August/September 2020

Hello, my friends! Happy OCTOBER and happy Autumn! As we’ve entered my absolute favorite season, I can feel myself coming home (despite our high temperatures still near 90 degrees). I’m letting go of things that no longer serve me, breathing deeper, and feeling more at peace. The morning sunlight creeping in invites me to cozy up with a book, my mug of coffee, and often times a cuddling cat and blanket. I’ve been gravitating towards those earlier hours to watch the day come to life – birds visiting the feeders, neighborhood cats sunning themselves or exploring, the occasional person out walking their dog(s), but mostly, I’ve been enjoying the stillness and quiet.

Life and the world has felt incredibly chaotic. This year has been one we will never forget, but probably one we wish we could have skipped. I really hope you’re all hanging in there and maintaining some sort of sanity – please know that I’m sending enormous virtual hugs to anyone reading this post. I had every intention of posting last month, but my computer had other plans for me. Between losing the hours of work I put into the post, and the computer overheating after five minutes (literally every time we turned it on), I took it as a sign it wasn’t meant to happen. So here we are, and I’m going to try to do things a bit differently in an attempt to condense two months worth of reviews without creating a novel to read.

September brought about THE WORST fire season I have ever experienced since moving to Oregon. I know the West Coast as a whole got hammered hard, and my heart goes out to everyone who lost a loved one, their home, a business, and all of their possessions. The photos, videos, and stories that I saw were devastating. Entire towns gone. People missing, lives lost. All of this while still in the middle of a pandemic. While my little family wasn’t affected by way of loss, we knew people who were evacuated and some who lost a home. In Bend, we had over a week of hazardous air quality (literally the worst in the world) due to thick smoke. Which meant you couldn’t be outside and windows had to remain closed. It literally felt like the apocalypse. Thank you, Shanna, for sending me a video on how to make your own air purifier (box fan + furnace filter), because that helped a lot! I will never forget how it felt when we were finally able to go outside and take a deep breath. Little things I will never take for granted.

September also marked the start of The Plant Fed Gut course with Dr. Bulsiewicz (the author of Fiber Fueled)! It’s been a mind-blowing experience so far, and it’s so neat to be on this journey with people from all over the world. The community is incredibly supportive, and Dr. B is a breath of fresh air with his knowledge that forces me to take a closer look at my habits, recognize my shortcomings, and see how I can improve. I’m working on a separate post to share more about this journey.

Other fun things to report: I’ve already surpassed my reading goal for the year (goal was 80 books and I’m at 82), and we still have three months left! Willow and I have found a great rhythm for our fourth year of homeschooling – got rid of things that weren’t working in the past, and implemented new ideas. I think our favorite new thing is setting a timer for however long Willow wants (30-40 minutes), and we sit and write – whether it’s free writing (brain dumping) or working on a specific story or idea. There’s beauty in the simplicity of putting pen to paper and tuning out the rest of the world. We try and make this a daily habit, but sometimes the morning gets away from us. The biggest thing that the two of us have learned on this homeschooling adventure, is to just go with the flow.

I’m sure that you’re here for the reviews though! So let’s dive in, shall we?!?

August/September 2020 in Review:

P R O D U C T S :

I had a handful of products I wanted to share with you from August, but sadly when all of my work disappeared, the photos did as well…luckily they weren’t overly newsworthy or hurry up and go try these. Below are a few from September…

Confetti Candle Co. >> I have a few locally made (Oregon) favorite candle makers, but decided to try a shop out of New York – I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved them! First of all, I love that Ara makes them to order, so you might have to wait a bit longer to receive them, but you’re guaranteed a freshly poured candle. The scents are wonderful – not perfume-y, not overpowering, and not fake smelling. She uses phthalate-free fragrance and natural essential oils, and from the three that I purchased, I’ve enjoyed their subtle scents and clean burn. Each one transports me to either a fond memory or a different atmosphere. For example, Autumn Festival takes me back to trips to Long Grove, Illinois where we’d get hot apple cider and freshly baked doughnuts and enjoy the crisp air and colorful leaves. I purchased the 4-ounce size candles to try out a few different scents, but she also sells 8-oz and 14-oz sizes. There are SO many scents to choose from – ones for different seasons, holidays, moods, and more. I also love that she donates a portion of all proceeds to earth-friendly charities! Highly recommend!

