Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Valor Cava

On the eve of the release of Barack Obama’s memoir (part 1), I want to take a few moments to reflect on Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. If you have not had the opportunity to read it yet, I highly recommend doing so. It would also be a wonderful Christmas gift for any woman in your life.

Ms. Obama’s story is captivating in its relatable nature for all women who struggle with work life balance and in her telling of the life of an extremely exclusive group—First Ladies of the United States of America. I found it to be a story of resilience, hope, and courage. I keep it on my bookshelf for inspiration, and believe it belongs on every woman’s bookshelf for the same reason.  

She describes growing up in a working-class family in Chicago and how she managed to climb the socioeconomic ladder through the determined efforts of loving, hard-working parents combined with her own intelligence, work ethic, and drive to succeed. Ms. Obama talks about achieving her definition of success, only to have to redefine it according to evolving values that included a family of her own. Seeing Barack Obama through her eyes prior to his political rise and in his roles as husband and father was both insightful and intriguing as was her perspective on their road to the White House and her experience as First Lady. Her story concludes with her description of their transition from the People’s house that had been their home for eight years.

So many women can relate to Ms. Obama’s struggle to retain her own identity separate from her husband and family and to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. In a nod to her courage and sparkle, I recommend Valor Cava—a Spanish sparkling wine—to join you and Ms. Obama as you share her journey. It can be a bit bumpy at times, but overall, it’s a true joy ride.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Peace Talks, Battleground, and The Arsonist Red Blend

As a huge Harry Dresden fan, I’ve looked forward to the next books in the Dresden Files series for years, and author Jim Butcher did not disappoint, giving fans not just one, but two new books within three months.

The duology of Peace Talks and Battleground not only continue the Dresden series, but take the conflict to a new level, as the supernatural and human worlds collide in wizard Harry Dresden’s Chicago. I recommend reading them together because Peace Talks lays the groundwork that leads you straight into Battleground.

Peace Talks sets the stage with a convergence of the supernatural world’s most powerful in Chicago to negotiate peace between factions. The wizards of the White Council are tasked with security, but it becomes clear that unknown forces are working not only against the negotiations, but to set the powers that be on a collision course. Unfortunately for Harry, they use his brother as a pawn to set their plans in motion, complicating his already precarious position as a member of the White Council and requiring Harry to somehow protect his brother and the negotiations simultaneously. When an ancient power rises to crash the party and threatens to destroy Chicago with an indestructible magical artifact, the situation becomes dire, leading us to Battleground.

In Battleground, we watch Chicago burn when a Titan advances on the city, bringing her hatred to bear against humanity and causing Chicago’s human inhabitants to struggle for survival against supernatural forces that come out openly into the night to claim Chicago as their war zone. To protect the city and people he loves, Harry calls upon all of his powers as wizard, Winter Knight, and as the keeper of Merlin’s supernatural island prison. Unable to end the existence of a deity with such power, Harry and his allies seek to imprison her instead, but to accomplish that feat, they must first wage a strategic and costly battle against the Titan and her armies.

The Arsonist Red Blend is the perfect wine to drink while you enjoy Harry’s latest adventures. A dry and full-bodied wine that blends Petit Verdot with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s well-balanced with a deep red color and just a hint of fruit. It also has a price point (find it here) that supports buying two bottles–one to go with each installment of Butcher’s Dresden duology.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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The Invited and La Crema Pinot Noir are a perfect Halloween pairing

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon puts a historical spin on the modern ghost story. It’s the perfect Halloween read with a smart, twisting plot and just the right amount of creepy.

Helen, a history teacher, receives an inheritance that enables her to pursue her dream of building a home far from urban life. She and her husband, Nate, find the perfect home site in Vermont and are even more excited when they learn that their land is not only rumored to be haunted, but is notorious for a deadly history that includes stories of buried treasure.

Helen is so intrigued by the legend of the original owner–a young mother hanged for witchcraft–that she buys wood rumored to be from the branch used in the hanging and incorporates it into their new home. In doing so, she unintentionally opens the door to an otherworldly visitor. Unable to discern whether the visitor means harm or needs help, and unwilling to leave their home, Helen draws on her training and experience as a historian to unravel the mysteries surrounding their land.

With its dark red color, smooth texture, and berry undertones, I recommend La Crema Pinot Noir as an excellent accompaniment to The Invited.

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Take Seaside Cellars Pinot Noir to Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is a beautiful, lyrical read. Her descriptions of the North Carolina marsh and its inhabitants bring them to life, which makes sense considering she’s a wildlife scientist with a B.S. in Zoology.

Though the story is heart wrenching at times, the quiet independent strength of its young heroine, Kya, draws the reader in. The need to know how she survives sweeps you along with her like the tides she rides in her Pa’s old and battered boat.

A survivor of abuse and abandonment, Kya becomes a creature of the land that feeds, protects, and sustains her even as most of humanity turns its back, or worse, judges and shames her. Despite her independence and love for the marsh and its creatures, Kya longs for human interaction, touch, and acceptance. Kya’s story takes you to a beautiful and dangerous world where she must learn who she can trust as she fights for her life and her freedom.

