Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelly Rowley


Title: The Ramblers
Author: Aidan Donnelly Rowley
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: February 9, 2016
Source: copy provided for an honest review by the publisher

Summary from Goodreads

Set in the most magical parts of Manhattan—the Upper West Side, Central Park, Greenwich Village—The Ramblers explores the lives of three lost souls, bound together by friendship and family. During the course of one fateful Thanksgiving week, a time when emotions run high and being with family can be a mixed blessing, Rowley’s sharply defined characters explore the moments when decisions are deliberately made, choices accepted, and pasts reconciled.

Clio Marsh, whose bird-watching walks through Central Park are mentioned in New York Magazine, is taking her first tentative steps towards a relationship while also looking back to the secrets of her broken childhood. Her best friend, Smith Anderson, the seemingly-perfect daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest families, organizes the lives of others as her own has fallen apart. And Tate Pennington has returned to the city, heartbroken but determined to move ahead with his artistic dreams.

Rambling through the emotional chaos of their lives, this trio learns to let go of the past, to make room for the future and the uncertainty and promise that it holds. The Ramblers is a love letter to New York City—an accomplished, sumptuous novel about fate, loss, hope, birds, friendship, love, the wonders of the natural world and the mysteries of the human spirit.


My Review:

The Ramblers tickled my fancy to pick up for review because you all know I just looooove a good character-driven, relationship-based drama.  This sounded like exactly the sort of thoughtful contemporary fiction that I'd be into, especially because the 3 protagonists are all in my age range (early- to mid-thirties).  And who doesn't love New York City?

In the end, I have to say I liked The Ramblers, though I can't go so far as to say I adored it.  Let's break down the pros and cons.

Pros: The prose is incredibly perceptive, peppered with insightful observations about self-actualization, the trials and tribulations of romance, and family bonds.  Rowley creates many a gorgeous metaphor between the characters' lives and the book's common plot points (birds, Central Park, photography, etc), so there's no lack of symbolism here.  Thoughtful writing: check.

I also especially enjoyed Clio as a character, along with her handsome Irish suitor, Henry.  (Seriously, if there is someone who is prime candidate for Book Boyfriend of the Year, Henry is IT.)  Clio appeals to me because she comes from humble beginnings and a turbulent childhood, so her now-privileged adulthood comes off as more unpretentious.  Her problems feel tangible, relateable.  I was a big fan of her storyline.

Cons: While the writing is perceptive, it is also incredibly verbose--borderline tedious at times.  The protagonists' long-winded introspections about their lives started to get some eye-rolling from me after a while.  It was too much, and this book could have probably cut at least 20 pages without much trouble.

Also, for as much as I liked Clio's character, I found myself rather turned off by Smith and Tate.  Smith was hard for me to find sympathy towards.  She's been spoiled by her parents for all 34 years of her life, and is now frustrated that she is having trouble getting out from under their millions in order to forge her own path.  Um, boo hoo, I guess?  I can tell that Rowley tried valiantly to write Smith as a down-to-earth woman despite her social status, but it just didn't happen for me.  Her problems felt trite.  As for Tate, he was so aloof and crass at times that I just plain old didn't like him.  As a duo, I was not digging them at all (though I guess it did seem that they deserved each other, in a way).

In the end, The Ramblers is a solid 3-star novel for me.  There's lots to enjoy here, especially the penetrating prose.  However, there are an equal number of downsides that keep this from being a stand-out read.

