Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration


Book chat: ‘Food Whore’ by Jessica Tom

Food WhoreTia Monroe knows food.

That passion is what propelled her into New York’s fashionable, dirty, complicated, cutthroat culinary world. A young critic and baker once featured in the New York Times, Tia now hopes to gain an internship with a famed foodie at work on her next cook book. . . until that opportunity crumbles like a days-old cookie.

Left starting in the coat check (!) at an upscale restaurant, Tia makes the acquaintance of Michael Saltz: the Times critic known for making and breaking the city’s top establishments. Michael giveth, and Michael taketh away — until a strange medical issue threatens to take everything away from him.

Rich, powerful and well-connected, Michael Saltz needs Tia’s perspective — and her palate — to uphold the lavish life to which he’s accustomed. And Tia? She’s wooed by the promise of Michael finally connecting her to the mentor she wanted in the first place. (The pricey meals, expense account and hot chefs are a bonus.)

But can she get out from Michael’s grasp without getting burned?

Jessica Tom’s Food Whore was fast-paced, light and entertaining — everything I love in good chick lit. Comparisons to a foodie version of The Devil Wears Prada are pretty spot-on, but I liked Tia’s persistence and willingness to step out to reach her goals.

Even if that meant getting stepped on.

As a narrator, Tia could be frustrating, though. She’s frequently gullible, though I can’t pretend I would know better. The plot line with her college sweetheart was a little irritating, given dude was as interesting as plain vanilla ice cream (let him go, lady), but I liked the push-and-pull Jessica Tom established in Tia’s conscience: settle for the old, or strive for the new?

Though Tia is our main squeeze, Michael Saltz — and his creepiness — seep between every crack in the story. He presents himself as Tia’s savior, a one-man ticket to a better life, but I had the sense he was all bluster from the beginning. We know his intentions aren’t romantic (he’s gay), but his obsession with Tia as the one remaining tether to his lifestyle and prestige is . . . unsettling, to say the least.

Food Whore moves quickly — so fast I finished it in a few days, which is a record for this new mama who rarely reads more than a few pages at a clip. It often kept me up past my bedtime, and I found myself thinking about Tia and her madcap adventures throughout the day.

Fans of women’s fiction, tantalizing food descriptions, New York settings and speedy reads will enjoy Food Whore. I really liked slipping into Tia’s stylish shoes for this adventure through New York’s culinary culture — and I would return in a heartbeat.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided for critical consideration

Book chat: ‘Why Not Me?’ by Mindy Kaling

Why Not MeActress and writer Mindy Kaling is my vision of a talented Everywoman.

Confident but approachable, warm and vivacious, Mindy is someone I aspire to be more like. I love her sass, her wit, her style . . . and also love that she “doesn’t look like most women on TV,” a statement Mindy herself ponders in Why Not Me?, her second memoir.

I went into this book hoping the Mindy I know and love — wise, funny, a little quirky — would shine through, and she absolutely does. Her memoir is a collection of short stories about many topics, including her days on “The Office”; the hard work and long hours behind “The Mindy Project,” her (awesome) TV show recently picked up by Hulu; and many anecdotes about friendship, college, growing up, looking for love, self-confidence and more.

Though the only uniting thread seems to be Mindy’s insistence that we should be ourselves regardless of what anyone thinks and work hard for what we want, that was enough. That totally worked for me. This 240-page book left me feeling motivated and renewed, like I’d just had a cleansing cryfest with an old friend.

Plus? It’s funny, but in a warmhearted way. Mindy is hilarious. I especially appreciated that, while she is grateful women see her as a realistic role model, she’s not afraid to admit that, at times, she does wish she were thinner, bolder, more confident or [insert societal standard or adjective here]. That vulnerability is appealing — and also comforting. It’s more than okay to love and accept ourselves while still striving to improve.

If you’re a fan of Kaling, Why Not Me? is a book you’ll likely savor. Having not read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (I know: way behind), I can’t compare the two — but this short, easily digestible and enjoyable series of stories definitely feels like you’ve invited Mindy over to give you advice on being a bad boss lady while she still owns up to some of her foibles. I totally dug it.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages

Book chat: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.


When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book chat: ‘The Precious One’ by Marisa de los Santos

The Precious OneTaisy Cleary thought she’d finally banished him. After her father abandoned the family when she and her twin brother, Marcus, had just turned 18, Taisy made it her mission to press on without the dominating, controlling, sneering Wilson Cleary. With his pregnant second wife quickly ready to welcome a new daughter, his first wants only to exorcise him.

Wilson makes it his mission to protect Willow, this precious babe, from all the world’s hurts. As his third child lives a sheltered, academically-rich life under her father’s tender wing, Taisy and Marcus work to erase difficult Wilson from their lives. And they succeed — mostly — for 17 years. But after learning of her father’s recent heart attack, Taisy is shocked to receive an invitation back to the hometown she fled so long ago.

Faced with a surly teenage half-sister, dreamy stepmother and father who remains as self-obsessed as ever, Taisy is also confronted with memories of another man she lost so long ago: her first love, Ben. Returning to the Delaware town where she’d once been so happy, she hopes to forge new connections . . . just as her sister needs her the most.

Lyrical, thought-provoking and filled with memorable characters, Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One challenges our notions of family, loyalty and second chances. Though it got off to a slow start for me, I became lost in the beautiful language and sucked into the world of the complicated, broken Clearys.

