Friday, January 30, 2015

Giveaway Time! The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle


Title: The Last Breath
Author: Kimberly Belle
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Source: review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Humanitarian aid worker Gia Andrews chases disasters around the globe for a living. It's the perfect lifestyle to keep her far away from her own personal ground zero. Sixteen years ago, Gia's father was imprisoned for brutally killing her stepmother. Now he's come home to die of cancer, and she's responsible for his care—and coming to terms with his guilt. 

Gia reluctantly resumes the role of daughter to the town's most infamous murderer, a part complete with protesters on the lawn and death threats that are turning tragedy into front-page news. Returning to life in small-town Tennessee involves rebuilding relationships that distance and turmoil have strained, though finding an emotional anchor in the attractive hometown bartender is certainly helping Gia cope. 

As the past unravels before her, Gia will find herself torn between the stories that her family, their friends and neighbors, and even her long-departed stepmother have believed to be real all these years. But in the end, the truth—and all the lies that came before—may have deadlier consequences than she could have ever anticipated.


My Review:

This book was most definitely a step outside the comfort zone for me.  I do enjoy a good thriller, but The Last Breath also has lotsa lotsa burnin' hot romance.  And Lord knows, I am usually not one for a romance novel.  Just not my thing.  However, I gotta say, this time it worked for me.  The Last Breath is the perfect murder mystery-slash-love story for a snowy winter's day, and I've certainly got my fair share of those this time of year.

Part of why I was able to suspend my usual disdain for swoony romance elements is because the central mystery of the book is so compelling.  The novel opens with the murder of Gia's stepmother (with the culprit left untold, of course), so my interest went sky-high immediately.  Belle does a great job of shifting your suspicions throughout the novel, and in the end, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out who really dunnit.  Definitely not predictable, and not annoyingly far-fetched (arguably the two worst ways a mystery can end).  Also, you've got to love the small-town drama that occurs throughout this novel.  While it could be a little overdone at times, I thought many of Gia's interactions with the nosy townsfolk were hilarious.

Is this a mystery novel of the highest literary echelons?  No.  As I mentioned before, the romance aspects were expectedly fluffy and not my favorite (REALLY, how many times can Gia and Jake get it on?  Like while she's dealing with her two absent siblings and the return of her imprisoned father and the mystery of who killed her stepmom?  REALLY?).  Plus, I had a hard time believing Gia's bad-ass stories of working in humanitarian aid when held up against her personality as illustrated in the rest of the book.  However, her relationship with Jake was cute and provided a bit of levity to the rest of the situation (plus an interesting twist), so I was able to forgive it.

Overall, The Last Breath is a perfect choice if you want a cozy mystery, and added bonus if you do enjoy romance novels.  Because I'm sure Jake is somebody's ideal book boyfriend (even if he's not mine).  :)

Giveaway time, friends!

I have a (gently used) copy of The Last Breath to give away to one of my lucky readers.  (US/Canada only please.)  Just fill out the Rafflecopter below by February 6 for your chance to win!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Salon #1: Running and Reading

Happy weekend, friends!  Instead of the Sunday Post meme, I'm switching over to Sunday Salon, which from what I can tell is a bit more fluid and widely-known.  Not that many of you care.  This is more an explanation for my non-blogger readers who may be unfamiliar with both (but also may not care).  :)

ANYWAY, this particular Sunday I am hangin' out in my jammies with my menfolk.  I was supposed to be taking a day trip to visit a friend, but icy road conditions have left me stranded.  So pancake breakfast and PJ snuggles it is!

Speaking of icy, it occurred to me that I never posted here about my latest running adventures--and while not book-related, I do like to mention them from time to time, as my half marathon post got such a positive response last September.  On January 10, I participated in the Winter Warrior half marathon relay with my friend Amanda and her husband.  The race started at 4pm and it was a balmy -5 degrees with the wind chill.  I only had to run two 2.6 mile legs of the race, but do you know what it feels like to run 5.2 miles in a -5 degree wind?  Please enjoy this really attractive picture of me trying to get feeling back into my toes in between my two legs of the race:

That said, we actually had a really great time, and I have plans to run the entire 13.1 miles on my own in the same race next year.  Woohoo!

