Read with Me: Writers & Lovers

I will begin this review with a disclaimer: In my mad dash to catch up with book reviews, I am getting to that chunk of books where specific recollections are vague. So what good is a review written like this? I can still convey the general feeling that a book left with me. What’s more, I can remember quite keenly the passages and themes that stuck with me, even a month or two after reading. So while reading these belated reviews, keep in mind that you are seeing a collection of my long-term remembrances more than anything else here.

I picked up Writers & Lovers because it was listed as a book of the year by The Washington Post. A friend also recommended it (based on the same recognition) so I went ahead and gave it a try. As a distant would-be novelist and a professional writer myself, I have to say it was incredibly enjoyable to read an account of a 30-something hopeful. I think that despite the loose story happening in the book (a tale of chasing love and dreams and dealing with responsibility as we age), I was often daydreaming about what it would have been like to have made some of the life choices that Casey followed. I found myself intrigued by her dedication (waking up each morning to put words on a page, no matter how successful the effort) as well as her perseverance. For better or worse, I was sidelined with feeling the need to pay bills and care for myself before the age of 21, so in contrast reading about waiting tables to eek out a living while following a dream… that is the dream in a way, isn’t it?

Although I personally found these thoughts and slice-of-life snippets a joy, I remain amazed that this was selected as a book of the year. In many ways, the story is somewhat predictable. I won’t spell it all out here because I respect spoilers no matter how obvious they are in coming. But it’s easy to see from the first third of the book where Casey is ultimately going to end up by book’s end.

Perhaps this was a BOTY choice because, like me, The Washington Post reviewers understand the hidden desire to stay committed to telling a story. And the sheer novelty of peeking behind that curtain really resonates with types like us. Maybe it’s because in the last year of COVID mania we all just needed a feel-good story about struggle and redemption. Or maybe I missed some depth in this book – please tell me if you feel I did.

Regardless of what really earned this book its kudos, I did enjoy it and would recommend this to others looking for a quick, feel-good read. If you enjoyed The Midnight Library, I think this is a good follow-up to read to keep that high-on-life feeling going.

I rated this one 4/5 stars.

Hook Level: 6 – I liked Casey’s life and it was fun to slip into it for a short time.

Surprise Level: 3 – I definitely felt like I knew where this was going. Just enjoy the ride.

Share Factor: 5 – It’s a nice happy book I would recommend if you asked. I wouldn’t go out of my way to tell you about it unless you want to contemplate writing as a lifestyle choice.

Crave Factor: 5 – One and done with this tale was plenty for me.

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Thoughts and Feelings: The Shadow Glass (Bone Witch Trilogy #3)

The Bone Witch trilogy by Rin Chupeco felt like a breath of fresh air amongst some of the magical fantasy books I’ve read of late. The series follows the story of Tea, a young woman blessed with the rare gift of dark magic, as she is stripped from her home and taken to learn how to harness and control her powers to keep the kingdom safe from the monstrous azi that plague the villages every few years. Only bone witches have the power to control the azi and the dead, but that power is kept under strict control by the elder asha in order to keep everyone safe from the dark corruption that comes with the power to work necromancy.

Tea’s story is told largely from the point of view of a bard that she brings in to hear her tale before she attempts one last power play that may lead to her death. Throughout the stories Tea remains secretive about her motives, but it is clear that she craves understanding as she has the narrator there to witness her side of events. Over the years we watch as Tea loves and loses, all while continually paying a price for inheriting a gift of magic she did not ask for but can neither ignore.

Both the world building and magic systems in this trilogy are exquisite. Chupeco unfurls a rich tapestry full of culture and design with parts that are familiar to readers but that still contain a unique bend of their own. Readers will come to meet many different asha, or elemental mages, along with warriors, undead companions, tamable beasts and more. Landscapes are vivid with descriptions of glacial mountains and glass waters with bustling villages surrounding gorgeous castles. Each of the three books builds beautifully upon the lore and the culture that Chupeco creates, making it easy to slip into this new realm with ease.

The cast of characters are relatable and likable, and Tea’s own tale is one full of joy and woe. As the reader, you find your feelings shifting constantly about her choices, and I appreciate having a lead who is not infallible. She feels realistic while also reading powerful. The romance that develops is secondary but enjoyable, and adds a nice depth to the tale.

