Wednesday, December 14, 2016

30 Second Book Reviews: Wrapping up 2016!

Hi guy, I just finished my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal for 2016 of reading 52 books this year! Woohoo! It's not as much as I used to read, but it's still a solid target for someone who works full time, has a kid, enjoys spending time outside of a book with actual human people I love, and for a person who can't stop watching Leah Remini's new Scientology show or is excited for the latest installment of The Bachelor in January.

So I've got a few book recommendations for you. Maybe you've got some extra time off around the holidays. Maybe you want a good way to hide from that family who is staying in your house and just won't leave after Christmas. Or maybe like me, you've always got a book, or twenty, on your nightstand and you're looking to add to the collection. Here we go, 30 second book reviews or shorter, because no one's got time for more this time of year!

Finders Keepers by Stephen King and End of Watch by Stephen King - I'll review these two together since they are the sequel and final installment in the Bill Hodges detective series. I loved all three of the books in the series, which starts with Mr. Mercedes. They could be read on their own but the character development and intertwining history and plot make they better together. Classic King.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware - I like this one just fine. Nothing amazing. A thriller. Something dramatic happens. People die. If you haven't read Ruth Ware's In a Dark Dark Wood, start there instead, it's better.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley- The latest in the Flavia deLuce mystery series. You can pick these up and start reading at any book, but they're better when you start at the beginning. Our heroine is a precocious too smart for her own good chemistry aficionado who keeps stumbling across a dead body every couple of months. This one was lovely as usual, but damn, that ending was harsh.

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur- I haven't read poetry in so long. These are small powerful pieces. I could read this ten times and find something new each time.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton- This novel set in 1700's Netherlands started off strong but felt too predictable and petered out near the end. While the writing is lovely, if you love dollhouses and miniatures maybe you'd love this one, I kept expecting more.

The Apartment by SL Grey- I found this book terrifying and a perfect Halloween read. I'll never look at Air Bnb or VRBR rentals the same way again. I don't want to give it away, but read it during the day in your own safe home.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch- One of my favorite books of the year. This sci-fi thriller will blow your mind with it's complex plotting and layered story line. Confounding, confusing and so so so good.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance- I liked this memoir of growing up poor in the Appalachian culture of Kentucky and Ohio, but I also found it to be frustrating and troublesome. Well written and interesting.

Tell No One by Harlan Coben- Murder, intrigue, missing wives, guilty husbands, really enjoyed my first Harlan Coben. Probably won't be my last.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney- This was fluffy fun. Adult children fighting over a trust left to them by their father, and figuring out how to grow up, solve their own problems, and step away from the drama. Great beach or vacation read.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld-And fun and funny modern retelling of the classic Pride and Prejudice. Now I just want to go watch the movie version with Kiera Knightly.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez- This was a beautifully written story of immigrants to the US who live next door and have struggled, fought and suffered to make their lives better. Heartbreaking, powerful and particularly timely given our current political climate.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley-Great fast paced thriller. Just well written enough to still be fun but have more character development than similar novels. Highly recommended.

Baby Doll by Hollie Overton - This novel starts with a woman escaping from the man who kidnapped her years ago as she walked home from high school. Terrifying and a gut punch for any parent, I liked the characters, particularly the sisters' relationship, and the backward way the story was told.

Things No One Tells Fat Girls by Jes Baker- Self help and self love all in one book. Funny, wry, bluntly honest and deeply refreshing.

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery- A frightening examination of privacy and paranoia in our society. Beautifully written and eerie. Plus Joe went to high school with the author, and he's lovely.

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer-Solid. Raunchy. Deeply personal. Sometimes funny. Sometimes inspiring. Pretty good but no Bossypants.

The Accident Season by Mo├»ra Fowley-Doyle- I'm not sure how to describe this book. Supernatural, high school romance? Klutzy family has a party in an old house? Odd and enjoyable. I wish I'd read it when I was 14, I would have loved it.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes - If you liked the movie Sleeping with the Enemy you'll like this book.

The Widow by Fiona Barton-Eh. Slow. Not that thrilling but not bad. Just meh. Too many people fawning all over this one for my taste.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher - Perfect for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or other supernatural mystery shows. Great audio book series.

