2020 in Books

Posted on Jan 2, 2021 in Adulthood Stole My Cool, Uncategorized

2020 in Books 0

So. Let’s talk about 2020. 2020 included: a baby-turned-toddler, my husband’s deployment, a pandemic (during the deployment), and an overseas move (during a pandemic.) I actually managed to “read” quite a lot this year, thanks to embracing audiobooks as I never had before. Audiobooks got me through the endless hours of dishes involved in a lockdown with three children. (I don’t understand how it’s possible to spend 17 hours of a day doing dishes, and yet…) However, many (most?) of these books aren’t exactly, uh, great literature. Consider this list the Real Housewives of Reading. If you need a mental escape, there are plenty of cheesy rom-coms and throwaway thrillers that are a nice distraction, but ultimately unmemorable.  Don’t write these all off, though – there are a few gems! Here’s to hoping 2021 brings better fortune than 2020, and better books.

Favorite Fiction: Oona Out of Order, Leave the World Behind, Such a Fun Age

Favorite Nonfiction: Just Mercy and – I’m 100% serious here – Open Book by Jessica Simpson

1) My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan (audiobook): I heard about this book soon after I learned we might be moving to Oxford for a year, so naturally I had to read it. This isn’t a genre I typically go for, but this was actually a very sweet, endearing story with more depth than I expected. And the descriptions of the City of Dreaming Spires got me so excited for my own upcoming adventure. (The adventures of a mom in her mid-thirties moving to Oxford is quite different than a Rhodes Scholar in her 20s, but still, I enjoyed this.)

2) A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum: Thought-provoking, troubling, sad. I wanted more closure.

3) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling: I love reading this series with my daughter. I haven’t read these early books since they were released, and it’s great fun rediscovering them.

4) Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Excellent. A grand, sweeping book both historical and incredibly imaginative.

5) The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock (audiobook): What a disappointment. I expected some juicy historical fic-lit on Princess Margaret, but she was really a secondary character to her fictional lady-in-waiting. Ultimately it was a bore.

6) Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane: Alright, I’m going to diverge from popular opinion here – I did not love this. Yes, it’s well-written and there were a few great scenes but overall, I thought it slow and dull; I just couldn’t invest in these characters that much.

7) Followers by Megan Angelo (audiobook): For a dystopian novel about the toxicity of social media and faux-celebrity culture, this was a fun read! Fun, but also eerie and dark. Like, what if constant tech use will irreparably damage our brains in some terrifying, unknown way?! Eh, whatever. It could’ve been a few chapters shorter, but overall was enjoyable.

8) The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (audiobook): What do you know – C. S. Lewis holds up! The narration is fantastic and the book is as relevant today as the day it was published.

9) The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This was good but not great.  The premise – a “farm” where women (usually poor immigrants or women of color) are paid surrogates for other (wealthy) women – is provocative because it doesn’t seem all that far removed from reality. It brings up some interesting ethical questions and attacks some important themes – but somewhat artlessly.  I’ve found that a lot of contemporary fiction bludgeons you over the head with its message – there’s very little nuance, and the works end up being unchallenging and uninteresting for the reader. This certainly wasn’t the worst offender (see: The Last Story of Mina Lee) but it could’ve been better.

10) The Wives by Tarryn Fisher (audiobook): I don’t even know where to start with this. I have so many questions. There’s an unreliable narrator, and then there’s… whatever this is. Look – this kept me engaged because it is totally bonkers, but like I said, I have so many questions.  

11) Open Book by Jessica Simpson (audiobook): This book was made for me. Behind the scenes Mickey Mouse Club gossip? 90s Teen Pop Queen rivalries? Newlyweds set drama? Tell me everything! There’s actually a lot of depth and quite a bit of sadness. Simpson is refreshingly honest and unapologetically herself. One of my favorite books this year.

12) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling: A note to parents considering this series for their kids: This series gets dark, early. Azkaban is pretty terrifying. I know a lot of my kids’ friends who have read the entire series at a fairly young age. You know your child best – it’s okay to wait if they’re not ready for this kind of content, even if all their friends are reading it! My oldest was ready for this book, but my middle who is much more sensitive will not be reading this at the same age.

13) My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams (audiobook): Whoa. This memoir of a woman who got conned by a fake socialite is wild, although DeLoache’s unwillingness or inability to assert herself or ask for help as Anna upends her life made me extremely uncomfortable. Anna is a sociopath and DeLoache is undoubtedly a victim, but not a very sympathetic one.

14) Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe: Wow. This was fascinating and completely disturbing. I highly recommend for anyone interested in Northern Ireland’s history.  