I recommend Seaside Cellars Pinot Noir to join you as you immerse yourself in Kya’s world. This light red wine is fruity with a hint of a spicy finish, which is a perfect accompaniment to this coming-of-age story. Plus, it has a good price point at around $12/bottle.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Artemis and 19 Crimes

Artemis, the second book by Andy Weir, is every bit as entertaining as his first effort, The Martian, especially if you’re into any form of science, math, space, or feats of engineering.

A crime novel set on the Artemis moon settlement, Weir’s writing treats us to vivid depictions of what it could be like to live there. Weir’s main character, Jazz, is easy to like and fun to follow. Jazz is extremely intelligent and has a dry sense of humor, much like Mark Watney in The Martian. Unlike Watney, however, she is prone to lapses in judgment that could subject her to her biggest fear–deportation to Earth–and endanger not only her own life, but ultimately put the entire population of the settlement at risk.

19 Crimes wines are named after infamous criminals whose offenses earned them the ultimate sentence–transportation to the Australian colonies. With its fruity and vanilla flavors, appropriate labeling, and price point, I recommend 19 Crimes Pinot Noir to accompany you as you explore Artemis with Jazz and her unlikely allies.

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Little Fires Everywhere and Matchbook Chardonnay

Little fires 1
A perfect match

My book club recently read Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. The friend who suggested it loved it so much that she also watched the series starring Reese Witherspoon and listened to it on Audible.

I enjoyed the book and found its story to be compelling and timely. Ms. Ng does an incredible job of illustrating the subtle inherent attitudes and perspectives that are so often embedded in lives and people of privilege–even those who believe themselves to be self-aware, or in modern terminology, “woke”.

In this well-crafted and character-driven work, Ms. Ng tells the story of a family of privilege with mostly good intent, and the impact that a single mother and her daughter, who have grown up far from the family’s privileged and ordered lives, has on the way each family member views the world and the people who live in it. For certain family members, that impact is profound and life changing, while for others, the doors to their minds are opened a just bit wider, allowing them to consider realities other than what they have experienced in their lives thus far.

Ms. Ng makes these characters real through their complexity and the cross-patterns of their daily lives, which will be familiar to most who have lived in American suburban communities. The actions of privilege and the reasoning behind them is expertly demonstrated in the ways that the Richardsons, especially Elena (Reese Witherspoon) interact with the artistic and empathetic Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her intelligent and introspective daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). To the Richardson children, the Warrens’ lifestyle is appealing in its differentiation from their own. To Ms. Richardson, that differentiation–the freedom and unstructured nature of it–is not only disquieting but poses a threat to all that she believes in, to the very fabric of her life and the choices she’s made in weaving it.

Matchbook Chardonnay is the perfect pairing for Little Fires Everywhere. Golden and buttery, it has a smooth finish that makes it difficult to follow Ms. Richardson’s example and have just one glass. Happy reading!

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The Martian by Andy Weir and Ruffino’s Il Ducale Toscana

The Martian pic1If you watch TV at all, then you can’t miss the previews for The Martian, starring Matt Damon, which opens this weekend. I firmly believe that any book is typically better than its movie version, so I read the book by Andy Weir, on which the movie is based, in time to see it opening weekend. I loved the book and urge you to read it as well. As expected, it offers details that will be difficult to portray or are likely to be missed on the big screen.

Mark Watney is an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars alone after the rest of his team narrowly escapes the planet and an unexpectedly strong storm, abandoning Watney when they mistakenly believe him dead. To survive, he must draw on his unique combination of botany and engineering skills. Watney’s attitude and determination make him likable. His sense of humor makes him downright lovable and sometimes hilarious. I can totally see Matt Damon in this role and can’t wait to view it on the big screen.

Weir is a self-described nerd and he certainly fits the profile. A computer programmer and Doctor Who fan, his idea of a hobby is to study orbital dynamics. His nerdiness and true love of science come through as he drops plenty of his knowledge and years of research into the story of how Watney brilliantly and scientifically works his way through each life-threatening challenge Mars throws his way. Weir’s descriptions of the planet, its atmosphere, and the challenges it creates for a human trying to survive them are interesting and educational at the same time.

The math got to be a bit much for me—I’m more of a literature geek than a science/math type geek—but if you’re into math or science you’ll find plenty to love.  Weir provides a level of carefully researched detail in his descriptions of the chemical and biological processes required for Watney to survive (such as creating water and colonizing soil with bacteria to grow food) that is unusual if not unique. I also enjoyed Weir’s descriptions of NASA, its internal workings, thought processes and politics, and especially the interactions between NASA, Watney, and the other astronauts.

When you read the book, it’s quickly obvious that NASA would never waste space or energy transporting alcoholic beverages on such a journey, but I think Watney’s story deserves a toast and recommend Ruffino’s Il Ducale Toscana. Unlike the rust color of Mars, which Watney explains, this Tuscan wine is a deep, ruby red. Where The Martian is a sci-fi/thriller blend, Il Ducale Toscana is “an innovative blend of Sangiovese, Syrah, and Merlot.” It’s a wonderful, tasty combination and the perfect companion to Mark Watney in his Martian survival efforts.

