Bear Town



Thank You to Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Fredrik Backman’s novel, Bear Town, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In the Swedish countryside, deep in the forest, exists a town that’s just barely managing to survive. Beartown has been economically depressed for decades and its population keeps dropping. Ice hockey is the only thing that gives the town hope.

Beartown finally has a great team and if they can win the finals, the town has hope that money will pour back into their community. The weight of this win, rests of the talents of high school students, boys that have been training their whole lives for this opportunity. It’s not as simple as winning a game. There are deep divisions between the coaches, the general manager of the hockey club, and the sponsors. These issues are pushed to the forefront when a star player is accused of raping the daughter of the general manager. What will happen when the loyalties and traditions of a small, fragile town are put to the test?

LIKE– I read Backman’s, A Man Called Ove, a few years ago, and since then, Backman has become one of my favorite contemporary writers. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read his latest novel, Bear Town.

Admittedly, I don’t know much or care much about ice hockey, but that is not a prerequisite to reading Bear Town. Although the game and game terminology is used, Backman explains it in terms that even someone unfamiliar with the sport, can understand. The biggest thing to know is that the entire town is obsessed with the sport, basically seeing it as a way to pull their town out of poverty. The parents of the players, sacrifice everything to make sure that their kid has every opportunity. It’s this sacrifice that makes the adults act irrationally.

The boys, (there is no female hockey team in Beartown) who are the best players, are essentially elevated to a god-like status and are able to get away with bad behavior. Although the story is set in Sweden, the same attitude towards sports and talented players exists here in America and will feel familiar.

The best part of Bear Town is the intensity and suspense. The first line of the novel tells us that one person has a gun to the forehead of another person, but we do not know how that scene will play out until the end of the novel. Backman kept me guessing the whole way and that introduction of danger was enough to send a ripple through-out the entire novel. What’s interesting is there isn’t a huge amount of plot to the story, it primarily involved this major game, a celebration party, and the aftermath of the rape, yet the story never drops in suspense. Bear Town is character, not plot driven.

What works so well is Backman’s well-developed characters. Bear Town doesn’t have one main character, it has several, and by the end of the story, I felt that I understood each of them. What Backman has done, is he has made the entirety of the town the main character. The theme of being a team or part of a collective is key to the story. There is a huge sense of surprise with regard to how the characters act in response to the rape. I didn’t anticipate some of the reactions, yet they all made sense within the framework of each character. The ending is beautiful and hopeful. The result is a poignant, thought-provoking, and surprising novel: Backman’s storytelling at its best.

DISLIKE– Nothing. If you’re not familiar with Backman, go buy all of his novels, right now!

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Bear Town is darker and heavier than Backman’s previous novels, but it’s brilliant. Brilliant and important.





Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Doree Shafrir’s novel, Startup, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– TakeOff, a New York based tech company, is poised to be the next big thing. Its founder, Mack, is externally confident and cocky, but he has secrets. Mack is desperate for funding, his company is on the brink of failure, and Isabel, a beautiful employee that he has casually slept with, has a new boyfriend. She is no longer interest in Mack. In a moment of desperation, Mack sends Isabel compromising pictures of himself, an action which creates gossip and jeopardizes his fragile startup.

Downstairs, in the same building as Takeoff, is a newsroom, filled with desperate tech reporters, who depend on social media traffic to keep their jobs. Katya is a young journalist, who inadvertently lands a lead on the problems occurring at Takeoff. Her lead involves, Sabrina, who happens to both work at Takeoff, and who is the wife of Katya’s boss, Dan. Dan and Sabrina are in their mid-thirties, struggling with both their marriage and keeping afloat working in a younger persons industry. Dan is hiding a secret crush that he has on Katya. Sabrina is hiding a massive debt that she has incurred from shopping.

How long can these characters keep up their lies, before the lives implode?

LIKEStartup is a fun read. I have to admit that it also made me anxious. One of the major themes is the fear of missing out. For example, early in the novel, we see the characters struggling to keep up with their social media accounts, both with regard to adding personal content and staying current with others. This is even more extreme, when you realize that Katya’s job depends on things like Twitter: it’s not just personal, but it’s her career.

