Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

A few years ago I took my daughter to a literary festival called EpicFest in uptown Charlotte. This was yet another one of those events where I used my sweet, accommodating daughter as an excuse to go and hear one of my favorite children’s authors speak.

Lauren Oliver has written many books I’ve enjoyed, as well as one adult novel that confused me a little bit so I’ll probably need to read it again. I’m mostly drawn to her young-adult novels such as Panic, Vanishing Girls, Replica, Before I Fall (which was adapted into a film this past year), but I picked up a copy of her middle-grade novel, Liesl and Po,  for my daughter to get autographed at the festival. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel after hearing Oliver answer a Q&A at EpicFest. She said she was inspired to write the story after the death of one of her best friends. In fact, she said she wrote it mostly as a way to process her own feelings of loss—she wasn’t actually sure the novel would be published. In the back of the book, she writes:

The idea for the book came from a fantasy I entertained during those months: I dreamed about unearthing my friend’s ashes from the decorative wall in which they’d been interred and scattering them over the water, the only place he’d ever felt truly at peace.

Below is the synopsis of the novel:

Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice—until one night a ghost named Po appears from the darkness.

That same evening, an alchemist’s apprentice named Will makes an innocent mistake that has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.

Review:

One of the things that always impresses me about children’s novels is how deep and profound they can be. Children are resilient beings, and I think sometimes we forget that. Liesl and Po tackles some tough subjects in the way that’s reminisent of Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling. After the death of her father (which readers soon learn was a murder) Liesl is trapped in a small attic room with only the barest scraps of food and drink (think items one might be served in a concentration camp) with only an androgynous ghost named Po to keep her company. She questions Po about what live is like “on the other side” and finally becomes motivated to escape her circumstances and take her father’s ashes to the only place where he was happiest.

Will, the alchemist’s apprentice, also lives a hardscrabble life, as he is an orphan who is verbally (and sometimes physically) abused by the alchemist. He is also forced to skulk around in the dead of night to fetch unimaginable items such as chicken’s heads or a dead man’s beard from a local mortuary. He’s carrying a large box full of magic that is supposed to be delivered to a local wealthy woman, The Lady Premiere, who lives in a castle. When the box of magic gets mixed up with the ashes of Liesl’s fathers, well, you can imagine that the two children get caught in quite a pickle.

The setting of this book is stark, and grey, much like the author viewed the world after the death of her friend. But slowly, through a tale of adventure and lovable characters such as Po, a ghost-animal named Bundle that could be a dog or cat, and a sweet but not-so-bright security guard named Mo (short for Molasses), the color gradually creeps back onto the pages, both literally and metaphorically. It also takes place in a setting and time period that could be anywhere and at anytime.

The back of the book says appropriate for ages 8-12, but I would probably recommend it more for ages 10 and older, because there is so much talk of death, “the other side” and description of a crematorium and the pretty scary character of the stepmother.

Book Review: 100 Days of Real Food-Fast and Fabulous

Anyone who knows me knows I love to cook. This wasn’t always the case–ask my husband about the slop I used to try and whip up for us when we first got married. There was a LOT of processed food and frozen dinners thrown in there. Then when I was pregnant with our first child and we were both working demanding jobs, there was mostly take-out. Slowly I started cooking more, little by little, but I was still using a lot of processed ingredients (like those yummy condensed soups) because that’s all I knew. Several years ago I came across the 100 Days of Real Food blog and was happy to find recipes that included nothing but whole food ingredients. If you don’t know about the family behind the blog, including mom and Charlotte, N.C. resident Lisa Leake, you can read more about their story here.

I absolutely loved the first cookbook and learned so much about what is considered real food and what has added ingredients. I found so many great recipes I added into my usual rotation, such as the Slow Cooker Potato Soup, Slow Cooker Fajitas, Mini Quiches (my daughter even makes these herself now!), Whole-Wheat Pasta with Kale-Pesto Cream Sauce, etc. I also learned how to make my own whipped cream and it is yummy!