In chapters alternating between Taisy and Willow’s viewpoints, the story begins with Taisy estranged from her father and his second family — but still faced with a longing to understand, and be understood by, her dad. While her brother has long given up on Wilson, Taisy can’t seem to shake her strange, misguided feelings of loyalty to the man who destroyed to their once-strong family unit. Even decades later, she can’t help wondering . . . why?

With Wilson now in his 70s and in questionable health, he calls his oldest daughter — a writer — for a favor: to ghostwrite his life story, one of his marvelous mind. An unquestionable genius, Wilson places education and knowledge above all else. His daughter, Willow, was molded in his image: a brilliant, savvy young woman who thinks easily for herself . . . but can’t function away from her father’s grasp.

Public high school is a new circle of hell for Willow. With Wilson unable to continue her homeschooling, she enters eleventh grade without any of the grasp of culture or social norms. And it’s painful. When the author has us join Willow in a dirty stairwell where she’s somberly eating her lunch alone, I ached for her. Who hasn’t felt like the misfit?

And that’s why it’s so easy to understand how she is quickly adopted by a new mentor: her English teacher, a 30-year-old man who easily quotes poetry and Shakespeare but harbors dubious intentions. The Precious One is as much the story of a family as it is one of predation and loneliness, hope and belief.

I related to Taisy — in her thirties, still smarting with the dissolution of her first love — and with Willow, this sad and lovely girl who can’t understand just how sad and lovely she really is. No matter your age, there is probably a bit of Taisy and Willow in all of us: people who still seek the approval of their parents, regardless of what’s come to pass between them. Willow’s fondest hope is to never make a mistake, and Taisy’s is to atone for her worst one of all.

Can you tell I liked this book? I really liked this book. I read it almost entirely in one afternoon with my swollen pregnant feet propped on a coffee table, lost in the Clearys and their myriad issues . . . swept up in the idea of Wilson’s mysterious past and how much he inflicted his own issues upon his unsuspecting children.

Though I didn’t feel we got the most satisfying story arc from Wilson’s history, I appreciated Taisy’s desire to dig deeper — to try and find the root of what made this man so calculated, austere and cold (to everyone but Willow, that is). As Willow begins to clear a small path in the real world outside her parents’ arms, I felt a surge of protection for her . . . even though my loyalty was, for the most part, with Taisy.

The evolution of the sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the story. Though we have sinister subplots peeking into the crevices between paragraphs, Willow and Taisy finding solace and camaraderie in one another — and the changes they help bring to each other’s lives — was moving, to say the least. Though Willow would have never admitted to needing a “sister” around (and Taisy could never imagine being that sister), their changing dynamic was my favorite part of The Precious One.

With a satisfying conclusion and engrossing plot, Marisa de los Santos presents a winning novel that swept me up with its gorgeous prose and compelling characters. This family isn’t one I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Complimentary copy provided via TLC Book Tours for review consideration

Book chat: ‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsLincoln didn’t plan on becoming a snoop.

Hired by the nascent IT department of a local newspaper to ensure their employees aren’t using the new-fangled Internet for nefarious purposes (it is 1999, after all), Lincoln’s primary job is to hang around at night reading others’ email.

For a while, nothing interesting happens. Aside from the occasional off-color remark, his filter remains resolutely boring. Until chains of messages begin to pour in between Beth and Jennifer, two members of the editorial staff who share their lives through a series of notes passed like a digital middle school experience.

Though he feels awful invading their privacy, the friends’ emails keep appearing in his filter . . . and he keeps reading them, partly because he’s bored silly — it’s an overnight shift in an empty building — but, gradually, because he starts to feel connected to them. Especially Beth, a sharp and funny movie critic stuck in a dead-end relationship.

When their paths cross in daylight, everything feels different . . . and his affections only grow. But how do you confess to snooping on your love interest for months — and all on the company dime?

Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments is a sweet, modern love story that immediately sucked me in. As an editor at a local newspaper myself, it was literally impossible for me to not relate to this quick, quirky and entertaining read.

Lincoln is the sort of dude you can’t help but root for — a man floundering a bit to find his way in the world after a nasty break-up, but undoubtedly someone with a heart of gold. I loved his relationship with his well-meaning but overbearing mom, of all things; it was incredibly realistic, right down to her shoving casseroles into his hands on his way out the door.

In his late twenties, Lincoln doesn’t plan to still be living at home . . . or working in a soulless IT position, where even a monkey could read flagged emails and send warning messages to the paper staff. But he knows there is something more — and he’ll find it. Eventually. His predicament is one many can relate to, I’d wager, though the story was set in the chaos of Y2K. (Also: nostalgia.)

Beth and Jennifer’s dynamic was wonderful. I read Attachments thinking often of who my own Beth would be (I mean, I’m definitely Jennifer, the married and nervously pregnant editor). Though we only get to know the pair through their constant emails to each other, this style — a modern epistolary — worked really well for me.

And it made for an incredibly quick read. Though Lincoln is the star of our show, every side character held his or her own — and as the story progressed, I was dying — DYING — for Lincoln and Beth to meet. I kept wondering how they would eventually run into each other, waiting to see if instant sparks would fly. Wanting shy, handsome Lincoln to finally make a big move.

Lovers of contemporary fiction and the ever-funny, ever-wise Rainbow Rowell will find much to love in this savvy story. It was an incredibly entertaining way to spend a few weeknights, and definitely solidified my Rowell love.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration