Object Lessons: Luggage



Thank you to Bloomsbury Academic for providing me with an advance copy of Susan Harlan’s book, Object Lessons: Luggage, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTObject Lessons is a new short book series that explores ordinary objects. In this edition, author Susan Harlan writes on luggage, sharing the history of luggage and how it relates to her own travels.

LIKE- I like the concept of the Object Lessons series; an in-depth exploration of an ordinary object. Object Lessons: Luggage blends historical information with personal thoughts, via an American road trip that Harlan takes while writing the book.

I was most intrigued by the history of luggage. For example, there is a short section talking about luggage that was brought on the Titanic and the fact that one single piece of luggage survived the sinking. I also learned about the origins of Louis Vuitton steamer trunks and that you can currently buy retro versions of the trunk and the company will customize your suitcase with travel stickers. You can have stickers that reflect your own travels or even create a fantasy of where you would like to go. This is a great book for building your repertoire of trivia knowledge.

I adore travel writing, but I was less interested in Harlan’s journey. However, towards the end of Object Lessons: Luggage, Harlan visits the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. Airlines sell unclaimed luggage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which then sells the items to consumers at a great bargain. This is a huge tourist attraction and special items have even earned themselves a place in an onsite museum. I thought this was fascinating and certainly a reason to consider visiting Alabama. The museum sounds quirky and my kind of place.

DISLIKE– I was unevenly interested in Object Lessons: Luggage. I felt that some of the references, especially quotes from movies and pop culture, provided tenuous connections. The tone of the book flipped between academic and informal, where I wish it would have picked one style. I think academic would have been the way to go.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I definitely learned a lot of interesting tidbits while reading Object Lessons: Luggage, but I also found myself skimming sections. I have another book in the series on my Kindle, so I will be interested to see how a different author explores a different subject.

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure



Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with an advance copy of Amy Kaufman’s book, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Amy Kaufman provides an unauthorized look at The Bachelor franchise.

LIKE– I was a reluctant fan of The Bachelor,  including all of its many spin-offs. I became a fan of the show, when I was a caretaker for my aunt, who was obsessed. Now, years after my aunt has passed away, it remains one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” shows.

At one point Kaufman was officially invited by ABC to be part of the press for Bachelor events, but they found that she was being too negative on social media and she was blacklisted. To write Bachelor Nation, she combined her insider knowledge, research (there are so many interviews/articles/books) and she interviewed both previous contestants, and those who worked on the production. Not everyone would speak with her, but her book still feels comprehensive. My main take-away regarding Kaufman’s interest in the subject, is that she’s simply a huge fan of the show, warts and all.

It’s pretty trashy. I don’t think it will come as any surprise that The Bachelor is heavily produced and a large portion of Kaufman’s insider look involves exposing the tricks that the producers use to create characters out of contestants and manufacture story-lines. It’s more fascinating than the actual show. Let’s face it, producing is the primary reason that the show is compelling. I’ve not seen about 3/4 of the seasons, so I didn’t know all of the contestants, yet Kaufman explains the scenarios in a way that is easy to follow, without prior knowledge. Even a casual fan, will find Bachelor Nation to be an engaging read.

Kaufman has also alerted me to  the Lifetime series, UnReal, a fictional  look at the production of a Bachelor-esque show= I know my next binge weekend.

DISLIKE– Truely, I enjoyed Kaufman’s behind-the-scenes look, but I didn’t like how her writing style leaned towards informal, using a lot of slang to make herself sound relatable. It didn’t work for me. For example, she refers to her group of friends and fellow journalist that meet to discuss The Bachelor as “Bach Discush.” I cringed each time I read that.

RECOMMEND- If you watch The Bachelor or are interested in the behind-the-scenes of a reality show, Kaufman’s Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure, is a must-read.

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!




PLOT– A collection of visceral, magical, and often horrifying short stories by Amelia Gray.

LIKE– I received Amelia Gray’s short story collection, Gutshot, as part of my Quarterly Company Literary Box. The spring 2017 box was curated by Borne author, Jeff Vandermeer and as part of his picks, Vandermeer included Gray’s collection.