Trader Joe’s Organic Almond Beverage Chocolate Bar >> If you’re looking for a dairy-free, super smooth chocolate bar…here’s a great option. Willow loved it!

Trader Joe’s Hearts of Palm Pasta >> This was a big thumbs down from Willow. She took a bite and raced to find water to wash it down! I will say, unless you love hearts of palm, you won’t like this unless it’s in a flavorful sauce or mixed in with other ingredients. Josh and I threw it into our veggie stir-fry, and it was just a way to add in another plant variety into a meal.

R E C I P E S :

Blueberry Gluten-Free Scones >> Minimalist Baker >> These were so good that we made them twice! I normally don’t turn on our big oven during the summer, but we took advantage of a couple of cool mornings. These were buttery, not overly sweet, and the little pops of blueberry were wonderful. I did skip optional fresh rosemary, because I wasn’t sure Willow would try them, but I could definitely see how it would be a perfect pairing. Definitely one of the best gluten-free scones I’ve ever made!

Chocolate Almond Butter Oatmeal Bars >> Natalie Jo >> These were a big hit. My favorite part was the actual oatmeal bar base, and dare I say….I didn’t really need the chocolate on top?! Who am I?! The layers definitely went well together, but I struggled to keep the two layers together. The chocolate broke away from the base once I cut them, but we still enjoyed them a lot! Chewy, sweet, and satisfying. A great snack or dessert.

Creamy Zucchini Skillet Pasta >> Liv B. >> Comfort food at its finest and a great use of veggies! I used a mix of ground almonds and walnuts for the topping and left out the chili flakes, because I hoped Willow would try it…she ended up taking a tiny bite and declared she didn’t like the flavor. Josh and I ended up adding hot sauce to spice it up after it was baked. I would make this again for sure.

Vegan Pumpkin Waffles >> The Vegan 8 >> I could eat pumpkin-y things year round, but I try and hold off to ring in Autumn appropriately! These kicked off our pumpkin season perfectly. Because we have a Belgian waffle maker, these turned out on the softer side, but the flavor was spot on. Not overly spiced, and the pumpkin wasn’t a kick in the face like some recipes. The leftovers held up really well and crisped up in the toaster. The three of us topped ours with a little vegan butter and maple syrup…I added some chopped walnuts, pecans, and hemp seeds on mine.

Pumpkin Oatmeal >> Chocolate Covered Katie >> I’ve lost track of how many times Willow and I made this! Hands down my favorite way to do oatmeal these days. The creaminess factor is through the roof (I add in the optional almond butter), and not only does this leave us satisfied, but it fills us up for a few hours. I love to top it with chopped walnuts, pecans, hemp seeds, and chocolate chips. I also like to stir in some ground flax. Such a great way to start the day – especially on a chilly morning!

Pumpkin Spice Latte >> Detoxinista >> This is my current favorite way to make a pumpkin spice latte! I use her blended latte method (she gives two options and directions in the recipe post), but I steam up a little unsweetened oat milk to add to the blender as well. When I’ve made other pumpkin spice lattes in the past, I struggled with them being either too gritty, too sweet,  or I choked on the spices. This one was perfect in my opinion.

Vegan Chocolate Banana Bread >> Natalie Jo >> When you have ripe bananas, you make banana bread! Add in some chocolate and it doesn’t get any better than that. I used Trader Joe’s gluten-free flour blend and almond butter instead of SunButter. Super easy to make, and the flavor + texture was great! Because I used a gluten-free flour blend that didn’t contain xanthan gum, I think ours crumbled a bit more than if I had used the flour Natalie linked to. When I make this again, I will probably add in some ground flax to help bind it a bit more. This was a great way to change up our usual banana bread!

