Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.
Caitlyn is used to being the ugly duckling in her glamorous showbiz family… until the day she learns that she was adopted as an abandoned baby. Now, her search for answers takes her to the tiny English village of Tillyhenge where a man has been murdered by witchcraft – and where a mysterious shop selling enchanted chocolates is home to the “local witch”…
Soon Caitlyn finds herself fending off a toothless old vampire, rescuing an adorable kitten and meeting handsome aristocrat Lord James Fitzroy… not to mention discovering that she herself might have magical blood in her veins! (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I’ve loved all of the books in H.Y. Hanna’s Oxford Tearoom series, so I was excited to hear that she is starting a new cozy mystery series called Bewitched by Chocolate. This new series has, as you might guess, a bit of magic and a whole lot of chocolate!
On her search to find her birth family, Caitlyn finds herself in a small English town that has more secrets than you might think. Caitlyn befriends the local chocolate maker, a grouchy old woman who is thought of by many as the local witch, and does her best to defend her when the town tries to blame her for a recent murder. But Caitlyn soon finds out that there might be more truth to the rumors of magic than she wants to believe.
As with all of H.Y. Hanna’s works, this is a fun, lighthearted cozy mystery. Caitlyn is very different from Gemma, but she’s still an enjoyable, imperfect character to follow. I loved the small town setting and the quirky characters Caitlyn meets there, and I especially enjoyed the magic chocolate store! I hope we get to spend even more time there in future books.
If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of magic, or if you’ve enjoyed H.Y. Hanna’s other series, you should give this book a try.
January wasn’t the greatest month for me. I’ve been battling stress and illness (strep throat is no joke, people), but I managed to get a couple of things done anyway.
Post three new items on the N&B Etsy store. Not yet. I’ve been brainstorming and experimenting, but I haven’t posted anything new yet.
Start meal planning. …Nope. My husband and I collected a bunch of recipes, but we didn’t actually get to the “planning” part of this goal.
Do a joint book review with my sister. You can read it here!
Take care of home maintenance tasks. I’m counting this one mostly complete. There’s still a burnt out lightbulb that we haven’t gotten around to replacing yet.
Continue to carve out time for relaxation (and reading!). Yes. I’ve been organized about my work schedule and the things I need to do at home, and I’ve worked hard to make space for relaxing and being unproductive.
I’m keeping it simple for my February goals, since January didn’t go as planned:
Make breakfasts ahead of time. This is sort of related to my meal planning goal from last month, but it’s (hopefully) a lot simpler to accomplish. There are a couple days a week that I have to get up much earlier than the rest of the week, and I rarely feel like making breakfast when I get up, so I want to pre-make breakfast bars and other healthy, easy options.
Read and review the 2017 Newbery books. I’m so excited about this year’s Newbery books! One was already on my TBR list, but the others are books I had never heard of.
Actually post more Etsy projects in the N&B store. I’m experimenting more with watercolors, and I’ll be posting some bookish items as well.
What I’m Into
Books I’m looking forward to reading: I’m currently making my way through the NetGalley review books I ordered. Lots of YA coming up soon!
TV shows I’ve been watching: Whenever I’m sick or stressed, Unlikely Animal Friends (on Netflix) can always cheer me up.
Music I’m loving: After several months of waiting, because I just can’t handle that level of awesomeness every day, I’m finally re-listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.
Podcasts Audio books I’m listening to: Did you know that the movie Hidden Figures is based on a book? I’m listening to it on audio book right now.
My favorite Instagram:
I love this quote! (Plus, this photo offers you a sneak peek into some of the art I’m experimenting with for the Etsy store.)
If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and some of my hand lettering ventures), you can do so here.
If you want to see more of what I’m into every month, along with sneak peeks and my favorite posts from the blog, sign up for my email newsletter! It’ll show up in your inbox once a month and bring you the latest blog news and the things I’m loving.
As promised, I’m doing a co-review with my sister! We both read Shannon Hale’s books Austenland and Midnight in Austenland, two romances that center on the fictional vacation place where visitors dress and act like characters from a Jane Austen novel. Rather than a formal review, we decided to discuss our thoughts about both books. So be forewarned: There are spoilers for both books ahead!
