My Favorite Reads of 2014!

We made it! We’ve reached the end of the year and every newspaper, magazine, and book blogger out there is publishing their lists of “Top Books of 2014.” (Don’t believe me? Click here.) I’ve been perusing some of these lists and, though the books on them are great, it seems like every book lover on Earth is heaping praise on the same ones over and over again. I’ve noticed over the course of this year that I’ve tended to stray from the “big buzz” books; I’ll read them if they pique my interest but I won’t go out of my way for them just because they’re “highly anticipated” or “the most controversial book of the year”, or whatever they might be. I’ve blogged about most of the books I’ve read this year, though there’s a stack that I read but never got around to reviewing (thanks to the many speed bumps thrown in my path since the summer). Even so, of everything I’ve read this year, all the books I’d place in my top 10 have appeared on the site. So let’s get to it! In no particular order, here are…

Bittersweet, by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
A year has passed since Bittersweet and I crossed paths, and it may not have happened at all if not for Entertainment Weekly’s 14 Rising Stars to Watch in 2014 list. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to say it, but I still feel as strongly about this book now as I did a year ago. The dark, twisty, “addictive thriller,” as EW called it, rightfully climbed onto the New York Times bestseller list and made its way into beach bags everywhere. I was so excited to meet Miranda at BEA last May, and when she signed my copy I knew that it would become one of the most-loved books on my shelf (and it has!). If you didn’t give Bittersweet a read in 2014, that’s okay — it’s never too late!

I Shall Be Near to You, by Erin Lindsay McCabe
I initially came across I Shall Be Near to You at random on NetGalley; I put in a request to read it and was approved but, due to a technical issue, couldn’t download it and ended up missing out. Fortunately, I learned of Blogging for Books shortly thereafter and was thrilled to discover the book available for review on their site! I snagged a copy faster than you can say “historical fiction” and lost myself in it. I’ve always been a bit of a Civil War history buff (I took a course in it as an undergrad, and that class remains as my favorite course that I ever took) and the summary appealed not only to the history lover, but also to my gender. I somehow hadn’t heard much about women fighting during the war and wanted to learn more, and I’m so glad I did. I Shall Be Near to You has reignited my love of American history, and my fingers are still crossed that Erin McCabe will write a spinoff novel about a certain character from the book. (I’m definitely not the only one who would read it!) This is another one of those books that I think everyone should read, not only to learn from but to connect with emotionally as well.

All Fall Down, by Jennfer Weiner
As I mentioned in my review of All Fall Down, I’ve been a fan of Jennifer Weiner’s since her first novel, Good in Bed, was released way back in 2003. While many of her past works were more fun and girly, this book was decidedly darker and dealt with much more serious issues. Frankly, the story and Jennifer’s writing scared me nearly to death — it shattered all the expectations I’d previously held about her novels. All Fall Down is a great conversation starter, especially for book clubs, but anyone can read and learn from it. It’s an eye-opener and I highly recommend it.

Dorothy Must Die, by Danielle Paige
I was interested in Dorothy Must Die when it was published back in April, but with an already-busy reading schedule I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to pick it up…and then I found out that Danielle Paige would be attending BookCon, and signing copies for fans. I jumped in line very early with the hopes of obtaining a copy (and it was lucky that I did, because they actually ran out of books and had to start turning people away), and fortunately I was able to get one! I was able to speak briefly with the lovely Ms. Paige (and have spoken with her a few times on Twitter since our initial meeting), and I still can’t believe that someone so sweet and kind could write such a crazy story! It’s a simultaneously fun and creepy twist on the classic The Wizard of Oz, in which the sweet and innocent Dorothy and bubblegum-pink Glinda are no longer as “good” as they were in the story we all remember. Ms. Paige has since released a few prequel short stories to complement the book, and a novel-length sequel will be published in March. I can’t wait to dive back into that world!

The Forgotten Seamstress, by Liz Trenow
This was one of those books that I connected with on a very personal level, in that I’ve always been interested in genealogy and my family history. When I discovered The Forgotten Seamstress on NetGalley, I knew that there was no way I’d be able to skip over it and stick to reading what was on my schedule; I ended up pushing quite a few books around to make room for this one, and I’m so glad that I did. I just had one problem: I was left with a deep sense of regret for not asking my grandmother, who died in 2010, about her youth, her parents, her grandparents, and most especially about being married to my grandfather (who passed in 1974). If you read The Forgotten Seamstress — and I hope you do, if you haven’t already — make sure to ask your elders any questions about your family history now, before the opportunity disappears!

