the sparkly life

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The 15 Books I Read in February and March (Best and Worst!)


This has been a tough past few weeks for most of us, to say the least. I don't know if you're like me, but even though I (and everyone!) had all the time in the world, I found it nearly impossible to focus on books. I'm starting to come around though, which I'm thankful for. Reading does a lot to reduce my anxiety, and I've certainly had a lot of that lately! So for obvious reasons, March was a relatively light reading month for me. And since February was light, as well, mostly because I was busy, (remember when we used to be busy?), I decided to combine the two months here. 

The good news: This was a great two months of reading for me! It was a mix of brand new books, and older books that have been on my TBR forever. And so many good ones! There were six 5-star reads, plus many more 4/4.5 star reads. If you're looking for a good book to keep you company during quarantine, there's a lot to love here.

Also, while I have you, if you're not yet a member of Libro.fm, this is a great time to consider joining. Independent bookstores are getting killed right now thanks to coronavirus closures, and Libro allows your audiobook purchases to directly support your local indie bookstores instead of Amazon. If you use code ALYSSA (or just click here), you can get three audiobooks for the price of one! I'm a huge Libro fan and highly recommend them.

And now...here's everything I read over the past two months. Enjoy!

LOVED

The Dream Daughter - I LOVED this book by Diane Chamberlain. I'm a sucker for time travel stories and this was SUCH a great one! It's about a young widow named Casey who is pregnant and living in the 1970s when she finds out her unborn child has a terminal heart defect and will not survive. She is devastated, of course, but soon learns of a way to time travel to the future where in utero heart surgery is possible. I won't give away any more, but this is a fantastic book with so many twists and turns. I gasped out loud while reading it, I bawled at the end, and I could not put it down. 

Open Book by Jessica Simpson - I went into this with pretty neutral feelings about Jessica Simpson (was never a particular fan, but had nothing against her), but I came out of this wanting to be her best friend! You guys, this is just a really good book whether or not you are a Jessica fan. It's exactly what a celebrity memoir should be: brutally honest, totally open, and super juicy. Jessica lets it all out. She talks about her struggles with alcoholism and her weight, she talks about other celebrities (that John Mayer section, OMG!), she opens up about her marriage to Nick Lachey, as well as her other relationships, and so, so much more. The audio version is an absolute must (you hear her cry a lot, you hear her laugh), and you will not be able to stop listening once you start. (Again, if you're going to get the audio version of this or anything else, consider doing it through Libro.fm with code ALYSSA (click here) for three audiobooks for the price of one!)

In Five Years - In this book by Rebecca Searle (author of The Dinner List), things couldn't be going better for New York lawyer Dannie Cohen. When we first meet her, she rocks a job interview in the morning, and then gets engaged to ger boyfriend that night. But later that evening, Dannie goes to sleep and wakes up in a strange apartment she doesn't recognize--with a strange man who she doesn't know but who she seems to be in a relationship with. She soon realizes that she has been transported five years into the future. When she wakes up again, she is back in 2020, safe in her apartment, but very confused. Had that been a vision of her future? Life pretty much returns to normal until four and a half years later when Dannie finally comes face to face with the man from her vision--and nothing will ever be the same again. I loved this book, and don't think I have ever read anything so fast in my life. I tore through it in just a few hours! It deals beautifully with fate, friendship, destiny, and love. I was surprised, delighted, and so moved. I had tears in my eyes by the end, and adored every page it took to get there. 

American Dirt - Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that there has been some controversy around this book. After much debate and research, I decided I wanted to read it and decide for myself, and I'm so glad I did. American Dirt tells the story of Lydia who is forced to flee her hometown in Mexico with her young son Luca when she becomes the target of a drug cartel. We follow Lydia and Luca as they make a long and harrowing journey through the country in the hopes of reaching safety in America. My verdict: I loved this book. Is it the most accurate depiction of migrants ever created? I'll trust the people who say it is not. But as a fictional book, it's very successful. It's exciting, it's gripping, it's emotional, and the characters are so interesting. But most of all, it makes you feel intense empathy for the many people who are making these dangerous, impossible-seeming journeys. And god knows, there are a lot of people in this world who could stand to gain a little more empathy...especially on this issue. (Side note: The book has also made me want to seek out additional, own-voices books on the subject, which is a very good thing.)