Monica: To start off with, have you read any other Shannon Hale books? Melanie:Princess Academy, right? And Goose Girl? Monica: Yes. I’ve read those and also Book of a Thousand Days, and the two graphic novels she wrote with her husband. I thought it was interesting because most of what I know about Shannon Hale is her YA/children’s fiction. She usually writes stories with strong but flawed female MCs that give a darker twist to lesser-known fairy tales. So I felt like these adult fiction books were really different! Melanie: Yeah, it’s almost like these books (well, the first one anyway) were lighter than what she writes for children. I assume it was because she was going for an Austen feel? Monica: Yes, which brings me to another question: What did you expect from these books, and how did that differ from what you read? Melanie: I’ve read Austenland before, and it was pretty much what I expected, a light rom-com thing. So I had every expectation that Midnight in Austenland would feel the same way.
But I was very wrong… Monica: So I had never read these books before, and I guess I was kind of expecting them to be a little more along the same lines as her YA books, a little darker maybe? Honestly, I really didn’t like the first one very much; I thought it was pretty cheesy.
Also, did you think the whole idea of Austenland a little creepy? I think I would have been good with the historical reenactment part if they hadn’t promised you a fake romance also… Melanie: It was pretty cheesy, but I liked that about it. It was just a nice, sweet, entirely implausible book. It did seem a little emotionally manipulative of the women who came, though.
I just got frustrated with the protagonist in the first book because I felt like she really didn’t understand the dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy for the first half of Pride and Prejudice. Monica: What do you mean? Like she expected to fall in love and have it be perfect immediately? Melanie: No, like how she was so angry at Henry and thought he was such a jerk, and kept comparing him to Darcy at the end of Pride & Prejudice. Like, “Oh, he’s such a jerk, he’s not really a Darcy, he’s just rude.” It was like she didn’t see that he was being first half of P&P Darcy. Monica: I guess the audience is supposed to see the parallels between him and Darcy when the MC doesn’t. Melanie: Yeah, I guess it was to make the love story feel like P&P, but I felt like she should have been more self-aware, being such a huge fan of Austen. It was almost like she kept forgetting he was an actor playing a role. Monica: Yes! That was the worst part to me, in both books. If you’re into historical reenactment, that’s awesome! It sounds super fun. But the idea that this was kind of a resort mostly for bored wives looking for romance felt really creepy. Like, you paid a ton of money to dress up and play pretend, why do you keep thinking this is real? Melanie: Exactly! Like, in one scene, they’d be totally unable to get into character and feeling super awkward, and then in the next scene, you couldn’t even tell that they weren’t actually living it.
Monica: So my next question is basically book 1 vs. book 2. What did you think? I was surprised at how different they felt! Melanie: Right? I really thought they’d only be as different as two of Austen’s books. I kind of thought that was the point. I think she was going for Northanger Abbey with the second one, but Northanger Abbey did not actually have a murder… Monica: I actually liked the second one a lot better because 1) I thought Charlotte had a better grip on her life and 2) I’m addicted to mysteries and I liked that this book was a little less romance-focused. Melanie: I think I liked the first one better. I felt like I could identify more with Jane than with Charlotte, because I know more about being obsessed with romances in books than I do about being cheated on and having kids. Also, I don’t think I like mysteries very much because I am a wimp. I kept getting creeped out in the second one. Basically any time Charlotte wandered the house by herself, and when she had to go to sleep in the dark and her door wouldn’t lock. I kept thinking of a Jane Eyre adaptation I saw once where Jane was laying in bed and then lightning flashed and then the insane wife was there. Monica: It was kind of a big leap from straightforward romance to suddenly a dead body! And a murderer running around! Melanie: That was the biggest problem for me. I just reading along, and then all of a sudden, wait! That murder was real! And there’s crazy people! Monica: Reading the second book did give me a little more sympathy for Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice. Life as an upper class lady would have been pretty boring except for all the balls and social gatherings… and murders! Melanie: That’s a good point. Although, what’s up with this “let’s put on a play!” “let’s play a game called Murder!” Jane got way cheated out of evening entertainment in her stay. Monica: The one thing I liked less about the second book was the romance itself. Not that I disliked Eddie (or Reginald), but I felt a little strange about the deus ex machina ending where she had to stay in the country because of the murder trial, and magically her kids were fine with it? Melanie: I really liked the buildup to the romance in the second book. I thought it was sweet how they were friends during the whole time and everything. But yeah. It all worked out veeeeery conveniently in the second book. Like, she didn’t even have to see the crappy stepmom or anything!
