Wednesday, December 11, 2019

American Cozy: Hygge-Inspired Ways to Create Comfort & Happiness by Stephanie Pedersen

I've been curious about the idea of hygge--a Danish way of being that puts creating and living a comfortable, cozy life at the top of your priority list. This may seem very simplistic, and it is, mostly. What's not simple is wrapping your brain around it and changing your life enough that you feel pretty hygge all the time. And just for your reference, it's pronounced "hoo-gah".  I've found myself saying it over and over lately, in order to retrain my brain to think the pronunciation correctly and stop it from thinking "hi-gee".  

The author, Stephanie Pedersen, takes hygge and adds an American spin on it. I haven't read any other hygge books, so I can't say how different, if at all, it is regarding the Danish practice of hygge. But I think I can say with a lot of confidence that Americans seem terribly busy, busy, busy and distracted. We seem to constantly be scrambling to get things done, and are so busy cramming our days with so much, we're always tired, worn out, stressed, and frazzled. So what to do about it?

There's nothing in this little book that is mind altering, or radical. It's about being organized, having a plan, keeping things simple, and taking the time to chill out--even if it's just for ten minutes walking around the office building to stretch your legs. It's about leaving work at work, and committing to not looking at work emails after you've left the office. Saying no instead of always saying yes. Picking a few things you really enjoy doing, instead of trying to do it all, and being miserable. For me, it's about decluttering both at work and at home. I dread cleaning my house. I love a clean house, with everything in its place, but honestly, I'd rather read a book than clean. My house always has a slightly disheveled look about it--definitely lived in by a bookaholic. Reading American Cozy has given me thought about how that clutter grows and can become overwhelming, and really stifle my ability to function at full speed. 

Yes, a lot of hygge is about minimalism. Part of the clutter is about thinking we need to have a bunch of stuff, when we don't. While I didn't learn anything I didn't already know after finishing this book, it did remind me of how easy it would be to eliminate the clutter, get my butt into a routine to keep my house tidy, and to curb my mindless social media checking (this takes up waaaay too much time!) each day. So for me, setting up routines and taking the time to do bits and pieces every day--and committing to that--will go a long way towards establishing my own kind of hygge. 

I have made some changes in my life in the last 6 months that have helped me feel less overwhelmed, and I've mostly kept to them each day: setting up my coffee pot each night and programming it to start each morning; having my workout gear ready to go and my recovery drink mixed and in the fridge, so all I have to do it grab it and go. Having my gym bag packed each night with my water bottle (I can't live without it at the gym!). I've also worked on food prepping each weekend--grocery shopping and preparing breakfasts and food for lunches during the week, and having a pretty good plan for suppers. Those small changes, oh--they have made a huge difference. I make better food choices because I've got my meals ready, I'm not rushing around in the morning and forgetting things, and I walk in the door after working out and smell fresh coffee ready for me. 

So, for me, I did enjoy this book very much. It didn't teach me anything new, but reminded me of what I need to do in order to have a better balance in my life, and how to lessen my stress by not waiting to tackle housework or other chores until they are BIG and take too long to do. I've already decided to spend some time in January picking away at areas of my home that need some serious  decluttering and organization. I'm excited to start. 

This would make a great gift for anyone who is interested in living a bit more minimalistic, or is just tired of the clutter and needs some inspiration. It really is all the little things we can do to help us focus on being in the moment, enjoying the company of friends and family, and not wearing ourselves out with long, unproductive work days. Get your hygge on, people! 

Rating:  4/6 for a how-to on making your life an oasis of calm and relaxation. It's not about more time, but about using the time we have more efficiently, and more purposefully to achieve hygge in our lives. You can do it! 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Christmas in Vermont by Anita Hughes

The Christmas tree is up at my house, and I was either too lazy or just not feeling the vibes to put out all my Christmas decorations. I went minimal and I'm happy with it. Just a few wreaths (battery operated timed lights rock!), stockings for Bud and I (I told him that meant he had to fill mine this year), a few candles to make it smell like a pine forest. I have a few items my Dad made that I absolutely have to put out each year; I'll confess I had a few tears putting them out and thinking about my Dad. Christmas sure does make you think about holidays past, and all those people who aren't here to celebrate with us. 

I've managed to avoid holiday cookies and treats so far, but I'm sure I'll cave and devour something a bit closer to December 24th! Reading this novel--some of the food made me have a few pangs, but I stayed strong. 

So, if you've followed my blog for a while, you know I have a love/hate relationship with Anita Hughes novels. I've read a few, and they are a bit too far out for me to really enjoy them. The characters live lifestyles that don't evoke any empathy for them, and they seem a bit shallow. But I keep coming back to try another one of her novels. I haven't given up just yet. 

