Friday, October 7, 2016

The Brady Bunch Gone Bad in Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

My Review:

Add it to the "best of 2016" list!  Commonwealth left me enthralled from page 1.  If you've enjoyed Ann Patchett's books in the past (Bel Canto left an impression on me, making her newest novel sound all the more attractive), or if you just love a good family saga, this is your next read.

The family structure here is a bit more complex than "Brady Bunch gone bad," but I couldn't help thinking of America's favorite blended family as I read about the Keating/Cousins kids, who are pretty much the antithesis of the beloved Bradys.  The fateful christening party mentioned in the book's description is the dynamite that blows this family in so many different directions.  Patchett shows you this initial explosion, and then gives you a glimpse of how this affected each member of the family over the subsequent decades.  The story is rich with regrets and guilt that will leave you wondering--what would have happened if Bert and Beverly never met on that first day?  Would it have been for the better, or the worse?

If I had to pick one thing that makes this novel stand out, it's the fluidity as Patchett transitions between characters.  There are SO many family members in the Keating/Cousins clan that it does, admittedly, get confusing at times.  However, this made it all the more impressive that the narrative was able to move from one person to the next without requiring a designated chapter for each character (or even a page break, in many cases).  The story lasts just long enough with each family member that your interest never falters, and you end up with a captivating drama that spans generations.

I can't express enough goodness about this book!  Five stars, must read, go go go.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Ann Patchett on her website and Twitter.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Title: Be Frank With Me
Author: Julia Claiborne Johnson
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: September 6, 2016
Source: copy received via a giveaway at Book Hooked Blog--I was then asked for an honest review through HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, but now she’s writing her first book in decades and to ensure timely completion her publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress.

When Alice Whitley arrives she’s put to work as a companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric son, who has the wit of Noël Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders. The longer she spends with the Bannings, the more Alice becomes obsessed with two questions: Who is Frank’s father? And will Mimi ever finish that book?

Full of countless only-in-Hollywood moments, Be Frank With Me is a heartwarming story of a mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who is pulled into their unforgettable world.

My Review:

I went into this book without knowing very much (thanks to my penchant for not often reading full book descriptions), but it made the blog rounds rather favorably when the hardcover came out.  I kept it on my radar, then won a copy from Julie at Book Hooked, and was prompted to move it up my to-read list when TLC ran it on tour.  I am so glad that I kicked myself into reading it sooner rather than later.  This is such a fun gem of a book, and certainly a standout debut for Johnson.

The eponymous protagonist of the novel, Frank, is absolutely the best element of this story.  While he is never given any sort of official diagnosis, I made the conjecture that Frank is somewhere on the autism spectrum.  Alice, the narrator, has quite a job ahead of her when she is thrown into Frank's rigidly-ruled world.  However, despite his penchant for monotone diatribes and precise ways of doing things, Frank comes with his own brand of humor that is made even better by his relationship with Alice.  Watching the two of them grow together in the book is both entertaining and heartwarming.

Johnson has managed to bring the perfect mix to this novel: it's emotional, yet fun.  Wise, yet lighthearted.  I haven't read anything quite like it.  If you're looking for a swift-moving story with unique characters that has a little bit of everything, Be Frank With Me is a sure bet.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Julia Claiborne Johnson on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

September Reads: Generation Chef, and new Herman Koch

In between all the craziness going on around my house this month, I've actually still managed to READ!  Here's the latest and greatest from 'round these parts lately:

Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner
Avery Books, 2016
copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Hey, remember how I love foodie nonfiction?  Yeah, you probably forgot, because it's been so long since I reviewed any!  But when Generation Chef was offered up to me for review, I absolutely could not resist.  Journalist Karen Stabiner shadowed up-and-coming New York City chef Jonah Miller as he embarked upon his life's dream: opening a restaurant of his own.  As Miller opened the door to his restaurant (Huertas), Stabiner bore witness to everything: the bureaucratic frustrations of real estate, investors, and liquor licenses; the continual management of both kitchen and service employees; the painstaking balance between making a menu that's true to the chef, and one that gets people in the door.  I was fully impressed by the depth of detail that she was able to include--this is one of those nonfiction books that almost reads like fiction, because so much emotion is embedded in the text.
The book stands out for another reason: Stabiner takes the story beyond Miller's journey with Huertas, and weaves in the journeys of other, more seasoned chefs, and how they did (or did not) find success.  All of these side stories compliment the central narrative perfectly, without taking away from the flow of the book.
Generation Chef will amaze you (with Miller's persistence and drive), amuse you (there's a fair amount of restaurant-style humor included), and make you incredibly hungry.  Seriously, if I didn't live 7 hours from NYC, I'd be at Huertas right now ordering nonstop pintxos.  Foodies and nonfiction fans alike will love this read!

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch
Hogarth, 2016
copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

I am doing a bang-up terrible job of turning down ARCs lately, especially those from authors that I've enjoyed in the past.  I know Herman Koch's The Dinner was not for everyone, but I was a huge fan, and Summer House With Swimming Pool worked equally well for me.  I couldn't wait to see what Koch had in store with this latest release, Dear Mr. M, which deals with the disappearance of a high school teacher after he has an affair with one of his students.
Since this is a mini review, the short version is that I did not enjoy this one as much as Koch's other two novels.  It started off in typical Koch fashion: narrator is a creepy, possibly psychotic?, stalker-type, and the constant flashbacks make the storyline continuously more mysterious.  However, about halfway through the book, the narration switches to the girl who had the affair with her teacher, and Koch lost me.  Her story was too drawn out and lacked the suspense of the earlier section.  By the time we switched to other, more engaging narrators, it was hard for me to jump back on board and enjoy the (admittedly twisty) conclusion.  This one definitely had a whiff of the Herman Koch I remember from his first two books, but didn't pack the same punch.

What are you reading this month?

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Been A Long Road...(4 Seasons Challenge is DONE!)

Well, you've been hearing about it since I signed up on October 1 of last year, so here it is: the FINAL phase of the Rochester 4 Seasons Challenge.  IT IS DONE!  And my leg didn't fall off!
4 Seasons mega medal!  The 4 squares are each medal I earned during the year, held together with the final piece in the middle.
For those that are just joining us, the 4SC is a challenge for runners in the Rochester area: to run the 4 Rochester half marathons in 1 calendar year.  January, April, July, and September.  All was well for me until right before the 3rd one (in July), when I started having some leg pain that ended up being a calf strain.  I was originally supposed to run the full marathon instead of the half this September, but because of the strain I pulled back to the 13.1 distance...but then still had to take almost 8 weeks off running to heal it.

Okay, you're all caught up!  The final race was the MVP Rochester half marathon yesterday (9/18).  Let's break this into 2 parts: recap, and lessons learned.

I went into the race having zero idea what to expect.  My husband was wondering when I might finish, and I gave him a range of 2:15 to 3:00.  When you haven't run for 8 weeks, it's real hard to guesstimate your time, even if you've run the distance many times before!

I ran 2 miles on Friday before the race, and that was the first time since the diagnosis that I had no pain while running, so fingers were crossed for a good race.

And guess what--NO PAIN!  I did the entire 13.1 miles with zero calf pain.  It was truly amazing.
Taken around mile 6.  No calf pain, but the struggle still got real there for a bit
So that was the good news, no calf pain.  The bad news is that everything else had it's own special brand of pain...haha.  Have you ever seen that running shirt that says "Everything Hurts and I'm Dying"?  Yes, that was my hamstrings/knees/right foot.  Again--I totally DO NOT recommend running 13.1 miles if you haven't run at all in 8 weeks!  But I was determined to complete this darn thing.

I started out feeling superhero-amazing (as one does at the start of a half), but around  mile 6 is when I felt how out of practice I was.  I started to get down on myself, and then mentally punched myself in the face.  Why am I getting upset about time??  I didn't even fully train for this race!!  Just have fun!  Stop worrying and enjoy yourself!

