nerdy girl reads: the fortune hunter

In the last few years I’ve been blogging, I’ve tried only to review the books that were extra special, ones that I couldn’t stop thinking about long after the last sentence. Which is great, they all deserve high praise. But it means that sometimes I’d go weeks or months on end without a book review. You just can’t pick up winners all the time. Sometimes the books in between the knockouts are just entertainment, like the tv shows you watch for mindless fun. Perfect for falling asleep on tired weekday nights. One of my goals this year is write shorter reviews of more of these books because just because they weren’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean they aren’t yours, dear reader. So, first up, The Fortune Hunter:

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I really wanted to like this book more than I did. It was on a book club reading list so it had to be good, right? And the premise is irresistible, no? A handsome cavalry officer torn in a love triangle between a sweet, ambitious heiress who defies society’s rules at every turn and an empress who is the most beautiful woman in the world and shares his love of hunting, set in the wealthy circles of Victorian England. Bay Middleton, the best rider in England, knows two things, horses and women, and he’s got several of each on the hunt.

But despite the perfect set up, the book did not live up to its potential, especially in its characters. Charlotte, Sisi, and Bay fall very flat and their affairs feel very wooden. Of the three main characters, Charlotte was the best depicted, and I admired her desire to pursue her own passions (photography) when society only wants her to marry and the way she eventually learns to stand up for herself. She is an heiress after all. However, her “love” for Bay felt much more like a teenage crush, but that’s an issue I have with this era of history in general (and why I just don’t see Jane Austen as that romantic…). The Fortune Hunter was JUST exciting enough to keep me going until the end, especially with the addition of the most animated character of the book, photographer Caspar. And I did love that the characters were in fact all real people (Bay Middleton is one of Kate’s ancestors!!! LOVE.) and most of the events really did happen. And of course, the ending was romantic, redeeming the rest of the story.

If you are a historical fiction fan and love Victorian-era romance, you will love The Fortune Hunter. If you like Downton Abbey and think that Mary should just stop being stupid and marry Gillingham already sheesh, then you will also like The Fortune Hunter. If you’re just meh, then join the club.

Rating: 5, Take it or leave it (Average and unmemorable.)

 

sunday brunch

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If we were having brunch today, you’d probably laugh SO HARD at the ridiculous smile I have on my face when I tell you all about my new job. It’s so great. Everyone has been so welcoming and the work is fun. Does liking bank work make me a corporate schmo? Eh. Sorry I’m not sorry. It’s certainly a different world from what I’ve been used to, but I am enjoying being part of a large team and actually having a designer to learn from again. Oh and bank holidays. Yeeeaaahhhh I’d probably also be telling you all about my plans for tomorrow, including sleeping in, watching tv in pajamas all day, reading, cuddling with the dog…you know.

If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you that I am obsessed with the Netflix show Peaky Blinders. Have you seen it? Ermahgerd I love it so much. We watched the two seasons in less than two weeks (would have been less than two days but the husband enforced a mandated rationing — boo). Imagine Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey having a glorious love-child and you’ve pretty much got the gist of Peaky Blinders. The Blinders are a family mob in England after WWI who run a gambling circuit and various other illegal activities and it is great. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch this:

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If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you that any attempt so far at trying to be healthy in 2015 (I didn’t set any resolutions, but I’d always like to have a little better habits and the new year is a good time to start fresh) has failed. Miserably. I’ve been running really consistently 3-4 times a week, and that’s really awesome in this cold we’ve had, but besides that…nada. Zippo. And food? Uhhhh it’s best not to go into it. Anyone have any tips for getting back on track? I need Amy Poehler’s advice here, the doing of the thing is the thing, not the talking about it.

If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you that I am so over this winter EXCEPT that we haven’t really had any snow. Can we make a big storm happen? Preferably on a weekend so I don’t have commute stress? Cool.

If we were having brunch today, I’d ask you if you’ve seen any of the Oscar nominees and if you have any recos. We’ve seen The Imitation Game and Birdman and I thought both were excellent films. Michael Keaton was especially brilliant. I want to see a few more before the Oscars, namely Boyhood (I’ve heard it’s great but very long) and The Theory of Everything and I guess I’ll eventually see American Sniper,  though I am generally not a fan of war movies. In general, this was a great crop, right?

Your turn! How’s life with you today?