What's the last character you read that you felt was difficult to relate to, for whatever reason?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Well-Read Runner: Flower City Prep

Hi, running friends!  It's been a bit since my last running update, and I'll admit why: after Winter Warrior, I got lazy.  This is what happens when I don't have a race to train for!  I still ran (and ended up hitting 50 miles for the month of January--significant for me), but my frequency fell way off the rails and the junk food consumption went sky-high.
TRUE STORY.
One thing I did do post-race is start the Yoga Fix 90 program from Fightmaster Yoga on YouTube.  I'm still working through it (I usually only do yoga on days that I don't run, so my 90 days are not consecutive), but this has been SUCH a fun way to keep me pumped about yoga, and I can feel my strength and flexibility increasing!  Lesley Fightmaster (who I am now a total groupie of, LOVE HER) also has a 30 day yoga program for beginners, if you're looking for a lighter intro to the practice.
Scissor leg side crow!  So proud of myself for that one!
Despite my bit of laziness in January, February 1 turned things around as it marked the beginning of training for my next half--the Flower City Half Marathon on April 24.  My original goal was to just have fun with this one, because marathon training will start less than a month after this race and I didn't want to push too hard beforehand.  However, my friend Mandy is also planning to run it (her first half since giving birth to her second daughter last summer), and she said she thinks she can run it at about a 9:00/mile pace, which just HAPPENS to be fast enough to get just under 2 hours, and it might be fun to run with a friend, soooooo...

Yeah, I'm training for a PR again.

I TOLD myself I wouldn't do it this time!  I swore up and down!  Do this race for fun, I said!  Don't push so hard this time, I said!  But do I listen?  No I do not.

I put together a training plan for myself that draws from the lessons I've learned in past races about my limits as far as available time, and mileage.  Mondays are yoga days (though I also usually add yoga in at least 1-2 other days of the week as well).  Tuesday is speed work--I'm using Hal Higdon's intermediate plan for speed work, alternating 400m intervals one week and a tempo run the next.  Speed days are happening on the treadmill because I'm better at regulating my speed on the machine vs. out in the wild.
Post-speed work at the gym with Tater Tot.  It was his first time going to the gym's child care without crying!  Yeah!
Wednesday is hill work.  I've never done dedicated hill days, but Flower City has some nasty ones right around the midway point, and hills have been one of my worst downfalls (see: Mystic Half).  Unfortunately, I live in a super flat area, but the park near my house has one hill in particular that kicks my butt.  It's not super long, but steep enough that it's certainly a challenge for me.  I've been doing a 1 mile warmup (running to the park), followed by a series of hill sprints on that hill (walking down the hill serves as recovery in between), then 1 mile cooldown as I run home.  I started the first week with 4 sprints, thinking 4 sounded like not a lot...HAHA.  Was totally dying by the fourth one.  But at my fastest pace, I got up to 5:23/mile mid-sprint, which I felt pretty darn good about.  Hill sprints suck but I'm hoping they will pay off!
First hill work day was done in SHORTS!  Gotta love El Nino February!
Thursdays are a rest day, then Fridays I do a race pace run.  I'm glad I'm doing these because I am not great at holding a 9:00/mile pace yet during these runs.  The first week my average was 8:42...yup, too fast.  I need to get a better feel for this pace so that it's easier for me to dial in on race day.

Saturday is a rest day, then Sunday long run.  I'm making a conscious effort to throw in hills on the long run (not sprints, just at long run pace).  I often avoided the hills during long runs for Winter Warrior, but I knew the course was flat so I didn't feel bad about it.  Now I know I need to be able to handle a good hill when my legs are already fatigued--so long run hills will help with that.

Honestly, I still have some doubts about my ability to go sub-2 on such a hilly course, but as with Winter Warrior--there ain't no harm in trying.  At the very least, I'm challenging myself by adding in some hill work (new for me), and switching up my training routine is always fun!

I'll keep you posted as training goes on...I'm just happy to be back in a routine again!

What are you training for these days?  Do you have any good recommendations for hill training?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fast Into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow


Title: Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail
Author: Debbie Clarke Moderow
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Source: copy provided for an honest review by the publisher via NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads

At age forty-seven, a mother of two, Debbie Moderow was not your average musher in the Iditarod, but that’s where she found herself when, less than 200 miles from the finish line, her dogs decided they didn’t want to run anymore. After all her preparation, after all the careful management of her team, and after their running so well for over a week, the huskies balked. But the sting of not completing the race after coming so far was nothing compared to the disappointment Moderow felt in having lost touch with her dogs.   