Overall, I highly recommend this series to fantasy readers who enjoy medieval settings in faraway lands. This tale kept me hooked through all three books and I found the ending to be quite lovely.

Hook Level: 8 – I enjoyed the world and the story very much. There were some tense moments but mostly I kept turning pages just because I enjoyed the journey.

Surprise Level: 5 – A few small surprises, but nothing that is completely shocking.

Share Factor: 7 – I do think readers of this series need to be prepared for a bit of high fantasy, so I wouldn’t share this with an average reader. However, if you enjoy the genre this is such a great choice.

Crave Factor: 8 – I enjoyed every one of these books. While I found the ending to be timed well and appropriate, I wouldn’t mind reading something else to take place in this kingdom.

Where Has Sunny Been?

Hello all. I miss you so much! I was doing so well with weekly posts, and then work happened. The short story is that as part of (or in addition to) my regular work duties, I am helping respond to emails that come in about COVID response. Suffice to say, once the vaccine became available, that mailbox went crazy!!

I feel like I have been working double time, and while it feels good to help a few people, in a lot of ways it can also be discouraging. There are just too many people, not enough vaccine and way too much fear and anxiousness to go around. On top of that, working a call center-style mailbox definitely shows you some of the worst humanity has to offer. For those of you out there who do this work on the regular, I salute you! Honestly, I’m just grateful I’m not on phones right now. At least I can craft my message and not slip up.

I would desperately love to blog about the messages I see and some of the responses I would like to give – rather than what I actually say. But for a lot of different reasons, that wouldn’t be wise. So I guess all those responses will live rent free in my head for awhile.

The good news is that I’m still reading constantly and have finished about 4-5 books that I will share here when I get some breathing room. The bad news is that exercise has stopped completely and I need to figure that out. For self care I’ve been focusing on sleeping and getting down time away from the screen. It’s not enough really, but it’s a start.

I miss writing terribly and I miss reading your blogs as well. Hopefully things are starting to slow and I’ll be back at it soon. I have so much to share when I am able!

Virtual hearts, stars and hugs.

Sunny

Thoughts and Feelings: This One Summer

I don’t often read graphic novels. It’s not because I don’t appreciate them as wonderful stories or magnificent works of art. I am just so accustomed to reading words across the page that having all the illustration actually slows me down and distracts me. Sounds silly, perhaps, but it’s true. But this book by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki was gifted to my daughter for the holidays because it had received so many awards. She read it and wasn’t really a fan of the story, so I wanted to read it as well to see what I think.

As the name suggests, This One Summer is a point-in-time tale of Rose and her friend Windy. Each year, they always vacationed together at a lake house, but now as Rose is moving into her teenage years (she is a few years older than Windy), she finds that some old traditions are not as cool as they once were, and there are some things that Windy just can’t understand.

The story is extremely subtle as it explores budding desires and questioning right from wrong. As an adult, I can appreciate the nuance as I was nearing the end of the book. I could appreciate what the authors were trying to achieve: a look at what it’s like when your world changes without your own awareness of it happening. For my 13 year old, however, it was harder to recognize what was happening specifically because she has no explicit knowledge of what she is actually seeing unfold. So for her age group, I feel this book’s value is lost. Instead, the book may appeal to an older, reflective audience if they ever think to check the graphic novel section for a standalone coming of age tale.

I’m not exactly sure who I would recommend this to, but if you took the short time to read this book I don’t think it would be a regretful experience. It just may be one that you don’t recall much, either.

  • Hook Level: 4 – This book captures long summer days with no real direction or agenda. As such, the book can drag a little. But then it’s so short that it doesn’t matter too much. The pacing is appropriate for the story.
  • Surprise Level: 6 – There is no big shock to be had in this story, but you don’t always know what’s going to happen, either.
  • Share Factor: 3 – Again, I’m not too sure who exactly this book would appeal to most.
  • Crave Factor: 3 – I didn’t feel super attached to either Rose or Windy. I might be able to read one more as Windy caught up in age, but that would be a hard sell, honestly. I think it’s just not for me.

Thoughts and Feelings: The Midnight Library

Like many others, I picked up this book because it was all the rage on Bookstagram and BookTok. Luckily, I’m very happy I did! This story is a modern twist on A Christmas Story type tale, where a person at the end of hope is given a chance to view their life anew. In this tale we have Nora, a young adult who is full of regret and ready to give up on life. Yet she is given many new chances to see what might have been as she explores the pages of her own stories and alternate universes in The Midnight Library.

