Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books of 2020

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 29: Favorite Books of 2020

I know this was from last week, but I missed it then, so I’m doing it now. I also know that it’s not Tuesday anymore, but I’ve had an eventful few weeks, so this is when I’m getting to it!

I reread a few old favorites this year, so I set a rule that rereads aren’t allowed on my list. These are the top ten books I read for the first time in 2020.

1. Mariana by Monica Dickens- I read this as part of the Persephone readathon back in January. I think this was a case of the right book finding me at the right time. But it continues my literary love affair with Persephone.

2. Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty- This was a weird book. It’s about a woman, Abi, whose brother disappeared on her birthday 20 years earlier. That same year she started getting chapters from some sort of self help manual, The Guidebook, in the mail. So when Abi is invited to an all expense paid weekend retreat to learn “the truth” about the Guidebook, she links it with learning the truth about her brother’s disappearance. And all of this happens in roughly the first 50 pages of the book. I don’t want to give away too much, but this book goes in a direction I never expected- in a good way.

3. The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins- I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone looking for a fast read, but if you’re looking for a thriller that takes its time with the set up and execution, this is one. It’s about Olivia, a British historian with a high flying career and a beautiful family. She also has a research assistant, Vivian. But we quickly come to realize that Vivian has ulterior motives for helping Olivia; motives that reach back into the women’s’ past, and may lead one of them to murder.

4. The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler– This was a dual timeline story, where one of the tales bordered on fantasy, without ever fully taking the jump into it. It’s about Simon, a librarian, who lives alone in his family house on Long Island. When a rare book dealer sends him a volume that may have some connection to his family, Simon gets caught up in the tale of a misfit, living and working with the circus. But it may also reveal a curse on Simon’s family. If that’s true, only the book can save them. This book had sketches by the author alongside the text. I’m always amazed my people who can do two things (in this case writing and drawing) well.

5. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor- This book is nicknamed the Nigerian Harry Potter. It’s about a girl who was born in New York City but lives in Nigeria. Her features are west African but she’s albino. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. But when she discovers that she’s a “free agent” she realizes that she’s got latent magical power and a lot of catching up to do. As she’s learning her footing, she and her friends are asked to track down a career criminal who also knows magic. The Nigerian setting and folklore gives this book a unique flavor.

6. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware– Rowan is a nanny for a family living in the Scottish highlands. The house has an advanced communication system built into it. “Happy” is an app that controls everything from ordering food when the fridge runs low, to turning on the lights and drawing the curtains. She’s not put off by the fact that four previous nannies left the job in the past year. But soon Rowan comes to wonder if the ghostly tales that were told about the house are true.

7. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell- When the Durrell family could no longer endure rain soaked England, they fled to the sun soaked Greek island of Corfu. I read this because I love the tv series The Durrells in Corfu, and this was the basis for the series. The animals of Corfu soon became a common sight in the Durrell home.

8. Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner– Hotel Du Lac isn’t a big adventure with a complicated plot. I’d call it “quiet” book. It seems to be moving along at a slow pace, but then it sneaks up at you with it’s wit. It’s about Edith Hope, an author of romance novels which she writes under a different name. But when she realizes that her life is resembling one of her novels (and not in a good way!) she escapes to the quiet luxury of the titular Swiss hotel. But when she gets to know the other guests, she realizes that they all have their own drama. I loved the characters in this book. They started to feel like old friends after a while. Apparently it was adapted for TV in 1986, as a joint production between the BBC and A&E Television Networks. I’ll have to give that miniseries a look to see how it translated to TV. If done properly, I can see it working well.

9. The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares by Joyce Carol Oates. When I was in college I interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for our campus newspaper The Bard Free Press. Well, “interviewed” might be overstating my role in the process. A fellow reporter asked her legit questions, and I nodded emphatically while slightly starstruck. But in the process of becoming totally dumbstruck by awe of Oates, I gained an appreciation for this author who doesn’t subscribe to genre pigeonholing at all, who moves from novel to short fiction to drama and back again. Who is incredibly prolific. When I saw this book consisting of a novella, and six short stories, I was intrigued. Oates often shines when she tackles the dark complexities of the human psyche, and that’s certainly the case of these seven intense tales.

10. The Witches of Crannock Dale by Thomas M. Kane– Full disclosure requires me to reveal that the author of this book is a friend of mine, so I may not be an unbiased judge. But it carves a unique place for itself in the fantasy fiction landscape. Set in a fictional place at an indeterminate time, the book follows the coming of age of 11 year old Mara Bennett. When her aunt is arrested for witchcraft, Mara vows to do what she can to help. But her efforts to learn more lead her deep into local politics, power struggles and threats of war. Mara makes a likable young protagonist, in a complicated world, trying to keep her family safe and close amidst a dangerous situation. I look forward to following her through the series.

