Friday, November 30, 2018

Fiction/Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: The Vanderbilt Edition

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)

In The Last Castle, Denise Kiernan tells the story of Biltmore, the largest private home in America, constructed by George Vanderbilt in the late 19th century in Asheville, North Carolina.  I visited Biltmore as a teenager, but of course, I didn't remember many of the specifics, so I wanted to read this book to get more information on the house and the family.

I could tell that Kiernan had really done her research.  There was so much information within the pages, not just about Biltmore, but about the extended Vanderbilt family and also current events of the time.  Sometimes it felt overwhelming, especially with the sheer number of names in the book.  I also felt like the actual construction of the house wasn't as big a part of the story as I would have thought.  I mean, this house is over 175,000 sq. ft. and it took years to build!

The book was very readable, though, and I flew through it in two days.  I loved learning about how George wanted to create not just a house for himself, but an entire village in the area, as well as promote other projects such as forestry.  His wife Edith was an intriguing character, particularly after George passed away and it was left to her to manage the estate.  She was a big part of the community, whether she was handing out Christmas gifts to the employees or establishing a crafts school that also sold handmade goods.  4 stars

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler (2018)

A Well-Behaved Woman tells the story of Alva Vanderbilt, who married into the wealthy but socially downtrodden family in order to help her own destitute family.

Alva is a pretty amazing character.  She wasn't typical of women of her time.  Yes, she married for financial reasons (not uncommon then), but she wasn't content to play the roles society established for her.  She worked extremely hard to get the entire Vanderbilt family accepted into high society.  Architecture was a passion of hers (the Newport "cottage" Marble House was all her doing), and she was also interested in charitable endeavors.  I loved how she was never afraid to be honest; I had to chuckle sometimes at the things that came out of her mouth.  I loved the setting, as well; the Gilded Age was a time of great wealth, especially for the Vanderbilts, and it was a fun glimpse into the lives of the super-rich.

The story is well-written and flows nicely, although with many historical fiction novels that focus on the life of a single person, there isn't really a whole lot of plot.  No tension or drama, and the story petered out a bit at the end.  4 stars

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Can't-Wait Wednesday: My Lovely Wife

Can't-Wait Wednesday is hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings and helps us spotlight upcoming releases we're eagerly anticipating!

My Lovely Wife
Samantha Downing
Expected publication date: March 26, 2019
Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith in this wildly compulsive debut thriller about a couple whose fifteen-year marriage has finally gotten too interesting...

Our love story is simple. I met a gorgeous woman. We fell in love. We had kids. We moved to the suburbs. We told each other our biggest dreams, and our darkest secrets. And then we got bored.

We look like a normal couple. We're your neighbors, the parents of your kid's friend, the acquaintances you keep meaning to get dinner with.

We all have secrets to keeping a marriage alive.

Ours just happens to be getting away with murder. - from Goodreads
Well, that's one way to keep the spark alive in your marriage, I guess!?!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Friday, November 23, 2018

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: The (Not So) Political Edition

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower (2015)

What's it like to work in one of the most famous houses in the world?  The Residence introduces readers to the staff members that have served the first families, from the Kennedys to the Obamas, as they provide anecdotes and memories of their years in the White House.

I found this book to be a fascinating and engaging read.  Although at times it felt a bit scattered (it was organized thematically, so the various Presidents and families were kind of all jumbled together in each chapter), I thoroughly enjoyed the stories told.  Yes, some were embarrassing and unpleasant, but there were plenty of heartwarming stories, too.  There was a chapter on children in the White House, and the chapter that focused on the sorrow following President Kennedy's assassination and the chaos of 9/11 left me in tears many times.

I loved learning about the quick transition between first families on Inauguration Day (the staff only has 6 hours to get the residence ready!) and how for many workers, this isn't a typical 9-5 job.  It was interesting to see the balancing act performed by the staff members, who want to provide comfort and stability for the family while having to remain somewhat invisible.  And who knew that the President has to pay for his own groceries?  4.5 stars

From The Corner of the Oval by Beck Dorey-Stein (2018)

Beck Dorey-Stein lands herself a job as a stenographer taping and typing up President Obama's speeches, interviews, and conference calls.  She also delves into her personal life in the memoir, including her disastrous love life.

I enjoyed this book, although I probably wasn't as enamored as many others were by it.  I thought it was a quick and easy read from an interesting perspective.  Dorey-Stein was a relatively low-level employee, but she also had incredible access: she had some problems fitting into the staff hierarchy and often felt like it was an unfriendly or cliquey place to work, but she was able to make some friends and accompany the President on amazing trips all over the world.  I loved how much she admired and respected President Obama, and the way she incorporated global and domestic events that transpired during her years in the White House was nice.