I had never heard of Gray previous to her book arriving in my box, but immediately, I was drawn to the title and cover art. I packed Gutshot to take on my cruise to Alaska, but just a few pages into the first story, I realized that this was too special of a collection to read while on a distracting, family holiday. I stuck to magazines for the vacation. Now, eight months later, I finally found a distraction free afternoon and took the plunge.

Many of her stories are raw and powerful. There are few that elicited the feeling of the title: Gutshot. I felt physically moved and wounded while reading them.

Here are a few of my favorites.

A Contest- a micro-short about people competing to put on the best display of mourning for a person that they love who has died. They are told that the gods will pick the person that has experienced the most grief and that person’s loved one will come back to them. Several people are mentioned and they are all very worthy, including parents grieving over a lost child. The story simply ends with one sentence involving a character who had not been mentioned earlier in the story, a woman who opens her front door to find that her cat has returned. This had me in tears. I’ve lost so many people and pets in my life, but honestly mourning a pet is such a different type of grief.

The Lives of Ghosts – Marcy has recently lost her mother, but discovers that her mom is haunting her in the form of an enormous pimple on Marcy’s face. A pimple that talks and gives advice, including unsolicited motherly advice. This story was so completely unexpected, humorous, and ultimately heartbreaking. I found myself laughing out loud at this irreverent story.

Thank You– A hilarious story about an escalating passive-aggressive exchange of thank you notes. Thank You, as with many of Gray’s stories, increases in outrageousness, creating a fantasy situation. Very funny and relatable. I don’t think there are many women who won’t relate to this frenemy story with manners.

DISLIKE– I can’t claim to like each of Gray’s stories with equal measure; some were so bizarre that I found trouble connecting. Often her stories turned grotesque or incredibly violent, which is not something that bothers me, but I also felt that it didn’t always serve the story, like it was for shock value more than anything.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Gray is a talented writer and the stories in Gutshot are not ones that I can easily compare to another author. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly original. The stories that got me in my gut, I will not soon forget. I look forward to reading more stories by Gray.

Ms. Ice Sandwich



Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Mieko Kawakami’s novella, Ms. Ice Sandwich, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – A young boy going through puberty develops a crush on a quirky woman who sells ice sandwiches at a local grocery store.

LIKE/DISLIKEMs. Ice Sandwich is part of Pushkin Press’ series highlighting Japanese authors. I love reading writers from other countries, but I have to admit that I felt like a lot of this novella was lost in translation. Actually, I’m left unsure whether or not it was lost in translation or just not a complete story. Or perhaps, it was brilliant writing, because it kept me thinking about it long after I put it down.

The most intriguing aspect was the character, Ms. Ice Sandwich. She is a very unusual woman, who wears thick blue eye-shadow and is mocked by many people in the town. The protagonist, is fascinated by her and goes out of his way to visit her sandwich stall. I’m not sure that I quite understand what an ice sandwich is, but I think it was more of a Japanese treat, than a savory or meal item. She, being an adult, has no idea that this kid has a crush on her. Knowing that she is older and the town-weirdo, he keeps his obsession fairly hidden, only spilling partial truths to his friend, a girl he has nicknamed Tutti-Fruiti. I wasn’t sure how this crush was going to play out. I kept thinking with the way that the town treats Ms. Ice Sandwich, that she may have been transgendered, but this never came about in the story. It seems her treatment is solely because she dresses quirky and wears too much make-up. This wasn’t a strong character or story choice. I was let-down when my anticipation of a greater reveal, never came to fruition.

Kawakami captures a young boy’s first crush very well, with plenty of realism. He goes through so many emotions as he is trying to process this new feeling. He also has awkwardness with his peers and is dealing with caring for his sick grandmother.

The end of Ms. Ice Sandwich was a let-down, with a dull resolution with regard to both the crush and Ms. Ice Sandwich’s future. I was wanting a more dramatic or unexpected resolution, but the story just ended on a dull note. It fizzled.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. If you can read Ms. Ice Sandwich in Japanese, I think you might have a better experience. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but I don’t think it will be memorable when I look back over my favorite books that I read in 2018.

