Monday, September 30, 2013

Happy Monday, readers!

Hope everyone had a lovely weekend!  What are you reading today?
My weekend was a bit hectic, but a good one.  As a final (free!) birthday gift, my dear husband took Small Fry for Saturday morning and I spent it at the library...alone...reading and lurking through the shelves.  (Since we just moved here, I am well within my rights to do a fair amount of lurking as I get to know my new library.)  It was awesome!  I rarely get more than 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading at a time these days, so having 3 whole hours was a real treat.

Otherwise, it's been lots more unpacking, sorting, and trips to Home Depot as we settle into the house.  But it's nice to be done with moving trucks and just be busy putting everything in its place now.

(On a related note, can someone please tell my husband that there is no such thing as having "too many books"?!?!?!?)  :-P

Sooooo, what am I reading today?

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Yes, this is one of my 30 before 35 books...there's nothing like a little challenge to get me motivated to read something that's been on my TBR for ages!  I have been dying to read this ever since I finished Flynn's Gone Girl, and (about halfway through) I am not feeling disappointed.  It's a completely different subject than Gone Girl, but still with the dark and unsettling notes that I remember from that novel.  I probably won't wait long to jump into Flynn's other novel, Dark Places.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

I was very very excited to FINALLY see this download to my Kindle at midnight on the 24th!  I started King's latest over the weekend, and even though I'm not too far in yet, I am already super happy with how it picks up from The Shining.  I expected a bigger time lapse between the end of The Shining and the beginning of Doctor Sleep, but Danny is actually still just a boy as the story commences.
I am taking part in the #SleepAlong (a Doctor Sleep read-along), hosted by Charlene at Cheap Thrills and Tif at Tif Talks Books.  It starts TODAY and goes through October 21.  If you want in, check out either of their blogs ASAP!

What will I read next?
I am excited to have an ARC of Wally Lamb's We Are Water up for review at the end of October, and I will probably get it started pretty soon.  Other possibles are The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok and Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.

What's in your reading plans this week, friends?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Help for the Haunted by John Searles

Title:  Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: September 17, 2013
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

It begins with a call in the middle of snowy February evening. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation, helping "haunted souls" find peace. And yet, something in Sylvie senses that this call is different than the rest, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church's red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep only to wake to the sound of gunfire.

Nearly a year later, we meet Sylvie again struggling with the loss of her parents, and living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened the previous winter.

As the story moves back and forth in time, through the years leading up to the crime and the months following, the ever inquisitive and tender-hearted Sylvie pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night, as she comes to terms with her family's past and uncovers secrets that have haunted them for years.

My Review:

It's nearly October, and for me, that means at least some of my reading selections have to get me in the mood for Halloween.  I love a good thriller, mystery, or horror book from time to time, but they're never better than this time of year.  BOO!

Help for the Haunted certainly fits the bill.  Ghosts plus murder mystery = can't go wrong for the season.  Paranormal is not generally my thing, but I like how Searles handled it in this novel.  Ghosts and spirits are not the main point here: Sylvie's quest to understand her parents and their deaths is.  The world of the paranormal that they worked within provides a creepy background ambiance that makes this a little different than your normal mystery or coming-of-age story.

For me, the best thing about this novel was Sylvie herself.  She is an excellent narrator: in her early teens, she is often working just as hard to figure herself out as she is trying to find out what happened to her parents.  As a result, sometimes she comes off as precocious and whip-smart; other times, she makes mistakes typical of any middle-school girl.  The balance in her character is what makes her believable and relatable.  I loved watching her grow emotionally throughout the novel.  I also enjoyed the changes I saw in her parents' characters--especially because, for most of the novel, they are deceased and only described to you through Sylvie's recollections.  My impression of them changed completely as I read, and I love that Searles was able to make them morph so much (even after their deaths) as the story progressed.

The story/mystery itself is also good, though overall, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by the time I reached the end.  Obviously this was not because of Sylvie or the narration...and it wasn't the ending itself, which I found to be pleasantly unpredictable (a total must for mysteries, in my eyes).  It may have been the pacing.  I felt like some parts of the novel were unnecessarily drawn out, which pulled me away from the story at times.  Then something great would happen to pull me back in, but those moments of standing still were enough to make me feel a bit "eh" by the whole thing at the end.