Monica: So my last question/discussion is about the implications of Austenland. Would you go if there was a real one? Is the forced romance creepy? (spoiler alert: yes) Did you find it weird in the first book how Jane was so desperate to find love that her aunt died and left her a trip to Austenland? Melanie: I think Austenland would be fun in real life if there were more guests and fewer actors. Like if the hosts were actors, but you could bring a group of friends, or your significant others, and just do historical reenactment, I think that would be more fun and less creepy. Monica: That sounds great! I do like the idea of historical reenactment. I felt like Miss Charming was the epitome of the so-called “Ideal Client,” at least in a pessimistic way. Like she was so starved for affection and distraction that she was willing to live in a literal fantasy world, letting this gay guy fake fall in love with her for months on end. So I thought it was interesting that Jane and Charlotte came to heal their romantic wounds. I feel like in real life it would just be a bunch of Austen fangirls, not nearly so much drama! Melanie: Yeah, I did appreciate that we got to know Miss Charming better in the second book and she got a nice resolution. That’s probably what all the other vacations were like, when the actors didn’t accidentally fall in love…
Monica: Any other thoughts about these books to wrap it up? Melanie: Hmm. As I was reading Austenland, I thought it was really interesting how much Jane cared about everyone’s opinions. Even though she knew they were actors, she still really wanted them to like her. Monica: Good point… It’s kind of a clue to her whole approach to life. Thanks for reviewing these books with me! Melanie: Thank you! I never would have read the second one otherwise!
These books/comics don’t really have anything to do with each other than that they’re all focused on the art. I’m not usually a fan of comics, and there are very few graphic novels I’ve read so far, but the last few months have found me reading more books in those categories than normal! (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)
If you don’t know anything about the Adventure Time TV show, I’m not sure I can explain it to you. If you have seen the show, this series of comics is actually based on the show, not the other way around, so I’m sure you’ll find plenty of in jokes and such to keep you entertained. If you haven’t seen the show, well, neither have I, and I still found these comics really fun.
The characters and the plot are bizarre, but in a good way. The cotton candy-colored post-apocalyptic world is always presenting strange situations based only on Adventure Time logic. If you can put up with some weird and wacky stuff, you’ll probably enjoy these comics. If you like your stories to follow some semblance of real-world logic, maybe give these a pass.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Castle Waiting graphic novel tells the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, Castle Waiting is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil, but about being a hero in your own home.
This graphic novel is full of funny, fairy tale-esque stories. None of them are the classic Snow White or Cinderella tales (although there is a modified version of Sleeping Beauty here), so you get the feeling of those medieval tales with fresh stories. Very fun.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Adulthood is a Myth
If you haven’t been following Sarah’s Scribbles, you’re really missing out. Sarah captures the emotions of many broke, introverted Millennials in her hilarious web comic, and this book is a collection of new and old comics. It’s pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
P.S. Do you have any ideas for the next graphic novel or comic I should read? Let me know in the comments!
Note: I received a free copy of these books in exchange for an honest review. Summaries are via NetGalley.com.
The Pho Cookbook
Vietnam’s most beloved culinary export—pho—is now within the reach of any home cook.
Andrea Nguyen first tasted pho in Saigon as a child, sitting at a street stall with her parents. That experience sparked a lifelong love of the iconic noodle soup, and here she dives deep into pho’s lively past, visiting its birthplace and then teaching how to successfully make it. Options range from quick weeknight cheats to 5-hour weekend feasts with broth and condiments from scratch, as well as other pho rice noodle favorites. Over fifty versatile recipes, including snacks, salads, companion dishes, and vegetarian and gluten-free options, welcome everyone to the pho table. With a thoughtful guide on ingredients and techniques, plus evocative location photography and deep historical knowledge, The Pho Cookbook enables anyone to cook this comforting classic.
My husband is the cook in our family, so I knew he’d want to help me test out this pho cookbook. I loved the historical background and modern-day descriptions of pho, including the author’s own experiences with this Vietnamese classic, but I left the recipe testing up to my husband. Here are his thoughts:
“I loved this book! The historical and cultural information really display the wide applications of the iconic dish and really goes a long way to inform western readers (like myself) to the depth of meaning and cultural significance behind something as approachable as delicious food.
“The recipes are very well laid out and approachable. I made the basic chicken pho to resounding success. It was tasty and simple to make, and certainly left me wanting to try the more complicated recipes. If Vietnamese food and culture at all interest you, this book is worth perusing.”
Everyone has questions about drinking, but it can seem like every bartender (and bargoer) has different answers. Between the old wives’ tales, half-truths, and whiskey-soaked conjectures, it’s hard to know what to believe—until now.
Armed with cutting-edge research and a barfly’s thirst for the truth, cocktail instructor Brian D. Hoefling tackles the most burning questions and longest-held myths surrounding that most ancient of human pastimes—with the science to either back them up or knock them down. From the ins and outs of aging to the chemistry of a beer head and the science behind your hangover, Distilled Knowledge provides a complete and comical education that will put an end to any barroom dispute, once and for all.