Anyone have any must reads this year?

Mini Persephone Readathon Challenges

 

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I’m participating in the Dwell in Possibility Winter 2020 Mini Persephone Readathon this weekend. I’m be reading Mariana by Monica Dickens.

This post is for a few of the optional challenges

Photogenic Persephones: Share a photo of your Persephone collection and/or your readathon TBR stack.

My collection minus my current read

In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words.

education, coming of age (yes, I’m counting that as one word!), bildungsroman, witty, charming, nostalgic

Beautiful Endpapers: Post a photo of your current book’s endpapers/your favorite Persephone endpapers.

Some info about the endpaper for Mariana:

The endpaper is a voile dress fabric designed in 1933 when Mary would have been 18: brightly-coloured tulips are surrounded by swirls of green, white and blue, images of freedom and happiness that evoke the simplicity and beauty of an English country garden. X

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A Cup of Persephone: Post a pic of your Persephone read paired with a mug or cup of something delicious.

Mariana and tea (the tea got cut out of the shot a little, but I think it still counts!)

Quote This: Share a quote from your current read:

“But Mariana was wrong. You couldn’t die. You had to go on. When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person.”

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Recent Bookshelf Additions

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

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January 21: The Ten Most Recent Additions to My Bookshelf

I decided to be pretty literal about this and go with the physical books placed on my actual shelf most recently.

51o77whsaml._ac_sr250230_1.Mariana by Monica Dickens– This is my latest addition to my slowly growing Persephone collection. I think I’m going to start it for the upcoming Persephone Readathon.

 

 

 

97801437861602.The Blue Rose By Kate Forsyth– My friend got me this for the holidays this year. She knows that I’m a big fan of Kate Forsyth, and this is her latest. I’m looking forward to starting it soon.

 

 

 

 

71j3hkayifl._ac_uy218_ml3_3. White As Snow by Tanith Lee- I found this in a secondhand store recently and I was excited because it’s been on my TBR for a while: it’s a combination of a Snow White retelling and Persephone/Demeter/Hades story. Lee is a really underappreciated writer IMO.

 

 

818e2qmhlhl._ac_uy218_ml3_4. A Beggar’s Kingdom by Paullina Simons– I won this in a goodreads giveaway, but then I realized that it’s the sequel toThe Tiger Catcher. Since I don’t have that one yet, I want to wait until I do, before I read the second one.

 

 

41nnbvwgaal-_ac_us218_5. The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar– This was another secondhand find. I used it a bit for several classes in college because it has some amazing criticism regarding female 19th century writers. I’d love to revisit it at several points as I read things now. It’s not really a book you read cover to cover in one sitting. It’s more a book you refer to and read a chapter here and there.

 

91aqq9rnmll._ac_uy218_ml3_6. The Visitors by Sally Beauman– Another secondhand shop find. I don’t know anything about this one. I just picked it up because it looked interesting. Hopefully it is.

 

 

 

81o0w3k8oyl._ac_uy218_ml3_7. Panchinko by Min Jin Lee- I actually read this one already. It was about a Korean family living in Japan in the 20th century. It was really interesting in that it dealt with a historical time and place that I knew almost nothing about.

 

 

 

91cvrgq3trl._ac_uy218_ml3_8. Sapphire Skies by Belinda Alexandra– I got this from a secondhand shop too (they have paperbacks for $1 so I always figure, even if it turns out to be bad, what do I have to lose?) and it looked interesting so I decided to give it a shot.

 

 

51sfno9ygsl._ac_ul320_ml3_9. Lyrebird by Cecilia Ahern– This one was from a library sale. I got it because I’d enjoyed some of Ahern’s other work, and I enjoyed this one too. I featured it for #WhattoReadWed on my instagram.

 

 

81fviyckszl._ac_uy218_ml3_10. The Group by Mary McCarthy– I keep hearing about this book and reading about it. It’s been on my TBR for a while, so I decided to go for it.

I’ve Been…

  • Going through a career change. Teaching was so draining that I felt like I didn’t have the energy for anything else: writing, a social life, etc. I’m doing content writing and curriculum development now. It’s been an adjustment. It still is, but I’m starting to feel a bit more confident. I’m nervous even writing that because I don’t want to jinx myself!
  • Slowly working my way through beta feedback on Frozen Heart. It’s always difficult opening yourself up to criticism, and in a way, beta feedback and editing is like going to someone and saying “please rip this apart” and then cringing while they do. The most painful feedback often ends up being the most helpful though. One beta reader was very critical of this draft of Frozen Heart but I think she also pointed out some issues that I’m glad that someone noticed before I published it. But it’s hard get yourself in the right headspace to tackle those criticisms.
  • Writing some short stories. I haven’t really decided what to do with them yet, but for some reason I had several ideas that lent themselves to short fiction (not my usual medium)
  • Discovering the joy of “have done” lists. I’ve never liked keeping “to do” lists. It feels daunting to see everything you  haven’t done yet listed in front of you. I feel like I’ll never get it done. But when I keep a list of things I have done I feel accomplished at the end of the day.  Even if the things I put on aren’t major things, seeing them written down gives me a sense of satisfaction. I’ve even started doing things that I’ve been putting off because it means I’ll get to write it down on my list!
  •  

    Reading good books. In addition to my Persephone Readathon reads (Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and Flush by Virginia Woolf, both of which I recommend highly) I’ve recently enjoyed:

  • Binge watching
    • Schitt’s Creek– How have I not seen this show before now? It’s silly but it’s great for turning off your brain and having a laugh.
    • The OA – Weird. Very weird.
    • A Discovery of Witches– I definitely liked it better than the book (which had too much filler) but it’s still not my cup of tea.
    • Bodyguard– I’d had this as a “to watch” for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Glad I finally did.

Persephone Readathon #3 Challenges

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Since I finished my reads for this Persephone Readathon a bit early, I thought that I’d take on some of the challenges.

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As I mentioned in my previous post I read Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (loved it!) this time around.

The book follows Hilary Wainright, a British intellectual who married Lisa, a French girl, just prior to WWII. They were separated just before the German occupation, with Lisa stuck in Paris with their newborn son, and Hilary in England. Lisa was a resistance worker and was killed during the war. The baby disappeared. After the war, Hilary returns to France to try to find his son. He has a friend who is devoted to helping him, but he’s not sure how he’ll know if the child (who he only saw as a newborn) is his. Furthermore, after his wife’s death, Hilary successfully turned off his emotions. He is reluctant to make himself emotionally vulnerable again.

Beautiful Endpapers: Show us a photo of your current book’s endpapers/your favorite Persephone endpapers/or design your own endpapers.

This is the endpaper used in Little Boy Lost:

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The endpaper is a fabric designed in 1946 by the Hélène Gallèt studio in Paris – the green is reminiscent of bourgeois France, and the pattern has both fleur-de-lis and childlike, primitive stars.

In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words.

-heartbreaking

-haunting

-beautiful

-compelling

-poignant

-metaphorical

Quote This: Share a quote from your current read.

I think this quote sums up the main character’s dilemma through out the book.

“You see, Pleaded Hilary, I am incapable of giving. I dare not give and so I’m running away. I’ve finished with ordeals. I am fleeing to the anesthesia of immediate comfort and absolute non-obligation.”

The book ends with a beautiful passage that I won’t quote here because of spoilers.

Read This: Give a book recommendation/readalike based on a Persephone title.

My recommendation in this case would be another Persephone book: Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. Like Little Boy Lost, Saplings looks at what happens to children during wartime, and like Little Boy Lost, it’s not pretty. But the children in both these books are in some sense lucky. They’re not exposed to direct violence and they’re not left without adult care. To some extent, their physical needs for food and shelter are met. Yet they all suffer terrible loss and lack the consistency and affection that children need.

Page to Screen: Share the Persephone title you would most like to see adapted for the screen. Include your dream cast if you’d like.

mv5bntlknwexyzyty2riyi00zmrkltgznzgtyze5odaxmgrjmwq3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndqzmdg4nzk40._v1_Well Little Boy Lost was made into a film in 1953. It was a musical starring Bing Crosby which seems like a very odd choice given the source material. I haven’t seen it but I’d kind of like to out of morbid curiosity. Crosby seems totally miscast as the Hilary I imagine. In terms of contemporary actors I think that Matthew Goode or Harry Lloyd might work.

 

 

 

Persephone Readathon #3

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51bl0b8nefl._sx352_bo1204203200_Jessie @ dwellinpossibility is hosting the third annual Persephone readathon this week. I’m excited to dive back into some Persephone titles. This week I’ll be reading Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. It’s been on my TBR for a while, and I’ve heard great things about it. Set in the days following WWII it’s about a father looking for his son.

For the last readathon, I read Saplings by Noel Streatfield which is another story of parents and children amidst the backdrop of WWII. I found it heartbreaking and haunting, and I hope that this lives up to that standard.

71pwec3g0ol._ac_ul436_Additionally I’ll be participating in the Persephone Readalong. We’ll be reading Virginia Woolf’s Flush, which is a “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. I love the idea of a biography of a famous person’s dog, but the book isn’t just about that. ‘Although ostensibly about the taming of a pedigree dog, Flush addresses the way society tames and classifies women,’ writes Sally Beauman.

I’m looking forward to a great week of reading and challenges! Is anyone else participating in this year’s Persephone readathon?

Persephone Readathon #2: Saplings

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I finished Saplings by Noel Streatfeild, my book for Jessie@DwellinPossibility‘s Persephone Readathon #2. I definitely recommend it.

My Thoughts

The Wilshires are a happy, wealthy British family. When WWII begins, Alex, the father, anticipates the Blitz and sends his four children out of London. The two youngest go to their grandparents in the country, while the older two attend boarding school. Alex’s wife, Lena, is emotionally needy and refuses to leave her husband, who must remain in London for work. So begins six years of upheaval for the Wiltshire children. Practical necessities and emergencies mean that they are moved from one school to another, from their grandparents to the home of various aunts and uncles, to their parents home and back again. Things get worse after Alex is killed by a bomb. Lena isn’t able to provide a steady foundation on which the family can regroup, so they falter in their own ways.

Despite all this volatility, the Wiltshires are lucky. We have all heard horror stories of children ending far, far worse during WWII. The Wiltshires have the financial resources to ensure that there is always a roof over their heads. They have an extended family of deeply flawed people, but also people who genuinely care about their welfare. The unasked, and unanswered question is, without these resources, what would become of these children? And are all of these resources enough to protect them?

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As a teacher, I’ve seen that one of the most important things that children need is stability and consistency. Without these things, they feel uncertain and insecure. They might become anxious or begin to act out in different ways. We see all of that with the Wiltshire children. The oldest, Laurel, doesn’t particularly shine in any one area, which makes her self-conscious. She wants to be someone’s priority as she enters adolescence. Tony idolizes his father, and in his absence, he becomes withdrawn and sullen. Kim takes after his mother in his desire to be admired and is often unable to see beyond his own needs and desires. Tuesday, the youngest, is continuously anxious and unsure of herself and her surroundings.

Interestingly this book was written in 1945 when the field of child psychology was still in its infancy. Psychologists were just starting to identify the fact that childhood is a  series of distinct developmental stages that each have its own needs. When these needs aren’t met children’s well being suffers just as much as it would if their physical needs were ignored. At the same time, children have a natural resilience. This is true of the Wiltshire children, who draw strength and support from various sources throughout the book.

I’m familiar with this information from several years of working with children as well as several graduate level courses in developmental psychology. The content of those courses came from sixty years of post-WWII research and study on the part of child psychologists. Noel Streatfield had access to none of it when she wrote this book, because it hadn’t been done yet. She had an intuitive understanding of the needs and feelings of children and the consequences when these needs aren’t met and acknowledged. That allowed her to write this perceptive book with psychological accuracy. The last half-century of research has proven her correct.

A Few Persephone Challenges:

Quote This: Share a quote from your current read.

Two stand out:

Alex did not answer. Every fibre of the Colonel must be protesting. Odd how, in a world where such unnameable horrors were commonplace, a simple thing like taking his home from an old man could still wring your heart.

and:

Heaps of children grew up without much attention and turned out alright in the end … Heaps did, but were they the Laurels, Tonys and Tuesdays?  She herself had grown up all right with very little attention, and little of it wise. All right but bruised. The Wiltshires were having a harder upbringing than she had. If only bruising was all they got out of it. What if they grew mis-shapen?

In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words.

psychological, nuanced, painful, humorous, bittersweet, perceptive

Contemporary Pairing: Pair a contemporary book with a Persephone title

Potentially interesting pairings that are also about growing up amidst conflict and loss.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini- About childhood in war-torn Afganistan

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins- About growing up in a violent dystopian future

