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{Book Review}

The Shoemaker’s Wife

By Adriana Trigiani

In the early 1900s, people who lived in the Italian Alps were struggling to make ends meet. Everyone was poor, and increasingly, people were leaving the mountain to make their fortune in America.

Ciro’s family was one of those families. However, when his father died in a mining accident in America, his mother was forced to leave him and his bother in a convent, unable to take care of them. Ciro and his brother are raised well, but after Ciro catches the local priest in a scandal, he is banished from his village. The nuns send him to America to become the apprentice to a shoemaker in Little Italy.

Upon arriving in New York, Ciro has a number of run-ins with Enza, a girl from his childhood on the mountain. While Ciro learns and masters his new trade as a shoemaker, Enza makes a life as a talented seamstress.

The Shoemaker’s Wife alternates between Ciro’s story and Enza’s, from their childhood in the Italian Alps, to living their separate lives a few miles away in New York, to their lives together in a small town in Minnesota.

Review/Recommendation: I cannot tell you how much I loved this book – I might start to sound like I’m gushing a bit (and if so, I’m sorry!). The Shoemaker’s Wife is an absolutely beautiful story – inspired by Trigiani’s own family history – of love, family, and faith. Trigiani did a wonderful job portraying the time period, making her readers (at least this reader!) feel like they were living in the moment. I personally grew very emotionally attached to the two protagonists as well as the set of secondary characters. I’ll admit that I cried more times than I could count (mostly in the last 75 pages).

In Trigiani’s absolutely beautiful writing, the reader experiences not just life in America during the time period, the first half of the century, but also to life as an immigrant. She paints a picture not just of American and Italian culture at the time but of a true Melting Pot of cultures, a sense of community built around shared experiences as foreigners in America and around hard work.

My only criticism of the book would be the time periods. There were several points further into the book where we jumped ahead in time, by a few years. Chapters weren’t dated, which sometimes made it difficult to keep track of time. I’d also have loved more on Ciro’s and Enza’s life together – the bulk of the book (which is still amazing) actually focuses on the period of their life in which they lived separate lives. But this latter comment speaks more to how much I loved the book than anything. I just wanted more, more more!

I can’t recommend this book more, for lovers of historical fiction or fiction in general.

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Another year comes to a close. It was a busy year and I didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked to –  I read less than two dozen books last year, which is really quite pitiful for me. Hopefully 2017 will give me more time to get back into reading.

Here you’ll find some of my favorite books read (not necessarily published) in 2016, with links to the reviews I wrote on each. The books are listed in the order in which I read them. It’s a very short list, limited to a handful of books (each in different genres) that I couldn’t put down.

What were some of your favorite books read in 2016?

 

My Favorite Books Read in 2016

In the Kingdom of Ice

In the Kingdom of Ice (by Hampton Sides) – I picked this one up because of a book I had read years ago by Sides, and loved. This non-fiction book about a voyage to discover the North Pole did not disappoint. It was absolutely fantastic.

Orphan X

Orphan X (by Gregg Hurwitz) – This suspense novel was one of my favorite books read this year. The story-line was unique with lots of plot twists and turns. Plus, there was a depth of character that surpassed what one usually finds in novels of this genre.

Book Review: The Magnolia Story

The Magnolia Story (by Chip & Joanna Gaines with Mark Dagostino) – A short little book about the costars of HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper. The book tells the story of how the couple met, fell in love, and got their start in business. A must-read for fans of the show. I definitely walked away liking them even more after reading their story. (This was also the book review that received the most visits from readers in 2016.)

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Book Review: The Magnolia Story{Book Review}

The Magnolia Story

By Chip & Joanna Gaines
with Mark Dagostino

In this short little book, we readers get a peak into the lives of the stars of HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines. The Magnolia Story tells of how the two met, got their start in business, and their struggles to make a career for themselves.

Review: I’m a pretty big HGTV fan, but I’m very picky about the shows that I watch. Part of drew me to Fixer Upper isn’t just the design style that I love, but the sweet, natural costars, Chip and Joanna Gaines. On the show, the two have an easy-going banter. They portray a strong love of life, family, and their work. I found the couple immediately likable.

Everything that drew me to the pair on television was just as apparent in The Magnolia Story. The short book (under 200-pages) is set up to show the dialog between the two (each has a different font that carries through the book). The book is really Chip and Joanna telling the story of their lives, interjecting to add commentary, a forgotten thought, or their own perspective. As I read it, I could hear the two speaking in my head, in that very natural way you see on television.