Shrill by Lindy West- One of my absolute favorite books of the year. Yes. A thousand times yes. Pardon my language, but fuck, this book was funny and sharp and bold and honest and inspiring.

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child- This was a thrilling creepy romp of a novel, some kind of mysterious monster is killing people in the Museum of Natural History, two very different detectives help solve the mystery. Kind of like The DaVinci Code with South American monsters.

The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund- Too dark for me. I just couldn't take the ongoing descriptions of child abuse and violence. So I got about half way through, skimmed the rest and called it quits. I liked the writing, the subject matter was just too bleak and heavily described throughout the book.

The Fireman by Joe Hill- I love Joe Hill. This book is dense and action packed and takes the staid post apocalyptic novel concept and breathes fresh life into it. I loved this book. Again, another one on my top list of 2016 favorites.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher- Another in the series, this was the best one yet! Really loving this audiobook series, great pacing, humor, action and character development.

An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay-Devastating. Spectacular. Adding everything Roxanne has ever written to my library hold list immediately. She is a power house.

Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer-What am I even reading here? I think I love it. I don't know what to think about this series. I respect it more than I liked it. It has left me thinking about it and wondering what I just read. One of the strangest reading experiences of my year.

Happy Like Murders by Gordon Burn- Nope. Just a big nope. I like true crime nonfiction, but the writing style was unpleasant and meandering. Repetitive, confusing and little to no insight into the murders. I read true crime to have a better understanding of how and why crimes like these can happen while no one notices. This fails in that regard. And these despicable people don't need any more of my time. Skip it.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher - Again another in the "if you love Buffy you'll love this" series.

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black-A solid classic noir with a shoot em up ending and a gorgeous dame gone wrong, just like you'd expect. Read by my favorite audiobook actor, it was a dark, smoky treat.

Columbine by Dave Cullen - Detailed, deeply troubling, and a thorough examination of what lead up the Columbine, what happened that terrible day, and the aftermath.

The Silent Girls by Eric Rickstad - Eh. Fine, another thriller. More crime against women and girls. It was fine.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher - First in the Harry Dresden supernatural detective series. You might get hooked.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin- I picked up some helpful tips and ideas about habits from this book, but man, it was boring. Where The Power of Habit was fascinating, educational and well written, this book was dull, Rubin is fairly unlikable to me, and it just felt repetitive and more of that privileged wealthy white lady memoir/self help that I find irritating.

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon- I wanted to like this one more than I did, but I suspect my reading it in dribs and drabs over a month instead of reading it in larger chunks in a few sittings made me less inclined to like it. Not bad but didn't seem to fulfill its early promise. The twists and surprises just fell flat for me. Eh. Not bad just not in love.

Ok, friends, happy holidays, and happy reading!

Monday, December 12, 2016

The 2nd Anniversary of "Parents and Son Day!"

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of the day that Joe and I met Xavier. It marks the instant he became our son, the second our hearts were owned by that shy smile with the dimple, and those large dark curious brown eyes framed by the longest eye lashes in the known universe. That first meeting we shook his hand and Joe could tell he wanted more. So he asked, "Do you want a hug?" and Xavier went right into our arms. We all stood together there for a minute, for the first of many hugs ahead.

Sometimes he looks 9 and sometimes he looks 5. #xmantrip
This was day three of our big family adventure!

After our initial meeting, we went out to lunch with Xavier and his case worker, and the second we walked out the door he ran into some other kids he lived with and piped up with this proud big voice and said "These are my parents!" And it began. This adventure started right off from there and hasn't stopped since. These last two years have been the best and hardest of our lives. The most beautiful and emotional. The smelliest and most frustrating. I've never read so much Shel Silverstein and Joe has never argued with a small person so much over story problems. But these two years make me so excited to see what comes next for all of us, but mostly for the brave, funny, high energy, strong, wild child we have the pleasure of calling our son. Ok, in order to stop myself from crying while writing this entire post, in honor of the last two years crash course in parenting, I've got a top eleven (in honor of Xavier's age) list of things I've learned from being the proud mom to my superb, and superbly challenging, child:

1. Homework sucks, has sucked, will always suck, no matter how old you get. I still hate fractions. But it's a lovely thing to be able to say "I've finished school. This is your homework, not mine. I'm not getting graded here, you are. Let me help you, kid."
2. Being outside for at least thirty minutes a day, even if it's terribly cold or hot, makes us all feel better even if/when we fight it. There are locks on front doors for this very reason. You can go five minutes without a drink or a snack. I know you can. Get back outside.
3. White karate uniforms are the dumbest thing ever invented. Dumbest. I decree they should all be black and maybe made of some high tech, affordable, stain resistant fabric not yet invented. Get on that project, fabric companies!