I thought I wouldn’t enjoy this book much because the story is just a variation of one we all know and therefore feels rather predictable. But there is a heart and a genuineness to this retelling that made me smile deep inside as I read. Perhaps because Nora experienced relatable regrets at times – loss of loved ones, estranged family, abandoned dreams – that I was able to feel more drawn and connected to her story as she explored her alternatives. Or maybe it was just Matt Haig’s well-paced storytelling that kept me going. At any rate, this read went quickly and left me pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the ride.

  • Hook Level: 8 – The pacing of this story was solid and kept me just intrigued enough to keep turning the pages.
  • Surprise Level: 4 – This is a well-known progression tale and we kind of know where it’s going. But it’s still a nice bit of turns on how we get there.
  • Share Factor: 8 – This book made me feel happy, and I’m not sure there are enough books these days that do that. In this troubling time it’s a good time to read something that makes us smile.
  • Crave Factor: 4 – I wouldn’t mind seeing what Nora does with his new lease on life, but I got enough answers to be satisfied with how she moves forward without needing to be told.

Thoughts and Feelings: Behind Her Eyes (Sarah Pinborough)

I started the new year with a thriller and boy did it not disappoint. This book had me curious from the very beginning. I love a tale told from multiple perspectives, and being privy to the action from both sides of the story made this book a quick page turner.

One of the personal challenges I find with thrillers is that I spend a lot of thought trying to piece together the mystery in advance of the story laying it out for me. This book makes no secret from the beginning that Louise is being used, but what is the goal? What is the wife trying to make happen? Is the doctor honest or playing games of his own? There were several moments where I thought I was beginning to figure it out, but in the end I never quite got there – which made the twist quite a surprise.

There are some things about this book that I didn’t enjoy, but without getting too spoilery I will just say that I wish the end seemed a bit more realistic. But if you can roll with the logic that the book presents, I think you can find this story quite enjoyable.

I rated Behind Her Eyes 5/5 on GoodReads, but I wish I had a larger scale to choose from. I tend to reserve 5’s for books I would share with others, and this is one I am excited to have people read to see their response. But that being said, I think it’s probably, truly, around a 7.5/10 because the explanation proposed wasn’t quite what I would have hoped for. You’ll just have to read it yourself to see what I mean.

  • Hook Level: 9 – This book had me turning pages like a madwoman. I think telling me there was a “grand plan” constantly drove me to find out what it was.
  • Surprise Level: 9 – Again, the ending was a huge surprise, though probably not as realistic as I would have liked. But the surprise was definitely there.
  • Share Factor: 8 – I want others to read this just so I can discuss the ending. This is what normally happens to me with thrillers, but this one in particular I want to know – did the ending “work” for you?
  • Crave Factor: 3 –This story is over and done for me. I was a bit put off by the ending so I don’t need to move any further along this story arc.

Read With Me: A Look Back and a Look Ahead

It’s easy to see all the negatives of 2020, but one of the big positives for me was that more time at home has given me the time to refocus my efforts on reading and enjoying books. This past year I read 56 books – more than I had in any year prior that I had tracked – and I discovered Bookstagram and BookTok with glee. I have begun keeping up with reading trends and am aware of new books on the horizon. I started a slow refresh in my blogging efforts, and have enjoyed sharing my thoughts on books and discovering other blogger voices as I continue to discover my own.

All of this has me more pleased than I can say.

For 2021, I have set a goal of 52 books on GoodReads, and maybe I can surpass it and do better. I have started a bullet journal to track my reading goals, including the PopSugar Reading Challenge, and I am going to try to write reviews of each book that I read this year. I also want those reviews to become more in-depth. I’m trying to find my voice for reviews, and it is something I hope to land on this year.

I am going to make an effort to engage with more bloggers and more authors, and maybe learn how to get advance copies of books. I’m toying with the idea of posting on Insta or TikTok, but we’ll see if I get there.

Most importantly, I want to focus on reading with intent and for joy. If I have to DNF one book to get to books that make an impact for me, I’ll do it.

I greatly look forward to the year ahead, and I hope you enjoy journeying with me.

Happy New Year!