We are introduced to both Mack and Katya, as they attend an early morning rave in Manhattan. The rave is designed to get the day started and rather than alcohol, the dancing/music is accompanied by juice drinks. Naturally, the characters have to instagram that they were at the rave, because why even go, if you don’t share what you’ve done? If you don’t document it, it doesn’t matter. Shafrir nails her assessment of  the current state of our society and while my social media behavior is nowhere near as extreme as her characters, I’ve felt that anxiety of keeping up. It’s a hamster wheel.

Also relatable, is the dynamic between Dan/ Sabrina vs their much younger co-workers. Dan and Sabrina are in their late 30’s, yet next to their coworkers, they feel somewhat irrelevant or washed-up. They are the only characters with children, something their coworkers view as an aspiration for the distant future, which truthfully is only ten-fifteen years away. It’s this dynamic that sets a rather desperate tone for both Sabrina and Dan. Dan looks to recapture his youth by going after Katya and Sabrina tries to compensate by buying trendy clothes. Neither of these are the answer of course, but they keep digging themselves into deeper holes. I don’t ever feel that their coworkers are actively trying to make them feel less-than, more that it’s a self-imposed category.

Startup is funny, timely, and a cautionary tale. It has a wonderful women-power, feminist twist. Part of what drew me to her book is Shafrir’s background as journalist and former writer at Buzzfeed. Shafrir’s writing sparkles and she has created memorable characters.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but I wish that the Shafrir had gotten into the heads of the male characters more, given them more depth. By the end of the novel they came across as egotistical, pigs and for a story with so many layers, I felt she could have gone deeper here.

RECOMMEND– Yes. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but for the tech aspect and themes, I was even recommending Startup to him. Shafrir has a strong voice and she has a tight grasp of current topics. With the current technology and associated lingo, I think this novel will date very quickly, but for now, it’s a trendy, on-point read. It will make you think twice about updating your social media accounts. Of course, I’m headed off to tell put out a blast that I read Startup.

I Found You



Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, I Found You, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Single mom, Alice Lake, notices a man sitting on the beach in front of her home. He stares off into the ocean, while the rain pours down on him, and he doesn’t move for hours. Finally, overcome by a sense of compassion and curiosity, Alice goes to check on him. The man has lost his memory and does not have identification. He only knows that somehow he has a link to this seaside village in the north of England. Alice takes him in and he convinces her to hold off on going to the police, to see if he can recover his memories; memories that seem to point to something sinister.

In a London suburb, Lily, a new bride, is worried when her husband does not return home from work. Lily has recently moved from the Ukraine and she has never met her husband’s family. Not only has she never met them, but she does not have their contact information. Could Lily’s husband be the man on the beach?

LIKE– Last year I read Jewell’s novel, The Girls in the Garden, and it was fabulous. I was thrilled when her latest novel, I Found You, showed up for request on NetGalley. It did not disappoint.

I Found You is filled with unexpected twists. I truly did not anticipate where the story was heading, making it a page-turner. I blazed through it in less than a day, unable to put it down. To this end, I’m not going to discuss any specific plot points or characters, as with this novel, more than most, I think the thrill is in the mystery. I don’t want to inadvertently spoil anything for a would-be reader.

In addition to a nail-bitting plot (and intense action sequences), Jewell has memorable characters and a vivid setting. What sticks with me the most is her atmospheric writing and foreboding settings. There is a mansion that is downright creepy. The strong sense of place, coupled with the excitement of the mystery, really grounded me in the story world. I read the last quarter of the novel on my Kindle in a dark room, and I was very relieved to have my husband in bed next to me. I had trouble getting to sleep last night!

DISLIKE– Nothing. After finishing I Found You, I looked up Jewell, and was thrilled to see that she has written many other books. I can’t wait to read through her works.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I enthusiastically recommend both I Found You and The Girls in the Garden. I saw mention of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train : no slight to either book, I enjoyed them, but I enjoyed both of Jewell’s novels even more! She’s a masterful storyteller.

Scrappy Little Nobody



PLOT– In her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody, actress Anna Kendrick follows her career from a child star on Broadway to breaking into Hollywood with hit movies, like Pitch Perfect and Into the Woods.

LIKE– Memoirs, especially light memoirs, are my go-to plane travel reading. I’m a fan of Anna Kendrick’s films and she’s a low-key celebrity, not one that is making tabloid headlines, so even though she’s only in her early thirties, I was curious to read about her career and personal life.

I had no idea that Kendrick was a former Broadway actress or that she had been nominated for both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for her role in High Society. I love musicals and the crazy thing is, if this had occurred in the mid 90’s, as opposed to the late 90’s, I would have known Kendrick from her theatre roles, rather than film. In high school, I was absolutely obsessed with all things theatre and I knew all about everything that was happening on Broadway. I still love theatre, but the obsession waned as other things, like college, got pushed to the forefront. Although, I do remember the production of High Society, the specifics like cast and awards, were not on my radar. I loved reading about her experience on Broadway. especially how her family supported her dreams, even though it meant a lot of sacrifice and wasn’t even financially rewarding. Also, that Kendrick had to sacrifice a normal childhood to chase her dreams and that hanging out with other Broadway kids, is a bizarre experience.

Her Broadway success didn’t automatically translate to film offers. She went the indy route, making a musical film called Camp, I’ve never heard of Camp, but apparently, it has a cult following and Kendrick is often approached by fans of the film. It went to Sundance: Kendrick recounts a crazy trip, where the kids of the film, mostly unknown talent, descended on the Utah ski town and went wild. A repeating theme of Scrappy Little Nobody, is the years of work ( or lean times of no work), that Kendrick had to put in, before she became well-known. Every time she seemed on the verge of having a breakthrough, it wouldn’t happen.

Twilight, where she had a small part as a non-vampire friend of Bella (Kristen Stewart) was a big budget film that gave her enough money to last through the lean times. Even Up in the Air, a critically acclaimed film in which she received an Oscar nomination, didn’t provide enough income or job offers to sustain her. Kendrick recalls her rather unglamorous trip to the Oscars and feeling pressured into buying expensive shoes just to give the appearance of living a rich and glamorous life-style. Until recently, Kendrick shared a small, no-frills apartment with roommates, even during her trip to the Academy Awards.

In Scrappy Little Nobody, Kendrick comes across as a very down-to-earth, funny, and slightly-awkward thirty-something. She shares advice from George Clooney, who cautioned her not to count on fame or fortune in the film industry. Although Clooney is arguably a mega-star, it’s easy to remember that so many actors do have fleeting careers, or they may luck out with steady work, but not obtain the level of fame or money, that the public imagines.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Scrappy Little Nobody is entertaining and inspirational.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you’re a fan of Broadway or Kendrick. Scrappy Little Nobody is a good pick for people needing inspiration or for a young person looking to break into show business. Kendrick may still be young, but she has had some incredible opportunities and she gives common sense advice based on her rather normal life.

Once in a Blue Moon Lodge


Thank You to the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with an advanced copy of Lorna Landvik’s novel, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Set in both Minnesota and Norway, spanning decades, Lorna Landvik’s latest novel, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, continues the story of Patty Jane and her family. Patty Jane’s daughter, Nora, finds herself falling in love with a Norwegian doctor, just as she discovers that she’s pregnant with triples from a one-night stand. Ione, Patty Jane’s mother, visits Norway to see her dying cousin and rekindles a romance with a boyfriend from her youth. Patty Jane has shut down her salon and is enjoying retired life with her long-time boyfriend. She also has a new venture, helping Nora start her lakeside lodge, including the reboot of Patty Jane’s popular   learning series, where locals attend such things as lectures, concerts, and dance classes.

LIKE– I’ve been a longtime fan of Landvik’s writing and I’ve enjoyed her previous novels. There is a sweetness to her storytelling, that I compare to something akin to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Both are filled with relatable, likable characters, and they each balance the heartbreak and joys of life.

