Jessica’s Cranky Corner: Into the Wild

Published March 29, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

541919_3911362915034_469792480_n121Have you ever read a book that frustrated you to the core, but yet morbid fascination kept you glued to the pages? “Into the Wild” is one of those books. It’s been a few days since I finished it, but my mind keeps drifting off to that haunting last chapter when Christopher McCandless starved to death in an abandoned bus deep in the wilds of Alaska.

I just can’t wrap my brain around the risks he took, and the self-centered decisions he made. It’s human nature to not like what you can’t understand. So maybe that’s why I had a hard time giving Christopher (aka “Alexander Super-Tramp”) the benefit of the doubt.

I complained to my husband about my frustration with the guy. Apparently, he believes men have an innate desire to explore nature and discover uncharted territory.  He also defended Chris by stating that he was just a kid, and that all 20-somethings do stupid things. I get that…kind of.  Sure, we all do stupid things when our temporal lobes aren’t fully developed, but what Christopher did was so extreme, and so bizarre. It can’t just be chocked up to the ol’ “kids will be kids” theory.1845

The thing is, I can’t get pass Christopher’s one big character flaw. For someone who so vehemently preaches the gospel for human rights and social justice, he really didn’t do a damned thing for anyone except himself. Sure he visited some homeless camps, fed them a few sandwiches and dropped a couple bucks in their tin cups. But really, he wasn’t concerned about helping people out in the long-term. In fact, he actually did more harm than good by hitchhiking in and out of people’s lives so quickly. He had a way of staying in a town long enough to start building relationships with new friends only to vanish into the night, leaving them confused and heartbroken.

I felt so bad for Ronald, an old widower who wanted to be Christopher’s grandfather. Not only did Christopher leave Ron in the lurch, he also had the gall to send him a really offensive letter. In his sanctimonious ramblings, he belittled Ron’s conventional lifestyle, imploring him to sell all his belongings and hit the road. In essence, he told the old man that his life was crap, and that it wasn’t worth living unless he embraced an extreme, nomadic lifestyle. Huh. This is coming from a guy who hated being controlled.

I’m not a big fan of people who abandon the ones they love. That’s why I really didn’t like the book “Wild” (read my review here) and refuse to read “Eat, Pray, Love.”  Christopher’s parents did have their flaws, his dad especially, but they were the Waltons compared to my own pitiful family. He crucified them for every injustice, large or small, including trying to buy him a new car (oh boo hoo).  Since my parents never even considered providing me with a car, college tuition and an enormous trust fund, he’s not getting my sympathies.

Am I missing the point altogether? Do I just not understand Chris’ motives on a deep, existential level? Am I just another cog in the machine of mainstream American society? I’m sure many people reading this would be nodding their heads. I, too, marvel at his footloose and fancy free journey into the wild. Hell, I even agree with a lot of his esoteric ramblings about the meaningless ways people are living their lives. When I’m trapped in a sea of brake lights every morning on my way to work, I fantasize about ditching the daily grind and living off the grid far away from materialism and power-hungry people. But truth be told, I’m happy with my life that Christopher would quickly dismiss as provincial and meaningless. His unrelenting black-and-white standpoint on right and wrong makes him no different than a religious fundamentalist. He believed that he held all the answers and everyone else just didn’t see the light. That arrogance and self-righteousness was his downfall.

Many reviewers chastised the author for “glorifying” Christopher by making him out to be this big hero for chasing his dream and living life to its fullest. I would have to disagree. The book was well researched, and the author did a fine job throwing out some theories, leaving it up to the readers to formulate their own opinions. He even pointed out that Christopher was somewhat of a hypocrite. He worshipped a bunch of authors and philosophers who were drunks and sexual deviants. In his travels he even befriended a man who habitually beat up his girlfriend. But yet he could never grant clemency to his own father for cheating on his wife decades ago. Since Christopher never let anyone in, his motives for running away will remain a mystery. My guess is that his hatred for his parents was so powerful, he wanted to crush them in the cruelest way possible. Take it from someone who knows, abandonment is one of the cruelest, most cowardly forms of punishment.

