Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Review: Dead If You Don’t

Recap: It was supposed to be a fun Saturday soccer (football) game. Everyone and their mother seemed to be going — or father as the case may be. But the day quickly turned as stadium officials received threats of a terrorist attack at the game, threatening to kill and injure hundreds of fans. But that was just the beginning. Before the game even began, Kipp Brown realized his son, Mungo, was missing. They’d been fighting earlier, but surely his teenage son wouldn’t leave the biggest game of the year over a fight with his father.

The police are slammed, facing both a potential terror attack and kidnapping. The kidnapping is no big surprise considering who Mungo’s father is; Kipp is a well-known and successful business. Anyone would go after him for his money, but they’d be sadly surprised to learn that Brown also has a massive gambling problem and little to no money to his name.

The ransom calls start coming in, and soon Detective Superintendent Roy Grace must step in to deter the terror attack and find Kipp’s son. The investigation leads him to a group of dangerous Albanian men who have made a life for themselves in England by killing anyone who gets in the way of their greedy quest for money, wealth and power. But where is Mungo? And will they get to him in time before he becomes another victim?

Analysis: A straight-up crime detective novel, Dead If You Don’t pulls no punches, getting right to the many tropes that make a crime novel a good one: lots of characters, winding and intertwined storylines, good guys and bad guys, unforeseen turns and short chapters with little cliffhangers that help move the story along quickly.

It didn’t, however, necessarily feel like Roy Grace was the main character of the story. I was more invested in Kipp Brown, his family and his financial stupidity — hoping and praying that he’d learn his lesson when it comes to money. To be fair, of all the officers, Roy Grace was the one whose name I knew the best; he was clearly the star of the unit and the man in charge, but his story was less compelling than some of the other characters in the book. Basic in its structure, but effective in its plotting, Dead If You Don’t was the perfect read if you’re in the mood for a quick and easy crime novel.

MVP: Roy Grace, for the sole reason that he saves the day and Kipp Brown never quite lives up to his full potential.

Get Dead If You Don’t in paperback now for $14.35.

Or on your Kindle for $7.99.

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Review: The Storyteller’s Secret

Recap: It’s after Jaya’s third miscarriage that her marriage falls apart. A journalist in New York, she is at a loss. She no longer has her husband to turn to for support, and her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, lacking love and support. It’s around this time that Jaya learns the grandfather she never knew is dying. He lives in India, where her parents were born, but her mother has no interest in returning home to see her father. Confused and alone, desperately seeking comfort and support in her family, Jaya decides to visit India, to get away from her own problems and to meet her grandfather and learn why he sent her mother away to America many years ago.

By the time she arrives, he has already passed. Inside her mother’s childhood home, she instead finds Ravi, her mother and grandmother’s servant. Ravi welcomes Jaya instantly and over the course of several weeks shows Ravi around India and tells her about her grandparents. It’s a long saga about love, secrets and finding one’s own path. It’s a story that even Jaya’s mother knows nothing about. It’s a story that changes her perception of her life, world and family forever. In looking to the past, Jaya is able to better understand her present and re-shape her future.

Analysis: In its simplest form, the plot of The Storyteller’s Secret sounds like the start of Eat, Pray, Love: woman’s life falls apart, woman sets out on journey across the world, woman finds herself. But Secret also adds the element of the past. The story also changes time periods and storytellers, switching back and forth between Jaya and her grandmother, Amisha, decades earlier. It gives the story an extra layer of depth and mystery that the read is dying to uncover. I found I could not put this book down, desperately wanting to know what happened in Jaya’s family history and how it affected her today.

The title of the book is a reference to so much storytelling that’s happening here: the narration from both Jaya and Amish, the story of Jaya’s past as told to her by Ravi, and the storytelling that Jaya does as a journalist and that her grandmother used to do as a writer and writing teacher. The parallels between Jaya and her unknown grandmother are beautiful and help to deepen the bond between Jaya and her mother. The story is moving in its statements about different cultures and especially womanhood: relationships between women, the strength of women and the sacrifices they make for their families.

The Storyteller’s Secret is a powerful, unstoppable read that makes you laugh, cry, think and feel. A truly excellent story.

MVP: Ravi. While the women are the focus of this book, Ravi may be the real star, the glue that binds together the woman of generations past and present, telling the stories that Amisha is unable to tell in her death. His generosity and love knows no bounds.