My favorite part of Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, was the flashbacks to Ione’s childhood in Norway. This was the storyline that packed the biggest punch with regard to drama and mystery. I also enjoyed the setting of Norway. I have distant relatives in Norway, that like the characters in Landvik’s novels, immigrated and ended up settling in Minnesota. Her characters, their gentle humor and world view, feel like home to me. It’s this aspect that probably draws me towards Landvik’s novels the most.

Landvik peppers her story with Norwegian words and phrases. “Uff Da” is a phrase that my mom used all of the time, but I was surprised by how many Norwegian words were similar or flat out the same, as ones that I know from being around my Swedish step-children. I’ve never been great with learning foreign languages, so it was exciting to make those connections.

DISLIKEOnce in a Blue Moon Lodge is not as compelling as Landvik’s previous novels. I was unevenly interested in the various plots. For example, Silvia and Harry’s courtship and Broadway musical aspirations/success felt forced. I wasn’t very interested in the triplets. I thought about why this might be the case and I suspect that it had to do with the glut of plot lines and characters. There was so much going on, that I didn’t have a chance to invest deeply in any one character or plot. I would have rather had less and felt more. My focus waning, I actually set Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, aside, and finished another book, before going back to Landvik.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Yes, if you’ve read Landvik’s other books and need to find out what happens with her beloved characters. However, if this is your first time reading Landvik, I’d like to direct you to Patty Jane’s House of Curl instead. Read Landvik, but don’t start with this one!

The Dead Inside



Thank You to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an advanced copy of Cyndy Etler’s memoir, The Dead Inside, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler recounts her time spent in a Straight Incorporated facility during the late 80’s. Straight Incorporated was a highly controversial treatment program to get troubled kids clean from drugs. The program preyed on the drug paranoia of the 1980’s ( Just Say No) and some of the kids, like Etler, were placed in the program, despite not having addiction problems.

LIKE- In efforts to write a fair review, I need to be upfront and admit that upon requesting The Dead Inside from Netgalley, I did not realize that it was a memoir aimed at young adults. I do not often read YA literature ( occasionally, but rarely) and I don’t think that I’ve read a YA memoir, since I was a young adult. That said, at nearly forty years old, I’m not the target audience for Etler’s memoir.

I requested this, thinking it was an adult aimed memoir and I was interested in Etler’s traumatic experience in a cult-like immersive therapy situation. I had heard of Straight Incorporated, as its controversy has popped up in many news stories, but I was interested in a deeper look, which drew me to Etler’s memoir. Her story is upsetting and outrageous. She is very candid with regard to sharing the intimate details of her profoundly disturbing experience.

At the end of the advanced readers copy, there is a note that the final version will have a mini biography about Straight Incorporated. I think this will improve The Dead Inside, as I felt that the program needed a stronger explanation to compliment Etler’s experiences. I hope that it will include info on what the parent’s were told to manipulate them to keep their kids enrolled in the program. What was Straight Incorporated sales pitch to Etler’s parents? It must have been very slick, as it’s hard to imagine parents allowing their children to be away from them for months, even years, with little contact.

DISLIKE– To be fair, I’m unsure if my major dislike has more to do with it being written for young adults, or YA aside, I didn’t connect with Etler’s writing? I felt like I was reading a teleplay for an ABC After School Special from the 80’s. It was very melodramatic throughout. The problem with this, is almost immediately, I didn’t trust Etler. I thought that she was an unreliable narrator, which given this is a memoir, made me feel a little guilty. Even with the terrible things that happened to her at Straight Incorporated, I never wavered from thinking that she wasn’t as innocent as she was claiming. I can believe that her drug use was a new thing and not likely to escalate, however, she had major attitude towards her mom and a desperate desire to be accepted by the kids in the bad part of town. She was definitely looking for rebellion and I can understand her mother’s fear. Etler was running away from home, heading on the path for bigger trouble.

Etler mentions problems with her step-father and alludes to abuse, including sexual abuse. She mentions her mother turning a blind eye and she thinks that her mother sent her into the program to get her out of the way, more than to help her. I believe the abuse, but going back to the unreliable narrator situation, I didn’t believe this about Etler’s mother. Etler’s family situation should have been more at the heart of the story, but I felt muddled regarding their dynamic. I didn’t have a good grasp on why Etler was acting out or how things escalated to having her sent to the program. I wish this had been a larger portion of her memoir for clarity.

