Thursday, June 30, 2016

What I Learned From Dinner: A Love Story

Recently, I read Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstarch.  It had been lauded by some fellow bloggers and I snatched it up when I saw it at our local library. The book itself is a really lovely combination of memoir, cookbook, and meditation on what it means to be a family with a hectic life. Rosenstarch is judgment free and she chronicles her journey from a single woman with a busy career who ate a lot of takeout to a wife and mom of two who cooks dinner for her family every evening. I loved reading along as she tried out beloved family recipes, figured out how to cook on nights when she and her husband both got home late, and dealt with having picky toddler eaters.

While I loved reading the story, the recipes didn't do too much for me. At first this made me frustrated, but then I realized what it meant. Many of the recipes in the book are on the simpler side, like egg dishes or four ways to customize a homemade pizza dough recipe. I finally figured out that the recipes didn't grab me because I had grown as a cook.

I honestly had to push myself to write those words. I'm a cook. I'm someone who cooks (and bakes) for our family most nights. I bring homemade food to parties and events. I make cookies and breads that I made from scratch to people who are sick or going through tough times. But somehow I still have trouble with the concept. I never grew up as one of those kids who helps out in the kitchen. Husband and I got married when I was 20 and D was born not long after that. I cooked because someone had to and my schedule was more forgiving than my husband's.

That's not to say that there haven't been bumps along the way. I will forever laugh at the time when I didn't understand what a clove of garlic was and added an entire bulb to our salad. My lovely husband was doing his best to eat through the pain when I took my first bite, spat it out, and yelled "Why are you eating that?!?"

Now I am comfortable making (or at least trying) almost anything. I tend to shy away from recipes that call for obscure ingredients that I will never use again, but anything else is fair game. I bake homemade bread every week or two and I've made seafood a few times. I've made gnocchi from scratch.

I've made pies with a homemade crust. I have a go-to macaroni and cheese recipe and sometimes I put that delicious cheesy pasta inside of portabella mushroom caps, because I can. 

So I want to thank Jenny Rosenstarch and Dinner: A Love Story for making me realize that I can cook. I might even be a good cook. Just don't look at my disaster of a kitchen after dinner, ok?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review: Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World

We've all been there, fellow parents. We have experienced that moment when we bent over backwards, trying to do the things our kids wanted to do on that particular day. We have let our own to-do lists and priorities fall by the wayside to go to the pool or the movies or cook macaroni and cheese yet again. And then? They complain. Then they ask for even more. And the parental blood starts to boil just a bit (or a lot). How do we teach our kids to be thankful in a world that teaches them to constantly be seeking bigger, better, and more?

Meet Kristen Welch. She is a mother of three children. She and her husband also founded Mercy House, a nonprofit that helps impoverished pregnant women living in Kenya. The disparity between the desperate needs of women she worked with and the unending wants of her own children led her to write this book. She opens the book by recounting the time when she and her husband took back a pair of very expensive boots they had purchased for their ungrateful child (they live in Texas, by the way). They gave that child a choice to either work a difficult and time-consuming task to earn them back or they would be returned. American culture seems to suggest that our children deserve everything that they desire with no need to earn it. We as their parents should be buying them the latest everything and dedicating every moment of our time to drive them to all of their activities. But in Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, Welch suggests a different path.

This is the moment where I should mention that Kristen and her family are Christians and a good amount of what she writes is through the lens of her faith. However, I think that the suggestions that she makes are applicable to families of any religious background. She writes about our impulse to give into our children's desires because it makes our life easier, or we want our children to be successful or included. She challenges readers (and herself) to worry less about making our children happy and more about preparing them for life and its inevitable disappointments. When we center our home lives around our children all the time, we do a disservice to our marriages, our families, and our children's perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

This book is easy to read and there are steps that you can take yourself and with your children at the end of each chapter. In the introduction, Kristen writes that she is not a professional. She still has days herself where she is ungrateful and she is still working with her children each day. But she is on the road to cultivating a family that recognizes the gifts that they have instead of focusing on the desires that are still unfulfilled.

Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World:
How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life's Biggest Yes
By Kristen Welch
Tynedale Momentum January 2016
272 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sunday, June 26, 2016

It's Monday and school's out for the summer!

Hey there, friends! Happy last week of June!

It's been a whirlwind of a week here in the literary house. D has his last day of school on Tuesday. We celebrated appropriately by going to IHOP for breakfast on Wednesday and setting up our little pool in the backyard. Then on Thursday night, we had an end of the school year movie night with How to Train Your Dragon 2. 

This weekend, we celebrated my grandmother's 90th birthday with a big open house at our church. I think we had about a hundred people stop by during the afternoon and there was cake, cookies, and ice cream for everyone! My sister flew in from California for the weekend and my cousin and her husband stayed with us, so we tried to spend lots of good family time together too.

Reading-wise, I finished The Fifth Avenue Artists Society. Then I picked up (and sadly put aside) City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan. But I got back into reading with the short story collection Summer Days and Summer Nights, which is perfect when reading time is limited!

            The Fifth Avenue Artists Society  Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

Next up is More Than This, which has been living on my bookshelves for longer than I care to admit and The Silkworm, book #2 in the Cormoran Strike mystery series.

            More Than This    The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2) 

What are you reading this week?


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Literary Life: Sequels and Series

Two weeks ago, I read The Rose and the Dagger which is the sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn. I enjoyed the sequel as much as the first book. The characters were compelling, the writing moved at a wonderfully breakneck speed, and I was captivated by the story. But it was a rough re-entry. The six months between reading the first book and the second one made lots of details blurry and it took me a few chapters to remember what had happened before and get back in the rhythm of Renee Ahdieh's writing.

So maybe I've learned my lesson. I read The Cuckoo's Calling earlier this month. Then I went to the library and picked up the next one. This way, I will remember everything from the first book that impacts the second. One of my favorite reading memories is when I sped through several Flavia de Luce books all in a row. Some of my most frustrating moments have been while reading books in series when the previous book was published (and read) many years before.

So tell me, bookish friends. How do you deal with sequels and series? Do you read them all in one glorious spree? Do you re-read earlier books before a new release? Or do you just jump in and hope that you remember enough of the previous stories?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Sunday's on the Phone to Monday and Country of Red Azaleas

When Mathilde and Claudio meet at a party, they discover that even two fiercely independent people can be strengthened by family. They marry and Mathilde continues to pursue her dreams of acting, while Claudio runs a record store. They soon have three children: brilliant Natasha, Lucy, whose heart condition could turn into tragedy at any moment, and Carly, who is adopted from China. In addition to the usual joys and trials of raising children, the couple is also responsible for Claudio's sister Jane who is unknown to her nieces because of her violent struggles with mental illness. In short vignettes from differing points of view, we are invited into the inner depths of the Simone family to see just what makes their hearts beat.

It would be simplistic to say that Sunday's on the Phone to Monday is a book about sisters. It is that, but it is also a book about husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, parents and children. Reilly does a masterful job of capturing what it is like to be a young parent as well as the ways that siblings fight with and protect each other. This book is both quirky and heartfelt; sometimes those two things work wonderfully and sometimes it becomes just a bit too much. It would be a great pick for the reader who loves to read about the tragedies and triumphs of family.

Sunday's on the Phone to Monday
By Christine Reilly
Touchstone April 2016
323 pages
Read via Netgalley

Lara and Marija are the best of friends, no matter what. But when their countries of Serbia and Bosnia begin a bitter war, the two women are torn apart. Lara goes to America with a new husband and Marija is determined to report on the atrocities of war from Sarajevo. The friends are able to keep in touch for a while but when Lara loses contact with Marija, she is determined to go back home and find her.

Country of Red Azaleas has been compared to Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan books and I can understand the comparison. Lara and Marija are the kind of friends who will fight bitterly but fight for each other even harder. Lara is a tough character to follow, though. She is mostly able to escape the war that rages in her homeland. She marries, works as a professor, has a child, and has the luxury of having an affair while her friends and family are in a war zone. Even when Lara finds out what has happened to Marija, the terrors she experienced seem removed from Lara's life (and by extension, ours). But I'm glad that this novel gives voice to two nations and a war that I think are often ignored by history.

Country of Red Azaleas
By Domnica Radulescu
Twelve April 2016
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's Monday and I'm a little behind today!

Hey everyone! It's Monday afternoon and I'm finally here!

We had one of those good and hectic weekends. I worked late on Friday and picked up the boy from a sleepover on Saturday morning, Then we all went to the birthday party of our nephew Saturday afternoon and spent Sunday at church and the afternoon/evening celebrating Father's Day with my husband and dad.

I have still been reading, of course. It is good for this lady's mental health to find some quiet time every day to read a few chapters. I finished Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World and then read What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. Currently, I'm reading The Fifth Avenue Artists Society and am looking forward to tackling Stewart O'Nan's City of Secrets next.

What are you reading this week?


Friday, June 17, 2016

Review: Shotgun Lovesongs

When their friend Kip gets married, Hank, Leland, and Ronny come together to celebrate. But things have changed since the boys were inseparable in childhood. Kip left their hometown of Little Wing, Wisconsin to trade commodities and returned unsure of his future. Hank never left and farms the land his father farmed before him, as he makes a life with his wife Beth and their children. Leland is now a famous musician with the money and groupies to go with it. But he finds himself longing for the simplicity of home. Ronny was a rising star on the rodeo circuit until an accident took away his chance at success and forever changed him. The reunion between the friends will force them to discover if things can ever really go back to the way they were, when their futures were bright and friendship was taken for granted.

I feel like I've read many books like this, but the difference here is that the characters (and author) are male. Of course, much to the chagrin of male-only book clubs everywhere, this doesn't mean that the heart of the story is much different. These are still people trying to find a place to call home, a job that fulfills them, and friends and family who will always be there for them.

Nickolas Butler does a wonderful job of writing place. Little Wing, Wisconsin seems like a town you could actually visit and see the miles of farmland, stare up at the deserted mill towering over the town, and have a beer at the VFW. This is apparently because Butler based it on his own experiences growing up alongside his friends in the small town of Eau Claire.

Shotgun Lovesongs is a book about going to your best friend's house for dinner, taking your girlfriend to see the town where you grew up, and watching a sunrise with the people who know you best. Henry, Kip, Ronny, and Leland learn that adult relationships are hard: they take a level of care and commitment that the friendships of our youth never did. As the characters look for the places and people that mean home for them, the reader feels like they are home too.

Shotgun Lovesongs
Nickolas Butler
Thomas Dunne Books March 2014
320 pages
From my shelves

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Midyear Thoughts

As we move from sweater and boots to suntan lotion and swimsuits, I suddenly realize that we are halfway through this year. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what has been happening on the blog in the past six months and what I hope will happen in the second half of 2016!

What's Happened So Far:

I Read More Than I Reviewed
When I started blogging, I thought I had to write about every single book that I read. After all, I started this blog so I could remember the stories I loved years later. As of today, I have read 57 books this year. I've only reviewed 33 of them. Now it is true that most of the books I reviewed in January were ones I read in 2015. It's also true that I have several books that I have already read and plan to review in the next few weeks. But I've definitely learned that I don't need to review every book. Sometimes I just don't have anything new to add to the conversation. If the thought of writing instead of starting a new book makes me grumpy, it's time to move on!

My Goodreads Ratings are Crazy High
There's a good reason for that. I stopped reading books I wasn't enjoying. That means that almost every book gets three or more stars when I mark them finished on Goodreads. It also means that my reviews on my blog will almost always be positive. Life is too short to read books you don't like!