I know I’m being hard on the guy, but that’s partly because I’m so frustrated that he had to die. He was clearly a brilliant kid who could master a skill in just about any field. He was a natural entrepreneur, a computer software engineer, a writer, a political scientist. He even had plans to become a lawyer, a profession that would have allowed him to correct all of those social injustices that he so passionately decried.  It’s a shame he chose to live the transient life with no intention of connecting with people and making an impact on the world.  I’m all for getting in touch with nature and exploring far and distant lands, but humans are social animals. We need to share our experiences with others, a lesson that Christopher learned the hard way. In my humble opinion, if the world was full of “Alexander Super-Tramps” it wouldn’t be a better place.

Gizzy’s Roundup of Witches, Warlocks and Weirdos!

Published March 20, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

gizzyGizzy and I have been going through a paranormal/fantasy phase lately. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because February and March are the crappiest months of the year and we need a total escape from reality. Or perhaps Gizzy thinks he’s a wizard now that he has his own Dumbledore hat. I’m not going to bother trying to make sense out of it all. Either way, here are a few books that we recently polished off. If you’re in the mood for magic, mayhem and swoonalicious love triangles, here ya go:

The Line by J.D. Horn

18010355I scored this audiobook for a song on Audible, and well you know that saying, “you get what you pay for”? Well that doesn’t apply here. This book is incredible!  The narrator, the rollercoaster pacing, the atmospheric Savannah setting—everything about it kept me glued to the story for hours on end. The main character, Mercy, is somewhat of an embarrassment to her family of powerful witches.  Unlike her magically-blessed twin sister, she has very little power of her own. Some major power players in her clan of witches seem to be harboring deep, dark secrets. And when the head matriarch (aka “the anchor”) is brutally murdered, Mercy starts piecing together some clues that eventually lead her to a series of bombshells about her family’s tangled web of lies. In the last third of the book, my jaw dropped at least 50 times when the skeletons came dancing the conga-line out of the closet. Aside from the shock factor, I really enjoyed the Deep South setting, and Mercy’s “Liars Tour.” As an unapologetic dorky tourist, I would love to tour around Savannah, drinking a hurricane while listening to outrageous fabrications and urban legends about the city’s landmarks. Too bad she had to hang up her tour guide hat in the second book.

The Source by J.D. Horn

18803931I’ll just come right out and tell you that this book was a big disappointment. Right from the get-go the story just seemed to be all over the place. In the first book, it was so much easier to immerse myself into the story as it gradually unfolded before taking off like a freight train. This book, however, went from zero to sixty. All of a sudden, I’m thrust into a series of crazy events full of a bunch of characters. Keeping track of it all was a struggle to say the least. Bombshells continue to drop at warp speed and the story just gets more and more convoluted with every chapter. The love triangle with Emmitt, the robotic golem, is a little too creepy for my taste. There was a point when I almost aborted the mission of completing this book, but morbid curiosity kept me going.  Why is Mercy’s supposedly-dead mother coming out of the woodwork? Can she be trusted? Is her entire family out to get her? Who can she trust?!?  Is it weird that I didn’t enjoy this book, but yet I’ll probably end up reading the third installment because I need answers to a zillion more questions? Clearly J.D. Horn must be doing something right since I’m inevitably going to read the whole trilogy.

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

23164983Again, here is a second installment that didn’t measure up to the first. It’s not that it wasn’t entertaining. Hmm…how should I put my finger on this? It’s just that the first book was SO amazing! The world building, the character development, the mysterious school of weirdo children with super-human powers—all of it was so mesmerizing. This next adventure moves along in the same fashion as The Hobbit. Lots of “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” action sequences.  Throughout the book, the kids are jumping into different time loops in their quest to restore Mrs. Peregrine back into her human form. Trapped in a bird’s body, she has only a short amount of time until her humanity withers away. Without Mrs. P., the kids’ sanctuary from the storm of hollows (evil peculiar children-eating monsters) and wights (double-evil peculiar children-murdering fiends) will be lost forever.  Gripes aside, I did enjoy learning more about the villains and finding out their reasons for targeting peculiar children. After that cliffhanger of an ending, I absolutely HAVE to read the next book. What can I say? I’m a total sucker for trilogies. Oh and I would be remiss not to give a nod to the author’s ingenious inventions with the found old-timey photographs. My favorite character, who I hope to see in the next book, is the pretentious pipe-smoking dog.  Anyone who has read his books would probably agree that Ransom Riggs’ imagination is a force to be reckoned with!

