What I’ve Been Up To and Looking Ahead to 2016

So! If you follow me on any social media, you may have noticed that my (already sporadic at best) posting has slowed WAY down these past few weeks. Since November 23rd life has been a whirlwind. We closed on our new home on the 23rd, dealt with the many miscellaneous things that come with new home ownership throughout that week, celebrated a lovely Thanksgiving that Thursday followed by a busy weekend, and moved in to our new home Monday the 30th. Two weeks of unpacking and cleaning later, and I hosted my employees (current and former – it was an amazing group) at my home for our annual work holiday party. Tonight my husband is doing the same with his employees and on Wednesday, I fly to Chicago to celebrate Christmas with my family. To add to the busy/crazy past few weeks, we still don’t have internet in our new home (long story) so I haven’t been able to get online much at all. I’m typing this while sitting in a Panera enjoying a diet coke and free wifi. :)

I HIGHLY doubt you’ll see any more posts from me this year. I also am unclear about whether I’ll get to review the almost 20 unreviewed books I’ve read recently. OR if I’ll get to a best books of 2015 post. Let’s face it, the end of the year is just ridiculously busy for a normal person, but when you move right at that time, forget it. All bets are off. And I’m not stressing about it.

What I AM doing is looking ahead to the new year. And now that I have a room just for me and my books (for serious, I get a library in my new home, it’s incredible), I want to fill it only with those books I absolutely love. I’m okay with having a TBR pile, or many piles, but I do eventually need to (and desperately want to!) read those books. And then decide whether they get a permanent place in my home library or whether they get donated to someone else’s library. All that being said, I’m joining Andi’s Reading My Own Damn Books challenge. What I love about this is that there are no rules – I get to make my own! I still need to take the time to decide what those rules will be. That will have to come in a future post. But for now, just know that I am reading at least some of my own damn books next year!

And you? How has the end of the year been for you? Are you giving in to the stress and pressure of the holiday season, or are you relaxing and enjoying what is to many the most wonderful time of the year? I’d say I’m about halfway between the two at this point. Once my plane lands in Chicago, I’ll definitely be closer to the enjoyment stage. :)

If I do disappear for the rest of the year, happy holidays to you and your families, and please take time to appreciate whatever family and friends you have. This is a tough time of year for many people (will be for my family this year) but to look around and see so many loved ones is truly a blessing. At least I think so.

 

Mini-Reviews: Memoirs

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Published by Knopf

If you aren’t familiar with the gist of this memoir you must have been living under a rock. But just in case, basically after Strayed’s mother died and her marriage fell apart, she decided to hike a thousand miles, by herself, along the Pacific Crest Trail. This is her story of that time in her life, just before and after, and how this journey helped her come to terms with some of the most difficult things she’d experienced in her life.

What can I say about Wild that hasn’t been said before? Probably nothing, to be honest. I love Cheryl Strayed and I thought this book was just as good, in a different way, as Tiny Beautiful Things. I’ve come to understand Strayed as such an intense, thoughtful, introspective person and I loved getting to know her even more, understanding more about her history and her life growing up, and it just makes me admire her for the unfailingly positive and inspiring adult she has become. I just think she is an incredible writer and an incredible human and I loved every minute I spent reading her book. There were moments in this book that I laughed out loud, moments that I cried the ugly cry (one in particular, involving an animal, just, UGH), and the variety of emotions I felt while reading this book is how I know what a fantastic, amazing book it really was. I loved it so much.

Elena VanishingElena Vanishing by Elena Dunkle and Claire B. Dunkle
Published by Chronicle Books

This is the memoir of Elena Dunkle, a young woman who, as a teen and young adult, suffered from anorexia. This is her story, as told by her, from her point of view as a seventeen-year-old through when she began her recovery five years later. Her mother, author Claire B. Dunkle, co-wrote the book with her.

This one was pretty heartbreaking, and not an easy book to read. It’s hard to understand an eating disorder if you do not suffer from one yourself, but if you want to understand the mentality of someone with an eating disorder, this is a great book to read. Elena Dunkle brings the reader right inside her brain as she experiences life from the perspective of a person who literally hates herself, can’t handle the body she’s in, and feels an intense drive, a compulsion even, to destroy herself by starvation. To say this is an intense read is an understatement. But it’s also beautiful at times, and in the end it’s clear that recovery is on the horizon for her. If you know someone suffering from an eating disorder I think this would really help understand just a tiny bit what that person might be going through, and for that I’d highly recommend it.

