Why I quit making reading lists — and why I’m back

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I didn’t keep track of a single book I read in 2018.

Given how immersed I was in cataloging everything I read up until my kids arrived, that felt strange. Even after I found myself with little energy and less desire to keep up with full-blown reviews, I was updating Goodreads with the audiobooks I’d listened to, at least.

But for 2018? Cold turkey. I was tired. Reading had become less a pleasurable pursuit than a strange struggle to “keep up,” both in the book blogging world and outside it. I felt like I’d created something with write meg! and I needed to crank out content to appease … someone.

Publishers? Readers? Myself?

So I stopped. If it doesn’t give you joy, why do it? And, to be honest, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open until 9 p.m. Once the kids were in bed, I was right behind them. My job is very busy. The house is always a mess. So many responsibilities tug at me day in and day out, and I needed to loosen the hold of those that I could.

Here’s the thing, though: being a reader is part of my identity. I don’t feel like myself without my books. Novels are a vacation. A trip from reality. A chance to escape, to punch out, to be “someone else” for a while.

Without books, I’m … me. Exhausted mom of two.

I wanted to find my way back to reading … but without the self-imposed pressure I’d come to put on myself as a blogger and reviewer. There had to be a better way.

So I rediscovered books in 2018 — just for myself. The kids were sleeping more. Our household was less disrupted. I returned to novels like reconnecting with a best friend — just without the requirement that I evaluate every single one. I was tired of my obsession with counting everything.

Life was stressful enough. I just wanted to read.

So I did. But I didn’t review or catalog. I didn’t set reading goals, nor did I keep a running list of what I’d purchased or finished or borrowed.

2018 became the year of the lost book.

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Turns out … well, I miss my lists.

I am lists. Lists are me.

When I don’t have them? There’s … nothing. A total blank where my favorite reads from 2018 should be.

Did I not read anything compelling last year? Nothing memorable, influential, worthwhile? This can’t be true, especially knowing I give most books the 10-page test — if it doesn’t hold my attention after 10 pages, I quit.

Yet without my trusty spreadsheets and up-to-date Goodreads account, I struggle to think of a single title I loved in the last 12 months.

That just won’t do.

So I’m back. Last week I flipped on the lights of my dormant Goodreads account, shaking the dust from every surface. I’ve finished three audio books since January 1, and absolutely loved Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away. I’m thick in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and love it so much, I don’t want it to end.

And, of course, there’s my kids’ bedtime reading. The rhyming undercurrents of my daily life.

For Hadley, it’s Five Little Pumpkins. For Oliver, Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?

I mean, where do they sleep at night?

Do they dream of holes they dug?

Do their moms reach front to backhoe when they give a good night hug?

These are the questions of our era, friends.

And with little readers in the making (and much more reading for me!), I look forward to answering them.

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Bookish speed dating: getting lost, finding yourself and more

So I’ve, um, gotten a little behind on book reviews.

Which is to say . . . I am ridiculously behind on book reviews.

Even when I was actively getting lost in a story (or four), I lacked the brain power to discuss anything intelligently. So I cataloged my finished reads on a spreadsheet, made a note to review them later and . . . promptly had a baby.

So.

Here I am: desperately wanting to play catch up. These unreviewed books, friends, they’re weighing on me. Weighing down my soul. Making me feel like a failure. Taunting me from their color-coded Google Doc.

Let’s speed date, shall we? I’ll give you a rundown so you can decide whether to pursue a relationship further. I won’t pressure you or follow up with sassy text messages or Facebook notes asking if you and Happiness For Beginners hit it off; your choice to connect in the future is yours alone.

I’m considerate like that.


Happiness for BeginnersHappiness For Beginners
by Katherine Center
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
4.5 stars

Though tough to avoid comparisons to Cheryl Strayed’s classic Wild, Center’s novel of a recently-divorced woman who sets off on a wilderness journey of self-discovery and independence — with her kid brother’s best friend, incidentally — is entertaining, sweet and memorable.

I love Katherine’s writing, which flows like a fast-moving current; it’s impossible not to get swept up in her warm characters, compelling setting and relatable plot. At 32, Helen abruptly finds herself starting over — and regardless of where we are in life, readers will find a bit of themselves in Helen’s cautious optimism. Totally loved it.


Tempting FateTempting Fate
by Jane Green
Published: 2014
Source: Audio from library
3.5 stars

Despite having the perfect marriage on paper, Gabby and Elliott struggle with the mundane details of the long-married: not enough time for themselves, each other and their two daughters, who are growing up — but still in need of their parents’ attention.

When a girls’ night out leads to a chance meeting with a younger, handsome stranger, Gabby can’t resist the allure of feeling wanted again. Those feelings — and, later, actions — have far-reaching consequences, however . . . ones even Gabby can’t anticipate.

