My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Book One by Emil Ferris

Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.

This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.

Here to Stay by Catherine Anderson

BookHere to Stay by Catherine Anderson is one of my staple romantic novels. Twenty-Eight year old Mandy Pajeck’s life revolves around caring for her younger brother Luke. Luke lost his sight as a young child, in a horrific accident that Mandy blames herself for. Mandy has done everything for the now angsty teenage boy since they were young. With an abusive father, and a mother who abandoned the two siblings, Mindy has always protected her brother and he never has to lift a finger. Luke plays on his sister’s guilt and  has never tried to learn to do anything for himself.

Romance is the furthest thing from Mandy’s mind until she meets hunky Zach Harrigan. Zach’s life used to revolve around parties and fun; he never had a reason to take anything serious. When his life begins to lack the luster it once had, Zach decides to use his expertise of horsemanship to do something meaningful for a change.  He begins to train a miniature horse to become a guide animal for the blind.  When Zach and Mandy cross paths, sparks fly, but Mandy just can’t let go of the past to make room for romance. As the two develop a closer relationship, Zach urges Mandy to confront her past, and the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Could Zach be the one man that can change Mandy’s mind on love? Will she ever be able to move on from her past, and forgive herself for her brother’s blindness? A story of love, loss, and moving on; Here to Stay is chock full of feelings and hope.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Book – Grace Holland lives with her husband, Gene, and their two young children in a small home on the coast of Maine. She doesn’t drive, receives an allowance from Gene and spends her days caring for her children, managing the house and visiting with her best friend, Rosie. Her marriage is complacent and somewhat dull. Grace wonders why she has never experienced the “god-awful joy” when making love to Gene that Rosie once mentioned. In the Fall of 1947, the town suffers a severe drought and fires begin to break out along the coast. Gene leaves to help fight the blazes and is still gone when the devastating flames reach the town. With most of the houses destroyed, and her husband missing, Grace is forced to take matters in her own hands. As she searches for a means to make money and build a new life for herself and for her children, she is also forced to confront situations more difficult then she could ever have imagined. I admired Grace’s resiliency and pragmatism. She asked for help and accepted it, but she was determined to find a way to be independent. Shreve also wrote The Weight of Water, The Pilot’s Wife and other popular novels.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

Book- According to Belly, summer is the only time of the year that counts. Every summer she goes to Cousins Beach leaving her school life alone. She starts out as a young and annoying little sister to Stephen. At the beach house they are also with her moms best friend for life and her two boys Conrad and Jeremiah.  She was left out of all the cool things, like camping on the beach, going to a party down the beach, going to the pier with the boys. She was always feeling left out.

She is absolutely in love with and chasing after Conrad. He does little things to show her he notices her and cares for her, but then he follows that up with being distant and harsh with her. Finally this summer, she thinks its the summer to change everything. She is allowed to go to the party down the beach and meets a new guy named Cam. He is a little different, but she likes different. She is not sure how much she can like him, as her heart always belongs to Conrad. Then there is Jeremiah, her best friend at the beach, who occasionally shares a secret lust look with her.

I enjoyed this book. This is the first in a trilogy (all of which I have read), and I think Jenny Han sets up the background story well. I did get a little annoyed with Belly, the main character, as she is a little over dramatic at times. I suppose that’s why this is considered a young adult romance novel. It was a nice easy read where the plot line isn’t far-fetched or complicated. It reminded me of the way I used to see things at her age. Man, I am excited to actually be an adult!

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Book – Simon Newman has a very niche career – it’s the mid-2000s, and he and his best friend run a website of dark and creepy content. Desperate to attract subscribers for “Journey to the Darkside,” he hires a guide to take him through Cwm Pot, a notorious cave system in Wales where three cavers died in a flood. Simon escapes with his life, if barely; his guide does not.

But one success isn’t enough on the Internet, and the next one has to be bigger and even more dangerous, so Simon signs on to an Everest expedition, hoping to catch some footage of the climbers whose bodies have to be abandoned above 8,000 feet, where it’s too dangerous to try to bring them down. He learns the story of Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was trying to become the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, but perished on the mountain. And in her diary, he finds an eerily familiar story. It seems Juliet was haunted by a lost adventuring partner, just as Simon is. But were they haunted only by memories and regrets, or is there something else out there on the mountain with them?

Sarah Lotz has become my go-to writer for psychological horror: she excels at the kind of atmospheric tension-building that I love. The White Road isn’t seat-of-your-pants scary, but it provides the kind of ambiguous, worrying feeling that I enjoyed so much in, for example, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Once you’ve read this, pick up Into Thin Air to see just how real Lotz’s depiction of death on the world’s highest mountain can be.

As I Descended by Robin Talley

imagesBook–Roommates (and secret couple) Maria and Lily are students at the elite boarding school Acheron Academy. The girls excel at academics, extra-curricular activities, and popularity contests, especially Maria. The only problem, from their perspective, is that they are not the very best. Fellow student Delilah Dufrey holds this honor: she is valedictorian, captain of their soccer team, and a shoo-in for homecoming queen. Delilah is also at the top of the list to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley prize, a full college ride and two years of free grad school to the winner. While none of the girls actually need the money, they all crave the status, and Maria wants to ensure that she gets into Stanford with Lily.

To ensure the prize goes to Maria and to stay together, Lily is willing to do anything, even exploit Maria’s belief in ghosts and the supernatural to convince her that getting the prize is foreordained. What follows is a a full-on, ghost-laden, Shakespearean tragedy that neither girl could have predicted where bad decisions pile on top of each other and lies beget more lies. Like The Tragedy of Macbeth that it’s based on, As I Descended is an exploration of the lengths that the desire for power can drive people to.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Book – Writing is both a craft and an art.  With enough practice, most writers can produce a well-constructed and enjoyable book, but only a sparse few have that other thing–call it a voice, or originality, or authenticity, or heart.  It’s really hard to describe why a Holly Goldberg Sloan book is an occasion and a joy.  She’s just got that touch of art that makes a story special.