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahan

18007535Remember that old campfire story The Monkey’s Paw? That one never fails to give me the shivers, even though I’ve heard it about a bajillion times. There’s something very creepy about the concept of bringing a loved one back from the dead and not knowing who—or what—will be showing up at your doorstep. That’s why this book gave me the heebie jeebies, especially when dead creatures started coming back to life, scratching from inside the closet door. JEEPERS! This is not a book to read alone if you’re a chicken like me. So in terms of creepiness, I give this book four stars. As for the characters, well that’s a whole other story. Aside from the teenage girl and her baby sister, the characters who carelessly messed around with witchcraft all seemed to be a bunch of imbeciles, in my humble opinion. Yes, they were crazy with grief, but that didn’t give them the right to mess with black magic. To be honest, I was pleased when they all got what was coming to them. Aside from those fools, I have another issue with the book. Since the story revolved around death and bereavement, the gloominess of it all really bummed me out.  After reading this, I had to immediately cheer myself up with a light and fluffy romance.

Jessica’s Cranky Corner: Fifty Shades of Lame

Published February 28, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

541919_3911362915034_469792480_n121Let me start this off by confessing that I never read any of E.L. James’ books. After watching the movie, I can promise you that I never will. It’s totally unfair to judge a book by the movie, but this is a rare exception.

On a whim, I went to see this thing with a friend who actually read the book. When the credits started rolling, I sat in stunned disbelief and asked if the plot and the characters were fleshed out more in the book. She shook her said and told me, “nope that movie pretty much captured it all.” The next day I asked my massage therapist, who also read the book, if I’m missing out on anything.  She likened the writing quality to the prose in Green Eggs and Ham. So yeah, I will not be revisiting Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele’s s torrid love affair ever again—in books or subsequent movies. The embarrassment of sitting through this raunchfest in a packed theater was torture enough.

It’s not that I’m a total square with old fashioned values about sex. Hey, if you like booty clamps and whips go knock yourself out.  One of my biggest gripes is the violence. Yeah yeah yeah, I know, it’s part of the BSD&M game, but I couldn’t help screaming in my head, “boys don’t hit girls!” I just wanted to smack that creepy bastard when he kept walloping a semi-compliant woman with a belt. That’s right, a belt. In a perfect world, there would be no belt spanking. But sadly this is a favorite pastime for parents, animal abusers, and apparently horny bastards with mommy issues.

If I took a shot every time this girl bit her lip, I'd have one mean hangover the next day.

If I took a shot every time this girl bit her lip, I’d have one mean hangover the next day.

Another major problem is the lack of character development. They made Anastasia out to be this bookish English lit major with brains and class, but that all spiraled down the drain the moment she became entranced by the venerable Christian Grey. Other than the fact that he’s a rich, powerful playboy with a killer six-pack, what’s the appeal? Love, security, long walks on the beach? Nope. He doesn’t do any of that, which he repeats over and over again to this poor, daft girl who’s so hung up on taming the dragon.  There were so many points when she should’ve been running for the hills, but yet she kept bending over and taking it—literally.

This image sums up everything that's wrong with this story.

Here’s a lovely screen capture of the powerful Christian Grey carrying his weakened sex slave back to her bedroom where she gets to sleep alone every night.

And then there’s the “contract.” Per Christian’s many ridiculous demands, she must relinquish her freedom and become his “submissive.” If she signs on the dotted line, he’ll continue to shower her with laptops, flashy cars, and jet-setting trips around the world.  He even sweetens the deal by relieving her of a huge burden: her brain. You see, with a master and commander you don’t need to think for yourself anymore.  He gets to call all the shots and even control her drinking and eating habits. Boy what a relief it would be to chuck your brain in the dumpster and let some rich bastard be in the driver’s seat. Gee, where do I sign?