The Boleyn King, The Boleyn Deceit, and The Boleyn Reckoning, by Laura S. Andersen
As I mentioned regarding I Shall Be Near to You, I’m a huge fan of historical fiction! My recent introduction to the television series The Tudors sparked an intense interest in Tudor England, so you can probably imagine how excited I was to discover this trilogy! While only the final book was published this year, there was no way I could mention that and not its predecessors (because you can’t just pick up with the second or third book and have a perfect understanding of what’s going on; these books need to be read back to back). This trilogy, in the same vein as Dorothy Must Die, takes a familiar story and puts a very different spin on it, breathing new life into the plot and characters. If you have any interest at all in Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, these books are worth picking up! Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have such beautiful covers on your bookshelves!

Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro
Cutting Teeth is another one of those really juicy novels that saw many different beaches over the summer! I’ve never thought that a playdate could become so treacherous between parents, but then I’ve never hosted a holiday weekend-long playdate at my parents’ beach house, either (because I’d keep that beach house all to myself…if such a house existed). When I read it back in May, I felt as though I rushed through it and didn’t give it the time and attention it deserved. Because of this, I’ve decided to reread and re-review it as part of my January Rereads project in the New Year! I’m so excited to give the book another go, and I think a slow reread will ensure that I love it even more than I did the first time! (Though, as I told Ms. Fierro, I don’t think I’ll care for Tiffany any more the second time around…but she’s a whole other animal.)

Measure Twice, by J.J. Hensley
If you asked me if I liked crime novels back in early September, when Allison at The Book Wheel assigned author J.J. Hensley to me for her 30 Authors project, I probably would have said not really. The last mystery or crime novels I’d read at that point were by Mary Higgins Clark and Agatha Christie, and I’d read them long ago. Because of my involvement in the project, though, I wanted to be familiar with at least one of J.J.’s books; he kindly sent me a copy of Measure Twice and, despite my initial worry that I wouldn’t like it, I couldn’t put the book down! It’s a suspenseful page-turner as well as a love letter to the city of Pittsburgh, well-researched and well-written by a former police officer and Secret Service agent (I think it’s safe to say that J.J. is qualified to write such stories!).

Branded, by Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki
I crossed paths with Abi and Missy and their debut novel, Branded, through Instagram of all places! An old friend of mine had recommended it (along with quite a few reviewers on Instagram), and I was hooked before I finished reading the synopsis! I believe I blew through the e-book in a day or two, and for good reason. The books that make me want to put Cars on a loop for Joshua are always among my favorites, because it happens so rarely that I’m actually willing to leave my son to his own devices in favor of a book. Branded was one of those books, and I’m dying to read Hunted, its sequel, and to follow along as Cole and Lexi find themselves in new danger!

The Glass Kitchen, by Linda Francis Lee
The cover judge in me was out in full force when it came to deciding whether to read The Glass Kitchen. I saw the cover for the first time via A Novel Review and immediately had to find out what was going on between the pages. I expected a light, splashy story and was surprised with how deeply certain themes were explored, as well as the completely unexpected supernatural element existent within the main protagonist. And the food…oh, the food! You might want to keep a snack and a drink close at hand while you’re reading this. Both the story and the dishes are simply delicious within The Glass Kitchen, and I hope you’ll check it out.

And a few bonus books that I read in 2014 that were published in previous years…

The Roving Tree, by Elsie Augustave
The Roving Tree was published in 2013 but Ms. Augustave’s public relations coordinator contacted me about reading it earlier this year, so on this year’s list it goes! If I hadn’t been contacted I may never have heard of the book, and that would truly have been a shame. The Roving Tree is life-changing, honestly. Iris’ story is a spiritual one, and even nonreligious folk like myself can be utterly moved by it. Ms. Augustave took me to places I’ve never been, most importantly Haiti, and through situations I personally both anticipate (like reuniting with long-lost family) and dread (all things death). It’s one of those books that I feel like everyone, regardless of race, gender, religion, whatever, can take something from, and I hope that everyone who reads The Roving Tree will have an experience similar to mine.

The Shoemaker’s Wife, by Adriana Trigiani
Adriana Trigiani was my second assignment for The Book Wheel‘s 30 Authors project and, as with J.J. Hensley, I wanted to read a stand-alone book of hers to have some familiarity with her work. Though it was published in 2012, I’m so glad I chose The Shoemaker’s Wife, because I’m completely hooked. There’s just no other way to put it. Ms. Trigiani leads us from the dirt roads of Italy to the treacherous Atlantic Ocean, from the famous opera houses of New York to the factories of New Jersey, and from the bloody fields of World War I to the frozen tundra of a Minnesota winter. It’s quite the journey, in turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, and it’s a great gateway novel into the many works of the wonderfully funny (and very Italian) Trigiani!