12 Bakes of Christmas

I have always enjoyed baking. Even before quarantine, I was known to bake pretty regularly, and for a time I even had a side business with a friend known as Geek Love Bakery. I still post to #geeklovebakery regularly with my projects and attempts, but once isolation really kicked in I took on trying new bakes with a fervor I hadn’t known in some time.

This year had me introducing Vincent Van Dough (my sourdough starter) to the world. It also had me laminating dough, crafting meringues, braiding strands and other new things I hadn’t done before. I loved every minute. I will continue this new trend into 2021, though my waistline has asked that I scale back so I will probably only try one new bake a month.

But despite my growing size, I decided to end the crap year of 2020 with a flourish. Most of these recipes were new to me and I learned so much. I will definitely take part in this again next year. But now, without further ado, I share with you my 12 Bakes of Christmas.

#1: Spiced Molasses Cake – A simple bundt (this one in the shape of a dragon) to warm up to in the mornings with coffee or settle in with each evening. It had a good flavor, but not something I would necessarily crave again.

#2: Italian Rainbow Cookies – These were all-new to me and a bit of a challenge. How on earth do you get the chocolate to coat the cookie without cracking? Regardless, these tasted amazing and I felt ridiculously proud. I will most certainly try these again.

#3: Rugelach – This was my second time trying this treat for my best friend’s annual Hanukkah party (which I ended up not attending this year, boo). I absolutely love this stuff. I made four different kinds and after the second year I have definitely decided the nutella version is not for me. But the dough and the fruit/nut fillings are to die for. This will be another annual tradition I’m sure.

#4: Cranberry Orange Shortbread – This was another new recipe. I didn’t like it much at all (this shortbread was too soft/melty for my liking) but it turns out my mom loved these. So that’s a win. I dipped some in white chocolate, but I liked them better without. I think my perfect shortbread recipe search will continue.

#5: Crazy Christmas Sugar Cookies – These are an annual tradition in our house. Meant to look more silly than perfect, we load up on flavored glazes (which don’t hold well like royal icing) and every sprinkle imaginable. It’s something we have come to love and despite their dubious appearance, trust me – they taste divine.

#6: White Chocolate Amaretto Cheesecake – This is not a new bake. To be honest, it’s one of the things I can make of which I am most proud. Another best friend of mine has a December birthday and requests this each year, so I went ahead and put it in this collection. This cake is amazing. Seriously. I’m not bragging, but it’s really good.

#7: Almond Spritz Cookies – This was actually my first time ever using a cookie press. I’m not sure that these are my favorite, but the simplicity and uniformity of this cookie have a lot to offer.

#8: Cannoli Poundcake – This was hit or miss for people. As you might expect, you have to enjoy cannoli to like this cake. Sadly, many of my family members do not like cannoli. I thought the taste was solid, and it almost reminds you of being boozy without any alcohol involved. I might make it again to take elsewhere. It’s a good party cake.

#9: Gingerbread Whoopie Pies – These were a surprise hit. I think it’s the fluff in the filling that did it. They were soft and squishy and just a fun party for your mouth. Will make again.

#10: Candy Cane Brownies – These were a variation of my own homemade brownies. My daughter liked these way more than I realized she would, so they will probably make it into the rotation. Chocolate and mint are hard to get wrong.

#11: Eggnog Creme Brulee – This was simple and divine. I feel like this sort of dish (I’d never made eggnog before this year) always feels classier than it has a right to feel. So of course I served it with Christmas Eve dinner. I enjoyed it, but it’s hard to ever feel sad about a brulee.

#12: Buche de Noel – This was my technical challenge for myself this year and boy was I challenged. I’m super proud of my little meringue mushrooms. Sadly, I don’t like meringue so they weren’t something I could enjoy the taste of – but aren’t they so cute? The log looked ok. I wish my roll had been tighter, and this was my first time making a sponge and there may have been a few holes in there that were hidden by delicious, fluffy buttercream. I might try this again in a few years but I would use something other than ganache for the outside coating. That stuff was like “woah” the moment you tasted it. But all in all, I’m pretty darn proud.

Did you go crazy baking this holiday? Share your successes and sad moments. Any suggestions for what I should bake in 2021?

Thoughts and Feelings: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Have you ever read something just because you saw the cover all over your feeds? This book definitely fell into that category for me. I went into this book knowing, quite literally, absolutely nothing about it other than the title and that “a lot of people really seemed to enjoy this.” Based on the name I had a vague idea that it would be a coming of age story or some sort of YA book about a girl coming undone who was saved by those around her.