15) Do You Mind if I Cancel?: (Things That Still Annoy Me) by Gary Janetti (audiobook): This book made me laugh out loud in several instances, but Janetti’s snark eventually wore on me and his essays grew tiresome.

16) Little House in the Big Woods: I had grand visions of reading the entire Little House series with Elisabeth as my dad did with me, but regrettably I think we began when she was a little too old for this to really hold her interest. I wasn’t sure how she would relate to the toil and drudgery of 19th century homesteading, but she was surprisingly captivated by the process of making head cheese (ugh) and, of course, the panthers. However, upon beginning the second in the series, Farmer Boy, she decided to move on. Upon re-reading this for the first time since my childhood, I decided this book is must have subconsciously created my extreme aversion to camping.

17) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The characters in this frustrated me. I couldn’t quite enjoy this.

18) Whisper Network: I think this was a buzzed-about book, but I forgot about it as soon as I finished it.

19) Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur: Wowza. If you want a tale of dysfunction to make your own family feel normal, read this. Brodeur’s memoir is an extremely readable but twisted tale of her mother’s decade-long affair, and how her mother enlisted her – a young teen at the beginning of the affair – as her confidante and accomplice. As a mom, Broduer’s mother’s actions are unfathomable and shocking, and it’s awful how profoundly they impacted Brodeur herself.

20) The Twits by Roald Dahl: Not remotely close to one of Dahl’s best, but nonetheless a quick, wacky, fun read for kids.

21) Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: Interesting and surprising. This book stayed with me awhile.

22) The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda (audiobook): This was an exceedingly boring thriller. Don’t bother.

23) Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes: This book is what I imagine Hallmark movies to be.

24) The Mother-in- Law by Sally Hepworth (audiobook): This is not the flashiest or most exciting of thrillers, but after a slow start I really enjoyed it.

25) Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: This was one of my favorites this year. Most of the characters are so cringey and many of the scenes are super awkward – but I think that’s because it’s probably one of the more honest portrayals of race and privilege I’ve read recently. And *SPOILER* – Can we talk about when the crazy mom obsessed with her cringey ex-boyfriend LEAVES HER BABY ALONE IN THE HOUSE FOR, LIKE, TWO HOURS WITHOUT REALIZING IT!? No. Nope. I was freaking out. And then the ending. Oof.

26) Witches by Roald Dahl: This book is still seriously creepy, even as an adult.

27) City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: This is glamorous and fun. I wouldn’t say it’s exceptional, but I enjoy Gilbert’s writing.  

28) The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liz Constantine (audiobook): This kept me on edge even once I had figured out what was going to happen. Gotta appreciate how over-the-top psycho some of these characters are. Keeps it interesting!  

29) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: I am going to diverge from popular opinion again, but I strongly disliked this. Maybe my least favorite read of the year. I just dreaded reading it, but I felt compelled to finish. I will grant that mid-pandemic I might not have been in the right headspace to tackle this – I just found it too depressing – so don’t write it off because of me.

30) The Wife by Alafair Burke (audiobook): A compelling, twisted thriller. The ending shocked and disturbed me, but I that’s what I want in a thriller!

31) In Five Years (audiobook): I picked this somewhat randomly from my audiobook subscription, and it was a good escape listen, but not nearly as light-hearted and fun as I expected. This one is sad, folks!

32) Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: Intense and suspenseful. Really, really good – one of the best of the year – but also tragic and tough to read (*SPOILER* this book involves dead children.)

33) The Hate U Give (audiobook) by Angie Thomas: I tend to avoid YA lit, but after all the attention this received, I thought I would try it, and I’m glad I did. It’s a powerful story.

34) Oona Out of Order (audiobook) by Margarita Montimore: I adored this. One of my favorites this year. Oona jumps to a different year of her life the first of every year, never knowing what year she’ll land in. I loved discovering her life with her; I didn’t want it to end.

35) This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel: A thoughtful and nuanced story dealing with a controversial subject. I appreciate that the author asks a lot of important questions but allows the reader to examine them themself. I also appreciate how this book highlights the love and joy of a big family – I haven’t seen that much in contemporary literature. My only qualm is that there is an abrupt shift in setting and tone about 2/3 of the way through – the end felt like it could’ve been another book!

36) The Unhoneymooners (audiobook) by Christina Lauren: Ugh. Trite, cliched, predictable.

37) The Jetsetters (audiobook) by Amanda Eyre Ward: Another disappointment. Just, dull. Not nearly as deep or revelatory as it’s intended to be.

38) All the Missing Girls (audiobook) by Megan Miranda: This title is misleading. There were two, maybe three missing girls. That is hardly as exciting as ALL the missing girls! This was not quite as much as a dud as The Last House Guest, but it wasn’t great, either.

