Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

I have to take back what I wrote a few weeks ago about not liking Young Adult fiction. This book was wonderful and I loved it; I have already put all of Rowell’s other books on hold at the library. This book was a wonderful blend of the best parts of YA — the whip smart nerdy-hip characters like those found in John Green books; the contemporary, zingy dialogue from shows like Gilmore Girls; added into the mix are the delightfully recognizable elements of fan worship for fantasy book series (oh so familiar to those of us who have devoted many years to Harry Potter.) Overall, a great canvas for a story about the challenges of navigating college.

In Fangirl, we follow identical twins Cath and Wren Avery from their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska to their (separate) dorm rooms as they start their first year of college at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. They are typical YA twins, dating all the way back to Sweet Valley Twins: Wren is popular, outgoing, well-liked while Cath is quiet, shy, and scared. Extroverted Wren is determined to distance herself from her youth and her sister in one fell swoop, diving heedlessly into college. Meanwhile, Cath is happy with who she already is and terrified of the strangeness and complexity of her new life. She continues to buries herself in her greatest passion: her devoted worship of the Simon Snow* fantasy books and her writing of Snow fanfiction for her online followers.

It is, therefore, easily predictable when Wren thrives at college while Cath shrinks. An introvert adrift in a world best suited for extroverts, far from the comfortingly small ponds of high school and home; Cath feels miserable and out of step. She skips parties, resists making friends, and struggles in silence as she tries to make this new life work. Her only lifelines are the Simon Snow books and her stories about them. The most difficult part for  Cath is that she must try to adapt to this scary, strange new life without her best friend and other half, her twin, to keep her steady.

Written with wonderful characters and peppered with easily relatable cultural references, the story is easy to love and hard to put down. It takes no time at all for readers to start rooting for Cath to excel in college and for us to fall just as in love with Simon Snow as Cath. Sweet, funny, and warm with just the right balance of drama and calm introspection, Fangirl is a total win-win. Read it!

*Although Simon Snow books were completely fictional when Fangirl came out, Rowell has brought the stories partially to life in her book Carry On (2015).



Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2016)

Charles Duhigg tackles the subject of productivity in his most recent non-fiction work, a follow up to The Power of Habit, but his focus is on a more holistic view of productivity that the traditional “business speak” use of the word. Rather than focusing his research on ways to do more in less time — the frantic, endlessly multi-tasking and constantly exhausted business model that was king in the 1980s and 90s — Duhigg is more interested in presenting readers with methods that allow them to create realistic priorities and make targeted choices about where to put their energies to get the best life outcomes.

As is my habit, I often present my reviews of non-fiction books by offering what I think are the writer’s best tips and observations. Some of the highlights of the book include:

