Angela Amman

5 Things: Lightning quick book reviews

Like my thoughts, my reading habits keep jumping around this summer. I dive into books, then read others in tiny, chapter-size bites. I read books specifically sent to me for review and others that finally make their way to my house via the library hold system. I re-read favorites. Basically, I find the time to read when I can, and I hope my quick and easy reviews point you in the direction of something you might like.

summer reading recommendations Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

I can’t just make things easy and stick to beach reads this summer. I found myself on a little thriller kick, and Before I Go to Sleep came home with me from the library. (It’s currently in paperback if you want to buy it!)

I’m not the first person to compare this book to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, but I think it’s important to mention. Christine wakes up every morning without memories of the prior day (and several prior years). Each day, her husband Ben needs to explain parts of her life to her, after he explains who he is and why she doesn’t have any recollection of him or her immediate past.

Thanks to a therapist, Christine soon records her memories in a journal, hiding it each night and keeping its existence a secret. Soon, readers see inconsistencies in Ben’s answers, and tension builds — both between the reader and the story and between Christine and Ben.

Of course, Christine epitomizes the concept of an unreliable narrator. Is she really recording everything she learns? What does she deem unimportant and important? Watson builds the tension artfully, keeping readers turning the page while leaving clues to the eventual conclusion scattered through the narrative. One of the best parts of the book, which I enjoyed and highly recommend, is how uncomfortable it felt to read. I really felt like I imagine Christine felt: something doesn’t feel exactly right — but we aren’t sure exactly what it is until she is.

The Book of Summer reviews

The Book of Summer by Michelle Gable

The Book of Summer came to me via the She Reads summer book picks, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. The literal Book of Summer exists between the pages of Gable’s book, a guest book of sorts in Cliff House, a Nantucket summer home. Through its entries, we get a glimpse into Ruby’s life, a background that slides forward to present day, where Ruby’s granddaughter Bess has retreated to Cliff House.

Bess’s mother, Cissy, wants to save Cliff House from tumbling into the sea. Bess’s father has entrusted her with getting her mother to see that even Cissy’s stubbornness can’t stop erosion. Bess, of course, has other reasons for welcoming a return to Cliff House: a failing marriage, memories of an old love, and secrets she’s ignoring for as long as she can.

I loved Ruby’s voice and the cadence, language, and tone of the 1940s. Her story emphasized the role women played as the United States entered World War II.

The Book of Summer reads like a summer book, with a beautifully done cover and shenanigans from Bess and Cissy. However, Gable wraps complicated social issues in a beach-read package. I loved how much I thought about this book after I finished it. I particularly related to the nature of mother-daughter relationships and how we sometimes rail so hard against something that could be so much simpler than we make it.

The Book of Summer doesn’t end with a beautifully tied bow, allowing the reader to extrapolate happily-ever-afters — or not.

liane moriarty booksTruly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Thanks to the HBO miniseries, people went bonkers for Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. I eventually read that, too, but I had to sit on the waiting list for a while. In the meantime, I grabbed Truly Madly Guilty off the library shelf and dove in.

I’d already read What Alice Forgot and The Husband’s Secret, and as I made my way through Truly Madly Guilty, I remembered the way Moriarty lets her reader know about an “incident” immediately, revealing details as the book unfolds.

Personally, I felt like the actual incident got blown up into more than it was in Truly Madly Guilty. I worried about it, a lot, as I got closer to the reveal, but it felt a little anticlimactic when it finally came.

Six adults find their lives entwined because of Erika. Though her character seems unassuming, she’s the cog in the relationships, linking each of the three couples to the others. She and her husband, Oliver, live next door to Vid, Tiffany, and their daughter (at whole house the mysterious “incident” occurs). Erika is old friends with Clementine, whose husband, Sam, and their two daughters all play an integral role in what happens during the night in question.

If the “incident” and “night in question” feel a little obtuse and overdrawn, Truly Madly Guilty might not be the right book for you.

The interesting aspect of TMG comes from the reader’s bird’s eye view into different views of friendships and relationships versus how they look from the outside. Moriarty shines when she contrasts what her characters reveal with what they hide. In this particular story, I felt myself drawn to her exploration of gender and parenting roles. Though I don’t think this is her strongest story, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re looking for a Moriarty fix.