39) Take Me Apart (audiobook) by Sara Sligar: An unmemorable, uninteresting “thriller.”

40) The Kiss Quotient (audiobook) by Helen Hoang: This is basically an R-rated The Rosie Project with the genders reversed. And without the charm. Also – I need to mention how ridiculous the male protagonist is. He’s a gorgeous escort/master tailor/expert swordfighter?! I’m sorry, it’s too much.

41) Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: This was our book club selection right before book clubs were indefinitely cancelled. Once I realized this was a sequel of sorts to My Name is Lucy Barton, I put this aside and read that first. I liked this slightly better than Lucy Barton, but not by much. Again – this might be a pandemic mindset thing. Melancholy, sad stories just didn’t do it for me.  

42) The Hunting Party (audiobook) by Lucy Foley: Tense and gripping. Bonus points for taking place in Scotland. One of the better thrillers I read this year.

43) A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett: A classic, of course. I bribed Elisabeth to read this with me with the promise we’d read the next Harry Potter next. She resisted liking this book, but ultimately she was as captivated and charmed by this story as I. BUT. I remembered the movie, not the book, and was shocked – shocked! – at how different they are. Like, oh, HER DAD IS REALLY DEAD IN THE BOOK. The whole time I was reading expecting a heartfelt reunion and, nope. He’s dead. I was not emotionally prepared for that.

44) Red, White & Royal Blue (audiobook) by Casey McQuison: This was a good pandemic read. The love story between the President’s son and one of the Queen’s grandsons was too saccharine for me, but in general the book was a fun diversion.

45) The Wife Between Us (audiobook) by Greer Hendricks: Meh. Fine to listen to while doing chores, but not much more than that.

46) My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: Oh boy. This was complex, disturbing, sad. Left me feeling kind of hopeless.

47) The Secret History (audiobook) by Donna Tartt: A rare instance where I hated the narration (Tartt narrates it herself) but loved the book. I wish I had read it, not listened.

48) The Boys’ Club (audiobook) by Erica Katz: A kind of shallow woman-in-a-man’s-world book. A perfectly decent audiobook to pass time.

49) The Cactus (audiobook) by Sarah Haywood: A sweet, charming story.

50) Writers and Lovers (audiobook) by Lily King: “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” That is how I felt about this book. Whelmed. (This might’ve been a case where I would’ve appreciated the writing more had I read not listened to the book.)

51) The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: Lerner is obviously a talented, skillful writer. I just didn’t enjoy this story, despite the great writing.

52) The Wife Stalker (audiobook) by Liz Constantine: Not as scandalous as The Last Mrs. Parrish, but the twist ending surprised me – although it shouldn’t have; the signs were all there.

53) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling: I confess that one night after Elisabeth went to bed, I read ahead without her. I couldn’t remember the ending and I just had to find out what happened! Let’s be straight – Rowling isn’t a fantastic writer, but she’s a masterful storyteller.

54) The Lying Game (audiobook) by Ruth Ware: Disappointing. This dragged.

55) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson: Phenomenal. This book just devastated me. It’s heartbreaking but I’d recommend everyone read it.

56) The Family Upstairs (audiobook) by Lisa Jewell: Okay. Mildly suspenseful.

57) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: I read this as a child and wanted to reread it with Elisabeth. I generally don’t enjoy science fiction/fantasy, but this is an undeniably great book for kids – lovely writing, inspirational characters, and important themes that L’Engle makes accessible for younger readers.

58) The Last Story of Mina Lee (audiobook) by Nancy Jooyoun Kim: This was just awful. The mystery lacked suspense or urgency, the writing lacked intelligence or creativity. Hated it.

59) Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker: This is an extraordinary story of a family one family with 12 children, six of whom suffered from schizophrenia, and the scientific and medical community’s quest to understand and treat the disease. This book is filled with grief and suffering, but also, hope. Highly recommend.

60) The Nanny (audiobook) by Gilly Macmillan: English nobility with a possibly psychotic nanny? Sign me up! Not the best thriller of the year, but certainly not the worst.

61) A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: A tragic story that felt especially poignant after reading Just Mercy.

62) One Day in December by Josie Silver: This was a bit predictable, and the ending was SO cheesy, but the book actually had a lot more emotion than I anticipated. Not bad, for a romance.

63) Cobble Hill (audiobook) by Cecily von Ziegesar: This had a very Emma Straub vibe. Not a lot of plot or action, just a host of characters who are supposed to be quirky (but are actually rather pathetic) and their interaction with one another. It’s fine.