Counting by 7s was Sloan’s breakout hit among both child and adult readers, and justifiably so; it’s beyond gorgeous.  Short, her newest book, has some definite similarities, including a young female protagonist growing up through the story, inter-generational friendships, and grief and healing as themes.  But overall it’s a lighter, breezier, more comforting read.  Like Raina Telgemeier’s smash-hit graphic novel for the same audience, Drama, Short centers on a young Theater Kid finding confidence and belonging through a new production.  In this case, the show is The Wizard of Oz, and eleven-year-old Julia, who used to be bothered by her (lack of) height, suddenly finds that it’s her ticket to the spotlight–she’s the only kid her age small enough to land a part as a Munchkin.  An average student and middle child, Julia finds that the production lets her connect with and earn the approval of adults in a way she’s never experienced before, and gives her a safe window into a more complicated, grown-up world.

Short is a quiet book, wonderfully written and touching.  Definitely hand it to any tweens in your life.  And when they’re done, borrow it back from them to have a look for yourself.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

Book – I tend to forgo reading the “Message to The Reader” section that authors sometimes include in their novels, instead going straight to the meat of the story.  But Amazon had a free preview of The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan, so I took advantage of the few pages I could indulge in.  The author’s “Message to Readers”  is brilliant, funny, and overall a wonderful addition to the book. Colgan describes the best places to read her book, necessitating comfort as the top priority.  I loved her witty sense of humor and thought the excerpt was a great introduction to the story.

And the story begins with Nina, a librarian in a small library that’s going under in a world that no longer wants physical books.  While her coworkers join the newly joined “library center,” Nina decides for once in her life to take a chance on her dream job: opening a mobile bookstore.  She impulsively buys a van, and travels to a small town miles away to start a new life for herself.  A romance blossoms when she meets a poetic train conductor, and a whole new adventure begins.

I love the premise behind this book: Girl Loves Books, Girl Loses Job, Girl Buys Van, Girl Turns Van into Bookstore, Girl Falls For Guy, etcetera…insanity ensuing.  However, the story started losing me about halfway through and I felt that it was dragging.  I stuck it out, hoping the pace would pick up, and though the story gained some interesting turns, it still left me feeling just a tad let down.

Jenny Colgan is still one of my favorite authors, and I especially adore The Little Beach Street Bakery and its sequel, Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

Book – Greta is one of the Children of Peace, hostages of the world’s leaders who live in the Precepture in Saskatchewan. If their country goes to war, they die. It’s one of the rules of Talis, the AI who rules the world – war should be personal, and the people declaring war should have to suffer for it. Talis’s scheme works to keep wars rare, but in a world where water grows scarcer by the day, Greta knows that, sooner or later, her mother’s kingdom will go to war to defend Lake Huron, and she is going to die. The arrival of Elián, the hostage from the newly-formed Cumberland Alliance, shakes both the calm society of the Precepture and Greta’s perception of the world – and her willingness to go peacefully to her doom.

There are a lot of ideas in this book: AI threat, water wars, population devastation, extreme solutions to the age-old problem of war. And they’re all secondary to Greta, who is an amazing character, someone who’s walked blindly for most of her life through a horrible, unfair, heartless system that she grows to believe is not the inevitable way the world has to work. It’s gorgeously written (the last couple of chapters in particular) and the characterization is impeccable. This was an incredible book – heartbreaking and brutal, not gratuitously, but as much as it needed to be. Although technically YA, anyone who loves science fiction or dystopian fiction should love this.

Macaron Mayhem: Conquering the French Dessert 1 Batch at a Time

Books & Recipes – French macarons are my guilty pleasure.  I love the light, crispy yet chewy texture of the delicate cookies, and the sweet, buttery filling ranging from buttercream to chocolate ganache.  Intimidated as I was, I decided to give the fanciest of French desserts a shot.

Naturally, my first stop in my macaron adventure was our library, where I collected some cookbooks, including: The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer, Bake it, don’t fake it! by Heather Bertinetti, and Bouchon Bakery by Sebastien Rouxel.

The Art of the French Pastry and Bake It, Don’t Fake It were both very helpful in introducing me to the world of French pastries, including detailed baking guides as well as helpful hints for novice bakers.  Bouchon Bakery is a beautifully photographed cookbook that made me believe I too could create Instagram worthy delicacies.  Additionally, I requested Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes by Cecile Cannone through Interlibrary Loan,  which features a ton of recipes for both macaroon shells and fillings.

The first batch was an absolute failure and did not reach fruition.  Anyone who has made macarons will tell you how  crucial it is not to overbeat your egg whites; and mine ended up looking like a pile of soapy egg suds.  Yuck.

The batter was still fairly lumpy in my second batch but I persevered, hoping everything would magically work itself out, which somehow, it did!  My third attempt went 1,000 times better.  With the assistance of my sous-chef (aka: Mom), I managed to whip the egg whites into shiny, perfectly stiff peaks.  With the grace of an experienced baker, she showed me how to gently (so as not to collapse the fluffy batter) fold in the dry ingredients.

Three more batches and 12 hours (yes, TWELVE hours) later, I could bake no more, with over 100 macarons.  With some fancily piped Vanilla Buttercream (recipe courtesy of Cecile Cannone’s Macarons: Authentic French Cookie Recipes), even I was impressed by my handiwork.