Five-Ingredient No-Bake Cookie Energy Bites >> Minimalist Baker >> Super simple to make, short ingredient list, and the perfect on-the-go snack!

Recipes from the Fiber Fueled book that I highly recommend: Crispy Oat Granola (I used 1TBSP almond butter + 1TBSP olive oil in place of sunflower oil), Muhammara Dip, Biome Broth (I make 1-2 batches a week!), and Coconut Oat Balls.

B O O K S :

Favorite book from August/September: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman >> FIVE stars

This was the fourth book that I’ve read by Fredrik Backman, and it certainly won’t be the last. I knew I was going to love this book when I had already highlighted a passage on the first page….and then several more excerpts and quotes throughout this entire book. Backman has a true gift for writing characters and storytelling – he captures the emotion in such a way that you are ever so gently placed inside a character’s shoes, and see life from their eyes. You are shown the hardships and internal battles, and made to feel every step of the way of these complicated characters.

The story and characters weave together and connect in such a beautiful effortless way (goes back to Backman’s gift for writing); I love how this was both a strong character driven, literary drama AND a mystery. I found it fascinating how my brain automatically went to certain conclusions…and I was wrong. The puzzle pieces slowly reveal themselves and connect through hostage interviews/interrogations, stories from the past, secrets confessed, and human connections. I thought the way the story was set up worked really well – rather genius if you ask me.

Anxious People is so multi-layered and contains not only a wide range of emotions but also content. It deals with love and loss, mental health/illness, grief, trauma, compassion, empathy, human connection, mistakes…and growth. My heart exploded reading this book and restored my faith in humanity. I absolutely loved the humor and ridiculousness laced throughout this book – and the characters…oh, how I adored these characters. I laughed and cried and fell in love with this story. Definitely one that will stick with me for a long time. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!!!

Worst book: Betty by Tiffany McDaniel >> Abandoned at 60%

Betty was another book that I went into blindly with zero expectations. Unfortunately, this story was much too heavy for me – full of heartbreaking, soul-shattering events (incest, rape, racism, bullying). I pushed through the pages though because I found the writing at times to be quite beautiful….until I got to the part with horrific animal abuse. I literally dropped the book and said, “Nope. Can’t do it anymore.” The tears wouldn’t stop, I struggled to fall asleep, and my brain cannot erase the images. I’m normally a fan of books that make me feel deeply, ones full of detail, but this novel was too graphic and devastating. I don’t like abandoning books, especially when I’ve read over half of the pages, but I just can’t stomach it anymore. That being said, the average review is currently 4.5 stars on Goodreads…so it really just depends on your emotional/mental state.


Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (3 stars)

I was pulled in by the cover and the hype, but sadly this book just wasn’t for me. The author definitely did a great job with the creepiness factor, and Mexican Gothic was incredibly atmospheric – but when a book takes 200+ pages to take off (and it’s only 300 pages), I would hope to be blown away or scared out of my mind. Instead, I felt a little cheated. Things got weird – okay, weirder – and there was a lot crammed into the last 50 or so pages. It felt rushed. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book and for now I’ll give it three stars while I sit and think a bit more.

I did like Noemí and Francis!

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda (4 stars)

Pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one! This story is told in reverse, which was a different concept for me and I thought it was really well done. Kept me guessing and held my interest. I will definitely seek out her other books!

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell (3.5 stars)

What a twisted and crazy book. I was definitely pulled in by the constant eerie vibes, the writing, the disturbing characters, and the need to know what really happened. The three POVs (Libby, Lucy, and Henry) got a little confusing at times, but I think with this novel specifically, multiple POVs worked. There is also the bouncing timeline from present day to 1980s-1990s. So why only 3.5 stars?? I couldn’t stomach some of the dark content (child abuse), and I had some issues with a couple of the characters. I kept asking “why???” at the brainwashing…or rather, “how did he have so much power??” The characters as a whole weren’t very likable (in my opinion) and not very believable. There was a good bit of eye rolling on my end. But the book was pretty evenly paced, kept me turning the pages (heck, I devoured it), and i enjoyed it…just didn’t love it.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley >> (3.5 stars)

We’re gathered for a wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland with a storm raging, and a body is found…but who is it and why??