What an excellent surprise I was in for.

I admit, after the first few chapters I was completely shocked. A story about a socially awkward girl with a hidden traumatic past was not what I was expecting in any regard. But the book grew on me quickly. I adored Eleanor’s voice and use of extensive vocabulary, and I found her way of reasoning through life charming – albeit completely unusual.

Surely most readers could identify with some of Eleanor’s responses because, at its most basic, she is living out the responses we all want to have except that most of us have been cued by society to be polite or vague or dismissive for kindness and the sake of being “appropriate.” How fun it is to watch as someone maneuvers through life with no concern for expectations or public desire. It really does spark some joy to pretend, just for a moment, that you, too, could say what you think and move forward without a second thought.

This was a very fun read and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a lighthearted book that you can enjoy and then walk away from. It provided its own unique voice and told a completely story that left me smiling in the end.

  • Hook Level: 5 – This was a fast read that kept me entertained, but it was also easy to put down when necessary. No suspense to keep the pages turning, but the sheer feeling it brought kept me coming back.
  • Surprise Level: 4 – I was pleased with the ending, but it ultimately ended just where I thought it would. I just didn’t know how it was going to get there.
  • Share Factor: 8 – I wouldn’t recommend this as a top read for the occasional reader (because there are too many “important” reads I would want them to get to first), but I would definitely share this with avid readers who can enjoy some lighthearted fun.
  • Crave Factor: 4 –I was satisfied with this slice of life but I don’t feel I need to go further. I have delighted in Eleanor’s tale and am happy to put it away as a bright spot in my internal memories.

Thoughts and Feelings: Mexican Gothic

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m disappointed I didn’t like this book more. Mexican Gothic has been the talk of the blogs for months now, and was just named Best in Horror over on GoodReads. I went in expecting an edge-of-my-seat page turner, but what I got instead was a book that left me turning pages… to see if the story would finally have a good twist or make some sense.

Perhaps I went in with my expectations too high. Mexican Gothic had the makings for a great scare. A young woman travels alone to the manor home of her newlywed(ish) cousin, at the request of her father who received a letter suggesting that ghosts were in the walls and family members were poisoning the food. When Noemi arrives, she finds a home full of strict rules riddled with neglect and is barred from seeing her cousin except for limited visits with supervision. In time, Noemi begins having dreams herself and begins to question her own sanity – and the safety of both her and her cousin.

The read was enjoyable, but the relationships were predictable and the explanation about what was happening didn’t make the most sense. I enjoy fantasy and suspense, but even in the realm of make believe I want things to make a bit more logical sense than just “I made up this idea and this is how it works so have it.” When I think of other suspense and horror books with somewhat surprising explanations (Annihilation comes to mind), even though it was hard to swallow it was still explained with some background and depth. When everything is revealed in Mexican Gothic, I feel as though it was too neat and perfect.

Perhaps I wanted a reveal and then a bigger fight to the finish as it were. But somehow, this story left me wanting. I definitely didn’t understand why it received so much praise. I did enjoy the setting and culture of the small Mexican town, and I was definitely drawn to the character of Noemi as a heroine. She was bold, she knew what she wanted and she never backed down. But I guess I wanted more from the horror, because isn’t that the bit that keeps us going?

I want to hear from others what they thought about this read. I wanted to like it more than I did, but I respect that it’s a hit. If nothing else, it’s nice to have a new world and someone other than the same old horror writers receiving accolades each year. Overall, I give this a 3/5. Read it and then tell me that I’m wrong!

  • Hook Level: 7 – Despite what I said, the book did draw me in. The things happening were definitely eerie (despite the dissatisfying resolution) and I kept reading in hopes that it would ultimately make more sense.
  • Surprise Level: 5 – Some of this was definitely a surprise because who could have predicted that which doesn’t make much sense! However, I felt that the characters and their interactions were a bit predictable. I guess I wanted a surprise traitor or a mysterious benefactor, something like that?
  • Share Factor: 5 – I think I want to be proven wrong on this one, so I will share the book if only so someone else can tell me why it’s so amazing.
  • Crave Factor: 8 –Ok, I know this is a surprise. But I really enjoyed the main character and the world. I just wanted a better haunt. If you could make more happen in that town and during that era but with better plot … I’m all in!