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I bought Seventh Heaven on a whim, after searching high and low for a book that came out 25 years ago, required by my 2015 reading challenge. I looked in the New York Times book review archives. I checked Goodreads best-of lists. I asked family and friends if they knew of anything that had been published in 1990 that was good. In the end, I picked a book at random off a list, bought a used copy online, and absolutely devoured it.

I was entranced by this book from the first page. For one, I absolutely love the writing style. It’s mystical, realistic but not, and flows so beautifully. It reminded me of a Tim Burton film.

Another reason I really loved this book, though, was Nora. Nora, the only divorced woman on her block, or maybe in her whole town, who just wants a friend. Nora, who doesn’t understand why nobody will befriend her son, or why the other mothers don’t want to have lunch, or why her American Dream of a cute house in the suburbs just isn’t working out the way she wanted it to.

In fact, I really loved almost all of the characters in this book. Sure, some of them are terrible people. But they all have entrancing stories to tell. All of their stories are interconnected. All of their stories are important. Nora has such an impact on all of them.

I may have picked this book up on a whim, but I will definitely seek out more of Hoffman’s books.

For my 2015 reading challenge, I crossed off #30: a book that came out the year you were born.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

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Picture this – you’re a 50-something women who’s been working in pharmaceutical PR for years when suddenly your position is eliminated. Or maybe you’re fired. However you want to look at it, you no longer have a job, and you know it’s because of your age. Because young, beautiful women are in, and you’re not. Suddenly, you get a vague, somewhat shady-sounding job offer from someone you’d never met who feels like you’d be “perfect” for a job that just opened up. The only catch is that you can’t tell your friends or family that you have the job, you have to move to another country, and you must agree to a battery of medical procedures and sign a non-disclosure agreement. But don’t worry – once you sign that non-disclosure agreement, your obscenely large salary will be deposited into a secret bank account.

Do you do it? Personally, I’d walk. I’d apply for something else. But Anna? Our main character, Anna, well. She just goes for it.

This is the premise of Younger, a thriller involving a medical-grade anti-aging cream that can literally take decades off your appearance. Well, sort of. You also have to engage in the rather risky behavior of applying intensive retinols twice a day while having your whole face lasered off, a process so involved that it requires twilight anesthesia, it seems. (As someone who’s worked in dermatology for three years, I would implore you to please not ever use retinols, intensive or otherwise, before having your face lasered. That is a recipe for disaster. You should also be wary of any laser treatment that requires anesthesia. Anyway, moving on.) For your face to match up with your new skin, you’ll need a little Botox here, a little filler there. A new wardrobe, a new haircut, some classes on how to walk and talk like a youngin. A whole new identity provided by the British government. You know, the usual when it comes to starting a new job.

The problem with this book is that, despite the odd premise, it could have been good. Give me some corporate sabotage. I want to see the cut-throat pharmaceutical industry snuffing out competition. I want to see Anna struggling with the side effects of this miracle cream. I want to see the twists and turns that I’ve come to expect from a thriller. But that’s not what we get. We get an offhand mention of possible spies. A vague mention of a predecessor who may have killed herself, or may have been murdered. We’re told that someone’s trying to murder Anna, but all we really see is her running around foreign countries in various wigs, basically making a fool of herself as she tries to outwit this unnamed evil.

There is, somehow, simultaneously too much going on and absolutely nothing of interest. A haphazard love story is thrown in, one that I couldn’t get on board with. Anna’s boss shows up dying at her doorstep on the first page, but I couldn’t have cared less. That’s the problem with this book – I really couldn’t have cared less what was going on. For a thriller, this left me remarkably bored.

I received a free copy of Younger through Amazon Prime’s Kindle First program. For my 2015 reading challenge, I crossed off #29: a book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit.

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

It’s official!  I did it!  My 2015 reading challenge is complete.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge, because this year’s led me to some really great books I probably would not have otherwise picked up.  (There were some doozies, too, but what can you do.)

See all the books from my 2015 reading challenge below.