If you are interested in learning about where alcohol comes from and how it works, this is the book for you. The author collects his research on the terminology, history, and science of alcoholic drinks and shares it in short, interesting sections.
I’ll admit, I’m not much into molecular structure, so certain sections of this book were not for me. But I am a fan of random tidbits of knowledge, and I found the chapters on how alcohol affects the body (and why it affects some people differently than others) pretty fascinating.
When Garnet finds a silver thimble in the sand by the river, she is sure it’s magical. But is it magical enough to help her pig, Timmy, win a blue ribbon on Fair Day? (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This is one of those books that you could describe as charming. I love county fairs and kids having good old-fashioned fun, and that’s what Thimble Summer is all about. As with many of my childhood Newbery reads, I just wish I could remember more about it!
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Mr. Popper’s Penguins
The Poppers unexpectedly come into possession of a penguin, then get a penguin from the zoo who mates with the first penguin to have 10 baby penguins. Before long, something must be done before they eat the Poppers out of house and home! (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This is probably one of the best-known Newbery books ever given the award (aside from the Little House on the Prairie series and A Wrinkle in Time), and for good reason. It’s funny, cute, and a little ridiculous. Mr. Popper somehow acquires a houseful of penguins, which he and his family must then deal with. Kids have loved this book for decades, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.
I’m not sure what to call this type of book, in which the photos are the main draw and the writing is almost secondary (coffee table books, perhaps?). I settled on photography books, which I think describes the attraction. Both of these books are worth a look.
Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream
If the creation of a structure represents the values and ideals of a time, so too does its subsequent abandonment and eventual destruction. In “Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream,” internationally acclaimed photographer Matthew Christopher continues his tour of the quiet catastrophes dotting American cities, examining the losses and failures that led these ruins to become forsaken by communities that once celebrated them. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I am weirdly obsessed with abandoned places, so this book is right up my alley. It’s filled with amazing photographs and descriptions of abandoned places, from a classic ghost town to abandoned institutions, schools, game farms, and more. The photos by themselves are fascinating, but the stories of how and why these places were abandoned adds so much to the book.
My single complaint about this book is that it significantly needs a final edit. I try not to be nitpicky about typos or small grammatical errors, so please note that I mean more than those small problems in my critique of this book. There are unfinished sentences, as well as editorial notes that I know the author and/or editor never meant to be seen. It distracts the reader a bit from the wonderful storytelling, but it’s still not enough to deter me from giving this book my highest rating. I loved it, and I can’t wait to read the author’s other similar book.
Rating: Re-read Worthy
Apples of Uncommon Character
In his classic A Geography of Oysters, Rowan Jacobsen forever changed the way America talks about its best bivalve. Now he does the same for our favorite fruit, showing us that there is indeed life beyond Red Delicious-and even Honeycrisp. While supermarkets limit their offerings to a few waxy options, apple trees with lives spanning human generations are producing characterful varieties-and now they are in the midst of a rediscovery. From heirlooms to new designer breeds, a delicious diversity of apples is out there for the eating. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
If you’ve ever refused to eat an apple because you thought it might be bland, one-note, or overly sweet, you need to explore the world of apples Jacobsen presents in Apples of Uncommon Character. This book features a collection of uncommon, often antique apples that I now want to eat immediately.
Every page has gorgeous photos of the apples, interspersed with the author’s notes on the taste, history, and usage of that type of apple and information on how Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, and Red Delicious came to rule the American grocery. It’s fascinating stuff.
Ingrid is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or at least her shoes are. And getting them back will mean getting tangled up in a murder investigation as complicated as the mysteries solved by her idol, Sherlock Holmes. With soccer practice, schoolwork, and the lead role in her town’s production of Alice in Wonderland, Ingrid is swamped. But as things in Echo Falls keep getting curiouser and curiouser, Ingrid realizes she must solve the murder on her own — before it’s too late! (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This is a fun, kind of dark murder mystery for MG readers. It’s pretty obvious that this is Abrahams’ first exploration of children’s fiction; some of the things Ingrid does are kind of unrealistic for a kid her age. Still, I enjoyed following Ingrid as she gets in over her head and tries to solve a murder without implicating herself.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Pleasing the Ghost
As nine-year-old Dennis confronts the ghost of his uncle Arvie, Arvie’s eccentric antics and wonderful wordplay keep the reader laughing. But at its tender heart, the story reveals the holes left in our lives when we lose the ones we love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I never thought I’d dislike a book by Sharon Creech! She has written some of my favorite books of all time, but Pleasing the Ghost just didn’t do it for me. I think I’m drawn more toward Creech’s MG fiction, rather than her children’s fiction. Still, I found this book cute, and small children will probably still enjoy it.