Needless to say, I lost all respect for Anastasia and even started to resent her for allowing this creep to take over her life. If she got tipsy at a party, he’d be there in a heartbeat ready to whisk her away from “danger” in his flashy car. He also rescued her from drinking one too many cosmos at brunch with her mom (a minor infraction that warranted a swift flogging). When she should’ve been filing a restraining order, she let him take her away on another whirly plane ride. Such fun!

They tried to make Christian a sympathetic character by showing him stooped over a piano playing a melancholy love song. At this point, I could care less about all the many layers to this onion.  And to be perfectly honest, I’m even more ambivalent about Anastasia’s decision to sign his ridiculous contract. From where I’m standing, she’s just another brainless piece of arm candy that can be easily bought with money and power.

Moral of the story: Just because something is widely popular with the masses that doesn’t mean it’s worth your time. Listen to the crap on the radio and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Short and Sweet Sundays

Published February 8, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

sundaysI’ve been reading like a fiend this past month—and not one review to show for it! In a perfect world, I would spend my days reading on the chaise lounge with my chubby cat and my nights toiling away on my book, which has been left stagnating in Scrivner for months. Needless to say, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep up with my poor little book blog!

So in the interest of saving time, I bring you some short and sweet reviews for a few standout books that were definitely worth my precious little free time:

Murder, She Wrote: A Question of Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

334352When I saw this title pop up in Audible’s “daily deal,” I immediately hit the purchase button.  The TV show may be history, but Jessica Fletcher continues to be the harbinger of death in this extensive book series. Without fail, the charming and delightful J.B. Fletcher stumbles upon a dead body everywhere she goes—cocktail parties, beach resorts, book tours, weddings—you name it! I just want to cry out, “No, no, no! Don’t invite her to your party, you fool! Don’t you know that’s the kiss of death?!”

That’s exactly what happens in this mystery when our intrepid amateur sleuth attends a murder mystery weekend at a haunted East Coast mansion. She meets an eclectic cast of characters, all with hidden agendas. As expected, a member of the acting troop keels over dead in the middle of a scene. Now it’s up to Jessica to question the many suspects and piece together the clues. Was it a jilted lover? A jealous husband? Or perhaps a fellow mystery writer who loves writing about murder a little too much?

With so many questionable characters and possible motives, it wasn’t easy guessing whodunit. And just when I thought I had it all figured out, a plot twist in the very last chapter threw my theory right out the window. If you love an atmospheric whodunit set in a historic mansion filled with hidden trapdoors and ghosts, this one’s for you.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

9640626Believe it or not, this is my very first zombie book. I love all things creepy and crawly, but yet I haven’t really ventured into the chick lit zombie genre, maybe because there’s nothing more grotesque than a zombie getting it on. Wouldn’t body parts fall off? And then there’s the stench—gross! True, this book ranks high on the ick-factor, but yet it cuts deeper than some of the titles you’d see in Oprah’s book club.

What makes this book special is the walking dead girl’s journey of self-discovery. She may look fierce on the cover, but she’s really a big-hearted, insecure girl who got dealt a shitty hand of parents. Nobody believes she’ll amount to anything more than trailer-park trash, including herself. It took being turned into a zombie for her life to change for the better. After a car crash, she heals not only from her wounds, but also from her drug addiction. A mysterious benefactor hooks her up with a job at the local morgue, where she falls into a new circle of friends who are surprisingly non-toxic. For the first time ever, people actually give a shit, and they believe she can amount to so much more than a lowly driver for the county morgue.

Her world has turned upside down for the better, except for one nagging problem: her insatiable craving for brains. Everything falls apart—literally—if she can’t sink her teeth into that delectable gray matter. Good thing she has a most advantageous new job where brains are plentiful…that is until a serial killer starts decapitating the townies. Why is the killer taunting her with headless bodies? Who turned her into a walking dead girl the night of the car crash? Was it her mysterious benefactor? You’ll have to read the book to find out! I enjoyed the murder mystery aspect of this story, but mostly I was more transfixed by Angel’s journey of self-discovery. Throughout the book I cheered her on as she discovered her strengths and stood up to her bullies. I’m excited to see how she evolves in the next two books in the series!