  • People who feel that they have control over their choices — at school, at work, in their free time — tend to have better outcomes and show more commitment to their projects. In one example, Duhigg says that residents at nursing homes who felt they had no choice (in activities, meals, rules, etc) experienced a much more rapid physical decline than those in places where residents have more personal choices.
  • Highly successful and productive people tend to demonstrate a strong “internal locus of control,” meaning they “believe they can influence their destiny through the choices they make.” Specifically, these people accept responsibility (or blame) for the role they play in outcomes rather than blaming outside forces. They attribute good grades to hard work, not natural smarts or perhaps they recognize that high sales numbers come from dedicated work, not good fortune.
  • If you can link a hard task with a outcome you care about, the task feels easier. “Turn a chore into a meaningful decision — something you need to do rather than have to do — self-motivation will emerge.”
  • “Linking small tasks to larger aspirations” leads to better self motivation. (For example, keeping the lawn tidy all fall will make the house more likely to sell when it goes on the market in the spring.)
  • Workplace productivity seems to be intricately linked with “psychological safety.” Employees who are most engaged and productive feel they can express themselves without criticism; draw attention to flaws or dangers; promote their good work or that of others; and take risks or be vulnerable to propose ideas that may or may not work.
  • Highly productive people know to “pay attention to the right things” and do only the tasks (or follow the steps) that lead to their exact goals. Duhigg says, “it is easy to be distracted by the information that is the easiest to grasp,” even if it is irrelevant or misleading. Mainly, they are able to minimize distractions, especially those that are not important to a current project or event. For example, someone working on a sales pitch might set up blocks of time to work offline to stay on task and not get distracted by email or social media; or a nurse might take the time to give a physical examination to a patient before reviewing her vital signs so that she does not overly rely on abstract data.
  • People who are experienced at  “creating mental models,” in other words thinking up “complex internal stories about possible future events or project outcomes,” tend to pay more attention to subtle nuances and small details and therefore tend to be more successful.
  • Productive people “keep control over their attention.” Over-reliance on automated processes — cell phone alerts to check your calendar, FitBit nudges reminding you to move, FB prompting you to remember your mother’s birthday — can link up to dulled mental awareness and a loss attention to detail. We outsource so many things we used to remember, and as a result we are less mentally sharp; finding a balance between routinization and new experiences is best to create a space for new ideas.
  • Employers (or people) who have “a high need for closure” tend to inadvertently thwart innovation and creativity by focusing too much on closure — checking off the boxes, meeting the deadlines, following the rules — and not on best possible outcomes. Productivity is easier to achieve if deviation from the norm and risk-taking are allowed and even encouraged.
  • Having wildly aspirational and hard to obtain “stretch goals” can “force people to commit to ambitious, out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation of productivity…by disrupting complacency and promoting new ways of thinking.” For example, having obese patients commit to running a marathon in order to get fit and lose weight might work, as long as there was a clear framework of steps and guidelines for them to follow. (Key? Having the stretch by “audacious” but not “panic inducing.”) To be most successful, “stretch goals innovations happen when the goal is paired with a system for breaking them into concrete plans.”
  • Engaging in “probabilistic thinking” can lead to more agile planning and a more flexible view of the future. “The future is not one thing, it is a multitude of possibilities that contradict one another until one becomes true.” Therefore, “probabilistic thinking is the ability to hold multiple possible conflicting outcomes in mind when making decisions.” Thinking this way means taking into account more than just what we want to happen, but also what is likely to happen and which decisions can we influence along the way to get us closer to our goals.
  • “Successful people spend time seeking out information on failure; asking for criticism along with reviews, and going over what went wrong” so they can better make predictions about how to improve in future endeavors. “Making good choices relies on forecasting the future, accurate forecasting requires information on successes and disappointments.”
  • “Innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways…small disturbances to jolt us out of ruts.”

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (2014)

This is a short blog post about a short story, written by Gillian Flynn of the bestseller Gone Girl and dedicated to George R.R. Martin, for whom she said “asked her to write him a story.”

In this unsettling short story, we meet a young con-woman who is looking to move up in the world, to give up street begging and get into a more legitimate grift. Enter Susan Burke, a desperate young mother who believes her house is haunted and her stepson deeply, perhaps homicidally, affected by its evil. Sensing a large score, our narrator agrees to cleanse the house and stop the terrifying events that are traumatizing the family.

The story gives a nod — quite literally, as it was named on page nineteen — to the undeniably wonderful classic horror story The Haunting of Hill House  and which I reviewed on this blog in October 2015, find it here .








Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen (2016)


Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania

Miller’s Valley is a story that takes place in a small, rural, mountain town in Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, that is under intense pressure to allow federal agencies to pay them to move their homes and farms elsewhere so the valley can be flooded to create a reservoir. While the people of the town try their best to resist these relocation efforts, they are also facing enormous cultural shifts as the country enters the Vietnam War and social norms surrounding marriage, the roles of women, and the strength of the extended family loosen.

To the “government people” — “who used their job titles instead of proper names and who dealt out stacks of thick, embossed business cards” — Miller’s Valley was just “acres of old family farms and small ramshackle homes.” What the residents fighting the relocation wanted to tell them was that “they couldn’t just disappear our lives, put a smooth dark ceiling of water over everything as though we had never plowed, played, married, died, lived in Miller’s Valley.” “The government resettlement counselor’s job was to make it sound as if one place to live was a good as another,” any new town would be “just as good as this one, the one where you’d brought your babies home from the hospital… where your parents died and were buried.”