Christmas in Vermont wasn't bad, but I did have a few issues. I did like the setting: the town of Snowberry, Vermont, and the homey Smuggler's Inn, run by Betty. Betty is a recently widowed woman who is struggling to keep the Inn open due to big medical bills from her husband's illness. Snowberry is reminiscent of a Hallmark holiday movie town--perfect shops, decorations, and people. Emma has arrived for a week's stay at the inn between Christmas and New Year's Day. Her friend Bronwyn gifted her the trip because Emma just broke up with her latest boyfriend, and a series of happenings in New York led  Bronwyn to believe that fate was at work for Emma, and she just had to go to Snowberry. Staying at the inn was Emma's true love, Fletcher, and his daughter Lola. It's been eleven years since they broke up and graduated from college, and maybe, just maybe, it's time for them to reconnect and try again. 

Synchronicity is a major theme in this tale of two people who connected once long ago, and through misunderstandings and miscommunication, lost their chance to remain together. Of course Fletcher has no idea Emma is purposely staying at the inn, and he's astonished to find his college girlfriend back in his life, all these years later. 

Oh, and guess what? Fletcher's engaged, and his fiancĂ© is staying at the inn, too. Whoops. 

I didn't really feel a big connection between Fletcher and Emma, and the flashbacks to their time together in college weren't super interesting. It just felt like a college romance that ended as they do, when people graduate and go their separate ways in life. Emma's inability to remain committed to a relationship has convinced her she's never going to settle down and have the family she wants. Fletcher is engaged to a woman who doesn't seem well suited to him, and isn't fond of his very precocious daughter Lola. The plot was fairly thin, and easy to see how it would end. Yes, it did remind me of a Hallmark Christmas movie; it was pretty tame all around. I am happy the ending wasn't tied up in a tight little bow; it made sense that happily ever after doesn't happen automatically. Growing a relationship is part of the path to that happily ever after we all hope for. 

So-a bland kind of story, but it should put you in the holiday spirit. No surprises here, just an easy read holiday romance about second chances and synchronicity. 

Rating: 2/6 for a tale of two people rediscovering each other again, and the chance to get it right the second time around. I didn't feel much chemistry between the two main characters, and the supporting characters all seemed fairly standard and unremarkable. Enjoyable but not a Wow! story. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

An Ale of Two Cities: A Literary Pub Mystery by Sarah Fox

I had to start out my December reads by finishing this cozy mystery, the second in the Literary Pub Mystery series by Sarah Fox. I reviewed the first in the series back in March: Wine and Punishment, and enjoyed it enough that I had to snatch the second mystery up as soon as it came into the library. I can't wait to see what happens with the third in the series. 

This cozy mystery is set in the little town of Shady Creek, Vermont. It's winter, and time for the annual Winter Carnival, a week-long event that includes an ice sculpting contest, a hockey tournament, a parade, and lots of activities for tourists and townspeople. 

Sadie, our intrepid mystery sleuth, continues to run her literary pub The Inkwell, and is a bit melancholy about the upcoming Christmas season--it's her first in her new hometown, and she'll be spending it alone-all her family will be traveling around and no one will be home. But before she can think too much about it, one of the competitors in the ice sculpting contest turns up dead, with an ice pick in his chest. Freddy Mancini, renowned chef and local celebrity, has returned to compete in the ice sculpting contest. But Freddy is a real jerk-so full of himself he alienates those who helped him along the way. He's only in town for one day and he's already angered a lot of people. But who would want to kill him?

Sadie starts to ask questions, and sleuth on the side. Mostly because one of her employees is under suspicion, and Sadie just has to prove Mel's innocence before she's arrested for murder. Add in Sadie's developing crush on Grayson, the local brewery owner, and she's got her hands full. But can she solve the mystery before she finds herself in danger? 

There are a lot of suspects, and every one of them has a reason to see Freddy dead. A second murder creates even more urgency for Sadie, and muddies the waters a bit as she works to solve the murders. I guess it's hard to look at the folks in your small town and realize one or more are killers! But, as cozy mysteries go, you get to know the supporting cast of characters, the town, and some of Sadie's background. All in all, a satisfying second in the series. The story just happens to end on Christmas Day, so somehow I managed to read a Christmas cozy mystery without even trying! 

Rating: 4/6 for a winter cozy mystery that was a quick read. Any mystery that includes a literary pub has me sucked in, and I enjoyed reading this second in a series. You'll be wanting a hot chocolate or coffee with this one, as there is snow, snow, snow featured prominently throughout the story. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

It's December!! Holiday Reads are in the House Wahoo!