The second cookbook Lisa Leake released, 100 Days of Real Food: Fast & Fabulous, features a whole slew of ways to help you integrate healthy, real food into the household with quick and simple recipes. I ordered this cookbook the second I realized it was coming out. Some of my favorite recipes include Layered Jar Salad with White Beans, Quick Cauliflower Soup, Kale, Sausage and White Bean Soup, the Orange Cream Bundt Cake, Fresh Ranch Dressing (my kids won’t eat the stuff out of a bottle now–they will only eat this!) and much more.

Orange Cream Bundt Cake with Whipped Cream

One recipe I’m dying to make but haven’t yet is the Cheesy Hash Brown Casserole (like Cracker Barrel’s but without the MSG and other additives). Also, these brownies are delicious and my kids can make them without my help!

Simple Salad Mix

The book also includes make-ahead meal suggestions that don’t require a recipe, such as hard-boiled eggs, cooked quinoa, granola, hummus–things that are great for lunch boxes and the days/nights when you want to feed everyone quickly but without grabbing fast food.  There are also meal plans for each season that include shopping lists to make things so much easier.

These two cookbooks have become a staple in our house when meal planning and I can’t wait for her next one to come out.

Book Review: The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand

Digging in with my afternoon cup of coffee! #elinhilderbrand #theidenticals #summerreading

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“The most underrated force at work in the universe is that of coincidence. And yet who among us hasn’t been at its mercy?” – The Identicals

Elin Hilderbrand is one of my favorite authors, and every summer I look forward to meeting a new set of characters in her latest novel. In my favorite book, The Blue Bistro, it was Adrienne, Thatcher, the mysterious chef Fiona, and the whole colorful front and back of the house staff at the restaurant. In The Castaways it was Tess and Greg, Addison and Delilah, Addison and Phoebe and Andrea and Jeffrey, a group of couples who had all grown too close for their own good—I almost couldn’t keep up with all their secrets! In A Summer Affair it was the illicit romance between Claire and Lock as they worked together on a summer gala, even though both were married and had a lot to lose if their secret was discovered. The list goes on and on. This year, I couldn’t hold myself back when I heard about The Identicals, a tale of two identical twins who were raised on the separate islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

In fact, both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard each serve as narrators in different parts of the book. Nantucket says things like, “Famous residents: Prefer not be named,” while Martha’s Vineyard adds, “Famous residents: Meg Ryan, Lady Gaga, Carly Simon, James Taylor, John Belushi,” etc. The book is also told from the points of view of twins Tabitha (raised on Nantucket with her mom after her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager), Harper (who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard with the twins’ dad) and Ainsley, who is Tabitha’s 16-year-old daughter and quite the handful.

Both women are 39 and have lives that couldn’t be more different. Tabitha never married but had two children with her ex-boyfriend Wyatt, Ainsley and an infant son who only lived a few months. She also followed in her mother’s business trying to keep a clothing line (think Lilly Pulitzer variety) afloat, while Harper never really settled on a career and got into one scrape after another, including a drug trafficking charge. When the book begins the two women are united when their father Billy dies, and the reader learns the women haven’t spent any time together since the death of Tabitha’s son—a death for which she blames Harper for some mysterious reason. When their mother Eleanor falls and breaks her hip, there is no one to stay and watch over Ainsley, who has become quite a rebellious and indulgent teenager, on Nantucket. Harper ends up traveling to Nantucket to help out against Tabitha’s wishes while Tabitha first helps her mother in Boston, and then makes her way to Martha’s Vineyard.

I enjoyed reading about the dynamic between the two sisters, especially their complicated love lives. The character of Ainsley had the most growth throughout the novel, which was a nice surprise. I did grow a little frustrated at the hints of what happened the night Tabitha’s son died, because at the end blaming Harper was a little more than misplaced. It also reminded me a little of the storyline in Summerland that involved Ava and Jordan’s infant son who also died.

As usual, Hilderbrand’s love of food comes into play (Harper is a great cook and the meals she prepares are decadent) and it was a change of pace to read about Martha’s Vineyard this time along with Nantucket. It made me add one more place to my travel bucket list! I also purchased the book from Barnes and Noble and it featured bonus content at the end that gave a little backstory to the Tabitha and Harper’s parents, Eleanor and Billy.

Have you read any Elin Hilderbrand books? Which was your favorite? If you haven’t, what is your favorite author famous for writing “beach reads?”