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell - This book has been kicking around in my Kindle forever, and I'm so glad I finally read it. It's so good! We first meet Sam Hell as a child. He is bullied and called "Devil Boy" by his classmates, because of his red pupils, an effect of a condition called ocular albinism. He has a tough life, but it's made bearable when he makes two friends: Eddie and Mickie. Forty years later, Sam is working as an eye doctor and looking back on his life--and he takes the reader on quite the journey  The book is happy, sad, triumphant, and even funny. I don't want to give away too much, but I just loved every moment. It reminds me of This Tender Land in a lot of ways. (Another book I loved and highly recommend!). Best part is that it's FREE if you have Kindle Unlimited. If you don't, the digital version is just $5.99 right now!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo - Another one that was kicking around in my Kindle forever. Not sure what took me so long to read it (EVERYBODY raves about it), but I'm so glad I did. It's as good as everybody says! Aging, legendary film actress Evelyn Hugo sits down with a young writer named Monique, who she handpicked to tell her life story. And what a story it is! But it's also not the story you'd expect. We learn all about Evelyn's career, her marriages, the true love of her life, and the surprising reason she chose Monique to write the story at all. I picked this up after struggling to focus on book after book at the start of coronavirus self-quarantine, and it was the perfect thing. It's quick, hard to put down, and really good. Loved.


LIKED A LOT

My Dark Vanessa - This tells the story of Vanessa Wye, who at 15 years old, engages in a sexual relationship with Jacob Strane, her 42 year old English teacher at boarding school. Told in alternating timelines, we are there for both Vanessa's teenage years during the affair, as well as 17 years later in the age of Me Too, when her world is rocked once again when she learns of a former student who is bringing sexual abuse charges against Strane. The older teacher/younger student subject has been told a million times, of course, but what was so fascating here is that we get to see two students who went through basically the exact same thing, but view it very differently (with one seeing it as clear sexual abuse, and the other seeing it in a way that's much more...complicated). Though there are parts that are very tough to read, this is a definite page turner and would make an excellent book club pick. So much to discuss here!

The Grace Year - Tierney is a 16 year old girl living in the fictional, patriarchal society of Garner County, where girls her age are banished for a full year so that they can get rid of their "magic" before returning home to fulfill their duties as wives. We follow Tierney as she fights for survival during the year, battling foes such as poachers (who lurk in the woods and are said to skin the girls alive), the harsh elements, and--perhaps most dangerous of all--each other. As others have accurately said, it's Handmaid's Tale meets Lord of the Flies (with some Hunger Games thrown in), and it's good. Elizabeth Banks is producing a movie version of it, which I fully expect should be awesome!

You Are Not Alone - Shay is a young woman living an average, fairly boring life in New York. But everything changes when she witnesses a mysterious stranger commit suicide. She becomes obsessed with the dead woman's life and even with her friends. And, soon, those friends become obsessed with her, too. Don't want to give away too many more details, but rest assured that this is a good, fun thriller that I really enjoyed. I actually listened to it on audiobook, even though I don't typically do well with fiction on audio. But I had no problems keeping up with the story and really liked experiencing it in the audio format!

Little Secrets - Marin and Derek are a picture-perfect married couple. They started as college sweethearts, and are now successful and wealthy professionals living in Seattle. Then, one day, their lives are turned upside down when their young son, Sebastian, is kidnapped in broad daylight. We then re-join them a year later when Marin is a broken woman, struggling to get through the day. There are no leads as to Sebastian's whereabouts, so she hires a private investigator to take on the case. And the PI makes a big discovery: Derek is having an affair. Marin soon becomes obsessed with the other woman, and essentially goes on a mission to make sure she doesn't lose her husband, too. I really enjoyed this book for the most part. The kidnapping portion is gut-wrenching, and I liked most of the characters. The book lost me a bit in the middle though, as I felt Marin made some truly far-fetched choices that seemed totally unrealistic. It hooked me again in the final third though with a fast-paced ending with many unexpected moments. It's a fun, dramatic, hard-to-put-down book that won't make you think too hard.  (Note: This book comes out on April 21, but you can preorder now!)