So I know I sort of swore off Jane Green after the disastrous Another Piece of my Heart, but I was seeking something lighthearted back in March — and I found it here. Though Gabby’s decision-making skills are sketchy at best, I got lost in the endlessly-complicated drama. Good, crazy fun.


Margaret From MaineMargaret From Maine
by Joseph Monninger
Published: 2012
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 stars

After her husband is gravely injured during a deployment, Margaret is left to care for her young son and father-in-law as they work to maintain the family farm. When another serviceman arrives to accompany her to a ceremony in Washington, she is swept up in their powerful chemistry . . . and the idea of feeling free again. But her loyalty is to her husband, even if he’s in a place he’ll never be reached.

I felt for Margaret and Charlie, who seemed star-crossed from the start. I thought their relationship advanced beyond propriety a little too quickly to be realistic (and some of the dialogue was super silly), but still enjoyed this short, heart-wrenching novel.


Coming CleanComing Clean
by Kimberly Rae Miller
Published: 2013
Source: Purchased
3 stars

In this story of growing up in a hoarding household, Miller manages to draw us into her paper- and garbage-strewn world without really opening up to us. It’s a strange thing, indeed, to write a memoir about such a personal topic that still manages to come across as detached — but I finished this short story of Miller’s childhood and college years with a bit of a shoulder shrug. I did finish, though — and that says something. Especially given my sleep-deprived attention span.


The One That Got AwayThe One That Got Away
by Bethany Chase
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.5 stars

Sarina is a talented architect with great friends, a successful business and a loving relationship with a man she believes will be getting down on one knee in short order. But when an old one-night-stand resurfaces, asking for her design expertise on a new home, Sarina begins to question the past — and her future.

This was the story I was reading the day before my son was born, and for the most part? I succeeded. Chase has created a realistic, could-be-your-bestie narrator in Sarina, and her sexy, playful dynamic with athlete Eamon Roy — a man who once ended them before they could begin — is one with which many will likely relate.

Though it wasn’t a truly stand-out read, it is a layered story that also deals with grief, friendship and pursuing what we truly want. And heck, it managed to (mostly) distract me from impending childbirth, so that counts for something?


Book review: ‘The Lost Husband’ by Katherine Center

The Lost HusbandLibby Moran is looking for a way out. Widowed with two young children, her only option in the wake of Danny’s death was to move in with her difficult mother. Still adrift three years later, a letter from a long-lost aunt arrives at just the right moment — and prompts her to reevaluate her family’s future. With Aunt Jean offering a place to stay in exchange for help on a working farm in Atwater, Texas, Libby makes an executive decision: she and the kids will feel more comfortable with goats than her mother.

Quitting her soul-sucking day job and piling Abby and Tank in the van, Libby sets out for Jean’s abode — and is fascinated by what she finds. At first exhausted by the early cycles of milking the goats, making cheese and taking their goods to local farmers’ markets, Libby settles into a rhythm with the help of O’Connor, a farm manager with his own complicated past. Rumor is he’s handsome, but you can barely tell with all the scruff.

With the support of an unlikely crew of family and new friends, Libby and the kids begin to discover that — even after tragedy — something can be gained from what was lost.

So. Katherine Center is awesome. I’ve read every one of her books, and they suck me in like nobody’s gull-darn business. The Lost Husband was no different, ending my somewhat hum-drum streak of starting and promptly abandoning books, and I was all up in this novel from start to finish.

Despite the heavy subject matter of Center’s latest (out May 7), this is not a serious story. It has serious elements, absolutely, and I may have teared up a few times, but like every story penned by this author? Well, at its core is a capable, loving heroine who doesn’t take herself too seriously . . . and the humor is what carries us through. The playful dynamic between Libby and O’Connor kept us from ever wading into misery, and the kids! Oh, the kids. Second-grader Abby stole every scene, and her little brother Tank also provided much-needed levity.

At its heart, The Lost Husband is about family — and carrying on in the face of tragedy. Three years after her husband’s sudden death, Libby is trying her best to keep her crew happy, healthy and together . . . and if that results in some helicopter parenting, I completely understood. When Abby is being bullied for a slight limp that lingers from a car accident, I wanted to swoop in there and read nasty PeePants Gavinski the riot act myself. Center’s great talent is creating families that feel like your family — and we’re with them every step of the way.

The plot’s quick pace had me glued to my e-reader, sneaking passages whenever possible, and I loved the introduction of Sunshine, a formerly-famous actress hiding out with her grandfather in Atwater. After Libby nearly runs her over on her first day in town, the two become unlikely friends — especially given Sunshine’s ability to “talk” to those on the other side. Informing Libby she can “find” Danny, the titular lost husband, the duo begin a series of “seances” that actually give them a chance to talk, unwind and vent.

