Book reviews: Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating, and My Favorite Half-Night Stand

Dear friends,

Here are a couple of cute and fluffy “chick-lit” books you might enjoy.  Both are by the writing duo of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings (pen name Christina Lauren):

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Josh and Hazel first met in college, and run into each other again a few years later in the “early career” stage of life. Josh was very handsome (and, to Hazel, unattainable) in college, and when they meet again, he still takes her breath away. Hazel is a quirky, bumbling, “Bridget Jones” type character who embarrasses herself all the time and doesn’t have a very good handle on her life. She calls herself “undateable” for those reasons.

Josh and Hazel become good friends, but agree they aren’t romantically suited to one another. However, they’re both single and looking, so they make an agreement to set each other up on dates, and then to go out as a foursome. These blind “double dates” are meant to ease the pressure of going out with a stranger for the first time … but they don’t work very well for Josh and Hazel. Neither of them can seem to connect with the partners the other has chosen for them.

I’m sure you can imagine where this is going.

I enjoyed it, but had a couple of issues along the way:
1 – Hazel – the “manic pixie dreamgirl” stereotype. Her bumbling is cute for a while, but there came a point where I just found her annoying. Nobody is THAT far off her game, and she started to become unlikeable to me.
2 – The ending – which I won’t spoil here – has a “twist” that I wasn’t wild about.

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I loved this one!  Read it in a day and a half, and it was so much fun.

In this book, we meet college professor Millie and her four male faculty friends, who consider her “one of the guys.”  Millie’s best friend in this group is Reid, with whom she’s always had a close and tender relationship, but neither has allowed themselves to think it could be more.  Millie often gets together with the guys to drink beer and play Monopoly, and one night after getting tipsy, she and Reid “do the deed.”  When she wakes the next morning, he has already left.

Millie learns that such an encounter is called a “half-night stand.”

Of course, their intimacy complicates everything, even though they both tell themselves it’s a one-off.  Then, they learn that an important speaker is coming to campus, and it’s going to be a black-tie affair for which they will need dates.  Rather than going as a group, or one of the guys taking Millie, they all agree that they need to find “real” dates.  Group member Ed suggests they sign up for online dating.

Millie creates an alter-ego, Catherine, for her profile, and lo and behold, she’s a 98% match with Reid.  She begins corresponding with Reid as Catherine, and the two become very close (meanwhile real-life Millie is feeling more and more self-conscious around Reid).  When Reid finally asks Catherine to meet in person, everything comes to a head.

This is a very sweet story, and I truly felt for these characters.  All of Millie’s “Catherine” messages to Reid were true and authentic, so he has fallen in love with the real girl, just under a different identity.  Millie agonizes over having gotten what she wanted, but under false pretenses.  If she tells Reid the truth, will he understand, or will he be unable to forgive this deception?

Very cute.  Please read this one!

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

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Book review: The End We Start From

Dear friends,

I read this one for a book club.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen it for myself, and it was one of the stranger books I’ve read recently:

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This short novel is a dystopian tale that combines / contrasts motherhood with environmental catastrophe – so, a beginning and ending juxtaposed against one another.  London is overtaken by floodwaters, so a young couple are forced to flee the city with their newborn baby boy.  They head north, to stay with relatives, but soon discover that a lot of other “refugees” are fleeing north as well.  Supplies are limited, and they must decide whether and how to move on and seek a new place to live and bring up their son.

We see this world through the mother’s eyes, and especially in her relationship to her child.  Even when their situation is dire, her child looks at the world with trust and wonder, and the mother realizes that no matter what happens, she must try to live for her child.  Thus, the child represents a new world emerging from the old, and hope rising out of despair.

The writing style is very sparse – passing impressions, sentences, “blurbs,” observations.  You’ll find mixed reviews online; some people find it beautiful and poetic, whereas others lament the lack of dialogue and character development.  I’ve seen it called “startlingly beautiful” and “gripping,” as well as “boring” and a “chore” to read, despite its short length (150 or so pages).

So, it’s a matter of personal taste.  If you enjoy using your imagination to fill in the blanks of what a character is like, or what their motives are, you might find this novel compelling.  If you prefer that the author fleshes out the story in full, you may be frustrated by its brevity and lack of detail.  Either way, it’s a short read and likely to make you think!