Uncomfortably Numb - I really enjoyed the author's Spivey's Club Instagram takeover last week, so I decided to grab a copy. (It's free on Kindle Unlimited and only $5.99 for the digital version.) It tells the story of the author's life being rocked when she is diagnosed with a chronic disease (after being told by doctors that it was anxiety/all in her head). I thought it was really interesting to learn about how her illness has affected every aspect of her life, and I also thought it was a good commentary on how women's concerns still often aren't taken seriously by the medical community. It's a quick read and I love a good memoir.

Pretty Things - Nina is a professional con woman living in Los Angeles. Having learned the trade from her mother (a longtime con artist herself), Nina spends her days stealing from the rich in heists cooked up with her boyfriend Lachlan. But when her mother has a relapse of her disease and needs to start an expensive treatment, Nina realizes she needs to step up her game and make some more money fast. She comes up with an elaborate plan to swindle Vanessa, an old-money heiress turned Instagram influencer living in a massive, inherited mansion in Lake Tahoe. Nina and Lachlan create new identities and quickly begin to weave their way into Vanessa's priviledged life. But it turns out Vanessa has some secrets of her own. This book was a fun, thrilling romp with twist after twist. Virtually every character vascillates between being sympathetic and unlikeable, and every one of them will surprise you at some point in the story. This is a light, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed. It would make a great beach (or quarantine!) read. (Note: This book comes out on April 21, but you can preorder now!)


JUST OKAY

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird - On Lydia's 28th birthday, her fiance Freddie is killed in a freak car accident. She is understandably devastated. Then, one night, she takes a much-needed sleeping pill, and wakes up...with Freddie. She quickly realizes that she has entered an alternate version of her life, one where Freddie didn't die. She learns to travel between both worlds: the one where the love of her life has died, and the other where he is still alive and their wedding is fast approaching. I so wanted to love this book, because the premise is right up my alley, but I had some trouble getting into it. The beginning was really slow for me. Around the 40 percent mark, I got invested in it though and did really enjoy it from that point on. I thought the way the author handled the two worlds was clever, and I really loved the ending. I also think this book could be very comforting to someone who has lost a loved one. I do recommend it, I just wish I had enjoyed the first half more!

Writers & Lovers -Still reeling from the death of her mother, 31 year old Casey Peabody is at a crossroads in her life. She is a struggling writer/waitress who lives in a potting shed, has a mountain of student debt, and basically just needs to come to terms with the reality of whether she will or will not be able to live a creative life. It's a book about growing up and the universal struggle to become the person you want to be. I do think the author really captures what it feels like to be a woman of this age, feeling lost and overwhelmed, and the writing itself is great. I just couldn't get sucked in though. There were parts where I was really rooting for Casey and invested in the story, but other parts where I just wasn't. (I do think I'm in the minority on this one though. It was a March Book of the Month pick and I know many people who absolutely loved it!)

The Jetsetters - This was the most recent Reese's Book Club pick, and though I usually love her choices, this one was just ok for me. It's a character-driven family drama about a mother (Charlotte) who enters an essay contest to win a cruise around the world. When she wins the contest, she brings her estranged adult children (Lee, Cord, and Regan) in the hopes that the trip can bring them all together again. There is lots of drama and arguing and feelings and even many funny moments, but not a ton of action. (That's what killed it for me; I wanted more to happen.) I did like the end though--and lots of little bits throughout. Because of the focus on family dynamics, this reminded me a bit of All Adults Here (which I reviewed here), but that one is a much better book, in my opinion. 

Have you guys been reading a lot these days? Or having trouble focusing because of everything that's been going on? And if you've managed to read, what's the best thing you've read lately?


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Why We're Changing Our Spring Break Plans Because of Coronavirus

This is The Gilded Iguana, the hotel we were supposed to be at in less than two weeks. Sigh.

We are supposed to leave on vacation for spring break in a week and a half. We are supposed to go to Nosara, Costa Rica--a magical spot where we vacationed at the same time last year. We've had these plans booked for a full year (literally booked the hotel while in Costa Rica in 2019!). And we were going with another family, and were so excited about everything. If you had asked me even two days ago if we were still going, I would have said, "Yes!"

