Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

I enjoy reading books where the scenery and landscape act as characters in and of themselves. Anyone who has ever read Joan Didion can appreciate the richness of a backdrop in California: the smell of sunblock after a day of lounging by the pool, long dresses flowing in the wind with long hair to match. I couldn’t escape the imagery of David Hockney’s paintings as I read this.

Lepucki’s newest book (after her first novel, aptly titled California), explores motherhood and the struggles of women’s search for identity. Esther is a newly graduated college student who becomes “S.” She hopes to reinvent herself with a lofty performance art piece, nannying to make money on the side. She has recently broken up from a cliché artsy college dude who influences her artwork, but inevitably breaks her heart.

Lady is S’s new employer. Her children are Devin, a sweet and curious toddler, and Seth, a teenager with selective mutism.

Lady uses the time afforded to her with S’s nannying to engage in some time-honored coffee-shop-procrastination, while she tries to write a piece about Seth’s mutism. Lady is separated from her husband, and she muddles through trying to find Seth’s birth father who abandoned them when Seth was young. All kinds of boundary-crossing, and family dysfunction shenanigans ensue.

I have found that I don’t enjoy books that have a heavy focus on grit and grime, that make you feel like you have to take a shower when you’re done reading them. For S’s performance piece, she becomes a bit of an accidental alcoholic, which of course leads to…grossness (Spoiler Alert: there’s some vomiting and general yuck) While this adds a level of realism to the book, the book lost some of its entertainment quality for me. (sidenote: I wish I could’ve finished this book, but I was too grossed out)

That being said, Lady and “S” are sticky, selfish, flawed, broken, and irresponsible.  I liked the characterization of everyone in this book. When writers expose feelings and behaviors that are embarrassing, the characters seem more real.

As my dad always says, you don’t have to like art to appreciate it. I appreciate this book, and I would recommend it- I think it has great artistic value. For me, it simply wasn’t as entertaining.

Rating: 3 stars

Further Reading:

I received this book for free from the Blogging for Books program! All opinions are my own.

Paula Hawkins- Into the Water

Image result for into the water paula hawkins

I absolutely loved Girl on the Train, and read it while I was still living in Chicago (sadly, on the bus, not on the train…which would’ve been way cooler). I loved the film adaptation that came out last year, and I was itching with the rest of the world to pick up Hawkins’s newest book, Into the Water.

Initially, I was discouraged by the Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times. Then I decided that reviews should never deter a stubborn, motivated reader, so I got started. I’m so glad I did.

The book starts with the death of Nel Abbott, a less-than-well-liked writer/photographer who was found at the bottom of the very river she was writing a book about, lovingly called Drowning Pool. Not too long ago prior, Nel’s daughter, Lena’s, close friend, Katie, died in that same river. The town has a Salem-esque feel, with a history of women dying in Drowning Pool as a result of England-based witch hunts (which I had no idea was co-existing during our own Salem Witch Trials…silly me). From there, the Pool racks up a long list of casualties, causes for which are both speculative and scandalous in nature.

Nel’s sister, Jules, returns to her hometown, forced to come to terms with both a troubled childhood and a conflict-heavy relationship with her now-deceased sister. What ensues is an engaging (albeit sometimes confusing) read. Here are some of my takeaways after finishing:

  • This book reminded me of both Twin Peaks and Broadchurch, with murder investigations infiltrating the facade of small towns, uncovering dark family secrets and eccentric characters.
  • In defense of multiple point-of-view-books, I think a multiple P.O.V. narrative can be like indulging in a large ice cream sundae. It takes longer to consume, you might get a headache at the end, but it’s totally worth it. Think of it as a kitchen-sink sundae vs. regular hot fudge- both have their merits.
  • One of the reasons that books like Girl on the Train and Gone Girl did so well is that readers fell in love with the unreliable narrators. I love this, too- it adds another layer of mystery to the mystery, and usually creates a page-turner. I thought Hawkins added a nice touch to this literary device by using human memory as the cause for unreliability. We all seem to think that hindsight is 20/20, even when it truly isn’t. Our brains fill in gaps, and our memories are heavily influenced by emotion.
  • There’s a feminist undertone. The dedication is “For all the troublemakers,” and linking historical mistreatment of women who were drowned as “witches” gives the most recent stories from the town some context. Women who are nonconformists are cast aside, or not believed. Perhaps this, in and of itself, should give us pause.
  • FYI: Trigger warning: sexual assault

Overall, if you have the patience for reading multiple narrators, I highly recommend giving this a try. It’s complex, but the story is a page-turner, and I loved seeing how the characters changed as the mystery of Nel’s death unfolded.

Rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 on Goodreads)

Further Reading:

Food 52- Mighty Salads

I’ll never forget the first time I made salad dressing from scratch. I was working at Wellness Place, a magical non-profit filled with superheroes who supported cancer survivors. As a program manager, I wanted to do a program focusing on healthy eating around the holidays (nutrition was always a big draw, plus I wanted an excuse to try new recipes!). I made this buttermilk avocado dressing, and my palate for salad dressings changed forever.

Laziness, however, took hold pretty quickly. A quick shake of a pre-made bottle (or heading to my beloved Just Salad or Sweetgreen) was the status quo for quite some time.

When the Blogging for Books program offered Food52’s newest salad book, I requested it immediately. I knew it would be just what I needed (a swift kick in the pants) to jump kick my salad making again.

Here are my thoughts about this book:

  • Unlike other cookbooks, you can dance around the ingredients a little. There were many recipes that had meat, but I was able to simply omit them, and they were still delicious!
  • Food52 will help you explore new ingredients, even if it takes some time to search for them. I went looking for Spanish Smoked Paprika (present in at least 2 of the recipes I tried), but could not find it my local grocery stores. Amazon saved the day, and I was able to buy it here.
  • Rethink your salad carbs. Gone are the days of bagged, over-salted dried croutons. These are the days of grilled baguettes and hefty grains.
  • One of my besties, Lauren, introduced me to the idea of mixing in herbs with whatever greens are present in my salad (thanks, girl!). There is no lack of herbs in this book, and you get bonus tips on how to incorporate them into your food.

My overall takeaway is that we all need inspiration to eat healthier. It’s books like this that make incorporating more leafy greens and veggies more about culinary exploration than shaming people into calorie-restriction with boring food. Take out your favorite veggies and get exploring!

Further Reading:

I received this book for free from the Blogging for Books program! All opinions are my own.

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry

Image result for my husbands wife

I love a good mystery thriller. Within a week (or less), you find yourself down a rabbit hole of twists and turns- engaged way more than if you were binge-watching a similar show on Netflix.

Lily is a newly married defense attorney-described as both solicitor and barrister in the book (maintaining the British nuances in the language). Ed is her husband, a painter struggling to make ends meet and find inspiration.

Lily is introduced to her first client, Joe Thomas. Joe is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Lily starts to think about her client more and more outside of work hours. Around the same time, Lily and Ed befriend their neighbors, mother Francesca and daughter Carla. They start to babysit Carla, and she becomes Ed’s creative muse. How do these lives get tangled up with murder?

The plot is very intricate and well organized. I have a tendency to get confused with too many characters in a book, but once I finished reading, I could recall the details from each character’s background and events in the book (no family tree needed!). I don’t want to reveal too much in the plot, but I thought I really enjoyed the twists and turns. It was like a roller coaster, with just a dash of soap opera. Great reading for the train!

4 Stars

Further Reading

  • Interview with the Author
  • An article from Penguin UK, on how working in prison inspired the author

 

June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

JuneCover

I always love seeing the difference between the hardcover and paperback book covers (when it changes). The above image is for the paperback version of June (with a Didion-esque ladies in cat eye sunglasses), whereas the below image is the hardcover version:

Image result for june miranda beverly-whittemore

There is a great deal of money invested in book covers, because the adage of “not judging a book by its cover” doesn’t seem to hold up in the literal sense. Book design has been a particularly interesting field to observe as a reader and reviewer. Here are some articles about that very subject:

Anyway, back to the book!

We are invited into the world of June after her granddaughter, Cassie, comes to her home in Ohio, following her death from cancer (I just can’t get away from it!). Cassie is a Hannah-Horvathian character, having left New York City and an artist boyfriend to live in her grandmother’s home following her passing. She struggles to “get it together,” sleeping in late, barely caring for herself, and actively avoiding her emotions and her new neighborhood.  Her memories haunt her from previous fights with her grandmother, and the fact that her grandmother did not reveal much about her diagnosis prior to death- robbing them of precious time together.

One day, a gentleman comes to her door to inform her that she is the heir to the estate of a famous actor who has just passed away. This is news to her, as it implies an affair between her (recently deceased) grandmother and this Hollywood star. The daughters of this Hollywood star catch wind the inheritance, and drama ensues.