The sensationalism of Straight Incorporated is the primary focus of The Dead Inside. As such, I felt removed from the emotion of Etler’s experience because the outrageous and often unbelievable techniques from the program, took center stage. Assuming all of this is true, it’s shocking and horrific. I couldn’t shake Etler as an unreliable narrator, so some of the crazier antics, I had trouble believing happened.

But my main issue with The Dead Inside, is the lack of reflection or purpose. Etler sums up her adult life by mentioning that she now helps troubled kids, which is wonderful, but this quick summation doesn’t offer much introspection. I think it would have been a stronger read, if she had added more of her adult perspective, including how her experience has impacted the kids she helps now. The shock value aspect could have been used more sparingly for greater impact.

Again, I do not have experience with YA memoirs, so I’m not sure if this is the norm for the genre, but Etler writes in a manner that is youthful: filled with slang and bad language. The vibe is “adults just don’t get me.” It felt disingenuous. It was cringe worthy in many parts and I can’t think of any teenager that I know who would respond to this narrative. I’m a little younger than Etler and looking back, I can’t imagine this appealing to me as a teen.

RECOMMEND– No, however I could be off the mark with my assessment of the YA memoir. I think Etler has both a fascinating and disturbing story to share, but The Dead Inside did not work for me.

How to Make a French Family



Thank You to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advanced copy of Samantha Verant’s memoir, How to Make a French Family, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her early thirties, Samantha Verant found herself divorced, working as a dog walker, and living at home with her parents in California. Thinking about her past, she decides to send an apology letter to Jean-Luc, a Frenchman whom she had met in her late teens while traveling in Europe. Verant had promised to stay in touch with Jean-Luc, but failed to keep her promise. Now, nearly two decades later, she discovers that Jean-Luc is a widower with two teenage children, Max and Elvire. Jean-Luc and Verant quickly fall back in love, marrying a year later. Verant’s memoir captures the joys and frustrations of moving to a foreign country and becoming a step-mother to two French teenagers.

LIKE– I’ve read many “fish-out-of-water” memoirs about living in foreign country, but Verant’s unique details make How to Make a French Family, compelling. Verant is not only living in a foreign country, but she is now the step-mother to two French chidren. As a American step-mother to two Swedish children ( and a former dog walker, divorcee and Californian), I could relate to Verant. We still live in the United States, and only have the children on holidays, but it’s not out of the question that we could one day move to Europe. I admire Verant, as she is both tough and brave following her new destiny in France. Luckily, Max and Elvire are accepting of Verant, and normal teenage issues aside, they accept her as part of their family.

Verant is in her late 30’s/early 40’s, when she decides to try for a baby with Jean-Luc. Verant suffers multiple miscarriages, but the support of her French family, allows her to embrace the idea of her current family being enough. Although Max and Elvire were happy about the prospect of a new sibling, both time and the loss of the babies, gave them the courage to express to Verant that they feared she would not view them the same as a child of her own. Verant came from a blended family. and was very close to her own step-father, so this was the last thing that she wanted Max and Elvire to think. This frank dialogue and love, is what I liked most about Verant’s family.

If you’re a Francophile or simply curious about French culture, Verant peppers her story with her American perspective of living in a foreign country. She certainly has some frustrations and mishaps, but most of her writing reveals an affinity for her new home.

Food is a huge part of French culture and Verant includes the recipes for all of the meals mentioned in, How to Make a French Family. Do not read on an empty stomach!

DISLIKE– Nothing. Verant’s memoir is entertaining and it will warm your heart.

RECOMMEND– Yes! How to Make a French Family is proof that your life can shift course when you least expect it. Verant has a beautiful life to share, and it will certainly make you want to visit southern France.


Can Books Save Lives?



I was walking around in the cultural district of downtown Portland, and discovered this on an electrical box. It was across the street from my apartment in the South Park Blocks.  Wise words.