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North KoreaA Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea by Eunsun Kim and Sebastian Falletti, translated by David Tian
Published by St. Martin’s Press

Eunsun Kim grew up in North Korea, and had a relatively peaceful and happy childhood until about age eleven, when her family members started dying of starvation due to the famine the country was experiencing. Desperate to feed her family and find freedom, Kim’s mother decided to escape to China with Kim and her older sister. This is her incredible story of the nine years it took she and her mother and sister to get out of North Korea for good, and into the safety of South Korea. She’s now built a life there and is able to tell her story with the comfort of knowing that she’ll never have to set foot in North Korea again.

I’m having a difficult time with this book because I think these stories are incredibly important and I love seeing more of them – stories from those who we almost never hear from. The government of North Korea goes to insanely extreme measures to make sure its citizens are not heard from or seen by the outside world, so it’s amazing and great to me when the world gets to hear from someone who escaped the totalitarian regime and lived to talk about it. But in this particular case, the book wasn’t written very well and could possibly turn people off of reading books like it. But Eunsun Kim’s story is inspiring and shocking and one of those stories that NEEDS to be told, and heard by the world. So while I wasn’t in love with the actual writing of the book, I still recommend that it gets read – people need to be aware of the atrocities happening in North Korea.

The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen

 

The Opposite of MeThe Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen
Published by Washington Square Press

Twins Lindsey and Alex have always been opposites: Lindsey the “smart” one and Alex the “beautiful” one (at least, according to Lindsey). But when Lindsey’s high-powered life in New York City crumbles around her, she returns to her family home in Maryland to help with the preparations for Alex’s wedding – an event she is not looking forward to one bit. When a family secret comes out, both Lindsey and Alex must reexamine who they are in their family dynamic and come to see that maybe they’re not such opposites after all.

I was attracted to this book because I’ve enjoyed Pekkanen’s in the past and also because I have a sister. I’m not a twin, but my sister and I are about as different as can be and weren’t super close growing up (although now we are). I enjoyed it, although I had a difficult time relating to Lindsey as a character. I found her very self-absorbed and unable (or unwilling) to have empathy for anyone, especially her sister. She had such a difficult time seeing things from any perspective other than her own to a point that it was almost unrealistic. But there was definite growth in her character, which I really appreciated – she grew up over the course of the novel, which is something I always like to see.

I did also appreciate the way the book made me think about career vs. family, money vs. success, as in – what is the definition of success? If a person is working sixty plus hours a week, not sleeping, not spending time with family and friends, but making a lot of money and climbing the corporate ladder quickly, is that considered success? To me, it’s not, but I have to admit to getting wrapped up in my own work drama and corporate culture too often. I need to more regularly step back and evaluate my priorities and remember to focus on what really matters in life – my relationships with my spouse, family, and friends and all the good things that come from those relationships, that’s what’s important. To me, anyway.

So this was an enjoyable read and I did like what Pekkanen did with the ending, how she wrapped things up for these characters. I’ve liked a couple of her other books more than this one but she is still a solid women’s fiction author to me. I’ll keep reading her books!

As a sidenote – I actually hate the term “women’s fiction” but I am not sure there’s another way of describing this type of book that doesn’t make it sound like ONLY women can/want to read it. In reality, these are books primarily written by women, about women, and read mostly by women. Does anyone know a better way of saying this?

Mini-Reviews: YA themed

No Parking at the End TimesNo Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss
Published by Greenwillow Books

Abigail and her brother Aaron have just been moved across the country to San Francisco with their parents and only the possessions that fit into their family’s van. Their parents have decided to follow a religion headed by a man named Brother John, who has dictated that the end times are here, and San Francisco is where the true followers will be saved. But when the date for the end times comes and goes, the family is homeless, with neither of Abigail’s parents able to bring in money to feed and take care of their teenage children. It is up to Abigail, and Aaron if she can convince him, to save their family.

