Book Review: If I Could Turn Back Time

Image: Goodreads

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Beth Harbison's novel If I Could Turn Back Time, Ramie Phillips is 36 years old with a lucrative career that affords her designer clothes and luxurious vacations. But as she compares herself to her pregnant friends, what fulfilled her in her twenties seems empty and superficial in her thirties, and she finds herself wistfully dreaming of a family.

After suffering a freak accident, she gets a redo at life when she wakes up as her 18-year-old self. Now is her chance...or so she thinks. Can she preserve her relationship with her high school sweetheart, stand up to the mean girls, and maybe even get her dad to give up smoking before he dies suddenly two years after graduation?

I've been a fan of Harbison for years, ever since I read Shoe Addicts Anonymous and its sequel Secrets of a Shoe Addict. She has a knack for writing relatable characters and meaningful relationships outside of the romantic ones. Ramie certainly fantasizes about settling down with her old boyfriend, but she understands that the greater lesson in this surreal experience is living in the moment, whether she can change what happens in it or not.

It would be easy to make this time-travel story full of cliches, making a career-oriented woman realize that she should have cast aside her ambitions and become a stay-at-home mom instead. What's interesting is that Ramie gets the opportunity to walk down two very different paths to see which better suits her as an individual.

In a world in which everyone displays their highlight reel on social media, we may believe that we should have done things differently. Without disparaging any particular life choice, Harbison explores whether the grass is truly greener on the other side. I have never felt inclined to become a domestic goddess, but the idea of "what if?" has the reader pondering what she'd do in Ramie's shoes.

Rather than ask whether women can have it all, Harbison asks the better question: do they even want it all to begin with? If I Could Turn Back Time explores serious themes like nostalgia, regret and the loss of a parent in a way that's more playful than painful. It's a great read to begin the new year as we reminisce about the past and look forward to the future.

Book Review: When in Doubt, Add Butter

Rating: 3 out of 5

As the summer comes to a close, I like to soak up the sun with some good chick-lit: something cheerful, funny, and easy to read while laying by the pool.

Beth Harbison writes good chick-lit. I've already read Shoe Addicts Anonymous and Secrets of a Shoe Addict, so when I saw When in Doubt, Add Butter on sale, I picked it up without a thought.

This 2012 novel stars private chef Gemma Craig (no relation to Jenny Craig), who is struggling to make ends meet in Washington, D.C., while cooking for a different client each weekday. She works for an eclectic group of people, including a Russian psychic, a morbidly obese online poker player, and the uppity Van Houghtens who are 'allergic' to everything.

Then there's the elusive Mr. Tuesday, nicknamed that by Gemma who has never actually seen the workaholic lawyer, but finds herself inexplicably attracted to him. What will happen when their paths finally cross--in the most surprising of ways?

I'll admit that while I enjoyed this book, I could have been content if it remained a story about love and cooking. Unfortunately, Harbison throws in a few plot details that cost her a couple stars in my opinion.

One thing that I really don't like is a bait-and-switch. When Gemma reveals that she became pregnant as a teenager and gave the baby up for adoption, I was immediately turned off. This is something that I believe should have been included in the book summary, especially since it's mentioned so early in the story.

My blog followers should be well aware by now that I'm not a fan of kids. I'm childfree in life, and I prefer my reading to be as well. I love reading about love, but there's nothing that makes me roll my eyes harder than when a romance novel ends with marriage and a baby carriage. It's cliche as hell, and it promotes the stereotype that all women are dying to get hitched and knocked up.

Now don't get me wrong--I'm not insulting the women who do value these things. There are more than enough books out there to support this domestic vision. But I'm also not going to hide the fact that I actively avoid chick-lit or romance novels with main characters dealing with issues related to having or raising children. Personal preferences are exactly that--personal.

My point is that I would have appreciated a heads up that I was getting into a book filled with guilt and angst over giving a child up for adoption (not to mention, another kid-related plot twist further into the novel).

There's absolutely nothing wrong with adoption--or abortion or raising a child as a single mom, for that matter. But if you're going to write about any of them, include them in the book summary, for goodness' sake! Plenty of people will still read your book, just not me. This failure to divulge soured an otherwise lighthearted tale about bonding over butter, which is all I ever wanted.

For those who are looking for great chick-lit/romance without all the baby mama drama, check out the stand-alone novels of Sophie Kinsella and the U.S. Attorney series by Julie James. 

Book Review: P.S. I Still Love You

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

When I read a book like P.S. I Still Love You, I'm reminded of why I feel conflicted about reading YA that is not wrapped in the dystopian or supernatural. With no layer of escapism, all that you're left with is teenage drama--and let's just say that I had enough of that to last a lifetime.