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nerdy girl reads: yes please

True story: I want Amy Poehler to be my older sister. Or at least my awesome older friend. You know the one I mean. She’s always witty and comfortable in her own skin, gives the best advice, and knows how to have the best time at a party AND the best way to deal with the hangover the next day. I’ve read the other two recent funny-lady memoirs (Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling and Bossypants by Tina Fey) so there was no way I wasn’t going to read Amy’s first book Yes Please. Because I think comparison is the thief of joy or whatever that saying is, I’ll try my best not to pit these equally fabulous and different ladies against each other because I think it’s possible we can all be supportive of each other and still succeed. Anyway, all the books are great and unsurprisingly, I loved Yes Please as much as I thought I would.

(And sidenote: How great were Tina and Amy at the Globes? They killed it as usual.)

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What separated Amy’s book from the rest, for me, is probably what separates and makes her great in person: she’s just so charming. I don’t even feel like I needed the audiobook (though I might still give it a listen since I’m sure she is hilarious) because her voice comes through loud and clear in her writing. The book is set up as a series of essays, not a continual narrative, and she jumps topics in each one, covering her childhood, her life before SNL, and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way. It’s essentially a list of dos and don’ts from Amy’s life. I loved learning about how she grew up and I’ll admit, she endeared herself to me even more (if possible) when she admitted she too liked school because she liked learning and that’s where she saw her friends. See? We’re destined to be nerdy besties. While I didn’t enjoy the chapters where she focuses on her journey in improv theatre as much as others, they stressed to me her whole concept of “yes please,” of always being polite, hard-working, a little over-optimistic, and open to the opportunities that you’ve created.

In her words, “The talking about the thing isn’t the thing. The doing of the thing is the thing.”

One of the things I most admire about Amy is that she never plays anything halfway. She always puts it all out there, and if you don’t like it, that’s your loss. It’s why she did so well in improv and on SNL. I won’t get all Feminist Katie on you, but I fully support all the things she says on the subject and love her initiatives like “Smart Girls at the Party.” So yeah, there are little nuggets of advice about working hard, self-confidence, and growing up sneaked in throughout the book. You can say you’re “reading it for the articles,” but mostly you’ll laugh. A lot. Amy includes tons of pictures and mementos in between the chapters and they always made me laugh out loud. There’s also a chapter by Seth Meyers, notes from her parents, and a chapter about Parks and Recreation she had “edited” by the writer and creator of the show. It’s so great and I am so sad the final season starts today…I might need to drown my sorrow in waffles.

I fully admit that I probably wouldn’t like this book as much had it been written by anyone else. There’s a lot of confirmation bias happening here and I’m ok with it. But if you’re a fan, I think you’ll like Yes Please. And if you like to read funny words that occasionally have little hearts of truth, I think you’ll also like it.

Rating: 7, Darn good (Highly recommended book that is well paced and enjoyable with a few flaws.)

nerdy girl reads: top 10 books of 2014

I read 60 books last year. I know compared to some that number is paltry, but 60 seems huge to me. More than one a week, even with a full time job and a (maybe somewhat lame) social life. I read some really great books, and much more diverse than it felt like at the time. These definitely aren’t going to be the books on all the fancy NPR or NYT lists, but they are the books I enjoyed the most and the ones that have stuck with me long after I closed the back cover. Got a new year’s reading challenge? Get started with one of these I know you’ll love.

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The Secret Place by Tana French
You can give me a book about a murder at a boarding school any day and I know I’ll love it, but it won’t have the brilliance of French’s The Secret Place. While simultaneously following the murder investigation of a teenage boy and the lead up to his murder, you’re really reading a smart and unexpected look at friendship, loyalty, ambition, and growing up. I loved the cast of characters and couldn’t get enough of French’s spot-on teenage dialogue.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
On the blog, I try very hard to either review a series as a whole or not at all. Most of my favorite series are not ones you can simply pick up in the middle, but I can’t not put The Magician’s Land on this list. The Magicians series follows Quentin, a brilliant debbie-downer of a guy, as he enters the world of magic, first at an exclusive school and then in the magical world of Fillory. Imagine a mix of Harry Potter and Narnia, narrated by Holden Caulfield. If you are AT ALL a fan of the fantasy genre or books with magic (I clearly am), the series is well worth your time, especially the final installment, which perfectly wraps up the magic.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I’m not known for choosing books that really push my boundaries — I have a few genres I like and tend to color within the lines. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so far out of the lines for me, but Karen Russell’s writing is absolutely captivating. I have never been a fan of short story collections, usually the characters and descriptions fall flat for me in their brevity, but there wasn’t a story in Vampires that I didn’t like. From the eponymous vampires of the title to women who turned into silkworms, each story is surprising and supernatural and full of smart and quirky storytelling. Seriously, I can’t choose a favorite, even months later.