Our main character, Mimi Miller — of the namesake family of Miller’s Valley — begins the story as a young girl and narrates the changes affecting her family, town, and country. Through her, we see how young girls in the 1960’s feel the conflicting pulls of both stay in her small, rural town to support her family and its farm and the pull to put her mind to greater use in college and beyond. She is a young woman who is deeply in love with her beautiful home and its people, but also incredibly intelligent and yearning for more from her life than just babies and farm chores. It is in Mimi’s voice that we hear of the local boys off to War, of the small town farmers who struggle with becoming obsolete, of the government scientist’s who are lying to the residents about their land.

Mimi’s real story, however, is how she fits in with the other women in Miller’s Valley as they all face the start of the women’s movement. She tells us about her own journey and she tells us the stories of the local women — teen mothers, farm wives, nurses, “hard women, widows with kids living at home with their parents, forty-something never-marrieds who’ve given up, women who wanted better jobs but couldn’t get them because men wanted them too” — and through them paints a picture of the changes impacting women living through the 1960’s.

Even though this book is slow paced and even tempered, just like Miller’s Valley and its people, that does not in any way mean that is it not hugely impactful. Quindlen’s simple, powerful prose clearly conveying the sadness and frustration of people who are treated as unimportant and as if their lives are easily transmutable. They are repeated told: why fight the inevitable? After all who would want to live in a no-name, nothing-special town? What difference does it make to leave the homes your parents built, the cemeteries filled with your loved ones, the creeks and rivers of your childhood?

The Marriage Test: Our 40 Dates Before “I Do” by Jill Andres and Brook Silva-Braga (2016)

“What I hope for you both is that you feel fulfilled and respected and loved as parents and as spouses. That you can make mistakes and be angry and do stupid things and know that you are still loved, because that is not necessarily easy.” Brook’s parents when asked for marital advice.

The Marriage Test is a non-fiction book in which the two authors subject themselves to a year’s worth of tests which they hope will help them determine if they should marry one another. I first heard about this book while listening to a podcast I regularly follow (The Labor of Love), and I was intrigued by the way this couple approached preparing for marriage. Coincidentally, I saw them on the Today show just a few days later, and again intrigued, I put their book on hold.

I am very fortunate to be in a wonderful, loving marriage that marks its 15th year this summer, so I began the book not looking for pointers on marriage but rather to see if I could learn something from the authors’ journey towards marriage. Overwhelmingly, it was the differences between their story and the journey my husband and I have been on together that made the book so thought-provoking. Reading it, I learned a lot, but not about my marriage, I learned that what was an easy and instinctive choice for me — marrying my lovely husband — is a beleaguered and terrifying decision for others. This book represents one very unique way that two uncertain people worked toward marriage.

Before I go on, I must write a disclaimer: I liked this book but I did not love this book — not because it was poorly written or that I disagreed with what the authors had to say — but rather because my experience with my husband was both so dramatically different than that of Jill and Brook. We met in college when we were both twenty-one, we eloped at twenty-three, and we became parents — intentionally– at twenty-five. Despite the fact that we did not date long (we spent nearly a year and a half in a long-distance relationship before we married) or spend an overly long time trying to decide if we should marry, we have thrived, and I attribute that to the fact that we both were committed to honesty and maturity at the onset of our relationship. From our first date, we chose to be open, respectful, kind, and honest — without exceptions, even when it was harsh — and the result is a close partnership that has given us both fifteen solid years of love, companionship, and happiness…not to mention the lovely pleasure of raising three wonderful children together.

I digress: what I mean to say is that I cannot help but read this book — as good and helpful as it may be — with a critical eye.