You Will Know Me reviewsYou Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I adored You Will Know Me last summer and loved it just as much this summer. Also, quick aside, but it doesn’t seem like a year ago that I read those five books. Time flies, truly.

During this read, I thought about what binds us as families and the link between desire, drive, and desperation. With a gymnastics prodigy at the core of their family, the Knox family knows more than their share about determination. Devon and her steely determination rule the vault on which she excels, but when tragedy strikes Devon’s gym, we pull back from her singular focus to see where her parents fit into her drive and desire.

Devon’s father, Eric, presides over many of the social machinations at the gym and in the parent Booster Club. Katie’s quiet presence in the gym bleachers becomes more complicated as the story unfolds and she pieces together the events surrounding the death of a young man connected to many people in the gym’s hierarchy.

The link between mother and daughter loomed large for me as I read You Will Know Me this summer, especially a scene in which the reader sees Devon watching Katie. Most of the book shows Katie watching Devon, so the contrast feels weighted, especially when I went back to one of Katie’s quotes:
“‘Being a girl is so hard,’ Katie thought. ‘And it only gets harder.'”

summer thrillersThe Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

I continued my thrilled kick with The Woman in Cabin 10.

Many years and many books ago, I sat on the gold shag carpeting in my parents’ guest room/computer room and worked my way through my mom’s extensive (seriously extensive!) collection of Agatha Christie mysteries. Coaxed along by Dame Agatha, I learned all about red herrings and eliminating suspicious suspects — and in Curtain, I learned about trusting — or not trusting — a narrator.

Despite its modern setting — web critics, bloggers, and investors make up much of the cast of characters — The Woman in Cabin 10 felt like one of those old-school, tradition mystery novels. Readers need to slowly work out who can be trusted, who can be believed at their word, and who is what they seem.

Lo Blacklock finds herself among the first passengers to voyage on an intimate, luxury cruise ship — luckily, she thinks at first. (And, of course, my mind skipped happily back to two of Christie’s other mysteries: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.) She doesn’t feel nearly as lucky when she hears a splash in the night, sees blood smeared on glass, then can’t account for the “woman in cabin 10,” from whom Lo borrowed mascara when she realized she’d forgotten her own. Soon the mascara in question disappears from Lo’s cabin, no one appears to be missing from the boat, and everything begins to feel off-kilter.

The small ship ends up being the perfect setting for Ware’s book. Claustrophobia and the swaying of the ship affect Lo, and they affect the reader, too. In addition, the cold-weather cruise feels disorientating to me, though I’m sure not everyone associates cruising with warm weather.

Ware adds to the Agatha Christie vibe with observations about those with (lots and lots of) money versus the working class, including placing some members of the press/travelers into each of the categories. Texts and emails from Lo’s friends and boyfriend add to questions about Lo’s reliability — and to what might happen to her as the story draws to a conclusion.

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summer book recommendations

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Multiples Illuminated: An excerpt

Multiples Illuminated excerptMultiples Illuminated: Life with Twins and Triplets, the Toddler to Tween Years is the collection of essays from Megan Woolsey & Alison Lee. Both editors parent multiples themselves, and they’ve gathered stories from other parents of multiples. This collection includes an essay from a twin, offering a different perspective than the parenting side of living with multiples.

This is an excerpt of “When One Twin Has Cancer” by Jessica Martineau from Multiples Illuminated: Life with Twins and Triplets, the Toddler to Tween Years.

We were whisked into a private room filled with a team of people. Brief introductions later, we had met Mila’s oncologist team. Doctors, surgeons, social workers, and nurses.
The pediatric oncologist, a young-looking man, warm by default, Dr. X, took the lead.
“Jessica, Mark … we received the results of the biopsy. Mila has Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma.”

That was the scary medical term for what was a large tumor I’d discovered on Mila’s right hip during a routine trip to tubby time.

He proceeded to inform us that this was a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Mark put his hand to his face and tears fell. I had never seen him like this before, and it scared me. I must have missed something. I was not following. There were so many solemn eyes looking at us. Awaiting a response. I felt like a deer caught in headlights.

Dr. X continued, “We will begin with surgery to remove the tumor and the muscle surrounding it. From there, we will decide her specific treatment plan. It is definitive that she will receive weekly chemotherapy for 12 months. The pending factor will be the addition of radiation. This will be an unknown until we see what we are dealing with.”