So that's what I did.  The Rochester half had a huge course change last year, so it was all new to me, and it's BEAUTIFUL!  It brings you through scenic parts of Rochester that I never even knew existed.  So it was easy to cruise through the race and enjoy the sights.  I stopped for pictures, took lots of selfies (texting my husband and friends along the way), walked when I needed to, high fived every little kid I could find.  It was a great time.
Selfie with a waterfall!  Totally necessary!
Favorite race story: this course is incredibly HILLY, and I decided early on to walk most of them, since I knew my lack of training would cause them to completely wipe me out.  However, while walking one I spotted a race photographer 3/4 of the way up the hill.  Crap, no one wants a race photo of themselves walking!  So I kicked myself into a run as best as I could.  As soon as I passed the photog, I walked and yelled, "I did that for you!  I hope you got it!"  He laughed and assured me he did.  Can't wait for that pic.  :)

My husband and kiddos were near the finish line, and when I got there, Small Fry jumped over to run the last .1 with me, which was the total highlight of the day.  I was so wrapped up in holding his hand across the finish that I didn't look at my time!  I found out later that it was 2:23:17, only 2 minutes slower than my slowest half (which was also my first, a total hot mess).  I'll take it!

Lessons Learned!
I was very excited for this 4 Seasons Challenge when I first signed up for it, but now that it's over, I have to say I took even more away from it than I originally expected.  I thought this would be a great way to test my running abilities and keep myself in shape all year long.  Yes, those things happened, but there was much more as well.

1. I learned what I want to do as a runner, vs what I think everyone else thinks I should do.
As I was training for the second race, I realized I hated the regimented speedwork and constant pace-pushing required to hit my then-goal time of under 2:00.  Furthermore, I realized I was only doing that because I felt like it was the next logical step for me--my PR is 2:05, shouldn't I break 2:00?  But then I thought, why?  If this doesn't make me happy, then why do it?  I started running more for the distance than the speed, and immediately started enjoying running more.  A simple but valuable lesson--if you love something, do it the way YOU want to, not the way you think others want you to!

2. I was forced to think of my fitness more holistically.
After getting so wrapped up in half marathon training the last few years, I think I lost sight of my larger fitness goals.  I was just running, running, running all the time.  And when that was taken away from me (with my injury), it was like I lost part of my identity.  I was totally depressed and had no idea what to do with myself.  Then I started trying new fitness areas: biking, swimming, group fitness classes, etc. and slowly realized that those were fun in their own ways too.  By the time the injury healed, I was thinking maybe...maybe?...I could do more than just run.  What a novel concept!  But a bright side of the injury is that it really forced me to look at my fitness goals beyond the next road race.

3. I'm tougher than I think.
My husband said to me after the race that he was so proud of me for completing 4SC, for a variety of reasons, but one was because I could have bowed out at any time when I hit obstacles to my training, but I never did, the whole year.  And he is right.  The opportunity to quit was always there, but I never took it.  I'm pretty proud of that, and those are exactly the sorts of lessons I hope my kids learn when they see me do stuff like this!

I could go on, but I think you probably want this post to end eventually.  The bottom line is that 4SC was an amazing experience for me.  Would I do it again?  Ummmm...get back to me about that.  But even if I move on to other challenges, I don't at all regret taking this one on!

Monday, September 12, 2016

It's time to Do Your Om Thing with Rebecca Pacheco

Title: Do Your Om Thing
Author: Rebecca Pacheco
Publisher: Harper Wave
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In Do Your Om Thing, master yoga teacher and creator of the popular blog Rebecca Pacheco shows us that the true practice of yoga is about much more than achieving the perfect headstand or withstanding an hour-long class in a room heated to 100 degrees. "Yoga is not about performance," she tells us, "it's about practice, on your mat and in your life. If you want to get better at anything what should you do? Practice. Confidence, compassion, awareness, joy—if you want more of these—and who doesn't?—yoga offers the skills to practice them."