But now we're not.

For the last week or so, my husband had been leaning towards not going. He was worried about getting stuck there if things get worse, or if, say, someone on our plane gets sick. I hadn't actually been that worried, but then once he started worrying, that freaked me out. I am the anxious one who is always worried about everything, and my husband is the annoyingly unflappable one who tells me I'm being crazy. If he was scared, that was scary.

Then, I happened to have a doctor's appointment yesterday, so I brought it up there. My doctor is a straight-shooter and not an alarmist, at all. I basically just wanted him to give us the greenlight to go. 

He didn't. In fact, he told me that no one should be flying internationally or domestically right now. He said the big problem with planes is the close quarters. You are pressed up next to people (and behind people and in front of people) for hours on end. It's the perfect environment for spreading a virus. He strongly advised me against going. So, we're not.

(Incidentally, he also said no one should be in crowds or gatherings of more than 20 people right now--think church, weddings, etc. Yikes!) 

I'm definitely heartbroken that we won't be going to Nosara, but I do understand that this is what has to happen right now if we want to have any hope of keeping this virus relatively under control. I'm not worried for me; I'm not in a high-risk group, and neither is my husband or my kids. But my parents are. And countless others in my town, city, etc, are. None of us can be selfish or cavalier about this. Sure, we'll be okay in the short term, but do we really want to contribute to other peoples' deaths? Or to a burdened hospital system? Or to even more of a panic?

With Costa Rica out, we're now debating whether to go to Florida for the week. The catch is: We'd be driving. While I'm desperate for warm weather, I'm not sure if I'm up for a 20-hour drive (!) or for leaving the security of our own home when things are just about to get worse. 

So, what are your thoughts and experiences? Have you had to cancel vacation plans, too? Are your schools closed? (It's sounding like that's what's next for us. HELP.) What has coronavirus changed for you so far?

Friday, February 7, 2020

The 12 Books I Read In January (Best and Worst!)


Well, my January New Year, Old Books Challenge was a success! I am so glad I "forced" myself to finally read at least some of the books I already own and have been meaning to read forever. It felt good, and many of those books ended up being five-star reads for me! All in all, this month I read 12 books total, eight of them being "old" books (the other four were made up of three new audiobooks--a loophole I included since I had a backlog of new stuff on audiobooks, and one new ARC that I had to get through for a swap. That was my one cheat. Oops.)

Here's exactly what I read this month, separated into books I loved (my biggest category--yay!), liked a lot, was just okay for me, and could have done without. 

LOVED

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance - I loved this book so much! It's the epic tale of Weylyn Grey, a strange but endearing little boy who we follow from his time as a young orphan living with wolves (yes, really!) to his later years as a hermit in the woods. The book is told through multiple perspectives, which I really liked, and it's chock full of incredible characters, magic, wonder, and love. I absolutely adored this book. It reminded me a lot of The Heart's Invisible Furies meets A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I don't know if it gets better than that. A highly recommended must-read. 

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch's most recent book (Recursion) was, hands down, one of the best things I read in 2019, so I knew I wanted to go back and read his previous book, which I had been told had similar themes. Now it's almost impossible to give a summary of either book without giving anything away, but let's just say: If you loved Recursion, you will love this, too. It's a completely different book, but very much in the same vein (time-travel-y/alternate universe/mind-bending in the best way). Truly unputdownable, I devoured it in less than 24 hours, and it left me with that same "OMG that was such a wild ride" feeling as Recursion

Bel Canto - The Dutch House was another one of my absolute favorite reads of 2019, and ever since finishing it, I've made it my mission to go back and read everything else Ann Patchett has written. So this was the second Patchett I've ever read, and it definitely did not disappoint! To be honest, I was nervous about this one, because though everyone raves about it (literally a stranger saw me reading it in a ski lodge and came up to me to gush about it!), the premise just did not appeal to me. The summary: In an unnamed South American country, a fancy party is being thrown at the vice president's home when suddenly, the party is interrupted by armed terrorists who quickly take everyone hostage. I was skeptical reading that summary, but I am so glad I took the plunge and read it. I loved it! Taking place entirely in the home, Bel Canto follows the hostages and captors during their standoff and it is ultimately a beautiful story of love, friendship, and human interaction. The characters are incredible and the writing is absolutely exquisite. 