The book focuses not on the Fixer Upper show so much as the pair’s beginnings – how they met, their courtship, and their start in the house-buying/house-flipping/restoration/home design/home decor businesses. Yes, multiple businesses. So many that I didn’t bother to count. The pair encountered countless challenges but persevered through hard work, commitment to each other, their work and their community, and their faith.

And those are really the 3 themes that carry through the book that are perhaps underplayed on the show. The pair have a strong commitment to family and community. They work incredibly hard in what they love, to be successful and so that they don’t let others down. And finally, they have an unshakable Christian faith, a belief that they’re following God’s plan, and that God is taking care of them.

For fans of Fixer Upper, The Magnolia Story is a must-read. It’s the story of Chip and Jo, in their own words. It shows two people who stay true to themselves and their beliefs. I walked away from the book, with a new appreciation for Chip and Jo and the work they’ve done. They are genuinely good people who work hard, which makes me like them and their hit show all the more.

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harry-potter-and-the-cursed-childDisclaimer: This review (as does the book) assumes that the reader is familiar with the 7-book Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Book Review:

Happy Potter and the Cursed Child
Parts 1 and 2

By J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

The eighth Harry Potter book – a four act play – takes place 19 years after the famous series ended. The book focuses on the tumultuous relationship between Harry, now Head of Magical Law Enforcement at the Ministry of Magic, and his youngest son Albus, who enters Hogwarts and is sorted into Slytherian. Brief scenes show glimpses of Albus’s first few years at school and his relationship with his father during that period, but those scenes only lead up to the real story, which takes place during Albus’s fifth year at Hogwarts.

At that time, Albus and his friend Scorpius Malfoy (son of Drayco Malfoy) attempt to rectify one of the injustices of Harry Potter’s childhood – the death of Cedric Diggory. The pair go back in time – several times – with a stolen time turner and attempt to prevent Diggory’s death. The two realize that the actions they take and the alternate realities that they create are not always for the better. But can they undo the changes they made and return life to normal? Or are they destined to live in a new world that they inadvertently created?

Review/Recommendation: (But first, another disclaimer.) I feel like I’ve been living under a rock recently. I’d seen this book on displays everywhere, and my friends had started to read it, but I had not read or heard any reviews about it. I can barely keep up with reading everything coming in via my RSS feed and rarely have the time to sit down and read a real book lately. And the tv? Well that’s tuned into Paw Patrol the vast majority of the time I’m home.

Why do you care? Well, I thought it important to let you know that I really picked up this book with no expectations (but full of high hopes since I loved the Harry Potter series) and completely unaware of what the book would be about. It didn’t occur to me at all, that the latest Harry Potter book was actually a play. So with that said, it took me a little while to get into the book. It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through it that I got hooked on the story and really began to enjoy it.

I do have mixed feelings about the book in general. For one, I don’t feel the format did the story or the reputation of the Harry Potter books justice. It felt very… lacking in depth and detail. There were no real descriptions of the characters or the scenery, especially how Hogwarts changed in the 19 years that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were there. There were glimpses into some of the prominent characters from previous books but no sense of changes in character or relationships.  A lot was left to the imagination, with just hints of what Rowling and her coauthors wanted us to think. There was sooo much more that I wanted from this book.

I also have mixed feelings on the story itself. It starts off really depressing, with the very tumultuous relationship between Harry and his son Albus. I felt horrible for Albus because of how unhappy he clearly was but struggled because I had no context for how Harry and Albus’s relationship got to that point. Once I got past the format of the book and what I wanted the book to be, I started to enjoy the story a bit more. Albus developed a strong friendship with Malfoy’s son and that positive relationship in his life helped lighten the mood of the book. From that point on, the story itself was pretty good, but again, lacking detail due to the format.

I think knowing that the book was a play and missing a lot of context, I might have enjoyed the book a lot more. But billing a play as the “eighth” Harry Potter book (it says so on the book jacket) is misleading and left this particular reader feeling a bit disappointed. I know I would have regretted it if I had no read the book but I might have been more satisfied if this book had been a bit more… divorced from the series that I loved so much.

Grade: B-/B

 

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Why Not MeThis one is going to be a short summary and a short review!

{Book Review}

Why Not Me?

By Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling, executive producer, writer and star of The Mindy Project as well as writer, executive producer and actress on The Office, shares tales of her professional and personal life – from receiving feedback on her writing and on-scene kissing etiquette to dating, love and weight loss – in this collection of essays.

Review/Recommendation: This light, funny book was a great read, or in my case, listen. I was constantly chuckling, if not wholeheartedly laughing at Mindy’s stories. Mindy mixes lightweight stories with more serious stories (i.e. her thoughts on body image and her own struggles with self-confidence) that are full of wit and sometimes dry humor. With every chapter I listened to, I felt like I was listening to the real, genuine Mindy – not a character in a book.

The book was entertaining, well-told (because, of course, Mindy read it to me and she’s awesome), and gave me a glimpse into the actress herself. Even if you don’t know who Mindy is or aren’t familiar with her work, I think you’ll enjoy this collection of light, humorous essays on one woman’s life.

Grade: A

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Have you noticed that I’ve been MIA for the past month or so? If you have, I appreciate your patience and am glad you’re still reading.

As my mom will tell you, I’m the queen of over-committing. I want to do everything but there’s only so many hours in the day. So last month, I made the decision to take a little break from blogging. During that time, I focused on work, spending time with family and friends, and some of my other hobbies – reading, knitting, and scrapbooking. I continued to read and cook some, but not nearly as much as earlier this year.

Cookies & Coconut Cream Popsicles

In the Kitchen

Since Nutterbutter turned 1 this spring, I’ve spent a lot more time chasing him around and cooking stuff I can pack into his lunchbox. While my daughter ate like a bird when she was little (and still does), Nutterbutter is a tank (they don’t call him Meatball for nothing!). Italian-style meatballs and zucchini bread muffins are two staples in his lunchbox. I can’t keep up with stocking the freezer.

With all the crazy that’s been going on this summer, most of my activities in the kitchen have been quick, simpler recipes. Some highlights include:

  • Testing out cocktails from my new book, Mix Shake Stir. The pomegranate gimlet and Hang Thyme, a citrus-based cocktail, quickly became two of my favorites.
  • Simple desserts like Oreo and Coconut Cream Popsicles and a Cookies & Cream Ice Box Cake (which I hope to share soon)
  • Overflowing antipasto trays – with assorted cheeses, fruits, and a few select meats – have been my go-to appetizer for summer entertaining
  • Dinners have consisted of LOTS of grilling, which I love – it’s light and generally something the whole family will eat. (We’ve been working on Hazelnut’s pickiness, but it’s been a very slow process!). I haven’t tried a lot of new recipes, but we did have a win this summer, with this Honey Garlic Shrimp. You’ve probably seen several variations on Pinterest. This particular variation was great. We loved the flavor, and it was a super quick meal, perfect for a busy weeknight. We’ll be making it again for sure.

As summer winds down, I’m getting excited to get back in the kitchen with both new recipes and old favorites. I’ve been bookmarking and pinning recipes like crazy – time to start making some of them!

August Reading - Riordan

On My Bookshelf

Although I’ve had less time to read, I still managed to squeeze in several books. I’ve mostly been binge-reading light series, as they’re easy to pick up and put down while I cater to the demands of The Munchkins. You can follow what I’m reading at any time on Goodreads, but here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been reading this summer.

  • The Max Revere Series by Allison Brennan – mysteries/suspense
  • Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling – humorous autobiographical; a good listen on audiobook
  • The Kane Chronicles Trilogy by Rick Riordan – young adult/fantasy. I had read the first two when they first came out but reread them in order to finish the series

I’m still binge-reading Rick Riordan books, having recently started The Heroes of Olympus series. I tried to put it off, since I know I’m going to be sucked in and will be much less productive around the house, but I gave in.

The Bullet Journal (BuJo)

In addition to reading books, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Pinterest and blogs. In particular, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with reading about journalling, especially bullet journalling. I initially learned about the BuJo on Pinterest (before Pinterest started all of these awful althorithms where the only thing they seem to show is their own recommendations, which aren’t very good), and quickly became captivated by all of the pretty, creative layouts.