Fast into the Night is the gripping story of Moderow’s journeys along the Iditarod trail with her team of spunky huskies: Taiga and Su, Piney and Creek, Nacho and Zeppy, Juliet and the headstrong leader, Kanga. The first failed attempt crushed Moderow’s confidence, but after reconnecting with her dogs she returned and ventured again to Nome, pushing through injuries,  hallucinations, epic storms, flipped sleds, and clashing personalities, both human and canine. And she prevailed.   Part adventure, part love story, part inquiry into the mystery of the connection between humans and dogs, Fast into the Night is an exquisitely written memoir of a woman, her dogs, and what can happen when someone puts herself in that place between daring and doubt—and soldiers on.


My Review:

This is a different sort of nonfiction for me, considering that I had exactly zero familiarity with the Iditarod before picking it up.  (Well, I knew it was a dog sledding race.  In Alaska.  Probably pretty cold.  That's about it.)  However, I couldn't help giving it a go after reading the description.  Due to my obvious current interest in distance running, I was fascinated by the idea of all the training, preparation, and tenacity required to complete the Iditarod.  Running does not equal dog sledding, but both sports require a high level of athleticism and commitment, so I wanted to know more.

My curiosity was rewarded with an amazing story.  Moderow's two Iditarod journeys make for excellent reading on their own, but she also breaks up the telling of those races with the background on what led her into dog sledding.  From her childhood in Connecticut to her adulthood as a married mom of 2 in Alaska, she has a unique path to Iditarod racing that is full of both hard lessons and inspirational anecdotes.

In addition, my piqued interest in the sport of dog sledding was rewarded with Moderow's detailed accounts of her two Iditarods.  I had no concept of the months (sometimes years) of meticulous planning, the grueling training, and the thousands of dollars required to meet such a challenge head-on.  Not to mention the solid, caring bond that needs to be forged between a musher and his/her dog team--it was amazing to see how Moderow was constantly aware of the needs and quirks of each individual dog.  And Debbie Moderow did this TWICE!  After not finishing the first time!  That blows me away.  You'll certainly leave this book with an appreciation for the sport (and the 2016 Iditarod is in March, so read now and get excited for this year's race--I'm already following updates on Facebook!  Haha).

Fast Into the Night is both a moving memoir and an inspiring tale of strength and endurance, enhanced for me as it also became a learning experience about the world of dog sledding.  This may have been a subject outside of my usual nonfiction fare, but I'm so glad that I took a chance on it!

What's the last nonfiction book you read that taught you about a completely new-to-you subject?

Friday, January 29, 2016

January Minis: From Antarctica to London

Mini-reviews!  They're back!  And both of them are on my 30 Before 35 list, which is pretty exciting.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Little, Brown and Company, 2012
borrowed from the library

This was the book EVERYONE was talking about a couple years ago, which is why I put it on the 30 Before 35 list.  I finally got around to it, and I definitely liked it, though for a lot of unexpected reasons.  This is a unique story, both in subject and perspective.  Short synopsis: Bernadette Fox is mom to middle schooler Bee and wife to a Microsoft exec.  Bernadette was a famous architect back in the day, but is now a bit of a recluse (albeit a spunky one) in their Seattle home.  Bee convinces her parents to take her on a cruise to Antarctica, and shortly before the trip, Bernadette disappears.  Now Bee is trying to track down her Mom, using all the resources she can dream up.

This book is a lot of things.  It's hilarious, for starters.  Bernadette can be off-putting at times, but mostly she had me in stitches.  She's surrounded by snotty, wealthy soccer moms, and she can't stand a bit of their crap.  Bee is equally entertaining, as she's wise beyond her years and has picked up many of her mother's tendencies to swim against the current.  However, the novel also touches on many more serious themes of mental illness, work-family balance, and marital issues...even as it keeps its sense of humor.

The conclusion is fitting without being explosive, and I was left enamored with Bee and Bernadette as a mother-daughter team.  Where'd You Go, Bernadette is nothing that I expected, while still somehow being everything that I wanted...that is probably the corniest thing I've ever written, but that makes it no less true.

Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Knopf, 2005
personal purchase

Fact: Chris Cleave is one of my favorite authors.  Most people know him from Little Bee, but I honestly loved his 2012 release Gold even more.  I bought Incendiary, his debut novel, quite a while ago and finally jumped into it this month.  I am so glad that I did!

Synopsis: the story is told via a series of letters written from an unnamed woman (our protagonist) to Osama bin Laden, after her husband and son are killed in a (fictional) terrorist attack in London.  Yes, an odd premise.  But this almost stream-of-consciousness style is perfect for readers as you move through the story.  After I finished the book, I read that Cleave wrote it in just six weeks, and I find that completely believable.  The writing is furtive, with a sense of urgency that heightens as the book goes on.  The narrator has many psychological issues that make her telling of the story a bit shaky, but we also get a sense that Cleave's fictional London has taken a rather Orwellian turn after the terror attack--leading to a lot of interesting questions about government control, social structure, and morality (especially in the wake of terror threats).  And despite that heavy fare, the book is still peppered with a dark humor that will, at the very least, keep a wry smile on your face.

This is a short novel with an awful lot to say.  Cleave's novel was originally released on what, sadly, was also the same day as the London tube attacks in 2005, making this book especially relevant at the time.  However, as we continue to face terror threats around the globe, I think this makes for fascinating reading.  Incendiary forces you to think more deeply about these problems, beyond threat levels and travel advisories and removing your shoes at the airport.  It's quite a bit different from Little Bee, but I think will give you just as much to discuss when you're done.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Well-Read Runner: SLS3 Run Belt GIVEAWAY!

Howdy, runners!  I don't do a lot of product reviewing on this blog, but you may remember that I've been on the hunt for AGES for a good running belt.

I tried the FlipBelt last spring, and it was an immediate no-go.  The claim that you could wear it hip level and it wouldn't ride up was a total bust for me.  Then, about a month ago I tried a slimmer Nike run belt.  It had two problems: moved around way too much, and it only had 1 pocket.  The 1 pocket fit my phone and my Gu just fine, but because the pocket was so slim, taking the Gu out mid-run left me in serious danger of dropping the phone.  Not a fan.

So, when I was offered the chance to review the SLS3 Dual Pocket Run Belt, I had to say YES, PLEASE.  I am tired of my armband!!  I can't always carry my hydration pack!!  I need another way to carry my phone, nutrition, and extras on the run.

I took the belt out for its first spin on a 5-miler that I did last weekend.  It was cold!:
After my FlipBelt and Nike belt experiences, I wore this one higher at waist level, which I thought would bug me at first (I don't want to feel like I'm wearing a fanny pack!!), but it's slim and blends in with my other black running clothes so I don't feel like it's super obvious.  You could wear it lower if you want, the belt is adjustable in size...I just haven't had much luck wearing stuff at hip-level.  I guess it's just my body type??

I know those pockets look small, but they fit an iPhone with room to spare!

(That's an iPhone 5c in the picture, but I took the photo with my larger iPhone 6s, which fits just fine as well.)
Photo with both pockets (one open, one zipped closed)
On the run, the belt stayed put for the entire 5 miles, and I quickly forgot it was even there.  I was afraid that it would move and bunch up my clothes (especially because I had 2 layers on), but that wasn't an issue at all.  And the two pockets were awesome: I could reach in and grab my phone (which I kept in a pocket by itself) without worrying that I was going to dislodge my key or ID (in the other pocket).