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

Book haul #2

Hello friends,

Currently listening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on audio (as I’m working my way through the series again).

Just finished Sawkill Girls (see review), so I’m anxious to start something new, probably something light and fluffy as a palate cleanser.

In the past, I’ve always had several books in process at the same time, but I find that I forget a lot that way … so I’m working on reading one straight through before I start another.

Here’s another little haul for you, of books I’ve bought recently (including at the library sale) …

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More Than Words by Jill Santopolo – this is a new-release hardback I purchased because I enjoyed her previous book, The Light We Lost.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – I don’t really know anything about this book, but I enjoyed her novel The Shell Seekers, so I thought I’d give it a go.  Got this one at the library sale.

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough – she’s the author of The Thorn Birds.  This book is a story about Caesar and Cleopatra.  Sounds interesting.  I like historical fiction.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – I’ve been seeing this book a lot on blogs and videos, and most readers seem to rave about it.  I believe it’s about a woman who is living her life over and over again.

A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos.  This is the first in a series, and the second book just came out in hardcover.  I believe it’s a futuristic / dystopian world where people live on these “spires,” which are leftover parts of their former planet.

Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman (father and son team, I believe).  A book about a severe drought, and how people behave (and turn on each other) when they are deprived of basic life needs.

I don’t do “to be read” (TBR) lists, because every book I haul goes into the queue!  And sometimes I want to pick up something completely different  – so no promises that I’ll get to any of these super soon.

That’s my second mini-haul – which of these have you read?  I’m happy to hear your recommendations!

Blessings,

Annette

 

Book review: Sawkill Girls

Dear friends,

I just finished Sawkill Girls, which I had borrowed from the university library:

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A brief synopsis: Sawkill Girls centers around a trio of girls living in a place called Sawkill Island (Sawkill Rock).  Young girls have been mysteriously disappearing over a period of years, and local legend has it that there is some kind of monster lurking in the woods.  So Marion (plain-Jane newcomer to Sawkill), Zoey (daughter of the local policeman), and Val (the beautiful rich girl) team up to locate and destroy this evil before it strikes again.

The author incorporates diversity (Zoey is mixed-race, and there’s some girl / girl romance going on), and is clearly a feminist, but the girl-power message became a little heavy-handed (to me) near the end, when a gathering of community men turn out to have dark motives that only the girls can vanquish.  Females good, males bad (aside from the girls’ friend Grayson, a kind and gentle young man who bakes cookies).

This book has a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads, and I can understand why readers would have a “love it or hate it” reaction.  For me, it was just ok.  It became a bit of a chore to finish.

First: I don’t think I’m the intended audience for this book.  It’s a YA (“young adult”) tale, and I’d put it in the horror / paranormal genre, which really isn’t my favorite.  So part of my lukewarm reaction is probably tied to those factors.

Beyond that, my main issues with the book were:

The horror / suspense doesn’t build – rather, it’s intense from the start, and stays intense all the way through.  This level of constant danger and violence is unsettling after a while.  I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters as people, beyond the ways they reacted to paranormal threats.

The book is long.  Looooong.  Around 450 pages.  With horror scene after horror scene, in an episodic format (I was going to say, episodic rather than building to a climax, but that wouldn’t be fair, the episodes *do* build to a climax, but often don’t seem to be heading anywhere).  There’s no mystery as to which character is the “villain” (or aiding the villain) – we’re told from the start.

Bottom line: I didn’t care for it, but I can see how fans of the genre might enjoy it.  Give it a try if you enjoy paranormal tales.

Happy reading,

Winnie and the Professor

 

Book review: Sold on a Monday

Dear friends,

Just finished this book.  It’s a tear-jerker:

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The book is a fictionalized story based on this depression-era photograph:

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In Sold on a Monday, we meet a 1930s newspaper reporter named Ellis Reed, who is young, ambitious, and desperate to get a byline in the paper.  He needs a big break.  One day, while driving around looking for a story, he comes by a country house with a sign in the yard announcing “2 children for sale.”  He takes a photo.

His boss, upon seeing the photo, commissions a story, but then both the photo and negative are ruined, so the story can’t run.  Ellis, being resourceful, returns to the remote area, retrieves the sign from the front of the now-abandoned house, and props it up in front of another house in order to re-create the picture.  Then two kids and their mother emerge from the house to see what he is doing.