Get The Storyteller’s Secret in paperback now for $8.97.

Or get it on your Kindle for free.

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Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Recap: As her father further declines into the world of Alzheimer’s, Ruth decides it’s time to come home and help her mother take care of him. She recently broke up with her boyfriend, Joel. She has no real attachment to her job. And unlike her younger brother, she doesn’t have the devastating memories from the years when her father abused alcohol and cheated on their mom. With nothing keeping her away, she heads home.


But when her father is let go from his job because of his health, she becomes determined to keep him as active as possible. Teaming up with one of his TA’s, they help her father continue to hold classes sneaking around empty rooms on campus or having off-campus “field trips.” The jig can only last for so long, but she is looking for something. She needs something for both her father and herself as his brain gets worse and worse.


Her story is documented like a diary or journal. and every so often her father hands her notes from his old journal. The notes detail memories of her as a child, memories that he is quickly losing and ones that she doesn’t recall, memories of happier times. Together Ruth and her father hold onto the past in bits while making new memories in the present and dreading the future and what the disease will likely bring.


Analysis: The format of this book is what really moves the story along. The use of dated journal entries helps to show just how quickly Alzheimer’s Disease progresses. The juxtaposition of the journal entries and notes from Ruth’s dad are a beautiful way of showing how the two of them are desperately trying to hold onto the memories her father is losing. Toward the end, she stops referring to her father as her father, and starts referring to him as “you.” It’s a clear distinction in the writing, showing that she has now started to keep notes for him so he can remember the times they’re spending together as adults.

As eloquent as the formatting is, much of the book is odd and quirky. There are some weird sections about things that happen to her that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the book, like when she meets a truck driver or how she tries to avoid the mailman for fear they would have an awkward conversation. I found myself reading these sections and thinking Okay, why do I care about this? At a certain point, I interpreted it this way: all roads lead back to Ruth’s dad. Once I started reading these sections through the lens of “this is how her father must feel when he talks to a stranger” or “this is an weird habit, like something her father might do in his current state,” I found a lot more meaning in these sections.


MVP: Ruth. She wasn’t always the most likable and she’s certainly one of the weirder main characters I’ve followed in a book, but the effort she makes to make her dad more comfortable with the progression of his disease is not only respectable, it’s inspiring.

Get Goodbye, Vitamin in paperback for $8.98.

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: One More Thing

Recap: When a book opens with a story about a tortoise and a hare, I first have to wonder if I’m reading a copy of Aesop’s Fables. But when the story turned into a version in which the hare loses and then demands a rematch against the tortoise, I knew we were no longer in Aesop’s territory. Thanks, B.J. Novak. The comedian and actor, best known for his role in The Office dives into his funny, sarcastic, sometimes dark and then surprisingly poignant mind with this collection of short stories that made me laugh and think. 


The content of many of the stories seemed random: in “Dark Matter,” a guy visiting a planetarium; in “Walking on Eggshells,” a woman set on having sex with Tony Robbins; in “MONSTER: The Roller Coaster,” a focus group selecting the name of a roller coaster. Despite the premises, they often had strong, affecting messages at the end about what matters most to us as people, about whether it’s worth it to be in a relationship that may not serve you, about things not turning out the way we expect them to. 
With some of the longer short stories, including the one from which the book got its title “Sophia,” I came to expect something poignant at the end. In the case of “Sophia,” I didn’t ever get it. 


Some stories, like “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,” were just plain funny, an opportunity for Novak to show off his comedic writing skills. Others were simple plays on words like “If I Had a Nickel” and “If You Love Something,” good for a nice chuckle.

Analysis: As someone who’d never actually read a book of short stories, I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t particularly excited to read it. I doubted I would enjoy it without a central story powerful enough to keep me flipping through the pages. But color me shocked when I found that I really, truly enjoyed it. Sure, some stories were better than others. Some had me scratching my head (and not in a thoughtful way, more in a what-the-hell-was-that kind of way). But I caught myself laughing several times and stopping to think about some of the stories before going on to read the next ones. I also found that because some of the stories were so short, I was able to fly through the book. How Novak came up with some of the crazy, weird, and creatively thoughtful stories is impressive and delightful.

