The Tao of Martha



PLOT– Humorist Jen Lancaster makes a New Year’s resolution to live her life guided by Martha Stewart.

LIKE– I adore Jen Lancaster. She’s absolutely hilarious and she writes in a way that makes you feel like you’re her best friend and she’s telling you crazy stories about her life over margaritas. Recently, I’ve been listening to her podcast, Stories We’d Tell in Bars, which she cohosts with her friend, Gina B. It’s a great podcast and I realized that although I’ve read most of Lancaster’s non-fiction books, there were a few that I have missed.

I spotted a copy of The Tao of Martha in Bearly Used Books, our local bookstore in Big Bear Lake and I knew it was a sign. This was one that I had been missing and life has been hectic, I could use a Lancaster pick-me-up. Her writing never fails to make me laugh.

Like Lancaster, I’m a fan of Martha Stewart. I’ve read Martha Stewart Living magazine and I admire her aesthetic, although it’s not something that I have put the effort into actually implementing. I lean more towards her ideas of home organization and steer clear of anything crafty. I don’t do crafts. In her experiment, Lancaster runs the gamut of Stewart principals, including throwing the perfect party, organizing her cupboards, and creating homemade presents.

Like Lancaster, I’m not a fan of Halloween, however, I could almost get into the spirit when I read about Lancaster covering pumpkins in sparkling glitter and creating gift bags for trick or treaters. I also appreciated the chapter where Lancaster creates an impeccably organized stockpile of supplies in preparation for a disaster or Zombie apocalypse.

This story isn’t all about Martha, it’s also about Maisy, Lancaster’s beloved dog who is facing failing health. Maisy has a fierce personality and manages to live years longer than anyone expected. Midway though the Stewart experiment, Lancaster and her husband, Fletch (another great personality in Lancaster’s books) have to make the difficult decision to put Maisy down. If you’re an animal lover, the story of Maisy and their bond with her, will resonate. You will cry. Another serious issue crops up when Lancaster has a breast cancer scare. If you’re a woman, it will make you schedule that mammogram.

DISLIKE–  Nothing. The Tao of Martha is another gem from Lancaster.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Lancaster is a treasure. I recommend The Tao of Martha and all of her books. In fact, you might want to start with her first book, Bitter is the New Black, as an introduction to Lancaster and to learn how she even became writer. Her podcast is definitely worth a listen!

Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World



Thank you to Bloomsbury USA for providing a copy of Nate Staniforth’s memoir, Here is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ever since Nate Staniforth was a child, he had always been captivated by magic, specifically, how a magic trick can bring a sense of wonder to even the most jaded adults. Staniforth persued his dream of becoming a magician and soon found himself burned out on a rigorous national tour and loosing what he had loved about being a magician. Stanfiorth takes a hiatus and travels to India to meet with street magicians, in the hopes that he can regain the spark that he had once felt for his craft.

LIKE– I absolutely love a magic show and I’m one of those adults that Staniforth loves to have in his audience, someone who allows themselves to be swept away by the wonder. Staniforth writes about the need as a performer to never allow yourself to lose your own excitement. A few years ago, my family went to see David Copperfield in Las Vegas. Copperfield is one of the premiere magicians in the world and Staniforth even mentions a childhood trip to see Copperfield perform. Copperfield’s show was the worst magic show and one of the worse live performances that I have ever seen. It had nothing to do with his talent and tricks, but everything to do with his lack of enthusiasm. Staniforth may not be as famous as Copeprfield (yet), but he knew enough to realize that he needed to take a break and reevaluate where his career was heading. I thought this was a very bold move, especially as he decided to take this risk just as his career was taking off.

I enjoyed reading about his travels in India, especially when he met with a family of magicians living in the slums. This portion of the story is very transformative, filled with sensory descriptions and self-reflection on the part of Staniforth. Staniforth is a likable narrator and it’s easy to join him on his journey, including the excitement that he experiences through his travels. It truly makes you realize that “magic” isn’t limited to a glitzy stage, but can be found in the every day.

DISLIKE– Nothing. This is Real Magic is a compelling, fast-paced memoir.

RECOMMEND– Yes! This is Real Magic is part memoir and part travel journal. It’s a wonderful pick for readers who enjoy magic, but who also can appreciate the wonders of every day life, especially lives different from their own.

Year of Yes


PLOT– Writer and creator of several award-winning television shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), Shonda Rhimes, shares how she spent a year saying yes to experiences that were outside of her comfort zone and how this quest changed her life.

