Author Archives: Ashley Lauren

About Ashley Lauren

Writer, traveler, blogger with a day job (Corporate Recruiter). Only gal in a wolf den (aka: mother of boys). I never say no to dessert. She/her

The BEST Obscure Books – Read off the Beaten Path!

Look – it’s fun to read what’s hot and new, isn’t it? I do it all the time. I see that book with thousands of reviews at 4.5 stars and I know I’m in for a good read. But, how fun is it to pick up that book with only a few reviews, maybe it was written ages ago, and you feel like you found a hidden treasure?

Here is your best of both worlds! Trust me on this – these little known books (fewer than 2,000 ratings on Good Reads) are SO worth your time – pick them up to today!

Caravan
Dorothy Gilman

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I’ve read this book twice now and it is truly incredible. It has everything – every twist and turn you can imagine. It’s the story of a young girl told by an old one where you can feel the truth of it but with the knowing eye of an old woman looking back. This is a book where horrible, terrible things can happen to the characters and somehow you still want their lives. This book is magic wrapped up in one neat little package and now I can’t say anything else without just positively gushing.

And I can’t wait to read it again!

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
Tahir Shah

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This is the only book I have ever finished and immediately wanted to re-read. I would have; but I really want to buy a paper copy and read it that way instead. I’m abroad right now, but when I get back in the states I will own this! I’m also planning on reading just about everything Tahir Shah has written.

So why? Why am I so ga-ga over this book? One of my greatest loves in life is traveling and this book just oozes with the emotions of a traveler. Shah is an individual who is restless, who is curious, who judges people with an eye of disbelief AND understanding, who takes people what they are and, while human being are unable to completely ever fill another’s shoes, he incorporates what he can. It’s incredible – I stopped multiple times while reading to ponder or scribble down a sentence. Shah’s words described my own emotions: it’s so wonderful to feel understood.

This book is both memoir and story – it’s a mixture of tales, events, meaningful and not. His ability to tie in everything makes me believes he’s led not only a great life but also a fascinating one – I believe this book is filled with both truths and fibs and it works beautifully into one tapestry. I picked it up because I was going to Morocco to travel – I’ve never been more excited to examine a place now after having read this book.

I’d recommend this to just about everyone who is willing to ponder new ideas, cultures, adventures, etc. It’s phenomenal!

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*T With Her Mind
Jackson Ford

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I clearly picked up this book because it has the best title in the known universe. And then it ended up being great! SCORE!

It’s hysterical. I seriously laughed out loud multiple times while listening to this (btw – the audio narration is excellent). I love Teagan as a character – beautiful perks and flaws. This book is full of action and adventure and the dynamic of the characters are so much fun. The ending got a smidge long but I can definitely overlook that and am so eager to get started on book 2.

My (Underground) American Dream
Julissa Arce

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I really enjoyed this memoir – I was able to hear Julissa speak in Chicago for HACE and her story is incredible and memorable. It is so timely and brave as well – definitely one to read.

Golden Earrings
Belinda Alexandra

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Oh, this book.

Do you ever read a historical fiction and think, “This must have happened.” It was so expertly woven, the truth and tales of the times intermingled with the fiction so beautifully I thought it had to be true. The richness of the story, though certainly not all uplifting, felt like something that just had to have happened. Of course, I realize that’s not the case, but I don’t think I’ll be able to ever think about the Spanish Civil War without imagining La Rusa’s impact.

Paloma, Evelina, Celestina – Golden Earrings is a tale of strong women who are impacted by a terrible war. It’s a story about how people react when their lives are altered by others’ choices. It’s not a story about making all the right decisions. Each and every one of the characters in this novel make mistakes – very large mistakes – that send waves of impacts down the line for years. But mistakes don’t make a person, and Alexandra’s weaving of the characters shows that mistakes can be made by good people, but that good people aren’t immune to hard choices.

This is a little known novel that needs some serious love. It’s incredible via audio book and I’m sure just as good on paper. Highly recommend, and I will definitely be picking up more of Alexandra in the future.

The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me
Suzanne Kingsbury

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I have never been to the south, at least not the “deep” south and, man, did this book make me want to go. It’s not that Kingsbury even made it seem that appealing – all she talked about was the heat, the way the sweat dripped down someone’s neck, the stifling air in the rooms, etc. But she really made me FEEL it and I haven’t really spent any time in that kind of environment…

It’s a powerful book. Kingsbury does such a great sense of having you /feel/ relationships. I could sense the tension or happiness or love or whatever they felt between the characters. It was invigorating.

Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones
Erica Jong

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This book was pretty astounding. Very rarely have I reacted to a book with as much gusto – and I’m not talking about tears and laughter here, I’m talking about flat out shock. In terms of fiction, I’ve never had a book startle me as much as this one did and I loved it all the more for it. Erica Jong wrote this in such a manner that I truly believed she was Fanny Hackabout-Jones. She said in the beginning that she would keep no modesty, and she kept true to her word. The events in this book had ways of simultaneously disgusting and arousing me but ultimately making me truly care for, and hate, the same ones that Fanny did. Fanny wanted to teach Belinda, her daughter, all the things she had learned in the world. At the very least, I think she succeeded in teaching me.

Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer
Barbara Sjohlm

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I’m a little biased as writing and travel are two of my absolute favorite things, but this is such a beautiful memoir that really takes you into her growth and self-discovery. Highly underrated and a truly beautiful book.

Death Wish (Reaper Reborn Series)
Harper A. Brooks

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Overall, this book was really engaging and interesting. A couple parts were maybe a bit of a stretch but overall I was able to get into the story. Great pacing and characterization – Jade is such a fun character to follow and Brooks doesn’t pull the punches. Great series!

Songs from the Phenomenal Nothing
Steven Luna

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I sat down to read a chapter or two, just for a bit, and now I’m done. Devoured. That’s what happened with this book. Five, five, five stars.

This one had me from the get-go. Within about thirty seconds of reading you know Tyler Mills. He’s a teenage kid pissed off about something and is blaming it on his Dad for being a different person than him. At first you want to say “boo-hoo, kid” and kick off, but in the next thirty seconds you realize his Mom, his true connection, his source of inspiration, is dead. And then you feel bad about judging him for being all emo – and then you’re hooked.

What is it about Tyler that worked so well? It’s hard to pin-point. Maybe because he acted like a total teenager but his mind recognized how stupid he was being. Maybe because he was obviously smart and wanted to make good decisions but his fear and sadness was getting the best of him. If that isn’t a good representation of the young adult mind, I don’t know what is. The story was predictable but it moved quickly. The further it gets, in fact, the more cliché, but that didn’t detract at all. I loved it. I loved how I knew what was going to happen, I loved that Tyler did what I ultimately wanted him to do, and I love how it ended. Maybe I like clichés. I’m a firm believer that there are really only so many plotlines in the world, but there are never two personalities that are the same. It’s up to the writer to see an old situation from new eyes, and Luna nails it.

Love Perks of Being a Wallflower? Love angst? Love teenagers figuring out their shizz? How about if you just love good books? I don’t really care what you love – you’ll love this one.

Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail
Mary Morris

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This book was phenomenal – not only is Mary Morris probably the most self-honest person on the planet (I don’t think I could read my actions for truth like she does even if I wanted to) but she’s a fantastic writer. Her personal struggles combined with the fascinating travel events make this a truly enthralling read. It’s set in such a dramatic time in history – Morris was in China, Russia, and Germany in 1986. Seeing some of those historic events happening through her eyes is unbelievably interesting. Great read!

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Top 12 Favorite Books of 2020 (so far)

If there can be one good thing said about 2020 (and that’s a stretch, I know) it’s that it has given me a reason to double down on my reading. I have been positively devouring books this year and am proud to say I’ve finished 78 so far. Since we’re halfway through this delight of a year, I thought I would highlight some of my absolute favorites!

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

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You’re a good man, Linus Baker. I’m so very pleased to know you.

There may not be as accurate of a statement than this in the entire world. This book -guys, this BOOK. It’s like a dose of rainbow, sunshine, sprinkle glitter love happiness straight to the pleasure center. It’s beautiful.

Honestly, I want to write everything and yet nothing at all. You don’t need to know anything, you just need to read this book.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

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This is a truly wonderful book. Gah – I wish I could go back in time and read this as a young adult because it would have had even that much more POW.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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This is a fantastic book that should be read. Not only it is well written with personal stories and facts of cases, it’s properly balanced with success and failure. It’s not a story about only innocent people being released – it’s about criminals getting appropriate representation as well. I really appreciated that this didn’t just feel like a giant pat on the back, but it was the emphasis on how the broken system breaks individuals – and breaks those people of color even more disproportionately.

All in all, a great read.

Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

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Undercover Bromance is a “great big manly hug huddle” (those are Lyssa Kay Adam’s words, not mine) and it’s and amazing 5/5 star book.

These books – they just GET me. I had legit belly laughs. I mean, the man-hating rooster? The banter? Heck, I was even belly laughing from FART jokes (I kid you not). It’s fun and funny and the relationships – romantic and friendship – are SO GOOD.

Can’t help it. Love these. Want more.

One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

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Confession: I have never, not once, seen an episode of the Bachelor. Which I assume this book is a literary version of.