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Review: The Four Agreements

Recap: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. These are the four agreements, the four promises that Toltec master Don Miguel Ruiz says will change your life, offer you personal freedom and make you a happier person with less suffering in this highly recommended self-help book. The agreements are simultaneously simple and difficult: simple in the sense that they appear to be common sense. Of course, if we always do our best, we will be happy. Of course, if we are impeccable with our words or stop assuming or don’t take things personally, we’ll be happy. DUH! But life isn’t quite so easy, and neither is making these changes. It’s one thing to promise to make these agreements; it’s another to actually follow through with them.

Analysis: Before Ruiz can make the case for the four agreements, he first must make the case for why we all have an often insatiable desire to be happy. He does this well, by explaining that we spend our lives raised by our parents, taught their lessons, experiencing the world and society around us and essentially accepting everything that’s thrown our way to be “true.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow societal norms. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to fit in with the crowd or stand out in our own greatness. He explains that if we opt to not care what other people think. to do what makes us happy and to keep a positive outlook, we can be and remain happy. He explains that most of the suffering we each experience in life is self-induced.

For example, maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You honk at them and start waving your arms and yelling in the car. The other driver sees you and starts yelling back or gives you the finger. The rest of the drive, you spend gripping your wheel, fuming. We’ve all been there. But what if, when that person cuts us off, we don’t take it personally? What if we realize that person is probably in a massive rush for some reason? What if we realize that their actions had everything to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with us? Then we’d just merrily continue driving to our destination, completely at ease. So why do we so often go down the first path? It’s because we’re causing our own suffering. We have the power to change this. We have the power to recognize that what other people do has nothing to do with us. We have the power to take a positive approach and fill the world with joy instead of anger. It will make you feel better and the others around you feel better too.

The concepts are easy. The actions are hard. But they are also worth it. Because we all want ease and joy. Ruiz’s book is at times a little heady and very spiritual, so it might be a bit much for some. But if you really want to improve your life and yourself, this is a book that will single-handedly get you there.

Get The Four Agreements in paperback for $7.49.

Or on your Kindle for $4.02.

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Lara’s Top Picks of 2018

20181231_144316.jpgWelcome to my eighth edition of “Top Picks!” Easily one of my favorite blog posts of the year, this is where I tell you about the ten best books I read this year. Again, this has nothing to do with what year they came out. In fact, I’m pretty sure only one of the books I read this year was published in 2018. For a list of the best books published this year, check out The New York Times annual Notable Books list. For now, here are the best books I read this year (followed by the complete list of all the books I read this year).

10. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. After my dad passed away, this was the perfect book to help me out of my slump and come to terms with my grief. Sheryl Sandberg is not just a Facebook COO here. She is a woman navigating loss like so many of us have. If she can do it, we all can, especially with her tactile, concrete advice. Buy it now. 

9. The Lost Family by Jenna Blum. It’s a novel that spans 30 years and three generations of a Jewish family in New York and New Jersey in the years post-WWII. The patriarch lost his first family in the war and starts a new one with an aspiring model. It’s a book that I really enjoyed when I read it, but since I finished it, I simply can’t stop thinking about it. Buy it now.

8. One More Time by Carol Burnett. Both an in-depth look at the iconic comedianne’s life and a book about life lessons, One More Time is a memoir that almost feels like a self-help book. There is so much to be learned from this strong woman who overcame trauma, failure and poverty to become the icon she is today. Buy it now.

7. Cujo by Stephen King. It’s scary to think that it took me this long to read a Stephen King novel (yes, it was my first!!), but everyone told me this was one of his best and it did not disappoint. More thriller than horror, Cujo brilliantly jumps between characters I legitimately cared for while making a dog scary to me for the first time in my life. The ending is something to be both celebrated and mourned — a bittersweet juxtaposition that makes the read all the more complicated and engrossing. Buy it now.

6. 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dan Harris single-handedly got me interested in meditation, but it took me several years to finally read his book. Both memoir and self-help (is this a common theme here?), 10% Happier makes a case for changing yoru life and through meditation — even for the skeptics — while also telling tales of the fascinating network newsman life he leads. Buy it now.

5. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Set on reading it before seeing in the theater, I had high hopes for this one, and it surpassed them all. It was more than just a romantic story or an Asian story. It was also a funny store! So tongue-in-cheek in its prose and dialogue, it was a long book that turned into a quick read, and I’ve never been more excited to read a sequel. Buy it now.

4. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. Julie Powell needed something in her life. She surprised herself by finding it in Julia Child’s famous cookbook. So she set her sights on cooking the entire book in a year’s time. The book details the true story of Powell achieving this crazy and kind of obnoxious goal, even while it tears much of the rest of her life to shreds. She is a hilarious writer who had me laughing out loud. But she also learns a lot about life and herself through the process, and so do we. Buy it now.

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. A story from the point of view of a dog, Racing is a more dramatic tale than I expected. But it’s refreshing perspective gives us hope in both dogs and humanity, proving that there is nothing more important than the bonds of friendship and family. It’s a grand story about life trapped in a doggie fiction novel in the most beautiful way. It left me breathless. Buy it now.

2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. After seeing the sexy movie that so deeply resonated with me in its portrayal of first love, I found myself wanting more so I picked up the book the movie was based on. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book is even better than the movie with more details, more sexiness, more teenage uncertainty and more finality. Oh, and the prose is supreme. Buy it now.

1. You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero. As I turned 30, I thought a self-help book would help me better round the corner. What I found in Badass is a swift kick in my badass that left me empowered. Jen Sincero’s real-talk and tangible tips allow for a true journey in confidence-building and goal-setting unlike I’ve ever experienced before. Buy it now.

Here’s a link to the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018. 

BOOKS I’VE READ 2018

In the Studio with Michael Jackson – Bruce Swedien

Damned Good- J.J. DeCeglie

Wonder – R.J. Palacio

Julie and Julia – Julia Powell

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Soul Witness – William Costopoulos

Option B – Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

A Load of Hooey – Bob Odenkirk

Emma – Jane Austen

Cujo – Stephen King

Ann M. Martin – Margot Becker R.

The Last Dropout – Bill Milliken

How to Love the Empty Air – Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Strangers – Nigel Gray

Notorious R.B.G. – Irin Carmon

One More Time – Carol Burnett

On Becoming Fearless – Arianna Huffington

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

Choose Your Own Autobiography – Neil Patrick Harris

10% Happier – Dan Harris

The Gene Guillotine – Kate Preskenis

You Are a Badass – Jen Sincero

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

The Lost Family – Jenna Blum

Sharp Objects – Gilian Flynn

A Simple Favor – Darcy Bell

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

The Day The World Came to Town – Jim DeFede

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Review: The Day the World Came To Town

911Recap: Seventeen years later, no one needs a book to tell them what happened on 9/11. But they might want to read one if it involves an aspect of that horrific tragedy that few know about, like the thousands of people who wound up stranded in Gander, Newfoundland in the days after the attacks. If you don’t know where Newfoundland is, you wouldn’t be alone. Author and journalist Jim DeFede takes care of that for us, describing the province, its people and the way they took in and treated the passengers who were flying to or over the United States when the attacks happened. As the planes were diverted to Canada, a small town became a town of many more thousands and opened its arms in their time of need.

The panic and chaos that ensued could have been much worse, but the truth it didn’t thanks to the helping hands of those living in Newfoundland. Families there invited these passengers — literal strangers — into their homes for a nice, hot shower. They offered them hand-me-down baby strollers. They showed them to the nearest bars, malls and stores. They cooked for them, clothed them, cared for their animals, ordered their prescriptions. Newfoundland essentially adopted the passengers who were so desperate to get home and so depressed over the recent events.

Analysis: Made famous more recently by the musical Come From AwayThe Day the World Came to Town is a beautiful take on the generosity of strangers, made even more beautiful by the fact that it’s a true story. A journalist at heart, author Jim DeFede does an incredible job of digging into every possible angle and acquiring hundreds of interviews to gather information for the book. The book is not flowery or eloquently written. As only a journalist would, it’s written very matter-of-factly. But it works. The content is so touching, the words don’t need to be.

The stories are woven in such a way, you are bound to connect with at least one of its characters — er, PEOPLE — whether it’s the New York state trooper who wishes he were home to help, the new parents that just adopted their daughter from overseas, the young professionals who rely on drinks and new friendships to get them through the pain or the woman whose firefighter son may or may not have died in the towers.

The Day the World Came to Town is one of those rare books that both taught me something AND made me feel. I truly cannot say enough good things about it.

Get The Day the World Came to Town in paperback for $13.59. 

Or on your Kindle for free.

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