LIKE– I have a confession: I’ve never seen a single episode of any of Shonda Rhimes’ hit shows. I’m well aware of who is she is, because I don’t live under a rock. Rhimes is one of the most successful show-runners on television. So, if I’m not a fan of her shows, why would I pick up her book? Year of Yes kept popping up on must-read lists and catching my eye in the book store. It’s a New York Times Bestseller and when I saw a copy on the remainders table, I grabbed it. It has been on my shelf for awhile and with the new year, it seemed like the type of book that could be inspiring.

It is inspiring! Rhimes talks about her insecurities and introverted nature, all of which caused her to turn down invitations and shy away from the lime light ( which is hard to do when you’re one of the most well-regarded women in Hollywood). During Thanksgiving 2013, Rhimes’ sister, Delorse, makes the comment that Rhimes never says yes to anything. Rhimes took this comment to heart and made the active choice to say yes in 2014, particularly to things that forced her outside of her comfort zone.

Among other things, she says yes to giving a commencement speech at her alma matter, Dartmouth. She says yes to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live. She gives herself permissions to cut out toxic friendships and to focus on her health. Through all of this, she discovers that she actually enjoys the previously terrifying experiences,and is becoming a happier person.

Rhimes is intelligent, funny, and down-to-earth. She’s really likable and relatable. On a personal level, I connected with her childhood dreams of being a writer and how she would escape to the pantry to create stories or read. I was that kid too Shonda!

I don’t remember the exact quote, but I love a comment that Rhimes makes about her shows, how she wants to see people like herself on television, but also people who are different from her. She wants diversity in all forms.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Well, one thing…I now feel compelled to start watching Rhimes’ shows. How can I possibly take on a decade worth of Grey’s Anatomy? Where to start? Argh!

RECOMMEND– Say yes to Year of Yes. If you tend to be a bit of a introvert like me, it’s the kick in the pants that will get you to embrace new opportunities.

The Only Girl in the World



Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Maude Julien’s memoir, The Only Girl in the World, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Maude Julien recounts her traumatic childhood, being raised in France by parents with a bizarre belief system that causes them to raise their daughter with extreme deprivation and cruelty.

LIKEThe Only Girl in the World is intense and impossible to put down. Julien’s parents have a belief that their daughter must be raised with strict rules and odd punishments, to make her tough and a survivalist. Her parents regulate every aspect of her life, including the precise time she wakes up, how many times she chews her food, and the exact spot she is allowed to sit on a chair.  As soon as she can talk, she is given intense lessons in a variety of subjects, with the expectation that she should naturally be able to understand subjects that are taught to much older children and adults. The ability to play musical instruments is prized and she must learn several instruments, sometimes spending up to ten hours a day studying. On top of her education, she is given manual labor tasks, working along side laborers in the gated house where she lives, a house that she doesn’t leave for years at a time.

As if this wasn’t mad enough, Julien is given other challenges, such as being woken up in the middle of the night and forced to sit still in a pitch-black basement with rats. Her father forces her watch the monthly slaughtering of animals on their property and when she accidentally touches an electrified fence and flinches, he forces her to hold the fence on a regular basis to toughen up.

Julien’s mother plays an interesting role in this whole situation. When Julien’s mother was a child, her parents were poor and Julien’s father offered to buy her. He raised her and groomed her to be his wife, specifically to carry a child that she would then educate. Julien’s mother is complex. She is often just as tortured as her daughter, at the receiving end of her husband’s crazy ideas and anger. However, she is also envious of her daughter and willfully participates in the punishments. In the end, Julien shows forgiveness towards her mother, towards the acceptance that her mother was raised as part of this ideology and felt trapped.

Speaking of Ideology, Julien’s father spouts off confusing beliefs that involve the illuminati, Nazis, and various philosophers. As a reader, it’s clear that he is not in his right mind, as his ideas are not only muddled, but contradictory. Seeing it through the lens of Julien’s childhood, it’s easy to see how these ideas, coupled with her larger than life father, kept her in fear. It’s exciting to see her realize the truth and begin to rebel as a teen.

The most touching parts of her memoir involve Julien’s relationship with her pets. This was tricky to navigate, as her parents showed cruelty to the animals as well and Julien had to hide much of her affection, so that the animals wouldn’t be further punished or used as a way to hurt her. The animals and Julien’s love for books and writing (activities she also must hide) are what keeps her alive.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Only Girl in the World is often upsetting and it’s emotionally difficult to read, but it’s also an incredible survival story.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Julien has had a difficult, but fascinating childhood. You will be in disbelief at some of the trauma that she had to endure and you’ll admire her perseverance. The Only Girl in the World is a page-turner and must-read memoir.