I also just signed up for my second half marathon--yes, redemption after my less-than-ideal first half will be mine!  I'll be doing the first inaugural Mystic Half Marathon near my hometown turf in Mystic, CT on May 31.  Training starts in early March, and I can't wait.  It is going to be awesome to do this race in the area where I grew up!

Okay then, enough about running.  Let's talk books!  After a week of overabundant reading options, I managed to finish The Girl on the Train and The Last Breath.  Still working on Moby Dick here and there.  Just starting Dead Wake, I did pick up The Book of Unknown Americans from the library, and I also have One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis that I need to start for a February book tour.  So, still lots of reading happening over here these days!  These snowy conditions sure do help by making me want to stay inside and read.

Alrighty, back to my family time.  Enjoy your Sunday, readers!  What are you up to today?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Believe the Hype! The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


Title: The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: January 13, 2015
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?


My Review:

It's only partway through January, and already I feel like this book has more hype than any novel can handle in 2015.  ERRRR-BODY is reading The Girl on the Train right now, people!  I had a credit on my Amazon account and couldn't help jumping on the bandwagon for this one, because yes--it gets compared to Gone Girl pretty much non-stop.  Check the reviews on Goodreads--almost every single reviewer mentions it.

I don't like to write a review that constantly compares the book in question to a previous read...but I'm going to do it anyway here, because my reading experience was absolutely influenced by the fact that so many people made the Gone Girl comparison.

There are, admittedly, a lot of similarities.  If you liked the unreliable narrators in Gone Girl, you get a bonus in Girl on the Train, because there's three of them.  And they are all kinds of batsh*t crazy.  One is a massively insecure, unemployed, raging alcoholic.  Another is a woman with a mysterious past who has recently gone missing.  And then you have the housewife whose constant paranoia leaves every one of her chapters thick with anxiety.  Yup, if you want a story where you're never sure who's telling the truth, then winner winner chicken dinner right here.  Plus, none of the narrators are quite what they seem--your interpretation of these three very different women is guaranteed to change by the time you reach the end.

The other big similarity?  The suspense.  Once you get going with this novel, you better clear your schedule.  The narrators weave quite a spectacular tale, and once you get wrapped up in it, you'll whip through chapters wanting to know what's next.  I FLEW through this book, and I don't fly through a lot of books these days.  The story is dark, sinister, and twisted in many ways, and will leave you with the same sort of unsettled feeling that you probably got from that Gillian Flynn novel.**

I will say that one significant difference for me was in the ending.  At the end of Gone Girl, I felt like the ending was perfection--not just the actual events involved, but the tone as well.  (I know not everyone agrees with me on this, NOTED.)  The Girl on the Train was different.  I saw the conclusion coming a lot sooner than I wanted to--I had figured out the "whodunit" quite a while before the book got around to revealing it, which was a little disappointing.  And I found the culprit's frank demeanor about the whole situation to be rather odd.

That said, I wouldn't say the ending ruined the novel for me as a whole.  The suspense in this book really can't be beat, and that alone makes the reading experience worth it.  Plus, despite being a little predictable for me, I will say the ending keeps with the dark nature of the rest of the book, so it felt fitting even if it wasn't especially surprising.

Final verdict: despite feeling so-so about the ending, I think the hype around this book is well-deserved.  If you want a truly engrossing read, get yourself on that 138-person wait list for The Girl on the Train at your local library, like ASAP.

Who's read this highly-hyped novel already?  What did you think (no spoilers please!)?  If you haven't read it, do you think you'll be giving in to the hype and trying it anytime soon?

**Without giving spoilers, I would like to mention that the death of a young child plays a role in this book.  It is not gory, but it was difficult for me to read when I came upon it unexpectedly, and I felt it would be helpful to include this trigger warning for other readers.

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's Monday, and what am I NOT reading?