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte
Find yourself wanting to slow down and cut back on the busy this year? PLEASE pick up Overwhelmed. Brigid Schulte looks at how we balance (or don’t balance) our work, family, and play time in this book and I think it is an essential read for anyone who feels like they are too busy to have any fun. I’ll admit I’m not the busiest person (I did read 60 books this year after all), but that is by design. I hate feeling busy, which is, as pointed out in this book, different from actually being busy. I believe in policies that enable more flexible workplaces and love Schulte’s emphasis on finding and making time for meaningful play — the thing that makes us human and able to do everything else that much better. The strategies laid out are easy to implement and make a huge difference!

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
I am 100% this book’s demographic. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES. Three stories weave together in this gripping and twisty-turny read: our heroine Claire’s present-day story, her past, and the history of a Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. As Claire begins to forge the Degas, she begins to doubt its authenticity and the tangled web begins to weave. As an art history lover, I couldn’t get enough of this book. I said in my review that Shapiro’s writing is excellent, the mystery of the painting is enthralling, and the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they-be-caught keeps you turning the pages well into the night and I stand by all of it months later.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
All I can say is this book though. It’s just so beautiful — both the story and the prose. A Tree Grows is the only classic I read this year (reading a few more is a goal for this year) and I didn’t write a review of it this summer because it’s so hard for me to put into words what this book means to me. I am SO glad I read it now and not in high school when the husband did (for the record: he loved it too) because it felt like it came to me at the most perfect moment. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the story of Francie Nolan reminds us how complicated and beautiful this life we have is.

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn
Are you a fan of Dexter? Yes? Go get The Intern’s Handbook. Now. It’s got all the makings of a fun thriller (I know, kind of an oxymoron there.): a sarcastic and witty assassin-turned-intern as a narrator, a plot that moves at breakneck speed, and twists and turns on every page. Plus a love story and a brilliantly designed cover (a skull and crossbones made out of office supplies! gah!) for some extra goodness. Both the husband and I couldn’t put this book down. Trust me, it’s no literary masterpiece, but it reads like an exciting screenplay (it’s already being adapted for a movie!) and is pure entertainment.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
OMG this book. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece, The Shining Girls is not it. If you’re looking for a very creepy and deeply engrossing thriller about a time-traveling serial killer and the one who got away, hot on his heels in investigation, this is definitely it. Beukes’ characterizations are remarkable – I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more evil or gruesome character than Harper. You’ll love the quick pace and suspense, dotted with the interactions with the “shining girls,” which act like short stories within the narrative and are a haunting look at women through history.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Every list needs a little chick lit yes? Big Little Lies is chick lit done right. This schoolyard drama following three women’s daily lives leading up to a shocking murder keeps you on your toes until the very end. As I said in my full review, you never know who has been killed and the storytelling effortlessly jumps from funny to dark and back again. It’s a fun read that has it all: humor, well-drawn characters, high-speed plot, and emotional depth.

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
As I mentioned in my full review of The Astronaut Wives Club, I really knew nothing about the early astronauts, much less their wives, and I completely gobbled this book up. I loved reading about the lives of these women, how they coped with the highs and lows, and how they used their positions of popularity and power to make a little history themselves. Koppel’s book is a little bit history and a little bit gossip and a completely fun way to learn a little American history. There’s also going to be a TV show based on it released this year and you better believe I will glued to my seat when it starts!

Honorable mentions: The Vacationers by Emma Straub, Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (like she wasn’t going to be on the list).

