Angela Amman

Crunch time: What I’m reading

I ordered my Christmas cards early this year. I felt so accomplished when they arrived amongst a flurry of other boxes, but they’re still not completely addressed, and I haven’t bought the stamps. We had our tree up early, but I still need “white stuff” for the Christmas village, and I’ve moved it three times on my to-do list.

Basically, I’m running holiday errands in stops and starts this year, and apparently book reviews are in the same vein. Here are three books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks, and why you might want to pick one up the next time you need to do a little holiday procrastination.

Back Home at Firefly Lake

Back Home at Firefly Lake by Jen Gilroy

I reviewed the second book in the Firefly Lake series and knew I wanted to read this cozy-sounding third book. In the midst of a busy month — or months, if we’re being honest — sometimes I just want to curl up and escape into someone else’s world. Jen Gilroy’s Firefly Lake offers the charm of a small town, with all of the complications arising when lives twine together between childhood and adulthood.

Cat McGuire comes back to her childhood town with her daughter, Amy, in tow, a research grant in hand, and one foot already out the door. Luc Simard is back, too, with a loss weighing heavily on his heart. Cat and Luc collide almost immediately when Cat’s daughter finds her way onto the boys’ hockey team Luc coaches. Their attraction sizzles from the beginning, though they were only friends growing up.

Of course, things get complicated.

I appreciated the way Gilroy weaves this story around the families she’s already introduced in her world, and the way she makes Amy’s story as much a part of the narrative as Cat and Luc’s. Returning “home” after being gone for so long makes Cat feel like she doesn’t belong, and I think that’s something everyone can relate to as we navigate the holiday season. Even though contemporary romances, by virtue of their genre, offer readers a happily ever after, Gilroy’s focus on the journey of getting there feels warm and authentic. She reminds readers happy endings don’t always look the way you — or her characters — expect.

Good as Gone review

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry

While picking up a library hold, I wandered over to the New Releases section and grabbed this thriller. When a missing — and presumed dead, really — girl comes back home eights years after she’s abducted from her home at knifepoint, a family struggles to find its footing. Like many trending thrillers, Good as Gone flashes between the present and the past, but I particularly enjoyed the way Gentry structured the novel. Anna and Julie move forward, with Anna trying to discover why her daughter seems to be lying about what happened to her — if this Julie is her Julie at all. At the same time, Julie’s past unfolds in layers, pulling back from the present a little at a time to see how and why she ended up on Anna and Tom’s doorstep. The reader and Anna race each other to the truth, and even though parts of the conclusion seem inevitable, the journey to get there feels taut and urgent. I appreciated the way Gentry used family dynamics to drive both motivation and plot in the book.

Have You Met Nora? Have You Met Nora? by Nicole Blades

From the outside, Nora Mackenzie lives an awfully charmed life. Elegant, blond, and successful, she’s engaged to be married into an established, wealthy family via a gorgeous man she truly loves. Why, then, is Nora guzzling champagne while cowered in the cavernous bathtub in her guest bathroom? The daughter of a black, Caribbean mother and white father, Nora’s world fell apart when she was abused by her mother’s employers, who later adopt her when she’s orphaned. Shuttled to an exclusive boarding school, Nora learns how much easier it is not to talk about her real mother — or her heritage.

When an old enemy threatens to expose Nora’s secret, weeks before her marriage, Nora teeters between truth, lies, and running away to reinvent herself once again. Readers will both cringe at and sympathize with Nora’s reluctance to confide in the people who love her and her cool mood swings, as she must decide how far she’s willing to go to keep her friends and almost-family in the dark about her past. Have You Met Nora? provided a fun escape into a different world than the one I’m used to. I enjoyed the drama and intrigue of seeing into the upper echelon of New York society, and I couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book to see how Nora would deal with the threat to a life she put together so carefully.

Disclosure: I received copies of Back Home at Firefly Lake and Have You Met Nora? in consideration for review. All opinions are my own.



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. 