Little Fires Everywhere - I started to listen to this years ago on audio, but never really got into it so I abandoned it. But everyone raves about it (and Hulu and Reese Whitherspoon are launching a TV version of it soon!), so I decided to get a copy from the library and give it another go. This time I read it in two days and loved it! It tells the story of two families living in the picture-perfect, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio: the Richardsons (led by mother Elena and her four children) and their tenants (single mom Mia, and her daughter Pearl). The book examines how their lives intersect once Pearl befriends the Richardson children--and then it takes a turn when a dramatic custody battle flips everyone's lives upside down. The characters are rich, surprising, and so well-developed, but there's still lots going on. I can't wait for the Hulu version now.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things - I don't think I have ever had so many complicated feelings about a book in my entire life. I loved this book, but also hated it. (If you've read it, that probably makes sense!) It tells the story of Wavy, who we first meet as a child. She is nearly mute (by choice) and doesn't like to eat in front of others or be touched, because she has lived a very troubled life. Her mother battles addiction and mental illness, and is completely unfit. Her father is a drug dealer/manufacturer who is almost completely absent. She is moved around, written off, and ignored. So when Kellen, a man in his 20s who works for her father, takes an interest in her and wants to help her out (driving her to school, seeing that she has clothing, etc), it seems like a godsend. And that's where things start to get...complicated. The book is incredibly well written, nearly impossible to put down, and the characters are so vivid, but I was just not ok with the disturbing direction the story ended up going. It's ultimately a great book and a true page-turner, but just be prepared to be shocked--and very, very conflicted. (Side note: This is kind of the ultimate book club pick, because EVERYBODY will have opinions and you are DEFINITELY going to need to talk to someone after you finish it!) 


LIKED A LOT 

All Adults Here - Okay, this was my cheat book. It's not old. It was an ARC of Emma Straub's new book and it's launching in May. (Sue me. I'm only human!) The cheating was worth it though, because now I get to tell you: Get a jump on beach-read season and preorder this now! This smartly-written, character-driven novel tells the story of one family moving through life and zeroes in on so many issues related to sibling dynamics, parenting, grand-parenting, and more. I really liked Straub's writing (it reminds me a lot of Taffy Brodesser-Akner's writing). It's so sharp, funny, and real. You have to like character-driven novels to fully appreciate this one, I think, but if you do: It's a gem. 

Firefly Lane - Kristin Hannah has become one of my very favorite authors (The Nightingale and The Great Alone were two of the best books I read in 2019), but I had somehow never read this story of two women (Tully and Kate) who meet as young teens in the 70s and quickly become inseparable. We follow the two through their entire lives as they span the decades: from high school to college, career struggles to dream jobs, boyfriends to marriage, children, health, and family drama, and so much more. If I'm being honest, as I was reading most of the book, I didn't think I loved at as much as her past books. It was a page-turner, and I liked it, but I had the constant feeling that it was too long and didn't need to be as detailed as it was. But I was wrong, because by the end, I was fully invested. I absolutely bawled my way through the last few pages.

Saint X - Here's another brand new one  that I got an early peek at via my beloved Libro.fm. It comes out February 18th (but it wasn't a "cheat" because of my new-audiobooks-are-allowed loophole, ok? Lol.).  The story starts when seven-year-old Claire is on vacation with her family in the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X. At the tail end of the trip, her older sister Allison disappears and her body is found soon after. The first third or so of the book focuses on the mystery surrounding Allison's death, but the majority of the book revolves around Claire's life many years later as an adult. Her sister's death still colors everything in her life, and when she randomly comes face to face with one of the suspects in her sister's murder, the story takes an unexpected turn. I wasn't sure how I felt about this book for much of it. It was much less "thriller" than I expected (it's more of a human drama), but that's not the book's fault--that was my own mistaken expectations. And though I didn't love a lot of the middle section, I loved the beginning, and did really like how everything came together in the end, so all in all, I would recomemnd it. 