So, my final verdict: excellent plot balance and characterization!  Unpredictable mystery!  Ghosts for Halloween!  But, at the end I wasn't bowled over.  I wish things had moved a little more smoothly, because the slower pacing took my head out of the story too many times, and left me with an overall impression at the end that didn't allow me to love it.  This may be more of a personal preference though, so if you're looking for a book that combines mystery and solid characters, this could be a good one to try out (especially this time of year)...

Much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with John Searles on Twitter or see the book trailer HERE.

Have you read any books lately that left you with that "eh" feeling at the end?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Go shorty, IT'S MAH BIRFDAY.

Let's celebrate, readers!  Today marks the end of my third decade on this glorious Earth, and the beginning of my fourth.  That's right, it's my birthday, and I'm turning the big 3-0.  HUZZAH!

I have never been one to fear "big" birthday milestones, this one included.  I'd like to think that I packed an awful lot into the last decade.  Graduated college, met/dated/married my husband, got my first (two) real jobs, earned a masters degree, hiked a bunch of mountains, traveled to over 10 different countries, ran a 15k, bought a house, got a dog, had a kid, sold the house and bought another one, and now am nearly ready to pop out another baby.  And those are just the highlights.  If anything, 30 is a celebration of all that awesomeness, plus a mark of anticipation for what's to come.  BRING YOUR A-GAME, THIRTY.
Me and Husband on my 24th birthday, 6 years ago.  So young.  So carefree.  So weird.
In honor of this most momentous of birthdays, I decided to challenge myself and compile a list: 30 books to read before I'm 35.  However, when I started making the list, I quickly realized that there were more than 30 books that I really, really want to read sometime in the next few years.  Actually, there were 53 on the original list.  I kept cutting it down, until finally I got it to 40, and decided that DAMMIT, I am 30 years old, I can break a rule here or there.

So now the list is:

30 Books To Read Before I Turn 35
(plus 10 more, because I'm 30 and I DO WHAT I WANT)

This list might seem odd to you in parts, but it's a mix of classics (which I am always trying to read when I have the time), books that have been on my TBR forever for whatever reason, and more popular recent books that I am dying to read but just never made the time for.  So, without further ado!

The World According to Garp by John Irving
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
1776 by David McCullough
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Paper Moon by Joe David Brown
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackaray
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
anything by Agatha Christie (never read one!)
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Ulysses by James Joyce
Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Macbeth by Shakespeare
Columbine by Dave Cullen
Jordan Freeman Was My Friend by Richard White
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Bag of Bones by Stephen King
The Odyssey by Homer
Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
Incendiary by Chris Cleave
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Dinner by Herman Koch
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Dracula by Bram Stoker

I will keep the blog updated with any reviews I do of these novels along the way.  Make sure you cheer me on...5 years goes by in a blink, and when I walk into a library I get easily distracted by well-made book displays.

What do you think of the list, friends?  Anything I should have added?  And what's your take on big birthday milestones: fearsome or fantastic?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: Expecting Better by Emily Oster

Title: Expecting Better
Author: Emily Oster
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: August 20, 2013
Source: copy received from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Pregnancy is full of rules. Pregnant women are often treated as if they were children, given long lists of items to avoid—alcohol, caffeine, sushi— without any real explanation from their doctors about why. They hear frightening and contradictory myths about everything from weight gain to sleeping on your back to bed rest from friends and  pregnancy books. Award-winning economist Emily Oster believes there is a better way. In Expecting Better, Oster shows that the information given to pregnant women is sometimes wrong and almost always oversimplified, and she debunks a host of standard recommendations on everything from drinking to fetal testing.

When Oster was expecting her first child, she felt powerless to make the right decisions for her pregnancy. How doctors think and what patients need are two very different things. So Oster drew on her own experience and went in search of the real facts about pregnancy using an economist’s tools. Economics is not just a study of finance. It’s the science of determining value and making informed decisions. To make a good decision, you need to understand the information available to you and to know what it means to you as an individual.

Take alcohol. We all know that Americans are cautious about drinking during pregnancy. Official recommendations call for abstinence. But Oster argues that the medical research doesn’t support this; the vast majority of studies show no impact from an occasional drink. The few studies that do condemn light drinking are deeply flawed, including one in which the light drinkers were also heavy cocaine users.