Reading holiday novels in December has become an annual tradition for me and something that I look forward to every year. I usually accumulate a few in November and have to sit on my hands to keep myself from not starting them before Thanksgiving. I managed to only read one ahead of December, so I consider that a big win for me. 

Here's what I'll be reading to get myself into the holiday mood:

I haven't read any of this series, and I'm not starting with the first one, but I don't care! Love me some Jenny Colgan. 

A sweet little non-fiction book about achieving comfort at home, American hygge style. 

I'm returning to Charleston again for a ghostly tale in my favorite series. 

Saw this at the bookstore and it was an impulse buy. Don't know much about it! 

 I have a love/hate relationship with Anita Hughes. Her novels are so outside of my reality, but I can't seem to stay away. 

Returning to Ireland for Christmas. Love this series. 

Christmas and romance go together, and I can't resist it. 

I'll probably be reading more than these, too. I'd like to try some cozy mysteries with a holiday theme. My Christmas tree is up and decorated, I'm working on the rest of the house (forcing myself to keep it simple!), and I'm ready to be on the couch with a cup of tea (I love tea AND coffee), a blanket, and some mint chocolate Hershey's kisses. Bring on the holidays!

Friday, November 29, 2019

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

One last book for November. It's a sobering non-fiction look at the disturbing disappearances of thousands of Indigenous women along a stretch of highway in Canada. Called the Highway of Tears, this road travels through some pretty desolate places, in between very small communities and towns. 

These disappearances, some over fifty years old, are a national crisis that, hopefully with this book, will be getting some much needed attention and funding. Reading the stories of these young women--most of them teenagers, disappearing and never found, broke my heart, and made me pretty angry at the same time. Their families knew something was wrong, and when they would report their loved ones missing, the police often brushed off their claims, saying the girls ran off on their own, or were troublemakers--prostitutes. In reality, these were young girls who were ignored by law enforcement because they were Indigenous, and that meant they weren't important enough to look for them. 
All of them had dreams to attend college, become forest rangers, psychologists, mothers, artists. They had so much life ahead of them. 

Families spent years searching and begging for help, and often got nothing in return. A few learned of the fates of their daughters and sisters: their bodies were found; stabbed, beaten, left in ditches or off the side of a desolate road. Thrown away like garbage. No one has ever been arrested for these murders. So many unanswered questions. So much heartbreak, the kind that destroys families. Poverty, culture, prejudice, and hundreds of years of oppression certainly play a big part in this outrageous lack of justice. The madness of it all is that it continues on, in 2019. Young women continue to disappear on the Highway of Tears at a consistent pace. 

This was a fascinating, and disturbing look at a national crisis that highlights the continued dismissal of Indigenous people. The utter lack of respect for them as human beings with the same rights to safety and protection as the rest of us is maddening and absolutely shameful. 

Rating: 5/6 for a detailed look at the dangers of the Highway of Tears, the continued dismissal of Indigenous people's safety and concerns for missing loved ones, and the hope that their voices are finally being heard. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

If the beautiful cover art of this novel doesn't grab you, the story inside will certainly do the trick. I've had my ins and outs with this novel, but I've finally finished it, and it was worth the struggle. 

I know, and yet I do it probably every month: spend weeks reading a book that I really should read in a matter of days. Taking too long to read a novel ensures my interest will wane, even if it's a wonderful story. That's what happened with Ten Thousand Doors. Yet somehow, a Thanksgiving miracle happened at the last moment and turned it all around. 

I've been pecking at this novel since early November. I'd read glowing reviews, blurbs, and of course saw the cover, so I was prepared to be wowed from the get go and not be able to put it down. 

I was wrong-partly. I got about 100 pages in, and was stuck. Knowing it was my last book to read and review this month was weighing on me, and I knew I had to dive in and finish it. I dove back in the other night, and got a little farther. Okay, it was growing on me. Then last night, I had the chance to just lay on my couch and read for a few hours. So I did, but those few hours had me reading until after 11 PM, when I reluctantly put it down because my eyes were bugging out! I had a chance to read again today, on a gloomy Tuesday when I wasn't feeling so hot and was needing some distraction from a nagging headache. 

I'm happy to say I finished it today, and it was superbly written. Wow, Alix Harrow is a master storyteller, and this is one imaginative story. January Scaller is a young teenager, living with her guardian, Mr. Locke, in a mansion in Vermont filled with museum quality pieces from around the world. The man responsible for collecting those pieces is January's father, Julian. He travels the world, and January doesn't see him very much. She's awful alone, and her skin-tone--a dusky red/brown, ensures she's only treated kindly because she's under the care of Mr. Locke. She's pretty secluded, and all she wants to do is be with her father on her travels. 