However, I didn't really care for all the talk about her relationships.  It was a little bit eye roll-inducing to read about her back-and-forth affair with another staffer.  She had no willpower when it came to him and he came across as pretty despicable (he constantly cheated on his long-time girlfriend with Dorey-Stein and several other women).  I kept wishing she would gain a bigger sense of self-worth and finally open her eyes.  3.5 stars

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Can't-Wait Wednesday: The Night Olivia Fell

Can't-Wait Wednesday is hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings and helps us spotlight upcoming releases we're eagerly anticipating!

The Night Olivia Fell
Christina McDonald
Expected publication date: January 2019
In the vein of Big Little Lies and Reconstructing Amelia comes an emotionally charged domestic suspense novel about a mother unraveling the truth behind how her daughter became brain dead. And pregnant.

A search for the truth. A lifetime of lies.

In the small hours of the morning, Abi Knight is startled awake by the phone call no mother ever wants to get: her teenage daughter Olivia has fallen off a bridge. Not only is Olivia brain dead, she’s pregnant and must remain on life support to keep her baby alive. And then Abi sees the angry bruises circling Olivia’s wrists.

When the police unexpectedly rule Olivia’s fall an accident, Abi decides to find out what really happened that night. Heartbroken and grieving, she unravels the threads of her daughter’s life. Was Olivia’s fall an accident? Or something far more sinister?

Christina McDonald weaves a suspenseful and heartwrenching tale of hidden relationships, devastating lies, and the power of a mother’s love. With flashbacks of Olivia’s own resolve to uncover family secrets, this taut and emotional novel asks: how well do you know your children? And how well do they know you? - from Goodreads
I just have so many questions - what happened to Olivia that night?  Who's the father?  What else was Olivia hiding?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Things I'm Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl.  This week's topic is a Thanksgiving/thankful freebie, so I wanted to put together a list of bookish things I'm grateful for this year!

1. My local library.  Without my library, I probably wouldn't read nearly as much, or else I'd be broke, because books are expensive!  I'm so grateful there's a place where I can get practically any book I want, and it's all free!

2. The book blogging community.  I'm so thankful for all the bloggers I've "met" over the last 2.5 years.  Even as bloggers come and go, I've noticed that pretty much everyone I've come in contact with is super-nice, friendly, and supportive.

3. Meeting my favorite author - and still liking them!  They say you should never meet your idols, because you'll probably end up disappointed, but that wasn't the case when I met Kate Morton at the Morristown Festival of Books in October.  She is just as lovely and warm and charming as I'd always thought she'd be.

4. Finding more readers among my family and friends.  I used to feel like I was the only person I knew that was a reader, but just this year I've shared recommendations with my stepmom; planned a buddy read with one of my sisters-in-law; and talked books with a fellow volunteer at Project Linus. 

5. My own personal library nook.  We bought a house last year and now I finally have the space to display and store all my books together - plus there's room to add more! (Don't tell my husband!)  After adding a comfy reading chair, this room is the perfect place to spend a couple hours reading.

6. Physical books.  There's something about the feel and smell of a physical book that just makes me happy and is probably why I haven't made the jump to an ereader yet! (Although, who knows, maybe next year's "thankful for" list will include a Kindle!)

7. Goodreads.  Goodreads is such an awesome way to keep track of my reading online.  Plus, it's fun seeing what my friends on there are reading and what they're thinking as they're reading, and I've found tons of new books just wandering around the site.

8. Pretty covers.  I am a sucker for a great cover, and it's usually what draws me in and makes me want to find out more about a book.

9. The ability to travel without leaving my house.  I love to travel, but I don't always have the time or money to do so.  Reading can take you practically anywhere you want to go, from inside the White House to London to Paris and even to imaginary places like Narnia.

10. Audiobooks.  Audiobooks have gotten me through some really awful commutes to work this year!  I like listening to memoirs on audio and hearing the author tell their own story in their own voice.

What bookish things are you grateful for this year?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Why Reading Challenges Work For Me

I love a good reading challenge; in fact, a rereading challenge I saw on a blog a couple years ago was one of the big factors in me starting my own blog.  Since then, I've done at least one reading challenge a year, and I love them!  I know reading challenges aren't for everyone, but here are some reasons why they work for me!

The camaraderie
Joining reading challenges was a great way for me to get involved in the book blogging community when I started my own.  It introduced me to so many other bloggers.  I like knowing we are all working on this challenge together and tracking each other's progress.  There are so many reading challenges out there, in all different genres and book types, that range from a week or two to the entire year, that it would be hard to NOT find something to participate in.

