Colgan, take me away

500 Miles from YouYou know how sometimes a book just finds you at precisely the right moment? Our current lives, so disrupted by COVID-19 and politics and the accompanying worries of just … everything, well … I’ve been reading again. Reading like I’m not the overextended mom/wife/essential worker that I am.

In short: I’ve needed a mental escape. Enter Jenny Colgan’s 500 Miles from You, a sweet tale of two nurses — one English, one Scottish — who spend about 300-ish pages communicating primarily through text and email. Cormac and Lissa are strangers, but they’re connected through a job swap initiated after Lissa is a first responder at a terrible crime.

Sensing she needs a complete change of scenery, the NHS reassigns her to a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands. She trades roles with Cormac, a community paramedic, and the pair are dropped into each other’s worlds: Lissa to Cormac’s cottage in a town where everybody knows your name; Cormac to Lissa’s utilitarian flat in London, where he finds himself suddenly (and delightfully?) anonymous.

IMG_5793_originalThe plot is relatively simple: Lissa helps others in Kirrinfeif as she heals herself; Cormac experiences life outside the familiar paths and rolling hills of home. The two learn much about each other throughout their ongoing chats … chats about their patients, obviously. Of course. The patients.

The story branches in other directions (there’s a court trial, PTSD, the scene-stealing friendship with Kim-Ange), but its heart is certainly the growing closeness — however geographically complicated — between Cormac and Lissa. Which was genuinely sweet and believable.

Colgan knows how to build romantic suspense. And you know where else she excels? Scene-setting, because lord I wanted to cash in all the credit-card miles accrued from daycare bills and high-tail it back to the Highlands. Living vicariously in Kirrinfeif has recently taken the sting out of some long days.

My love of London is serious, too, but Lissa’s thread and the Scottish scenes were definitely my favorites. Only after finishing 500 Miles from You did I learn this was actually the third book in a series — though obviously reading it as a stand-alone was no problem.

So the good news? I get to go back!

Can’t wait.

4/5

Review copy provided by publisher
in exchange for my honest review

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: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


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 chat: ‘Catching Air’ by Sarah Pekkanen

Catching AirFor Dawn Zukowski, fleeing a life — and love — she thought she wanted is more than she bargained for. Marooned in the snowy wilds of Vermont, she happens to meet two couples — Kira and Peter, Rand and Alyssa — who have recently taken over a charming bed-and-breakfast in the mountains.

With nowhere to go and no plan for the next step, Dawn reluctantly agrees to accompany the crew to the B&B and assist in day-to-day tasks in exchange for her lodging. Though Kira senses there’s plenty more to Dawn’s story, she doesn’t push her — especially as plans ramp up for a coming wedding at their little lodge. Despite her strange presence, they need Dawn. And Dawn needs them.

Kira and Peter have traded their busy lives in Florida for the slower, snowier pace of Vermont. Rand, Peter’s estranged brother, proposes the four go into business as a way of rebuilding his relationship with his sibling. Babies loom large in the lives of the couples: Alyssa desperately wants to be a mother, but is having trouble conceiving; Kira knows Peter desperately wants to be a father, but isn’t sure she’s ready for a family.

Sarah Pekkanen’s Catching Air is a quick, engrossing story of a family finding their way back to each other — as well as the meandering paths one sometimes takes to motherhood. Though Dawn’s character always felt a little “off” to me, I fell in love with the cozy winter setting of the story and would have loved to take up residence on one of the B&B’s plush couches.

Of the two couples, I bonded most with Kira and Peter — two young professionals escaping their complicated work lives in the south. A hardworking lawyer by day, Kira finds it easy to deflect Peter’s overtures on having children when she has a grueling schedule . . . but in Vermont? Away from the hustle-bustle? Well, the conversations get more complicated.

I found Pekkanen’s exploration of marriage and compromise very interesting. Where Kira and Peter are serious and straight-laced, Alyssa and Rand are the nomads: free spirits, wanderers, travelers. The idea of having children with Alyssa — though something he professes to want — also scares Rand, wondering how children will impact their lifestyle. And with good reason.

Playing out against the marital dramas is their first wedding at the B&B: a lavish affair in the dead of winter, and the key to getting them all out of financial trouble. Ever the organized taskmaster, Kira spearheads the event coordination and handles the meals churning out of the lodge’s kitchen. As the details became more complicated, I felt my anxiety rising right along with Kira’s — and wondered how she was going to handle it all without collapsing. It felt like too much.

Pekkanen’s charm is her ability to create likeable, realistic characters and seamlessly interject readers into their lives. Her heroines feel like real people — women that could be your girlfriends — and her stories are always fast and compulsively readable.

Though this wasn’t my favorite of her works, I was engrossed in the story and invested in the characters’ fates. Though Dawn felt out-of-place, even she grew on me by the end. An entertaining read for fans of women’s fiction and stories exploring family dynamics.