More than anything, what Libby needs is a friend.

I was just . . . so pleased with this book. From its rural Texas setting to its vibrant, interesting characters to its descriptions of tough but bucolic country life, Center has created a winner of a tale in her latest work. The budding love story was well-balanced with depictions of family life (and all its complications), and I inhaled this book in just a few days. Fans of Center’s have another gem for their collection — and I expect The Lost Husband to win over new readers, too.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345507940 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘The Bright Side Of Disaster’ by Katherine Center

Busy planning a wedding to her rock-star-dreaming boyfriend, Dean, Jenny Harris wasn’t quite prepared for a little surprise headed the couple’s way: a baby. Just months from their wedding day, Jenny’s pregnancy has thrown everyone for a loop . . . especially her fiance. When Dean begins acting strangely and then announces his departure, Jenny must pull herself “up by her bootstraps,” as her father would tell her, and prepare for the arrival of a little one. Even if she’s doing it alone.

Katherine Center’s The Bright Side Of Disaster, the author’s 2007 debut, was — more than anything — a shocking portrayal of first-time motherhood. And though Center is still a no-fail author for me, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as her more recent efforts, Everyone Is Beautiful (which I loved) and Get Lucky (also loved).

From the get-go, something about this one fell flat for me. While I appreciated Jenny as a resilient character, I was still frustrated by many of the silly decisions she made. I can understand that she’s a young woman trying to figure out a difficult situation, but the way she let Dean in and out of her life grated on my nerves. Jenny is the good friend you see screwing up all over the place and badly want to tell the truth, but you’re too afraid of hurting her feelings. What she really needed was someone to throw a bucket of cold water on her face and shout, “Get a grip!”

But, you know. That happens to all of us sometimes.

The strength of the novel comes from Center’s ability to portray, with stunning clarity, just how difficult it is to be a parent. On the flip side? Well, that’s also the book’s downfall. Having no kids myself, I’ll be frank: The Bright Side Of Disaster scared the tar out of me. If I remember little else about this book (and I might not, to be honest), one scene will stay with me forever: Jenny’s birthing scene. Oh. My. Goodness.

Just . . . I’ll stop there. It’s terrifying.

A few side characters provided distractions from the chaotic monotony (is that possible?) that becomes Jenny’s life with her newborn: the handsome neighbor down the street, Gardner, who steps in and mans up when Dean won’t; Jenny’s divorced-but-maybe-still-in-love parents, who provide much needed levity; Claudia, a new mommy friend who contributes perspective. But overall, I wasn’t too interested in the side plots or invested in Dean and Jenny’s back-and-forth relationship. It was obvious what she needed to do from the start.

Center is an engaging, warm writer — and I still love her! At the risk of sounding condescending, it’s obvious how well her writing has progressed in the two novels she’s penned since this release. The Bright Side Of Disaster is a fast read, yes — and I’m sure parents will see shades of themselves in the up-all-night baby stories. But it wasn’t a homerun for me.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345497961 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch

Book review: ‘Get Lucky’ by Katherine Center

It’s hard for New York City-based ad whiz Sarah Harper to think of one solid, selfless and important thing she’s done in recent memory: save creating a highly successful — and arguably sexist — marketing campaign for a bra line. With one unfortunate mass email, Sarah finds herself without a job, a significant other or a life. And plenty of time to do some reevaluating.

Returning to Texas for Thanksgiving and a good wound-licking, Sarah shares news of her troubles with her big sister — and, in turn, Mackie shares her own problems: she and her husband, Clive, still can’t have a baby. After years of trying, Mackie is ready to give up on becoming a mother and focus instead on the one thing at which Sarah herself had been successful: building a bigger career. Moving forward.

But seeing her sister in such obvious pain, Sarah isn’t ready to let Mackie give up on parenthood. After seeing countless specialists, it becomes obvious that what Mackie and Clive need for conception is a suitable, supple womb. And Sarah — workaholic, solitary Sarah — just so happens to have one.

Thus begins Katherine Center’s Get Lucky, a small gem of a novel dealing with sisters and mothers, fathers and children, families of both the traditional — and non-traditional — variety. And though Sarah has certainly already reached adulthood in New York, it takes coming home to Texas for her real coming-of-age odyssey to begin. And it just might take her one big, selfless act to get her back on course.

What I loved about Everyone Is Beautiful, one of my favorite reads in 2009, is just as well-executed in Get Lucky: Center writes with amazing attention to detail and creates vivid, sympathetic and charming characters I can actually see and hear. Our narrator Sarah is far from perfect, but that’s what makes her authentic. And believable. And someone I could root for, having felt like I’d gone on a messy, chaotic and exciting adventure with her.

