Friday, August 28, 2015

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Title: Luckiest Girl Alive
Author: Jessica Knoll
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, Ani FaNelli endured a shocking, public humiliation that left her desperate to reinvent herself. Now, with a glamorous job, expensive wardrobe, and handsome blue blood fiancĂ©, she’s this close to living the perfect life she’s worked so hard to achieve.

But Ani has a secret.

There’s something else buried in her past that still haunts her, something private and painful that threatens to bubble to the surface and destroy everything.

With a singular voice and twists you won’t see coming,  Luckiest Girl Alive  explores the unbearable pressure that so many women feel to “have it all” and introduces a heroine whose sharp edges and cutthroat ambition have been protecting a scandalous truth, and a heart that's bigger than it first appears. 

The question remains: will breaking her silence destroy all that she has worked for—or, will it at long last, set Ani free?

My Review:

I remember hearing about Luckiest Girl Alive back around the time when I was reading Hausfrau , and The Girl on the Train was still fresh, and everyone was all WE NEED TO FIND THE NEXT GONE GIRL.  (A book that I love, but can we agree that we need to stop looking for the next one?)  That said, I am a sucker and will read anything compared even tangentially to Gillian Flynn's magnum opus--even this book, which honestly seems to get more lukewarm reviews than solidly good ones.

I am happy I fell for the bait here though, because my review is decidedly not lukewarm.  I adored this novel from cover to cover.

My first draw was to the protagonist, Ani, who in the beginning gives off a real bitchy, biting vibe.  I liked her despite this harsh edge.  Ani is judgmental, vain, and sneaky.  However, she's also quite the faker, as she keeps many of her unflattering opinions to herself, manipulating those around her to see only the parts of her that she allows them to see.  This was my first clue to the fact that Ani is not what she initially seems.  Her character transforms immensely over the course of the book.  She exposes weaknesses that I never imagined when I met her tough exterior on page 1.  The Ani of the final page is nearly unrecognizable from the one you meet early on, but given the events that are revealed throughout the novel, I found that to be a perfectly believable shift.

I like plot twists, and I got a lifetime supply here.  Ani's background at Bradley is slowly revealed, and when the BIG problem of her past was finally thrown open, I never saw it coming.  But there were plenty of smaller issues to keep me riveted along the way as well.  This, in combination with the emotional upheaval that Ani is experiencing, literally left my heart racing at many points in the book.  I love it when I have to put down a book for a little while because I am just TOO WORKED UP to continue.

Bonus of this book: amazing flashbacks to high school days, circa early-2000s.  Abercrombie & Fitch cargo pants and Steve Madden clogs for the win.

In the end, I think Luckiest Girl Alive, despite its difficult and violent themes, is actually a bit of a lighter read than many of its contemporaries.  Much of this is due to Ani's character, who brings in more humor than a Rachel in Girl on the Train, or an Amy in Gone Girl.  So it's really the tone that's lighter, not so much the subject matter.

Either way, I recommend this book up and down.  Yay for Ani, yay for books about off-kilter, misunderstood bitches, and yay for Luckiest Girl Alive.

What's the last book you read that you had a different reaction to than many other readers?  (Either you loved it and they disliked it, or vice versa?)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Astronaut vomit at zero G! Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Title: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Publication Date: August 2, 2010
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? 

To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

My Review:

After so enjoying Nonfiction November last year, I've been looking for any excuse to delve into excellent nonfiction in 2015.  One of my fave bloggers (Katie @ Doing Dewey) organized a Nonfiction Book Club for August, and the chosen read was Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  I ran on over to the library and joined in ASAP.  I've been meaning to read a Roach book for ages now, and this was the perfect opportunity to read AND discuss!  I had loads of fun bantering about the book with other bloggers (Katie set up a Google doc for us to share our thoughts, which was an excellent format choice), and it helps that this book is pretty fascinating.  All the hype I heard about Mary Roach is legit.

If (like me, before reading this book) you've never read anything by Mary Roach, she is a lighthearted gift to the nonfiction genre.  She tends to choose odd or taboo subjects (two of her other books include Bonk, about the science behind sex, and Stiff, about what happens to human bodies postmortem), and approaches them with a combination of serious investigative research and humor.  Lots and lots of humor.  Her books are worth reading for the footnotes alone--SO funny.