They help me get through my TBR
I try to pick reading challenges that go along with books that are already on my TBR but are sometimes overlooked.  I don't really need to add yet more books to my TBR just to satisfy a challenge requirement.  So, Beat the Backlist hosted by NovelKnight has really helped me focus on older titles on my TBR that I too often forget about or neglect in favor of shiny new releases and the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by Doing Dewey jumpstarted my goal of reading more nonfiction and finally reading those titles on my TBR.  I've been able to move through books on my TBR more quickly.

I like having goals to work towards
I think I'm a pretty goal-oriented person.  I like working towards something, achieving it, and then moving onto the next thing.  I've never met a to-do list I didn't like; I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with checking off each item as I finish.  So naturally, making a TBR for a challenge and seeing it through to the end is something I really enjoy.  Tracking my progress just puts a smile on my face - I know, I know, who gets this excited over a spreadsheet?  Me!  Of course, I love reading for the sake of reading, but there's just something about the thrill of a challenge.  There's an extra layer of motivation in picking up a book each day, knowing that I'm working towards fulfilling my challenge goals.

Do enjoy reading challenges?  Which ones do you participate in?  Or if they don't work for you, why not?

Friday, November 16, 2018

Mini-Reviews: The Whodunnit Edition

Guess Who by Chris McGeorge (2018)

TV detective Morgan Shepard wakes up in a hotel room with five other people - and a corpse in the tub.  If he can't figure out which person in the room killed the man in the tub, they will all die.

When I first read the blurb for this book, I immediately thought of the Saw movies.  And it kind of started out like that, opening immediately with Sheppard and the others waking up and discovering the body.  I wondered who they all were, if they were randomly thrown together or if there was some connection, and if any of them were lying.  Interspersed through the narrative are flashbacks to Sheppard's childhood and it becomes pretty apparent who is setting him up.

While I enjoyed the first half of the book, my interest began to wane as the initial mystery is replaced by another.  I thought the writing was good, though, and the relatively short chapters kept the pace moving quickly.  I rolled my eyes a bit near the end, though, when (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) Sheppard and the villain come face to face and instead of taking out Sheppard immediately, the villain proceeds to monologue his entire motivation and plan.  Come on, villain, you know how that's going to work out for you!  3.5 stars

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)

Aiden Bishop has 8 days to find a killer.  The catch?  The day of the murder will keep repeating itself until he solves it, and each day he will wake up as a different guest in the crumbling mansion he's found himself in.  He will only be free once he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle.

This was a highly imaginative and unique locked-room mystery.  Not only does the main character have to solve the murder, but he will see it from the viewpoint of several other people staying at the estate.  Each "host" felt distinct; some were cunning and intelligent, while others had more physical prowess.  Aiden has to learn to use the strengths of each one without letting them overwhelm him.

Turton did a brilliant job creating the atmosphere; I felt so immersed in the story and the setting, which was a good thing because this book really needs your attention.  It's so easy to miss little things.  And then there's a huge twist at the end that will totally change the way you look at the story and, for me anyway, leave you with more questions than answers!  4 stars

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Can't-Wait Wednesday: Sherwood

Can't-Wait Wednesday is hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings and helps us spotlight upcoming releases we're eagerly anticipating!

Meagan Spooner
Expected publication date: March 19, 2019
Robin of Locksley is dead.

When news comes that he's fallen in battle at the King's side in the Holy Land, Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on. Betrothed to Robin, she was free to be herself, to flout the stifling rules of traditional society and share an equal voice with her beloved when it came to caring for the people of her land.

Now Marian is alone, with no voice of her own. The people of Locksley, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, are doomed to live in poverty or else face death by hanging. The dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sherriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley, and Marian’s fiancĂ©. Society demands that she accept her fate, and watch helplessly as her people starve.

When Marian dons Robin's green cloak, and takes up his sword and bow, she never intended that anyone should mistake her for Robin, returned from the Holy Land as a vigilante. She never intended that the masked, cloaked figure she created should stand as a beacon of hope and justice to peasant and noble alike. She never intended to become a legend.

But all of Nottingham is crying out for a savior. So Marian must choose to make her own fate and become her own hero...

Robin Hood. - from Goodreads
I really haven't seen any other Robin Hood retellings out there, and I love that this one makes Maid Marian the hero!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Nonfiction November 2018: Let's Eat!

This week's Nonfiction November 2018 topic is Be/Ask/Become the Expert, hosted by JulzReads.  I tend to read nonfiction over a broad range of topics, meaning I'm an expert on nothing, so today I wanted to get your recommendations on a topic I want to read more about - food!