Five things: #BlogHer16 recap

Recapping conferences eludes me, though words are my favorite things. I generally have access to a cornucopia of them, but I stumble when I’m trying to parlay an experience I shared with thousands of other people, each of them with their own perspective on the event. Each BlogHer has unfolded differently for me, and each one offered opportunities, laughter, and revelations I needed, sought and appreciated, both in the moment and when I reflect on my three days in Los Angeles.

Getting inspired

BlogHer recap

As my blog transitions — or as I transition it, at a snail’s pace — to an author website, conferences become less about connecting with brands and more about reigniting a spark of inspiration. No matter what else happens during BlogHer, I always walk away with more ideas than I know what to do with and the effervescent energy to put at least a few of them into motion.

Some of my most inspiring moments this year came from: the Open Mic event hosted by Ann Imig, storytelling goddess and founding genius of Listen to Your Mother; The Pitch, where passionate entrepreneurs get feedback — and compete for a stellar prize — on their business pitches; the Voices of the Year ceremony, where authors, photographers, videographers, and tireless advocates are honored for their work — there’s Elaine with her winning piece; a lunchtime keynote with Mayim Bialik — founder of Grok Nation, neuroscientist, and a shining example of embracing exactly who you are and making a place for the things you love, admire, and champion.

Reflecting on Los Angeles

BlogHer recap

Maybe I don’t know how to navigate the city correctly, but I’ll always prefer the bustling walkability of New York to the sprawling Uber-mecca of LA. Still, the few blocks I did explore included a Sprinkles cupcake shop — one which offered BOGO cupcakes with a flash of our BlogHer badges — and the incomparable Bottega Louie. I snagged macarons for Ryan and the kids and coaxed Mandy into splitting a beauty of a raspberry Neopolitan, and I appreciated the city just a little bit more after falling into a sweetness vortex.

Appreciating sponsors


The BlogHer sponsors pull out all the creative stops to interact with bloggers and social media influencers in fun ways. I didn’t even mind the yellow feathers from the Kraft Mac & Cheese boa, where I posed with two of the three best roommates I could have hoped to snag — Kristin and Leigh Ann.

As TNT prepares to launch Good Behavior, they made sure we had the chance to check out scenes from the show at their oasis of a booth. Free manicures, cushy couches, and wall murals just waiting to be colored with Sharpies. I couldn’t miss sending a little message to the fabulous Angela, who didn’t attend the conference this year, on the heels of an epic family road trip.

For the second time, I attended an event hosted by Merck for Mothers, one focused on their #EndMaternalMortality initiative. It’s unfathomable that maternal mortality is on the rise in the United States, and it’s terrifying when you hear statistics about the “near misses” that happen to women each day — one every ten minutes. I hope the conversation surrounding this issue continues — and deepens — so medical and mental maternal mortality begins to take a downward turn.

I can safely say my favorite takeaway from our conference bags came from The Artisan Group, a collective of artisans crafting beautiful things, like these earrings from Starletta Designs. Abbey has her eye on the perfectly pink gems, but I’m keeping them for myself for now.

Digging into the craft of writing

BlogHer16 recap

In between all of the meeting with friends and getting inspired and chatting with sponsors, BlogHer manages to put together several speaker tracks of sessions. My favorite this year was a panel with Jillian LaurenClaire Bidwell Smith, and Jenny Feldon, the force behind the Story & Soul writing community based in LA. Each of the authors has written a memoir, and the session was listed with a memoir focus.

Though my current passion projects are fictional, I’ve read each of the authors and hoped I could glean some tips and advice for fiction writing. I came away from the session inspired and humbled, not by the final products produced by the Story & Soul writers, but by the effort they focus on their craft. The overwhelming message was “put in the work,” which writers of any genre can pin to their vision boards and revisit when we’re feeling overwhelmed by editing, publishing, or networking.

Connecting with friends

BlogHer16 Recap

From tears and laughter in hotel rooms to chance meetings with people I’ve admired — and whose work I’ve read — for years, I feel incredibly lucky to mingle with fellow writers, bloggers, and influencers for a few days each summer. Meeting with friends, co-workers, and writing group members is consistently a highlight of the conference for me, and I was lucky enough to meet a few of my faves in person for the first time this year.

