the sparkly life

Friday, September 25, 2020

19 Cool Things You Need to Click On Today

So...hi! I know I've been MIA pretty much all summer. And spring. (Eek!) I basically took it off, first kind of by accident, and eventually, on purpose. In the spring, I just could not focus on anything beyond virtual school since my son essentially needed me to sit right by his side the entire time and keep him focused. (Thank god my daughter is very self-sufficient with virtual school!) 

Then, in May, we moved to our lakehouse (about an hour away) and lived there until Labor Day. It was a godsend. It was so nice to get out of the city and feel so isolated from everything going on, and we got so much family time and relaxation. We've had that house for 14 years (!), but have never spent more than a single week there at a time (and rarely that). It was very much a weekend house until this year. 

I hesitate to even acknowledge any "good" things that came out of covid, when there has been so much tragedy and disruption to everyone's lives, but I'm being honest: Spending the summer at the lake was an unexpected gift for our family. We spent so much quality time together and became so much closer. I'll never forget that time. It was actually very sad to come back to our "real life" in Hoboken, even though we truly love it here! For the summer,  our real life seemed very far away. And so did this blog. 

But we're back now! And life is (sort of) back to normal. My son is in-person at his school four days a week and one day virtual. My daughter is doing a hybrid model alternating one week in-person, and the next virtual. I'm praying we can keep this going as long as we can. People, wear your masks!

Anyway, I hope everyone is healthy and safe. Whatever you're up to this weekend, I hope you make it a great one. Here's a few fun things to check out in the meantime...

• I recently bought this sweatshirt and these sweatpants from Old Navy, and I'm obsessed! So comfy, so cute, and with a very subtle, fall appropriate tie-dye, they're pretty much all I want to wear right now. They remind me so much of a Richer Poorer sweatsuit that I kept seeing all over Instagram. But they're about $100 cheaper. (And they're on sale right now!)

• I never got around to doing my July and August book roundup posts (oops), which is unfortunate, because I read 19 books and a lot of great stuff during those months! So, for now, I'll just list the very best of the best here. These are the must-read, absolutely-loved five- and very-strong-4-star books that I read in July and August:  Notes on A Silencing (in the vein of Know My Name, this memoir tells the gut-wrenching story of the author's sexual assault at a famous boarding school)The Pull of the Stars (one of my favorites of the year! The story of a nurse working in a maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic The Lions of Fifth Avenue (loved this historical fiction about a family living in an apartment in the New York Public Library--an apartment that actually existed!)Good And Mad (Rebecca Traister's brilliant non-fiction take on women's anger through the years will make you want to burn it all down)Leave the World Behind (one of my favorite books of the year! Absolutely gorgeous writing combined with a can't-put-it-down storyline about a mysterious, apocalyptic event)A Very Punchable Face (I actually had tears running down my face more than once listening to Colin Jost's hilarious--and actually surprisingly touching--memoir)Caste (must-read non-fiction that compares the current racial situation in America to India's caste system. Eye-opening and mind-blowing) and A Traveler At the Gates of Wisdom (by the author of the incredible The Heart's Invisible Furies, this epic novel is one of the more creatively structured stories I've ever read)

• Ever since quarantine started, approximately half the things I've made have been from Half Baked Harvest. (Literally.) I'm obsessed with her recipes! Comfort food with a twist, they are all really easy to make and super delicious. A few new HBH recipes I'm planning to make soon: Pumpkin Cheese Stuffed Bolognese Bake, Cream Cheese Swirled Pumpkin Bread, and One Pot Broccoli Cheddar and Dumplings. Yum!

• I wish I had discovered them earlier in the summer, but for these last few warm days of the season, I've been living in these Target shortsCute, but with a forgiving, elastic waist (!), they are exactly what my quarantine body needs right now. And they're under $18!

• After hearing so many raves about the Dyson cordless stick vaccuums, I finally took the plunge and bought one a few months back. And, oh em gee! I would have never thought I could get so excited about a vaccuum, but it's a gamechanger! Infinitely lighter and easier to use than my giant honking full-size vaccuum, it actually makes vaccumming kind of fun! Definitely not the chore I used to dread. This is the one we have (V10 Animal). I love it and it's worth every penny. 