Expecting Better overturns standard recommendations for alcohol, caffeine, sushi, bed rest, and induction while putting in context the blanket guidelines for fetal testing, weight gain, risks of pregnancy over the age of thirty-five, and nausea, among others.

Oster offers the real-world advice one would never get at the doctor’s office. Knowing that the health of your baby is paramount, readers can know more and worry less. Having the numbers is a tremendous relief—and so is the occasional glass of wine.

This groundbreaking guidebook is as fascinating as it is practical.

My Review:

Apologies in advance for the limited potential audience for this review book, readers.  However, when I first heard about this new release from Emily Oster (mostly through countless emails/texts from my friends that said "This is YOUR pregnancy book!"), I knew I had to read it ASAP.

Pregnant ladies, throw away your copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting, because Expecting Better is...better.

When I was pregnant with Small Fry, I often found myself frustrated with the advice in traditional pregnancy books.  WTEWYE, in my opinion, is basically a user's manual for everything that can potentially go wrong in your pregnancy--and often with no true indication of how likely/unlikely that is.  Others are somewhat better (my personal favorite was Your Pregnancy Week By Week), but still included annoyingly specific pregnancy diets (does anyone actually follow those?) and week-by-week ranges for how much weight you should have gained (spoiler alert: I was always (ALWAYS) heavier than the recommended range...woo, ego boost!).

Doctor's advice can help to counter the confusing info in these books, but is often just as difficult to interpret.  I remember asking my OB if I needed to avoid hot dogs due to listeria risk during pregnancy.  Her answer: "Well, in all my time as an OB, I've only seen one woman get listeria during pregnancy, so I think you are fine to eat them."  This cleared up nothing for me.  How long has she been practicing?  (Am I her 10th patient and that one listeria case happened last week?)  Did that one patient get listeria from hot dogs, or from something else?  I ended up avoiding them completely, much to my ballpark-frank-loving dissatisfaction.

Okay, so given all that, let's talk about Expecting Better.  If you want to really know the whys for all those pregnancy rules, this is YOUR pregnancy book.  Emily Oster is an economist, and approached her pregnancy with an economist's view of the rules.  So if her doctor told her that she couldn't drink alcohol--she wanted to know why.  She went into all the medical studies surrounding the topic, gathered the findings, and helpfully compiled them here for you to read.  She does NOT rewrite the rules, or tell you what you should/shouldn't be doing during your pregnancy.  Instead, she presents you with the scientific findings for each question, and it is then up to you, as the babymaker, to use those findings to make informed decisions.

Oster covers a long list of topics here: alcohol/caffeine/smoking during pregnancy, the foods that are most likely to include a listeria risk (not what you would think), the true risks involved with sleeping on your right side/left side/back, proper amounts of exercise, pros/cons of an episiotomy, etc.

Admittedly, some parts can get a little dry (this is a compilation of scientific studies, after all), but I learned more from this book than I did from every other pregnancy guide combined.  I feel like a smarter, more informed baby-baker.  Does this mean I'm going against all of my doctor's advice because of what Oster wrote?  No.  But it does mean that I can ask smarter questions when I'm having discussions with her during appointments, and can advocate more clearly for myself in various labor situations.  For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

It is true that Oster has been slaughtered a bit in the media for going against the "traditional" pregnancy advice in some areas.  For example, her research on drinking during pregnancy shows that a few drinks in moderation do not have negative effects on the fetus--definitely NOT what your doctor usually tells you.  However, as I said earlier, the thing I like about this book is that Oster is not telling you to drink.  She's putting the facts on your radar, and then it's your job to use that information to make your own decisions.  I'd like to think I'm an intelligent person, and as such, I appreciate the fact that this book empowers me to use that intelligence in my pregnancy decision-making.

I think it's safe to say that every pregnant (or hopes-to-be-pregnant) woman should read this book.  It will give you a better understanding of your pregnancy, and allow you to make better decisions for your baby--who doesn't want that?

What's your favorite pregnancy "manual"?  And if you're not interested in pregnancy or being pregnant, tell me something awesome about penguins, or something.  Haha...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

BANNED! Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World
Publication Date: March 1966
Source: won in a giveaway from

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Flowers for Algernon  is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie's intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance--until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?

