Review: Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Wow.

I’m not quite sure where to start.

First I would like to apologize to myself for avoiding this book for 99% of 2019. 

Two I would like to apologize to myself for only reading this book because it was a pick in my book club.

Self, I have done you a disservice. You could have been loving Alex and Henry and their love and fierceness for many months. 

At its base, Red, White, and Royal Blue is the story of 2 powerful young men – The son of the President of the United States – Alex Claremont-Diaz and his British counterpart, Prince Henry. Both have deep obligations to their country. Both have baggage. Both are really good at writing love to hate you snarky emails that turn into love to love you snarky emails complete with poetry. Trust me, none of this is a spoiler. 

McQuiston gives readers 2 fleshed out protagonists that are full of life. They’re motivations are real. They feel like friends. Even her secondary characters fly off the pages. The diversity in characters is also rampant and much appreciated. No one feels like a stereotype, and what’s more, no one feels unnecessary. 

Now, for the plot. I will say that I was never once surprised by any twist or turn. This is, at its heart, a love story. A very good love story. One that you can turn to when you have a cold, are sad, need a break from thinking or really want to escape the latest news cycle. It is the kind of love story that is hopeful and makes you believe the world could, in fact, be a better place. 

I couldn’t have asked for a better first read for 2020. I want to live in McQuiston’s version of the world. There is so much hope and love and kindness. It is everything we need right now. 

Red, White, and Royal Blue is for you if your here, reading this review, with a beating heart. This book is worth picking up even for the predictable twists and turns. It’s worth picking up and thinking that the world can be better.

Green Lights and Gatsby and Popcorn, Oh My

New Year’s Eve has never been my favorite holiday. I didn’t grow up a partier. It wasn’t until last year that I hosted my first NYE event and found that with my small group of friends we could spend time with board games (and wine and beer) without getting stupid. I could throw a party without it being full of strangers. 

While Daisy Buchanan may love large parties for their privacy, I love small gatherings for their familiarity. 

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking of Fitzgerald Magnum Opus. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby in high school, like a normal American. I somehow escaped Fitzgerald entirely until my senior year of college. I read all of Jay, Nick, and Daisy’s tragic story on a flight from Chicago to Detroit, the speed of the read equal to my fascination with the 1920’s and the connected characters. 

Now it is 100 years later and I don’t know that we as a society really learned. In a world where we live for the ‘gram and love to show off our lives on social media are we really that different from the self involved decadents described in The Great Gatsby? Even if our parties aren’t as grand we are certainly pretending they are with all of our pictures and hashtags. Consumerism is still here. The parallels are real. 

Also I don’t mind old jazz and think it is entirely appropriate to blair the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby Soundtrack whenever you like. 

Anyway. This year my holiday party grew. Not by much, but my small house held 12 people and my pup. We played more board games and drank soda and liquor, wine and beer. We ate more snacks than is healthy. I put out a popcorn bar. 

Nothing too glamours, because even if I think we are doomed to repeat the roaring 20’s my budget doesn’t have room for champagne and caviar. It does have some give for popcorn kernels and candies, toppings and crunchy things. 

Seriously – if you are throwing any type of party and want an all pleasing but cheap way to please your guests try a popcorn bar. Everyone was absolutely smitten with the set up, and having options a variety of options to add to everyone’s bag of buttery, salty deliciousness made all of my guests so happy. 

Set up is really easy. I popped a cup and a half of white popcorn kernels on the stove in 2 batches. Topped all of the popcorn with butter and salt to taste. The rest was all store bought ingredients (super easy set up!) which included caramel corn for mixing, crushed sandwich cookies, like oreo’s, white chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and semi sweet chocolate chunks – and then the candy – I came upon a sale so for under 10 dollars I stocked up on every movie theater candy box I could lay my hands on. I also picked up a kettle corn, ranch, and nacho seasoning for people to use at their own discretion. Complete with a fun sign, some popcorn bags from the dollar store, and a lot of holiday cheer and you’re good to go.  

You’ll still feel crazy decadent without breaking the bank and all of your friends will love you. Isn’t that really what Gatsby was searching for all along? 

Happy 2020!

Review: Verity by Colleen Hoover

I usually let hype pass me by. I’m either already reading the latest best seller before it has reached mega must read status or 5 years later after everyone has forgotten about it. I also tend to avoid books that are very divisive. If there is a complete divide between people who love and hate a book and no people in the middle saying “eh, it was alright.” I usually avoid the title. I can read the writing on the wall. I usually fall on the hate side of divisive books.  

So believe me when I say I don’t know how I picked up Verity. Published a year ago, I became aware of Verity through many love/hate or love to hate reviews. Then Audible had a Cyber Monday sale and I thought that I should at least give it a try.

Don’t ask me why I thought this was a good idea. I was probably still too full of Thanksgiving turkey to think straight.

Believe me when I say I have some major regrets. 

Verity is about Lowen, a woman who has been hired to ghost write the last 3 books in a popular series. The original author, Verity Crawford now lies in little more than a vegetative state, and her husband is left to grieve her and their 2 children. Searching for notes to help flesh out the remaining novels Lowen finds something unexpected, and learns a story that is equal parts horror and heartbreak. 

Verity does a couple of things I generally dislike in books. You have the tall dark handsome stranger coming in to save the day, and the poor girl who isn’t sure of herself and seems unable to help herself in any capacity. Lowen is easily the most irritating character I read this year. She makes poor decisions, wants to sleep with a married man, and is generally just a voice of insecurity. Even the recent loss of her mother doesn’t make her sympathetic. It is hard to understand her motivation and even harder to understand how she was selected for this assignment.

I also wasn’t a fan of using an unpublished manuscript to move the plot along. It felt very Gone Girl. Actually, everything about Verity felt like a reverse Gone Girl. No one was as awful as Amy Dunn. The twists in Verity are less shocking. Everything felt forecast, and that you’re just along for the ride. And it wasn’t a fun ride. More like a road trip with an infant than a roller coaster.  

I wish I had known more about the actual plot going in. Hoover’s latest is a novel I would have enjoyed much more had it been spoiled. Or maybe then I would have saved myself the time and found another book from my TBR.

Usually I end these reviews with a “if you like X you should definitely read this book” but I honestly don’t know what else to compare Verity to? It isn’t really like Gone Girl, plot or drama wise, it isn’t like a normal thriller or mystery. It’s just kinda…dramatic and weird.

Tradition, Dickens, and More Sweet Treats

I’m a sucker for traditions. Last week I told you about my annual baking weekend with my mom. This helps to facilitate my go-to holiday gift of cookies to all my coworkers and allows me to host a stress free Cookie Swap with a dozen or so of my closest friends early every December. 

I make it a point to watch Elf at least once a Holiday season. Preferably on the big screen at a second run theater by my house. I see the county sponsored light show with hot coco and listen to Christmas music on repeat for weeks on end. 

The Friday before Christmas I usually go to the movies with my mom. This year we saw Frozen 2. We always pick something lighthearted and family friendly. I may not have children yet, but we’re both a sucker for a well done kids movie. 

But what I really look forward to are the Holidays. Christmas Eve is big for my family. We have the same perogies and latkes every year. Right now I am counting down the days until I get the most crispy potatoes and delicious stuffed pockets of dough. We also do all of our gifts on Christmas Eve. 

My boyfriend and I are also starting our own traditions. Ones filled with early morning gifts and pancakes. Maybe a movie before the stress of the Holiday’s fully kicks in and we lose all personal space in the chaos of celebrating Christmas with both of our families. 

With these new traditions comes some lost ones. My grandmother passed a few years ago. Every year we used to see a stage production of the Christmas Carol with her at the start of the holiday season. I don’t believe the sets ever changed. The script wasn’t the best. I went from being scared of each new Christmas ghost as a child to amused by them as an adult. The costumes were really the highlight, taking everyone back to Victorian England and ready for cold weather. 

Unfortunately my family doesn’t attend this production anymore, but I have enough memories of it for a lifetime. 

It is also the only time I have enjoyed anything by Dickens in any fashion. Descipe having several of his novels on my shelf, I can truly say that I have found every Dickens reading experience tedious, dull, and self involved. 

But I still have positive feelings about A Christmas Carol and would like to reincorporate it to my yearly traditions, with plenty of cookies and lots of holiday cheer. Maybe this year we will watch one of the many movies (preferably one of a Muppet variety) with hot coco and extra sweets. I think my whole family would enjoy this new tradition. 

Usually I would include a recipe here. Again, I did not have time to test out something truly new for all of you. Instead I want to include some more of my favorite cookies made this year. Spritz’s were a total success. Eggnog cookies were a hit with both my family and at my cookie swap. We all go crazy for these orange cranberry delights. We also did a traditional toll house chocolate chip, and find the best gingerbread recipe can be found from Mccormic spices. 

As we approach the chaos of next week I want to wish you all a happy holiday. I hope you get to spend it with your loved ones, family, chosen family, and friends. I hope you eat the sweets you like, and get all of the hot coco, cider, wine, beer, soda, or whatever your hot desires. It is important to stay hydrated while you run around from event to event.

 I’ll be here Monday with some sort of post, but this blog will be a little more quiet over the next week or so as I take some much needed personal time to recharge. Best wishes everyone!

On Loving Spoilers

Readers, I have a confession. 

This may come as a shock.

It’s a bit of a taboo. 

My boyfriend thinks I’m crazy for it. 

But I love spoilers. I absolutely adore them. I will read an entire synopsis of a show we are watching as we are watching it. I will look up major plot points to books after reading only a few chapters. I need to know what will happen. 

I can already feel a few of you  backing away in horror, but hear me out. 

For me, spoilers aren’t a dirty word. They don’t ruin a story for me, but enhance it. I love to see how things come together. While I like rereading/rewatching/relisteing to things I don’t always have time to go back and see how a perfectly crafted mystery really fit together. There will always be crumbs of the plot that I miss while rushing to finish a book or a show.  I might not catch an important call back or remember a character arc from a previous season/novel in a series. 

Spoilers allow me to really enjoy the journey and to see all of the twists and turns as meaningful stops instead of a race to a destination. They give me time to formulate a real opinion of a story arch as I am reading it. 