Those are my picks for best reads of 2014!! Do you see any that you plan to add to your To Be Read list for 2015? If so, which ones? And what do you think I should read next year?

Happy New Year, friends!! May you all have a safe, healthy, loaded-with-literature 2015!

Friday Finish-up: Week of August 9, 2014

Another week has drawn to a close, and I don’t know about you but I am definitely ready for the weekend! I’m so excited to have a date with Hubs on Sunday!

Let’s take a quick look back at everything that went down this week, shall we? 🙂

I kicked off a new week on Sunday with an all-new, foodie-themed Sunday Selections!

Monday brought us two posts! First, I offered up a Munchkin Monday post all about integrating Joshua and my nephew into living under the same roof…

And then we added Sandra Boynton’s Little Pookie to Joshua’s bookshelf!

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday discussed ten books that I’m not sure I want to read.

For my Wednesday Writing post, I handed over the reins to Erin Lindsay McCabe, who took over to talk about her writing process for I Shall Be Near to You!

I had to work out some issues I’ve been having with my health since my sister and her family moved in with us, and how I’m starting over, for Talking Fitness Thursday.

And today, I shared my review of the excellent Branded, by Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki, for this week’s Friday 52. Keep an eye out next Friday for my review of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which I wanted to reread before seeing the film next weekend!

That’s all, folks! Enjoy your night and your Saturday, and I’ll see you back here on Sunday with a brand-new list of Sunday Selections!

Have a great weekend, and Happy Reading!

Wednesday Writing: Featuring Author Erin Lindsay McCabe!

This week, I’d like to present a very special edition of Wednesday Writing! Last Friday, I shared my thoughts on Erin Lindsay McCabe’s I Shall Be Near to You, which I highly recommend. While I was reading, Erin and I chatted on Twitter and I asked if she’d be interested in writing a guest post for Read-at-Home Mama. I was so happy when she eagerly agreed, but my excitement turned to slight trepidation when I realized that I needed to offer a topic for her to write about. Fortunately, that touch of fear was short-lived, as a subject quickly presented itself while I was reading: I found myself very interested in Erin’s research and writing process, not only as a blogger but also as a historical fiction fan, as an aspiring writer, and as someone with a personal interest in the American Civil War. There were so many things I was itching to know! How did she go about researching the book, and how much research did she do? What was her focus? How much time did she spend doing the research? And most importantly, how did she then take the history and breathe fresh life into it by weaving it into a fictional story?

Her answer was both thorough and fascinating! Would you like to read it? Of course you would!

And so, without further ado, I happily hand over the reins to Erin Lindsay McCabe! Enjoy!

There were many times when I was writing and researching I Shall Be Near To You, about a woman who disguises as a man to fight beside her husband in the Civil War, when I wished I could just write a contemporary novel instead. It would be so much easier, I told myself. But in truth, writing any book is hard and requires research of one sort or another, so writing in a modern setting wouldn’t actually get me off the research hook. Really, that wish was a response to the often frustrating aspects of researching an historical novel. Because I wanted the book to serve as a tribute to the over two hundred documented women who fought, I felt an enormous responsibility to get the history right; the research had to be impeccable so no one would be able to discount the story on the grounds it wasn’t accurate. Still, when I spent hours trying to confirm if a particular stone bridge over Antietam Creek had two arches or three, or when I was poring over battlefield maps, tracing the movements of Company H of the 97th NY State Volunteers, and the writing slowed to a crawl (mostly during the two years it took to complete the first draft of the novel– especially the nine month period when most of it was written), I often found myself frustrated.

But of course, I could not have even written this novel had it not been for the original research that was the inspiration for it. Each of my novels (I have one hiding in the drawer, I Shall Be Near To You, and a new one in the works), begins with a spark gleaned from historical research. Had I not gone searching for a primary source on which to write the final paper for my college US Women’s History course, I never would have found the collection of the real Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s letters home or learned that women fought in the Civil War. Beyond that, the letters’ contents served as a huge inspiration for the character’s voice and many events in the novel.

Which brings me to the incredibly positive side to the research involved in writing historical fiction. I learn so much while I’m writing! Once I have the initial inspiration for a story, the research and writing process really feed each other. It’s not until I get into the story that I discover what I don’t know, and that really determines my focus. Sometimes it’s a quick detail that I can pretty easily look up (how many buttons on a Captain’s uniform?). Other times, I need to know a whole lot about a particular subject (the battle of Antietam, 19th Century farming) and then I spend some time reading historians’ work and primary sources (especially letters—I love reading letters) and looking at historic photos, maps, and other images until I have enough of an understanding of the events and the time period in order to feel like I have the authority to write that part of the story. Often during this kind of research, I find information which inspires parts of the novel (the ring Hiram carves or the dance are both examples of moments that came directly out of research and which I never would have imagined myself).