The reference to chemotherapy hit me like a boulder. As I started to lose it, Mark began to compose himself. It was as if we passed off the strength baton.

This was the moment we were welcomed into the family we never wanted to be a part of.

Immediately after Mila’s diagnosis, Ava popped into my mind. Was this her impending doom? Would she get cancer now? Or after Mila finished her treatment? Years down the road, would we hit the repeat button? We needed to know if this disease was genetic, because our twins are identical.

Our worries were laid to rest later when a genetic test proved that this cancer did not develop from a genetic strand. Ava as well as Presley, had as slim a chance of developing cancer as any other healthy child. The other silver lining of this diagnosis was a recent study that confirmed that a six-month treatment would be just as effective as a year-long one. Just like that, Mila was halfway through.

After a successful surgery, Mila began her journey of weekly chemotherapy. It was the first time she and her twin had been separated for several days. Ava spent the day with her grandmother and Mila received sole attention from me. They both loved the one-on-one time. However, the moment we walked in the door on Wednesday evenings, they ran to each other and commemorated the reunion with joyful squeals.

Every third Wednesday, Mila came home with a hydration backpack and was on a strong, continued, dosage of anti-nausea drugs that caused her to be a bit loopy. The hydration backpack was connected to her through a port in her chest. It had about two feet of slack. On these evenings, Mila, Ava and I would curl up into a chair together and watch Curious George for a few short hours until bedtime. Ava, having the flexibility to be up and about if needed, would grab her water bottle or a banana for herself and Mila just in case she wanted it. She was unapologetically thoughtful and supportive, as if she knew how her sister was feeling.

The mornings Mila woke up in her crib after sleeping with the hydration backpack were not the easiest. The medicine made her nauseated, and occasionally she would vomit. As I tended to Mila to get her clean and comfortable, Ava waited patiently in her crib. When Mila was cleaned up, I would place her in Ava’s crib to continue cleaning the rest of the room. The girls sat contentedly together. Despite not understanding the seriousness of cancer, Ava became her sister’s safe space and kept her smiling. When the twins were together, you would never have known Mila had cancer and was undergoing a treatment that could bring a 200-pound man to his knees.

Together, with Presley and Ava’s support, love and laughter kicked this disease to the curb.

The book launches on August 4, 2017, National Twins Day!

The digital version of the book is available for preorder now for $2.99 on Amazon for Kindle and other digital devices. Come August 4, launch day, all preorders will be delivered automatically to buyers. 

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The perils of a good book

Before We Were Yours review

I started Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate much in the way I start all books. I picked it up, fell into the first chapter or so, and rested it on my favorite spot on the couch when I needed to do something more mundane (probably make dinner).

The Saturday after I started the novel, the kids and I were planning to wander to the pool. The long Memorial Day weekend beckoned, and we were all ready to relax in the sunshine, though I knew the water would be hovering at a temperature I wouldn’t touch unless necessary. Something about the sun streaming through the windows encouraged me to pick up Before We Were Yours instead of starting to pack our bags.

“I’ll just read one chapter,” I said to the kids. “Maybe two,” I whispered, more to myself than to them.

“Can I play Minecraft?” he asked a while later, when the two chapters I’d thought I’d read were long gone.

I balked at that. After all, we were almost ready to go play outside, not sit inside with electronics all day. I just wanted to finish one more chapter, so I suggested he do “anything but that.”

His sister’s ears ferreted out the distraction in my voice, and she lugged out the giant container of Elmer’s Glue. “Anything but that” always means slime-making at our house lately, and I was so engrossed in Wingate’s story I didn’t mind.

I didn’t even mind cleaning the mess a while later, when the glue had started to congeal on the granite counters and the end of the book lingered in my mind. Cleaning gave me the chance to think about Before We Were Yours without much interruption, because slime-making doesn’t always lend itself to slime-cleaning-up.

Two stories unfold between the pages of Before We Were Yours, one happens in 1938 in Memphis, Tennessee and the other in present-day South Carolina.

Rill Foss and her siblings find themselves wards of the state under tenuous circumstances, and Rill finds herself fighting to keep her family together while surrounded by a corrupt system. Avery Stafford grew up comfortably privileged, her political family grooming her for a possible political position in the event her father’s illness progresses more quickly than anticipated.