  1. a book with more than 500 pages: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  2. a romance: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
  3. a book that became a movie: The Duff by Kody Keplinger
  4. a book published this year: The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
  5. a book with a number in the title: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  6. a book written by someone under 30: Everyone’s a Casualty by Jaidon Wells
  7. a book with nonhuman characters: Marked by Sarah Fine
  8. a funny book: The Virgin Romance Novelist by Meghan Quinn
  9. a book by a female author: Undressed by Shannon Richard
  10. a mystery or thriller: Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
  11. a book with a one-word title: Joyride by Anna Banks
  12. a book of short stories: Best Food Writing 2015 by Holly Hughes
  13. a book set in a different country: Accidentally In Love by Laura Drewry
  14. a nonfiction book: The World on a Plate by Mina Holland
  15. a popular author’s first book: Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
  16. a book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet: Fairest by Marissa Meyer
  17. a book a friend recommended: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
  18. a pulitzer prize winning book: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  19. a book based on a true story: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
  20. a book at the bottom of your to-read list: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
  21. a book your mom loves: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  22. a book that scares you: Long Way Down by Krista & Becca Ritchie
  23. a book more than 100 years old: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
  24. a book based entirely on its cover: Sing for Me by Gracie Madison
  25. a book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum
  26. a memoir: Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty by Diane Keaton
  27. a book you can finish in a day: Rule Breaker by Harper Kincaid
  28. a book with antonyms in the title: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez
  29. a book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: Younger by Suzanne Munshower
  30. a book that came out the year you were born: Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman
  31. a book with bad reviews: Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton
  32. a trilogy: Addicted by Krista & Becca Ritchie
  33. a book from your childhood: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  34. a book with a love triangle: Twisted Souls by L.L. Collins
  35. a book set in the future: Carswell’s Guide to Being Lucky by Marissa Meyer
  36. a book set in high school: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre
  37. a book with a color in the title: One Lavender Ribbon by Heather Burch
  38. a book that made you cry: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  39. a book with magic: Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins
  40. a graphic novel: The Fade Out, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
  41. a book by an author you’ve never read before: The List by Kate L. Mary
  42. a book you own but have never read: The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
  43. a book that takes place in your hometown: Addicted for Now by Krista & Becca Ritchie
  44. a book that was originally written in a different language: Room 702 by Paloma Aínsa
  45. a book set during christmas: Mistletoe & Margaritas by Shannon Stacey
  46. a book written by an author with your same initials: The Secrets Between You and Me by Shana Norris
  47. a play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
  48. a banned book: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  49. a book based on or turned into a tv show: Bob’s Burgers, Vol. 1 by Chad Brewster
  50. a book you started but never finished: Skipped Parts by Tim Sandlin

Did you challenge yourself in 2015?  If so, how did you do?

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I don’t often read collections of short stories. I probably never would have picked this book up if my 2015 reading challenge hadn’t required me to read a Pulitzer Prize winner. I couldn’t find my copy of Middlesex, and the only edition I have of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is in Spanish, so I was at a loss. I’m trying to cut down my book-buying habit, so I asked my mom if she owned any Pulitzer Prize winners. She did! This one!

I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, I’d heard good things about Lahiri. An author doesn’t get to be a Pulizer Prize winner without some amount of publicity. But I really had no idea what kind of books she wrote or what I was getting myself into. I didn’t even know this was a collection of short stories until I started reading it.

The first one, A Temporary Matter, made me sob. That’s when I knew that I was in for a good experience. Do you know how many books have made me sob over the years? No more than a handful. The story of a couple grieving their stillborn child while telling each other secrets by candlelight – easily the best of the bunch.

My next favorite was probably Sexy, the story of a mistress who, upon babysitting a strangely perceptive young boy, realizes that her lover does not actually love her.

Rounding out my top three would be Interpreter of Maladies: a hired driver tells a rich couple of his “real” job – a medical interpreter. The wife becomes enamored with the idea that the patients’ lives are in this man’s hands; after all, if he were to interpret their symptoms incorrectly, they would not get the correct treatments. Over the course of the trip, the driver falls for the wife and his perfect idea of her, only to find that she’s as imperfect and human as anybody else.

This is not the kind of book that you power through. I read one or two stories at a time, often taking a break of several hours in between. The stories stick with you. They weigh on you. They’re not happy stories; in fact, most of them have rather sad, disappointing endings. But these are not the kind of stories that would work with happy endings. For the most part, they’re brief windows into the lives of unhappy people.

My takeaway from this book? A reminder to be kind. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes in someone else’s life.

Final rating: 

★★★★☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #18: a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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I purchased Skipped Parts on December 17, 2011. I know this because Amazon told me so. It also told me that I shipped it to my mom’s house, which probably means that I first attempted to read it over winter break. Four years ago.

Then it moved with me twice (from Wisconsin to New Jersey, and then again within the state of New Jersey), and I really forgot about it until I had to find a book I’d started and never finished for my 2015 reading challenge. I don’t abandon many books (as you can see by my “abandoned” shelf on Goodreads), so this was a tough one.

I vaguely remembered reading this book. Or trying to, I guess. I didn’t even abandon it because I hated it. I don’t really recall, but I probably had to go back to school in the middle of the book. And I probably forgot it at my mom’s house. I hate leaving books unfinished, so I’m glad it’s done now. Almost four years later.

Skipped Parts is the story of Sam Callahan, a thirteen-year-old boy who, along with his mother, is exiled to middle-of-nowhere Wyoming by his wealthy grandfather. Sam and his mother, Lydia, are fully disappointed with their new home. The weather’s awful, the people are worse, and they can only get one station on their television. The one shining light for Sam is his classmate Maurey, a beautiful and actually intelligent young woman who suggests that the two of them “practice” for their future by experimenting with sex.