Fun fact: Least favorite books of the year were Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (ungodly boring), Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (funny how she can be on both of these lists – this book I just did not get), and Tenth of December by George Saunders (awful). All of these have either won or been nominated for book awards like the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer. I don’t want to know what that says about me…

What was your favorite book you read last year?

what i love: december

Happy new year! I remember last year around this time I was so SO ready to be done with 2013. It was not my favorite year. But 2014, despite its ups and downs, was a sweet year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ready for a fresh start. Next Monday brings me the start of my new job and like everyone, I find the beginning of the year always bringing me the desire to make better habits or lose a few that aren’t serving a purpose anymore. Thank you for sticking with me along the way this year and giving me a special place to celebrate my own particular brand of nerdiness. I love all you nerds and have great plans for this space next year.

I wish for you a very fun (and safe!) end of 2014 and the crisp, hopeful turning of a new leaf in 2015. Here’s what’s making me smile lately:

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1. How much do you love this diy panel wall? Because I am amazed by it. Actually by the entire room makeover. It’s gorgeous and I’m obsessed with that gray and those antlers. I secretly want antlers in every room…but only if they’re fake. I’m thinking they’ll look great in our lower level, yes? (Help me convince the husband!) Anyway, the paneling gives the room incredible character and elegance. I was about to say it looks easy too, but knowing my diy skills, that’s better left unsaid. Or left to the professionals.

2. You guys, the cozy season is upon us. ALL I want to do is cuddle under a million blankets with cups of tea and a book and my pup. Seriously. I had a five day weekend over the Christmas holiday and I didn’t wear pants with zippers the ENTIRE time. It. Was. Bliss.

3. And yeah, maybe I went on my yoga-pant-binge partly because in less than a week this casual girl is entering a corporate office for the first time. All of my design jobs have been in jeans-friendly offices and trust me, my closet was not ready for this change. I have been pinning corporate capsule wardrobes like a fiend and buying pretty much every trouser and pencil skirt and sensible heel I can get my hands on. I am particularly obsessed with ShopBop’s ultimate workwear wardrobe. It is the perfect reminder than a few key pieces can be remixed in the most creative and beautiful ways. The husband is glad for this as the post-Christmas bank account can’t take much more shopping.

Also, I need that polka dot blouse. RIGHT NOW.

4. Anyone else have an extra delicious Christmas? Yeah, the yoga-pant-binge helped me ignore my cookie-and-wine puffiness too. While this year I refuse to beat myself up, I know the husband and I need to clean up our food game in the new year. Last week we tried this steamed salmon and veggies in foil recipe and it was ridiculously easy and delicious. The veggies (went with tomatoes, red onion, and zucchini with a little olive oil, s&p, and parsley) were perfectly steamed and the salmon was surprisingly tasty. Definitely a quick and healthy dinner to add into your rotation.

5. A week or so ago, I stumbled on David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College called “This is Water.” If you haven’t read it or heard him speak, please, please take a few minutes to do so. The text is written here but this video is well worth the listen to hear it as he spoke and to see the fun designer-y (technical term) animation. Since I found it, I have listened to it a few times, whenever I’m feeling a little negative or annoyed, and it instantly perks me up (and it makes me cry, ok?). It reminds me a lot of The Happiness Project because it’s main theme is that we have the power to choose our thoughts; we have the power to be annoyed by traffic and crowds at the grocery store and the monotony of daily life, or to choose to find meaning in the small moments of life or in how we help others or in choosing to be light instead of heavy. I hope it inspires you to be a little lighter and choose more positively.

Happy new year! Let’s make it a great one!

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sunday brunch

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If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you all about the changes coming my way in a few weeks. I am so lucky to be starting a new job in January, one that is going to push me to grow as a designer and hopefully grow into leadership positions. It’s exciting and scary and wonderful — everything that a new adventure should be — and is the best Christmas present ever. Plus, you know, I get to buy all new clothes. BUMMER.

If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you we’ve had a truly festive holiday season. I don’t know if it’s because of the late Thanksgiving or just the way the Christmas cookie crumbled, but we’ve had so many get-togethers and parties with our friends and family. It’s been a great reminder to be with the ones we love and stay light. It’s almost enough frivolity to distract me from the fact that we haven’t seen the sun in what feels like years. (Hey Sun, PLEASE COME BACK.)

If we were having brunch today, I’d probably want to dissect Serial with you, and/or spend at least 15 minutes convincing you to listen to it because OMG. I thought the ending was actually pretty perfect in its ambiguity and I agree with all of Sarah’s conclusions. I’ll admit, I feel kinda skeevy getting so much entertainment from someone’s very real and very traumatic life, but the mystery is so compelling. I can’t wait for the next one!

