Stars of Fortune by Nora Roberts (2015)

This novel is the first book in the new Guardians trilogy and is the most recent book released by Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 books during her career. As a fan of her work, I have read almost all of her books and I can honestly say I enjoy all of them. While I find I love the majority of her work, some of her books just fall a bit flat for me. Stars of Fortune  — while enjoyable to read — is not destined to become a favorite of mine. That is not to say you should skip this book or that I do not recommend it for a quick, light read. Only that I feel this author offers readers other books that better allow her storytelling to shine.

Officially classified as a romance, the book actually belongs in the sub-genre of supernatural romance, of which Roberts has written more than a few novels. The story of Stars of Fortune follows six gifted young people — Bran, Sasha, Riley, Sawyer, Doyle, and Annika — who come together on the Greek island Corfu under mysterious circumstances. Three of the characters are more “traditionally” gifted: Riley is a bright archaeologist, both Sawyer and Doyle are weapons-wielding adventurers. The other three are supernaturally gifted; Sasha is a seer, Bran a wizard, and Annika a traveler from another world (although the details of Annika’s life are not laid out until the end of the book).

These six people are brought together by the Fates to search for three priceless jewels, the Stars of Fortune, that have been hidden on earth by three goddesses from a distant world. They must learn to live, search, and fight as a team in the hopes of finding the jewels and of defeating the evil sorceress who is searching for them herself. This overarching story line is told from the points of view of Sasha and Bran, between whom a romance develops, forming a second story within a story. Readers are left with the impression that Sawyer and Annika then Doyle and Riley will find love together in the subsequent books.

Although this book’s premise is slightly silly — distant planets, hidden parallel worlds, supernatural beings — Roberts book is populated with likable characters and her signature romantic story-arc is, as always, nice to read. It might be the simple fact that she has written similar stories before that make Stars of Fortune seem less than her best.

Among the similar books that Roberts has written, there are several I would recommend in place of Stars of Fortune. If you are in search of supernatural romance, try Three Sisters Island trilogy which follows three witches who must use their powers to stop an dark, menacing presence haunting their beloved island. If you like the idea of a story about six people fated to fight evil together, a better read is the Signs of Seven trilogy which finds the a group of six living and working together to defeat ghost that infects the residents of their town every summer.  If you prefer a picks that are traditional romances rather than supernatural stories, try The Reef (a stand alone novel) and The Chesapeake Bay Saga (four books).

Find a list of all her series, including the ones I mentioned, here http://noraroberts.com/trilogies-and-series/

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Winter Street (2014) and Winter Stroll (2015) by Elin Hilderbrand

If you would prefer to skip the mall this Black Friday, consider curling up with a Christmas-themed family drama instead. I would recommend the two novels that make up author Elin Hilderbrand’s Christmas series. Winter Street and Winter Stroll follow the many members of the Quinn family of Nantucket as they celebrate Christmas 2013, and then Christmas 2014 in the sequel, while handling a series of familial triumphs and tragedies.

In Winter Street, we meet Kelley Quinn, the patriarch of the family and owner of a Nantucket bed and breakfast The Winter Street Inn and the many members of his family, including his first and second wives, his four children, his children-in-law, and grandchildren. The Quinns are typical in their modern-day dysfunction: adult children still living at home, tension between the first and second wives, heartbreak and divorce wounding some of the family members. Despite these obstacles, we find them attempting to celebrate Christmas with as much good cheer as they can muster. The story introduces a series of surprising events which threaten to unravel the holiday celebrations and create unwelcome tension between the family members. Hilderbrand is an author who excels at telling stories that are both realistic and compelling, and this book is no exception. She brings to this short novel a depiction of the feelings that holidays invoke in many of us, namely the strong desire to come together and share memories and traditions even if we must set aside disappointment and sadness to do so. She wonderfully captures the family’s refusal to cast the holiday cheer aside completely. Instead, the Quinns find ways to adjust expectations and celebrate in both traditional and nontraditional ways. The family comes together to sing carols, drink (a lot) of cocktails, exchange gifts by the fire, and — most importantly — determinedly celebrate what they do have to be thankful for.

Winter Stroll picks up exactly one year after Winter Street ended. In this novel we find that some of the burgeoning relationships started last year between the characters have flourished, while others have faltered. Despite a year of setbacks for the family, the Quinn clan has gathered once again to celebrate the holidays at the Winter Street Inn. Everyone is determined that family celebrations, even if they are not as jolly as they could be, are essential for the mental well-being of all. They gather on Nantucket for the festivities and the crises this season has in store.

Although they touch on serious topics, these two tales are ultimately uplifting Christmas stories, touching in their humanity and welcome in their realism. They are not populated with angels or miracles or even a theme of “forgiveness of all those who have sinned against us.” Instead, we meet and come to know a family that is attempting to come together in the spirit of the season with as much optimism as they can manage. They are celebrating the true spirit of the holiday by giving their family members love, support, and acceptance — despite their flaws and misdeeds — and by having hope that the new year will bring happiness and peace.

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Our family’s Black Friday tradition: putting up our Christmas Tree.

Thankfulness

During this season of gratitude and reflection, I have been reading a lot from various writers in magazines, newspapers, blogs about the things they are most thankful for. These various stories have been heart-warming, tear-jerking, and humorous. In honor of Thanksgiving day, I thought I would try my hand at writing my own reflections. What follows are my thoughts on the many gifts — both large and small — that I am grateful to have been given in my life.

I am thankful for the start of the holiday season, my favorite time of year. All year I look forward to celebrating with feasts, decorations, lights, parties, and special outings with my family. I love roasting turkeys, decorating our Christmas tree, singing carols, and wrapping presents. I am thankful for all the families who send us beautiful Christmas cards, who invite us to holiday parties, who join us for sledding in the park.

I am thankful for the cooler weather, which brings my family together more, curled up under blankets reading books, watching holiday movies (or more often football) together, enjoying the tree lit up at night, or perhaps watching “Charlie Brown Christmas.” I am thankful my kids are still young enough to enjoy Charlie Brown!

I am thankful for our small, snug little house, which keeps the four most important people in my life safe and warm, day after day. I am thankful for our soft beds, our shelves full of books, souvenirs and picture albums. I am thankful for a kitchen filled with delicious healthy foods, where we share meals together every morning and night.

I am thankful for the town in which we live, with its great public schools and its beautiful nature preserve where we go almost everyday. I am thankful for our local library where my family has checked out thousands of books and attended hundreds of programs over the years. I am thankful to live close to some of my family. I am also thankful for our community swimming pool where we spend our summers, the the Six Flags amusement park where we go often to ride coasters and water slides.

I am thankful for my parents, who live nearby so that we see them often. I am thankful for their continued good health, their constant willingness to babysit, and their generosity towards my children, my husband and me. This year I am especially thankful for their Christmas gift to us all, a week-long stay at Universal Studios Orlando (Harry Potter World, here we come!)

I am thankful for my mother-in-law, who is always accommodating and naturally easy to please, who is happy in every circumstance. She travels hundreds of miles every fall to visit with us and to give my husband and me a priceless holiday gift, time off from the kids to take a small vacation for just the two of us.

I am thankful for my extended family of my siblings, their spouses, and my nieces and nephews. While we may be far flung and only see each other occasionally, I am thankful that our time together is not filled with drama (or not much) but with good humor and laughter and board games.

I am thankful for my three beautiful sons, for their strong, healthy bodies that help them hike, bike, run, climb trees, play sports, and swim all summer long. I am thankful for their smart minds, their love of school, their curiosity about the world around them. I am especially thankful that they share my love of reading and books; I get a thrill finding them all tucked in on the couch, each reading his own book. I am thankful that they are filled with joy during the holiday season, thrilled to take part in ice-skating parties, putting up Christmas lights, picking out gifts for their brothers to open on Christmas morning, and all of our other holiday traditions. I am thankful to hear their shouts as they join my husband in cheering on their favorite football team (Go Tigers and Ravens!) and their laughter while re-watching Home Alone for the 1000th time.

I am thankful for my wonderful, loving husband who has been the very best partner for the past 15 years of marriage. I am thankful to be able share the joy of raising our children together and our pride in the family we have become. I am thankful for his patience, his calm nature, his kindness, his sense of humor, his willingness to let me sleep in (and even wear earplugs during sleepovers). I am thankful for how hard he works at two jobs to provide a life of comfort and security for our family and so that I may stay home with our children while they are young. I am thankful for our shared love of books, of long runs, of delicious meals, and of early bedtimes! I am thankful that he shares my love of the holiday season, and that we get equal joy out of all our holiday traditions. Selfishly, I am also grateful that is he a wonderful gift-giver, who makes sure that I have wonderful, unique gifts to open on Christmas morning, which makes me feel like a kid when I go to sleep on Christmas Eve.