It seems like I've FINALLY found a run belt that is going to work for me.  I'd love to complete my next half wearing this instead my chafe-a-riffic armband.  :)

Want to try one of these bad boys yourself?  SLS3 is offering a free Dual Pocket Run Belt to a lucky runner/reader of my blog.  Just enter using the Rafflecopter below!  If you don't win the giveaway, the belt is currently on crazy-sale via Amazon ($12.90, 57% off the regular price of $29.90!).  Buy it HERE.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

(Disclaimer: I received a free belt for posting this review, but all opinions are mine-oh-mine!)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Twinning (and Giveaway)! Beside Myself by Ann Morgan


Title: Beside Myself
Author: Ann Morgan
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: January 12, 2016
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Beside Myself is a literary thriller about identical twins, Ellie and Helen, who swap places aged six. At first it is just a game, but then Ellie refuses to swap back. Forced into her new identity, Helen develops a host of behavioural problems, delinquency and chronic instability. With their lives diverging sharply, one twin headed for stardom and the other locked in a spiral of addiction and mental illness, how will the deception ever be uncovered? Exploring questions of identity, selfhood, and how other people's expectations affect human behaviour, this novel is as gripping as it is psychologically complex.


My Review:

If you like thrillers, family dramas, and complex psychological mysteries...I have a book for you to read, my friends!

I asked to review Beside Myself because the description intrigued me--haven't we all heard stories about identical twins who try to pull one over on their parents/teachers/friends by swapping identities for a day or two?  I was interested in how Morgan would be able to pull off such a swap for an entire lifetime.  How could you convince the twins' entire family (and me, the reader) that they are able to swap places for that long without anyone knowing?

Not only did Morgan make this entirely believable, but she did so to the point where it was disturbing.  I was devastated and angry for Helen as her sister Ellie slowly usurped every bit of her life: friends, social standing, intelligence, and bright future included.  However, the novel slowly opens up into a much more complicated story that goes beyond Helen's loss of self.  I was worried that this book would eventually become too narrowly focused, but Morgan introduces a whole host of mysterious elements that kept me engaged to the very end.

This book becomes much more than a tale of two estranged sisters.  In the end, you're left grappling with questions about mental illness, identity (how much is genetics, or personality, or environment-based?), and loyalty.

Great twists, beautiful writing, unexpected questions to ponder...this one is a good bet, reader friends!

As always, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  You can also connect with Ann Morgan via Twitter or her website.

GIVEAWAY TIME!!  TLC Book Tours is giving away one copy of Beside Myself to one of my lucky readers.  US/Canada entrants only.  Giveaway ends 1/21/16.  Enter with the Rafflecopter below!


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1st Review of 2016! Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff


Title: Fates and Furies
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: September 15, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.


My Review:

I know I've mostly been doing mini-reviews lately, but I figured my very first book of the year deserved its own post.  Especially when we're talking about a much-hyped book like Fates and Furies!

I'll say from the outset that, while I did enjoy this novel, I was a bit mystified about all the 5-star reviews and "Best Book of 2015" designations that have been tacked onto it.  There was a lot for me to like about Fates and Furies, but I wouldn't really say I loved it.

Number one reason I was into this book: Groff's ability to create wonderfully complex, nuanced characters.  One thing that struck me about both Lotto and Mathilde is that their physical appearances never became entirely clear for me.  While they both regarded each other as physically gorgeous, other characters in the book often described them as awkward and odd-looking, but still beautiful by way of personality or charisma.  As such, I love that my vision of them was shaped more by their personalities than their actual physical traits.  I think this also spoke volumes about their maturation throughout the book.

While Lotto came across is pretty naive and vain across the board, I was struck by the hidden surprises within Mathilde.  For the first half of the book, she is often in the shadows, and I was looking forward to having her mysterious nature unveiled in part two.  Sure enough, she had a lot of secrets to hide, and I loved the unexpected calculating edge to her character.

That said, I think the book didn't reach "amazing" status for me because there wasn't anything terribly unexpected within its pages.  It is an interesting portrait of a marriage, and certainly includes many quotable passages about the subtleties of married life.  But aside from the uniqueness of the two protagonists, I didn't find anything particularly new here.

Is Fates and Furies worth the read?  Absolutely.  Is it going to be on my favorites list for the year?  Questionable.  But I'm still quite happy with it as my choice for first read of 2016!

What are your thoughts on Fates and Furies?  Read any good relationship dramas lately?
 
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