I'm taking inspiration from a book I read earlier this year, Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America by Amy Ettinger.

While I did have some issues with the author's personal opinions and her judgmental tone throughout the book, I liked the idea behind this read: learning about the history of ice cream and various companies, different types of ice cream, things like that.  I'll be honest - I love to eat!  So, here's what I'm looking for: your recommendations for books about food and the food industry.  I'm keeping it a bit broad, so really any of the following would be helpful:

- The history or evolution of different food items or specific companies
- Books about restaurants
- Books about or by your favorite chefs
- Even cookbooks if you feel like they include fun stories besides just recipes

Can't wait to hear your suggestions!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Mini-Reviews: The Hamilton Edition

Most likely inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton storming onto Broadway, it seems like there have been a ton of Alexander Hamilton-related books published in the last couple years.  Even better, some of those have focused on his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (because we all know that too often the stories of women get overlooked).  I have three Hamilton books on my TBR, so I thought it would be fun to review a couple of them together (and for a really great review of yet another one, see Stephanie at Bookfever's review of My Dear Hamilton).  It's interesting how different authors can take the same characters and basic history and make it seem completely different.  I'll be honest, though - even though I love history, American history has never really been my strong suit, so I can't really speak fully to the historical accuracy of these books.

Alex & Eliza (Alex & Eliza #1) by Melissa de la Cruz (2017)

The first in a series, Alex & Eliza takes a look at the pair's inauspicious first meeting and journey up to the time they marry.

Eliza came across as a very practical, intelligent woman.  She really wanted to help the war effort, and she didn't like the idea of wearing fancy dresses or going to balls when soldiers were freezing and starving.  Even though he's a master of words, Alexander Hamilton was often (kind of adorably) flustered when he was around Eliza.  I liked seeing their relationship from both points of view, and especially how Eliza came around on Alexander after initially not liking him.

Eliza's family is very prominent, but Hamilton comes from practically nothing.  He knows on paper they wouldn't be a good match, and he's determined to better himself, just for her.  Speaking of Eliza's family, her sisters were forces to be reckoned with.  They were very fun side characters, and I liked watching both of them take control of their own lives.

This book had a very lighthearted, sometimes humorous feel.  Even situations that could have been deep or dark never felt that way.  If you're in the mood for a cheerful or fluffy historical fiction novel, you might enjoy this one.  3.5 stars

 I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott (2017)

Eliza recounts her life with Alexander Hamilton, detailing their courtship and marriage, ending with his untimely death.

Although I enjoyed this book, I can't say I loved it.  The writing was good and very much evoked the time period, but it also felt dense and even dry at times.  Some parts felt like reading a textbook about the American Revolution and aftermath, so if you're really interested in learning all those little details, you'll appreciate this book.

I don't know that this book increased my opinion of either Eliza or Alexander Hamilton.  I don't doubt that he relied on her to listen to and help hone his many ideas, but at the same time, she admits she didn't have much education and could barely write letters to him when apart.  She sometimes came across as naive, boldly stating how happy and fortunate they were, how no two people had ever loved each other more, when there were clearly issues in their life together.  Even when other people try to warn her about things, she never wanted to believe it.  Hamilton, on the other hand, was ambitious almost to a fault.  I admire his desire to create a new working government, but he kind of came across as power-hungry and was so easily offended.  He also clearly kept a lot of secrets from Eliza, including their poor financial situation.  3.5 stars

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Can't-Wait Wednesday: The Accidental Beauty Queen

Can't-Wait Wednesday is hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings and helps us spotlight upcoming releases we're eagerly anticipating!

The Accidental Beauty Queen
Teri Wilson
Expected publication date: December 4, 2018
In this charming romantic comedy perfect for fans of Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella, critically acclaimed author Teri Wilson shows us that sometimes being pushed out of your comfort zone leads you to the ultimate prize.

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning. - from Goodreads
A twin switcheroo for fans of Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella?  Yes, I'm in for this!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Backlist Books I Want To Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl.  This week's topic is backlist books I want to read.  I have a bunch of backlist novels on my TBR - the only problem was narrowing it down!





Have you read any of these?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Nonfiction November 2018: Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairings

This week of Nonfiction November is hosted by Sarah at Sarah's Book Shelves and focuses on fiction/nonfiction book pairings.  I loved this week during last year's event and it really inspired me in my blogging this year.  I've been making a move towards more mini-reviews and I especially like when I can come up with a theme for the books I'm reviewing; fiction/nonfiction pairings went along with this so well!  Here are the pairings I've done:





What do you think of these pairings?