If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you the husband is campaigning extra hard right no to get a second dog and I am feeling like the meanest person ever. I don’t know how much longer I can stay strong…

If we were having brunch today, I’d tell you that Goodreads did their annual “your year in books” review and I read 59 books (which will probably go up to at least 60, probably 61 or 62 by the end of the year). That is…so many. Over 24k pages. It’s kinda shocking really, and yeah, really a little sad. Oh well, we’re all a little (or a lot) nerdy about something, and this happens to be my particular brand. Stay tuned for a favorite books list!

What’s going on in your world? Let’s gab!

nerdy girl reads: big little lies

I will straight up tell you I judged this book by its cover:

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While it is beautifully designed and the imagery is striking, it is very clearly some form of chick lit, right? So I judged it and put off reading it. I guess I was trying to be literary? Ugh, so pretentious! Then I had to wait a million years (a month or two?) for my hold to come in at the library. Guess what? It’s totally chick lit. But Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was one of my favorite books of this year. Sure it’s no heavy, full-of-lessons tome like The Goldfinch, but once I started reading, I never wanted to stop.

Big Little Lies follows the over-the-top schoolyard drama surrounding three women in suburban Sidney: Madeline, who is funny and smart and always holds her grudges…and whose ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into the hood, meaning their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest; Celeste, who is always the most beautiful woman in the room, but is also always covering up her bruises; and sad single mom Jane, who is so young that the other mothers mistake her for the nanny and so worried she’ll never move on from her disastrous one-night stand six years ago. Everything leads up the final scene, a drunken school trivia fundraiser, where we’ve learned through the (hilarious) police interviews scattered in between chapters that a murder has occurred. As the reader, you don’t even know who the victim is until the fateful trivia night, and it is a whirlwind ride getting there. The story jumps effortlessly from light to dark to light again, which is why when I’ve recommended it to people, I’ve said it’s an incredibly fun and funny read…that deals with murder and domestic abuse and elementary school drama. USA Today probably says it best: Reading Big Little Lies “is a bit like drinking a pink cosmo laced with arsenic… [BIG LITTLE LIES] is a fun, engaging and sometimes disturbing read.”

As I’ve said, I definitely didn’t want to put this book down. The quick pacing and shifting of narration keep you on your toes and some of the plot lines (especially Madeline’s) are so absurd, you can’t help but laugh out loud. I also read Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret (another good read, but lacks the same spark that BLL has) this year and it’s obvious after the success of the two novels, she prefers this three-character format. It definitely works for her and I’m amazed at how richly and realistically the characters are portrayed in so little page time. This book honestly had everything I love in a book: Real characters, great plot, tons of humor, suspense, witty emails/police documents. You know. On the surface this was about a group of parents acting badly. But under the surface are the ooey-gooey issues — bullying, abuse, trauma. Considering everything that was tackled in this book it should not have worked but it did, and that is to the author’s credit. I have recommended it to anyone and everyone who has asked me for new reading suggestions and do the same here. You’ll love it. I want to go back in time so I can read it for the first time again, that’s how much I loved it.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)

nerdy girl reads: egg & spoon

Did y’all like Wicked? I feel like this is a very loaded question. I’ve found myself in major debates over it, no lie. It seems there are two camps concerning Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (and the rest of the series) and the musical: one camp loves the books but not the musical, and the other loves the musical but despises the book. I fall into the former. I know it seems blasphemous, but I really can’t stand the musical AT ALL (nor Idina Menzel — please don’t hate me interwebs) and I absolutely love the books. They are so dark and gritty and imaginative. I don’t know why, but I really haven’t picked up anything of Maguire’s since A Lion Among Men (number three in the series) until I walked by a display of new books at the library and saw this:

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That cover though. I can’t even with this people! It is SO gorgeous. I honestly didn’t know a thing about the book, I just picked it up hoping the story would be as beautiful as the cover and be a nice break from all the dark mysteries I’ve been reading recently. And, ugh, of course it was wonderful (and for those who don’t like the book Wicked, completely different).