64) The Phantom Tollbooth: Another book I know I read as a child but couldn’t remember. Elisabeth loved this. As an adult I found it a bit tedious, but it’s clever and fun for a kid. And the ending is really lovely.

65) Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam: Phenomenal. Alam never reveals what catastrophic event has happened that forces two families – strangers – together in a vacation home cut off from the world, but he masterfully turns tension into quiet terror. This was gripping and chilling – I was so absorbed in the audiobook I had no idea it was nearing the end and was stunned when it concluded. I need to know more!

66) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: It’s quite jarring to read great literature after you’ve been reading mostly contemporary crap. Beautifully written, wry, humorous, sentimental, a bit surprising – a wonderful book to end the year.

Books I didn’t finish:

Dopesick by Beth Macy: This is an informative and important book about the opioid epidemic. I hope to finish it another time, but I had to shelve it this year. There was already enough despair in the world to delve into this.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about any of these – and of course, your recommendations! What were your favorites this year?

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It’s Okay to Ask for Help

Posted on May 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

Every military spouse will tell you that something goes wrong when their spouse deploys. It’s an inevitability. It could be a major appliance breaking – say, an air conditioning unit during a heat wave in your third trimester of pregnancy. It could be a natural disaster – hello, hurricane season! You could have a baby while your husband is on the other side of the world (not a problem, exactly, but not ideal.) Or maybe a snake will take up residence in your living room. Who knows? The fact is we military spouses anticipate these kinds of issues so when they happen, we are somewhat prepared to handle them. Why yes, yes I do. I’m pretty confident that no military spouse anticipated a global pandemic. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I most definitely was not prepared for this. Let me back up. Nine months ago, I had my third baby, Kate. My husband, a Naval aviator, was at sea. He was able to return home the day before the birth and stay for a few days before returning to his squadron. My mom stayed a couple of weeks before returning to her home. And then I found myself alone with three kids – a 7-year-old, 5-year-old, and a newborn. I knew it was temporary – my husband would be returning in several weeks – but still, I cried the day my mom left. I wasn’t overwhelmed yet, but I knew I would be. My first outing alone with all three was a weekend swim meet. It was a lovely Virginia summer day – about 95 degrees with 100% humidity. I schlepped a swim bag, diaper bag, cooler, stroller + car seat, beach chairs, and a TENT into the pool to set up camp for the morning. I gracelessly popped open the tent, placed the sleeping baby inside, and applied sunscreen to the older kids. I was trying to shove breakfast down their throats while figuring out their events when a woman I had never met, Monica, offered to help. This woman, this saint, happened to be a...

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2019 Year in Books

Posted on Jan 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

2019 Year in Books 0

I read 52 books this year, including the chapter books I read with my daughter. Not too shabby for having an infant, if I do say so myself. Loved them or hated them, they’re all here. As with last year, these are (generally) very brief, incomplete thoughts. But if you need some recommendations for good reads in 2020 (or want to avoid some bad ones), I hope this list will help. I’m always up for discussing books, so please let me know your thoughts! 1-7) The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis I read this series with my daughter throughout the year. Here’s how I rank them: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Easily my favorite. It was wonderful re-reading and discovering the magic of this story with my daughter. I read this when I was five or six (Elisabeth was seven when we read this) and I still remember hoping that if I found the right wardrobe, perhaps a hidden door somewhere, I would discover my own Narnia. Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe Magician’s NephewThe Silver Chair: I might have ranked this lower but for Puddleglum, my favorite character in the entire series. He is delightful. Prince CaspianThe Last BattleThe Horse and His Boy: Hated this. I thought the dialogue was far too complex for a child; I had to constantly stop and explain the plot to my daughter. I know many people will disagree with me, but I would have been completely fine had this not been included in the series. 8) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier This was a re-read for me, but I had forgotten pretty much everything about this book, including that the opening line is one of the most famous in literature. Whoops! I also forgot how much crazy is in this book. I mean, whoa there’s a lot of crazy. But there’s a reason this book has never gone out of print –it’s a dark, tense psychological thriller that kept me engrossed, even though nearly every character is just awful (because they’re all psycho). 9) Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies...