One day, January finds a strange little book tucked away in a special spot. That book is the gateway to January's grandest adventures, full of dangers, death, far away worlds, and men who will stop at nothing to grab January and keep her under lock and key. January, you see, is unlike most other teenage girls. She's got some serious gifts, and as she reads the journal, she slowly begins to understand her yearning for other places and adventures. She begins to find her way home. 

I'm woefully inadequate telling you the plot of this book, but I don't want to give anything away. I did have a bit of trouble understanding what was going on and why this journal was plopped down in the middle of the story, but oh, after spending some time diving into the story, it all became clear. It's a story within a story for sure, just like there are doors within doors, and worlds within worlds. 

I thought of my sad attempt at NaNoWriMo this month (I happily stopped writing after 10 days and no inspiration), and was blown away by the talent Alix Harrow has for crafting such an imaginative and outstanding novel. Pure magic. I was reading in bed last night, and I actually stopped and said out loud "A ha! This is where it kicks into high gear!"

I'd gift this book to any YA readers; folks who like fantasy, or adventure novels; people who enjoy a well crafted story. It would make, in the best hands, an amazing movie. I don't want a sequel--this novel finishes as it should, and I'm content. 

Rating: 6/6 for an inventive, magical, outstanding novel about stories, worlds, families, love, and healing. Finding your place. Embracing your gifts. I highly recommend this novel!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I Couldn't Wait to Start Reading a Holiday Novel: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Blame it on the time crunch for reading library books. When they're available, you just have to check them out and get them read. I've been waiting for this novel for a few months and my turn finally popped up. It was just what I needed this weekend before Thanksgiving. 

Jasmine Guillory has written a series of novels, and rapidly become quite popular. This is the fourth in the "series" ( I say that loosely because they all have characters that appear in each novel) which includes The Wedding Date, The Proposal, and The Wedding Party. I plan on reading all of them, too. 

This was a breath of fresh air for me, mostly because the two main characters are in their 50's. I know when I was much younger, I couldn't even think about romance and middle age. Yet here I am, firmly in middle age, and hot dang, guess what? Romance is alive and well, and not just for the younger crowd. I was delighted to read a romance about two people who have some history, have been there, done that, and are at a point in their lives where raising children isn't an issue. They know who they are, and having a relationship and finding love is all about the companionship and togetherness it brings. Yes, that is important and vital for younger relationships, but it really does become the most important thing when you're past the age of raising children and carving out a new career, and balancing all of it and growing together* (*my opinion based on my life!).

So. Vivian Forest and her daughter Maddie are going to England over the Christmas holiday. Maddie has been hired to help dress the Duchess over the holidays, and she's insisted that her mother come on the trip. Vivian, a social worker in San Francisco, is happy to go, since she always spends Christmas with her daughter, and didn't want to break the tradition. She does take a little convincing, however, because Christmas always includes her big family. But a much needed break is just what she needs to prepare herself for an upcoming possible big promotion, which will mean a lot more work for her. 

Vivian and Maddie arrive at the grounds of Sandringham Castle, and stay at the home of the Duke and Duchess. It's quite the lush life, and Vivian quickly makes friends with the staff. She also meets Malcolm Hudson, the Queen's Secretary, and he catches her attention pretty quickly. There are very few people of color on the Queen's staff, and Malcolm's position is a very important one. Malcolm and Vivian hit it off immediately, and he finds ways to spend some time with her for the few days she's staying on the estate. The two of them have great conversation, and I enjoyed watching their attraction grow. It's a short time frame, but it seems pretty natural that yes, this could certainly happen. 

The romance moves to London after Christmas, with Vivian extending her stay for a few days to be with Malcolm to see the New Year arrive. But the obvious issue is the fact that they live 5,000 miles apart. Will this just be a holiday fling, or does it mean more? Is it worth the hard work it will take to see what their future holds? 

It's a romance, so rest assured there is a happy ending, but how they get there is interesting. I enjoyed the conversations between Vivian and Malcolm, and how they worked through issues--sometimes not right away, and sometimes it took hurt feelings to bring issues forward. 

I've read some reviews of this novel, and some reviewers found it "boring" and the characters flat. I didn't feel that way at all. It was a quick read, and a fine kick off to my holiday reading binge. And I discovered a delightful author. A win-win for me. 

I don't believe you need to read the three other novels before you read this one, but if you like to read novels in order, have at it. I'll go back and start from the beginning, but I don't feel I missed anything starting at the end.

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that delivers on the holiday romance theme. I appreciated reading a romance between middle-aged characters who weren't perfect, and yes, even moody sometimes. I was cheering Vivian and Malcolm on the whole way. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.