I am thankful for the friends in my life, who share books, parenting advice, and laughter. The women who provide me with company and conversation at play dates and soccer games, and who share the hilarity and stress of raising kids. I am thankful for my book clubs for sharing my love of reading and for my workout partners who never fail to call me to meet them for Pilates or a run. I am also thankful for my friends who live far away, many who I have not seen in years, but who still take the time to email, text, and chat with me so we do not lose touch.

I am thankful for my own health, for a strong body that runs and hikes many miles each year, that keeps up with three active kids, that allows me to lift weights, do yoga, and lets me sleep deeply every night. I am thankful that I was able to give birth easily to three healthy babies, then was able to nurse them all. (Let me add here, that I am thankful for the amazing midwives who assisted me through those births, and my husband who never left my side.) I am thankful that I have the stamina, energy and optimism to live the life I want for myself.

I am thankful for these things, and so much more.

Happy Thanksgiving 2015

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (2015)

From the very first chapters of this book my heart was racing. The story takes off at a breakneck pace and never once slows down. In the novel, we meet the members of the Carroll family who have spent the last twenty-four years coping with — or more often, not coping with — the disappearance of their daughter and sister, Julia, from a college bar in 1991.

It is clear from the book’s opening pages that readers will not be spared the raw, gritty pain the remaining members of the Carroll family feel as the try to construct as normal a life as possible while not knowing what became of Julia. Slaughter character’s all have an underlying harshness, a remnant of their years of grief and the havoc it wreaked in their lives. While never quite unlikable, they do have an edge that makes them a bit uncomfortable delve into. In the end, however, we want to see what lies beneath their armor and we want to hear the stories they have to tell us.

The book includes intermittent chapters are narrated by the family’s father, Sam Carroll, where he directly addresses his missing daughter. He speaks to Julia, recounting for her what has happened to the family in her absence. He narrates that days, months, and then years that stretched out after her disappearance. He tells of their sorrow and of the subsequent neglect of one another left them all alone. He also tells Julia that he never ceased searching for or investigating her disappearance, reviewing the clues he has gathered in the intervening decades.

The heart of the story, however, focuses on the two sisters left in the family, Lydia and Claire. Estranged for more than two decades, the sisters come together after the shocking death of Claire’s beloved husband, Paul. Almost by accident, Claire learns that her husband has kept many, many secrets from her. Secrets she could never have imagined him to have, as they are so at odds with what she the man she knew to be her husband. Working alone at first, Claire unravels one thread and then another until her entire 20-year marriage begins to come apart at the seams. Desperate for answers, she turns to her sister Lydia for help solving a series of terrifying mysteries that she has unearthed since Paul’s sudden death. The secrets that Paul has kept from Claire grow darker and more horrific with each passing revelation and the sisters become terrified looking for answers might mean that their lives are in danger.

This terrifying, gripping tale is told in a wild, fast-paced chapters. The author never lets us rest, just as we begin to digest one bombshell, another is revealed, on and on until we cannot begin to imagine what is real or who the sister’s can trust. With only one another to rely on, they must work to make sense of what has happened and try to prevent any more people from being hurt, all the while working through their own damaged relationship and their still raw grief over Julia’s disappearance. The story was so scary, so unbelievably dark and horrendous I could hardly catch my breath, but nothing would stop me from reading one chapter after the next until well into the middle of the night. It left me absolutely breathless!

The story of a wife who discovers her husband’s dark secrets upon his death has been told before. Three titles that I have read in the past year come to mind here: You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Liar by Nora Roberts, and the short story “A Good Marriage” by Stephen King most recently published in Full Dark, No Stars. The fact that this story is based on a troupe that does not make Slaughter’s tale any less engaging or fresh. It seems that the story is compelling each time it is told because it taps into a deep-rooted fear we hold. It is a terrifying for us to imagine finding out that a person we loved and trusted without question — our partner or child or parent — was really someone we knew nothing about at all. We are all compelled to ask ourselves what we would do if we found out that a stranger has shared our bed for twenty years? Worse yet, what if that stranger is revealed to be monster?

NOTE: This book contains many descriptions of sexual violence, some against young girls. Do not read this book if you are sensitive to those topics.

After You by Jojo Moyes (2015)

SPOILER ALERT: This post may contain a few spoilers about the Jojo Moyes bestseller, Me Before You, because it would be quite hard to write about the sequel After You without talking about about its prequel.