I’m a sucker for novels about sisters — and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. Separated in age by only a year, Mackie and Sarah’s relationship felt very much like the unpredictable rollercoaster we often experience with our siblings. I loved the exploration of family, too, as the girls struggle to release the pain and feelings of loss surrounding their mother’s death more than a decade prior. Though he wasn’t a huge physical presence in the story, their father, too, played an important part in their development. And I absolutely loved Dixie, their father’s rhinestone-studded cowboy fiancee. What a fun, original character!

To be honest, there wasn’t much I didn’t enjoy about the novel. When it came to Everett Thompson, Sarah’s first boyfriend and reemerging love interest, I would have liked a little more face time — but this wasn’t a traditional romance, so I can’t complain (too much). I was intrigued by their past and loved the pieces of history Mackie or other characters would unearth, feeding to us like slivers of candy. Everett was definitely swoon-worthy and someone I would have enjoyed getting to know a wee bit better!

Based on her second novel and most recent offering, Center can really do no wrong in my eyes. Read her for her amazing insights into female relationships, motherhood, family and friendship. Or? Just read her because she crafts a fast-paced, well-written and engrossing story. One that’ll stick with me for quite a while.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 006180519X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website



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Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘Everyone Is Beautiful’ by Katherine Center

everyone_is_beautiful1In Katherine Center’s incredible Everyone Is Beautiful, Lanie Coates struggles to find a balance between the myths of marriage, love and passion while dealing with the realities — or the behind-the-scenes — details of adulthood, parenting and reconnecting with ourselves. Lanie is married to her college sweetheart, a man with whom she is desperately in love — and Peter, while a thoughtful partner and loving husband, is a man desperately in love with his music. With their three young sons, Lanie and Peter move from Texas to Cambridge, Massachusetts while Peter teaches classes at a university and works on composing his own songs. Peter is a masterful musician and loves his family dearly, but when it comes down to choosing between the notes and real life, Peter chooses the music every time.

The novel opens with Lanie in a new park with the boys (all under five years old) and follows her adventures trying to keep the kids from biting others or generally causing mayhem. Disoriented after leaving her own parents and extended family behind in her hometown of Texas, Lanie finds herself unexpectedly lonely — and runs into, of all people, an old high school friend. With Amanda, Lanie fends off a woman who innocently asks Lanie “when she’s due,” not realizing that our heroine has simply not yet been able to shed the excess weight from Baby Sam’s birth. Devastated but unwilling to suffer the humiliation of admitting that fact to a perfect stranger, Lanie pretends to be pregnant again — and quickly devises a plan to change her life.

At turns hilarious, heartbreaking and poignant, I devoured this book in two days — I just had to know what happened! Though I’m not yet a wife or mother myself, women everywhere will relate to Lanie balancing the rigorous demands of her family with her own personal dreams. As Peter’s career escalates and takes new turns, Lanie is left to deal with the reality of everything that’s happening behind the scenes — and keep the family stable. But with a college degree and Master’s in art, Lanie begins to wonder when it’s her turn. And who can blame her?

I loved Lanie and rooted for her from beginning to end. Center is a wonderful storyteller, and I loved the fact that while Everyone Is Beautiful could have easily defaulted into a set of cliches — “Love yourself or no one else will,” “Just be who you are,” “Weight does not measure the worth of a person” — it never did. The dialogue was so believable and fun, and I loved the fact that even the Coates boys — Alexander, Toby and Baby Sam — all had such distinct, cute personalities. Usually the young kids in women’s fiction wind up coming off as props or stand-ins, and aren’t fully fleshed-out characters themselves. Not the case here at all! In fact, all of the “peripheral” characters here were great. “Mean Witch” neighbor Nora has her own struggles to face, and just may greet them head-on with the help of landlord Josh; Lanie’s friend Amanda just might have to accept that her organized, vanilla existence isn’t quite so perfect after all.

And Peter and Lanie’s relationship was so . . . authentic. And romantic. It’s so easy to see why they fell in love — and I adored their back story, inserted deftly throughout the novel — but just as easy to see how the passion began to ebb away. While this is a novel about their marriage, sure, it’s just as much about family dynamics and growing up. Though Lanie is a “grown-up” with a family of her own, she doesn’t realize how quickly the transition from child to parent can take place. She misses her own mother deeply, and calls her frequently. It was refreshing to read a book about a close family that isn’t all drama and suffering — just the normal aches and pains of living and changing. Everyone Is Beautiful is really a coming of age story, too.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough — I loved everything about it. I’ll definitely be reading more from Katherine Center!

 

5 out of 5!


ISBN: 1400066433 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers