Review: Sex Object

Sex Object, Jessica Valenti

Published June 7th 2016 by Dey Street Books

Hardcover, 205 pages

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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Author and Guardian US columnist Jessica Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now, in a darkly funny and bracing memoir, Valenti explores the toll that sexism takes from the every day to the existential.

Sex Object explores the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped Valenti’s adolescence and young adulthood in New York City, revealing a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.

In the tradition of writers like Joan Didion and Mary Karr, this literary memoir is sure to shock those already familiar with Valenti’s work and enthrall those who are just finding it.

I found Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women to be totally fascinating and well done even as it scared me.  I appreciate all the work she did on feministing and I think her essays are always worth reading.  I’ll be honest though, I had a hard time with Sex Object.  I had to put this book down for long breaks before I could get through it.  The topics are hard – sexualization that Valenti’s been experiencing since childhood, touches on familial sexual abuse, and inappropriate teacher behavior.  In adulthood Valenti goes into her relationships and briefly into her path through colleges to feministing, then lightly into her marriage and her traumatic pregnancy.

Valenti asks “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”  Maybe it’s because I am lucky enough that I haven’t felt hated that I hard a hard time relating to her stories?  Her experiences on the New York subways are not the ones I have had on my train rides.  Her stories were brutal and painful to read at times.  They scared me.  I’m raising my kid to take the train – I don’t want to think about men exposing themselves to her on the Brown Line one day.  The harshness of her language and the topics I think in part made me struggle with Sex Object – there are only so many stories I want to read about anyone’s sexual history and partly the flow of chapters was somewhat jarring.  I would have liked deeper essays rather than short and shocking chapters. 

I can’t imagine the hatred and vitriol that Jessica Valenti is exposed to because of the internet and the work that she does – I looked at her twitter as part of writing this review and Valenti announced a social media break after she received a rape threat directed at her 5 year-old daughter.  All this woman does is advocate for the rights of women and she finds hate directed at her helpless child?  What the fuck is this world?  I have a 5 year-old daughter and I’m in tears and nauseated at the very thought – and I’m angry!

That’s why the book is important – Valenti tells her stories and experiences and they’re important and deserve validation.  This wasn’t an easy book but oh my God what is this world?  Some of the stories felt like too much – too much sex, too much vulgarity, too many drugs – but this is real life and it should make you react physically and even angrily at times.  Only then will we really be determined to follow Valenti and advocate for change.

Thank you Dey Street Books and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

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Review: Mother Tongue

Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, Christine Gilbert

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published May 17th 2016 by Avery

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Imagine negotiating for a replacement carburetor in rural Mexico with words you’re secretly pulling from a pocket dictionary. Imagine your two-year-old asking for more niunai at dinner—a Mandarin word for milk that even you don’t know yet. Imagine finding out that you’re unexpectedly pregnant while living in war-torn Beirut. With vivid and evocative language, Christine Gilbert takes us along with her into foreign lands, showing us what it’s like to make a life in an unfamiliar world—and in an unfamiliar tongue.

Gilbert was a young mother when she boldly uprooted her family to move around the world, studying Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico, with her toddler son and all-American husband along for the ride. Their story takes us from Beijing to Beirut, from Cyprus to Chiang Mai—and also explores recent breakthroughs in bilingual brain mapping and the controversial debates happening in linguistics right now.

Gilbert’s adventures abroad prove just how much language influences culture (and vice versa), and lead her to results she never expected. Mother Tongue is a fascinating and uplifting story about taking big risks for bigger rewards and trying to find meaning and happiness through tireless pursuit—no matter what hurdles may arise. It’s a treat for language enthusiasts and armchair travelers alike.

Welcome to a #WeekofReviews hosted by Andi at Estella’s Revenge.  I’m going to do my best to clean out my long list of books to review starting now!  First is a book that made me want to take off and travel the world.

I love the idea of packing up my family and living somewhere else.  I spent a semester in Rome in college and I loved learning Italian, exploring Roman neighborhoods and finding all the gelato and chianti that I could.  I would pick up and move to Europe if our careers could take us there absolutely!  When I heard about Christine Gilbert chronicling her journey to take her family through three completely different countries while trying to gain language fluency in each I had to read it.  While the countries that Gilbert and her husband chose wouldn’t be mine I was still fascinated by their adventure.

I loved how Gilbert wove her personal story with her research into how we learn languages.  (Shocking – there is no one answer)  She shared the many theories she studied without weighing down the flow of their journey.   As much as I liked reading about her efforts with schools, flashcards and tutors (at a minimum) I thought it was even more fascinating how her young son picked up bits and pieces of Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish each as they moved.  I was really impressed at the level of commitment Gilbert gave to this project.  I can’t imagine hours of language lessons on top of audio recordings, homework and research – all while living in a new culture with a young family.  

I appreciated Gilbert’s honesty even when her choices weren’t the best – when she realized Shanghai was not liveable for her family because of pollution or when she realized she had been too strict with her education plan to really forge a life as an expatriate.  This crazy adventure definitely had moments of great beauty and inspiration –  with learning both news languages and cultures.  

For an added reading bonus – I had a flashback to Hausfrau and to Anna’s language lessons. As much as I loved that book I’m glad Christine’s was a very different kind of story!

Avery has kindly offered two copies for me to giveaway!  Here is a link to a Rafflecopter giveaway so go and enter!  Would you pick up and move to another country?  If so where would you go?

Bon Chance!  US Only, giveaway ends 6/20.  No spam giveaway accounts!

Thank you Avery for this copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Nonfiction Review: Good Mourning

Good Mourning, Elizabeth Meyer, Caitlin Moscatello

Published August 25th 2015 by Gallery Books

Hardcover, 288 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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In this funny, insightful memoir, a young socialite risks social suicide when she takes a job at a legendary funeral chapel on New York City’s Upper East Side.Good Mourning offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous funeral homes in the country where not even big money can protect you from the universal experience of grieving. It’s Gossip Girl meets Six Feet Under, told from the unique perspective of a fashionista turned funeral planner.

Elizabeth Meyer stumbled upon a career in the midst of planning her own father’s funeral, which she turned into an upbeat party with Rolling Stones music, thousands of dollars worth of her mother’s favorite flowers, and a personalized eulogy. Starting out as a receptionist, Meyer quickly found she had a knack for helping people cope with their grief, as well as creating fitting send-offs for some of the city’s most high-powered residents.  Meyer has seen it all: two women who found out their deceased husband (yes, singular) was living a double life, a famous corpse with a missing brain, and funerals that cost more than most weddings. By turns illuminating, emotional, and darkly humorous, Good Mourning is a lesson in how the human heart grieves and grows, whether you’re wearing this season’s couture or drug-store flip-flops.

This book had a lot of potential.  Sadly, the stories pitched in the blurb were too short to really sell the book as a whole and honestly, Elizabeth Meyer really thinks way too much of her wardrobe for me.  Meyer started in the funeral business as a receptionist soon after the death of her father.  The other receptionists don’t see past her Gucci heels on the first day of work and never warm to her and frankly are quite cruel.  She moves from answering calls to dealing with families and helping them plan incredibly detailed – and expensive funerals.  I am not discounting how unfair the treatment by her coworkers was – but when I read

For the pittance I was making, my job was less a job and more charity work for the Upper East Side.”

If that’s your attitude I’m sure that the people who are counting on that pittance for their income aren’t going to like you.  I get that Meyer couldn’t disclose a who exactly she helped at the funeral home, but it just felt like there could have been richer stories.  I mean a corpse with a missing brain?  Where did it go?!  Who would have taken it?  Couldn’t there have been some follow-up to find out?  

I do applaud Meyer for talking about death and wanting to get people talking to their families and preparing for the inevitable, but in the end this would have been better with less fashion and more detailed anecdotes.  

2 stars

Thank you Gallery Books and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.

All quotes taken from an unfinished galley copy in advance of publication.

2 Mini Reviews!

Because I honestly don’t know when I would have discovered author Stacey Ballis without her bestie Jen Lancaster I decided it was appropriate to group these reviews together!

I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster

Published May 5th 2015 by NAL

Hardcover, 320 pages

Source: ARC won in Goodreads giveaway

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Sure Jen has made mistakes. She spent all her money from a high-paying job on shoes, clothes, and spa treatments. She then carried a Prada bag to the unemployment office. She wrote a whole memoir about dieting…but didn’t lose weight. She embarked on a quest for cultural enlightenment that only cemented her love for John Hughes movies and Kraft American Singles. She tried to embrace everything Martha Stewart, while living with a menagerie of rescue cats and dogs. (Glitter…everywhere.)

Mistakes are one thing; regrets are another.

After a girls’ weekend in Savannah makes her realize that she is—yikes!—middle-aged (binge watching is so the new binge drinking), Jen decides to make a bucket list and seize the day, even if that means having her tattoo removed at one hundred times the cost of putting it on.

From attempting a juice cleanse to studying Italian, from learning to ride a bike to starting a new business, and from sampling pasta in Rome to training for a 5K, Jen is turning a mid-life crisis into a mid-life opportunity, sharing her sometimes bumpy—but always hilarious—attempts to better her life…again.

I admit I will probably read anything Jen Lancaster writes due to my deep love for Bitter is the New Black.  I laughed until I cried more than once reading her debut.  Bright Lights, Big Ass I even laughed until I cried while reading in public.   After BL, BA her books started to feel a bit more familiar.  Sometimes still enjoyable, but they didn’t make me cry from laughing anymore.

I Regret Nothing felt like a step back towards the Jen I fell for years ago.  Yes, her problems can basically all be defined as “First World” but she’s honest about it and about her efforts to improve herself.   She was much more relatable than in Jeneration X.  I had quite a mental image of her riding an adult tricycle around Lake Forest and falling into a tourist trap in Italy.  I love her descriptions of her outings with her girlfriends- I want to go on trips like that!  So while this wasn’t cry from laughing funny for me I’d say pick it up if you need a Jen Lancaster fix!

Also, sidebars are the new footnotes  – and these always crack me up!  I would miss them if they weren’t part of her books!

Thank you NAL and Goodreads First Reads for this advance copy!

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Recipe for Disaster, Stacey Ballis

Paperback, 480 pages

Published March 3rd 2015 by Berkley

Source: ARC from ALA Midwinter Meeting

To an outside observer, Anneke Stroudt is a mess—her shirts are stained, her fingernails stubby, her language colorful. But, despite her flaws, Anneke’s life is close to perfect. She has a beautiful historic house to restore and a loving fiancé who cooks like a dream.

Until Anneke’s charmed existence falls apart when she loses both her job and her future husband in one terrible day. In need of a new start, she packs up her disgruntled schnauzer and moves into her half-finished home, where she throws her pent-up frustration—and what little savings she has—into finishing the renovation.

But at the first step into the house’s overhaul, Anneke is sidetracked when she discovers a mysterious leather-bound book, long hidden away, filled with tempting recipes and steamy secrets from Gemma Ditmore-Smythe, the cook for the house’s original owners. Slowly, with the help of some delicious food and Gemma’s life lessons, Anneke begins to realize that, just like a flawless recipe, she’s been waiting for the right ingredients to cook up a perfect life all along…

I am such a sucker for books set in Chicago so aside from the Jen Lancaster connection I really wanted to read Recipe for Disaster.  I love the feeling of familiarity that I get while reading about different neighborhoods in my city.  I really liked Anneke!  She’s not perfect in body or in temperament so she felt like a real person to me.  I definitely loved her friends and wanted them for myself!  I saw a Goodreads review that called this the perfect mix of HGTV and the Food Network and I love that description!  The house renovations gave me serious envy and I am definitely going to try one or two of the recipes included in the book.  I also liked the romantic drama even though it wasn’t at all what I was expecting in the end.

I did find Gemma’s journal to be a cheesey and probably unnecessary addition – but I did love how Anneke taught herself to cook from the recipes and how that helped her regain her self-confidence after her personal and professional lives were falling apart.   This book felt a lot longer than it needed to be and I wonder if without the journal it could have been a better length.  Or maybe the house details – as amazing as they were – could have been a bit shorter?

Overall a cute summer read.  Good friends, romance and yummy food!  I really need to put the rest of Ballis’ books onto my TBR.

Thank you Berkley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review(ish) – Yes Please

Sometime last year, my two besties from high school (and loyal GIAO readers!) and I started talking about reading a book together to discuss and review. Initially, that book was going to be Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. Then, we took it down a few notches and decided to read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please together.

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This led to a series of texts and emails over a few weeks about the book, about the virtues of reading, and about coolness. Reading is obviously a pretty solitary activity, but discussing a book with friends can be all sorts of fun. I highly recommend it (and guys, let’s do it again!).

So, here’s what we thought about the book (texts and messages have been edited to sound way more put together than the conversation actually was. My buddies are Bestie 1 and Bestie 2 – they are both brilliant and hilarious.

H: How’s the book going?

Bestie 1: I’m about halfway through – she is funny, but I can’t stop comparing it in my mind to Tina Fey’s book which I thought was funnier. Not a fair comparison, but that’s what’s happening.

H: I am also comparing to Tina Fey, but not sure who wins the comparison yet. I noticed they are both no dummies: UVA and Boston College. With Bossypants, I sort of regretted that I never watched 30 Rock and am now sort of regretting not watching Parks and Rec.

Bestie 2: Interjection: Amy Poehler has a site called Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls that posts cool stuff women achieve worldwide. Also, I have spent more time in the past 12 months reading other women’s advice than is really necessary: Sonya Sotomayor, Ariana Huffington, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton (albeit indirectly), Tina Fey, Rachel Maddow, Mindy Kaling. I’m sure I’ve got more.

Bestie 1: Half the point of reading is to understand people and who they are and what they did to make them who they are so I would say it was all time well spent.

[Break for messages about when we can all get together for a weekend. Insert note from #2 –  For-freaking-ever H lived on the East Coast near Bestie 1, but she recently came to her senses and moved back to the Midwest where Bestie 2 lives.  Bestie 2 is ridiculously excited about this because now we can force Bestie 1 to come visit and freeze her ass off in the 11 months of the year it is cold here.]

Bestie 1: Things I have thought while reading Yes Please: Amy Poehler is cool. I wish Amy Poehler would stop trying to convince me she is cool. I wish Amy Poehler was as cool as Tina Fey. I wish Amy Poehler was as cool about her coolness as Tina Fey. I wish I was as cool as either one of them.

Bestie 2: She’s also more blatant about her messages than Tina – Say what you want, like who likes you, etc. Tina more told parables that were entertaining along the way that you enjoyed reaching the moral of the story.

[Break for messages about bread, cheese, and wine — in copious amounts. Priorities.]

H (the open-minded optimist): I am 40% done with the book and I don’t feel like Amy is overselling her coolness really. Hmmm.

Bestie 2 (in a moment of delusion): She’s growing on me.

Bestie 1 (always agreeable): I have also turned around on the book – I am almost done now and the final third warmed me back up to who I thought she would be. Not that I was ever really not enjoying it.

[Break for messages about Bestie 2’s new puppy! Yay puppies!  That puppy is amaze-balls.]

H (bringing us back to order): Am I the only one not finished with this book yet? Working on it now! She lost me a bit waxing poetic about her Parks and Rec castmates since I have never watched it.

Bestie 2 (feeling herself again): I have no patience. I skip things I’m not interested in. Only reason I’m still reading this one is to chat with you besties about it.

Bestie 1:  [radio silence]

H: Okay, here’s my final thoughts. From reading this, I think Amy Poehler is pretty cool, but I am definitely not a super fan – she joined SNL long after my days of watching it, and I really haven’t seen her in that much. I really don’t have anything bad to say about the book – I just don’t have anything great to say either. It was okay.

Bestie 1: I am glad we read this book together because I like doing things with you guys and texting funny things to each other. As for the book – it was good, but I just wish it was better. I like Amy Poehler – she is smart and funny and I like that she encourages girls especially to be smart and funny. I honestly just thought she would be a better writer. I was under the impression that she wrote more (I had the mistaken presumption that she created and wrote Parks and Rec like Tina Fey created and wrote 30 Rock). It was a good breezy read. I have been reading a book about the Cook County criminal courthouse, busiest in the US. Interesting so far. [H interjection: that one sounds less breezy!]

Bestie 2 (a.k.a. crabby-pants-mcgee): Umm I have decided that I don’t have to finish everything I start.  

So there you have it.

Review (and Giveaway!): Dirty Chick

The very first post I wrote for this blog was a review of a historical fiction set in colonial New Zealand, which I read because a) it was $1.99 and b) it was set in NZ. I recently read Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer, a memoir about an American ex-pat living in a small farming community in New Zealand because a) the publisher offered me a review copy and b) it is set in NZ. The publisher also offered to give a copy of Dirty Chick to a reader, so leave a comment at the end of this post to win!

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I know, I sound a bit like a crazy person, but NZ is essentially my personal Shangri-La. I spent a summer there on an internship in college, followed by a few weeks of traveling around with my BFF/sister/co-blogger Amanda, and we had the best time ever. Besides, if anyone is going to judge me for being a crazy person, I’m pretty sure that it won’t be Antonia Murphy, author of Dirty Chick, because she sounds a bit like a crazy person as well.

Dirty Chick is Murphy’s personal account of the first year she and her family spent living on a farm on New Zealand’s North Island. She lists and details her and her husband’s reasons for going to, and staying, in NZ as:

  1. The ocean
  2. George W. Bush (“This was 2003 and 2004, the height of the Bush years, and Peter and I were unnerved by the wartime zeal in our country. Most of our fellow liberals were threatening to emigrated to Canada or New Zealand, but as it turns out, we were the crazy ones who did.”)
  3. Hobbits; and
  4. DNA (in the form of their developmentally delayed son)

There are surely many people who may be annoyed by this book. For instance, if you are annoyed by any of the following, maybe don’t read this:

  1. Educated, middle-class liberals on soul-searching journeys
  2. The discussion of home fermentation and cheese making
  3. Gross stories about farm animals, sometimes in the house.

I, however, can deal with all of the above, and I definitely found this an enjoyable read. In addition to the stories about racist zombie alpacas, seedy goat impregnation, and addiction to baby lambs, this is also Murphy’s story about parenting, and the trials of raising a disabled son. In those sections, you see the true struggles of life on the farm. As Murphy says on the subject, “compared to that, an angry rooster was a breeze.” Murphy brews a lot of fruit wine, and inexplicably wears animal ear headbands all the time, but she also proves that she will (literally, in fact) go to the ends of the earth to give her son a fighting chance at a healthy existence.

If you want a fun, quirky look into a life that is unlike your own (unless YOU are also living on a small farm in NZ raising two kids and a score of animals, drinking quince wine and aging cheese in your garage), check out Dirty Chick.

And, the giveaway! To enter, simply leave a comment below! What’s your personal Shangri-La? We’ll randomly select the winner on 1/29!

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher for review consideration. Quotes taken from an advance uncorrected proof.

Updated with the giveaway winner on 2/1: Congrats Kristi! Your book will be in the mail shortly!

Review – Jeneration X

Title: Jeneration X: One Reluctant Adult’s Attempt to Unarrest Her Arrested Development; Or, Why It’s Never Too Late for Her Dumb Ass to Learn Why Froot Loops Are Not for Dinner

Author: Jen Lancaster

Reviewed by Holly

Before I review this book, I feel like I must provide some context (and yes, about 75% of the time, if you ask me a simple question, this is how I begin).

Saturday, I ran a half marathon. Monday, I picked up a book from the library about John Brown and the Civil War. I just want to get those facts out there before admitting that I spent Tuesday night sitting on the couch eating M&Ms and reading this book.

And, for further context, I really struggle with the idea of # ratings for books, because, well, I make it a point to not ready crappy books (or so I thought). I figured that probably 80% of what I review will be solid 3 star selections, with some venturing into the territory of books I can’t shut up about.

I think it’s pretty clear where this is going.

I did not enjoy this book.

(I didn’t really enjoy my M&Ms either, but I finished both so that I could move on to better choices. Perhaps the wiser choice would have been to put down both. Or at least the book. But, I did recently come across the term brilliant term hate-reading. I shall not link to any teenage vampire books, but I assure you that I am familiar with the concept of hate reading.)

Back to Jen. I feel like I can call her Jen. I laughed out loud through Bitter is the New Black. I related to her struggles in Such a Pretty Fat (see M&Ms, above). I too appreciate the mecca of Tar-jay, and also have a deep and abiding love for pork chops.

I read her first three books years ago, and then I took a long hiatus, mostly because Pretty in Plaid was the next to come out and it was a hardcover and – ain’t nobody got time for that.

Recently, thanks to paperbackswapping and a sister who is a good sharer, I found myself in possession of Pretty in Plaid, My Fair Lazy, Jeneration X, and The Tao of Martha.

I read My Fair Lazy, and, it was okay. I finished it, sent it off though paperback swap, and promptly erased most of it from my mind. I read Pretty in Plaid, and I liked that more than I thought I would, especially because the stories were new, and included (exaggerated and revisionist maybe, but still fun) glimpses of Jen’s childhood and her career pre-Bitter. I read The Tao of Martha, and I really liked that more than I expected, and have in fact highly recommended it to a couple people.

Then I read Jeneration X, because I thought that it would be a quick read and fun book to review next. Quick, yes. Fun, well, I’m 500 words deep here, and have yet to review the book, so how’s that working out?

This book…is just not good. The other books were all centered around a theme (losing weight is hard! karma is a bitch! being organized makes life less stressful! clothes!) – Jeneration X started with a forward about being, apparently, a hard-working Gen Xer stuck between unrealistic boomers and entitled millennials, and ended with a rant about occupy wall street (non-sequitur, much?) but other than that, seemed to be a cluster of stories that didn’t match very well and were not in any particular order – the cats had died and then the cats were still alive. And “I can’t have a court date then because I’m getting an award,” followed by, “Oh, I got a letter in the mail about getting an award!” Not to mention, I spent at least 60% of this book thinking that I had read it already because I knew so many of the stories:  Jen buys a Barbie head on an Ambien trip. Jen and Stacy are BFFs, and did you know you can buy Stacy’s book too? Jen and Fletch move to the suburbs. New puppy!

However, I finally got to the weird story about Jen’s stalker/mailer, which I didn’t remember, ergo, I must not have read the book. (Also, I tried to find the scoop on that situation on the internets, but I couldn’t come up with anything.)

To further belabor my point, this is my interpretation of how Jeneration X came into being. I’m speculating on a few details here, but this is how it feels as a reader.

  1. Jen writes three best-selling books about going from being an a-hole to becoming a better person in one way or another.
  2. Next, Jen writes childhood memoir. This is still best-selling, I’m sure, but she lost me there with the hardcover thing.
  3. Jen makes fun of teenage vampires on her blog. I love her again.
  4. Jen has ideas to write more memoirs, including “become more cultured and less of an asshole” and “volunteering to be less of an asshole. Also, she decides to write fiction.
  5. Jen writes the book about becoming more cultured.
  6. Jen starts to work on the volunteering memoir but that doesn’t work as expected – she alludes to this in Jeneration X.
  7. Jen is on a rigid writing schedule. She told us all about it in The Tao of Martha…must write two books a year, and go on tours, and deadlines are very stressful. (I am not sympathetic.)
  8. Jen must write something for said schedule, so she throws some stories  together and wraps them up with a loose  “theme” about becoming more adult.

This does not work. Happily, I really think she got it back in The Tao of Martha. And, I’ll probably read the novel at some point, but I just can’t do it right now.

(Did you know that Amanda made us a Twitter and Jen Lancaster is one of the first people she/we followed? I should probably not tweet her this review though. Good thing I don’t know how to work the Twitter.)

Rating – ONE STAR