Nine years ago, when my mom was cancer riddled, and just a few weeks from dying, I spent long days in the hospital with her, reading. The author that saved my life the most during this immensely difficult time, was Laurie Notaro. I read her “Idiot Girl” series aloud to Mom, and we laughed. We laughed, a lot. It gave us a break from everything else happening and created happy memories during a dark time. I’m so grateful to Notaro and to the power of a story well-told.

What books or authors have saved your life?

The Yellow Envelope



Thank You to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advanced copy of Kim Dinan’s memoir, The Yellow Envelope, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – On paper, Kim Dinan’s life looked great. She lived in Portland, Oregon. and had a loving husband, a stable career, and was a homeowner. Essentially, Kim and her husband, Brian, were building a very good life. However, Kim longed for a different type of life. Kim convinced Brian that they needed to travel the world. He agreed to sell their home, car, and possessions to fund their travels, as long as they took a year leave of absence from work, rather than flat out quitting their jobs.

A few days before heading out on their adventure, Kim and Brian are given are surprise by their close friends, Michelle and Glenn. They are presented with a yellow envelope containing a thousand dollars, and instructions to give the money away as they see fit. They are not to stress over it, or over-think these acts of generosity, only to follow their hearts and spread a little kindness during their travels. How will the yellow envelope impact their trip? How will travel shape their lives and change their marriage?

LIKE– The concept of The Yellow Envelope is beautiful. I love the idea of how little random acts of kindness can make a big difference. Late in her memoir, Dinan tells a story about when she was in her early 20’s and working for AmeriCorps, picking up used furniture for minimum wage. She was poor and just scraping by financially, when at one of the jobs, Dinan was tipped ten dollars. The act of kindness, specifically that she was appreciated, is what stuck with Dinan. It’s in this spirit that she hopes, the yellow envelope money was received. The thousand dollars was spread out among many people, organizations, even to help feed starving animals, so none of it was an earth shattering amount given at one time, however, maybe these small acts were enough to affect change. Perhaps the intent and act of spreading kindness is enough? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that I live in a world where people would feel inspired to commit small acts of kindness, and not feel that they couldn’t give, because it wouldn’t be “enough.”

I like that Dinan didn’t edit out her discomfort. There were many times, especially early in her travels, that she did not give away money, because of her own discomfort. For example, they meet an elderly couple who do not speak English, but who are in desperate need for new shoes. They contemplate giving money or leaving shoes at the couple’s house, even anonymously, but ultimately they cave to their own feelings of this being an awkward situation. Dinan and her husband often worry about how their gift will be perceived, although as they grow more accustomed to travel and foreign situations, this fear lessens. They focus more on their intent and less on how it could be misconstrued.

Dinan speaks about her own issues with accepting kindness. In India, she enters a rickshaw competition with two other women, and they find that their rickshaw, affectionally named “Sunny,” has a lot of mechanical problems. At one point, they ended up needing shelter late at night, in a remote area, and a man takes them in. He gives them shelter and food, even though he is clearly very poor and his sharing is taking away from his family. At another point, a man goes out of his way to get a much needed part for their rickshaw. These are strangers, and although Dinan is unfamiliar with their culture’s customs, she must accept the help. She must accept the idea that generosity between strangers can exist, and that kindness is a cross-cultural concept.

The Yellow Envelope is the right mix of travelogue and personal introspective. Beyond the cultural discomforts involved with travel and the addition of the yellow envelope, Dinan also speaks to her personal problems, including a crisis in her marriage. Through much of her memoir, I wasn’t sure if her marriage would survive the year of travel. Was getting out of their element a good idea? Dinan’s memoir is beautifully written and deeply affecting.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The Yellow Envelope is a fabulous read.

RECOMMEND- Yes! If you have wanderlust, or are feeling like you need to make a dramatic change to your life, The Yellow Envelope is a must read. My heart felt warmer from having this reading experience, which with the current political climate, is a feeling that I think a lot of people could use right now. The Yellow Envelope is a reminder that kindness is still in abundance in the world and that different cultures have different concepts of what should be valued. It’s an eye opening read.