• Over the summer, I did my first puzzle since, oh, the age of 10? And I loved it! Ever since, I've been looking for another one since we're likely to be locked down again sometime this fall. And I think I've just found the one (ones?) I'm getting: Just learned that Rifle Paper Company now makes puzzles, and they are beautiful.

• If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I have been doing a lot of textbanking lately. Well, I've become obsessed! It is (truly) SO fun, and it does so much to relieve my election-related anxiety. Instead of just sitting around refreshing Twitter, and worrying, I'm actually doing something to help the candidates I care about in the states that will decide this election. If you are at all curious about texting, please feel free to ask me ANY questions. (Or go to the Election 2020 highlight on my Instagram. I have links plus a very detailed video telling you exactly what to expect from textbanking.) Bottom line: It's simple and totally non-stress. I'm an introvert who gets super nervous at the thought of cold-calling strangers, but this is NOT that. It will make you feel better and you'll be making a difference. Try it! So far, I've textbanked for the North Carolina Democrats, the Michigan Democrats, and the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. In the coming weeks, I've also signed up to text bank with Jamie Harrison's campaign in South Carolina, and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa. Good place to start: Any of the links I just shared, or check out this site and sign up to receive their volunteer emails. They'll send opportunities across the country every week. But please do sign up for something. The election is just weeks away!

• One more (easy!) way I've been volunteering: writing letters and postcards to voters in swing states! I was shocked to learn that handwritten letters have been shown to be extremely effective at motivating people to vote--even more so that calls, texts, or canvassing! And there are some great organizations that make it really simple by giving you the names and addresses, ideas, and sometimes even a form letter to print out (and then add your own touch to). So far, I've written 20 letters to Michigan voters (and am working on 20 more to Florida voters) with Vote Fwd and I'm currently working on 20 postcards to Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virgina voters with Flip the Senate. (By the way, sharing this is not to brag. This is to show you how easy it is and hopefully motivate you to join in! If I can do it, anyone can!) 

Have you guys done an election volunteering? Please tell me below or over on Insta. I LOVE hearing about it! Have a great weekend!




Friday, June 5, 2020

All The Books I Read in April and May

best new books

best new books

This has been a week, huh? An emotional, tough, but necessary week. My heart has broken a million times in a million different ways, my boil has boiled, I've cried. But through it all, reading, as always, has been a solace for me. I've been soaking in as much news as possible, and then taking a few moments here and there, to momentarily escape and read for pleasure. (And that's absolutely a privilege, I know.)

This post was ready to go up earlier this week, but I held it back for obvious reasons. I still don't know if it's the right time. But I decided to share it for those who are still looking to books at this time, whether that's for escape, joy, education, or whatever you need books to be right now. 

Since I never got around to putting together my April reads (oops!), I combined them here. So there's a lot of books here...! The good news: They are all good! Yep, I didn't read any duds. There are definitely some standouts here (including a couple of books that are some of the best I've read in a long time!), and certainly some are better than others, but everything here is worth reading. How often does that happen??

Also, to note: There are a couple of books here where you'll see that I highly recommend the audiobook versus the print version. And for audiobooks, I love to use Libro.fm, because your purchases go directly to indie bookstores, not Amazon. (And that's so important right now!) If you're not yet a member of Libro, you can use my affiliate link to try it out and you'll get three audiobooks for the price is one. For that, just click here, or use code ALYSSA.

And, while I have you, did you catch me talking books on the podcast Sarah's Bookshelves Live? If not, you can get a link to it here.

But for now, here's every book I read for the last two months. Enjoy! 