At a certain point, though, book and Internet research fails me. When that happens, I employ what I like to call “method writing.” All that means is I set out to create real-life experiences for myself that are similar to my characters’. For instance, in the course of writing I Shall Be Near To You, I attended a Civil War re-enactment. I saw camps, weapons, artifacts, clothes, or picked the brains of the participants, but even better, I heard the cannons and the muskets firing, the sound of caissons and horse-drawn ambulances rumbling over rough ground. The tiniest details add texture to my writing like nothing else, so part of “method writing” is also to do tasks or chores my characters would have done. I learned how to make soap from scratch (though I can’t say I went so far as to render the fat or leech the lye out of the wood ash), because that was something Rosetta would have done. I raised my own goats, helped deliver the babies, and learned to milk. I planted a garden and tried growing some crops that Rosetta might have harvested (pumpkins, dried beans) and preparing food she might have eaten (pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, split pea soup, ginger cake are the recipes I can recommend. Hard tack? Not so much). I now understand why shelling beans is such an odious task (for my efforts, I didn’t even end up with enough black and pinto beans to make one pot of chili), and I have no idea how families ever grew or harvested or canned enough to last them a whole winter. I ended up with a much greater appreciation for the day-in and day-out grinding work of a subsistence farmer, and it added to my understanding of the physical toughness and the practical mindset life in the 19th century would require. Much of this information doesn’t make it explicitly into the pages of the book, but it helps me understand how my characters’ worldview might be completely different from my own.

Another particular challenge for me is writing setting—and as a writer of historical fiction it’s even more difficult. To make it easier, I searched out buildings in towns that existed when my characters would have been walking the streets. I visited each of the battlefields that appear in the novel. None of my “book learning” compared to actually following the path my characters would have marched and finding places where certain pivotal moments occur (though of course, had I not done the academic research beforehand, I wouldn’t have even known where to go). Had I not walked through The Cornfield at Antietam, I would have never realized that the leaves made me itch, or that the light changed the farther down the row I went. While it’s certain that the landscape isn’t exactly the same and many of the buildings still in existence have been modified over the last hundred and fifty plus years, they have a flavor that’s unique and gives a sense of time and place that you just can’t get out of a photograph.

The finished novel that readers hold in their hands then, is really my attempt to weave together what I’ve learned from history books, maps, photographs, primary accounts, videos, and personal experience. All those factors come together in a way that I hope doesn’t feel “research-y” but manages to add authenticity and authority to my writing, garnering tidbits and images that help transport readers to another time and place.

Friday Finish-up: Week of August 2, 2014

It’s been a great first week back, and a busy one as well! A lot has happened this week and I’m very excited about the direction in which Read-at-Home Mama is moving! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all of my new content!

In case you missed anything, here’s a quick week in review! (And remember, a “week” is considered Saturday to Friday around here!)

Last Saturday, I offered up my first-ever attempt at the #6Degrees of Separation meme, which started with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl!

On Sunday, I presented my inaugural Sunday Selections — reading recommendations for fans of Divergent!

Monday brought you a new children’s book review for Joshua’s bookshelf, called Sesame Street: The Post Office! As a huge fan of our mailman (and I use that term because he is, in fact, a man), I had a feeling that Joshua would enjoy this book — and he did!

I introduced another meme on Tuesday called Top Ten Tuesday; this week’s featured the top 10 works of historical fiction that I would recommend to you!

Wednesday Writing made its way to the blog for the first time this week! I talked about how I manage to balance reading with being a stay-at-home mom and a blogger. I get that question a lot, and I’m happy to have addressed it!

**My best friend and partner-in-blogging-crime, Becca from Beauty Gala, has been under the weather from her visit to Chicago last week, so Talking Fitness Thursday will resume next week. Additionally, it appears that the All You Need Is Love Project has come to a close for the time being; if the project resumes, I will begin posting for it again.**

Finally, today — Friday — has been a bit of a big day around here! A new review, featuring I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe, went live early this morning! Erin is giving away one signed copy of the book to a lucky reader, so be sure to enter by clicking on the review post! Erin was also kind enough to participate in a Q&A session with me, so be sure to check that out as well!

That wraps up my first week back! It’s great to be live again with so much fresh content. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I like writing it!

Have a great weekend! Happy Reading!