Before getting engaged, the authors Jill and Brook canvas friends, family, and even therapists about some of the most challenging experiences married couples face and then set about to re-create them to give themselves a preview of how they will handle crises. The live on a restricted budget, babysit an infant for a weekend, go to therapy, work on the way they fight, spend time with their in-laws, and so on. Inventive? Yes, it is. But it is also something more. It somehow also takes the decision of whether to marry — one of the most profoundly emotional a person will ever make — and makes it transactional, which is to say not emotional but cold and businesslike, looking to convert feelings into something more like data.

The “testing” of their relationship seems less about strengthening their relationship before marriage than it does about trying to find a guarantee they are making the perfect choice. But that is an impossible task! Marriage is called a “leap of faith” precisely because those who choose to take part understand that they are placing their love in someone else’s hands and asking them to please take care of it well. Perhaps it is a mark of the millennial generation — so many of whom grew up with divorced parents — that even after seven years, most of those spent cohabitating, the authors still feel that they need concrete assurance they are meant to be together. (Although we may be chronologically close in age to Millennials, my husband and I often feel a generation away from them in life choices and points of view.)

In many ways The Marriage Test is a book about deliberately setting hurdles to be cleared more than it is about creating a relationship where love can thrive. With an such an extreme overemphasis on the negatives in their relationship,  these “dates” at times seemed like torture tactics that they were subjecting themselves to: as if they were preparing to face a firing squad rather than walking down the aisle. It seems counter-intuitive that two people who greatly fear failing would choose to spend a year focusing so heavily on things that are bad between them — I would have to think that would be a prescription for failure for all but the most dogged couples.

But the book was not all bad, not by a long shot! Jill and Brook delve very deeply into many important issues such as mental health, good communication, happiness, and a healthy sex life. I absolutely think those are all worthwhile things to examine with your partner before marriage. I know several couples who spent more time planning their wedding or looking for their first house than they did talking about ways to support each other in maintaining good mental health or discovering the most effective way to communicate with one another…often to their detriment. Some of the topics the book presents are important for couples to think about, but seven years of dating and one year of “marriage tests” are not necessarily required. Also wonderful about the book is the direct way the two describe, over and over, why and how they love the other person. In a world so focused on the superficial or overly dramatic, it is wildly romantic to read — in simple, clear terms — what two people have to say about their love.

My final thoughts are these: there are bad moments in ANY marriage but the overwhelming amount of time you and your spouse spend together will be happy. Will you fight about chores? Yes, sometimes. Will you laugh and joke and smile and surprise each other everyday with your generosity and kindness? Yes, you will do that even more.

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear (2016)


Munich, Germany (Present Day)

A Maisie Dobbs Novel, #13

SPOILER ALERT: If you are reading this series of books in order, please know that the blog post contains plot-line spoilers.

Overview of the series (originally written by me in this post )

If you are not familiar with Jacqueline Winspear’s wonderful series of mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs novels, you really ought to consider reading all of the books in order. They represent a truly unique take on the British detective story: historically rich in fact and detail, narrated by a modern and refreshing heroine.

The first of the novels begins at the start of the twentieth century where we meet Maisie Dobbs, a servant in a manner house in London who — when caught sneaking into the house library to read at night — is not fired but rather taken under the wing of a wise mentor, the forensic scientist and investigator Maurice Branche. In the first book we see the bright, dedicated, young Maisie rise up from being in service to heading off to college. However, World War I sweeps across Europe and soon Maisie abandons her studies to serve as nurse on the front lines. There she gains an education that she could never have prepared herself for and becomes a young nurse with intimate knowledge of death, injury, and mental anguish.

After the war Maisie returns to England to continue her very, very unique education. By the start of the second novel, we meet the fully educated Maisie who has just started her private investigation agency. However, Maisie is not your run-of-the-mill investigator. Not only are her clients surprised that M. Dobbs is a woman, a self-employed one at that, but that her background includes forensics, psychology, nursing (with special training focusing on the mental injuries of war), as well as private investigative techniques. What makes her even more shockingly modern are both her embrace of eastern techniques, such as meditation, and her use of her psychic abilities to help her solve cases.