4. Tide Stain pens are the most fantastic thing ever invented. Hands down.  Better than iPhones, better than electricity. Better than Netflix.
5. I have no idea what's coming next in our lives and I'm starting to be ok with that. Just starting to. Ok, not today, but maybe tomorrow or by Friday I'll be getting there. Maybe 2017?

The artist at work.

6. If a drum is sitting there in the living room every single child who walks into your house will find it and immediately try to play it. Every single one, every single time. Even if you've repeatedly said, "Don't do it, dude." They must touch the drum.
7. I've never felt more loved in my entire life. Every call for "Mom!", every request for family Wii game or movie night, every polite demand of "Mom, can you make me a smoothie?" at 7:30pm, it all makes me feel needed and that's a deeply satisfying feeling. Every tiny unsolicited "I love you" from that nearly asleep little boy, makes up for the chaos and arguments of the day to day.


8. I've never felt more scrutinized in my entire life. No one but your own child can think it's appropriate to ask in the middle of dinner, "Hey Mom, why do you have a double chin?"
9. My heart is bigger and softer and stronger than I ever knew.


10. A house full of dudes means a house full of farts, shoes everywhere, and smelly socks and dirty dishes. But mostly goofy, easy fun and hugs, and so much wrestling and tickling and shouting. And we only have the one kid.
11. Hangry is a fact. And while you think you're preventing it, it can still sneak up on you like some kind of masked horror movie villain. Suddenly it's there, there's no creepy music to warn you though, and no granola bar or yogurt can be digested quickly enough to avoid a minor melt down.

Someone was very happy with his Hawaiian ice after lunch today.

Thanks for being here for us during the last two years. We've needed you and relied on you, even if you were just listening or commiserating or silently cheering us on, we know it, we felt it and it has made all the difference along the way. A huge thanks to our parents, our siblings, friends and extended family, for taking Xavier for a few hours to give us a fancy date night, for loving him almost as immediately as we did, for being patient, and kind and generous in your attention and time for him, he's a deeply lucky kid to have the extended family and network of cheerleaders that he has. And so are we. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And here's to the next step in this grand adventure together.


Thursday, December 01, 2016

My Heart is Out There Riding His Bike Without a Helmet

You guys. You guys. You guys. I'd like to calmly tell you that I'm terrified. Not this second, not really. But I'm so scared sometimes. So scared. My heart races. My palms sweat (ok, they do that about 72% of the time anyway) but this having and loving and adoring and raising a kid business is gut wrenching, and ridiculous, and lovely, and so so terrifying. I'm scared in a way that I never knew before.


I have a tendency to borrow trouble sometimes. Neurotically thinking too far ahead. Overthinking about things out of my control. Fearing things that haven't happened yet, because I read some article or someone told me that we might want to anticipate this type of issue in the future. But how do you not worry as a parent? Biological parents worry. Adoptive parents worry.  I don't consider myself a particularly anxious person. But the fear and anxiety of raising a child is something that ripples underneath my consciousness all of the time now. And it's not the kind of fear like walking through a haunted house or when a surprise spider lands on your forehead because the idiot built a web right across your front door, or a potential cancer diagnosis after a weird lump appears. It is different. It feels like a new organ in my body. Like my muscles and skin are stretched out over this thin, thrumming transparent layer of concern and vigilance that hovers right over my bones. It is always there. It is me now.  Joe and I first hugged this small,brave dark haired boy while standing in a library in West Texas, and I felt this new sinew starting to grow. And the pain and joy of my expanding heart, and this new vigilant organ growing over my bones has been challenging over the last two years.


