Friday, December 30, 2016

The Bookalicious Babe's Top Ten Reads of 2016

Wow!  It's the last week of 2016, and time to reflect on what I've read and pick  the books that impacted me the most this year.  I always like to look at my reading choices and try to see a pattern over the year.  What I noticed the most this year is my lack of historical fiction.  It's my favorite genre, and I'm quite surprised to see I didn't read much at all.  I did, however, read a lot of nonfiction, which is a switch from previous years.  Mainly this was due to listening to audio books on my daily commute to work, and reading nonfiction books to present at my hospital book talks.  I also didn't read much science fiction, which is another of my favorite genres.  This was all a surprise to me.  I also was a bit disappointed in my inability to get more reading accomplished.  Just so darn much going on this year it was hard to carve out dedicated reading time.  

I also worked hard on posting what I was going to read each month so I could have some discipline and structure in my reading choices.  I've got so many books stacked at home, sometimes it's hard to make a choice and stick with it.  I'm not sure if it helped me or stressed me out!  I certainly don't want to disappoint my followers and not review a book I've said I would review.  As it is, I'm still two short for the month of December.  I'll confess:  I start out with good intentions, but easily get distracted by other books coming into my view.  I can't help it!  

So 2017...I don't know what it will bring, reading wise.  I'll try again to chip away at the stacks and boxes of unread books I've got at home.  I'll definitely try to read more historical fiction, science fiction, and teen books.  I'll even throw in some young reader novels, too.  And I will stick with my policy of not finishing books if they don't grab me in the first 100 pages.  I'm happy to say I've checked out more library books in the past year than I have since I was a kid.  It's certainly been a money saver for me and a chance to support the local library system.  

Without further ado, here are my top ten reads of 2016.  Some were published this year; others have been out for a few years and remain popular book club choices and bestsellers.  It was hard to whittle it down to ten.  

10.  


I listened to these letters on audio, and was thrilled to hear about Laura's life with Almanzo in Missouri in their later years.  Bought the book to keep permanently on my bookcase.  

9.  
This was one of the few historical novels I read this year, and I rediscovered my love of the Revolutionary Era of America.  Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Patsy had a fascinating relationship against the backdrop of a young country struggling through growing pains.  

8.  
This was a heart-tugger about a man's adventures to discover just who his recently deceased wife really was before they met and married.  Did he keep her from being her true self?  A sweet novel.
7.
I resisted reading this for awhile due to the huge buzz, but a friend recommended it at our book group and handed it to me, so I dug in and was glad I did!  A plane crash leaves a young boy and one man as the lone survivors; what happened on that short flight?  We get the story from each of the people on the plane in the days leading up to the crash; the ending was a heart-tugger.  The novel also talks about the glare of media and the harm speculative journalism can do to people.  

6.  

The Family Plot was a creepy read about a haunted house and the very angry spirit that wants vengeance.  Cherie Priest does an amazing job setting an uncomfortable atmosphere.  I don't scare easily, but it certainly made me uneasy.

5.

This historical novel about a family's struggle to start a successful apple orchard in frontier Ohio is a study in familial dysfunction.  I loved learning about orchards, apples, and the redwood forests of California. 

4.

Listened to this on audio, and was immediately sucked into the lives of four women: two Yankees and two Confederates. Women who disguised themselves, used their charm, thought on their feet, and did whatever they had to in order to help their side win the Civil War.  Fascinating women! 

3.

This book had been on my TBR list for years and I finally read it for a book talk at my hospital.  Wow!  I had no idea James Garfield was such an amazing man. That his life was cut short by the inept medical decisions of an egotistical doctor is a disgrace.  Oh, what he could have done as president.  Highly recommend this book.  

2.  
I think this was the only teen novel I read all year, and it was fantastic.  Lady Jane Grey's true tale of political intrigue and execution is radically changed into a clever alternate story that will have you cheering.  Not just for teens!

1.
This was a charming novel featuring my favorite character of the whole year.  Young Frank is a nine year old who dresses like a star from old Hollywood, quotes classic films, and doesn't fit in with his fourth grade classmates.  It's up to Alice to take care of him while his mother writes her comeback novel.  I laughed out loud throughout this novel about motherly love, comebacks, and the struggle to find your own niche in the world.  An excellent book club recommendation. 

There it is!  My top ten reads of 2016.   May you all have a safe and happy New Year full of good friends, great books, and lots of reading time.  


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Rules of Love and Grammar by Mary Simses

I read Mary Simses' first novel The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Cafe last year, and while I enjoyed it, wasn't wowed by it.  In her second novel, Mary Simses does a much better job keeping my interest, but I still have some issues with characters and plot.  