Religious cults fascinate me, so I was interested in this book based on the premise alone. I mostly enjoyed it. Abigail and her brother were believable – acting just like teens in a situation such as this would have – their parents, not so much. I have such a hard time understanding why someone would make their children homeless willingly, and I’m not sure this book did a good enough job convincing me that this particular cult leader was compelling enough to get these parents to make these horrific choices for their family. Other than that, the story was heartwarming and I thought that by the end, Abigail proved herself to be a tough, smart, resourceful character that I really could get behind. Recommended for those who are just as fascinated by cults as I am!

Dumplin'Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Published by Balzer + Bray

Willowdean is a self-proclaimed fat girl who has always been confident in her own skin and proud of who she is. But when she falls for the hot jock Private School Bo, she is shocked to discover that he may be falling for her, too – causing her to have a sudden onset of insecurity she’s never felt before. To improve her confidence, she enrolls in the local beauty pageant – the most horrifying out-of-her-comfort-zone thing possible for her. Along the way, she not only faces her insecurities head-on, but she makes some true friends and shows the small town where she lives what true beauty is all about.

I thought this book was just adorable. I love how it deals with fat-shaming head-on, with fat acceptance, and with the fact that EVERY single person in the world faces insecurity and moments of self-doubt. I loved Willowdean’s group of misfits who became great friends throughout the pageant experience, girls who before the pageant would never have opened up to one another. I didn’t love how it was as soon as a guy started to show interest in Willowdean that she began to doubt herself – almost as though her confidence was based upon what this guy thought of her – but I thought that it was incredibly realistic for her to be this way. That’s how a teenager’s brain works, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all of us care about what others think, all of our confidence levels can be shaken when we start to care about others’ opinions. I just really, truly enjoyed Dumplin’ and I loved everything that Julie Murphy did here.

Mini-Reviews: Advice/Memoirish Books

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your LifeThe Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan
Published by Dutton

I picked up this book because I thought it might be similar to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a book I loved and that I was actually able to apply to my life. And it somewhat lived up to my expectation that the two would be similar – Rubin spent a year focusing on being happier, while Kaplan spent a year focusing on how choosing to be grateful can be a catalyst for happiness and peace in your life. I liked The Gratitude Diaries well enough – it was compelling, read rather quickly, and was a good mix of interesting and funny.

I wasn’t in love with this book, though. It was one of those that was good but, weeks after reading it, I’ve forgotten most of what Kaplan had to say. In general, I try to look on the positive side of things and not let bad situations ruin my days and I do try to be mindful of being grateful for what I have and acknowledging that (sometimes only to myself) on a regular basis. So I think I may not have been quite the target audience of this book since I was already kind of buying what Kaplan is selling before I even picked it up? Anyway – I liked The Gratitude Diaries but it wasn’t the most memorable or impactful book I’ve ever read.

100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love by Lisa Leake
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks

Lisa Leake, creator of the popular food blog 100 Days of Real Food, decided one day that what she had been feeding her family for years was mostly processed, unsustainable, and unhealthy, and she and her husband gave themselves the challenge of eating (and feeding their two young daughters) no highly processed or refined foods for 100 days. This book is half the story of how they managed to do it, what they learned, and how they have sustained this lifestyle food choice over time, and half a cookbook where she shares some of their favorite recipes as a family.

I have to admit that Leake’s story is pretty inspiring. I am not sure that I could manage to do this just cooking for myself, and she managed to get her entire family eating this way. The rationale behind why she made this choice, and what exactly constitutes “real” food in her mind made perfect sense to me and is a philosophy that I can see myself at least incorporating into my diet. I can’t say that I plan on overhauling my diet completely but it’s certainly a starting point to a more healthful lifestyle.

The cookbook section has a surprising amount of variety, as well as recipes for things that I wouldn’t automatically think would fit into the real food lifestyle. There were quite a few that I wanted to make, but I only ended up making one – vegetarian chili – before the book had to go back to the library. The chili was really good, very filling, although I admit I doctored the recipe just a bit by adding canned pumpkin (hey, it’s fall and I had pumpkin to use up!). I don’t think the pumpkin made too much of a difference except maybe for the texture – it was a little on the thinner, soupy side before I added it.

I’d definitely recommend the book for anyone considering a change in eating habits or just wanting to know more about the real food thing. You can also check out her blog if you want to get an idea of what Leake is all about.