Can you imagine the family secrets that erupt from this? Miranda Beverly-Whittemore did the imagining for us. The web is quite tangled my friends, but it makes for an engrossing read. Halfway through the book, I was hoping for a family tree of sorts, to organize all of the relationships that this Ohio small town produces. However, upon finishing, I realize that a map like this would give away (or mislead a reader) regarding certain spoilers.

Wade through these complex waters, and you’ll have a book that resonates, and makes you re-think the meaning of life and the meaning of family (with a bit of soap opera for fun!).

I received this book for free from the Blogging for Books program! All opinions are my own.

So Fresh and So Clean!

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Image from my Instagram @smmanley01

I am always eager to try new hair products, especially if the company is making an effort to reduce testing on animals! 

The L’Oreal Ever Fresh line is an anti-dandruff scalp system of shampoo, conditioner, and a brand new hair scrub. This brunette struggles with dandruff in the dry Chicagoland winters, and for someone who loves to wear all black outfits, dandruff is a big no-no! The only flakes I like to see are snow, mmmkkkk?

Overall: I wasn’t keen on the scent of the shampoo+conditioner (it was super intense), but after blow drying, it wasn’t too bad. The product produced the results I wanted (a non-itchy, flake free scalp), but I also found that the conditioner didn’t provide that nice shiny glow I like. Nothing a little hair serum can’t fix!

The Micro Exfoliating Hair Scrub  was the best surprise of all. It’s gentle enough to scrub out all of the dry shampoo and hairspray I use (yes, hairspray, I’m still living in the 90’s), but the scrub doesn’t dry your scalp. I would have loved to have this product on my wedding night, to scrub out all the product. Might be a nice gift for a bride-to-be!

If you’d like to learn more about the whole L’Oréal Ever line, click here. There are systems for volume, moisture, color care, curly hair, and the scalp care I just reviewed. Bonus: ALL of these lines are sulfate and paraben free!!

I received these L’Oreal EverFresh products for free from Influenster, but all opinions are my own!

A Different Kind of “elf” on the Shelf

Greetings all!

Some of you may have seen my Influenster account on Instagram. Influenster is an online review program. First you create a social media profile, then products are sent to your home directly based on the strength of the profile you create. Then you follow through with the reviews for the products sent- easy! It’s a fun way to test your editorial skills with your writing! Why do you like a product? How does it compare to others?

So for my blog today, I thought I would give the low-down on a few products I was sent for from Influenster and elf cosmetics. Let me know what you think!

e.l.f. Lip Exfoliator in Mint Maniac

Image result for elf exfoliating scrub lip mint

I really wanted to like this, but I felt it was just a little too abrasive. I received the Fresh Sugar Lip Polish in a gift set a long time ago, and I haven’t found anything to beat it. This exfoliator did not have a residual moisturizing quality, so you would have to be prepared with some intense lip balm or vitamin E tablets for your lips to recover. I do not recommend.

e.l.f. Matte Lip Color in “Wine” Shade

Image result for elf matte lip color wine

Sometimes, you just need the right lip color for the right event! I don’t typically wear really bold shades of lip color. I often think about how powerful evoking an Elizabeth-Taylor-esque look (red lips, bold eyebrows, dark hair in curls) would be so fun. That being said, I tend towards the safer side, preferring berry colors and nudes. So, as they say, quelle domage. This was a touch too bold for me. That being said, I have a feeling it would have great staying power for holiday cocktails!

I hope you enjoyed my little sample of reviews for e.l.f. cosmetics! Have you tried any of their products?

Disclaimer: I received these products from free from Influenster. However, all opinions are my own! 

 

Holiday Wish List

Hello folks,

I’m slowly but surely getting back to blogging! I’m no longer the book columnist for McHenry County Magazine, and I am excited to take a break. Who knows what other writing opportunities might be in store?

I miss the practice of writing for fun, so I thought I would start with some cute gift ideas for the holidays! I like to think of wish lists that are “just because,” or gifts that I wouldn’t actually expect to receive. Let your mind wander!

What sorts of items are on your wish list?