Mandy didn’t even come to BlogHer, but her amazing self took advantage of the California location to come to me, bearing gifts like Cal Poly jam and wine, but more importantly bearing the gift of finally meeting one of my closest friends and part of a trifecta of writing awesomeness that keeps me sane and keeps my fingers moving over the keyboard. We look crazy with excitement, and we were, having just sprinted across a much-too-classy-for-sprinting JW Marriott lobby to hug. We spent a few hours walking, eating desserts, talking about our current projects and the state of writing and publishing. And we went to Target, which is exactly what girlfriends do, and it felt perfect.

Tonya is one of the founders of Take Flight Social, a company that’s kindly brought me on board, and getting to talk to her in the LA air instead of over Voxer was fantastic. Kim Tracy Prince inspires me, along with Charlene Snyder Ross and a group of fabulous women who didn’t make it to the conference to join the three of us on the dance floor at the closing party.

One last thing…

Something you’ll notice is that I’m the worst at taking photos when I’m basking in exciting moments, but you can see a little more from Jennifer and Elaine, two of my friends who don’t forget to pull out their cameras when fun things are happening.

Really, one last thing…

I can’t say enough about the organization of the BlogHer conferences, because the logistics of such a large event make my head spin. The BlogHer and SheKnows teams work their tushes off all weekend — and they do it with huge smiles, taking the time to say hello even when you just know they need to run to finalize details or take care of the 1897th item on their to-do lists. I hope they know how much we appreciate their tireless work!


Five Things: What I’ve been reading — and re-reading

Once upon a time, in a land pretty much exactly the same as this one, I loved reviewing books in this space. I sought out quotes, made graphics, and poured my heart into my thoughts about those books and my book recommendations.

I loved those reviews.

I love reading, pondering, and putting together something worthy of the words I’ve been gifted by the authors of books that have touched me. Unfortunately, those reviews left me with a stack of books in my “waiting to be reviewed” pile, which started to weigh down the corner of my desk with lots of pages and a smidge of guilt. I’ll get back to those reviews — someday — but for now, here’s what I thought about what I’ve read lately (in alphabetical order by title).

All the Light We Cannot See reviews

All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr won a Pulitzer Prize for All the Light We Cannot See, and I know I’ll revisit this novel for both the interwoven tale of Marie-Laure and Warner and for Doerr’s haunting prose. Minute details of daily life fill this novel firmly set amongst the historical facts of World War II, and the story shines like a gem refracting light through the darkness of war.

Marie-Laure loses her sight as a child, and her father, the meticulous keeper of keys for Paris’s Museum of Natural History, helps her navigate their beloved city by building a perfect model of the streets and buildings. When they’re driven from Paris and eventually separated, she must relearn her bearings. Warner Pfenning’s mechanical genius earns him a spot at a special academy away from the orphanage where he lives, right in the midst of an evil he begins to comprehend just as surely as he understands he can’t escape his position.

Eventually, the blind Marie-Laure must face monsters she can’t see, protecting more than one precious secret in her great uncle’s home in Saint-Malo. As her story winds together with Warner’s, the town of Saint-Malo cradles complicated questions that arise during wartime — and beyond.

Can people be good to each other, even when outside forces are demanding cruelty? Even more thought-provoking, perhaps, is the question of whether those kindnesses and small gestures can link together to combat cruelty in a lasting and meaningful way. Dreamlike prose depicts both the lovely and the dreadful, spotlighting that both exist in the world. In All the Light We Cannot See, the only way to reconcile the two is to embrace that dichotomy and find hope in the glimmer of goodness possessed by most people, even when they find themselves in impossible situations.

Frosted CowboyFrosted Cowboy

Frosted Cowboy by Charlene Ross is the perfect way to celebrate summer — and I don’t just mean with the title cocktail! Laney Delaney is the perfectly flawed, witty friend you’d welcome into your social circle in an instant, and Frosted Cowboy would be a welcome addition to any book club looking for a warm-weather summer read.