Mini-Reviews

Into the ForestInto the Forest by Jean Heglund
Published by Dial Press

This novel is about two teenage sisters, Nell and Eva, who are struggling to survive in their Northern California home as the world quietly collapses around them. They are 30 miles from the nearest town so as an overseas war and issues in the US government cause massive issues in society, they don’t notice much difference until suddenly their electricity goes out and there’s no gas to be found. As they rely on one another for everything, their bond is tested time and time again, and they both must figure out how to grow into women in this new world they are facing.

I liked the first third of this book a lot. I found it fascinating, and horrifyingly believable, how the world as these characters knew it slowly disintegrated without their really noticing it. I loved getting to know the two of them and how each played a different role in their family structure. But as the book went on, one sister just read all the time and the other danced all the time – it almost got boring to me. And there’s a point in the book where something happens between the two of them that I thought was completely unnecessary and actually took away from what I did like about the book. At that point, I kind of hated it. So, not a personal recommendation but I do like some of the ideas presented here and I’d be open to picking up another book by this author.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Published by Viking

This is the story of the University of Washington’s crew team and their fight to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Daniel James Brown traces the history of Nazi Germany leading up to and just past 1936 alongside the story of how this incredible crew team was put together, including helping the reader get to know each of the eight men on the team as well as their coaches.

I really REALLY liked this one! I was impressed with how the author managed to tell such a compelling story about this sport that I knew nothing about beforehand – and frankly didn’t care about beforehand. I loved getting to know these men, their back stories and childhoods and learning what made them tick, what made them successful, and most importantly, why these specific eight men, as a team, had to be the guys in this Olympic-caliber boat. It was fascinating to me how this sport is such an incredible illustration of teamwork, how a crew team is more about the team itself than its individual members. Further, this was an incredibly fascinating look at Nazi Germany just before Hitler began showing the world his true colors. I don’t think I’ve read a book before that illustrates the build-up to World War Two from this angle and it was so interesting to me, I need to find more books that do this. The Boys in the Boat is super great and I think it’s an easy recommendation to make to almost anyone.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In (Lock In, #1)Lock In by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books

From the publisher:

Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.

A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.

But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.

This was my first time reading a book by John Scalzi, and I’m excited to say that I quite enjoyed it! I’ll be looking for more books by him that are equally awesome, so if you can recommend one, please say so in the comments below. Now onto thoughts about Lock In!

The world that Scalzi created here was so intriguing to me. I think these kind of dystopian/futuristic novels are my favorite – ones where it’s entirely conceivable how the world got to where it is, the author gives a background on how and why things are the way they are, and the people in the story have mostly adapted to this new way of life. That’s exactly what we have here – this insane virus changed practically everything about the world these characters inhabit, yet things have basically returned to normal with a few changes. I couldn’t get enough of the details about the Hadens – how they adapted to their new bodies, how the world has changed to make room for them in everyday life, how they have relationships with Hadens and non-Hadens – all of it, I soaked up every single word.

Scalzi does something unique and extremely awesome with gender here. Not once in the entire book is it made clear whether Chris Shane is a man or woman, and the publisher actually put out two different versions of the audiobook – one narrated by a guy (Wil Wheaton) and the other by a girl (Amber Benson). I listened to the Wil Wheaton because I loved him narrating Ready Player One, so to my ears, Chris Shane was male. But I’m assuming if Amber Benson had narrated my book, Chris Shane would have been female to my ears. And I’m super wondering how I would have interpreted it if I’d read the print and made my own assumptions about Chris Shane’s gender. The point? Gender doesn’t matter! And I love this so much, and I want more books that showcase this in a creative way.

The characters in this book are great. Chris Shane is privileged and naive, and learns throughout the course of the book just how privileged and naive, which is a fun journey to watch. Shane’s partner, Vann, is damaged and dark, the kind of person who clearly needs and craves friendship and love but won’t allow herself to deserve it. But she’s also incredibly cunning, clever, and a damn good FBI agent who is a great teacher to Shane. I loved their partnership and their bantering back and forth as they got to know one another.

As far as the mystery itself goes, that was probably the weakest aspect of the book. It wasn’t a huge shocker who committed the murder and why, and I didn’t feel that the lead up to the big reveal was done with a ton of effort on Scalzi’s part. However, I totally didn’t care. I loved this world, the characters, the snappy dialogue, and Wheaton’s narration was the icing on the cake. I would have followed this story anywhere, so the mystery itself was just running alongside everything else that I was really loving about the book. Overall – I loved it!

Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer

Kane and Abel (Kane and Abel, #1)Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer
Published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks

From the publisher:

Born on the same day near the turn of the century on opposite sides of the world, both men are brought together by fate and the quest of a dream. These two men — ambitious, powerful, ruthless — are locked in a relentless struggle to build an empire, fuelled by their all-consuming hatred. Over 60 years and three generations, through war, marriage, fortune, and disaster, Kane and Abel battle for the success and triumph that only one man can have.

I chose to read this novel at the recommendation of one of my coworkers – it is his favorite book of all time, and when I have the opportunity to discuss books with non-online friends, I get excited. So even though Kane & Abel didn’t sound like my thing, I went for it. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I was expecting to. It also provided for a new way for me to chat with this particular coworker – a person I didn’t even know was a reader before he recommended this book to me.

This book is more a case study on these two men and their individual lives and personalities than anything else. The reader is given an intimate look at both of them, from childhood up until both of their deaths. There are so many moments throughout each of their lives where it is clear that small decisions can have huge implications on a person’s future. Each of them had several fork in the road moments – times when had a different choice been made, so much might have turned out differently. It was interesting to me to read this aspect of the novel specifically, and relate it to my own life.

What was surprising to me about this novel is that it’s huge – almost 600 pages – yet it didn’t feel that way to me as I was reading it. There’s so much detail, so many events that happen throughout the book, that it just flows effortlessly and I never felt like I was bored or bogged down with these men and the minutiae of their lives. In fact, because I spent so much time with this novel, I find myself thinking about it often, even though it’s been quite a while since I finished it. For me, it was just one of those books that stick with you. And it made me want to read more chunksters!

While I enjoyed the experience of reading Kane & Abel quite a bit, it is far from a perfect book. Published in the 1970’s, it shows its age with the various stereotypes tossed throughout the book. Additionally, there is not one major female character of any significance. Kane and Abel’s wives would, I suppose, be the most prominent female characters but they serve merely as decoration to the men whose lives they orbit. And Archer does not treat his female characters with much respect as a whole. That was by far my biggest complaint about the book and did make me roll my eyes in disgust more than once. My other complaint is that I’m not sure I ever fully bought the rivalry between the two men – the passionate hatred they had for one another came across clearly, sure, but I’m not sure I buy the reason for it. Could just be me, though.

While there were a few things about it I didn’t love, overall I was sucked into this huge book and really enjoyed the time I spent with it. I’m not sure I’ll read more of Archer’s books, but he’s got a ton, so if you’re familiar with his work – should I read more of him? And if so, where should I go next?

Mini-reviews – August reads

To say I am woefully behind on sharing with you what I’ve been reading is the understatement of the year. Here it is, November, and I haven’t told you anything about the last three books I read in AUGUST. I’m going to work on remedying that in the next few weeks, as I bombard you all with a bunch of mini-reviews. Here’s my thoughts on the final three books I read in August.

The People in the TreesThe People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Published by Doubleday

From the publisher:

In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. That’s all.

Kidding, that’s not all, but really it’s so darn fantastic, I loved it. There are not one, but TWO unreliable narrators, which is something I happen to love. So many awful things happen in this book – kidnapping and exploitation of native peoples, destruction of their homes and land, intense sexism that made me want to throw this sexist asshole (Norton Perina) off a cliff, and the worst thing in here is one I don’t even want to say because I think it’s a spoiler. But this is a book that is saying something, Yanagihara is the kind of writer I just adore, and all the awful things added up to an incredible book that I truly could not put down. It’s been quite some time since I read this one, but I am still thinking about it. LOVED.

He's GoneHe’s Gone by Deb Caletti
Published by Bantam

From the publisher:

The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.

As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.

I thought I was going to like this one a lot more than I did. What I enjoyed was the deep, introspective look into the marriage between Dani and Ian. What I didn’t enjoy was pretty much everything else. I found Dani somewhat annoying, I thought the book kind of dragged, and I just couldn’t care quite enough about Ian to hope he was alive. Is that awful? Part of the issue might have been that I listened to the audio, and it took me forever, so I think I just wanted the story to be over. In the end, I finished it so I can’t say it was terrible, but maybe okayish is where I fall on He’s Gone.