Persephone Readathon #2: Saplings by Novel Streatfield

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My read for Jessie@ DwellinPossibility‘s Persephone Readathon #2 is Saplings by Noel Streatfield. I loved Noel Streatfield’s “Shoes” books as a kid (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theatre Shoes,  etc).  Interestingly, Saplings starts off as an inversion of the scenario that begins Streatfield’s most famous children’s book, Ballet Shoes. That book features several orphans come together to form a family unit that benefits economically from their talents. Saplings, on the other hand, begins with a happy upper-middle-class family on vacation at the seaside circa 1939. But while the setting and the characters appear idyllic, cracks soon begin to show. Mom is beautiful but narcissistic. She sees her children as “charming decorations.” She enjoys them when they reflect well on her, but she leaves that actual work of childrearing to her husband, the nanny and the governess. Still, as long as they receive love and affection, as well as rules and structure from adults in their lives, the children are happy. Dad is a loving family man who is proud of his four children. But it soon becomes clear that he’s planned this holiday because he has a strong sense of foreboding. He knows England will soon be at war with Germany and if/when that happens these family beach vacations will be a thing of the past. He plans for the safest and least disruptive ways to handle that eventuality. Though they begin as a happy family unit, we see the seeds of that disintegration early on.

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Cover painting: WVS Clothing Exchange by Evelyn Gibbs, 1943
© Imperial War Museum

Throughout the readathon there are optional challenges which you can read about here:

Photogenic Persephones: Share a photo of your Persephone collection and/or your readathon TBR stack.

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Beautiful Endpapers: Show us a photo of your current book’s endpapers/your favorite Persephone endpapers/or design your own endpapers.

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A 1938 fabric by Marion Dorn was chosen for Saplings. It is called ‘Aircraft’ and shows pairs of stylised pigeons in flight on a background of natural linen. It contains the imagery of aircraft being readied for war yet of birds freely in flight.

Mini Persephone Readathon: Day 2

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Well, I breezed straight through Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day in about 36 hours! Much like the film it inspired it’s delightful. In some ways, it had a lighter than air quality that the film lacked.

The novel was written in 1938, a year before the beginning of WWII. The film, made in 2008, has an awareness that these characters are living under the looming specter of the coming war. While things are breezy for the characters on this particular day, they’ll be facing the Blitz in the next few years. The film’s Miss Pettigrew and her love interest, Joe, are old enough to remember WWI, and have some idea of death and destruction that are imminent, while the younger characters were small children when WWI ended, and find the coming war exciting.

All of this larger historical context is absent in the novel. We’re given hints that both Miss Pettigrew and Joe have seen difficulties in the past, but it’s nothing that we learn anything more about. Because Winifred Watson (presumably) couldn’t see the future when she wrote the novel, none of this is addressed. Yes, a reader with an awareness of history knows that this historical moment holds a lot of significance, which I think is why the film decided to address it directly. But as a result, even though the film was a screwball comedy, it had some darker undertones. The book, on the other hand, is a simply a comedy or strange bedfellows, witty misunderstandings, and smart dialogue.

For some of the optional challenges:

In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words: fizzy, frothy, funny, optimistic, charming, light-hearted.

Quote This: Share a quote from your current read

“All the men send you orchids because they’re expensive and they know that you know they are. But I always kind of think they’re cheap, don’t you, just because they’re expensive. Like telling someone how much you paid for something to show off.”

Watch This: Give a TV or film recommendation based on a Persephone book

Well, based on this one I’d recommend the film version of Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, certainly. Aside from that, I’d suggest several other screwball comedies of the era. Bringing Up Baby came out the same year as the novel, and has a similar plot in that it involves a stuffy professor who has a wild, out of character day with a free-spirited nonconformist. Ball of Fire is also about a sultry, vulgar, siren who stirs up the lives of seven fusty academics and teaches them about living. It Happened One Night features a spoilt, rebellious rich girl, who is thrown through a day and a night of trains, busses, and hitched rides with a journalist hired by her father to bring her from Florida to New York to rejoin her fiance.

All of these had a certain effervescence due to the time they came out. In the 1930’s the world was going through the Great Depression. Audiences sought to escape from their troubles in movie theaters (Miss Pettigrew considers movies her one guilty pleasure) and these comedies gave them a chance to experience a glitzy world, full of quick talking characters, witty banter, and romance farce.

Thanks again to Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility for hosting this readathon and being my unofficial Persephone sponsor!

Mini- Persephone Readathon: Day 1

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Jessie@Dwell in Possibility is hosting a Mini Persephone Readathon this weekend. Check out the blog for more information and optional challenges. I decided to take on Challenge #1 this morning:

Photogenic Persephones: Share a photo of your Persephone collection and/or your readathon book:

dennmnvvaaeyek7I’m really excited to read Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day by Winifred Watson this weekend. I’ve always enjoyed the film, which I consider to be a great “happy” movie. It’s the kind of thing that I can turn on when I’m in a bad mood and it’ll always cheer me up at least a little. I’m about 1/3 of the way into the book and so far I’m not disappointed. It’s frothy fun that still reminds you that it’s never too late to make changes in your life.