LOVED

RodhamThis is the fictional, imagined story of Hillary Clinton’s life if she had never married Bill. In this alternate universe, after meeting and falling in love in law school, Hillary turns down Bill’s marriage proposal (she’s very presciently nervous about his tendencies towards infidelity!), and the two go their separate ways. We then follow them over the next 40 years and see that very little is the same for either of them, for the country, for history, or really for anyone (even Donald Trump). It makes you think about how the simple decisions one person makes can have a huge ripple effect for so many others. This book is over 400 pages but I read it in less than 24 hours. I simply could not turn the pages fast enough. For the first third or so, I was practically giddy about it (and constantly reminding myself that this was a novel, not a memoir!), because Curtis Sittenfeld did an uncannily good job capturing Hillary’s voice. I adore Hillary, so this book was essentially fan fiction for me, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a great, gripping story, it’s incredibly creative, and it’s ultimately cathartic. Think of it as a true gift for anyone who brought their young daughters to the polls with them on November 8, 2016, and then later spent that night staring blankly at the TV and bawling. I needed this book, and I loved it so, so much. It’s definitely one of my favorite books that I’ve read in 2020, and potentially one of my favorite books ever. It was an absolutely delightful read that briefly took me out of the dark days of our current administration, while reminding me why, always, #imwithher.

The Girl With the Louding Voice - This was both a Book of the Month pick earlier this year, as well as a Read With Jenna pick, and it's the story of Adunni, a young teenager living in Nigeria. We first meet Adunni at 14 when her father sells her off to be the third wife of a much older man. After a series of dramatic events, she then runs away to the city to work as a servant to a wealthy (and horribly abusive woman). But as tough as things get, Adunni never stops believing that one day she will find strength, an education, and ultimately, her “louding voice.” I really loved this book! It has sad moments, it’s inspiring, it’s even funny at times. The characters are amazing and you’ll find yourself rooting for Adunni throughout the book. One note: I’ve heard of people giving up on the book early, because of the distinctive way it’s written in broken English. Do not let that deter you! First, you get used to it, I promise. And second, this writing style ultimately fades away anyway as the book goes on. As Adunni grows and finds her voice, in turn, the voice of the book changes, as well. 

The Vanishing Half - This is the story of identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes. They are born in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana, which is celebrated for its African American residents being extremely light-skinned. After witnessing the violent lynching of their father at a very young age, the twins are raised by their single mother, who takes them out of school as teenagers, so that they can earn money cleaning for a white family. But this is not the life the twins want, so they run away to the city. Soon, their lives veer apart in very different ways. Desiree goes on to marry a black man and have a child with him, but Stella learns she can "pass" as white, and takes this to the extreme, marrying a white man and living undiscovered in a white community. She leaves Mallard, her old life, and even her twin sister behind her. This book is amazing, and truly one of the best things I've read this year. The writing is beautiful and the story is incredibly gripping. I will say, the first third or so, is a bit slow, with lots of (necessary) background, but then there is a moment where everything changes and you won't be able to put it down. It's a fascinating look at racism, colorism, family, and the secrets that can destroy us. It is quite simply, a really, really wonderful book. Note: This is available now as a Book of the Month pick for June (if you're not a member yet, you can click this link to join and get a free book!), and is sure to be on many Best Of lists this year.

Commonwealth - Ever since falling in love with the Ann Patchett novel The Dutch House late last year, I've been on a mission to read everything else she has written. This is one that is very often cited as  many people's favorite Patchett book, and I can see why. It's the kind of book that I am a total sucker for: an extremely well-written family drama that spans decades and is very hard to put down. The story starts when a married man kisses a married woman (who is not his wife!) at a party, and that one act sets off so many changes for both spouses, and the six children between them, for years to come. We see the kids as children, shuttled between both homes once the parents remarry, and we see them as adults, deeply affected by the choices of their parents. This book is just so good, and the wrting is exquisite. If you love great writing and immersive family dramas, this one is a must-read.

Untamed - I love Glennon Doyle's writing, and I loved this book. It's a collection of essays that combine her own life experiences with inspiring, empowering advice for women. (It's also really funny!) I listened to the audiobook (highly recommend!), and found myself nodding throughout. I wish I had been able to read it in my early 20s, so I could have heard and hopefully internalized these things earlier, but I still found it so valuable now. 