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Baby Kate

Posted on Aug 11, 2019 in It's the Navy Life, My Kid Stole My Cool, Pregnancy Stole My Cool, The Kids Are Actually Cute

Baby Kate 0

Hello, Friends! So, I had another kid. I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted here so if you’ve lost track, that’s number three. Baby Kate made her appearance earlier this month, and I figured I better pop in and document her birth story. After all, I did with my first two and I don’t want her to be that third kid who always complains that her parents don’t love her as much or whatever. (I’m an oldest child – can you tell?)  In case she ever does feel that way, I’d like to state for the record that I’ve already forgotten most details of both Elisabeth and James’ births, as well as their major milestones; I’m equally neglectful toward all my children.* Anyway! After an interminable pregnancy that felt SO MUCH HARDER than the first two on account of I’m old now, I was induced at 39 weeks + 1 day to put me out of my misery. I kid, I kid. Here’s the backstory: Damon is currently in the middle of work-ups. Basically that means that he’s not deployed, but he’s gone all the time training for deployment. If you were a reader five years ago, you may remember that Damon missed James’ birth by a couple of days due to deployment. I was very against a non-medical induction at the time, and so Damon Skyped into the delivery room from Japan. Not ideal, but this is how it goes in the Navy sometimes. This time we knew Damon would be gone on my due date again, and after talking to my OB we planned on a scheduled induction so he could arrange to be home for the birth. The practice was very understanding and accommodating – serving a military community, they deal with these situations all the time. I’ll be honest – this was a stressful process. I won’t go into all the boring details but trying to plan Damon getting off the aircraft carrier and then across the country to perfectly time with my induction was a challenge. Not a good challenge. Several factors outside...

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2018 Book Reviews

Posted on Jan 16, 2019 in Adulthood Stole My Cool

I always love seeing everyone’s recommended reading lists at beginning of the new year, so in 2018 I decided to keep a log of all my books with brief reviews. I meant to publish this at the beginning of Jan, but alas, I’m pregnant and have been sick and solo parenting for much of the month… so here we are on Jan 16th. Better late than never? I use the term “review” lightly, as these are mostly quickly jotted down impressions – hardly fully formed thoughts on each book. But maybe you’ll find something that piques your interest! And even better, if you have any thoughts you’d like to share on any of these books, I’d love to hear them! Lastly – please share your own favorite reads of last year. I’m always looking for new books.   (1) Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, The Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned by Alvin Townley This was a book club selection. If you think this is an odd choice for a book club comprised of many naval aviator spouses – you’d be right! This was a powerful, emotional book that had me sobbing, but I’m so glad I read it. The POWs’ courage, leadership, and resilience are inspiring, but I also loved how Townley focuses on their remarkable, er, defiant wives. Highly recommend. (2) 1984 by George Orwell I read this because I felt like it was one of those books I should have read by now. And now I have. (3) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Nearly everyone in my book club hated this – but I say give it a chance! Admittedly, I struggled in the beginning. It’s a very unconventional narrative and it took me a little while to figure out what was going on. But once I did, I really enjoyed it. It’s imaginative, humorous, and very sweet and tender in some parts. I particularly liked the ending – If you’re up for a challenge, give this a try. (4) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without...

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New Year, New You… Not Happening

Posted on Jan 6, 2018 in Adulthood Stole My Cool, It's the Navy Life, My Kid Stole My Cool, The Kids Are Actually Cute, Travel Traumas

New Year, New You… Not Happening 1

Happy New Year, Friends! How is 2018 going for you so far? Getting fit? Eating healthy? Meditating daily? Good for you! I have spent the first days of 2018 stuffing my face with muffins and watching old episodes of Downton Abbey. Meanwhile there is a massive pile of boxes sitting in my family room, a not-so-subtle reminder that I still have to put away all the Christmas decorations. While most people seem to relish the New Year as an opportunity to reset and strive to be a better version of themselves, I just want it to be March already. You know, when nobody cares about that stuff anymore. I rang in the New Year with my parents and a bottle of Nyquil. (I was in California for a quick trip with the kids while Damon stayed back East.) On New Year’s Day, instead of kickstarting a healthy diet, I munched on day-old donuts and In-N-Out. (So good, by the way.) On the second day of the New Year, I endured a 15-hour travel day with my darling children. After a several hour delay in Dallas, including deplaning our first aircraft due to a mechanical problem, we landed home at 2:00am and waited an hour for luggage that – oops! – never actually made it on the plane. We got home at 3:30AM. Elisabeth talked at me for about 14.5 out of those 15 hours. On the third day of the New Year I went to Trader Joe’s with the rest of Hampton Roads in preparation of BOMB CYCLONE 2018. Then I slept because, again, I traveled 15 hours the day before with both my kids. Oh, and I probably have an upper respiratory virus. Whatever. On the fourth day of the New Year it SNOWED. Gosh, I love being a Virginia resident when it snows. People lose their damn minds. Every. Freaking. Year. For all you folks making vegetable soups from scratch and working out in your home gyms – New Year! New You! – you won’t shame me into being healthy! If I’m stuck in my house with...

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