Grace Hammond is a 33 year old New Yorker who comes home to Dorset, Connecticut one summer to stay with her parents while the ceiling in her apartment is repaired after a water leak in the apartment above hers.  She's also just broken up with her boyfriend, and lost her job.  A whole lot of misfortune all at once.  Fleeing to her parent's house gives her time to lick her wounds and figure out what she's going to do when she returns to New York.  

That summer, director Peter Brooks is in Dorset filming a movie that is semi-autobiographical.  He's a son of Dorset, and people are very excited to have a famous director and his stars descend on the town.  Grace and Peter were friends as teens, and were thisclose to a romance when Grace's older sister Renny was killed in a car accident at 18 and Peter's family moved away to Arizona just a few weeks after that.  Grace's longing to recapture that happiness with Peter comes roaring back when her friend Cluny tells Grace he's back in town.  

Grace has time to burn, so she's helping her parents get the house and yard ready for her father's 65th birthday party.  She finds Renny's old Schwinn in the garage, and decides to have it restored as a way to honor her sister and help Grace lay down the guilt she feels over her sister's death.  Mitch, a ruggedly handsome man, helps his father at the bike shop during the summer months. Grace and Mitch have a bit of an antagonistic relationship, and her focus is all on Peter.  The star of the movie, Sean, has a run in with Grace and seems to be smitten with her.  Gee, three men!  How will Grace ever decide where her heart lies?

Underlying all of the summer romance possibilities is Grace's floundering over her career and life in general.  She's haunted by Renny's death, and coming back home seems to have brought it to the forefront of her mind.  She feels like her parents always preferred Renny, and doesn't believe she has any talent.  I have to say this part of the novel seemed wrong, somehow.  It's been 18 years since Renny has died; I am a bit puzzled that Grace is still struggling over how she thinks her parents really feel about her. They've been nothing but encouraging, but I feel like her behavior belongs to someone much younger.  I could see this being a stronger plot if Grace was in her mid-twenties, not her early thirties.  She seems to bounce from one potential romance to another without any kind of real focus, and when the big talk happens with her parents, I felt like it was long overdue and made the ending a bit rushed.  I do, however, like the ending, and that we are left with a satisfying conclusion, but not a neat ending tied up in a bow.  There's room for perhaps another story, and I'd be happy to read it.  

Rating:  6/10 for a novel that was enjoyable and quick read.  The town of Dorset came alive, and sounds like a place I'd like to call home.  Grace seemed a bit immature for her age, and the main plot line would have worked better if she'd been in her twenties.  But overall,  a novel that would be a good choice for Moms, Grandmas, and those who like contemporary women's fiction.  

Available in hardcover, and e-book.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

The news that Carrie Fisher died early this morning just broke my heart, the capper in a year that has seen so many of my childhood and teenage movie and music icons leave us.  

 I had just finished listening to the audio version of The Princess Diarist last week, and was shocked at my timing.  It was my first Carrie Fisher book experience, and I am so glad I listened to the audio, narrated by Carrie and her daughter, Billie Lourd. I never would have been able to appreciate Carrie's humor if I hadn't listened to her tell her stories.

The biggest news from this memoir is, of course, her affair with Harrison Ford during the first Star Wars movie.  She was 19, he was 35 and married.  Carrie talks about her previous relationship with a young man who was also attending drama school with Carrie in London; he was really her first relationship with a man.  She was pretty innocent at 19, and Harrison Ford thought she was much more experienced than she was, and didn't realize it until they were into their short, three month affair.  Carrie reminds us frequently that this happened 40 years ago; she doesn't really remember too many details (which is what everyone wants to hear), but her diaries reflect her struggle to understand why him and what it all meant.  Her daughter Billie reads parts of the diary entries that reflect on how Carrie feels about Harrison; how she knew he wasn't someone who would last because she was always attracted to men who ran away, or weren't accessible.  She had crushes on gay men, too.  In a way, she felt she didn't deserve love.  And she looks back at her young self, and is amazed that she felt so fat and unattractive, when she really was such a beautiful girl.  The diaries she refers to are diaries she wrote during the filming of Star Wars; she happened upon them last year while sorting through old paperwork at home.  

Carrie's humor is sharp, biting, loud, and will make you chuckle.  She's a remarkable writer, and she truly learned to not give a shit about anything.  She lived with no regrets, and accepted her place in cinema history and pop culture as Princess Leia.  Her skill as a script doctor and writer is evident in the funny conversations she constructs about meeting fans at Comic Con; her ability to create characters with dialogue was amazing.  What a talent.  