JUST OKAY

Elevation - I listened to this on audio, and chose it because it sounded interesting and also because it was short! I love Stephen King, but this was not my favorite. (That said, I'm probably being too hard, because my expectations were high because it was King!) I definitely didn't dislike it, but I didn't love it. And with King, I want to love it! :) There are two short stories included in the book. The main one is about a man who is facing a strange afflication: He is rapidly losing weight. No one knows why, no one can stop it. Again, not my favorite, but worth considering if you're looking for something very short and quick!

The Third Rainbow Girl - I love true crime, so I was really excited to get this brand new book on audio from Libro.fm. It was truly just okay for me though. (Not bad, but not great.) It tells the true story of two young women mysteriously killed in rural West Virginia in 1980. (They were on their way to a hippie-ish festival called the Rainbow Gathering, hence the title.) The author spent years living in the small town where the murders occurred and spends the book looking back at the crime and the many suspects. I did like that part. Where she lost me though was when she links the crime with the current troubles of West Virginia, and with her own story. (The book is also a bit of a memoir.) I personally didn't feel the connections worked or were very compelling. I wish she had focused solely on the crime, but then it probably wouldn't have been long enough for a book. Basically, I would have loved this as a podcast.


COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT

What Alice Forgot - I like Lianne Moriarty a lot, and have heard so many good things about this story of a woman who wakes up and can't remember the last decade (it's been lurking in my Kindle for years), but I was just so underwhelmed. I would have DNF'd this one early on, but I kept waiting for it to get good, and it just never did for me. (So many people love this one though, so keep that in mind!)

When Less Becomes More - I listened to this one on audio via Libro.fm, but it just didn't do it for me either. I felt like the author kept raising really smart questions ("why are women more overwhelmed and exhausted than ever?" "Why are we feeling more disconnected when we're more connected than ever?"), but then never really answered them. I wanted this book to be specific tips and things to do to clear through mental, digital, or physical clutter, and it just wasn't that. It was also very religious, which is not a knock on it--just wasn't what I was expecting.

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What did you guys read and love this month? And if you did the New Year, Old Books Challenge with me this month (and so many of you did--yay!), definitely let me know below!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Yes, I'm Still Alive (Plus 11 Cool Things To Click!)

williamsburg hotel

Hi. Yes, I'm still alive. (Did you miss me?) January has been nuts for me. Just so much going on in pretty much every area of my life, and as a result, the blog has taken the backseat, big time. I haven't even finished (ok, started) my post on the best books of 2019--arghh! (Is February too late for that? I hope not.)

This week, I spent two days on a Unilever press trip in my old stomping grounds of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (That's me ALONE in my hotel room at the Williamsburg Hotel, above.) I saw lots of cool upcoming beauty launches from brands like Dove, Tresemme, and Love Beauty Planet, caught up with old-school beauty-editor friends, and even got a glorious two hours to wander through my old neighborhood where we lived until my daughter was three. I realized how much I miss it there. It's just so, so cool.


I think this weekend is the very first weekend of 2020 that we haven't been traveling (!), so I plan to spend it doing exactly nothing. I'm going to read, and...yeah, that's pretty much it. Whatever you're up to this weekend, I hope you make it a great one. Here's a few fun links to check out. Enjoy!


• If you're looking for something to read, here's the three (!) books I'm reading right now: The Poisonwood Bible (an older, epic read that's an all-time favorite for so many people; I finally picked up as part of my New Year, Old Books Challenge), Pretty Things (a story about two women teaming up to scam people that isn't out until April, but already has so much buzz!), and You Are Not Alone (a highly-anticipated  thriller that's one of the February Book of the Month picks that I just started on audio. I've heard amazing things!). 

• Next, I'm starting American Dirt, which--unless you're living under a rock--you likely know has become a huge source of controversy. This story about an undocumented Mexican mother and her child fleeing to the U.S. was one of the most anticipated books of the year, Oprah just picked it for her book club, and people who have read it say it's amazing and that the first 50 pages are heart-stopping and like nothing you've ever read. At the same time, it's drawn criticism from many who say it contains dangerous stereotypes, and because its author is not an "own voices" writer (i.e. she's writing about the undocumented, Mexican experience, and she is neither of those things). Many people are boycotting it, but I very much want to decide for myself, so I just bought a copy. (My new book club just picked it, too, so that's another reason I'm diving in.) Have you guys read it? Do you plan to? I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

• In non-book news, I recently rediscovered Too Faced Better Than Sex Mascara, and you guys, it's sooo good! Gives me long and super thick lashes in just a few swipes, and it never runs or flakes on me. It's not new, but it's my new favorite.