For those like me who were nerdy and unpopular, who valued good grades and good books over football games and house parties, high school was definitely not 'the best four years of your life.' In fact, if anyone does happen to spew that nonsense at me, I immediately distrust them. Someone could build a time machine and offer me $100 million to relive my high school experience, and I would still laugh in his face without a millisecond of hesitation.

So when Jenny Han's sequel to To All the Boys I've Loved Before opens with the aftermath of Lara Jean Song's class ski trip, in which someone secretly filmed her steamy hot tub make-out session with her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky and then put it online for all to see, it struck a nerve, and I felt a deep empathy for her.

I can't imagine how difficult it must be to suffer through your teenage years in the digital age. My generation was the last to know what the world was like pre-social media, considering that Myspace and Facebook had only started gaining popularity when I was in high school. I was bullied mercilessly without the assistance of cyberspace, so I'm filled with horror when I think about just how much worse the torment can be nowadays.

It is extremely difficult for me to set aside my biases and review this book objectively. Every step of the way, I see myself in Lara Jean's shoes. I give Han credit for making Lara Jean seem so young; there were many times that I felt that her character was way too naive, but I realize that I can only sense this after years of disillusionment. I have to remind myself that I too was equally sheltered and gullible, until my horrible peers shredded my innocence and my ability to believe the good in others.

My less-than-enjoyable high school years also made me despise Peter with the fire of a thousand suns. His decision to emotionally support his ex-girlfriend instead of Lara Jean, thereby making her look like an utter fool to the entire school, eerily mirrored my own relationship drama and left a bitter taste in my mouth. Boys who care so much about making everyone happy and not picking sides are cowards who will not stand by you when you need it the most. In other words, Switzerlands don't win wars.

That being said, this book is wonderfully written and kept me turning the pages. I thought it cute to incorporate Lara Jean's volunteering at a nursing home, and I'm still a fan of the Song family dynamics, which have now extended into the dad's dating life. I also really loved the reunion between Lara Jean and John Ambrose, who is a shining light among the sea of loser guys who go to this school.

I'm sure that I'm not the only one who was woefully disappointed in Lara Jean's choice at the end of the book, and I hope that Han writes another sequel just so her protagonist can grow up and learn from her god-awful relationship mistakes. I'm happy to read more about Lara Jean's teenage years, even if it means coming to terms with my own in the process.

Audiobook Review: To All The Boys I've Loved Before

Rating: 4 out of 5

This was a book that I couldn't resist after reading so much great feedback from other book bloggers. Jenny Han was a new author to me, and I'm glad that I was introduced to her work.

To All The Boys I've Loved Before is a young adult fiction novel that follows Lara Jean Song, a high school-aged middle child. Her older sister Margot just broke up with her boyfriend Josh and is studying abroad in Scotland. Her younger sister Kitty is obsessed with convincing their dad to get her a puppy. And Lara Jean finds herself in the most mortifying of predicaments.It turns out that her habit of writing love letters to the boys she was once in love with has epically backfired, because somehow the letters get mailed. And one of those boys just happens to be Josh.

To save face, Lara Jean impulsively decides to pretend to date her old middle school crush, Peter Kavinsky, who also received a letter. Peter agrees to fake-date her to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, which adds even more drama because nobody crosses the queen bee and gets away with it.

This was a great audiobook, because Han imitates a teen girl very well with her short, simple sentences and conversational tone. However, as much as I loved the fact that Lara Jean was half-Korean (seriously, why aren't there more protagonists of color in literature?!), you could obviously tell that the narrator was unfamiliar with certain terms, like incorrectly pronouncing the Japanese manga that she reads as "main-gah" instead of "mahn-gah." A small quibble, but I couldn't help but cringe during these moments.

Other than that, I enjoyed this story because it was so relatable. Lara Jean, inexperienced in relationships, must learn to adapt when her once-unrequited loves start to show interest in her. She must also navigate her changing family life, dealing with her older sister so far away from home. With their father raising three girls alone after their mother's death, Lara Jean has to step up to be a role model to her younger sister.

I was a bit disappointed by the conclusion, since the story took too many turns toward the end that I couldn't predict where it would stop. Once it did, I felt that I would have outlined it differently. However, I learned that Han has a final sequel planned for April 2015 called PS: I Still Love You, so hopefully the plot comes together better in the second half.

To All The Boys I've Loved Before is a fun, lighthearted read that will make you empathize with your teen self and nostalgic for your own coming of age.

Book Review: Wedding Night

Rating: 4 out of 5

Sophie Kinsella, author of the beloved Confessions of a Shopaholic series, has done it again with her latest stand-alone novel Wedding Night.

This chick-lit story begins much like the movie "Legally Blonde:" 33-year-old Lottie is out to dinner with her boyfriend Richard, assuming that he's finally going to propose. Of course, this is just a miscommunication, and Lottie finds herself deeply saddened and embarrassed when he doesn't get down on one knee.