I'm so glad I listened to this book while Carrie was still alive; I liked to think about what she was doing while I was listening to this book every morning and afternoon on my commute.  A fitting final story from an amazing, ballsy, brilliant woman.  

Rating:  8/10 for the sheer pleasure of listening to Carrie Fisher and her daughter tell her story.  A peek inside the phenomenon of Star Wars when it was a little science fiction movie that no one knew much about.  

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

I like Anna Kendrick.  I first became aware of her watching Twilight, as Bella's friend at her new high school.  Didn't think much of it; it was a small part. Next thing I know, she's appearing alongside George Clooney in Up in the Air; that garners her an Oscar nomination.  What?!  Then I see she can sing and upon further investigation, was on Broadway at age twelve and nominated for a Tony.  Holy crap.  And she's barely thirty years old.

May I also mention her twitter comments are hilarious?  Anna's memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, is funny, self-deprecating, and full of all the angst and guessing we all go through when we're just starting out in life and have no clue who we are and what we want.  She was always a tiny person and looked years younger than she actually was; this proved to be both an advantage when it came to casting, and a disadvantage when it came to casting.  She loves being on stage, and theater is her first love; acting in Hollywood was the next obvious step for her.  She chronicles her teen and early twenties working, then not working; getting paid peanuts and trying to fit in, but often times not and feeling like a loser. 

But miracle of miracles, Anna finally figures herself out, and feels comfortable in her own skin.  Yes, she's hilarious-- she's that friend you have who always has a witty aside, talks with her hands in constant motion, and is completely unaware of just how charming and beautiful they really are to everyone else. 

 Anna discusses her early forays into romance at the age of nineteen, and her unapologetic enthusiasm for being a woman who enjoys sex is refreshing.  No, she's not a slut, and gets pretty pissed at her first boyfriend, who complains that it's no fun when she is always ready for sex--no chase, no fun for him.  And yes, she's rightfully ticked off at him for making that comment.  There is a difference between sleeping around just for sex's sake, and being a partner who enjoys having monogamous sex with someone they care about.  

Anna is ballsy, smart, talented, and her memoir was such fun to read.  Her peek into Hollywood and the craziness of it all is a good reminder of how the world can sometimes make us think we've got it wrong, when we've got it right.  Yes, she smokes pot, and yes, she drinks; those things didn't bother me; Anna is fully capable of taking care of herself (even if she does want to eat ice cream sandwiches for breakfast) and in my opinion, never in danger of losing her sense of self.  

Anyone who is a fan of Anna Kendrick, or even anyone who has no idea who she is, may find this an enjoyable read from the perspective of a young Hollywood up-and-comer who is down to earth and fully aware of the circus around her. 

Rating:  7/10.  Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hot Flash Holidays by Nancy Thayer

Once again, I read the sequel and missed the original novel.  Hot Flash Holidays is the follow-up to The Hot Flash Club, but I didn't feel too left out by not reading it first.  

Hot Flash Holidays actually takes place over a year, beginning at Christmas, and ending the next year at Christmas.  Five friends, all in their 50's and 60's, begin Christmas with high hopes for happy times with family and friends. Marilyn, Polly, Shirley, Faye, and Alice are all at crossroads in their lives, but none of them are prepared for the ups and downs that life throws at them as their Christmas celebrations fall short of their hoped for good times.  It's an indication of what's to come in the new year, as each woman struggles to find what makes them happy, and balance what they want with the demands of boyfriends, grown children, and for Marilyn, an aging mother who comes to stay with her for an extended visit.  As the year rolls on, and all of the holidays come and go, will each of the women find that elusive "something" that they are seeking?

I have to say it did take me a few chapters before I got all of the characters straight.  I suppose if I'd read the first novel I wouldn't have had that problem.  But each woman's personality soon came through, and I could keep them all straight.  It really was refreshing to read about women of a certain age who still had to work through life's unexpected problems.  Boyfriends with performance issues, boyfriends who don't always say the right thing or show appreciation; children that move away and create lives that don't include their parents.  Trying to figure out how to handle an aging mother who may or may not be showing signs of senility.  All while still working and taking care of themselves.  

Life's problems don't begin in our 20's and magically come to an end in our 30's; we still have the same issues as we get older, but the drama is certainly dialed down and we're less willing to put our happiness last.

I enjoyed getting to know the members of the hot flash club.  This was my first Nancy Thayer novel, and I will certainly read more of her novels.  