Hello, reader friends!  A quick post today, as it's been a busy (but fun) weekend around here with my menfolk.  We celebrated the fact that we live in Rochester and it snows every.single.day. by going to the local Winter Fest yesterday, and I think we are all tired out!  Small Fry has discovered a deep love of sledding, and my husband and I have the sore arms from toting his sled up and down the hill to prove it.  My husband also has the day off today, so we are enjoying a little extra family time on this long weekend.

As for what I'm reading these days...my nightstand is about to fall over from the weight, people!  Here's what's going:

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I've been in the midst of this since mid-December.  I like to slow-read my classics.  I'm about halfway through.  Some parts are, admittedly, sleep-inducing, but the majority of it is pretty good.  I'm keeping notes for a future review.  It will likely definitely include at least one mention of the Hartford Whalers.

2, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I heard through the blogger grapevine that this has the potential to be "the Gone Girl of 2015".  If that is not true, people (AHEM, Jennifer) need to choose their words more carefully.  Because I think we all know the best way to get me to drop everything and read something is to compare it to Gone Girl.  My verdict is still out, but stay tuned.

3. The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle

Reading this for a book tour at the end of the month.  A little more romantical than what I usually choose, but I'm still enjoying the mystery and intrigue of it so far.

Also on my nightstand but not started yet...
1. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

I have an ARC of this one and I am SO EXCITED to get started on it soon!

2. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Picked it up from the library because I've heard nothing but good things...it's due back in 2 weeks...I'm sure I'll get to it, right?

3. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Not physically on my nightstand yet, but my book club just chose it as our next pick, so I've got a hold in for it at the library.

Reading is out of control right now, friends!  But the great thing is, these are all excellent books so far.  Too many excellent books is NEVER a bad thing.

What are you reading this week?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Beware the Cookie Aisle! Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss


Title: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author: Michael Moss
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

In the spring of 1999 the heads of the world’s largest processed food companies—from Coca-Cola to Nabisco—gathered at Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis for a secret meeting. On the agenda: the emerging epidemic of obesity, and what to do about it.
 
Increasingly, the salt-, sugar-, and fat-laden foods these companies produced were being linked to obesity, and a concerned Kraft executive took the stage to issue a warning: There would be a day of reckoning unless changes were made. This executive then launched into a damning PowerPoint presentation—114 slides in all—making the case that processed food companies could not afford to sit by, idle, as children grew sick and class-action lawyers lurked. To deny the problem, he said, is to court disaster.
 
When he was done, the most powerful person in the room—the CEO of General Mills—stood up to speak, clearly annoyed. And by the time he sat down, the meeting was over.
 
Since that day, with the industry in pursuit of its win-at-all-costs strategy, the situation has only grown more dire. Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.
 
In Salt Sugar Fat, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Michael Moss shows how we got here. Featuring examples from some of the most recognizable (and profitable) companies and brands of the last half century—including Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, NestlĂ©, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun, and many more—Moss’s explosive, empowering narrative is grounded in meticulous, often eye-opening research.
 
Moss takes us inside the labs where food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of sugary beverages or enhance the “mouthfeel” of fat by manipulating its chemical structure. He unearths marketing campaigns designed—in a technique adapted from tobacco companies—to redirect concerns about the health risks of their products: Dial back on one ingredient, pump up the other two, and tout the new line as “fat-free” or “low-salt.” He talks to concerned executives who confess that they could never produce truly healthy alternatives to their products even if serious regulation became a reality. Simply put: The industry itself would cease to exist without salt, sugar, and fat. Just as millions of “heavy users”—as the companies refer to their most ardent customers—are addicted to this seductive trio, so too are the companies that peddle them. You will never look at a nutrition label the same way again.


My Review:

The other night at book club, I told one of the other moms (hi, Abby!) that I was planning to review this book soon.  She was interested, but expressed disdain at the overwhelming amount of information out there about how bad our food is these days.  I had to agree.  Every time you turn around, there's another news article or viral Facebook post telling you to cut back on food additives, or sugar, or carbs, or whatever.  As much as I want to eat healthier (and feed my family better food), it can all be a bit much.