The Wife Stalker - I hadn't read a great, immersive thriller in a while, but this one was just what I needed. It's a psychological thriller told from the point of view of two different women: Joanna, a Westport, CT mother of two and wife to lawyer Leo, and Piper, a younger, gorgeous, conniving yoga instructor/business owner who sets her sights on Leo and quickly sweeps him off his feet. He dumps Joanna immediately. The story is told in alternating chapters from each point of view, as we see Piper wrap Leo more and more around her finger (and as she takes those kids further and further from Joanna), and Joanna as she investigates Piper’s mysterious background, which includes multiple aliases—and multiple dead spouses. This book is incredibly propulsive (I simply could not put it down!), but I was a little frustrated at first because some of the characters seemed to act in a really far-fetched way and I thought I had it essentially figured out early on. But NOPE!!! Turns out I had NO IDEA what was coming and I absolutely loved the way it all wrapped up in the end. Every character ended up surprising me, and the book was a fun, suspenseful, truly unputdownable book that was an easy joy of a read. 

The Chiffon Trenches - This was one of the books I mentioned when I appeared on the Sarah's Bookshelves Live podcast, so I was definitely looking forward to it. And I was not disappointed! Andre Leon Talley is a longtime, iconic editor in the fashion world, and was Anna Wintour's right-hand man for many years. In this memoir, he looks back at his life in fashion and dishes on everyone from Andy Warhol to Karl Lagerfeld to, yes, Anna Wintour. There's lots of gossip-y moments (he's very open), but there's also just a ton of amazing fashion history and insight. It basically felt like a fashion masterclass with the world's coolest instructor. I do think the audiobook is a must, but it's a very quick one! 


LIKED A LOT

Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You - This is a "remix" of a longer, more in-depth book called Stamped From the Beginning. It's a (cool, super interesting) history lesson going back to the "world's first racist" and contiuning on through modern history. I found it so fascinating and informative to see how all of these things connected and got us to where we are today. I did the audiobook, which I highly recommend (there are musical elements and the narrator is fantastic), and listened to it in ONE four-hour sitting! If current events have you committed to educating yourself on racism and the black experience (and I do hope that's the case), then this an excellent book to start with.

Big SummerDaphne and Drue were best friends growing up and throughout high school, but things ended badly, suddenly, six years ago. Then, Drue appears out of the blue, asking Daphne if she will be her maid-of-honor in her upcoming wedding. It’s unexpected, to say the least, and Daphne is torn about what to do. For their entire lives, Daphne lived in Drue’s shadow. Drue was beautiful, rich, and the life of the party. Daphne was overweight and not nearly as popular. But lately, the balance appears to be shifting somewhat. Daphne now makes her living as a successful, plus-size influencer, and Drue—though still gorgeous and wealthy—appears to no longer have as many friends. Nonetheless, Daphne remembers the good times (and she feels bad!), so she accepts the offer to be in Drue’s wedding party. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same for anyone
This book is clearly marketed as a novel about female friendship—something author Jennifer Weiner does, so well—and it is that. But it is so much more. There is mystery and even murder (!), which was something I did not expect! This was a fun, suspenseful book that was very tough to put down. It’s a quick read, but a great one, and a perfect beach read.

Catherine House Catherine House is a mysterious, elite school tucked away in the woods of rural Pennsylvania. Students live and study at the school for three years and must leave behind all of their possessions, photos, and clothing when they entire its gates. They won’t be able to watch TV or listen to music. They have to wear school-issued clothes. They can’t talk to or see their loved ones while they’re at the school; they can’t even leave its grounds. For three years, they must give themselves over to the secrecy of Catherine House entirely. But if they do, they are promised success and an unrivaled education. (Catherine House graduates include famous artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents, and more!) We meet our main character, Ines, when she is starting her first year at the school. Like many first-year students, Ines is struggling to adjust to life after high school. But in addition to a rigorous schedule and new friends, at Catherine, Ines also has to learn to deal with the rigid environment, strange happenings, and oh so many secrets. This is one of those books that is tough to talk about without giving anything away, but lets just say, it was impossible to put down—especially after you got about halfway through—and combines so many of my favorite literary things: secret societies, campus hijinks, suspense, thrills, and maybe even a little sci-fi. It’s a great read, and I really hope it becomes a movie. It would make such an incredible film!