Rating:  6/10 for an enjoyable sequel about friends who support each other through a year of ups and downs.  You don't have to read the first novel The Hot Flash Club to catch on quickly with this novel, but some may find it easier to keep the characters straight.  A fun read for anyone who enjoys contemporary women's fiction.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  Originally published in 2005 and reissued in 2016. 
  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas in Paris by Anita Hughes

I discovered Anita Hughes' novels last year, and I've enjoyed the few that I've read.  I've still got at least two more sitting on my bookshelves.  But I spied this somewhere on the web, and decided it was a perfect read for Christmas.  

I'll say right off the bat that I was not enchanted with this novel.  I had to keep reminding myself to suspend my sense of reality and just go with the flow.  Seriously, there's no way this could ever really happen to anyone!

Isabel Lawson calls off her wedding three days before the big event.  She realizes her perfect fiance just wasn't a perfect fit.  They both decide it would be a great idea for her to fly to Paris and stay in the ritzy hotel suite they had reserved for their Christmas honeymoon in Paris.  Isabel is a beautiful analyst who works for JP Morgan, and loves numbers.  This is her second broken engagement, and she's a bit puzzled as to why she can't fall in love with the right man.  

Isabel meets Alec, a French children's book illustrator, when she is stuck on her balcony, and she throws a shoe at his window to get his attention.  Alec is also nursing a broken engagement; his beautiful fiance dumped him for a gorgeous Australian a week before their wedding.  Both Isabel and Alec are taking advantage of pre-booked honeymoon suites at the Crillon, the most exclusive hotel in Paris.  It's a lousy way to spend Christmas in Paris.  

Alec and Isabel decide to explore Paris together, and they have a good time seeing the sights and eating delicious food.  Isabel loves Paris, and has studied up on the history of every place they go.  A chance meeting with a fortune teller sends Isabel on a quest to find the perfect love in Paris.  Only problem is, she's not seeing her perfect match is Alec.  Will she keep following the fortune teller's predictions or will she open her eyes and see Alec?

Okay.  Isabel is a woman who loves the sense and orderliness of numbers.  She's brilliant at math.  But she decides  to swallow the predictions of the fortune teller and ignore what her heart is telling her.  After all, she's been an utter failure so far at romance.  But she's had amazing sex with both of her ex-fiances!  Gotta say this is a lucky girl in that respect.  I just found it completely beyond belief that this young, brilliant, beautiful woman could be such a ding-dong.  She's so enchanted with Paris, the food, the places...she finds the perfect gown for every occasion, and isn't really too blue being in Paris by herself at Christmas.  

Alec is slightly more down to earth.  He's broke after spending a chunk of his income on his ex-fiance; he eats nuts and drinks scotch in his hotel suite and draws Gus, his famous dog in all sorts of situations.  He works through his feelings by constantly drawing, which I thought was a cute quirk of his.  He's miserable, thinking about his ex-fiance, and never wants to fall in love again.  

I found it impossible to suspend belief long enough to think that two people could fall in love so fast after being thisclose to marriage with two other people.  Yes, they both realize they weren't in love with their ex-fiances, but really?  I know love can appear when we least expect it, but I'm not a huge proponent of jumping into another relationship a week after leaving another one.  Isabel seemed like such a contradiction, and fairly shallow.  Alec was endearing, but a little lost.  It was not easy to believe they could fall in love with each other so quickly.  

Rating:  5/10 for a lovely tour of Paris at Christmas time, but Isabel was just too poorly developed as a character to believe, and Alec and Isabel fell in love way too quickly after leaving other relationships. It is definitely a perfect read for Christmas if you read it purely for fun.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

I'm ashamed to say it's taken me years to finally read this book, and I read it because I picked it for a book talk at work.  In light of today's climate regarding immigration, it's even more relevant today than when it was first published in 1997.  

At its core, this book is about the struggle to understand cultures other than our own.  Not understanding or even trying to understand; believing that our culture is the "best" culture and our medicine is infallible can lead to tragedy, as it did in the case of Lia Lee.   

Lia's parents and older siblings came to California from a refugee camp after fleeing Laos after the Vietnam War, where many Hmong were recruited by the CIA to fight for the American side both on the ground and as trained pilots.  They believed they would be taken care of by the Americans after the war; coming to America was an obvious choice for them. Lia's parents, Foua Yang and Nao Kao Lee didn't speak, write, or read English.  They came to Merced, California because there was a large Hmong population and, most importantly, family.  Lia was their first child born in America, in 1982. Lia began have seizures after a few months at home.  Her parents believed a dab (an evil spirit) had taken her spirit away, and that is what made her sick.  Their culture also believed that those who had this sickness were special, and would be a shaman.  Not only did the shaman have special abilities to fetch a spirit back to an ill person, but they had empathy for those who were ill, because they themselves suffered from seizures.  