My Review:

As promised, today I am reviewing Flowers for Algernon in honor of Banned Book Week!  Sheila over at Book Journey hosts a Banned Book Week event each year, and last year it was one of the first blog "events" that I participated in after I opened up shop here.  I loved reviewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey last year, and I knew I wanted to jump on the "banned" wagon again this time around.

Lucky for me, I won a giveaway from Shannon @ Giraffe Days during last year's celebrations, and I got a copy of Flowers for Algernon as a result.  So what better time to put it to use??

Anyway: the book.  The one word that kept ringing in my head as I read it was "heartbreaking".  Even in Charlie's happiest of times, I was filled with sadness either by the way others were treating him, or by the dread of what I knew was to come.  Much of the emotional nature of this novel is a direct result of the perspective that is used.  The entire story is told through Charlie's personal diary entries, so you get the full effect of his intellectual and emotional changes throughout the novel.

It feels overly obvious for me to point this out, but the book is also heartbreaking in the way that it illustrates the treatment of people who are mentally disabled.  Charlie begins the novel with an IQ of 70, before skyrocketing upwards on the intelligence scales, past even what his doctors had predicted.  This may sound wonderful for him, but in addition to all of the book-learning he gains, he also begins to see that the seemingly innocent or funny actions of his "friends" in the past were really jokes at his expense.  In a world where bullying is such a hot topic in schools, I can think of no better novel that could make an adolescent think through their hurtful words before doling them out.

Why is this book important to read, even though it's one of the top 100 banned books (according to the ALA)?  Many of the attempted bans on Flowers for Algernon are based around its sexual content.  Charlie's intellectual advances don't automatically equate to emotional advances, so as he gets smarter, he also finds that he has a whole world of sexual desires to attempt to understand.  There are several scenes that handle this topic, but I would hardly call them "filthy and immoral" (as some protesters have done).  Instead, they highlight one of the central themes of the novel: that emotional and IQ intelligence are not the same thing, and that different capacities are needed in order to reach happiness in each area.  Without these scenes, Charlie's character would be incomplete, and the full impact of the novel would never be felt.

You want happy and uplifting?  Flowers for Algernon is not for you.  But if you want an emotional read with a unique perspective that is sure to tug at your heart strings, you need to jump into Charlie's story ASAP.

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?  If not, what's one of your favorite books that often makes the "banned" list?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

If you're looking for my Flowers for Algernon review... advertised at Book Journey, I am indeed reviewing Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in honor of Banned Book Week!  However, the link is going to be available tomorrow (Wednesday 9/18), not today.  Sorry for those that got re-directed here prematurely.  I promise to have a killer review of it tomorrow though!  :)  Stay tuned...and YAY BANNED BOOK WEEK!!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Book(s) of Love (or, It's Our Anniversary!)

Happy Sunday, readers!  FYI, this is not just any old Sunday.  It's also the 6th wedding anniversary for me and my darling husband.  WOOHOO!  I told him a few weeks ago that this means we only have 1 year left until the 7-year itch.  He was not amused.  Apparently 6 years has not been enough time for me to improve my joke delivery?
Walking off into the sunset. He had no idea what he was getting into. MUWAHAHA!
We are spending this year's anniversary FINALLY moving into our house (HOORAY!), but in the meantime, I had to do a little post here to commemorate the big day.

Fun fact: our first dance at the wedding was to The Book of Love, by Peter Gabriel.  We had the hardest time picking a song, and then my friend Jennie had me listen to this one.  Hubs and I immediately got tears in our eyes the first time we heard it.  I guess that's how you know you found your wedding song: when it makes you burst into mushy, girly tears, even though you are very rarely prone to mushy, girly tears.
Other than just being OUR song, it's also cool because it's a little bookish, right?  So in honor of today, here's a quick list of some of my favorite "books of love"...not necessarily in the romance genre, but novels that make even my not-usually-sappy heart swoon.

1. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Easily my all-time favorite book.  Potentially one of the most unusual love stories out there (given the whole, you know, time traveling thing) but if there was ever a "let's overcome some crazy obstacles to be together" story, this is it.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

You can check out my full review of this one here, but Celia and Marco have one of the most awesome (and visually the imagery!) literary romances ever.