If you’re interested, I’ve been doing most of my reading on the BuJo on Boho Berry and Pretty Prints and Paper. For my own part, I can’t do without my planner (currently using an Erin Condren planner), but earlier this year, I started my own take on a BuJo. While most of what I’ve read emphasizes list-making (daily, weekly to-do lists, movies to see books to read, really whatever floats your boat), I’ve been using mind as a habit tracker (healthy lifestyle and Books n’ Cooks social media presence – which I’ve been trying to be more consistent with), actual journalling – to highlight some of the memories, quotes, etc from my kiddos (with the idea that these details will be used in their scrapbooks, whenever I finally get around to finishing them), and planning, brainstorming, and creating a strategy for Books n’ Cooks. I do have the sporadic brain dumps of to-do lists, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, but those are few and far between.

Joji Cowl

Crafting

While I don’t talk about it much on here, I do love to craft. I used to be really into scrapbooking and while I still enjoy it, I just don’t have the time to do as much of it anymore. I have started to work on my scrapbooks again, starting with the one I began when Hazelnut was a baby. I’m making slow progress, but at least it’s progress.

I’ve also begun knitting again, pretty regularly. For the past year or two, I’ve been making a lot of baby blankets, but this summer, I finally got to work on a project for me! I purchased a kit for this gorgeous 3 Color Cashmere Cowl by Joji Locatelli this past spring, and quickly started knitting it up. I love the way it turned out! Now I just need the weather to cool off so that I can start wearing it! (PS. I suck at selfies.)

Having finished the cowl, I’ve started on a couple of Christmas gifts for my daughter and niece – both saw me knitting and asked for scarves and hats. I’m enjoying the quick projects but am already itching to start one of the other projects I have picked out for myself.

 

The hiatus this summer was a much needed break for me, a good chance to recharge. Now, I’m happy to be back to blogging. Reading and cooking remain passions of mine, and I enjoy being able to share my passion with you.

Now that you’ve heard a bit about my summer, please leave a comment and tell me a bit about yours. What have you been up to? Read or cook anything worth sharing? Or have you been spending time on other things important to your life?

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Max Revere Series

{Book Review}

The Max Revere Novels

By Allison Brennan

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Book .5: Maximum Exposure
Book 1: Notorious
Book 2 :Compulsion
Book 3: Poisonous

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Maxine Revere, Max, is an investigative reporter specializing in cold cases. After a couple of hit books to accompany her journalism career, her college friend talks her into hosting a television show focused on criminal justice, Maximum Exposure.

This series follows Max and her sidekick – assistant/bodyguard David Kane – as they investigate cold cases through their employment at NET. Max is outspoken, righteous, and a firm believer in the truth. In fact, she pursues the truth relentlessly, viewing the idea of ‘knowing the truth’ in black and white terms. The truth is always better than not just a lie but also the unknown, a view that frequently puts her at odds with friends, adversaries and sometimes, the people she’s trying to help.

Review/Recommendation: This series (so far) is a light, quick read. The first four parts of the series have been published recently, beginning in 2014, with the most recent being released in April of this year. Max’s role as a reporter makes the series stand out from others in the genre, who favor law enforcement personnel as leading characters.

I enjoyed the characters in the series. Max was referred to numerous times as a “bitch,” but the truth is that she’s blunt, honest, and determined. She’s a strong protagonist and while she may not see eye-to-eye with others, she stands firmly behind her beliefs, for better or worse. The supporting characters add some lightness and depth to the series – Max bickers constantly with her friend-coworker; her love interest flits in and out of the books and reveals a bit of a playful side to Max.

The plot lines are entertaining but not generally too deep, which is pretty much what I expect for books in this genre. Overall, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an easy, light book (beach-read anyone?).

Grade: B+

 

 

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Orphan XThis was the first book I’ve read by Hurwitz, and I’m super bummed that the next book in the series isn’t out yet. Since I can’t wait, I’ve already picked up one of his older books to see if its as good as this one!

{Book Review}

Orphan X

By Gregg Hurwitz

Trained from a young age as a mercenary for a off-the-books U.S. government program known as the Orphan program, Evan Smoak (Orphan X) is known as The Nowhere Man. Evan left the program under devastating circumstances. After a month of wallowing, he reinvents himself, using his training for good – to help those who are desperate for help. The system he creates is simple. He helps someone in need, and as payment, that person gives his phone number to someone else who is in need and worthy of help. He works with one person at a time, on this referral basis.

However, a mission to help a woman supposedly being hunted for a gambling debt (with her father held hostage) just doesn’t seem quite right. Is the woman the person who she claims she is? Evan is suspicious of her, but eventually realizes that he himself is the target himself. Not sure who he can trust, Evan must tread carefully – to protect not just the innocent but himself.

