellent feminist point of view. I've said this before, but if you haven't listened to Lewinsky's TED Talk, you definitely should. Incidentally, this is another author that has twice made my best of the year lists, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry being an all time favorite book I read in 2014. (ARC reviewed in August)

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah is "Most likely to experience laughter through tears." Additional superlative: "Best audiobook EVER." This is close to being up there with The Heart's Invisible Furies in my favorite books of all time category - a must read, but listen if you can. (reviewed in November)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is "Most likely to encourage adults to engage in middle grade reading." In attempting to read one Newbery honor book per month, I re-read a number of classics as well as more contemporary work like Bradley's. It takes the cake, no question. Yes, I know the sequel is available, and I will read it this year for sure! (reviewed in February)

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is "Most likely to make you feel good about humanity." If you haven't already read this very short nonfiction classic, now might be a good time for a dose of love and light. I can't believe I discovered it just last year! (reviewed in January)

Previous years lists!
Favorite Books of 2016 

Favorite Books of 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Favorite Books of 2013 

Favorite Books of 2012


December Monthly Meal Wrap Up

Yep, I've been MIA around these parts for a bit. For me, this is the best time of year to unwind, enjoy time with my family and time on the couch with a book! I only perused one new cookbook this month, but I've copied down a bunch of recipes from Love Real Food by Kathryne Taylor of Cookie and Kate.

Lots of yummy salads I can't wait to try, as well as a number of sweet treats. So far I've made the Carrot Cake Breakfast Cookies (because I have a thing for breakfast cookies) and they were tasty, but mine came out a little crumbly.
I may adjust the wet ingredients or add an egg in my next attempt... Most of the month's notable eats revolved around favorite holiday foods like my family's famous Salami Stacks for appetizer night on Christmas Eve, my favorite Linzer Muffins recipe from Cooking Light (which I tried with Trader Joe's Sugar Plum Jam this year - DELICIOUS)
plus Reindeer Chow and sugar cookies for decorating, of course.
We also enjoyed a few meals out and I tried the Breakfast Burrito Bowl at The Commons before we went to see Start Wars and it was as tasty as it was HUGE.
I also took my seven year old out for sushi, which usually means chicken katsu, sesame balls and fruit for her. But, this time she ate up her crab salad and tried a bite of salmon and tuna sashimi - which is heads and tails above my experimentation level at her age, so I'll take it!
And I tried a couple of new whisky cocktails this month: the Food Network show The Kitchen continues to kill it with easy and delicious bourbon recipes. This Gobble Gobble Punch is soooo good and worth purchasing the St. Elizabeth allspice dram. I also finally tried a Paper Plane when we went out for my husband's birthday, and now I must add Amaro and Aperol to our liquor cabinet...
We did try a rather decadent Chicken Tortilla Casserole I found on Pinterest, I guess my first clue should have been that the recipe was from a site called The Chunky Chef.
It will definitely be a 'once in awhile' meal, as it was rather rich, but tasty! I'm feeling like I need to reset after all the (totally worth it) holiday indulgences, perhaps with some of those yummy looking salads from Love Real Food...


Books I Read in November

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
OK, so I'm a year late to this party, but my library hold was nearly that long! It was absolutely worth the wait. I haven't cried at the end of a book in a REALLY long time (maybe Me Before You nearly five years ago). I had the ugly tears as well as shed many tears of laughter (the story about his blind grandmother sniffing out his poop is riotously funny). It is the story of his life, yes, but much of it centers around his incredible mother and their relationship. I have such a fresh perspective on his hosting the Daily Show: if there is anyone who has first hand experience with bigotry, oppressive government, domestic violence, gun violence, police brutality it's Trevor Noah. And, yes, I listened to the audio and feel that it is a must. I'm sure it's equally compelling in print, but listening to his impression of his mother (and his grandmother, oh man) is PRICELESS.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
My son chose this book for this year's Global Reading Challenge, and it happened to be a pick for the Diverse Books Club. I decided to count it as my Newbery book for the month - and I'm so glad I did! It's the autobiographical story of author Cece Bell's hearing loss after contracting meningitis when she was a child, and navigating school/her peers with a hearing aid in the 1970s. It reminded me a great deal of Smile, Raina Telgemeier's autobiographical story of resilience - her's after having a childhood filled with jaw surgeries. Both are funny, heartwarming and have great themes for kids. My youngest even read it and we spent a lot of time looking up Cece Bell on Youtube and learning all about the differing abilities of the deaf community.

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
This was the novel that sucked me in to Penny's hit series, for sure. Maybe it was the fact that I read this during the right season (I read the first Inspector Gamache novel, Still Life, in the summer), or maybe it's because I was familiar with the characters from the start? Either way, I am ALL IN with reading every single book in the series. A Fatal Grace was really lovely, lyrical and just the right amount of 'love to hate' kind of villain, plot twists and suspense. 

Artemis by Andy Weir
Major disappointment. You can read my full review here.

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
After I burned through El Deafo, I knew that the Diverse Books Club has excellent taste, so I read the adult fiction pick - which also happened to show up on the Amazon Editor's best books of 2017 list. And it will for sure be on mine! It is not for the faint of heart. Ginny's life as an autistic fourteen year old foster child is heartbreaking. Her obsession with her 'baby doll' that she left behind at her, obviously unsafe, birth mother's home is crazy making and became my obsession, too. What's the deal with the baby doll?! I turned the pages faster than any thriller I've read to get to the end of Ginny's all consuming story. Ludwig tells this with so much insight and heart, perhaps because he himself has adopted an autistic child.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
I have 'the good people' at Little Brown to thank for my review copy of the latest by Hannah Kent, and it was an engrossing and immersive story involving the shocking religious superstitions of the rural Irish in the 1800s. When Nora takes in her grandson who seems struck with an inexplicable illness, she turns to the local healer to help rid the 'changeling' to get her 'real' grandson back from the fairy world. It's a slow burn and super creepy, filled with ominous detail - very reminiscent of The Wonder with a little Witch of Blackbird Pond thrown in.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
I own a copy of this book, but I decided to give it a go on audio, and I'm wondering if that was the right decision... I found the account of the Osage Indians and the Reign of Terror highly compelling subject matter, but I honestly felt the delivery was a little dry. I was sucked in during the first section of the book centering around Molly Burkhardt and the deaths in her family. The second section getting into the minutiae of the FBI men kind of lost my attention and finally got it back near the end when the reporter speaks to present day Osage Indians and uncovers even more of the horrific events during the time. Maybe try the print version...

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Oh how I loved this book! It's an all time favorite that is reminiscent of a John Irving novel, like A Prayer for Owen Meany. The story of Cyril as he navigates life from birth to death is a moving triumph. The way that Boyne tackles religion, politics, homosexuality, love, loss and life is by turns horrifying and hilarious while being beautifully plotted. The way the equally memorable supporting characters deftly move in and out of his life is a marvel. It's so hard to describe a novel this grand, despite the fact that I could talk about it for hours with someone else who's read it - so, READ IT!

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