In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was so lovely! Minli’s journey to find the Old Man of the Moon was such a fun way to string together the Chinese folk stories that author Grace Lin grew up reading. Plus there is beautiful full color art. This is a quick read that should be on your (or your child’s) TBR list.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
The Tangle-Coated Horse
Ella Young was born in 1867 in the little village of Feenagh, County Antrim. “From childhood I heard tales of ghosts, banshees, haunted castles, mischievous and friendly sprites, snatches of ballads, and political arguments….It was not until I came to Dublin and met Standish O’Grady, A.E., and Kuna Meyer that I realized what a heritage waited for me in Celtic literature. I read every translation I could get, learned Irish, and betook myself to Gaelic Ireland where, by turf fires, I could hear the poems of the Fianna recited by folk who had heard the faery music and danced in faery circles…”
This is one of the old, out of print Honor books that I’ve ordered through interlibrary loan. I’m finding that most of the books that fall into that category are short story collections, which I’m not a big fan of (as you might remember). This one, a collection of tales about ancient Ireland and the magical creatures that lived there, is not too bad, but I found myself getting bored much of the time. I have a feeling your kids will probably feel the same way about it.
Tales and legends from Finland form the background to this story of a modern Finnish boy who is a student during the Finnish Revolution of World War I that freed that country from oppressive Russian rule.
Vaino was surprisingly enjoyable. Expecting another short story collection (see above), I was glad to find that the majority of this book consists of historical fiction focused on Finland in the early 20th century. There are short stories here about the fictional creatures and gods that populated ancient Finland (of course there are), but they are interspersed with the real-life events of the Finnish revolution during WWI and the adventures of Vaino, a young Finnish boy who gets caught up in these events. The intertwining of these two threads made this book work.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
In the Beginning
A thought-provoking collection of twenty-five stories that reflect the wonder and glory of the origins of the world and humankind. With commentary by the author.
You know I love Virginia Hamilton. This Newbery book of hers, In the Beginning, retells many of the world’s creation stories. The book is filled with great illustrations and explanations of these myths, including the various types of creation stories. I didn’t find this book as compelling as the last Virginia Hamilton I read, but I certainly don’t regret reading it.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Year of Billy Miller
When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad.
If you’ve read as many Newbery books as I have, you start to realize that there are major themes for the different time periods in which they’ve given the award. As mentioned above, many of the early Newbery books are collections of myths and short stories, while the 70s and 80s brought a glut of historical fiction. The most recent decade or so has been marked by unique, easy-to-read writing styles and a branching out from the topics of previous years.
The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery honor book from 2014, fits nicely into that description. It’s a sweet story about a wonderful, ordinary second grade year. In four consecutive sections, seven-year-old Billy learns how to get along with his teacher, his mother, his sister, and his father. Your second grader will almost certainly enjoy this book.
Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
When Marjorie went to live with her frosty maiden aunt, she couldn’t imagine the adventures she would have with dragons — good and bad — and all the strange creatures that live in a mysterious land beneath the Tarn. The spunky 9-year-old redhead forges an unlikely friendship with an insecure young boy named Rufus who lives with his crusty grandfather next door. When Jorie — for that is what she prefers to be called — finds a dusty ancient book about dragons, she learns four strange words that will send the two of them into a mysterious land beneath the Tarn, riddled with enchantment and danger. Hungry for adventure, the children take the plunge, quite literally, and find themselves in the magic land of Cabrynthius. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
Jorie is a young girl with a lot of spunk, so when she goes to live with her strict, elderly aunt, of course she gets into mischief. Jorie teams up with the boy next door, Rufus, whom she drags along on her adventures. The two find a book full of dragons and words they can’t understand, which helps transport them to a world of magic.
Let me start by saying that I loved the characters in the real world. Jorie, her aunt, the housekeeper, Rufus and his grandfather–their interactions were so fun. Each character has a unique voice and personality, even the characters who don’t get enough page time to be fully fleshed out.
My one issue with the story is the fantasy world. Although the characters here are also interesting, I found the world itself a bit flat. The issue that I sometimes have with fantasy novels is that they fall quickly into cliches, and there was a bit of that issue in Jorie and the Magic Stones. I found myself looking forward to the time the characters spent in the real world, rather than in Cabrynthius. Still, the MG kids this novel is aimed toward may feel differently about that than I do.
For me personally, I thought this book was enjoyable but forgettable. But if you have a child who loves dragons and magic, they might want to give Jorie and the Magic Stones a shot.