• My friend Jenn always finds the coolest stuff (and is a Today Show contributor because of that!). She recently launched a newsletter where she shares five amazing finds each week. It's fast become one of my favorite things to find in my inbox.

• If this article is any indiction, the Jessica Simpson memoir is going to be [insert fire emojis]. It comes out this week, and I've already pre-ordered my copy. (I'm going to do the audio version, because nothing is better than celeb memoirs via audio...) 

• I got these APL Techloom Chelsea sneakers in black for Christmas, and have pretty much been living in them. They're really cute and beyond comfortable. (Also, they were on Oprah's Favorite Things list, so you know, just saying: #greatminds).

• I haven't bought a cookbook in ages, but just bought this one by the Defined Dish after hearing so many of my favorite bloggers rave about it (and seeing them recreate favorite recipes from it) on Instagram. Everything sounds so yummy and healthy!

• I don't watch much TV lately (because of this), but I started watching Cheer on Netflix yesterday, and could. not. stop. It's incredible--like a real-life Friday Night Lights, but with cheerleading. So, so good. 

• And if you're already a Cheer fan but haven't seen this video of Jerry mat-talking people as they walk into work, watch it immediately.

• This little kid has an Instagram account where he reviews Shirley Temples and it's the cutest thing.

• Look, Mike Bloomberg is not going to be president. And he's nowhere near my top choice. That said, as my former mayor, I do like him a lot. But whoever you're rooting for--and even if you're not into politics (what? how?)--this ad is amazing.

Have a great weekend!

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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My New Year, Old Books Challenge (Join Me?)


After a bit of a lull, I've made huge strides in my reading this year (as I write this on December 31st, I'm at 119 books read for the year--almost 100 more than last year...! (That said, the 119 number is kind of killing me, so I'm hoping to squeeze in one more today to make it an even 120.)

But one thing has frustrated me about my reading this year: I've been focused on new books. Brand new books--and pretty much exclusively. I get caught up in the #bookstagram culture, tempted by all the amazing new releases, and also feel obligated to read and review any e-books I (very generously!) get free from NetGalley, and there just never seems to be time for the older stuff. And that's so annoying! There are SO many good, existing books out there. So many great books I haven't read. So many books I've already purchased (ugh--sooo many) that are just sitting around collecting dust on my shelves or lurking in my Kindle app.

So, I've decided to do something about that this year, right off the bat.

For the month of January, I'm going to be reading backlist books. Only backlist books. Even if I'm tempted by a great sounding new release. Even when my January Book of the Month box arrives. Even if an ARC of American Dirt somehow magically arrives in my mailbox. I'm calling it my "New Year, Old Books" challenge. It's going to be a little tough, but I'm focused, I'm ready, and I'm excited! 

There are so many great books out there that I have long been dying to read, and just haven't gotten around to for whatever reason. I recently went through my existing TBR pile (both real and virtual) and there are already way too many older books that I already own, so I'm not even truly going to make a dent in the old books already in my possession. But I'm looking forward to seeing how far I get! 

A few books now on my January TBR list (i.e. books I've, embarrasingly, never read): Bel Canto, A Gentleman in Moscow, Dark Matter, Firefly Lane, The Poisonwood Bible, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, Sweetbitter, The Rules of Magic, The Dream Daughter, and--ugh--so many more!

My self-imposed rules for the challenge are pretty simple: The books I read this January must be from 2018 or earlier (but I'm going to aim for even older). And I can't buy any of the books I read. But the library is fair game! And I am actually going to allow myself to do new releases on audio though. (I don't know if this is "cheating," but I already own a million new releases on audio and pretty much zero old ones, so I'm just going to do it this way. Also, it takes me forever to get through audiobooks. So, if I don't keep at them, I will absolutely never catch up with those!) 

If you want to watch my progress (or, better yet, try the challenge yourself!), you can follow me on Instagram at @alyssaisbooked and via the hashtag #newyearoldbookswithalyssa. Let me know if you are going to participate, so we can motivate each other and exchange some great (old) book recs.