Gregory Maguire sets out this time to retell Russian fairy tales, through the adventures of two little girls, Elena and Ekaterina, in the golden age of the tsars. Elena lives in the impoverished countryside. To put it lightly, her life is not good. Her father is dead, one of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant, and her mother is dying. Oh yeah, and there is no food. Seriously, in one scene the villagers cup up a raisin or something ridiculous to share. It’s so sad! But then a train gets stuck in the village, a train carrying treasures, food, and a noble family on the way to impress the Tsar — a family that includes Ekaterina (or Kat). When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a prince traveling incognito, a firebird and an ice dragon, and of course, Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs.

Being a work of fantasy, Egg & Spoon is very fanciful and full of incredible imagery, but it takes awhile to get there. The narrator is an old imprisoned monk who plays a big role in the end of the story, but like most old men telling stories, takes his time setting up the (somewhat boring) details of Elena and Kat’s lives. It’s not until the train leaves the station (literally) that the story takes off and the magic begins. My favorite part of this lovely little book is Baba Yaga. She is a hoot. I did some research on the fairy tales while I was reading and she is a real figure in Russian folklore. Like all witches who live in the woods, she kidnaps pretty young women and eats children and causes immense amounts of mischief. She is also nearly-immortal and Maguire cleverly weaves in references from contemporary culture to add in humor. My point being, I know you’ll want to, but don’t give up on this book until after you’ve met Baba Yaga. Like I said, the imagery is vivid and the adventure will leave you breathless, whether you and the characters are attending a royal ball on floating barges in St. Petersburg or marching through the arctic circle with larger-than-life matryoshka dolls on the way to meet an ice dragon who just won’t go to sleep and is messing up the world’s magic.

And just like all fairy tales and folklore, there’s much more to the story than the simple adventures of two girls and their friends. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that the book itself is a matryoshka. Each story layer slowly opens to reveal the deeper purpose of the book. I can’t speak for the author obviously, but to me, the story was about finding your identity and always doing what you can to help make the world a better place, even if you are Baba Yaga. The unlikely friendship between Elena and Kat is heartwarming, and the ending really is a happily ever after. While Egg & Spoon is labeled YA, Maguire is a masterful storyteller and I think it’s a great read for all ages.

Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)

what i love: november

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you had a wonderful holiday full of family and laughter and delicious pie. The husband and I had all three and I’m so thankful for it all. And now, as always, I am all about Christmas. Bring it on. The lights have been up outside for weeks and the tree is ready for ornaments today. Did you have a good November? Mine was excellent. I got to go to Florida and bask in some late-fall sunshine on the beach, we’ve had some fun adventures around town with our friends, and I started my NaNoWriMo novel. Woohoo! NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and the goal is to write something like 50k words in a month. It’s insanely hard. Mine is going much slower than that, I’m at about 10.5k words, but I LOVE writing. It’s so much fun. I doubt my book is any good at this point and will needs tons of editing if it ever sees the light of day with an agent, but even if it’s only ever for fun, I feel creative and accomplished and am working towards a goal. Y’all can read it when I’m a famous author, ha!

Here’s what’s making me smile this month:

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1. Despite the fact that I woke up this morning about 5 pounds heavier thanks to all the special foods and treats we had at not just one, but two Thanksgiving feasts, this spicy hot chocolate with baileys, cardamom, and cinnamon looks amazing and I’m pretty sure I’d forfeit the ability to wear a few of my pairs of pants to enjoy it. I know it’s still 20-odd days away, but I’m already planning for when the husband and I host Christmas Eve and if I were a betting girl, I’d bet big that this nightcap is on the menu. That whipped cream though…

2. I’m more than a little obsessed with this pic of Nigella Lawson writing in her library-office. Those books! I really hope there’s a library ladder somewhere out of shot, along with a bay window, complete with a window seat and a mountain of pillows obviously. I’m jealous she has such a beautiful space to be creative.

3. Gah you guys, this red sweater with gold buttons kills me! It’s SO preppy. In my opinion, the only good thing about the return of cold weather is layers. And ok, leggings. But mostly the layers because you can wear your same old clothes in new ways. I know, it sounds silly to me too, but on dreary winter mornings, something’s gotta get you through it right? Also, I need to find my pearls, pronto.

4. How gorgeous are these black French doors? We’re finally seriously planning the lower level remodel to begin in a few months and these doors have just the drama that I want. So sleek and pretty. Also pretty? EVERYTHING ELSE on that patio. Those lights? Perfect. Those stainless steel planters? Incredible. And don’t even get me started on the lanterns. I’ve never met a lantern I didn’t like.