In her warm, personal, and often hilarious prose, Rebecca translates yogic philosophy for its twenty-first-century devotees, making ancient principles and philosophy feel accessible, relatable, and genuinely rooted in the world in which we live today. And by illuminating how the guiding principles of yoga apply to our modern lives, Rebecca shows us that the true power of a yoga practice is not physical transformation, but mental and spiritual liberation.

My Review:

Yogis, take note!  I loved this book, and I bet many other amateur yogis out there will too.  I read it at the perfect point in my yoga journey.  I've been practicing the physical aspect of yoga (asana) for almost a year now, and while that started as a way for me to cross-train with running and gain flexibility, I've now gotten to the point where I am interested in yoga in and of itself.  You hear bits and pieces about the background and philosophy of yoga in classes, but I have not yet had an instructor who really goes in-depth with any of it.  Plus, I'll be honest--some of it just sounded way too crunchy-granola for me, so I wasn't sure where to begin.

If you find you're in a similar spot with yoga, Do Your Om Thing is for you.  Pacheco leads you through all the ins and outs of yoga philosophy, with a down-to-earth voice that is totally NOT too crunchy-granola. :) The book is easy to follow, and she writes with such wisdom and clarity that I found myself wanting to head right to the mat and put my new knowledge to work.  I never thought I'd say this, but after reading the book, I'm even dying to try meditation (one part of yoga that I've always felt is beyond the abilities of my million-thoughts-at-once brain).  Honestly, there were parts of this book that felt meditative while reading them--I found Pacheco's writing to be thoughtful and calming, a perfect fit for this subject matter.

Do Your Om Thing is not strictly a yoga manual--Pacheco will make you think deeply about how you approach your self, your work, and your relationships within the framework of yoga tradition.  If you're a beginner yogi, I can't say enough good things about it!  If you're ready to learn more about yoga than how to get into Crow Pose, pick up this book ASAP.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Rebecca Pacheco on her websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (Giveaway!)

Title: The Girls in the Garden
Author: Lisa Jewell
Publisher: Atria
Publication Date: June 7, 2016  (originally published in 2015 as The Girls)
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Imagine that you live on a picturesque communal garden square, an oasis in urban London where your children run free, in and out of other people’s houses. You’ve known your neighbors for years and you trust them. Implicitly. You think your children are safe. But are they really? 

On a midsummer night, as a festive neighborhood party is taking place, preteen Pip discovers her thirteen-year-old sister Grace lying unconscious and bloody in a hidden corner of a lush rose garden. What really happened to her? And who is responsible?

Dark secrets, a devastating mystery, and the games both children and adults play all swirl together in this gripping novel, packed with utterly believable characters and page-turning suspense.

My Review:

If you want a thriller that you can gobble up quickly, I can't recommend The Girls in the Garden enough.  This is a fairly short read, but it moves along quickly and throws so many red herrings at you along the way that you definitely won't feel like you're being shortchanged!

Normally I find that mystery novels with too many suspicious characters begin to feel implausible after a while (could ALL of these people be THIS shady?  Really?!).  However, Jewell finds a way to cast doubt upon nearly every person in the book, while still keeping your interest (and your faith in the story).  You may decide early on that you know who the culprit is, but even if you're correct, you won't be disappointed because you'll have taken so many interesting segues along the way.

I also think that Jewell has really nailed the angst and confusion of 13-year-old-girl life here.  Several of the main characters are in that age range, and much of the story hinges upon the quest for maturity and self-understanding that comes along with that stage of development.  Having been a 13 year old girl once (albeit many moons ago...), many of the struggles the characters faced rang true for me, which made for an even more engaging reading experience.

The Girls in the Garden isn't going to overwhelm you with extraneous detail and long-winded diatribes.  Compared to many other thrillers, it's rather concise and to the point.  But the writing is solid, the characters are fleshed out just enough to keep your attention, and the mystery at the heart of the novel will certainly make you want to devour it as fast as possible.