I'm not saying anything new here. I'm not saying anything revolutionary or unique. I'm just writing about being a mom. So common that I'm basically a stereotype just sitting over here. I'm saying it and typing it and sharing it because I want to. Because I feel compelled. Because I have to remind myself I'm not the only one out here scared. Worried about what the world will bring for my son. Worried about yelling too much. Or my often frayed lack of patience. Or maybe I'm not giving the right advice to my son about how to make friends or talk to girls or finding creative ways to get him to actually consume a vegetable or making sure he is wearing his helmet every single time he climbs on his bike to ride down the street to jump on a potentially deadly trampoline with his friends whose parents I've only met once. And what if they have guns in their house and I never asked? Or I'm not making him read enough or his day isn't structured enough or he doesn't feel loved enough or like he belongs or we don't help him connect to his Mexican American heritage as often as we should? Oh, stop me. Good lord. It's too much.


What if we're screwing this up? When would you even know? There is no easy way to tell if you're doing this right is there? I guess you could look at certain immediate markers like kindness to others, empathy, grades, friends, not setting pets on fire, but long term, no way. Some days I think we're ok. I think we're great actually. I think we're experts at knowing how to parent our kid. It feels right and good and happy. And some days are HARD. HARD. HARD.  Our situation is different since we adopted our kid at age nine, and sometimes I feel at a disadvantage because I don't know if our issues are universal with stubborn eleven year old boys or if we're struggling harder because we've only had our boy for two years and he's been burdened with this shitty history not of his making, or all of this. It's guessing it's all of this. All of it.

We have an amazing family therapist. And by amazing, I mean this kind of warm, realistic, educated, open, experienced woman who says what we need to hear exactly how we need to hear it. She reminded us yesterday that all of this parenting is truly a crap shoot. Of course, she's classier than that and didn't call it an actual crap shoot. But pretty close.

She has watched us parent our son and talked to us about parenting for almost two years. She has seen the ups and downs, the chaos, the meltdowns, the struggles, and she said bluntly to us both, that we're doing exactly what we should be doing. We're doing it as well as if not better than almost anyone she works with. But we will still have no idea how this kid is going to turn out. But either way, his life is going to be better because he's with us. Well, fuck me. That's what I needed to hear. Read that again. Honestly, I need to hear that like every single day. I should have asked if I could record her saying it, so I could just play it on repeat when I'm feeling like drinking all of the wine in the house  while simultaneously eating all of the salty and sugary things in a three mile radius.  And of course I immediately started crying once she said it. In fact, I'm goddamn crying now just remembering her saying it. I felt the tension in my shoulders oozing away like a thick fog when she said it and when I repeat it to myself. She says this and my constant fear of failure evaporates enough that I can literally feel it falling away inside my gut. And then I sat with that thought for awhile.

That thought feels ultimately freeing and a little futile too. She said it to be honest and clear about how parenting, and specifically parenting the kid we are parenting really goes. Children with significant trauma from the abuse and neglect that many kids living in foster care have experienced, and the frequent mental health diagnoses these fragile, resilient, amazing kids often struggle with, tend to make their outcomes damn near impossible to determine. But then again, is anyone's outcome from child to adult all that clear? There are so many variables. A sea of variables that come into play. And for me, the only thing that makes sense as we navigate that sea is making sure that we are his life boat, his life preserver, his life vest, all of the flotation devices he might possibly need during the biggest storms and highest seas that are to come. We will ride it all out together. Not matter what.


But now I get to cut myself a little slack too. I feel released a bit. I'm parenting to the best of my ability on any given day. It varies. Sometimes there's more yelling. Sometimes there's more, "Skip the homework and veggies, and let's watch Napolean Dynamite on a school night complete with a floor picnic of pigs in a blanket and salsa and chips!" But I'm doing my damnedest to think before I speak. To hug so often it's almost irritating. To rub that kid's back until he feels smothered with my affection. To read to him every single night until he moves away to college if he so chooses, to discipline in a way that heals and gives structure and builds trust, to manage my anger and frustration when he's using his super powers to push our buttons, and push them fucking hard.  I'm also trying to leave more room for myself to feel imperfect, to feel flawed, to feel like I made a mistake, and move along. Move right along. Because either way, his life is better because he's with us. He's where he belongs. He's healing. He's ours. And I think every single day, he starts to believe that more and more.

Photos courtesy of the charming Joe Sands, except that bottom one.