3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Granted, Heathcliff and Catherine basically want to kill each other for most of this book, but that's probably why I love it so much.  What fun is a sappy romance when you can watch the two lovers try to annoy the crap out of each other first?  (mini-review here)

4. What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson

The book made me cry.  Then I watched the movie and that made me cry too.  A couple is separated when the husband dies in a tragic accident, and they discover what must be done to reunite themselves in eternity.  Such a cool concept and SO SAD but worth the tears.

5. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Okay, I'll give Nicholas Sparks ONE shout out here.  The Notebook is not an amazeballs book by any means, but it is really sappy and swoon-worthy.  Paired with the movie it has to be noted as a good romance, even if you're not typically a Sparks fan.

6. PS, I Love You by Cecelia Ahern

This isn't really a romance, since the main character's husband dies in the beginning and she must spend the rest of the novel trying to rediscover her life.  But she does that through the letters her husband left behind, and that alone is enough to make you say "awwwwwwwwww" over and over.  PS, the book is better than the movie.

What are YOUR favorite "books of love"?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Book Review: Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

Title: Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores The Truth About Parenting and Happiness
Author: Jessica Valenti
Publisher: New Harvest
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
Source: personal purchase

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

If parenting is making Americans unhappy, if it’s impossible to “have it all,” if people don’t have the economic, social, or political structures needed to support child rearing, then why do it? And why are anxious new parents flocking to every Tiger Mother and Bébé-raiser for advice on how to raise kids?
In  Why Have Kids?,  Valenti explores these controversial questions through on-the-ground reporting, startling new research, and her own unique experiences as a mom. She moves beyond the black and white “mommy wars” over natural parenting, discipline, and work-life balance to explore a more nuanced reality: one filled with ambivalence, joy, guilt, and exhaustion. 
Would-be parents must navigate the decision to have children amidst a daunting combination of cultural expectations and hard facts. And new parents find themselves struggling to reconcile their elation with the often exhausting, confusing, and expensive business of child care. When researchers for a 2010 Pew study asked parents why they decided to have their first child, nearly 90 percent answered, for “the joy of having children.” Yet nearly every study in the last ten years shows a marked decline in the life satisfaction of those with kids.  Valenti explores this disconnect between parents’ hopes and the day-to-day reality of raising children—revealing all the ways mothers and fathers are quietly struggling. A must-read for parents as well as those considering starting a family,  Why Have Kids?  is an explosive addition to the conversation about modern parenthood.

My Review:

I heard about this book when it was first released last year, and it stuck out in my mind because I remembered many media outlets commenting on the "controversial" nature of its contents.  As a new-ish mom myself, I couldn't help but wonder what Valenti was touching on that could be getting so many people's backs up.  I bought myself a copy for Christmas, finally got around to it--and now I understand the hype, though I wouldn't say it's anything unique to the world of parenting discussion topics.

Valenti's central question is, why do people choose to have kids, especially when so much research shows that parents are, on the whole, not as happy as adults without kids?  And if parenthood is making so many people unhappy--why?  Can that be changed?

From the first page, Valenti had my wheels turning--if nothing else, this book is thought-provoking from cover to cover.  I think I did more Kindle highlights in this text than any other book, ever.  I'm tempted to go through her book point-by-point and analyze it for you, but I'll spare you the diatribes.  My bottom line on it is this: Valenti has gathered some interesting research for sure.  She touches on a variety of hot-button issues, such as whether it's better to be a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, whether it's fair to say that parenting is really the "hardest job in the world", and if breastfeeding really is "best".  (I know, do you smell blood in the water, or what?)  Valenti relies on many scientific studies in her discussions of these issues, which is helpful--if I wanted a blanket criticism of stay-at-home moms, I can jump on pretty much any mom blog/chat forum and have a field day.

However, the problem I had with this book is that Valenti is completely and undoubtedly biased, one way or the other, on each issue she mentions.  As such, the research she draws upon for many of her conclusions are primarily from studies that support her opinions.  Yes, she will cite a few contrary studies here and there, but her tone in writing is so skewed that you can tell she gave those alternate viewpoints short shrift.  (And this is coming from someone who agreed with many of her biases--hello, one of my favorite quotes from the book has got to be "Hell hath no fury like La Leche League scorned.")