As always, much thanks to Lisa at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Lisa Jewell on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

GIVEAWAY TIME!  TLC Book Tours is running a giveaway for 5 copies of this book, open for entry until October 3, 2016.  Enter using the Rafflecopter below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, August 22, 2016

More Mini Reviews with Boston Bound and The Fireman

Guess what starts today, my friends?  My first day of my first semester as a college student (well, round 3 after my bachelors and masters degrees).  :)  As such, I expect my pleasure reading time to diminish significantly, but I do have 2 more mini reviews to share with you as I enter this drought period.  Unless you want me to review my Sports Management textbook...?

Boston Bound by Elizabeth Clor
Createspace, 2016
personal purchase

I encountered Elizabeth Clor's recently-released memoir via her Instagram page, and was immediately intrigued.  Elizabeth started road racing in 2005, and has since run 20 marathons (as well as countless other races at shorter distances).  She began her marathon career at the mid-pack with the rest of us average Joes, but after years of hard work and persistence, she started to realize that a Boston Marathon qualifying time was in her reach.  However, the time between her first inclination towards that dream and its realization was SEVEN years.  Elizabeth knew she was capable physically, but anxiety and a host of other mental barriers stood in her way.  Boston Bound is the story of how she overcame them to earn her BQ (she finally ran it this year!).
I ended up giving this one a 3 on Goodreads.  There's no doubt that Elizabeth's story is inspirational, especially for those of us that are "hobby" runners, training in between jobs and families and everyday life.  Plus, as someone who deals with many of my own anxiety issues, I made note of a lot of the strategies that Clor used to realize her dream.  Running is about 90% mental for me, so I relate to that struggle!  That said, the reason I gave a 3 instead of a higher rating was because of the writing.  Clor's formatting doesn't give her story a solid flow, and her race recaps eventually started to sound repetitive.  Her takeaway advice is excellent, but the journey for readers to get there is a bit clunky.  Plus, she relies heavily on past blog posts from her running blog (Racing Stripes), which ends up making the whole book feel like a long blog entry--not really the tone I was wanting from a memoir/nonfiction book.
Overall, runners will like this one, as it certainly has a lot of inspirational material!  It's just not the most well-written running book that I've encountered lately.

The Fireman by Joe Hill
William Morrow, 2016
borrowed from the library

Oh, I have so many feelings about this book.  Let's start with the good thing: the creative post-apocalyptic world that Joe Hill has created.  Basically, a spore called Dragonscale has infected humans, and the people infected are spontaneously combusting into flames.  So there's fire and mayhem and just overall good, end-of-the-world chaos.  This premise alone was reason enough for me to pick up the book, and Hill certainly delivers as far as interesting sci-fi-ish plots go.  I absolutely expected to love this novel.
BUT (and you knew there was a but).  I had two serious issues with the The Fireman.  First was Harper, the protagonist.  I felt like Hill was trying to make her too many things at once.  She's cutesy and naive and loves Mary Poppins, but then she's swearing like a sailor and unfazed by carnage and violence at the same time.  I wanted to be like, PICK A SIDE, DUDE.  I am all for complicated characters, but in 747 pages I never felt like Harper came together.  Second issue was that this book is trying way, way too hard to draw off Stephen King's The Stand.  Which is awfully interesting, considering that Joe Hill is King's son but has (in the past) gone to great lengths to hide it.  But in The Fireman, we have a deaf character named Nick, a main character who is pregnant and has the middle name Frances (goes by Frannie...), and all sorts of little Easter eggs referencing other aspects of King's work.  I'm surprised SK didn't read this and be all, "Get your own apocalypse epic, sonny-boy."  This, paired with the fact that Hill constantly references Harry Potter (seriously, so many JK Rowling references, let's give it a rest), the Rolling Stones, and other aspects of popular culture, makes this book feel like it is not at all his own creation.
A longer review than I intended, but I 3-starred this one.  It had promise, and despite the length of the book it moves along at a brisk clip.  However, in the end I was disappointed with how Hill put the pieces together.

What are you reading these days, reader friends?  I will add your suggestions to my list for after the semester ends!  :)
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