Before reading Packing for Mars, my knowledge of space travel was basic at best, based primarily upon Apollo 13 as portrayed by Tom Hanks & co. and grainy footage of the 1969 moon landing.  Neither of these things stimulated much extra thought on my part about the finer details of space travel.  Thankfully, this book stepped in and got my wheels turning.  How did the astronauts (and all of their equipment, for that matter) get ready for zero gravity while still on Earth?  Other than making them float, what does zero G do to an astronaut's body--physically and psychologically?  And where the heck did they go to the bathroom, because the moon obviously does not have Porta-Potties.  (That may sound like a weird question, but get ready, because Mary Roach answers it in WAY MORE DETAIL than you are prepared for.)

However, some of the most interesting things about this book are the conjectures Roach makes about future manned missions to Mars (a long-term NASA goal), based on the facts she collects from previous space missions.  For example, the toll on the human body: floating in zero G makes bone density deteriorate significantly over time, because you never put weight on your bones/joints.  Basically, astronauts will become osteoporotic without counteractive forces on their bones, which NASA has yet to develop.  How in the world will they combat that issue in a years-long Mars mission?  Food for thought.

I exited this book with so many fun factoids about space travel, I thought my husband's ears would fall off from having to listen to me talk about them.  While Roach does have a tendency to go off on tangents (rather long ones...), it's hard not to embrace her humorous writing style, especially in a subject so filled with hilarious anecdotes.  A few other bloggers in the readalong discussion mentioned points in the book that they felt Roach had worded rather offensively--I didn't feel that way, but could certainly see how her style gets a bit crass at times.  If you have zero filter on your sense of humor (as I do, which is not a compliment to myself), it will likely not bother you, but you've been warned!

Packing for Mars is the quickest and most entertaining nonfiction I've read in the last several years.  I am definitely on the hunt for more of Mary Roach's books!  And check out Katie's blog if you want to join in September's Nonfiction Book Club readalong of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Have you read any of Mary Roach's books?  What's the most entertaining nonfiction you've read lately?  And, most importantly, if you had the opportunity to volunteer for the first manned mission to Mars, would you take it--even if you might not make it back to Earth??

Monday, August 24, 2015

I'm 3 Years Old!

That's right, friends, The Well-Read Redhead is turning 3 today!

I have no fancy giveaways or whatnot to commemorate this day, but I do want to say THANK YOU for hanging with me these last three years!  There have been lots of changes in my life since then, and my post frequency has waxed and waned, but I love being a part of the book blogging community (both the blogger-readers and the just plain readers!).

I also want to give a shout out to the recently-found running blog community, as I found many kindred spirits there this year when I went on my half marathon journey.  Even a few runner-readers, which is pretty awesome (looking at you, Tara and Wendy!).  And thank you to all of my running-averse reader friends, who have continued to be patient with me despite the incessant photos of my Garmin after long runs.  :)

Also, for funsies and a little #ThrowbackMonday, feel free to check out my first ever book review (of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman), or my first bookish confessions post (I still have that Borders tag on my keys, hell yes! Although I've paid a LOT more library late fees since then).
Never gonna give you up, Borders.
Here's to many more wonderful reads (and runs), my friends!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

GIVEAWAY! The Invisibles by Cecelia Galante

Title:   The Invisibles
Author: Cecelia Galante
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 4, 2015
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Thrown together by chance as teenagers at Turning Winds Home for Girls, Nora, Ozzie, Monica, and Grace quickly bond over their troubled pasts and form their own family which they dub  The Invisibles . But when tragedy strikes after graduation, Nora is left to deal with the horrifying aftermath alone as the other three girls leave home and don't look back.

Fourteen years later, Nora is living a quiet, single life working in the local library. She is content to focus on her collection of "first lines" (her favorite opening lines from novels) and her dog, Alice Walker, when out-of-the-blue Ozzie calls her on her thirty-second birthday. But after all these years, Ozzie hasn't called her to wish a happy birthday. Instead, she tells Nora that Grace attempted suicide and is pleading for  The Invisibles  to convene again. Nora is torn: she is thrilled at the thought of being in touch with her friends, and yet she is hesitant at seeing these women after such a long and silent period of time. Bolstered by her friends at the library, Nora joins  The Invisibles  in Chicago for a reunion that sets off an extraordinary chain of events that will change each of their lives forever.

My Review:

Every once in a while, I need a good bit of women's fiction in my life.  You know, a book about a group of friends, who help each other through the highs and lows, and hopefully with some nice plot twists or mysteries thrown in.  (I fully credit my obsession with The Babysitter's Club in my formative years for this occasional need.)

The Invisibles was just the ticket as far as friendship-based novels go, though it went above and beyond by surprising me with an especially gut-punching conclusion.  Galante has written YA novels in the past, and her strength in that area was on display here, as her flashbacks to Nora & co's teenage years were particularly absorbing.  I was drawn into their individual histories pretty quickly, and that interest carried me into their present tales as well.

That said, I found some pieces of the novel to be terribly cliched.  The epic, spur-of-the-moment road trip to help Monica felt like some kind of overdone Hollywood plot element.  And the one that took the cake was when they found a baby bunny whose mother had been killed by a fox, and they made a frantic attempt to save it--dear God, please gag me.  Four mostly-orphaned women, trying to help the parentless bunny?  Must we beat the readers over the head with the symbolism?  It was a bit much.

While I do feel like those criticisms have to be mentioned here, I hope, my dear readers, that you will still give this book a read, because as I mentioned earlier, I was a particular fan of the ending.  Nora is keeping a secret through most of the novel, and it builds up until the absolute END (truly...I think it was revealed around the 95% mark on my Kindle.  GAHHH).  For the entire book, as this secret loomed large, all I could think was, "This BETTER be worth the wait."  And for me, it was.  Galante teeters on the border between "purposely misleading the reader" (a technique that I am rather leery of) and "taking creative license with the narration", but it goes just far enough onto the "creative" side that I loved it.  A truly surprising, emotional, thought-provoking ending that will leave you wanting to re-read (and re-interpret) many previous parts of the novel.

The Invisibles is certainly a good pick if you want a bit of girl-power and friendship in your life, even with the occasional cheesy elements that are built in.  But this book delves into some weighty issues as well, and will leave you with much to ponder long after the final page.

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

GIVEAWAY TIME!  I was shipped extra copies of the book, so 2 lucky readers (in the US/Canada) can win a copy of The Invisibles for their very own.  Just enter using the Rafflecopter below.  Giveaway ends August 26!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Well-Read Runner: Vino and the Beasts 5K recap!

This weekend's race was quite different from any other I've done before.  It was my first obstacle run!  I had no idea what to expect going in, but it was a great day and has definitely piqued my interest in doing more of them in the future.

Several months back, one of my fellow moms in our local MOMS Club chapter suggested that we form a team for the Vino and the Beasts 5K run.  The run takes place at Three Brothers Winery in the Finger Lakes (just over an hour from us), is advertised as fun and team-oriented, and there's wine.  (Did I mention the wine?  So much wine.)  It did not take much to convince 6 of us to sign on for the race.

I have been leery of obstacle/mud runs for a few reasons.  First and foremost are stories like this one, about mud runners who get vomity gross infections after ingesting mud from the runs. GAH.  I am such a germaphobe to begin with, that does not sound like a good time for me.  Second issue I have is with obstacles that seem potentially life-threatening.  Like that ice bath you have to jump into at Tough Mudder.  That's got to be bad for your heart, right??  And the electroshock thing?  Just no.

However, Vino and the Beasts sounded low-key enough that no one would be dying from electroshock, and I could hopefully keep all the mud out of my mouth.  :)

The race started at 11am, but our heat wasn't until 12:20, so we rolled into the winery just after 11.  There was a decent crowd, but parking was easy and because there were so many heats (over 15 of them, and only a few teams in each) there was almost no line for registration, bag check, or porta-potties.  I was a little annoyed at the extra charges ($5 for parking is one thing but $5 for bag check??  Seriously??), but overall everything was organized and easy to navigate.
Pre-race by Cayuga Lake and still so fresh and so clean, clean!
Our 6-woman team (me, Amanda, Erin, Emily, Jessica, and Aimee...a better list of popular girl names from the 1980's there never was) had a range of fitness levels: a few regular runners of varying speeds, a few who did a lot of interval/body pump/etc training, a few who didn't train and were just planning to wing it.  :)  We all agreed that we would stay together though.  No soldier left behind!