I loved the atmospheric writing – literally felt like I was lost in the dark fog and trapped on an island. The setting and chapter setup worked really well. I’m normally not a huge fan of multiple POVs, but I think in this case it added to the guessing – the mystery. We learn the secrets and ghosts these characters carry, and realize that everyone has a motive for the murder. Resentment, jealousy, betrayal, and more. Another thing that worked really well…unlikable characters. It feels weird to say that because I normally have issues when I can’t connect or don’t like any of the characters in a novel. In this case, it left me at a neutral stance, and kept me guessing – and guessing wrong. Literally every character was either a jerk or passive…even the minor characters. I saw some of the twists coming early on, but the big twist shocked me! I thought it was a pretty entertaining mystery, but expected more of a thriller. I had some issues with a couple of things (mostly with Olivia’s character) and the abrupt ending.

Then She was Gone by Lisa Jewell >> (3.5 stars)

I thought the characters were well developed, the writing was fairly good, BUT it was all a little too predictable. I knew within the first few chapters how most of this was going to play out…there were only a couple of things that threw me a bit, and one of them had me rolling my eyes at how unrealistic it was. Then She Was Gone is told through four different perspectives (Ellie, Laurel, Noelle, Floyd), and at times it got a little confusing for me. But through these POVs we get a good sense of personalities, internal struggles, and I guess a better understanding of who they are. I really felt for Ellie and Laurel, and at times Floyd. Talk about mixed feelings…Floyd was such a strange character. I think this is a solid 3.5 stars for me. An average mystery (was hoping for more of a thriller), and nothing stood out to make it a story that would stick with me.

Sci-Fi / Other:

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (4 stars)

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (4 stars)

This was heavy and powerful and so deeply heart wrenching.

”We are, all of us, given such a brief moment of time together, it hardly seems fair. But it’s precious, and maybe it’s enough, and maybe it’s right that our bodies dissolve into the earth, giving our energy back to it, feeding the little creatures in the ground and giving nutrients to the soil, and maybe it’s right that our consciousness rests. The thought is peaceful.”

Franny Stone is so troubled – battered and bruised, unpredictable, and painfully human. We follow along in her quest to find the last of the Arctic terns and her final destination…her remaining life’s purpose. While on this journey, we catch flashbacks into Franny’s past and her history is unraveled. I thought these moments set back in time were skillfully done and really helped me, as a reader, better understand who Franny was. And the author did a great job of showing these experiences, setting the tone and emotional pieces, rather than telling…which I greatly appreciate. Migrations felt very multilayered – we have Franny’s story, but also an eerie view of what our world could look like (extinction, climate change, overconsumption). As much as this novel was full of sadness and often times hopelessness, I was pulled in by the writing and atmosphere, which was undeniably beautiful. This was a really well written, character driven novel that left me with a heavy heart and a good bit to ponder.

Historical Fiction:

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi >> (3 stars)

The Death of Vivek Oji covers quite a few topics/issues and includes possibly too many characters for only being 245 pages. I really enjoyed the writing – beautiful and the dialogue felt very real, but in the end it felt like too much being crammed into a short novel…there were pieces I would have loved to know more about or explained (like the blackouts). I wish I could say I loved the characters or felt some sort of attachment, but because this novel bounced between multiple POVs, I felt I didn’t get the chance to really understand or know any of them…especially Vivek. Overall, this was a complicated novel that highlighted family, grief, self-discovery/identity, relationships (and sex), and all of the challenges that go hand in hand. This story definitely tugged at the heart and left me feeling heavy – especially those last two chapters, but I think as a whole I felt underwhelmed. I think I wanted to see more of Vivek, to really get a better handle on his character and his struggles.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (4.5 – 5 stars)