5. I have one word for you: Serial. If you’re not listening, do. it. now. It’s so, so riveting! NPR’s This American Life teamed up with reporter Sarah Koenig and follows the true story of a murder of a high school girl over the course of a whole season of podcasts. They follow the plot and characters wherever they go and they say they won’t know what happens at the end of the story until they get there along with the listeners. I binge-listened to it all in one day of work and am anxiously awaiting the new episode on Thursday. It’s like reading a thrilling crime-mystery (except that, you know, it’s real and this guy might be wrongfully in prison) and I have no idea what truth they will find.

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nerdy girl reads: the secret place by tana french

It’s no secret by now that I have a thing for mysteries and thrillers. I try not to pick them up too often, because let’s face it, most of the time they’re about as substantial as the latest CSI: Wherever, but I always come back to them like a junkie needing a hit. And besides the Robert Galbraith (aka, JK Rowling) series and the occasional Stephen King, I shy away from the bestsellers like good old J. Patt and John Grisham, even though I’m sure they would be highly addicting and I doubt I’d be able to stop gobbling them up once I started. Which is why I hesitated to read any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I needed a little more substance under the usual fluff of a thriller and didn’t think she’d be able to deliver, despite numerous recommendations from library staff and my own mother-in-law who may be one of the two or three people who read as much as I do.

Well, I was wrong, and I should have picked up these books from the minute they hit the shelves.

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The Secret Place follows Detective Stephen Moran who has been biding his time, waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—basically the rock stars of the Dublin police. It’s where all the cool kids are, obvi. One morning, sixteen-year-old Holly, daughter of a Murder Squad detective and a witness to one of Moran’s previous cases, brings him a photo showing a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of the girls’ boarding school she attends. It says, “I know who killed him.” The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is basically your average mix of teenage gossip and mean-girl cruelty, which is why the card stood out and the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome Chris Harper is resumed. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

In the course of a day, yes the book takes place in one singularly riveting day in basically one or two rooms, everything Moran and Conway uncover leads them to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. As the publisher says, “Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.”

Gah, right?

I won’t lie, I read this book in a matter of days and by about 300 pages in I was thankful I was on vacation and could read for hours to my heart’s content because I was not putting it down for anything. I loved the boarding school setting — it provides such a neat little bubble of drama and intrigue, especially when you add in the teenagers. I thought French did an immaculate job capturing the attitudes and wild emotions of the girls, especially in dialogue. I could precisely picture and hear their phrasing and tones of voice. For being a novel centered around hours and hours of interrogations, the pacing is lively and the flashbacks to the months before the murder (I loved Ms. French’s repeated turn of phrase: “Chris Harper has three months and six days to live.”) help give the reader insight to the characters and their motives. I’ll admit that I figured out who the murderer was before the detectives, but it was still shocking and satisfying.

Underneath the murder, The Secret Place is a beautiful, if not dark, exploration of friendship and loyalty. The friendship between Holly and her friends was touching and made me (and Detective Moran) nostalgic for those perfect early-teen friendships where you exist in this tightly-knit cocoon and everything you need is right there. Obviously it’s not healthy, nor sustainable, which is why we grow out of them. But it’s nice to look back. One of my favorite parts of the story is when the girls make a pact to simply stop giving a damn about boys or makeup or fitting in because they don’t want to change who they are just to fit someone else’s mold of beauty or their expectations of what they should be. I wish I had known people like this growing up because even as an adult, it was incredibly affirming. I also loved the relationship between the detectives. At first Moran was hesitant to work with Conway because she seemed to be everything he wasn’t. He loves beautiful things and uses his rough, poor past to motivate him to be better and more refined, where she embraces her equally bad upbringing and is abrasive, tough, and has been alienated in the squad. They definitely do not trust each other and neither want the other as a partner…at the beginning. The dynamics shift and though I like that French’s series focuses on different detectives in each book, I’d like to see how they get on together.

All in all, if you like mysteries and thrillers or like novels set in boarding schools (and who doesn’t?), you will love The Secret Place. When I finished I immediately began In the Woods, the first in the series, and it’s fantastic too. I just can’t stop, guys.

Rating: 9, Just shy of perfect (Can’t put it down! Well rounded with exceptional characters and style.)