Maisie Dobbs believes very strongly that her clients have stories to tell her — stories that are both truth and lies — but also that that the missing and the dead have their own stories to tell as well. As the books progress, readers have become familiar with Maisie Dobbs as a very accomplished investigator who brings her unique style to closing cases in ways that heal the psychological wounds of her clients, as well as solving their more immediate dilemmas.

Book #13

“Who am I? Where do I belong?” These are the questions that Maisie Dobbs is asking herself as Journey to Munich opens. Adrift, Maisie finds that she no longer fits into any of the roles she has previously held: she is no longer a nurse, no longer a business woman, no longer a wife, no longer a mother-to-be. Although she is surrounded by loved ones, she deeply feels as if she has nowhere to call home, feeling too emotional ravaged to return to the home she shared with her beloved husband, “it was as if through grief and having traveled so long, she had changed shape and no longer fit in anywhere.” While traveling she felt safe, back “in England there was so much to fear. The past, her happiness, her memories brushed against her skin like gossamer shadows, alive but not alive, ghosts standing sentinel.”

Rather than face these emotionally charged questions about who and what she will become now that her life has changed irrevocable, Maisie agrees to a dangerous mission for the British Secret Service — she will travel to Munich, and under the very watchful eye of the Third Reich, attempt to bring back to London a British inventor being held in Dachau Concentration Camp. With just one week’s worth of training as an agent of the Secret Service, she in on her way.

Immediately upon her arrival, it becomes clear that the British have far underestimated the power and violence of the Reich. Maisie and her support team are in danger almost at once. As she rushes to secure safe return on the inventor, she must also confront her own personal demons including overcoming her anger and grief in order to work with two people whom she holds responsible for her husband’s death.

In the face of the Nazi’s campaign of torture and terror against foreigners and its own German citizens — and the chilling knowledge that England will not be able to stay out of a war with Germany for long — Maisie comes to see that see that now is the time for her to move past her grief and again make a life. As she is told by the inventor, for now “we have our freedom, we have our lives. We are very, very lucky. Make sure you use yours well.”

Winspear, once again, presents us with a touching, elegantly written story that is both historically factual and personally compelling. As with her first twelve Maisie Dobbs books, this one is a gem that is well worth a read.

A full review of Book #12 can be found here

Also by Winspear, but not part of the Dobbs Series, is this novel

Brotherhood in Death by JD Robb (2016)

Book #42 of the In Death series

This forty-second “…in Death” book  is part of the science fiction series by prolific writer JD Robb (nom de plume for Nora Roberts, who has written an additional 200 books under her real name). I have read all of the books in the series, many of them more than once, and always find they are well worth the read. The books are science-fiction murder mysteries set in the 2060’s, following the life and work of NYPD detective Lt. Eve Dallas. Despite the futuristic settings and high-tech gadgetry, the books are largely told in the traditional police-procedural style. The stories portray, in graphic detail, the murders committed (often in very dramatic ways) and the minutiae of police work required to solve them.

The full review of the series and of Book #41 can be found here

In this installment, Lt. Eve Dallas and her partner Detective Delia Peabody — along with a host of other police officers and forensic technicians — open a case to look into a missing relative of a friend only to quickly find the man has been murdered. Soon his murder investigation expands to include a series of other men who have gone missing, all who are close friends of the victim. It quickly becomes clear that they men were members of an secret fraternity, called The Brotherhood, and that the actions of that group have made its members the target for serial killer.

As the case unfolds, Dallas and Peabody find that what began as a group of wealthy young men who met and bonded while attending Yale quickly devolved into a dark society of men who preyed on vulnerable young women. The hunt for suspects is soon narrowed down the women who were raped and deeply traumatized by these men. The story delves deep into the scars — both physical and psychological — that the victims of rape must find a way to live with or, in this case, be destroyed by.

Throughout the investigation Dallas must repeatedly face her own past sexual assault and the ways it shaped, but did not ruin, her life. The story is at times almost tender as Dallas opens up to the people she loves so that she can solve the case and work on healing her heart.