Geared for the Grave by Duffy Brown

23505722If you haven’t been to Mackinac Island up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, put it on your bucket list! I married a Michigander, so we sometimes take a little daytrip up to the island while visiting his folks. Just imagine Disneyland’s Main Street on a remote island where there’s nothing but cutesy shops, restaurants and oodles of fudge! Aside from the chocolaty goodness, the best part about the island is that no cars are allowed. If you want to get around, you’ll have to hoof it, ride a bike or jump on a horse buggy. Coming from Austin—one of the worst traffic cities in the universe—that sounds like bliss!

So it’s only fitting that this mystery begins when the meanest lady in town dies in a horrific bike accident. Considering that everyone despised her, the suspect list is bigger than Lake Superior. Yet thanks to a supposed eye witness, it becomes an open-and-shut case. The temporary town Sherriff is more than happy to pin the murder on Rudy Randolph, owner of a rundown bike rental shop. This doesn’t bode well for our protagonist, Evie Bloomfield, who’s determined to fix up the bike shop to boost her chances of promotion. You see, Rudy’s daughter is Evie’s boss, and if he goes to prison, she can kiss her big-city job goodbye.  The townies also have reasons to sweep the murder under the rug. Tourists (aka “fudgies”) are their bread and butter, so it’s important to not botch up the island’s idyllic Norman Rockwellesque façade. Who knew that a happy place like Mackinac Island could be a seedy hotbed of murder, blackmail and organized crime?! If you, like me, love an atmospheric whodunit filled with quirky characters and snarky dialogue, give this one a try. I’m excited to see what’s in store for Evie and her eclectic sidekicks in the next installment of this new series. Boy, I sure could go for some gooey fudge right about now!

Adventures in Dating by Sara Rishforth

Published January 24, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

21560377Let me start off by saying (sorry, single ladies!) that I’m SO glad I’m not in the dating world. I kissed that life goodbye the moment I met my drunken sailor boy on that fateful night in Tijuana—long before everyone became so transfixed with selfies and Facebook. Yes, that’s right, I came from the prehistoric age when boys used to pick up the phone to ask girls out.

Unfortunately for Kari Covington, this technology-enhanced dating scene is a part of her reality. To make matters worse, she lives in Alaska where it’s practically impossible to dress cute without catching hypothermia. Oh but don’t fret, this sassy girl is very strategic about swapping out her Eskimo clothes for frilly outfits and couture heels. Another added bonus—the frigid weather tames her naturally curly hair, which would otherwise be a hot mess in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

So you see, this little lady has it going on, and the boys always come back calling for a second date. Everything is all fine and dandy until the other shoe drops and she’s back to square one. Good thing she has her work buddy and fellow foodie pal, Jack, to lean on when her princes turn back into frogs.

Seriously, Cher. How long can you be "just friends" with this guy?

Seriously, Cher. How long can you be “just friends” with this guy?

Remember screaming at Alicia Silverstone to finally make a move on Paul Rudd in Clueless? Well that pretty much sums up my frustration with Kari since chapter one. Are you blind, woman?! He’s hot, he’s totally into her, they’re both raging foodies (a hobby I will never understand), and he’s single! HELLO!  Is it terrible that I rather enjoyed Kari’s discomfort when Jack got scooped up by a long-legged red-head? She kind of deserved that, right?

Since I normally read mystery novels, I have to resign myself to the fact that this is not a guessing game. Anyone who’s familiar with the tropes of the romance genre is aware that this story is really more about the slow-motion journey through the field of daisies, with a few detours here and there. But I have to say that this is a pretty fun journey. I enjoyed all the little outings to pub trivia nights, cooking classes and singles bars. It was also fun guessing how all her seemingly perfect dates would end in disaster. I sure felt for her when she was trapped in a restaurant with a hard-core political journalist. Check, please!

What really set this book apart from your typical girl-in-the-city romance is the Alaska setting. It’s the perfect place for snuggling up with a hot man by a roaring fire. I’m also pleased that Kari is a normal size-12 lady, not a tall, willowy supermodel look-a-like. We need more of that in genre fiction! Despite her naivety, she’s a great friend and an excellent cook. I would gladly accept an invite to one of her dinner parties! Warning: this book will make you hungry. All the descriptions of Kari’s culinary creations had me drooling like a Saint Bernard on a hot summer’s day.