Eight Hundred GrapesEight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

There are secrets you share, and secrets you hide…

Growing up on her family’s Sonoma vineyard, Georgia Ford learned some important secrets. The secret number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine: eight hundred. The secret ingredient in her mother’s lasagna: chocolate. The secret behind ending a fight: hold hands.

But just a week before her wedding, thirty-year-old Georgia discovers her beloved fiancé has been keeping a secret so explosive, it will change their lives forever.

Georgia does what she’s always done: she returns to the family vineyard, expecting the comfort of her long-married parents, and her brothers, and everything familiar. But it turns out her fiancé is not the only one who’s been keeping secrets…

I was expecting to love this one because, well, because wine, duh. I did enjoy it but not as much as the first of Laura Dave’s novels I read (The First Husband). I tend to appreciate books about a thirtyish woman dealing with something awful and fleeing home to cope, because I know that if something rocked my world in a bad way, I’d fly to Chicago immediately and seek comfort from my mom. So I am totally buying what Dave is selling here. Generally, I enjoyed the family dynamics at play here and Dave did a nice job keeping the people and relationships complex and staying away from stereotypes. I liked the characters and the story worked good. It was a nice read, not the best ever, but good enough and I definitely enjoyed my time spent with the book.

The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks

The Perfect Comeback of Caroline JacobsThe Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by the publisher via SheReads

From the publisher:

Caroline Jacobs is a wimp, someone who specializes in the suffering of tiny indignities in silence. And the big ones, too. But when the twinset wearing president of the local Parent Teacher Organization steps out of line one too many times, Caroline musters the courage to assert herself. With a four-letter word, no less.

Caroline’s outburst has awakened something in her. Not just gumption, but a realization that the roots of her tirade can be traced back to something that happened to her as a teenager, when her best friend very publicly betrayed her. So, with a little bit of bravery, Caroline decides to go back to her home town and tell off her childhood friend. She busts her daughter out of school, and the two set off to deliver the perfect comeback . . . some twenty-five years later. But nothing goes as planned. Long buried secrets rise to the surface, and Caroline finds she has to face much more than one old, bad best friend.

The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is an enchanting novel about the ways in which our childhood experiences reverberate through our lives. It’s the story of a woman looking to fix her life through an act of bravery, and of a mother and daughter learning to understand one another. Deceptively simple and highly engaging, this latest novel by Matthew Dicks is perfect for those of us who were last to be picked at sports, and for everyone who is thrilled not to be in high school any more.

When I learned that Matthew Dicks, author of the much-beloved Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, had a new novel out, I knew I had to read it. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, and I feel that Dicks has a signature style of writing that I appreciate quite a bit, a kind of ease with his dialogue and tenderness with his characters that works for me.

Caroline isn’t the kind of character that readers will love right away. I felt sort of sorry for her, but it took me a bit to actually start to like her. A big part of me just didn’t understand her lack of ability to stand up for herself in any situation in her life, nor did I really understand how she could let one incident that happened in her childhood have such a dramatically negative impact on her, for years to come. It became something that she identified as a critical part of her personality, when in reality, she could have just let the whole thing dissolve in her mind. But she couldn’t let it go, and I had a hard time feeling empathy for that.

However, what makes Dicks such a great author is that he got me to come around to Caroline’s character. He got me to grow to really like her, to root for her, to want her to get the opportunity she so craved to right the wrongs of the past and just get on with her life. By the time the book ends, I not only liked Caroline but deeply cared about her and closed the book feeling like I truly had come to understand her personality.

The most critical part of the novel, for me, was the relationship between Caroline and her daughter, Polly. The two are complete opposite ends of the spectrum personality-wise and have an incredibly strained and difficult relationship. They just don’t get each other, which is something that’s extremely frustrating, disappointing, and heartbreaking to Caroline. When they take this trip together, they have some genuine, authentic conversations and get to know one another on an entirely new level. I loved reading as their relationship progressed from that of two people who were practically strangers to one of mutual respect, love, and on some level, friendship.

Although this novel is slim I felt that Matthew Dicks did a lot within its pages. His characters really grew on me, and I was super happy with how the book ended. The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is sweet, fun, funny, and kept me on my toes. I really liked it and highly recommend the novel!

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