Flat Broke with Two Goats



Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Jennifer McGaha’s memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Jennifer McGaha was living a comfortable, upper middle-class life in the suburbs, when her world fell apart. A combination of the 2008 financial crash and living beyond their means, created a hole that Jennifer and her husband, David, couldn’t seem to climb out of. David dropped a bombshell on Jennifer, when he revealed that they owed over a hundred thousand  in back taxes, and that their house was about to be repossessed. A small solution presented itself, by way of a bargain rental cabin deep in the Appalachian countryside. The cabin was in disrepair and lacked all of the comforts that they were used to having. It also boasted some roommates: venomous snakes, spiders, and other critters. Would Jennifer and David be able to embrace their new lifestyle as they slowly fixed their debt? Would their marriage survive?

LIKE- I liked McGaha’s frank discussion regarding her financial issues. She experiences a range of emotions, including a lack of trust towards her husband and a profound sense of loss. Although she never loses sight of the fact that she has come from a privileged background and at the end of the day, she still has a roof over her head and love from her family, she still undergoes a transition, where she has to mourn her old life and reshape herself.

Certainly, Flat Broke with Two Goats, made me think about my own finances and I took this to be a cautionary tale. Your life can easily change by any number of factors. On a much more minor level than McGaha’s experience, last year I moved to a different state and sold my childhood home, when my husband got a job transfer. I was depressed over it for about six months and I wish I had read McGaha’s memoir during that time, as it’s a great boost towards putting things in perspective. Life changes and you must roll with them.

Also, on the financial cautionary tale aspect, it was scary how long it took McGaha to be able to negotiate a repayment plan with the IRS. It’s not as if they weren’t trying to come up with a  solution, but as time passed, they had their wages garnished and had zero access to credit cards. They really had their hands tied, as they spent years in the process of trying to work out a repayment.

McGaha’s transition from a suburbia dweller to living in the country, is fascinating. She embraces her family’s pioneering, Appalachian roots. by growing crops and raising animals. She learns to raise chickens for eggs and goats for cheese. McGaha has a beautiful writing style and she really imparts the unique personalities of her farm animals to the reader. As an animal lover, it was heartbreaking to read about their animals getting ill and old, but she writes about learning to tend for farm animals with love and compassion.

DISLIKE– They is not much that I disliked about Flat Broke with Two Goats, but I did wonder about the title. There are far more than two goats in the story and it’s not like a particular two goats are more meaningful than the others. The chickens seem to play a big role too. I think it sounds nice as a title, but I wondered when the meaning would present itself and it never did.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Flat Broke with Two Goats is an inspirational story and McGaha is a engaging writer. I think this is a great pick for anyone undergoing a transition in their lives and in need of a moral boost. it’s also great as reminder to be aware of your finances and lifestyle.

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs



Thank you to W.W. Norton and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTHeating & Cooling is Beth Ann Fennelly’s collection of short memoirs, ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, each a snippet of Fennelly’s life.

LIKE- I absolutely could not stop reading Heating & Cooling. Admittedly, it’s a quick, short read (less than an hour), but I could’ve easily read four times the amount in a single sitting and still have been left wanting more. I love Fennelly’s humor, her wry wit, and keen observations. The fact that it’s memoir, makes it even more compelling.

I’ve written micro-fiction and I’ve read it in magazines, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it compiled in a book. It’s a great format and one that I will seek out. Anyone out there reading this review have any recommendations for other authors working in micro-fiction that have compiled their writing into a book?

 Each story is strong on its own, but a big part of the magic is the order in which Fennelly has listed her stories. She has not ordered them chronologically with regard to her life events, instead she has ordered them to pack a punch. Much like a album track list, Fennelly has ordered her stories to elicit emotion and create varying tones. The result is excellent pacing, making Heat & Cooling a compulsive page-turner.

DISLIKE- Nothing. I loved Heating & Cooling. Immediately after finishing it, I went on Amazon to purchase a few of Fennelly’s poetry books. I needed more of her writing in my life.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Heating & Cooling is a unique memoir by a very talented writer. I’m so thrilled for this “new-to-me” author discovery.

Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies



Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advance copy of Michael Ausiello’s memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In his memoir, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello writes about his thirteen-year relationship with his husband Kit Cowan and Cowan’s death after an eleven-month battle with a rare form of cancer.