3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


Book review: ‘Wallflower in Bloom’ by Claire Cook

Wallflower in BloomAccustomed to lurking in her famous guru brother’s shadow, Deirdre “Dee” Griffin longs to step out from behind her successful siblings and create a path that’s all her own — but fate seems to have other plans. Single, in her thirties and living in a renovated sheep shed on her brother’s vast estate, Dee knows she can’t continue on as his mousy social media adviser. But how to move forward?

When an opportunity to break a leg on “Dancing With the Stars” falls into her waiting lap, she leaps at the chance to pursue a passion — any passion — and get away from Tag’s influence. Even if her time on the show doesn’t necessarily go as planned, the joy is always in the journey.

Claire Cook’s Wallflower in Bloom is a lighthearted, fun and delightful read that made running errands in the company of the audio book a pleasure. Dee is the underdog character we love to root for, and the story had a vibe akin to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” There’s no wedding, per say, and Dee isn’t as bad off as Toula, but this transformation story was every bit as satisfying and enjoyable.

What really makes the story is Dee’s complicated relationship with her superstar brother and two sisters: a gaggle of four trying to navigate their roles as adults in each other’s lives. Their relationships are complicated by the fact that Tag Griffin is a global brand employing his family members . . . meaning Dee takes orders from her little brother, and a bossy one at that. Though she could have gotten another job, sure, it was easier to do what was comfortable. I get that.

There’s a little romance, some intrigue, plenty of funny family drama and Los Angeles scenery. Wallflower in Bloom is more chocolate mousse than meat-and-potatoes, but it hit the spot all the same. Dee’s transformation from a timid woman hiding behind a computer to a blossoming dancer, even a haphazard one, was fun — and her sense of humor and delightful narration made this a frothy, laugh-out-loud read I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to chick lit lovers.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘All Fall Down’ by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAs a mother, wife, blogger and daughter, Allison Weiss is well-versed in responsibility. Between her “freelance” (read: time-consuming) gig writing on feminist issues and her adorable but tough young daughter, Allison’s days are a whirlwind of activity . . . and doubt. Though her life looks frame-worthy on the outside — big house in the suburbs; charming journalist husband; funny and independent kid — on the inside? Well, it’s a little more complicated.

As her father begins to succumb to Alzheimer’s and her mother, always aloof, starts to crumble, Allison foists that additional weight on her shoulders. Coupled with increasing online notoriety and distance from her husband, the pressure Allison feels to hold up her family begins to crack her facade. If she pops a few pain pills, remnants from an old Zumba injury, who is she really hurting? The meds make her feel calm, confident, in control. Drugs — prescription drugs, she always notes — erase the self-doubt that plagues her; they make her stronger. Better.

And so it goes . . . for a while. But when Allison’s life begins to veer uncontrollably, casting her into greater shadows as everything unravels, can she cope?

Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down is arguably the grittiest of her works to date. Don’t get me wrong: Allison is still the funny, strong heroine I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors, but it deals with some pretty complex and frightening issues. That’s what makes it so startling: Allison is an Everywoman. She has her problems, sure, but they’re nothing beyond the scope of what many women deal with every day. She admits this herself.

But her manner of coping . . .

In spending time with All Fall Down, one can’t help but realize we’re all addicted to something. Beyond obvious issues like alcohol and drug abuse, how many of us haven’t zoned out with a bag of cookies? Or an hour on Facebook? Or a Zulily shopping spree (free shipping until midnight!)? We all have our coping mechanisms, our ways of tuning out the stresses of the day to finally find some measure of peace.

Allison’s method happens to be destructive, nearly costing her everything she loves and holds dear. Just because she doesn’t follow the “typical” stereotype of a drug addict doesn’t mean she isn’t one, and I found her path to acceptance realistic and heartbreaking. She’s a little damaged on the inside, but who isn’t? Her descent into dependence is gradual enough that she doesn’t notice, and that’s what made it so chilling.

Despite its heavy subject matter, I couldn’t help whipping through Allison’s story. The descriptions of her battles with Eloise, her sweet but spirited daughter, made my heart race; her recollections of growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother were so painful. As she reaches out to her husband and receives little support in return, I really hurt for her. And the scenes and memories of her dad had me in tears.

Obviously the stresses compound to the point that she’s relying on narcotics just to function day-to-day, and she can’t keep her secrets — all fall down — forever. As everything began to crumble, I wanted to help. Do something. I felt like screaming at the characters to see what was happening, and the critical juncture at which someone notices what’s happening came as a serious relief to me.

Fast-paced and engrossing, All Fall Down is another winner from Weiner. Unlike her other novels, which tend to follow a variety of women linked by a common thread, Allison is our sole focus — and that worked really well for me. I read this book on vacation in California and couldn’t wait to retreat to our cabin to get a few more snippets before bed. Satisfying and thought-provoking, it’s a story I won’t soon forget.


4 out of 5!

Pub: June 17, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review