Because of this, I found myself alternately loving this book, and feeling annoyed by it.  I wanted to be able to take it seriously as an unbiased discussion of these issues, especially because, in the end, she does make some strong points about how we can make parenting better.  But Valenti's obvious preferences prevented me from fully doing that.  Prime example: at the end of her discussion on working vs. stay at home moms, she essentially finishes by stating, "I hate to say one of these is better than the other...but heck, I'm going to say it anyway" before she gives her (not entirely empirically-supported) opinion on why working moms are better off.  That was a head-scratcher.

However, the book did make me think more critically about these topics than the usual mom blog or forum would, which I appreciate.  Her final points (like encouraging us to raise our children in a community, do away with the idea of "natural" parenting, and support each other in our parenting efforts) are absolutely worth putting into practice.  And the flame-worthy factor of her opinions made for interesting brain candy, at least.

Overall, I'd say this book is a shining example of why the "mommy wars" exist in the first place.  It's nearly impossible to have a discussion on these issues without letting your bias show through.  I appreciate that Valenti tried to back her opinions up with some research, but I wish she had made a better effort to show both sides of the coin.  Even so, if you're a parent (or thinking of becoming one) and want a quick, thought-provoking read, I'd recommend it.

Have you read any "controversial" nonfiction lately?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

Title: The Shining
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 1977
Source: paperback copy that I've owned for ages

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

This tale of a troubled man hired to care for a remote mountain resort over the winter, his loyal wife, and their uniquely gifted son slowly but steadily unfolds as secrets from the Overlook Hotel's past are revealed, and the hotel itself attempts to claim the very souls of the Torrance family. 

The Shining stands as a cultural icon of modern horror, a searing study of a family torn apart, and a nightmarish glimpse into the dark recesses of human weakness and dementia.

My Review:

I suppose I've made no secret of the fact that I am JUST A LITTLE excited about the upcoming release of Doctor Sleep, Stephen King's sequel to The Shining.  In preparation, I felt it was necessary to do a re-read of this King classic, since I'm pretty sure I was in 7th or 8th grade the last time I read it.  (I know, hold the phone, what was a 12-year-old doing reading this freakish novel?  This explains so much about my mental health.)

Returning to this book 15+ years after my original reading was a completely different experience.  Yes, I already knew what was going to happen--and I pretty much did the first time around too, thanks to the movie.  (Oh my God, why did I watch this movie when I was younger than 12 years old?  Do I even have parents? (Kidding, Mom. It was Dad who let me watch it anyway.))

But even if you've seen the movie, or read it before, The Shining doesn't get any less haunting upon subsequent reads.  The novel focuses on the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and 5-year-old Danny), recently relocated to Colorado after Jack lost his job in Vermont.  Jack has signed on as the winter caretaker for the Overlook hotel, a gigantic resort in the Rocky Mountains that gets so snow-bound in the winter, the hotel has to shut down completely from October to May.  So yes, that's right--Jack and family will be living alone, in this enormous hotel, for 6 months.  Before you say "NBD, loves me some Candy Crush time," let's keep in mind this is 1977 and once the snow flies, they're cut off from the world except by CB radio.

I'm not doing spoilers here, but this is Stephen King, so obviously the entire scenario goes downhill fast.  That's no secret--in fact, King starts to plant the seeds of impending doom in the earliest pages, building your sense of dread all the way up to the inevitably dire conclusion.  Even though Danny is arguably the star of this show, I definitely found myself most fascinated by Jack's decent into madness throughout the novel.  If you've seen the movie, this is a central portion of its plot.  Jack Nicholson's character slowly turns from (semi) responsible family man to raving murderous lunatic.  The difference in the book (and what makes me love it justalittle more than the film) is that it's not just about Jack--it's about the hotel.  The movie does incorporate this, but not nearly to the extent that King does in the book.  Yes, Jack begins to lose his mind--but why?  How much of it can be attributed to his alcoholic past, or his abusive father...and how much of it is the hotel itself?  It's much more complex than what you'll see in Kubrick's screen version, and I love that.  King has a knack for the supernatural elements in his stories, and this is no exception.

However, during this reading I also paid particular attention to Danny.  Doctor Sleep picks up with Danny as an adult, so I wanted to really focus on his role in The Shining.  Danny has a gift of precognition, or the "shine" as it is described to him, and this is the driving force behind much of The Shining's plot.  Danny, that poor kid--he has to do a lot of growing up as his parents slowly lose control of the situation.  I can't wait to see how these horrible events come back to haunt him (probably literally) in Doctor Sleep.

This was less of a review and more of a "let's get pumped for part two," but obviously, The Shining is one of my King favorites.  The suspense is intense and the character development alone is a great reason to delve into it.  If you're not sure about SK horror, I will warn you that there is some gore, and you may not want to read this one at midnight as you're trying to drift off to sleep.  But I hope you won't let that deter you.  I was happy to revisit it as an adult, and I can't wait to see what else is in store for Danny in the sequel.

Have you read The Shining, or seen the movie?  (If you've done both, I could have a whole separate conversation with you about the differences...)  And if you have read it, what are your thoughts/hopes about the upcoming sequel?

UPDATE: In a random coincedence, my friend Damen (who writes for the film blog Hey U Guys) wrote a blog post today about some crazy theories re: Stanley Kubrick movies (including The Shining).  If you've seen the movie and want more Shining fix today, check it out HERE.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Book Review: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford

Title:  Early Decision
Author: Lacy Crawford
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 27, 2013
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In  Early Decision , debut novelist Lacy Crawford draws on 15 years of experience traveling the world as a highly sought-after private college counselor to illuminate the madness of college admissions.

Working one-on-one with Tiger-mothered, burned-out kids, Anne “the application whisperer” can make Harvard a reality.  Early Decision  follows five students over one autumn as Anne helps them craft their college essays, cram for the SATs, and perfect the Common Application. It seems their entire future is on the line—and it is. Though not because of Princeton and Yale. It’s because the process, warped as it is by money, connections, competition, and parental mania, threatens to crush their independence just as adulthood begins.

Whether you want to get in or just get out, with wit and heart,  Early Decision  explodes the secrets of the college admissions race.

My Review:

You've probably heard me mention a few times that my (recently on hiatus) professional career is in higher education.  Specifically, I worked on the administrative side of things: student advising, retention, involvement, etc.  My husband works in the same field, and several years ago he had the idea for the two of us to start a college application consulting business.  Long story short, we never got it off the ground (thanks, 2008 recession), but I have often wondered what life would be like if we had gone down that road.

Now, along came Early Decision, and you can see why I quickly snapped it up.  I should first highlight the fact that this book is a work of fiction--the description doesn't make that immediately clear, but a passage at the beginning of the book does.  The author, Lacy Crawford, used to be a college consultant herself, so though the work is fictional, it definitely has an air of authenticity about it.

The main character, Anne, is a college admissions consultant to wealthy Chicago high school students and their families.  She has to deal with entitled students, pushy parents, and the ever-moving targets of college admissions expectations.  Not to mention, her own messy life--unclear career goals, a largely absent boyfriend, bitchy neighbors, etc.

All of these competing forces caused me to get sucked into the novel very quickly.  I love a book that elicits strong emotions in me as a reader, and this one certainly did--because I was constantly feeling infuriated at the students and parents (especially the parents!) that Anne had to battle in her quest to assist these kids on their way to college.
Best interpretation of me every time a parent in the novel re-wrote their kid's college application essay
(Side note: college consulting was probably not for me if "fury" was a common emotion while reading.)

Each of the five students she works with in the novel have their own obstacles to overcome, and Crawford does a great job crafting the unique dramas in which they find themselves entangled.  I stayed up way too late a few nights reading, in a desperate attempt to find out what happened next with their application woes.

The writing is fantastic--Crawford has a way with words that will leave you feeling dazzled by her prose.  (I think she may have polished a few students' essays in her day, eh?)  However, one downside is that I found the nuances in some of the character dialogue to be confusing and misleading.  There were several confrontational conversations between characters that left me scratching my head when they were, "Huh?  Why did that character walk away angry?  Did I miss something here?"  At first I thought this was just me not being a careful enough reader, but after it happened 2-3 more times, I didn't think it was me anymore.  The dialogue itself wasn't an issue, but the underlying emotions of the characters were often fuzzy, their reasons for being upset after a conversation unclear.  This disconnect was frustrating at times, especially when I had to wait another chapter or two before I could figure out what the author was trying to convey.

This is not a book of all happy endings, which I appreciated (even if it did mean sadness for some of my fave characters).  College admissions can be fraught with uncertainty and disappointment, and Crawford makes sure to highlight that.  I was especially happy with the way she chose to wrap things up in the epilogue.  I don't always want my endings put together in tight packages, but in this case, I appreciated that all the loose ends were tied up.

Overall: I loved the characters, the eloquent writing (minus some conversational bits), the way the drama heightens throughout the novel.  I think the subject matter will appeal to a wide range of readers: high school students thinking about college, college students themselves, any adult who's been to college, parents who are helping their kids with the application process...the list goes on.  Despite the confusing dialogue here and there, I was glued to this one from start to finish, and I hope Lacy Crawford goes on to write more novels in the world of higher ed!  Always a subject I'm happy to explore.

Much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Lacy Crawford on Twitter.

Readers: what are some of your favorite books that focus on the college experience?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From the Land of Gas Leaks and Broken Ovens: August 2013 in Review

Oy vey, August has already managed to come and go.  Though I did have a few fun posts, I also had a record low number of posts for the month (only 12! Ouch).  Fitting, I suppose, given the chaos of our recent and upcoming moves.

I mentioned previously about some of the struggles we had with our temporary rental, the list of which has grown to include the 4 (fixed) natural gas leaks, a broken oven, 2 broken dishwashers, an immovable, enormous fire pit in our backyard full of broken glass, a burst pipe, and neighbors who have had a few too many visits from the local police force for my liking.

HOWEVER, I am happy to report that we will be officially moving to our (forever?) home starting September 14, less than 2 short weeks from now.  Oh, how I count the very minutes.  YOU CAN'T IMAGINE.  (For any new followers getting lost in this story, feel free to read back here and catch up a bit.)

September is also going to be crazy-slash-awesome because it is mine and Hubster's 6th wedding anniversary, the start of my third trimester, AND my 30th birthday (of which I am not scared in the least, thankyouverymuch).  Plus, you know, autumn and all the greatness that is apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes (decaf...sigh), and cooler weather (especially for this sweaty preggo. What I would give for a 65-degree day).

(Oh, and in book news, don't forget that Stephen King's Doctor Sleep comes out September 24...which is, OF COURSE, my birthday...and I've already preordered it and will be staring at my Kindle at midnight to watch it download.)

ANYWAY.  That's this month.  Let's recap a bit of last month.

The August 2013 Fave/Least Fave picks go to:

August 2013 Favorite:  The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison
August 2013 Least Favorite:  Race Across the Sky by Derek Sherman

In total, I read/reviewed 5 books:
The Never List  by Koethi Zan

Race Across the Sky  by Derek Sherman
The Panopticon  by Jenni Fagan
The Banks of Certain Rivers  by Jon Harrison
Hungry  by Darlene Barnes

Otherwise, I was admittedly a bit absent, but I did reveal that Tater Tot is going to be a boy, and we went back to 1990 to reminisce about pen pals.

So, there's August...bring on September and all the chaos that shall ensue!  (I promise my months will get uneventful again soon, maybe in October?  Well, at least until this baby arrives.  

Nevermind, I make no promises.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Giveaway winners!

Hey there, readers!  I hope all my American friends are enjoying a nice end-of-summer Labor Day weekend.  Since I've had so many giveaways around these parts lately, I wanted to do a lovely little shout-out to our recent winners.  (I know, a few of these ended a few weeks ago, but you know how time just gets away from me these days...)

First up, the winners of the 3 copies of Race Across the Sky by Derek Sherman were:
Kate R.
Jennifer H. (of The Relentless Reader)
Hopefully you'll all be enjoying your copies (courtesy of TLC Book Tours) very soon.  :)

The winner of the copy of The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan was:
Jennifer H. 
(yes, of The Relentless Reader...who is also apparently a relentless WINNER!)

And last but not least, the winner of the $20 Amazon gift card in honor of my blogoversary is...
A recent new follower of the blog via GFC.  Woohoo, Maryam!  I emailed you today, get back to me ASAP to claim your prize.

I've had a lot of fun with the giveaway love lately, and don't forget, there's still 2 days to enter to win Hungry by Darlene Barnes!

Enjoy your weekend, loves!
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