It’s a light-hearted, engaging story, and though romantic entanglements play a flirty, fun role in the book, there’s more at play, including when to take risks in your career and go after something with the potential to be so much more fulfilling than what you’re doing now. Laney makes mistakes that make you cringe at times, which is part of her charm, because you just know you’ve been in similar situations and made similarly questionable lapses of judgement.

Readers will root for Laney to succeed, in love — of course — but also in her fledgling business. You won’t want to put this one down once you begin.

Letters for ScarletLetters for Scarlet

This debut novel by Julie C. Gardner examines what happens when the past and the present collide, unearthing secrets that can change relationships — for better and for worse. An old high school English project literally enters Corie’s life, coaxing her to examine what she has, what she wants, and how the two of those things are connected to what she lost so many years ago. Scarlet has carved out the successful career she always wanted, but now she’s being confronted with doubts about her own aspirations, and what she might have given up by going after her dreams.

Corie and Scarlet come to life easily (Corie grades papers with a purple pen, which instantaneously endeared her to me,) and readers will be invested in their decisions almost immediately. One of the joys of the novel is how three-dimensional the secondary characters are, as well, particularly Clara. Scarlet’s coworker and friend does a little bit of scene-stealing each time she enters the story, and her comic timing brings an effervescence to an otherwise emotionally complicated story. Women’s fiction fans will enjoy Letters for Scarlet; try it with your book club this fall after the kids go back to school.

The Light Between Oceans reviews

The Light Between Oceans

M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans gutted me the first time I read it, and it gutted me anew this week. I’m seeing the film this Saturday (quick pause while I faint a little bit, both because of the movie and because I haven’t even thought about packing for BlogHer yet), and I wanted to fall into the book version of the story before seeing the adaptation.

After surviving on the Western Front in World War I, Tom Sherbourne seeks the chance to quiet his head, both literally and figuratively. A lighthouse keeper’s post promises the steady life for which he yearns, and when he marries Isabel, they seem to have forged a bond between them that thrives on their isolated lifestyle. Miscarriages and a stillborn son send waves crashing against the foundation they’ve built, until a baby comes ashore and promises a simple life of happiness — until they remember there is, indeed, life away from Janus Rock.

The steady beam of a lighthouse protects those who see it from coming to close to shore, from crashing into land they’re not able to see in the dark. For Tom and Isabel, those hidden crags are the ones that may hurt them the most. My heart ached for Tom, a man who carried survival guilt home from the war and had such a difficult time opening himself up, even to those who loved him, until he welcomed the bountiful love and trust of a child. Isabel, burned by the repeated losses of the children she desperately wants, adjusts her sense of right and wrong in a way that makes perfect sense to her — until it doesn’t any longer. Stedman puts forth heavy moral questions, and the answers Tom and Isabel seek will leave readers breathless — both with the pain and beauty found in the line separating truths and lies.

You Will Know Me reviewsYou Will Know Me

I unabashedly declared You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott to be my most-anticipated* book of the summer, and it exceeded my expectations. In just a few days, the Olympics begin, and countless eyes will follow the juxtaposition of steely reserve and bubbly but palpable power characterizing female gymnasts. Once you read this tense crime thriller from Abbott, you may never look at those athletes in the same way.

Genre dictates You Will Know Me will have a crime: the death of Ryan Beck, whose connection to the gym where Olympic-hopeful Devon Knox trains threads between many of the novel’s characters. In Abbott’s capable, unwavering hands, the plot vacillates between dread and desire as it twists and turns through Katie Knox’s lens. As Devon’s mother, Katie searches for some pulse of understanding in Ryan’s death, and the reader questions what they know over and over again. The unflinchingly — except that one time — steady and ambitious Devon anchors the story, shining a spotlight not only on the well-oiled machines that are the families of highly-competitive athletes, but the machines that are all families. Readers will question where and how family ties can be strained to their limit, and who exactly holds those ties together when they need it the most.

*Abbey will disagree about the anticipation. She had The BFG on hold for weeks, so that would be at the top of her list, but her penchant for American Girl mysteries means she might snag this from my shelf sooner than I anticipate.

What have you read lately?

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