Full disclosure, I almost abandoned this book around the 60% mark because…holy, my heart shattered. I’ve read some heavy books lately, and the Life-Giving Air chapter wrecked me. So I took a minor break, processed, and continued on because the writing grabbed me – it made me feel. For starters, I loved that we follow the single perspective of Young-sook, and I think had there been multiple POVs, the story might have lost its power. It opens in the year 2008 on Jeju Island, and the story officially begins in 1938 and moves chronologically through the decades with a few jumps to 2008. I found all of the cultural traditions to be so intriguing and fascinating, and I would love to learn more after this introduction. Before this novel, I hadn’t heard of the haenyeo (female divers), but like the cultural traditions, I crave to learn more about these women. I watched the brief video that Lisa See links in her website about them, but would love to research further. The strength and resiliency of these women moved me to tears – so admirable and incredibly heartbreaking. The Island of Sea Women is a story about family and friendships, bonds and secrets, love and loss, and limits.

Circe by Madeline Miller >> (5 stars) A wonderful character-driven novel that is so beautifully written, I could dog-ear or highlight most of these pages. There’s nothing better than a strong, independent female character who stands her ground…add in some witchcraft and a different take on Greek mythology, and you’ve got a great book. This story is written from Circe’s point of view (in first person) from an unhappy bullied childhood to her years in exile and the many roles she played. I thoroughly enjoyed not only her character, but this book as a whole.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue >> (3.5 stars)

I went into this novel completely blind, so what an eerie surprise to read about a pandemic and quarantine. Talk about relevant. This story takes place in Dublin (1918) over the course of three days in an understaffed hospital. We follow Nurse Julia Power who works in a ward where expectant mothers with the flu are quarantined. This was heavy, graphic, and at times very difficult to stomach. The author writes with so much detail that you could feel how small the ward was, and the pain of these characters. The Pull of the Stars is not a fast paced novel, but rather a strong character driven story with a focus on the setting and life’s hardships – both seen and unspoken. I could not imagine being pregnant in those days…absolutely horrifying. If I wasn’t already a mother, I’m pretty sure this book would have scared me out of becoming one. I had a difficult time getting into this novel for two reasons: (1) the complete lack of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and (2) no chapters. There are four parts to this 290 page novel, but zero chapters. I personally do better with chapters for clear stopping points. BUT I did think the parts were appropriately named. My other issue with this novel was the minor romance/love interest, because it came out of nowhere.

“Chick-Lit”/ Contemporary Fiction:

The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs (3 stars)

I took another chance on a contemporary romance novel in hopes of getting lost in a heartwarming, uplifting story, but unfortunately, this one didn’t win me over. I was excited about the premise and setting of this book – in a bookshop, yes, please – and I definitely got that cozy quaint feeling while reading, but beyond that, I had some struggles. There was a lot going on in this book…and honestly, the book description doesn’t leave much to the imagination, in fact, it almost sums up the majority of the story – obviously leaving out some details. I knew pretty much right away how this was going to end, which is OK seeing as this isn’t a mystery novel, but it wrapped up in a very rushed manner. And the dialogue towards the end was so awkward. In my head I had this book at about a four star rating until the last chapter. I think I also would have preferred this as a single POV. Don’t get me wrong, I think when we saw through Andrew’s perspective (his memory decline and struggles) it helped to really bring the emotional piece to it, but for the sake of some unpredictability, I think it would have been best to stick with just Natalie. I did really like the characters – all of them (LOVED Peach and Dorothy), but found the constant focus on how attractive someone was to be quite tiresome. This was a quick read, but I think I wanted more depth and contrast. I think Beach Read spoiled me and set the bar high!