If you love a fun, light-hearted romance, pick this one up. I know it can be rather iffy trying out a new author, but I promise that this is quality stuff!

A Q&A with Katie Jansson Shahin, Author of ‘One Day this Will All Make Sense’

Published January 18, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

One Day This Will All Make Sense - Book CoverIn One Day this Will All Make Sense, Emma moves to LA from Sweden to embark on a new, exciting career. She soon finds the city of her dreams may actually be more of a nightmare. The sink-or-swim work environment is filled with an array of malevolent forces—from dirty office politics, to sneaky HR loopholes, to one heck of a Machiavellian boss who would make Miranda Priestly look like a timid kitten.

Take it from someone who knows, conquering these obstacles makes Frodo’s epic journey to the flaming eye of Mordor look like a stroll through the Shire.

Read on to learn more about Emma’s voyage into the maelstrom of corporate America. Seeing as how we’re both career girls who have been through the gauntlet and back, we should totally get together for drinks!

What made you decide to write a story about a Swedish woman trying to make it in the city of LA?

LA is such a fascinating place, with its huge population of “chasing dreamers.” It’s a character in itself and paired with a meaningful message, it can make for a captivating combination. But mainly I chose LA because that’s where the actual story took place. I myself had a very interesting experience trying to make a life for myself in LA. And I felt it was a story worth telling. For various reasons I actually tried many times to move the location to NYC, but it just didn’t work. The story, my story, I wanted to tell just disappeared outside of the world’s largest suburb.

How did you go about researching corporate culture in America and Sweden?

I’ve experienced them both first-hand myself. I moved to CA summer of 2010. I’ve worked for two different companies here in the US. But it wasn’t until early spring of 2013 when I switched departments, that I actually started to see how incredibly different they can be. I was suddenly in the extremes of the extremes of American corporate culture, and it’s not for everyone. It can be ruthless and with a lot of mind games and intimidation going on and at times feel like a cult. What’s even worse is that there’s nowhere for the intimidated employee to safely turn, and no one who can help them because of the politics and unwritten rules of the American workplace. When I saw that extreme difference from Swedish culture, I thought, “wow, this book practically writes itself.”

What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

The importance to somehow see the humor even in the darkest period of your life. To consistently remind yourself that it will get better so that you don’t give in to the temptation to give up. But more importantly, that even if you don’t believe things happen for a reason, you can still give it a reason by taking advantage of it afterwards and making the best of it. My debut novel would not have been written this early in life had it not been because of what I went through at my old job, which in itself is a positive outcome.

If you could take one of your characters out to lunch, who would it be and why?

It would be Nicky. She’s actually one of the few characters who is completely made up and not inspired by anyone I know. I love her no-nonsense attitude, and I think her support would be great to have in any tough period you’re going through. We all need a friend like that. Someone who just says it like it is but still always stays loyal and has your back.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Music was such a big part of writing this book. Each chapter has the same title as the song I was inspired by while writing that particular chapter and showcases Emma’s feelings. I’ve posted a playlist on my blog (you can find it here), if anyone wants to take a look.

AKatie Jansson Shahin - Picturebout the author: Katie’s love for writing is versatile. Before taking the big leap into novel writing she focused mostly on screenwriting. In addition to that, she has a blog where she writes book reviews and articles on writing: An Authorista’s Blog. Katie is originally from Sweden but moved to California summer 2010 and currently resides in the North Bay area just outside of San Francisco. When she’s not working on her writing, she is an HR and recruiting professional. Although her debut novel is not a biography, as you may have guessed, One Day This Will All Make Sense is heavily inspired by her own experience moving from Sweden to Los Angeles and her life there.

Chick Lit Café’s Best Books of 2014!

Published January 2, 2015 by Chick-Lit Cafe

Bust out the glitter and champagne—it’s time to ring in the new year and celebrate all the books that made us laugh, cry, swoon and yearn for adventure! Here are some highlights from last year’s mountainous reading list! I should note that not all of these books dropped in 2014, but they were new to me and therefore they made the list. It’s my blog, dammit, so I get to call the shots!