Changes with the Little Readers
D used to love to write reviews for the books he picked up from the library. These days, as he is completing the last days of second grade, he is less eager to talk about the books he is reading. The exception, though, is that D loves to read on our Kindle. If I get some books for review from Netgalley, he is more than willing to read them and will sometimes review them too!

Thoughts for the Rest of 2016:

Blog Design
I would love to have a new blog design. I don't know too much about designing though, so I guess I either need to teach myself or start researching some good designers!

Blogger Meet-Up
I haven't been able to go to BEA yet, but I would love to meet up with some fellow book bloggers who live in New Jersey, or even New York or Pennsylvania. Any takers?

Different Kinds of Posts
I rather enjoy writing book reviews. I want to remember what I liked or didn't like about the books I read. But I realize that book reviews are usually duds as conversation starters. There isn't much to say other than "I really liked this too!" or "I'm excited to read this book soon." But when you write a post that invites discussion, like this one about your love for a series fizzling out or why we read short stories, you might find that people have a lot to say!

What have you learned so far in 2016, book bloggers? What are you looking forward to in the rest of this year?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Alias Grace and Maine

In July of 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy were brutally murdered. Two of Kinnear's servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were apprehended fleeing through the United States. Grace insisted that she had no memory of the day of the murder and went with McDermott because she feared for her own life. The press and the prosecution in the murder trial insisted she was complicit in the whole thing. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood imagines what might have really happened with Grace Marks and one of the most notorious murder cases in Canadian history.

Alias Grace is a novel that requires the reader to commit. Atwood leaves no stone unturned, as she imagines what her protagonist may or may not have done. A lot of the novel is concerned with the small moments of one woman's life, as she grows up, tries to care for her family, and learns her place as a servant in a rich household. Grace is a woman without agency; a woman whose life is controlled by her father, her boss, her jailers, the judge who presides over her case, and then by Doctor Jordan, a man who tries to discover if she is crazy or criminal. This book seems like an amalgamation of so many genres: it's a mystery, historical fiction, and an examination of what has changed and what remains the same when it comes to our expectations for women. Like all of Atwood's books that I have read, I'm sure that there are layers and layers to uncover for the book lover who embarks on a re-read.

Alias Grace
By Margaret Atwood
Anchor October 1997
468 pages
From my shelves

Maine is both a place of beauty and wonder and a place that is taken for granted by the Kelleher family. Ever since patriarch Daniel won a plot of land on the beach, the family has descended each summer to swim, lie on the sand, enjoy each other's company, and drive their relatives crazy. This year, things will be a little different. Grandmother Alice is a bit lost after the death of her husband and considering what should happen to the summer house when she's gone. Her daughter-in-law Ann Marie is coming to look after Alice due to a misplaced sense of duty. She would much rather dream about winning first place in an upcoming dollhouse competition or finally having a romantic moment with her neighbor. Granddaughter Maggie is pregnant, but she hasn't told anyone yet (including her own mother).

Sullivan excels at showing women in very different stages in their lives: Maggie is a bit reckless because she hasn't yet experienced consequences. Ann Marie bends over backwards to please the others in her life, neglecting her own happiness in the process. Alice has had decades of hiding her pain behind appearances, doing good deeds, and a good drink or five. She is finally at the point of not caring anymore what her children, grandchildren, or anyone else thinks of her.

I've seen several readers say that they were deceived by the cover and expected a fun, light beach read. Maine is certainly not that book. The anger has been simmering for years in the Kelleher household and each of the women do some really mean or stupid things during this story. This is not the book for you if you hope that everyone makes the logical choice or that every character will be likable. But our understanding of each woman builds as the author effortlessly dips into each woman's perspective of their past and their present and this story will certainly make you think about (or be thankful for) your own family.

By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf June 2011
388 pages
From my shelves

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Monday. Who else loved the Tony Awards?

This week has been sponsored by tissues and honey. I'm not sure if allergies are just crazy with the constantly changing weather or we are lovingly sharing a family cold, but it's been a sniffly, coughy few days around here.