Happy reading--and happy new year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

How We Hacked Our Way to A Pretty Cute Christmas Card



I had thought I'd been super on top of it, scheduling a holiday-card photo shoot early this fall. But then it didn't go as planned. (Here's why.) Then, life got busy, and December rolled around and I realized I had no good photos to use for a card. I thought about skipping cards entirely, but then decided I'd throw my own impromptu shoot together, and hack my way to a decent Christmas card. And it worked!

I decided to nab my pictures on a weekend in early December when we went to get our Christmas tree at our local garden center. I posed my (relatively uncooperative) kids in a series of festive-ish shots including in front of wreath- and pointsettia-displays, and nestled among some cut trees so it almost looked like we were in a forest. Then, they had the idea to sit in front of a pinecone display, and take some shots!

I shot and edited all of the pics on my phone (two wreath shots and a pointsettia made the final cut), and ordered the cards online later that afternoon. And I'm pretty happy with the way they turned out! (The only thing I don't love is the fact that they're wearing their winter coats. But it was freezing that day, so what can you do?) Not bad for an hour and an iPhone, huh?

I hope you're having a great holiday, whatever you're celebrating. We're in my childhood home in Maryland for Christmas, then heading back home tomorrow, and then off to Stowe, Vermont for a few days after that. (Skiing for my husband and the kids; reading in the lodge for me.)

Merry everything to all!



Monday, December 9, 2019

That Time We Took A Wrecking Ball to Our Own Backyard (Plus, A Giveaway!)

Thank you to Abrams Books for sponsoring this post.

When my daughter recently picked up Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Wrecking Ball, the latest book in the super popular Wimpy Kid series, I was reminded of our most recent home renovation project. As you may remember, last summer, we totally redid our backyard. And as part of that renovation, we built the treehouse you see here for our kids! (Well, we didn't build it--we have no talent in that area--a carpenter did!) All in all, we learned a ton during that backyard home improvement project, namely that...we hate home improvement projects!

I can't help it. Though we love the end result, the whole process definitely had its downsides. First, it started months after the proposed target start date--and then took months to complete. For that reason, my kids couldn't use our backyard (old version or new) at all for literally the entire summer. Then, there was the constant arguing with the contractors (when they randomly wouldn't show up or when they'd say things like "Oh? You didn't want to leave the tree house with just bare, unpainted plywood? Ok, then that's going to cost a lot extra.") And the money! Oh em gee, after our actual house, the entire backyard project was probably the most money we've ever spent at one time--and costs seemed to increase daily with every big and little decision we made. It was a rough time.  

But with all of that said, the expense and the constant headaches were ultimately worth it. We love our backyard! My kids have an awesome tree house--one that I would have killed for when I was a kid--and we have a great place to entertain. (And let me tell you: At every party we have, the adults always want to climb up and check out the treehouse, too!)

And now that my kids have seen a glimpse of what's possible, let's just say, they've got some big renovation dreams of their own these days. My daughter recently told me that she'd like to add a rock wall to her bedroom and a roller coaster to our backyard. (Lol.) Oh, and she wants to redo all of our floors so that they are "the same floors as roller rinks." Yeah, #notgoingtohappen. 

This new installment of Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series (book #14!) tells the story of Greg Heffley and his family's attempts to do some renovations on their own home. They encounter even bigger issues than we did like mold and unwanted critters (!), but it's still a definite reminder that home improvement is never as easy as the TV shows may make it seem. 

My nine- year-old daughter--already a huge fan of the series--loved the book. She just finished her second reading of it and said it is "so funny!" And my six-year-old, early-reader son actually started it himself just the other day! He's going to be thrilled when I let him know that there are actually 13 other books in the series that he can now go back and read. :)

Now, as any mom knows, any book that holds both of my kids' interests, that they can't put down, and that they actually want to read more than once is a bit of a unicorn. For that reason, I really wanted to share the love, and I will be choosing one winner to win a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Wrecking Ball courtesy of Abrams Books. To enter, please click here and follow the instructions in my Instagram post

Thank you, good luck, and happy reading (or renovating)!