Right before our start time, we were offered a shot of wine: YAY.  Great way to start the race!  Our heat started and off we ran.  We did about a half mile before the first obstacle showed up, the Walk of Shame: basically two upside-down V-shaped boards that we had to walk up and then down.  Not to tough.  That was the theme for most of the obstacles, as we found most of them to be a laid-back break from the run rather than a tough challenge to overcome.  Appropriate for a wine-themed run, I'd say!

Two more obstacles followed shortly (some hay bales covered in a tarp that we had to crawl through, and a rope web to climb), then a water stop, and then came the longest period of straight running.  Much of it was on wooded trail, which was beautiful, but a large section of it was also through a corn field, in full, mid-day sun.  The heat was pretty killer.  To keep all of us together, we alternated walking and running throughout this section.  We were all excited for the second water stop, which offered both water AND wine!

It was fun to experience the race with friends who are not all runners.  Emily is a soccer player, and while she's in great shape, she gets insanely bored with just running.  So partway through the race, she started weaving back and forth on the course, pretending she had a soccer ball to dribble, just to keep herself entertained.  Ha!  Jessica powered through by pretending all the obstacles were on American Ninja Warrior ("I'm taking on Mount Midoriyama!!  Where's the Warped Wall??" lol).  Do what you gotta do!  I was just enjoying the fact that I was running a 5K without a time goal!  I don't usually sign up for a race unless I plan to run it full-out, so it was fun to kick back this day.

Then we had more obstacles: several hay bales to jump/climb, followed by the two water obstacles.  The first was the Mash-Up, basically 12-18 inches of water with a net draped over it that we had to elbow-crawl our way through.  (Cue me trying to keep muddy water out of my mouth...haha.)  Soon after was the Beast Bath, a 15-foot deep mud/water pit that we had to swim across.  It wasn't a terribly huge obstacle, but this was hard!  I soon realized that swimming in soaked sneakers is tough stuff...haha.  But, we all made it across, and it felt pretty awesome to be soaking wet at this point in the race.

More running, and more obstacles (some wooden boards we had to hop over/crawl under, Mt. Vino (a giant wooden wall we scaled with a rope), a tangle of elastic bungees to crawl through, and a potato-sack jump) before finally, the finish!  The 6 of us linked arms and cheered through the finish line (53:43 final time).  We all made it, no one was crying/collapsing, a success all around.  :)
Done!  Not muddy, but very wet.  (And yes, I did wear my Forerunner 10 and it did great even in the water obstacles!)
By the end, I definitely saw the appeal of obstacle runs (especially low-key ones like this) as races to tackle with a group of friends.  This 5K wouldn't have been half as fun if I did it alone, or with a time goal, etc.  A course like this lends itself to joking and camaraderie, while still providing a good physical challenge along the way.
Team Moms With Muscles is ready for the vino
After the race, we all got changed (in the porta-potties...they really need to provide changing rooms, this was more challenging than the obstacles!!) and then picked up our finish-line wine glasses and tasting passports.  This allowed us to do free tastings at the three local wineries (Stony Lonesome, Bagg Dare, and Passion Feet) and one brewery (War Horse) on the grounds.  We grabbed a quick lunch from the local food trucks, then headed to our tastings.  While I didn't love every drink I tried, they sure did go to my head fast (running 3 miles in 85+ degrees and not hydrating enough will do that to you)!
Me so happy about wine.  Mmmmm wine.
Tasting time was a blast, but I think we were all ready for some R+R by the end.  Time to head home.

First obstacle run = complete!  While I'm not sure I'm ready for a Tough Mudder just yet (the electroshocks, y'all, let me just reiterate that), I would definitely do another 5K mud run with friends any time.  Awesome experience all around.