LIKE– I finished Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies two nights ago and I’m still feeling shattered. I feel like I might cry while writing this review. I’ve been a fan of Ausiello’s entertainment writing for many years, but I did not know anything about his personal life. Ausiello has written a true love letter to Kit, who died painfully and tragically in his early forties. I related deeply to Ausiello’s emotions as a caregiver and his fears for Kit. I think this is what hit me the hardest. I still feel emotional over my own role as a caregiver for family members who have since passed.

The best aspect of Ausiello’s memoir is his complete openness to share sensitive topics. He clearly loves and adores Kit, but he also doesn’t refrain from sharing Kit’s infidelity or the problems that they faced in their relationship. It’s raw and honest. Ausiello shares intimate moments that made me feel like I knew both him and Kit personally. What’s more, I really liked both of them. Ausiello has a warm way of bringing the reader into his life; a talent that not all memoirist have and that really makes his story a stand-out. This aspect of his writing is probably what left me feeling utterly crushed in the last quarter of the book, which involved Kit’s decline and death.

I love the title; that Kit is the hero in Ausiello’s life. How perfect and touching.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Do you like memoirs? Do you like love stories? Are you prepared for an emotional rollercoaster? Ausiello has poured his heart out on paper and it’s a very worthy read. Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies is one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read. It’s just beautiful.

First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer



Thank you to Unbound for providing me with an advance copy of Penny Pepper’s memoir, First in the World Somewhere: The True Adventures of a Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot, and Pioneer, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Penny Pepper’s life has been shaped by a severe and crippling form of arthritis that she has had since childhood. However, she has not allowed her disability to define her. Coming of age in England during the early 80’s, Pepper became enamored with the punk culture and started a career singing under her alter-ego, Kata Kolbert. In addition to performing, she also became a writer and advocate for disability rights.

LIKE– Pepper is a strong woman and a role model. I love her fighting spirit; the way she continues to fight for her dreams, even when the odds are stacked against her. I admire that she isn’t afraid to share her fears and struggles.

I had never heard of Pepper’s condition; an arthritis that is so severe, that she requires a wheelchair and needs aids to do tasks like going to the bathroom. The bathroom situation is a really big deal, because Pepper does not have funding for a twenty-four hour caregiver and although during parts of her life she is either married or living with a friend, when she is alone in the house, she is very vulnerable. She often does not have the strength for tasks such as using a bathroom without assistance. Pepper’s condition constantly puts her at odds with the basic human desire to be self-sufficient.

The title of the book comes from Pepper finding out that she was the top of the charts for Indie music in Italy and Greece. The title also stands for Pepper’s fight for change. She might not actually be the first disabled person who sings in a punk band or the first disabled person writing about her challenges, but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to be first to be making an important contribution.

I like the open, frank writing that Pepper does regarding her sexuality. It seems like many of the  doctors and other professionals that she encounters do not treat her like a female or someone with sexual desires. At one doctor’s appointment, it is suggested that she have a hysterectomy. She was in her twenties. I don’t think the suggestion is necessarily insulting, but the way that it is suggested, so flippantly, as if this wouldn’t be a sensitive subject for Pepper, is horrific.

Tamsin, Pepper’s best friend and first roommate is another strong force in First in the World Somewhere. Tamsin has a similar disability, and although she tries living on her own with Pepper, the two part ways when Tamsin envisions a different type of care for herself. This was an interesting dynamic, with both women attempting to be independent, but also coming to terms with their individual needs.

DISLIKE– I’m an American married to a Brit and even though I picked up on a lot of the terminology and “Britishness” of the memoir, I wondered how much would have gone over my head without my husband. Pepper is very involved in politics of the time ( mostly 80’s-90’s) and although I knew some of the players, such as Margaret Thatcher, I think being American and also a little younger than Pepper, made me feel lost in these sections.

RECOMMEND– Yes. First in the World Somewhere is a wonderful memoir about empowerment, overcoming obstacles, and following your dreams. Pepper’s story would be an excellent pick for disability advocates and generally, an important read for everyone. Her openness with regard to her challenges will make readers more understanding and compassionate.

We Are All Shipwrecks



Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Kelly Grey Carlisle was just three weeks old, she was left by her mother in a hotel room dresser drawer. Carlisle’s mother was murdered, her body strangled and dumped in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. Although it was suspected that her murder was the work of the Hillside Strangler, the case was never solved.