What were your memorable reads of 2014? Did any books in particular sing to your soul, make you want to change your life for the better, or transport you to another dimension through space and time? Post a comment and tell me all about it!

Best All-Around Book of 2014: Orphan Train by Kristina Baker Kline

15818107This is one of those traumatic coming-of-age stories that sucks you in and keeps you glued to the pages until the very end. The tragic characters were so real, it felt like I was right there on that train as it trudged its way to the Midwest, hungry, belittled and afraid of the unknown.  Even when I wasn’t reading, I found my mind drifting to little orphan Niahm, wondering how she was going to survive her current horrifying foster-home situation. I would also think of Molly’s unlikely friendship with a 91-year-old widow, wondering how they would eventually help each other overcome their hardships and find closure in the end. The author did a fantastic job unfolding both Molly’s and Niahm’s narratives as the chapters jumped from present day to the Great Depression. It was almost impossible setting down the book because I was dying to see their stories converge.

Memorable quote: So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason – to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?

 Best Wanderlust Book: Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

11100477Oh man, I don’t even know how to even begin describing how much I adore this book. I just want to climb to the top of one of Tom’s beloved mountain peaks with a bullhorn and tell the world to read Following Atticus. It’s that good, people!

This is just a beautiful story about the bond between a man and his dog, and how they both found inner peace in the enchanting New Hampshire Mountains. In defiance of what’s expected of an overweight middle-aged man and a 20-pound dog, they achieved the impossible. Not once, but twice, they conquered all 48 of the great White Mountain peaks in one winter.

I can tell you from experience that animals have a way of making us live in the present. Like standing atop a majestic mountain and looking down at nature’s splendor, seeing the world through a dog’s eyes can allow us to take in the bigger picture. All those trivial things—the office pettiness, the family melodrama, the overloaded inbox—seem so insignificant when you can truly understand the broad scheme of things. That’s why this book really hit home.

Memorable quote: In the mountains Atticus became more of what he’d always been, and I became less—less frantic, less stressed, less worried, and less harried. I felt comfortable letting him lead, and he seemed to know what I needed. He always chose the best route, if ever there was a question, and my only job was to follow.

Best Beach Read: Five Summers by Una Lamarche

16101148My happiest childhood memories took place at Camp Marston, a sleepaway camp nestled in the mountains of Julian, California. This book rekindled so many memories of the deep friendships that were forged over burnt marshmallows and capture-the-flag games. In this book, the four girls were lucky enough to stay in touch throughout the years and help each other through the trials and tribulations of young adulthood. Each girl is holding back a deep, dark secret and it all comes to a head when they reunite at their beloved Camp Nedoba. I really liked how the author used the third-person narrative to weave each of the girls’ past and present summer camp experiences in every chapter. I loved getting to know all the characters and reminiscing about my carefree summers at camp, where I only had to worry about hiding contraband candy from the counselors and getting caught on a night raid to boys hill!

Memorable quote: The way you act can sometimes be totally different from the way you actually are.

Best Inspirational Memoir: Eat and Run by Scott Jurek

13202092Confession: I bought this book for my husband without any intention of reading it myself. Just the thought of reading a memoir penned by a vegan ultra-marathoner made my eyes roll. But yet, the curiosity got the best of me when I read his inscription: “Dear Jarred, just do things.” Do things? Huh? Intrigued by this simple, yet provocative sentiment, I peeked into the first chapter and soon found myself totally enthralled by Jurek’s voyage into the unimaginable realm of ultra-marathon running. This book completely changed my perception of human limitations. At the risk of sounding trite, this incredibly gifted man shows that you can train your mind into believing –and proving—that anything’s possible. Example: the book opens with Jurek tossing his cookies on the side of the road in Death Valley with 60 more miles to go. Death freakin’ Valley! At this point any rational person would stick a fork in it and head back to the hotel. Not Scott Jurek. He not only completes the race—he wins it!  This isn’t just a book about running; it’s a story of perseverance. When the going gets tough, I’m going to keep his mantra in mind: Sometimes you just do things.

Memorable quote: I’m convinced that a lot of people run ultramarathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don’t mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement, and closeness to nature that I’ve received in my running career. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind – a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.

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