Perfect Tunes - In the year 2000, Laura moves to New York City to become a musician. She is just starting to play shows with her best friend and find a small bit of success, when she meets another young musician and starts a brief but intense love affair with him. Soon, nothing is the same for her relationship, her career, or really, her life. Fifteen years later, Laura is living a completely different--and much less glamorous--life in Brooklyn, with her husband and teenage daughters. Her daughter, Marie, begins asking questions about the father she has never met, and Laura must figure out how to navigate this. I really liked this book. It was well-written, and was funny at times and sad at others. It did a good job at looking at regret, and how our lives can turn out so much different than how we imagined they'd be when we were young. The ending felt a little abrupt to me though. I didn't dislike it; it just had me wanting more. I think she must be planning a sequel!

Invisible Girl Owen Picks is a 30-something “incel” (involuntary celibate) who lives with his aunt and has just lost his job over a sexual harassment allegation. Meanwhile, right across the street lives Cate, a physical therapist and mom of two teens, who is married to Roan, a child psychologist. When one of Roan’s patients—a teen named Saffyre Maddox—disappears, suddenly it seems everyone is under suspicion. This psychological thriller is suspenseful, gripping, and maybe even a little bit disturbing, but it will definitely keep you turning those pages! I loved how it forced you to go back and forth in your head as to who was the culprit, and I also found it to be a fascinating look at the idea that people are rarely what they appear to be. (Note: This doesn't actually come out until October, but you can preorder!)

Home Before Dark - Maggie Holt is a very young child when her family moves into Baneberry Hall, a spooky old home that turns out to be a real life haunted house with a violent and troubling history. Things get so bad, in fact, that the family ends up fleeing the home a mere three weeks later. Now, 25 years later, Maggie is a grown woman with no memory of living in Baneberry Hall; all she knows comes from the best-selling book her father wrote about their experience. When the book begins, her father has just passed away and left her the home in his will. (She has no idea he still, secretly, owned it!) Maggie, who happens to be a restorer of old homes, goes back to the house to renovate it for sale. She’s not nervous. She doesn’t believe a word of anything her father wrote in that book. But then, strange things start to happen in the house. Lights and record players turn on by themselves. There are mysterious noises, and even shadowy figures lurking on the property. Suddenly, the oh-so-skeptical Maggie starts to believe that maybe some of her father’s book may have been true, after all. Told in alternating chapters that toggle between Maggie’s present day experience and the best-selling book itself, we slowly learn the secrets of Baneberry Hall, right along with our main character. I really enjoyed this book—I think it’s my favorite Riley Sager yet! It’s creepy and gripping, but still somehow seems totally realistic! I was turning the pages so quickly, and actually found myself wishing I could visit Baneberry Hall in real life. (But maybe only during the daytime hours!)


LIKED

We Were The Lucky Ones - This is WWII historical fiction about the Kurcs, a Jewish family living in Poland at the start of the war. Every member of the family is separated from each other, and you will be on the edge of your seat as they each traverse the continent to find their way back to each other. I liked this book while reading it, but liked it even more when I got to the end when I reached the end and (not a spoiler) learned that the book is based on the true story of the author's own relatives. (And not even loosely based, it seems!!) I honestly thought some parts of the story seemed a little too fantastical to to be true, but it turns out, those parts were real! It's really incredible. If you love WWII fiction, this is definitely a worthwhile read.

The Swallows - Alexandra Witt is just starting as a new teacher at a fancy schmancy New England boarding school when she begins to uncover a dark secret. She learns that there is a group of boys running something called "the Darkroom," which rules the social hierachy at the school, and seems to be very upsetting for many of the female students. She soon teams up with a group of these girls, and basically enacts a revenge plot against the boys. This book is smart and touches on sexual assault, consent, and the gray areas surrounding all of that. This story is not what you'd expect.

Seinfeldia - This was a fun little book I picked up on a whim when I saw it was available right away on Libby. I did the audiobook, but that is not a must. (Nothing special about the audio version!) It's a fun read if you're a big Seinfeld fan like me. Lots of history and behind the scenes info on the making of the series.