Lydia is not only ok with Sam and Maurey’s new relationship, but she actually encourages it, going so far as to give them sex tips. Her one rule: the fun stops when Maurey gets her first period. But who would have imagined that Maurey would get pregnant first?

What follows is a book full of Sam and Maurey’s ups and downs, the development of their relationship as they come of age, and a number of (often ridiculous) plot twists. The characters are all interesting, in a love them or hate them kind of way. I think I related the most to Sam and his blind devotion to Maurey, even when she was being absolutely awful to him. I would like to be surprised by Lydia’s attitude, but I’m not. I’d also like to be surprised by the idea of thirteen-year-olds experimenting with sex, but I’m not. Although this book is set in the early 1960’s, it’s relevant to today’s society of Teen Mom entertainment and parents who couldn’t care less that their babies are having babies.

So here’s the verdict: Skipped Parts is neither the best or worst book in recent memory. I have no strong feelings one way or the other. I was compelled to keep reading in hopes of a happy ending that I knew I wasn’t going to get. Above all, I’m glad to have finally finished a book I started almost four years ago.

Final rating: 

★★★☆☆

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #50: a book you started but never finished.

Book review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Series: Simon Snow #1
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: AmazonGoodreads
Publication Date: May 9, 2017
Source: Purchased

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Fangirl was my first Rainbow Rowell book. I read it, I loved it, I’ve never looked back. Since finishing it, I’ve obsessively read everything that Rowell has ever written. I’ve recommended her books to my friends, to my co-workers, to my boyfriend (but he won’t read them). I love her writing style. I love her characters. I love everything about her books. So, in short: This book is by Rainbow Rowell, so of course I loved it.

And of course this book is connected to Fangirl. In that book, Cath writes Simon Snow fanfiction. But if you haven’t read that book, don’t worry about it. Prior knowledge of Fangirl is not necessary to read, understand, or enjoy this book. They are separate worlds. They are separate entities. So let me first start by saying this: put Fangirl out of your mind. Enjoy Carry On for what it is.

This book is, by far, one of my favorites in recent memory. I read the majority in one sitting, stopping only for my weekly phone call with my mom and a quick lunch break. I’m having trouble finding words to describe it. It’s everything I’d hoped for, and maybe a little more. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s whimsical, and it’s enthralling. It made me happy to be reading it, even when the plot got sad. I wish I could live in Simon Snow’s universe, because I could be friends with any of these characters.

Simon, the “worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.” A kid who’s jumped from foster home to foster home, who absolutely loves coming to school because it’s the one place he feels like he belongs.
Baz, maybe-probably-definitely a vampire. A kid from one of the Old Families (who used to rule the magical world). The biggest jerk with the biggest heart.
Penny, the smartest girl you’ll ever meet. Heart of gold. So clever. And she cares about Simon so much in a 100% platonic way.
Agatha, who’s actually kind of awful, but you can’t help but sympathize with her, at least a little bit. (I take it back, I couldn’t be her friend.)

And all the secondary characters, from the school staff to the family members to the villains. As you would expect from Rainbow Rowell, they’re all developed. They all have histories and motives and feelings.

As the story begins, Simon is entering his eighth (and final) year at Watford. His roommate Baz is missing, and although Baz annoys the living daylights out of him (and has actually tried to kill Simon a few times), Simon knows something must be wrong when he still hasn’t showed up several weeks into the term. He spends his days (and nights) prowling around the Watford campus, asking around about Baz, searching any and everywhere he thinks Baz could be hiding. His need to find Baz borders on obsession.

Eventually, Baz comes back, and the story kicks up a notch (or several). Simon and Baz aren’t at each other’s throats as much as they used to be. In fact, they team up (temporary truce) to achieve a mutual goal. Simon has never been able to control his magic, but amazing things happen when he works with Baz. The two of them are like a dream team. I was completely absorbed by their story.

And, oh… the romance. I wasn’t sure how Rowell was going to pull it off, but she did. She always does. It felt natural, and it wasn’t over-the-top. It was perfect. Much like this whole book.

I can see myself re-reading this one. That’s how much I loved it.

for my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #2: a romance

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How do you review an anthology like this? I can’t go into detail on each piece, because that would take ages, and you probably don’t care. So let me just keep my review short and to the point – I was pleasantly surprised by this collection of articles.

I didn’t know what to expect going in, because I haven’t read any of the previous Best Food Writing books. I love to cook, so I was thrilled to see articles about making a great bolognese, or how to make proper carnitas. Some were great life lessons too, like important things to know about cast iron pans. Others were great to think about, like why exactly people don’t cook when they easily could.

When I finished this book, I actually felt like I had learned something about cooking, and about food culture in general.

Highly recommended.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the free copy!

For my 2015 reading challenge, I’m crossing off #12: a book of short stories. (These would count as short, nonfiction stories, right?)