This past Saturday I spent a lovely afternoon curled up with the new Jojo Moyes book, After You. It was a delightful read, if a bit of a tearjerker, completely worth staying up late that night to finish. This book is the sequel to her previous novel, Me Before You (2012) which was also a heartbreaking sob-fest. While this book does stand alone if you were interested in reading it without completing the first novel, the two really are a set and I strongly recommend that you read them in order.

At the opening of After You we find Louisa Clark eighteen months after the heartbreaking loss of her beloved boyfriend Will. After traveling the world for a bit, Louisa has moved to London and is living a meager existence in a dingy flat, working a dead-end job at an airport bar, drinking her nights away. She is at a complete loss for how to put her life back together. Distanced from her family and Will’s, she has cut herself off from life and is making no effort to move forward. Soon a series of shocks and surprises mean the Louisa can no longer hide behind the veil of her grief. She is forced to take control of her life, even if it means that she makes a bad choices and mistakes along the way.

Told in first person by Louisa, the story almost feels like Louisa’s diary as it catalogs the ups and downs of her life as she tries to get a handle on her grief and depression. What emerges is an honest portrayal of how one woman deals with “one step forward two steps back” aspect of loss. Readers get a front row seat to Louisa’s struggles, her confusion and constant insecurity about whether she doing anything right. More importantly, we get to see Louisa’s small triumphs as she slowly moves out from under her sadness. And it in these moments, when Louisa’s life starts to look upward, that the novel really outshines it’s predecessor. In the first book, Louisa has such a hard time of things and suffers so much — humiliation, mental distress, familial stress and (of course) guilt and grief — how wonderful to finally see Louisa vindicated! She is starting to have good things come her way and is so deserving of them.

The book is lovely and very touching. Although the subject matter is dark, there are many moments of levity and laughter as well. In its lighter moments, Louisa’s story faintly echoes Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary since readers get to witness not just the darker moments of her journey but also get to laugh at her crappy boss, her bad fashion choices, and her rag-tag group of friends and loved ones.

I love all of Jojo Moyes books. Even when the topics she writes about are serious, her books still manage to be touching, as well as fresh, quirky and fun. While there are definitely tears to be shed while reading any of her work, Moyes always leaves us with a hopeful ending. Her characters may not have found love and happiness at the end of every book, but it seems likely they will find both soon. (Among my favorites of hers are: One Plus One, Ship of Brides, and The Girl You Left Behind.)

Spark by John Ratey M.D. & Eric Hagerman (2008)

I exercise every day and I often tell people that I do it not just because it helps keep me in physical shape but because it is also a form of therapy and stress reduction. It keeps me calm, helps me focus on the tasks that follow, and it gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. After all, a day in which the only task I had time to complete was my workout still feels like a success. It can be hugely motivating to know that making time for exercise in my day is a way to tend to my mental , as well as my physical, health.  So, when I heard Dr. Ratey’s book mentioned on Fresh Air, I knew I had to pick us a copy to learn more about the science of exercise.

Dr. Ratey writes a well-argued and thoroughly documented book on the critical role that exercise plays in our emotional well-being and brain health. In his opening paragraph, he makes his main argument for the book, “We all know that exercise makes us feel good but most of us have no idea why. The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain. Building muscles and conditioning the body are side effects.”  The remaining chapters outline, at length, the many ways that being active and fit dramatically improves your emotional health. Exercise fuels brain growth especially in areas of the brain “shrunk” by stress and depression. Regular workouts, Ratey argues, make your brain healthier, allowing you to learn more, retain more, achieve more, become more emotionally stable, better able to manage your mental state, and primes the brain to better handle challenges.

In particular, I was fascinated by his arguments that exercise can help us expel energy and stress so that afterwards we can keep calm and make better, less frantic, decisions. Going for a morning run can clear the cobwebs and make getting down to the tasks at hand easier when we get home. I found it fascinating that Ratey recommends this approach even for people with ADHD and similar mental conditions, their need for speed and frantic multitasking can be calmed by giving their body and mind a vigorous workout.