The Red Lotus - Alexis--the E.R. doctor who is the main character of this story--is on a biking trip in Vietnam with Austin, her boyfriend of six months, when he suddenly goes missing. When the search proves futile, she eventually returns to the United States and investigates  This was a bit of a "surface level" read for me, which means that even if I enjoyed reading it, it won't stick with me. I didn't particularly care about the characters or what happened to them (and I prefer to care about characters), but I still read this in one day, which I always love. It's definitely totally plot-driven and will keep you turning those pages.

Beach Read - January Andrews is a romance writer, who has just lost her father (and learned some distrubing family secrets). Augutus Everett is a fancy (and sexy!) literary fiction author. When the two find themselves living next door to each other in their beach houses, they are butting heads, but soon decide to make a deal to get them out of their dueling cases of writer's block. Augustus will write a romance book (since it's sooo easy, right?), and January will write a more serious literary novel. And since this book is a romance novel, I think we ultimately can guess where it goes from here, right? So, I’m very picky about romances, and this one is definitely predictable, so it just ok for me for that reason, but there was still a lot to love in it. I thought the writing was smart and totally non-cheesy, I loved the more emotional parts that involved her dad, and it was a quick, easy read that kept my interest the entire time. All in all, if you love a romance, I think this is a good one.

The Guest List - So many people loved this one--and it's the latest Reese's Book Club pick--but it was just okay for me. (I listened to it on audio though, so maybe that's why?). In this Agatha-Christie-esque mystery/thriller, a wedding is about to take place on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. As the story is told in alternating POVs, we hear from the bride, her groom to be (a reality TV star), her sister, members of the wedding party, and the proprietress of the wedding venue. Slowly, we learn that there are many different secrets that many of these people have--and that will seriously affect everyone involved. I was definitely engrossed in the book the whole time, and there's some big surprises, so if you are really into mysteries/thrillers, it might be one try. (Especially, because again, I'm in the minority on this. Most people loved it!)

Have you guys read any of these? What did you think? And if there's anything else awesome you've read lately, please let me know!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I'm Appearing On My Favorite Podcast Today!

best book podcast


alyssa hertzig on sarah's bookshelves live podcast

Today is a super exciting day for me! I'm appearing as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts! (Ahhh!) It's Sarah's Bookshelves Live, and you can listen to it here.

I LOVE Sarah's podcast (I subscribe to it, support it on Patreon, and listen to every episode), because she gives amazing book recommendations, is very real/relatable, and isn't afraid to be snarky about a book. If she hated it, she will tell you! I love that.

So I was THRILLED to record with her a few weeks back, and the episode just came out today! We talked about getting out of a Coronavirus reading rut, rediscovering your love of reading after a hiatus (and I share some of these tips for reading more), the amazingness of Ann Patchett, time travel books, the best celebrity memoirs, and we even do some dishing on Anna Wintour and the fashion magazine world! 

And of course, I share what has become the famous tenant of the podcast: two old books I loved, two new books I loved, one book I did not like, and one new release I'm excited for. PLEASE listen to the episode (it's so worth it and there are TONS more book recs!), but if you just want to find out what I named for the superlatives above, they are:

-Two old books I loved: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (my review here) and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradel

-Two new books I loved: All Adults Here by Emma Straub (my review here) and Open Book by Jessica Simpson (my review here. Note: Sarah and I both think audio is a must for this one! I listened to it via Libro.fm, which is my absolute favorite way to listen to audiobooks, because purchases go to indie bookstores, not Amazon. If you want to try it, you can get THREE audiobooks for the price of one with code ALYSSA or just by clicking here. Enjoy!)

-Book I did not love: The Girl He Used to Know by Tracie Garvis Graves (sorry to the many of you who love that book!)

-New release I'm excited for: The Chiffon Trenches by Andre Leon Talley

If you check out the pod, please let me know what you think. (And big thanks to Sarah for having me. I will chat books with you ANYTIME.) More info on it here. Happy listening!

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!