Have you done any obstacle runs?  Did you race them with a time goal, or use them as a fun way to run with friends?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Title: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: December 12, 1932
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his 

Huxley's ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

My Review:

Brave New World has been on my TBR list for a long time, because it seemed like one of those books that everyone was assigned to read in high school/college, except me.  Beyond that, I had no idea what the book entailed, and it was nice going into it without any preconceived notions.  Huxley has created quite an interesting version of the future--not so much post-apocalyptic as it is post-war.

After many battles the world over, society has settled upon a structure focused upon our base nature (defined here as the pursuit of pleasure, and tangent to that, consumerism).  People no longer procreate through sex--all humans are "hatched" in labs, then brought up in massive nurseries, where they can be taught only the lessons that the new society deems correct.  Social structure dictates that there are different classes of people (Alpha, Beta, etc), with the Alphas doing complicated, thought-focused tasks, down to lowly Epsilons who happily do the menial work (as they were conditioned to do all their lives).

I didn't expect this book to be so philosophical (not usually my forte), but Huxley presents his arguments about human nature and social control in a fairly uncomplicated way.  Certainly the thing that made my wheels turn the most was the clash between the idea of simple (but socially-controlled) happiness, versus allowing people to have free will (which will certainly lead to unhappiness, in some instances).  Take, for example, the lower-class (Epsilon) group.  These people are genetically engineered to be physically and mentally lacking from birth.  They are then conditioned to want to do menial jobs, and to be glad they don't have to do the hard work reserved for Alphas.  In the end, they are happy, because they are doing exactly what they've always "wanted" to do.  But does their lifelong happiness mean anything if it has been socially/governmentally enforced?  Even if they don't realize it's been forced upon them, and that they're "missing out" on anything?  Is it worth it to sacrifice free will (and all the things that go along with it: disappointment, heart break, passion, etc) if it means contentment for life?

There is a lot more to the novel than that, but much of the plot is based around those central questions, so get ready to have your thinking cap on.  As far as how the story flows, the first part of the book is easy to fall into, because as with any dystopian world, you spend a lot of time learning the ins-and-outs of Huxley's imagined future.  After the first 25% or so, I did start to think it was a little overdone (he really goes to some extremes with certain aspects of the society), but once the plot twisted a bit (after a non-socially-controlled "savage" is introduced to the story) things evened out, and I got more involved in the philsophical questions being raised.

Overall, Brave New World is a quick read, but one that is worth your time if you're into a book that will challenge your critical thinking.

What books do you feel like everyone else had to read for assignments in high school/college, but you missed out on?

Monday, August 3, 2015

It's Monday, What Are YOU Reading?

Happy August, reader friends!  Part of me is sad that it's August, because it means summer is going to be over in a few short weeks.  And the other part of me is not sad at all, because this has been an AWESOME-SAUCE SUMMER.  We have had maximum fun since the weather warmed up, and I'm not sad at all for the coming autumn, because I know we have taken advantage of every minute.  Our boys are at such fun ages, and able to do so much more than last year.  When I think of last summer, it is a psychotic blur of trying to chase a 3-year-old while bottle feeding/diapering/lugging a 7-month-old baby that hated touching grass (seriously?).  This summer, much improved.

For example: this past weekend, we did our first family hiking day at Letchworth State Park in Castile, NY ("The Grand Canyon of the East"!  As all my west-coast friends roll their eyes.)  It was gorgeous, and the boys had a fantastic time.  My husband and I were big hikers before Small Fry was born, but we eased it back once babies arrived, as small infant + mountain climbing did not sound like fun.  However, we are now SUPER excited to share our love of the outdoors with the kiddos as they get older.

Anyway, I hope you are all enjoying these last weeks of summer as much as we are!  Let's talk books!  I'm reading:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I grabbed this one at random.  It's been on my TBR for ages, and landed on my 30 before 35 list as well.  I'm about 60% finished.  At first, I was intrigued, couldn't put it down...then I started to feel weirded out by the entire thing...and now I'm hitting a little bit of a bored lull.  It's quite a ride.  My review should be interesting!

Upcoming reads:

I've got my first book tour in quite a long time coming up, The Invisibles by Cecelia Galante.  Looking forward to this one!  Afterwards, I'm hoping to jump into Katie's Nonfiction Book Club with Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, and Other-But-Equally-Awesome Katie's Fellowship of the Worms readalong of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

How has your summer been so far?  What are you reading this week?
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