As the reader might guess, Rill and Avery’s stories converge on each other. Wingate’s prose leads the reader gently toward the intersection. However, the collision still jars when Avery must reconcile what she discovers about her family’s past with the ethical compass with which she’s lived her life, both as the daughter of an upstanding politician and as a lawyer.

Part of what made it difficult for me to stop reading Before We Were Yours (and to stop the slime explosion in my kitchen), was the balance of the past and present stories. Both Rill’s story and Avery’s felt well-paced. Neither detracted from the other, which made it tough to put down the book.

The historical basis for Rill’s story fascinated me. After I finished Before We Were Yours, I learned a little more about Georgia Tann and the corruption of her adoption business. The families she exploited scattered across the country. Although those children were adopted by parents who wanted them desperately, it doesn’t change how she wrenched children away from their own loving parents.

Even with the heartbreaking corruption laying the groundwork for Rill’s story, Wingate’s focus on family commitments and what we need and expect from our families felt like the heart of her novel. Avery’s quest for truth leads her to unexpected places, and she needs to reconcile her strong moral center with the ambiguity occurring when good people do the wrong thing for what they consider the right reasons.

I highly recommend Before We Were Yours. Wingate’s warm descriptions and southern ambiance beg for it to be read during the summer months, though the story will stick with you well after the weather begins to change.

This post contains affiliate links. I received a copy of Before We Were Yours in consideration for review. All opinions are my own. 

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5 Things – Vegas edition

I freak out — for lack of a better phrase — a bit when Ryan and I fly on the same plane. While this doesn’t help my ability to fall asleep and let the plane time travel me to my destination in minutes, it gives me time to read. Thanks to several uninterrupted flying hours last week, I finished my latest library books more quickly than I expected, which is why there are two books in this five things.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

I can’t remember when I put this on my reading list, but I grabbed it when I went to the library before leaving for Las Vegas. I didn’t have to wait for it, and the copy I found happened to be paperback, most likely because it was published in 1966. With its baby pink cover and cast of lovely characters, Valley of the Dolls could have read like a campy throwback to the golden days of Hollywood and the way TV usurped the success of star-driven movie studio successes.

Instead, I found something else entirely. The campy feel weaves through the book, buoying the story with beautiful characters and shenanigans like gifts of mink coats and women who ply their looks — or downplay them — to go after what they want in life. The three main characters, Anne, Nelly, and Jennifer, each possess a certain quality that allows them to make their way in a world where men hold the power to make or destroy their dreams. Ambition, talent, looks, and quiet shrewdness mix together under their lovely exteriors and propel each of them to success. But the other side of that pinnacle lies waiting for them, a wasteland where even the most successful women depend on the love and support of men to keep them afloat — even as it destroys each of them.

Vegas tripA Champagne vending machine

Prior to leaving for Vegas, one of my friends brought up that a champagne vending machine lived in a hotel not far from where we’d be staying. Of course, in Vegas distance, “not far” isn’t the same as not far in other places. The six of us started walking, and kept walking, and I’m almost positive Ryan thought my idea was the worst idea ever. (It’s likely all of the men, who were NOT interested in trying the champagne vending machine, thought we were nuts to keep walking, but no one else was going to say anything.)

When we got to the hotel, we entered to find elevators and very little guidance about anything else — no friendly concierge or signs pointing to where we needed to go. A quick Google search pointed us back on track, and up we went. (Floor 23 is where you need to be. There, you’ll find a registration desk, and they’ll sell you the token you need for the vending machine. The machine lives directly across from the desk, so we didn’t have the opportunity to get lost again.)

I’d rate the machine a little overpriced (though not ridiculous by Vegas standards) but novel, fun, and a little bit silly. Since our only plans that night were loose and not time-based, I’m glad we went.

Purple Reign

Between the six of us traveling to Vegas, we’d seen a variety of Cirque shows, which tend to be what I want to see while there. Britney had the gall to be off during the time we were in town, and none of the men seemed all that thrilled about Boyz II Men or the Backstreet Boys. All six of us voiced enthusiastic consent of the Prince Tribute show, and I loved it even more when we actually saw it.