One Day in December by Josie Silver (2.5 – 3 stars)

After reading a few emotionally heavy books, I needed a lighter read…One Day in December kind of fulfilled that. I had zero expectations, which was good because while I went through the pages quickly, I was by no means caught up in the story or the characters – it was simply a decent escape. I felt the book was at least 100 pages too long – there were times when the story dragged, moments that I could have done without, and then there were some that felt rushed. My only hope was that I was going to love the characters…sadly, that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t a fan of the narration and chapter setup – the characters felt flat and if I’m being fully honest, they were awful. As a whole and with each other. Even the minor characters! Almost stopped reading when I got to the wedding – what the heck? Who does that? We follow TEN years of “friendship,” drama, betrayal, and obstacles. Rather than rambling on forever, in a nutshell, this novel was underwhelming, too cliché, and needed more humor and less alcohol. Wasn’t as lighthearted and happy as I was looking for, but like most contemporary romance, it was predictable, and I think that’s what I needed after getting my heart torn apart in the books I read before this one!

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo >> (3 stars)

I had a pretty strong inkling as to the reason why this book was telling more than showing and why it was being narrated in such a way. I’m normally not a fan of novels that fail to show me, but I still got a good sense of the emotion behind the words. When Lucy and Gabe meet, it’s love at first sight (really cliché) and the story covers thirteen years of their relationship and their lives. Keeping things spoiler free…so I’ll be vague, I was really disappointed with some of Lucy’s decisions, but as a whole, I liked her character. I like how she stood her ground with her career and didn’t let anyone minimize her aspirations. I enjoyed reading this and got a little emotional towards the end, but overall this felt like a story I’ve read before – one that’s been done again and again. Short chapters that felt like I was reading someone’s personal thoughts (like a diary), made this novel fly by.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple >> (4 stars)

Witty, fun, entertaining, and exactly what I needed at the moment! I enjoyed the setup – told through Bee’s (the daughter’s) perspective, along with emails, we get a pretty good sense of Bernadette’s character and her disappearance. I had a couple of minor issues – interactions I could have done without, but overall thought it was a pretty solid four stars. Liked the writing, thought there was great character development, and I appreciated the humor.

Books I read with Willow:

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1) by Rick Riordan (4 stars) Reunited with a few favorite characters and introduced to some new ones! Willow said she would give this five stars, because she enjoyed how the chapters were broken up and she loved the new characters. We meet Jason, Piper, and Leo – the chapters rotate through these characters and their POVs. I love how these books are entertaining, humorous, and fun to read together. We’re looking forward to continuing with this series and learning about the Roman side.

The Son of Neptune (The Heroes of Olympus, #2) by Rick Riordan >> (4 stars)

Malamander by Thomas Taylor (4 stars) Very atmospheric, entertaining, short chapters, and great illustrations. I couldn’t give it five stars because I had some issues with one of the characters – Sebastian Eels – which sparked some discussion with Willow since she’s super sensitive. Overall though, Malamander was a fun read and we’re looking forward to reading the second book!

Gargantis (The Legends of Eerie-on-Sea, #2) by Thomas Taylor (4 stars) Willow and I agreed that we didn’t like this one as much as the first book (Malamander), but still thought it was a fun, entertaining read!

Keeper of the Lost Cities (Keeper of the Lost Cities, #1) by Shannon Messenger >> (5 stars) I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did!! Willow and I read this one together, and we found ourselves constantly saying, “One more chapter!” What a great story, full of adventure, friendships, mystery, and magic. I am a big fan of strong female characters, and Sophie (the main character) definitely fit that. We had a difficult time trying to pick a favorite character because there are quite a few good ones…even the animal characters. Really looking forward to continuing on with this series!

Currently reading: The Mark of Athena (The Heroes of Olympus, #3) by Rick Riordan

PHEW!!! Are you still with me? That’s a wrap, my friends. I’m praying this post actually makes it to publish because I had several failed save attempts and lost so much work. I would absolutely LOVE to hear from you – how you’ve been, what you’re loving (or hating), what you’re reading or watching. Please let me know in a comment below!

Until next time, take care.