The book is very technical and case-study heavy, at times it is hard to extract the little gems of information the author presents, but a close reading reveals many interesting tips. Here are some to the things I found fascinating:

  • Inactivity is “shriveling our brains” as it contributes to emotional distress, chronic stress, physical discomfort and illness.
  • The more complex the motor movements involved in the exercise, the greater benefits to your brain. Rather than biking everyday, we should also incorporate workouts that are dynamic and change constantly such as tennis and basketball, whitewater kayaking, hiking, or gymnastics.
  • Just after exercise sessions the brain fully oxygenated and is operating at peak function. At these moments we are “primed” for maximum learning and handling challenges. He suggests scheduling presentations or creative work for the hours right after a hard workout.
  • Exercise trains your brain to be better to able cope with stress. Exercise “loosens the hold stress has over your physical and emotional states.” Chronic stress may begin as an emotional state but eventually those negative emotions lead to physical distress and may prevent the brain from creating new memories and limit learning.
  • Exercise should be a first line of defense for mental disorders, anxiety or panic attacks, and depression. It is also critical for physical conditions known to be stressful for patients (heart disease, autoimmune disease). It is doubly effective in these cases because it improves physical symptoms of disorder and reduces the mental stress the disease causes.
  • “Some exercise is good, more is better.” “Burn calories like your life depends on it.” Consistency and scheduling is key to using exercise as a mental health tool. (Ratey recommends completing exercise every day, ideally at the same time, for maximum benefit. But try to switch up what exercises fill that hour.) Socializing while exercise has even more mental health benefits.
  • The benefits of exercise for women’s health is very dramatic and critical at all stages; in managing PMS symptoms, in having healthy pregnancies, in reducing risk and severity of depression, better managing the changes of menopause, and it has protective benefits against dementia.

If you don’t have time to read the book, you can watch Dr. Ratey’s TED Talk (which is a condensed version of the research in his book) here http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Importance-of-Movement-John

Bubbles Unbound by Sarah Strohmeyer (2001)

Once a month, my local library branch hosts The Book Lover’s Club where readers and library-lovers like me can come and talk about all the of the wonderful books they have been reading. The format of the meeting is genius: everyone comes with a list of books they loved (or hated) in the past month, and we all take turns going over our list. No required reading to suffer through and everyone leaves with at least one suggested new book to try. In fact, it was this book club that finally sparked my idea to start this blog.

A few months ago I mentioned to the The Book Lover’s Club that I am a fan of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. Despite an early reluctance to read them (which I can only attribute to snobbery), I have fallen in love with the silly, perpetually-in-trouble heroine and her cohorts. In fact, every summer at the beach at least one Stephanie Plum paperback comes along with me for a re-read. A fellow Book-Lover, Plum-lover (and branch librarian) suggested that I try a series of books very similar called the Bubbles Yablonsky Series.

Before I get into details about Bubbles, I want to say a few words about popular fiction by women for women. For a long time I was in the closet with my friends, especially my fellow book-lovers, about my love for writers such as Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts. I felt that to admit that I love their books was somehow to diminish my love of other more thought-provoking books. However, I have come to realize that is a ridiculous way to feel. No one can only read one kind of literature, and no one should. We need breaks from heavy books — to laugh or get caught up in an unlikely romance — so that we can go back to the more serious works with a fresh mind and heart. I often find that I need time to absorb complicated books but I don’t want to stop reading, I simply want to change direction for a while. (This is also true of super-scary books. It might be that half-way through Pet Sematary, I need to read a Nora Roberts romance to build my nerve up to finish the former.) After all, no one expected TV viewers to only watch True Detective; we respect their mutual love of Modern Family. There is room for all kinds of books in a person’s life, without any shame.

I picked up the first book of the series, Bubbles Unbound, just this week and read it through and found it be a fun read, especially refreshing after I finished nine horror novels in October! The main character Bubbles is very similar to Stephanie Plum — living in a less than thriving town, pursuing a career where she is still learning the ropes, crazy family, lousy ex-husband — but Bubbles still brings something unique to the storyline (perhaps her uniform of push-up bras and stilettos? her teenage daughter? her intense desire to better her life?) that had me reading to the end. The author Strohmeyer manages to keep the story just different enough that we don’t feel that we are re-reading a story we have already heard from Evanovich. Readers race around Lehigh, PA while Bubbles tries to simultaneously style hair, raise her daughter, solve two murders, and land a reporting job. Will she solve whodunit and collect the documentation to publish an expose of the murderer?

The the light-hearted humor and fast pace meant that it was a quick read — perfect between weighty novels. I followed Unbound with the second book in the series, Bubbles in Trouble, and enjoyed it as well, keeping up as Bubbles goes undercover in an Amish community to find a killer.

Note: The books includes several “recipes” for skin and hair tonics. There authenticity seems dubious. Follow them at your own risk.