The medical staff at Merced Community Medical Center weren't trained to deal with different cultural beliefs, and the Hmong population in Merced was a whole different ball game for them.  Lacking interpreters at the hospital, the language barrier was most of the time insurmountable.  What was most difficult, far and away, was the lack of understanding of the spiritual medicine the Hmong believed in; it was at the core of their culture.  The modern medicine and practices at Merced were at odds with what Lia's parents felt was the right course of treatment for their daughter.  

This lack of understanding proved diastrous to Lia and her family, and to the doctors who treated Lia.  Anne Fadiman explains all of this thoroughly, spending time with the Lee family, the doctors and other medical staff who treated Lia.  She spent four years pouring over medical reports, staff notes, and the history of the Hmong as a people.  

Written in 1997, the updated paperback version has an new afterword from the author, written 15 years after the first publication.  She updates us on all of the major players in this saga, including the creation at Merced Community Medical Center of a new program that allows shamans to conduct rituals for Hmong patients. While there is still much to do regarding effective communication and understanding between cultures, this is a great start and a big step forward.

This book is, ultimately, about one family's love for their daughter. It is the tragic nightmare that resulted from everyone trying their best to heal and protect her, but no one asking the important questions and bridging the gap between two vastly different cultures to come to a mutual understanding.  It is powerful, moving, and a testament to the importance of belief, spiritualism, and familial love.  

Rating:  9/10.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book.      

Friday, December 2, 2016

Upcoming December Reads from the Bookalicious Babe

Where did the year go?  How is it already December?  What?!  

My December reading usually consists of fun reads that involve Christmas.  This reading tradition of mine really began in earnest when I was working retail during the holiday season.  Exhausted when I would get home, all I wanted to do was read something fun and escapist, and a little bit of romance was always welcome in the mix.  This Christmas season I've got two out of town weddings to attend, a couple of fun painting sessions, a family Christmas party,  and a chance to see the Nutcracker with friends.  A very busy December. I'm still needing those quiet reading moments to keep me in a festive mood and to recharge my batteries.  

I've got a few books that I didn't finish last month that I'll be reviewing this month.  And there may be a few surprises in the mix, too.  The last week of December, I'll be revealing my top ten favorite reads of 2016.  










Do you have a special book tradition for the holidays?  Please share it!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

50 of My Favorite Books: The Finale

I know I missed some books.  A twirl through my reading past has been such fun, and has me thinking I need to revisit some of my favorites.  And I will.  Who knows what 2017 will hold?  So I'm closing out November with my final favorite ten books.  Some of the books I've picked are favorites because they were my first introduction to serious subjects.  Others are silly, and make me smile.  They all have a special place in my heart and remind me of who I was, where I was, and what the world was like around me when I read them.  

Here they are, my final ten (in no particular order):
Western fiction at its best.

Laugh out loud stroll through the 20th century


My first chick-lit book
Read this in high school and became fascinated by the moors.
Toni Morrison.  No one matches her brilliance.

Makes me grin every time I read it!

A childhood favorite.

The story of a house that stays the same while the world around it changes.

Historical fiction about immigrants in America. 

Wherever you go, make the world a beautiful place.
 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

50 of My Favorite Books: Part Three

Laura's real life story. 
This task of figuring out my 50 favorite books has proven to be more difficult that I expected!  If anything, I've learned that keeping track of what I've read makes life for a bibliophile much easier.  I won't let a year pass by without making a list of every book I read.  Here's my next batch of favorite books--in no order of fondness:

A favorite historical-paranormal novel.

Packed a punch.  Fantastic.

I became a fan of Paula Brackston with this book.

Smart, sexy, and brilliant trilogy.

Magical realism at its best.

Combines history, archaeology, and paranormal.

Oh, this book.  Love it.

Read it as an adult and loved it

Always a favorite.

Required reading that became a memorable read

Powerful

One of my all time favorites
Had me on the edge of my seat
Love this series about Charleston and ghosts
 I think it's pretty clear I've always been drawn towards books that have an element of magic and other-worldliness to them.  I do enjoy non-fiction, and I've made an effort this year to read more of it.  What can I say?  Books are my escape from the world, and when I escape, I like to take flights to far away places.  I guess behind my everyday exterior lies the kid who still wants to lay on the floor and read all day.

Tomorrow will wrap up my 50 favorite books.  In the meantime, I hope you've started thinking about the books that have a special place in your heart.  Please comment and share some of your favorites!