Later, when the kids go missing, a mystery ensues.  Were they kidnapped?  Taken into care?  Purchased?  Did the mother take advantage of the idea and actually sell them?

Ellis faces a moral quandary – Did his “staging” of the photo make all of this happen?

Together with his coworker Lily, Ellis seeks to locate the children and their mother, and to ensure that the family is doing all right.  Along the way, we meet Ellis’s parents, Lily’s boyfriend, and a gang of mobsters who might be connected to the kids’ disappearance.  Ellis and Lily find themselves getting in deeper and deeper, both for their own reasons.  And Ellis is desperate to assuage his guilt and ensure that he didn’t harm this family.

I found the book to be a fascinating character study.  Ellis is desperate for a byline in the paper, but did he go too far?  Were his actions innocent, and just turned out badly?  Or did he set this chain of events in motion because of his own ambition?  We see Ellis twisted and turned by this moral quandary, all while trying to put things right.

There are many plot surprises along the way.

Definitely recommended.

Blessings,

Winnie and the Professor

Book review: On Writing

Hello friends,

I just finished listening to the audiobook of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.  I had read the book years ago and enjoyed it, and since I am going through a bit of a writing struggle, I thought it might be helpful to revisit it.

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I’ve never read any of King’s fiction, as I’m not fond of the horror genre, but I’m always willing to listen to the voice of experience.  In this book, King narrates the story of his life, interweaving memorable incidents with his writing adventures.  As a child, he was drawn to science fiction and scary stories, so those are the stories he set out to write.

I found the book meaningful and useful as he addressed the struggles of writing, especially with a full-time teaching job, and the inevitable rejections a writer must be willing to face.  I also appreciated his advice to read a lot – he contends that a successful writer needs to also be a voracious reader.

Upon finishing the book, I watched some YouTube interviews.  He’s an interesting man, and surprisingly endearing.  I felt a kinship with him when he stated something I’ve always believed – that anything we have in this world is “on loan.”  We enter this life without anything, and we leave it the same way.  The things and people we call “ours” we don’t get to keep, but to enjoy for the time we are here.

It’s a useful idea for keeping perspective.

Blessings,

Annette

A is for anxiety

Dear friends,

Let’s talk about anxiety.

There are basically two kinds: social anxiety, and clinical anxiety.  You may experience one or both.

Let’s start with social anxiety.  This is the common form of anxiety that most of us feel when we have to make a speech, perform to a crowd, or attend a party where we don’t know anyone.  When you stand on the threshold of a room before a job interview, for example, and your stomach has butterflies, that’s social anxiety.  This is perfectly normal, and it’s “organic,” i.e., it’s a chemical reaction in your body.

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There’s a little gland inside your brain called the amygdala, and it’s the seat of the “fight or flight” impulse.  It’s there to protect you.  When you’re in danger, it sends hormones through your body to alert and agitate you.  We live in community with others, and we depend on the goodwill of our “tribe” for safety.  When you stand at the front of the room and everyone is staring at you, your amygdala sends a message that you’re under attack – even when you’re not.

This type of social anxiety is very common, and normal.  Remember, it’s a chemical reaction in your body, not a character flaw.

Now let’s talk about clinical anxiety, i.e., the type that’s diagnosed by a doctor, and that you may need to be medicated for.  This type of anxiety often goes hand in hand with chronic depression.  I experience this type of anxiety/depression.  My doctor explains that it’s not a willpower thing, but how my brain is “wired up” – it doesn’t make sufficient “happy hormones,” which can leave me continually sad and anxious.  Medication that helps increase my serotonin levels has helped tremendously.  I am able to stay on an even keel, emotionally, and my quality of life has improved a lot.

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Please understand that such medications are not “happy pills” – they don’t make a person feel joyous or exuberant.  They just bring you back to a baseline where you aren’t too depressed or anxious to do your work and live your life.

Why do I share this information?  Because we need to debunk the stigmas around these conditions.  You’re not “weak” if you experience anxiety, and you’re not “ungrateful” if you are depressed.  Mental and emotional issues are not character flaws, and our challenges can’t always be overcome with willpower or personal strength.  If your anxiety and/or depression are debilitating – if they keep you from living your life at your best, every day – please talk to a doctor.

Sending love,

Annette