(And the fact is, Small Fry just isn't going to live life without Goldfish, even if I have no desire to know what gives them that lovely orange hue.)

However--I do love books like this one in moderation (maybe once a year or so?) in order to remind myself of some basic principles to get my eating back in order.  For example, I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food in 2009, and spent the rest of that year trying to eat more vegetables and good fats as a result (if you like the Mediterranean diet, you MUST read that book. Yum). Last year, I read Pooja Mottl's The 3-Day Reset, and started trying to lower my sugar consumption.  Do books like this make me avoid processed foods entirely?  No, but I think I benefit from a little kick in the pants once in a while.

Enter Salt Sugar Fat.  I heard great things about this expose of the processed food industry back when it was first released, and given my resolution to eat better this year, it was high time for some food reading.  Despite the subtitle on this book, I wouldn't necessarily say that it's a war cry against the processed food industry.  Actually, the increasing consumption of salt, sugar, and fat seems to be based on a vicious cycle between what the public wants and what the food companies can profitably (for them) provide.  America wants more convenience foods?  The food companies gave it to them, but with lots of unhealthy ingredients to increase shelf life and make them palatable.  Now Americans are obese and need healthier food?  Some food companies do, in fact, want to provide that--but as soon as salt/sugar/fat levels in the food are lowered, taste is compromised, and the companies can't make money off a bland-tasting product.  So back to salt, sugar, and fat we go.

That's not to say that the food companies shouldn't be held largely responsible.  They created America's cravings for unhealthy foods, and they are doing little to reverse them.  (Not to mention, they are working hard to bring those cravings to other countries.)  In fact, they keep doing research to find out how to make us MORE addicted to their stuff.  But one of the most interesting things about this book was the interplay between what Americans want, and what the companies feel pressured to provide.  Many of Moss's interviewees were former industry employees who had tried to enact healthy change in their companies, but in the end, they were nearly always thwarted by the bottom line--companies are going to offer the things that sell.  And what sells is salt, sugar, and fat.

Moss also delves into the science behind our addictions to these three ingredients, which was super fascinating.  Between the revelations about the food industry and the biological details of our dependence on salt, sugar and fat, my first trip to the grocery store after reading this book felt like doing battle.  "I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO DO THERE WITH THAT PRODUCT PLACEMENT, GROCERY FIENDS!  Take your 'all natural' claims and shove 'em!"  But really, this is all good information to have if you want to be a more conscious and empowered shopper.

While the level of detail might be a bit overwhelming (towards the end, I was getting a little bored with the financial info about the food companies), this is an extremely well-researched look at processed foods, and a great way to start off your new year if you're looking to become an educated eater.

Confess it, readers: what's your greatest processed food weakness?  Mine is Oreos.  OREOS ALL DAY.  Bonus if they're the holiday White Fudge ones.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Time for Some Fun: The Book Blogger Memory Challenge!

Hello, reader friends!  Today, I'm stealing a bit of bookish fun that I saw over at Words for Worms (thanks, Katie!).  She stole it from Sarah at Sarah Says Read though, so all's fair.

Sarah has created a Book Blogger Memory Challenge.  You read the items below and fill in your answers with NO Googling, Goodreads searching, etc.  First thought into your head.  Jump in, even if you're not a blogger!

Without further ado...
1. My first thought was Michael Crichton, so I'll go with Jurassic Park.  (Related, am I the only one whose 10-year-old self is SO EXCITED for the new Jurassic Park movie?!?!?)

2.  Hmmmm, I don't read a lot of books about dragons!  I kind of cheated on this one.  I thought that the Lord of the Rings novels sounded like they might have dragons on the cover (I read them a very, VERY long time ago and can't remember much about them at all).  Google provided me with a cover for The Hobbit that fits the bill!


3. Gotta go with Curious George by Margaret and H.A. Rey.  You can thank Small Fry for that one since we read it ERR-DAY.

4. Winger by Andrew Smith.  Waiting for me on my shelf at home, hoping to read it soon!

5. His Illegal Self by Peter Carey.  I read this several years ago and didn't particularly love it, but it is partially set in Queensland.