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.

Record of a Night Too Brief



Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami’s short story collection, Record of a Night Too Brief, is comprised of three short stories that are surreal and magical. Translated to english by Lucy North.

LIKE/DISLIKE– Normally, I break what I like and dislike about a book, into two separate areas, but with Record of a Night Too Brief, the likes and dislikes blend together, and I thought it would be easiest to simply discuss the book as a whole.

The stories in Record of a Night Too Brief are quite bizarre. They are works of surrealism, with bits of magical realism, and I wondered how much of Japanese folklore was being worked in, that I wasn’t picking up on. Normally when I read translated fiction, I feel like I understand the cultural context, but perhaps because these stories were so unusual, I felt like I was getting lost in translation.

I have a confession: Until reading NetGalley’s description of the collection a few minutes ago, I didn’t realize that this was a collection of three stories. I thought it was a bunch of very short stories with two longer ones at the end. I’m not sure how I missed it ( perhaps because it was so bizarre and confusing) but I didn’t not catch on that the short chapters at the beginning of the story were actually one story, rather than individual shorts. Being totally honest, I didn’t understand them. I read them more as stories that elicited an emotion, rather than stories that make sense from a storytelling standpoint. It was like walking around a modern art exhibit.

The last two stories, I enjoyed far more. The first was about a woman who is haunted by her older brother, who has died. This brother had been arranged to marry a local girl, who does not know what he looked like, so the family simply marries her to his younger brother, without telling her. The dead brother haunts the household, but only his sister can see him. In one chilling scene, his ghost attempts to make-out with his would-be bride, which his sister can see and she watches as her new sister-in-law struggles to breathe, because a ghost is pressing on her chest.

The last story features a woman who comes home from work to discover a snake in her house. This snake can shift into a woman. It turns out there is a whole world of people who can turn themselves into snakes and they try to lure other people to join them. Animals and transformation are themes woven throughout this collection.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Record of a Night Too Brief wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did find the story about the ghost to be engaging. Overwhelmingly, I felt like I wasn’t understanding these stories. If you are able to read Kawakami’s stories in Japanese or know more about the Japanese culture, I suspect you would have a very different experience. This collection did win Japan’s Akutagawa prize.

The End We Start From



Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with a copy of Megan Hunter’s novel, The End We Start From, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In the not-too-distance future, a major flood has destroyed London and the unnamed narrator must try to survive with her newborn baby.

LIKE- The End We Start From is a survival story at a break-neck pace. Although due to family visiting, I had to read it in small chunks, Hunter’s novella can easily be read in a single sitting. Due to the fast pacing and intense subject of the story, I would highly recommend setting aside a few uninterrupted hours and diving in.

I liked that Hunter left a lot of mystery, she does not spell things out. Although we know that there has been extreme flood, we don’t know more details. For example, we don’t know the range and extent of the disaster. This put me in the mindset of the narrator, as she struggles to survive with a lack of direct information. The larger scope of the disaster is really irrelevant to this particular story. The focus is on her survival, the immediate situation, and deals with the rumors and misinformation that she receives as she moves to different refugee camps. She must assess her best move on the fly, including dealing with dangers.

The End We Start From reminded me of The Walking Dead or Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. The themes and general story line are not a new idea, however, The End We Start From remains compelling because of the narrator and the exploration of how humans react in extreme circumstances.

The ending was very interesting to me. It switches from a story of physical survival to one of emotional survival. Hunter ends the story at a precarious moment. The only thing that I was left feeling certain of, is that the narrator is a survivor and will continue to survive.

DISLIKE– I’m a bit uncertain as to whether only naming the characters by their first initial was a good move. As a reader, I sometimes found it to be confusing and distracting. I had to reread sections to remind myself of a character, which took me out of the story. From a storytelling standpoint, it creates a necessary barrier that the narrator must put up for her own survival. It also quickens the pacing.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The End We Start From is a fast-paced and emotional journey. It’s filled with danger and tension. I never quite knew where it was heading and I found the ending to be quite a surprise. I’d seek out future novels by Hunter.