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Magic Shifts by Ilona Andrews

Magicshifts1Magic Shifts, the latest in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, is such an entertaining continuation of Kate and Curran’s exploits that I read it not once but twice—the first time just to see what happened next, and the second because I was sure I missed fun details in my haste to finish it the first round. Reading the final page was disappointing only because I have to wait a year to see where they go next. I hope Ilona Andrews is busily crafting the next installment.

In Magic Shifts, Kate and Curran are trying to be good neighbors and fit into their life in the suburbs. Kate has a new and extremely powerful enemy to fight, one whose magic is as old as hers, which presents unexpected repercussions for her. In confronting him, Kate runs head on into her own humanity and its limitations. As Dr. Dolittle repeatedly reminds Kate, she is not as she often acts, invincible, and she is forced to come to terms with that.

Roland’s presence is constant now despite Kate’s efforts to the contrary, and like his appearances in the previous book, his presence at this point seems benign, yet ominous, and provides for a bit of humor.  We also get to see where the lives of our other favorite players—Andrea and Raphael, Jim and Dali, Barabas, Christopher, Derek, and Julie— are going and get to know some others including George and Eduardo, Mahon and Martha, a bit better.  Kate and company have some serious and hilarious verbal and physical smack downs with family, neighbors, and friends as well as their enemies.

It was interesting to have a new foe, but I have to admit I missed Hugh a little. As always, I loved learning about the area of mythology and history related to this new threat.  Through Kate’s exploits, I’ve learned about Celtic, Hindu, and now Arabic mythology.

To accompany Kate’s latest endeavors, I would recommend Muriel’s Rioja Reserva. It’s a beautiful deep, ruby red in color, a little spicy and very flavorful. It’s also quite reasonably priced.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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The Paying Guests and Montoya’s Pinot Noir

Paying Guests3In The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters takes us across the pond and back in time to a society where women’s roles were set and their choices limited. In post-war England, where so many men—brothers, fathers, husbands, friends—were lost, the women and society as a whole are struggling to adjust to a hard-won peace they somehow find disappointing.  While they are grateful for peace, the men who have returned are damaged, former soldiers can’t find work, and women can’t find husbands.

Ms. Waters succeeds in transporting her reader to the world in which her main character, Frances, struggles to keep the family home after the deaths of her brothers and father. She does this by making the difficult decision to take in boarders. In deference to their situation and consideration of her mother’s feelings, their neighbors refer to the boarders, Mr. and Mrs. Barber, as the “paying guests.”  They also pretend not to notice Frances’s damaged hands from the daily housework and labor she’s taken on since they could no longer afford to keep servants.

Though Frances was determined at first to maintain professional boundaries with the Barbers, loneliness and time wore those boundaries down until they crumbled under the weight of attraction and possibly love. Trapped and desperate, the lovers’ plans go horribly wrong, with devastating and irreversible consequences. Frances can’t escape her fear for their freedom or her guilt over what they’ve done. Emotions and turmoil not only tear at their relationship, but their physical health and even their sanity.  Warning—some of the sex scenes are quite graphic, as is a rather detailed account of a miscarriage. This book is definitely intended for adults.

Though the descriptions can run long, the plot is well-developed and the characters multi-dimensional. You feel compassion for them and somehow understand their actions even if you don’t agree with or like them much. It’s a long read, and therefore calls for a lighter and reasonably priced wine. I’d recommend the Montoya Pinot Noir.  You might want shoot for the multi-bottle discount, so that you have enough to accompany all 500+pages.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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Whiplash is the perfect pairing for Phantom Instinct by Meg Gardiner

Phantom 1In Phantom Instinct the thrill ride starts on page 1 with mass murder that seems random, but quickly becomes personal for Harper Flynn. With her hopes pinned on a man who sees a threat where there is none, who can’t decipher between friend or foe, the ride is treacherous indeed for Harper and the people she loves most. This latest thriller by Ms. Gardiner offers true heroes—normal people who work daily to overcome their imperfections—and a team of heartless, highly intelligent, ruthless, and focused villains.

Harper and Aiden are each broken, working to heal and move forward. Harper overcame a selfish and drug-addicted mother and years in juvenile detention to make something of her life. Aiden demonstrates early on that he is willing to sacrifice all in the service others. This willingness left him damaged in ways that he could never have anticipated. They are supported by characters whose heroism becomes evident as the story unfolds: one who is willing to give her life for a girl she doesn’t know, and another who finds his courage when our heroine needs it most.

Ms. Gardiner’s tale starts at the top of a steep hill, then continues to build speed and momentum until, like a roller coaster, you know there’s a big drop coming–something truly scary and stomach twisting–but you can’t wait to get there. The end provides a twist so unexpected that I didn’t believe what I was reading (and re-read it just to be sure).

Phantom Instinct is an exciting, fast-paced read. Based on its breakneck pace and mind-bending plot twists, I’d recommend Whiplash red zinfandel to accompany it.

Enjoy, and happy reading!

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