Review/Recommendation: This is the first book I read by Hurwitz and I couldn’t put it down. It was a suspense with a plot line very different from other books in the same genre – a pleasant surprise. I loved that Evan Smoak was a killer with a conscience, someone who was trained to be ruthless, but who, deep down, empathizes with those in need.

I also enjoyed seeing Evan evolve and grow, as a direct result of a relationship with a neighbor and her son. As his neighbor sucked him into her life, he gradually came out of his shell, experiencing emotions that he had long ago buried deep.

The completely different plot line, coupled with unexpected twists and turns, had me completely into this book. I bing-read over the course of a weekend and can’t wait to read the next in the series. If you are into mysteries and suspense, don’t miss out on this one!

Grade: A

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In the Kingdom of Ice{Book Review}

In the Kingdom of Ice:

The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

By Hampton Sides

Emerging from the Civil War in the late 1800s, the new United States was eager to prove itself on the international stage. In an effort to show its military might, its power as a player on the international stage, but in a peaceful way – supported by citizens in both the north and the south – the U.S. entered the quest to discover the North Pole and the “open polar sea.”

In 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and a crew of roughly 30 men set sail from California for the Arctic. A Navy expedition funded by The New York Herald newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, the crew expected to reach the North Pole and return within 3 years, perhaps discovering (and claiming for the U.S.) a new island or two along the way. De Long did discover a few islands on the expedition, but he never made it to the North Pole. Instead, after being ice-locked for what felt like an eternity, he and the crew were forced to abandon the sinking Jeannette and make their way through ice and water – on whaling boats they had to carry over the ice – south to Siberia, and then on to a Siberian village where they could finally seek help. This book is the story of all of this, and more.

Review/Recommendation: I picked up this book on a whim, after seeing it while standing in line at the grocery store. I had read Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides years ago, and still remember what a wonderful book it was. That memory set the bar pretty high for In the Kingdom of Ice, and the book did not disappoint.

The story behind this book was fascinating. Unlike the description on the back of the book – which would have you believe the book was almost exclusively about De Long’s journey from shipwreck to Siberia – the book detailed De Long’s entire expedition, beginning long before he stepped foot on the Jeannette. It begins with the origins of De Long’s obsession with Arctic exploration and the myth of the ice-locked open Arctic sea, and then details his research into the Arctic, his efforts to get the journey approved and funded, the search for a suitable ship and crew, and the journey the Jeannette took from the East coast to the West, where it would finally begin its voyage to the Arctic. It concludes with the crew’s slow retreat from it’s northern most position, back down to Siberia, after abandoning ship.

Despite the huge amount of research Sides undoubtedly conducted in the writing of the book, In the Kingdom of Ice is both engaging and interesting. Sides does a wonderful job weaving the facts into the personal stories of De Long and the other crew members, showing their humanity and their bravery in the process. While the focus was De Long, the reader was treated to a snapshot of almost everyone one of the crew members, each one a hero of the expedition in their own way.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Grade: A

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Night of Cake & Puppets{Book Review}

Night of Cake & Puppets

Daughter of Smoke & Bone 2.5

By Laini Taylor

This novella falls between the second and third books in the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy. It is the story of how Zuzana (Karou’s best friend) and Mik officially meet and get together. You see, both had had a crush on each other for quite some time, but both were too timid to make a move. That is, until Zuzana decided it was all or nothing. She sends Mik on a scavenger hunt full of riddles and puppets (and just a little bit of magic, compliments of Karou). Zuzana waits for Mike at the end, where the two talk for the first time and share their first kiss.

Review/Recommendation: While the story was cute, I ended up being disappointed by the novella. It just didn’t measure up to the high bar set by the trilogy. There was some of Zuzana’s quirky trademark personality, but overall, the characters did not feel like the same characters in the books. Zuzana was overly dramatic – which was her personality – but here it felt off, maybe because it was kind of an over-the-top-obsessed-and-in-love sort of drama that just irritated me. Mik – who narrated about have of the novella – also came off as a wimpy sap. I liked him a lot more in the trilogy than in the novella.

That being said, it was a quick read (or in my case, a few hours listening while I was working out) and I wanted to know how the two got together, so I don’t regret reading it. It did complete the story for me, despite falling short of what I had expected and hoped for.

Note: I had a hard time finding this book in print. I ended up listening to the audio book, available at Audible.

Grade: C+/B-

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