We are still, of course, able to get joy out of things like our sandbox (the kids), reading (the kids are loving Geronimo Stilton and Redwall and you can see my picks below), and watching the Tony Awards on Sunday night!

What have I been reading? I'm glad you asked. The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to last year's hit The Wrath and the Dawn. I was excited to read it as soon as my hold came in from the library! I also read Shotgun Lovesongs, which I picked up from the $5 table at Barnes and Noble a while back. It's a great story and I really enjoyed it.

        The Rose & the Dagger (The Wrath & the Dawn, #2)   Shotgun Lovesongs

This week, I'm reading about how we can raise kids who are grateful in a world that tells them to constantly ask for more. After that, I'm going to finally read What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

          Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life's Biggest Yes  What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

What are you reading this week?


Friday, June 10, 2016

Why In The Night Garden is an Important Book

A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up a picture book as a part of our weekly library book stack. Once we got it home and read it, both BG and I fell head over heels for In the Night Garden. While this book is perfect for any time, it is an especially good choice for bedtime with its dreamy feel.

The illustrations by Elizabeth Sayles are beautiful throughout this book and I love that the story features three girls of different ethnicities without making it the focal point of the book. But my favorite thing about this story is the way that these girls are unashamedly loud and free to run and jump. Each of the girls imitates an animal. One growls like a bear, one swims through her evening bath like a whale, and one imagines that she is a sled dog running through the snow.

Our culture expects little girls to be quiet and cute while allowing little boys to run wild and free. Our daughters need more books where they are encouraged to be loud, to run, and to play. In the Night Garden and other stories like it should be frequent visitors for storytime in all of our homes.

Do you have a favorite book that encourages girls (or all children) to be wild and loud?

In the Night Garden

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

In Everyone Brave is Forgiven, we meet three London residents at the beginning of World War II. Alastair Heath has signed up to fight and is going through basic training. His best friend and roommate Tom Shaw stays in London to ensure the future of English schoolchildren. Mary North enlists to spite her wealthy family, with the expectation that she will become a glamorous spy. Instead, she is assigned to the education department and becomes a teacher. Their lives will intertwine in unexpected ways in the rubble of the London Blitz and on the battle-worn island of Malta.

Chris Cleave excels at bringing the major and the minor moments and concerns into the same story. Obviously, this is a story about the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians. Mary and Tom and Alastair have to grapple with what it means to be a good person (and if it's even worth it to be one) when death is indiscriminately everywhere. When most of London's children are sent to the countryside, Mary fights to teach the students left behind. This gives her new insight into what it means to be seen as a less desirable person, as the children left behind are the ones who are disabled or aren't white. It was interesting and disturbing to see how the people in Mary's life reacted to her teaching and becoming invested in the lives of these unwanted children. Mary is perhaps the character who develops the most throughout this book. She starts as a girl looking to defy her parents and be seen as glamorous as she assists the war effort. But we see her slowly realize just how to care for others and put them before herself.

We see the terror and heartbreak of war in moments both big and small; Allistar has almost made it back to base with a fellow soldier when his companion steps on landmine and Mary is distraught as she sits in a schoolroom that should be full of children and realizes that they have been robbed of both their education and their childhood. This story is incredibly tense throughout. I had moments of real fear for all three of the main characters, which defies everything we think we know about novels.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is both incredibly specific and stunningly universal. How do we as humans continue to live when our world is literally falling down around us? Do we risk ourselves for others or try to stay safe? Where is the time to have a breakdown and grieve your losses when another raid or battle is just hours away? What is left of ourselves and our countries after the war is over?

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
By Chris Cleave
Simon and Schuster May 2016
432 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sunday, June 5, 2016

It's Monday and we're not sick anymore (I hope)

Hey ladies and gents! How are you doing?

It's been a rough few days around here. The week was going as might be expected until Friday. That afternoon, I cut my work day short because a certain toddler got a nasty stomach bug and fever. I don't think anyone got much sleep that night. Saturday was mostly spent with a sleepy little girl on my chest. By Sunday morning, everyone seemed ok so we went to church and then helped my dad pack up some books since the seminary he teaches at is moving to a new campus.