A classic coat

I own this coat in beige, and it’s served me well for both casual and formal occasions. J.Crew Factory, $114.00

 

A Great Coffee Table Book

Image result for domino your guide to a stylish home

domino: Your Guide to a Stylish Home, domino, $29.99

[Join me at Anderson’s Bookstore in Naperville, IL for a book signing event! Click here for details]

All-Occasion Earrings

Larue Earrings

This year, I’ve been obsessed with white jewelry. It’s classic, and goes with everything!

Anthropologie, $38.00

Andie Mitchell- Inspiration for Healthy Eating

Eating can be a struggle for any American woman. Do I eat like the fast food ads tell me to-with abandon and without consequence? Or do I eat like the covers of magazines tell me to- with heavy restriction and a low weight as an end goal? No gluten, no carbs, no sugar, no fat, no salt, no meat, lots of meat, lots of carbs, lots of fat…you see where I’m going with this.

I have always been drawn to the disordered relationship some women have with food, reading eating disorder memoirs and lounging on the couch with Lifetime movie marathons about anorexia and bulimia. One day I hope to work with these women professionally, but until then, I rely on firsthand accounts in the books I read (the last two that really struck a chord were Portia De Rossi’s memoir, Unbearable Lightness, and Crystal Renn’s book, Hungry).

Then came Andie Mitchell. I was able to check out Ms. Mitchell’s memoir, It Was Me All Along, via e-copy through the Chicago Public Library. I finished it in two days. I, too, have a personal journey with significant weight loss (ballet + a vegetarian lifestyle helped me lose 40 lbs during college). I could relate to the constant fear of gaining the weight back, slipping into obsessive thinking and never being able to “let loose”. At the age of 28, I finally feel like I had a chance to feel comfortable in my own body. I just got married a few weeks ago, and I never once felt pressure to do the traditional “wedding diet” (although, truth be told, the anxiety of planning did shed about 5 vanity lbs!).

Eating in the Middle cover

 

As my husband (!) and I start our lives together, so too do we start to venture out into new cooking territory. I ventured out and prepared Mitchell’s baked buttermilk breaded chicken (the first time I’d cooked meat in about 7 years), and Andy prepared me Mitchell’s lemon poppyseed cupcakes (the first he’d made cupcakes in probably about the same amount of time). There were moments where we both helped each other- Andy cutting the meat to see if it was done (I wasn’t about to start eating meat again), and me correcting Andy that the cream cheese frosting recipe called for 6 oz of cream cheese (2 oz short of one block!). A nice start to our marriage together, prompted by a book that has recipes for both vegetarians and carnivores.

Mitchell’s cookbook is an extension of her philosophy on food is clear in this book. Healthy version of your favorite noms, plus some delicious indulgences. Personally, I think all books should be written like this! PLUS there is nutritional info! I can’t wait to try all of the recipes!

Rating: 4/5 stars

 

Further Reading/Viewing:

A copy of Eating in the Middle was  provided by www.BloggingforBooks.com, but you can better believe my opinions are my own.

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston

My poor fiancé. Every time we’ve played a couple’s game, the (surprisingly) only complaint he has is my tendency to collect paper clutter.

Personal growth can stare you right in the face. If the person I am about to marry is this quick to identify an area of growth for me, I’m going to jump right in! There have been other de-cluttering books that have gotten a lot of press lately, but this seemed like a unique title, with an existing perspective (feng shui) re-introduced to 2016 readers.

Kingston approaches de-cluttering through the lens of Feng Shui, a practice that always seemed out of reach to me. If I can barely keep my desk clean, how am I supposed to understand energy balance in my home? Kingston makes the material easy to digest. Here are a few of my pros/cons from the book.

Pros:

  • Organized content (a good sign!)
  • A well-rounded perspective on de-cluttering, including suggestions on what to do with your to-be-disposed items
  • Extending de-cluttering past physical objects in the home (emotional de-cluttering, de-cluttering bad food out of your diet, etc.)
  • Super easy to read- finished reading in about 2 days

Cons:

  • Suggestions about fasting and colon cleansing, without enough disclosures about medically-sensitive populations for these constructs (people with diabetes, cancer, etc.). This can be dangerous stuff, and should not be treated lightly
  • Mention of “space clearing” practice, without describing thoroughly enough what it is. I anticipate that this will be a follow up book, but I at least want to know more basics before I explore further.

Overall, I would highly recommend this title! I look forward to re-visting it in those times that I need to clear my home…and my mind!

Rating: 3.5 stars

Further Reading:

A review copy was provided to me by http://www.BloggingforBooks.com. All opinions are my own!