I should probably also mention that I hate suspense and spoilers allow me to watch stressful shows and read scary books without causing my anxiety to spike.  

I should also note that I don’t force my love of spoilers on others. I try to write spoiler free reviews on this blog. I don’t go up to friends and family and tell them the ending to their latest favorite in progress story. 

Just like how the each reader enjoys their books in different formats (audio/e-books/paperback/hardback) I think readers are similar to how they feel about spoilers, and what they consider spoilers.

I have a hard time talking with other readers who consider any plot point a spoiler. If I can’t discuss even the basic premise of a plot with you, we probably can’t be book friends. But I think there is a general level of respect in this community for everyone’s opinions. Hopefully even my out of the box ones.

Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The last few weeks have been a big of a fog. I’m busy with all things end of year and holiday but that’s not the thing that’s clouding my mind. 

You see, as I wrote about last week, I started Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. 

Readers – I’m in deep. 

The boyfriend and I are now also watching the series and planning a trip to Scotland for next fall. I’m also aggressively listening to the second book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber.

But I digress. I’m here to talk to you about Outlander.

Outlander, for those of you who don’t know, is a historical fiction/time travel/romance series. There’s some speculative fiction in there too. I feel like you could also throw in a handful of other genres. 

Just trust me when I say it is done well. 

We start with Claire Randall, a British nurse on holiday after World War 2  with her husband in the Scottish highlands. When a mysterious occurrence sends her back to the 1750’s she must use her knowledge and nursing skills to keep herself alive. Luckily she’ll also have the support of Jamie Fraser, who will do almost anything for her. 

Outlander is an immersive experience.The settings are vibrant. It feels like strolling through 18th century Scotland. Each danger is measured, each experience is a lesson and an accomplishment. There is a certain amount of investment the reader gets to share with Claire. She knows the fate of the people she interacts with. She knows about modern medicine and social conventions. She knows how things will change. It gives the reader the same insight and investment. It makes it easy to share her hopes and fears. 

And it lets the reader fall in love with the 18th century at the same pace Claire does, because Outlander isn’t just an adventure about a girl who accidentally time travels and wants to go home, it is about a woman who feels like she has 2 homes. 2 stories. 2 loves. 

Outlander is a worthy time investment. At over 800 pages the introduction to Gabaldon’s series isn’t a quick read, but it is addictive and well written. The audio book is a great gateway, with a really spot on narrator. 

Now if you excuse me. I have to get back to Dragonfly in Amber and continue planning my Scottish vacation.

The 100 Acre Wood of Holiday Cookies

My mom and I have a tradition. Every year we take a long weekend in December and we bake. When I say we bake I don’t mean we do a couple cookies and then hunker down with Hallmark movies and hot coco. 

No.

I mean we BAKE. We turn my mom’s large kitchen into an assembly line. We come prepared with recipes, ideas, and a list of people we want to give cookies too. This year my list exceeded 25 people. I came with a dozen recipes. We managed to make 15 different kinds of cookies, the popcorn I highlighted last weekend, banana bread, and soft pretzels (from a mix. No shame in a quick, carby snack!)

I look forward to Holiday Baking Weekend (which I wish I could trademark) for months. For the second year in a row my brother’s fiance has joined us. This year all of the men came to make cookies as well. Well, they came to make a cookie, each. My boyfriend is afraid of ovens. My brother was deeply unfocused. Sunday wasn’t as productive as it could have been. 

The spoils were still delicious.

I love the way traditions like this expand, but I also love that no matter how many bakers we add or how many strange cookies we attempt the more things feel the same. I still get to spend time with my mom, who I love and who I miss most during the business of the holidays. It gives us a chance to reminisce about so much, old friends, grandparents. 

This year also involved a lot of Disney talk. My soon to be sister in law is going to Disney World for her honeymoon. We all have lots of feelings about Disney+. 

I told my mom the first thing I looked for in the immense streaming catalog was The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I have very few memories of my parents reading to me, though I am sure they did. I do, however, remember vividly singing along to Pooh’s theme song and watching him learn lessons and go on adventures with all of his friends. 

Winnie the Pooh has always been one of my favorite children’s books. I love the movies, and still found love the familiarity of the characters that featured prominently in my childhood. 

My mom has similar memories. She loves Eeyore and Piglet. She has an old sweater with Pooh and his honey pot. 

Winnie the Pooh and his adventures are kind of like a tradition for us too. 

He is full of good lessons that are especially important around the holidays. Lessons of kindness, about how important it is to show up for your loved ones. He is full of adventures of bravery and friendship. 

I strive to be as kind and compassionate as pooh. Until then I will just make cookies and love my friends and family as hard as I can.

I think that’s another one of Pooh’s lessons – Effort, not perfection, is what matters.

The cookies I featured today are Brown Butter Almond Crinkle and Red Velvet Chocolate Chip. As much as I love recipe testing I do too much baking this time of year for trial and error. Both of these gems turned out delicious. All that I changed was the size, using the smallest cookie scoop I could find to ensure I had enough cookies for all of the people in my life.