Getting there took a little work. We thought we had oodles of time, but suddenly we were booking it to the MGM Grand to ride the monorail all the way over to the Westgate. Someone tripped on the way (not me) and someone had to change into another outfit when we returned to the hotel because she couldn’t stand for one more instant in her heels (me). Purple Reign still gets two huge thumbs up if you’re looking for a fun show, especially if you’re looking for a decent deal. (We found tickets on Groupon.) Jason Tenner embodies Prince so well, from his voice to his mannerisms — and my friends say his guitar skills are pretty close, but I can’t speak to that. We danced and sang along and might have spent a few minutes wondering why the group of guys in front of us looked so grumpy the whole time. Seriously, check it out the next time you’re there.

Vegas trip

Fine, this is not a hotel bar, but this cabana turned out to be one of my favorite expenditures of the trip.

The allure of hotel lounge bars

Years ago, I would believe people when they mentioned Las Vegas as a cheap vacation destination. It never works out like that for us. I don’t gamble very much ($30 total this trip), so I don’t rack up those bonuses, including free drinks. Each time I check ticket prices for shows, they seem higher than our last visit. So when you’re sitting in a hotel lounge with your friends, nursing a glass of wine, and the singer starts playing some of your favorite covers, you grab a seat and enjoy it. Hotel lounges make for fantastic people watching, too. People on their way to somewhere else and people slinking home. Conference goers (everyone toting matching backpacks) whose conversations grow more and more animated as the night gets later. We ended our weekend in Lift, one of Aria’s hotel lounges, singing into microphones with the lead singer, staying up later than we expected, and appreciating (so much) spending time with people we don’t see nearly enough.

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer

I loved The Interestings, a Wolitzer novel painted as a bit of an ode to the 80s and a lot as an exploration into artistic ambition, privilege, and the lasting impact of friendships that take hold during adolescence.

I read The Interestings in the summer, in the hazy days when everything stands still and everything seems like it might be a possibility. I read The Ten-Year-Nap on a plane, where a draft of a short story collection sat silently at my feet, when I harbored doubts and worries about what would happen to that collection. The mothers in Wolitzer’s story pressed pause on their careers (or jobs, in some cases) to raise their children. Now that their little ones are getting older, Amy, Jill, Roberta, and Karen find themselves a little adrift.

I’ve read some critiques of this novel claiming the women in the book take their worries too seriously, but I think that’s part of why I related to it. Leaving the work force to take care of my kids has been the greatest joy of my life, but it’s also shifted things irrevocably, and I know that’s true for many of the moms I know. Our educations and job experiences trail behind us, but they don’t seem to count for much. I’ve started filling out applications for certain things and stopped, embarrassed by the gap between what I used to do and what I do now.

The four friends find themselves struggling to emerge from the amazing, magical world of raising young children, a world with its own rhythms and languages, a world that sometimes seems trite and boring to those outside of it. When Amy’s husband’s eyes glaze over when she describes part of her day, she knows it’s happening — and I know that feeling. As Amy becomes enamored with and entangled in another friend’s life, a woman she believes has a grasp on relevancy she’s somehow lost, the reader sees how hard it can be to begin to balance motherhood, work, and a sense of self.

The Ten-Year-Nap might not be for everyone, but it fired along my synapses long after I left the plane — and encouraged me to take another step forward with my own writing.

Vegas trip


I lied. Vegas deserves a 6-item edition of 5 Things. We loved staying at Aria. Excellent restaurant options, a (relatively) good deal on a poolside cabana that absolutely made our Sunday, and large, well-equipped rooms and bathrooms.

I’m not sure we’d stay here again, though. Las Vegas is filled with shiny, sparkly things, and that includes the hotels. I have a hard time staying somewhere more than once, simply because I enjoy falling in love with a new resort each time we visit. Also, despite a tram stop located in the adjacent Crystals Shops, we found ourselves ordering Lyft more often than we expected when it came time to walk back to the hotel. Everywhere on the Strip seems far from everywhere else, but if you plan on leaving to eat or hang out anywhere but the City Center, consider Lyft/Uber/taxi costs into your vacation budget.

My favorite parts of the hotel were probably, in no particular order:

This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on one of my links, I get a small (very small) commission. Alas, it only works on the books. 

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