This week, I read The Cuckoo's Calling, Dinner: A Love Story, and Sunday's On The Phone To Monday. Up next on my toppling stack of books are The Rose and the Dagger and a book from my shelves that I haven't picked yet!

What are you reading this week?


Friday, June 3, 2016

May Wrap-Up and What I'm Into

June has arrived, so they tell me. May passed by in a blur of crazy schedules and lots of visits from friends and family and celebrations of birthdays and Mother's Day. I am hopeful for a quieter sort of summer, although life is pretty good at throwing curveballs.

D has a few more weeks of school, but we are already starting a slow transition to summer. Most mornings, BG and I walk him to the bus stop and then return home to play outside for an hour or two before it gets too hot. She got a sandbox for her birthday and it is very adored. We may even set up the little pool in the backyard this weekend if it doesn't rain...

What I Read/Reviewed:
This month, I reviewed seven books on my blog. One was nonfiction and six were novels. I read two library books, four books for review, and one from my own shelves.


                  Alice and Oliver    Tales of Accidental Genius    A Tyranny of Petticoats
    The Girl From Everywhere    Excellent Daughters    Be Safe, I Love You    Hanging Mary

My favorites from this month were Tales of Accidental Genius and Be Safe, I Love You.          

Favorite posts:

I had fun rounding up our favorite non-traditional princess stories and started a new series that suggests one kid's book and one adult book to read together! 

What I've Been Watching:

We are almost done with our rewatch of The West Wing. We are back to watching Orphan Black and Royal Pains. The first episode of Outlander this season was ok, but we haven't watched any farther yet. Is anyone current on this season? How is it? 

What I've Been Cooking/Baking: 

Blueberry Cupcakes from Martha Stewart (for a certain little girl's birthday)

Blueberry Cupcakes

When the warmer weather strikes, we are all about simple salads and recipes for the grill. We recently enjoyed these Greek Chicken Kebabs from Mel's Kitchen Cafe and made a Raspberry Chicken Salad. The salad has a spinach base. Add raspberries, chopped walnuts, and grilled chicken that sat in dijon and honey marinade for a while. Blend 1 cup raspberries with 1/4 cup of the marinade to make dressing. Then dig in! 

What were you into during the month of May?

Grab button for What I'm Into

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review: All of Us and Everything

The Rockwell Family has never been what you might call peaceful. Augusta has always told her daughters that their father was absent because he was a spy. The girls deal with their absent father in different ways: Esme tried to create the traditional family she never experienced, Liv flits from husband to husband, and Ru wrote their family story into a novel for everyone to read and then fled the country. When Hurricane Sandy batters their home, the family comes back together to see if their home is salvageable. While the storm destroyed, it also brought long-buried family secrets to life. The discoveries they make will either bring them back together or break them apart forever.

I chose to read this particular book at least in part because the story revolved around Hurricane Sandy. I live in New Jersey and remember being without power after the storm for several days. A tree fell through the living room of the house where we used to live. We took blankets and food and water to drop off points in the community where my husband grew up, because entire blocks of houses were demolished. While I hoped that All of Us and Everything might spend substantial time on the storm and its aftermath, it functions as more of an inciting incident than an ongoing part of the plot.

At times, the characters feel a bit like types. We meet Esme's daughter Atty, who is endlessly sarcastic and always tweeting about what is going on. Middle daughter Liv is both endlessly in search of a new wealthy husband and her next drink.  Jessamine, the devoted housemaid is so neglected by the Rockwells that they completely miss when her husband dies. There were moments when I wanted some more nuance from the characters.

All of Us and Everything is a quirky book. The characters seem like they would be equally at home in a Wes Anderson movie. If you look for some taxidermy and a good old fashioned spy caper along with your family drama, this would be a great pick!

All of Us and Everything
By Bridget Asher
Bantam November 2015
352 pages
From publisher for She Reads Book Club