It just so happens that an old flame contacts Lottie right afterward: Ben, her teenage fling during her gap year in Ikonos, Greece. After a night of reminiscing, they impulsively decide to get married and honeymoon where they met 15 years ago.

The chapters swap between the points of view between Lottie, and her older, recently divorced sister Fliss, who is determined to prevent Lottie from making what she sees as the biggest mistake of her sibling's life.

This book is hilarious, but it also addresses serious issues like love, marriage, divorce, and overall compatibility. Lottie feels such an insane urge to get married that she jumps into a relationship without so much as asking what Ben does for a living.

That societal pressure is something that I see among many girls my age; they believe that marriage is the Holy Grail of "having it all," feeling so rushed to settle down in their 20s regardless of whether they've met the right person.

But Wedding Night also brings up the idea of intervention, whether it's better to let someone make their own mistakes, even if the consequences could be dire. And although the interventions in this novel are often absurd, it's fun nonetheless to see what lengths Fliss will go to in order to sabotage Lottie's plans.

If you're looking for a light read that will be sure to make an excellent rom-com one day, then Wedding Night is a great way to start off your 2014!

Audiobook Review: Secrets of a Shoe Addict

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Secrets of a Shoe Addict is Beth Harbison's 2008 sequel to Shoe Addicts AnonymousWhile Sandra and her friends began the series with a meetup group for female shopaholics, it's Sandra's sister Tiffany's turn to get a group of women out of financial trouble.

During a chaotic PTA trip to Vegas, Tiffany accidentally purchases thousands of dollars worth of clothes, while her friends run into money mayhem of their own--Loreen by inadvertently hiring a male prostitute and Abbey by being blackmailed by an ex-boyfriend fresh out of prison.

For those who read Shoe Addicts Anonymous, their solution is unsurprising: Sandra reveals that her previous job as a sex operator was a great way to earn cash fast, so the women decide to create an adult phone service called "Happy Housewives" to get them out of debt.

This book was an excellent sequel; it was funny, outlandish, and not shy at all regarding the dirty talk. As I've said before, I only wish there were multiple readers on an audiobook, as if it were a theater production, so the dialogue feels more natural.

However, what Harbison does well in chick-lit is writing characters for every possible stage in a person's life. Single, married, separated--she covers it all with finesse. She also balances the realistic with the escapist nicely. Even if you've never gone on a date with a puppeteer or hired an escort, you'll have a blast hearing about these characters who do.

My only complaint would be the pacing, since once the conflict felt resolved, it took quite a while for the ends to get tied up. It took me over eight hours to finish the 26 chapters of this audiobook, and although the majority of it was entertaining, I felt the last few chapters were anticlimactic.

I know that most of you don't read chick-lit, but if you ever want to step outside your comfort zone, Harbison's a good author to try. Secrets of a Shoe Addict was a fun story of female friendship, and as an audiobook, a great way to pass the time--whether you're battling morning rush hour, cooking dinner, or relaxing in bed. Perfect for sneaking more books into your busy schedule!

Book Review: Wife 22

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I'm certainly not new to the "chick-lit" genre, but Melanie Gideon's Wife 22 was not the kind of book I usually read. I'm used to the courtship stories, the romances of 20 and 30-somethings way before reality sets in. But reviews for Gideon's novel this year convinced me to take a chance. The result? Eh...

Even though the book clocked in at 400 pages, reading it was a breeze considering that the majority of it takes place in emails, Facebook messages, and Google searches. Alice Buckle is approaching many important milestones: her 20th anniversary with her husband William and her 45th birthday, the very age at which her own mother passed away in an accident.

Coping with her loss, Alice is going through the cliche mid-life crisis. Her career as an elementary drama teacher is flat-lining in this current recession. She's dissatisfied with her marriage, in which she's lucky if they're intimate once a month. She's also struggling with two teenage children: her 12-year-old son Peter, whom Alice is convinced is gay, and her 15-year-old daughter Zoe, who's possibly suffering from an eating disorder.

And as if all of this wasn't enough, Alice is recruited to participate in a research study on marriage. She becomes "Wife 22" and quickly becomes addicted to her online conversations with "Researcher 101." But what happens when a professional relationship evolves into a very personal one? Who is Researcher 101, and is Alice willing to sacrifice everything she's ever known and leave her husband for him?

First off, this was a fascinating story that I believe many spouses can relate to. I enjoyed all the Internet chats, and the overall message that social networking is simultaneously alluring and dangerous. I don't blame Alice for flirting with temptation, because anonymous confession is a rush that practically everyone has experienced.

What I do blame Alice for, however, is her disconnect. It's easy to point fingers at smartphones and social media for creating a society of attention-deficit robots, but I don't think that it's the medium's fault. Alice's personality encourages her to ignore the needs of her husband and children, and she simply uses Facebook as an excuse to shut down.

I'm not saying that I have to like everything a protagonist does, but Alice is just lazy. She expects her life to magically turn around, and doesn't want to put the effort into fixing it. Teenagers get accused of demanding instant gratification, but Peter and Zoe are light-years ahead of their mom in maturity.

There is a twist, and most readers won't be surprised by it (I'm just really gullible), but whether you're fooled or not, it doesn't matter. I felt that the ending was anticlimactic, and it didn't better my opinion of Alice. Maybe I'll be more sympathetic in twenty years, but for now, I'm not impressed by these so-called mid-life crises.

Book Review: A Desirable Residence

Rating: 3 out of 5

I've just finished my 19th book! I always enjoy reading Madeleine Wickham novels, but I must admit that she's greatly improved her craft ever since she started going by the pen name Sophie Kinsella. She's most famous for her Confessions of a Shopaholic series, which I haven't read, but I absolutely love all her stand-alone novels, such as Twenties Girl and The Undomestic Goddess.

I reviewed Wickham's book The Wedding Girl over the summer, and after reading dystopian classics 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, it was nice to read something less dense.A Desirable Residence (1996) follows a close-knit group of Brits who are all involved in a certain home in Silchester. Liz and Jonathan Chambers own the home, but they--along with their 14-year-old daughter Alice--needed to move into the tutorial college that they just purchased.

Stuck with two mortgages, they ask real estate agent Marcus Witherstone for help. Soon Marcus finds the Chambers family two tenants: Ginny and her actor husband Piers. Piers is up for a big TV role, and Ginny is obsessed with the life of fame and fortune that they're so close to reaching.

Depressed over the loss of their old home, Alice frequents the place and grows quite fond of hanging out with Piers and Ginny, who seem so much cooler than her parents. However, in the end, she realizes that all of the adults around her are nothing but disappointments.

Needless to say, the title of this book is ironic, because there's nothing desirable about this residence or anyone living in it. I pitied Alice and Marcus' sons, Daniel and Andrew, because they are merely pawns in this ridiculous game their parents play. Marriage, parenthood, career--nothing is sacred to these obnoxious, entitled people.

Unless you're a fan of adulterous spouses, overbearing parents, or spineless fraudsters, you are going to hate 95% of these characters. Wickham does an excellent job of depicting real-life relationships, but as Kinsella, she does the same with characters you also like and respect.

This book was interesting enough to make me want to finish it, but I think that I'll stick with the author's most recent work from now on.

Book Review: Shoe Addicts Anonymous

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My second of my birthday gift books is a chick-lit novel by Beth Harbison called Shoe Addicts Anonymous. It follows four women in Washington, D.C., and their hardships with work and relationships as they bond over swapping their designer shoes every week.Here's a little tidbit about each of the characters:

  • Lorna Rafferty: A waitress who creates the Shoe Addicts Anonymous group after realizing that if she doesn't stop her shopaholic ways, she'll be click-clacking in her heels all the way to bankruptcy.

  • Helene Zaharis: Wife of a controlling, cheating, lying scumbag of a politician husband. He freezes her credit cards as punishment for not giving a him a baby to help his publicity, so she joins the group to gain independence--and shoes.

  • Sandra Vanderslice: A very obese woman who's so afraid to leave her house, she works as a phone-sex operator to pay for all her online shoe shopping. Joining the group is her attempt at overcoming her agoraphobia.

  • Jocelyn Bowen: A 20-something nanny who doesn't care about shoes, but joins the group to escape her bitchy employer. She doesn't wear the required 7.5 size of the group, but she's willing to buy vintage Guccis at Goodwill in exchange for freedom and friendship.

I loved this book; it was a fun, lighthearted read that still discussed serious subjects, like debt and betrayal. All the characters were endearing, and I cheered them all on as they overcame their obstacles. The women weren't like Carrie and friends in "Sex and the City," but I could still relate to them all, from Helene's nostalgia to Jocelyn's desire to please.

My only complaint was that it took too much time to bring all the characters together. The chapters started off describing the women individually, and Jocelyn doesn't appear until after 100 pages. But learning about their backgrounds was worth watching their friendship in the group grow.

Any lover of chick-lit should read this book. I also plan on checking out its sequel Secrets of a Shoe Addict, which follows Sandra's sister Tiffany.

A quick Google search also revealed that Halle Berry would star in a movie adaptation of this novel, but no news has come out recently--probably due to Halle's domestic disputes over custody of her daughter. I hope she can sort out her personal life soon and that this project hasn't been canned completely!

All in all, both birthday books were excellent picks! What an enjoyable way to celebrate another year of life--surrounded by great books!