6. A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve.  Possibly my least favorite Shreve novel!

7. Chop Chop by Simon Wroe.  Another one on the TBR!

8. The One & Only by Emily Giffin.

9. Dracula by Bram Stoker.  Yet another that is waiting to be read on my shelf...

10. Gone Girl.  That was a gimme!

What are your first thoughts on these, readers?

Monday, January 12, 2015

First 2015 book...OY VEY. The Divorce Diet by Ellen Hawley


Title: The Divorce Diet
Author: Ellen Hawley
Publisher: Kensington
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Abigail loves her baby Rosie, her husband Thad, and food. She takes great joy and comfort in concocting culinary delights to show the depth of her love and commitment to her family. Imagine her surprise when Thad announces, this whole marriage thing just doesn't work for me. Abigail can't believe he really means what he's said, but he does. Abigail and Rosie move back in to her parents house, where she regresses into her adolescent self. She diets, finds work, and begins to discover the life she really wants, and a man who really wants her.

My Review:

A little bit of chick lit to start off the year!  I wanted something lighthearted to kick off 2015, and this new release from Ellen Hawley seemed like just the ticket.  Because it's like FOODIE chick lit!  And we all know how I feel about food books!  WOOT WOOT!  Everybody get your elastic-waist pants on and let's do this!

...

However.

Peeps, this book just did not work for me.

(I know, bummer way to begin the new year!  Sigh.)

Let's start with the format.  The book begins with "Day 1", the day Thad tells Abigail he is leaving her.  Day 1 opens as Abigail decides to go on a diet.  She begins reading a diet book that she recently acquired, and tries to follow the advice within.  As such, each day/chapter in the book is formatted like the diet book, as she has a section for Snack, Exercise, Dinner, etc.  This gets increasingly fluid as the chaos in Abigail's life increases, because she never actually goes on the diet once Thad announces his intentions for divorce.  Okay, so question one: why does the book continue to keep this diet book format, even though Abigail never actually goes on a diet?  By the halfway point of the book, this format became highly annoying and pointless.  At the end, I wondered why the author chose to continue this format through the entire novel, because it felt like an idea that was cute at the beginning, but completely unconnected to Abigail's life by the end.  (In fact, when Abigail weighs herself at the end, it seems to convey that the diet was never really significant to her happiness to begin with--so again, why keep the diet book format?)

Beyond the format, I also had some issues with Abigail's narrative.  There is very little dialogue from other characters in the book.  Abigail generally gives her side of the conversation, but rarely fills in the dialogue of the people she is speaking with.  This is insanely annoying, especially at crucial moments (like when Thad breaks up with her--the whole crux of the book!!) because you never get a well-rounded look at the story.  I felt entirely disconnected from Abigail's problems for much of the novel, largely because it took me so long to understand why Thad broke it off with her.  This could have been easily explained in the very first chapter, if only the narrative was structured differently.  This was a pattern throughout the book (I felt similarly about her relationship with her parents, because you so rarely ever hear them speak), and made the connections between characters feel extremely flat and one-sided.

Final complaint (with a tiny bit of a spoiler)...I was exasperated by (or as the kids say, SMH at) one of the eventual job offers that Abigail receives.  She spends much of the novel putting together a poorly-worded resume...makes fliers for a home business that are written as if a third-grader made them...can't figure out the computer system at her waitressing job...but then suddenly, miraculously, it turns out she can write a pithy, hilarious, well-crafted cooking column for a magazine?
I know, I'm really lacing into the book here, but the GIF was too appropriate to not happen.
I cannot get behind that.  The Dude does not abide.

I'm done with the lacerating review, I promise.  At it's heart, this book has a good story.  I know it.  I just don't think it was given the best opportunity to shine.

Even though this book was not a win for me, much thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me (even though I will likely not be used for publicity purposes here, which I'd say...is quite understandable).
Hey, don't just take my word for it.  The Divorce Diet has 4 stars on Goodreads, so there must be many that disagree with me!  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Ellen Hawley on her blog, website, and Twitter.

 
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