Carlisle was told that her father was unknown and she was taken in by her eccentric grandfather and his much younger wife, Marilyn. Her grandfather could be loving and jovial, but he could also be angry and verbally abusive. When she was young, Carlisle was treated to fancy clothes and meals out, through money earned from her grandfather’s pornography store business. Later in her childhood, money would get tight, as her grandfather decided to pour all available funds into his dream of owning a boat. They ended up living on a boat that was primarily docked in a marina with a group of off-beat and fellow down-on-their-luck neighbors.

Although Carlisle lived with her grandfather and Marilyn. she honors several adults who took an active interest in her childhood and who helped raise her. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir of discovering ones roots, while acknowledging the impact of how you were raised.

LIKE– Carlisle’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. I was most struck by the contradictions and confusions in her life. She sees two very different men in her grandfather; the man who is fun-loving and the man who cuts with his words. She loves Marilyn as if Marilyn was her mother, but is heartbroken to discover Marilyn’s alcoholism. She is curious about the porn business, but later realizes that some of the porn that her grandfather sells involves violence towards women. In particular, there are parallels between strangulation porn and her mother dying by strangulation. Carlisle mentions a guilty feeling of knowing that the porn business funded so much of her childhood, such as private schools and material possessions.

I had a very personal connection to Carlisle’s story. Towards the end of her memoir, she talks about being in her twenties and taking the initiative to research her family. She discovers a relative who mentions that Carlisle’s mom died in a car accident. My father died in a scandalous way and when I was a teenager, I learned that all of my distant relatives on my father’s side thought that he had died in a car accident. It’s a misunderstanding that has caused a huge riff amongst my family. I had chills and a burst of anger when I read this part in Carlisle’s memoir. Although I was raised by my mom, I can also relate to her desperate need to find out information about her family. I went through similar motions as she did, looking up newspaper articles and latching on to whatever information that I could find in our family records. Information is so precious. I was crushed to read that photographs of her mom and grandmother were destroyed when their boat got wrecked in a storm.

Beyond having an incredible story, Carlisle’s descriptive and emotional writing kept me glued to We Are All Shipwrecks. Her life is filled with many unusual characters and situations that are completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t imagine living on a boat. I had no idea that there are places in Los Angeles (my hometown) where there are these floating trailer parks. Carlisle is also only a year older than me, so many aspects of her childhood were familiar.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Carlisle’s story is unusual and compelling.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I enthusiastically recommend, We Are All Shipwrecks. Carlisle’s story is one that I will not soon forget and I loved her overriding message about it taking a village to raise a child. This is a beautiful tribute to her messy childhood and to the people that she has loved.

Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister



Thank You to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Teresa Sullivan’s memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In her memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, Teresa Sullivan recounts growing up with her older sister, Micky, who is blind, non-verbal, and has brain damage. Although her entire family loves Mikey immensely and they do everything possible to make Mikey’s life better, caring for Mikey takes a toll on everyone. Sullivan’s memoir explores the impact of Mikey and how having a special needs sibling shaped her life.

LIKE – I couldn’t put Sullivan’s memoir down and I read it in one sitting. The specifics of Sullivan’s story and her willingness to share her life in a raw, honest manner, made her memoir a page-turner. I just kept reading, because I had to know if Mikey and the rest of her family were going to be okay. It’s an intense and uncertain read.

Although they try their best to keep Mikey at home, an incident occurs where the courts get involved and Mikey is placed into a facility against her families wishes. They visit her at every opportunity, including visits where she is allowed to come home for the weekend, but Mikey’s placement in a facility forever changes Sullivan’s family. A piece is missing without Mikey and they all feel guilt in their inability to protect her, especially when they discover that she is being abused in the system. Sullivan turns to drugs and wild behavior in her teen years, her mother gambles and has an affair, and her father turns to alcohol. The entire family dynamic breaks down. It’s heartbreaking, especially the horrific abuse Mikey suffers.

Mikey and Me made me feel shattered. I finished it last week and couldn’t manage to write the review until today, because I’m still deeply affected and upset by what I read.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The subject matter is tough to read, but Sullivan has written a beautiful tribute to her sister. There is so much love that she has for Mikey.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Mikey and Me is a devastating memoir, but also an important one. Although, as a society we have come a long way in understanding and integrating people with special needs ( especially during the 60’s/70’s where a bulk of Sullivan’s memoir takes place), there is much more than should be done. Sullivan shares not only her experiences with her sister, but she speaks for other families with loved ones who have special needs. She speaks to a need for not only showing compassion and protecting, but to also inclusion for vulnerable members of our society. She also speaks for siblings, who often transition into a caregiving role as their parent’s age and pass away. This is an important memoir.