Guys – this is the equivalent of a romantic “who dun it” – you literally can’t guess who the murderer, I mean, perfect lover is! I mean, okay, I guess I could but I also couldn’t. I’m not spoiling this for you but it’s kind of amazing.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

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Heaaaaarts, rainbowsssss, and sunshine.

That’s what I feel about this book. I adored it. I giggled – a LOT. The characters are delightful, the setting adorable, there’s some very satisfying sexy time and ogling, etc, etc. Basically, it was right up my alley and I highly recommend.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

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If Sue Monk Kidd hadn’t written this book I NEVER would have picked it up. No way, no how. I have as little connection to any religion as possible – I was raised in the US and therefore have those Christian influences to my society, but had nothing by the way of religious education. For example – it wasn’t until the end of the book that I found out Anna was fictional. Ha!

So – yes, from a topic, not typically one of interest to me. And honestly there were parts that were a bit dry in the book or that I didn’t quite “get” because my lack of knowledge. But the essence of it… the drive Sue Monk Kidd put into the story and the protagonist. Anna is a storm to be reckoned with and merged with the society in which she lived – it was beautiful. The fact that Anna really was the center of this story, and the most interesting of the characters, and she was married to Jesus is pretty outstanding for the author, I have to say.

Overall, a truly great read and another example of the artwork that is Sue Monk Kidd’s writing.

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

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Wow – this was truly excellent. Complex without being confusing, unique without being unbelievable, and horrifying without being gross. Great characters who have enough of their own issues to be interesting but not so much so that they are distracting. I truly didn’t guess the ending. All in all, I very top notch crime thriller!

Beach Read by Emily Henry

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Welp, that was perfect.

And, for the record, I usually really dislike stories where the character is a writer. And this one had two writers.

It’s still perfect.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

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Ok – yeah, I was really skeptical about this book. The premise is bizarre and, honestly, after reading it, the premise is still really bizarre.

But, man, I liked it! The style of the narration is amazing, I wanted to quote about half of it. I love the main character and just the way she IS. The way she responds and adapts to the strange circumstances she’s put it is fascinating.

It’s super quirky and it’s a book that gave me a lot of thoughts and feels. And that’s how I’m leaving that review.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

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Well, I should know better than to read what is the first in what is very clearly going to be a series so soon after it is published. I want to read the next one immediately and now I have to wait 😦

This is great – it raw and unique and Alex Stern is a bada**. I had a little trouble getting into it at the beginning and, frankly, it’s a dense book. I was trying to read it quickly but it takes a lot of mind power – there is a LOT that goes on here. That’s not a bad thing, it’s actually really good, but get ready for the investment.

All in all, Bardugo hit another one out of the park.

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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What an excellent book. I blew through this in a single day – which is no small feat in the chaos that is my life.

Maybe it’s just me, but I love when I come across a book where everything just works. The story is perfectly paced and snappy with action, dialogue, introspection, and magic. The character relationships are genuine and heartfelt – the main characters, Ryn and Ellis, are beautiful and flawed. The problems they face are real and unique. This is such a fascinating story that I have – and haven’t – heard before.

Oh – and it’s a zombie book, so, you know, that makes is automatically awesome.
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My Favorite Books from Diverse Authors (a never-ending list)

Out of pain you can sometimes find beauty and the continued push to celebrate and welcome art from people of color is one of those examples. I’d love to take the opportunity to highlight some of my favorite books written by non-white authors!

Death Wish by Harper A. Brooks

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Overall, this book was really engaging and interesting. A couple parts were maybe a bit of a stretch but overall I was able to get into the story. Great pacing and characterization. I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the series.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

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I’m not sure I can say much more about this than what almost 500,000 other people have said on Good Reads but this is an exceptional memoir.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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I was able to read this via audible, with Maya Angelou as the narrator – and what a great highlight that made to the reading! It’s a powerful book with such an impressive scope. The items she chooses to showcase from her life are ones that were clearly not only impactful to her, but also become impactful to the reader, which I think is the key to a good memoir. She was able to reflect on the activities of her youth and how they shaped her, how they color her experience, and how they might cause the reader to understand herself, her society, and even our own selves. I can imagine reading this multiple times and discovering something new each time. A great experience and a great read.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Highly deserving of all the praise. This is a truly timely book that features intense situations, incredible characters, and an emotionally jarring and well timed story line. Honestly, a book that is very close to perfection. Highly recommend.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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This book is SO GOOD. So, so good. What an incredibly fascinating and funny insight into growing up in South Africa. It was quick read that perfectly balanced some hard truths with the antics of a young man growing into adulthood. Absolutely phenomenal.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

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Angelfall, for me, was about the plot line. It was interesting, unique, and it was quick. I hate books that feel the need to explain everything and this isn’t one of those. You learn as you go and new questions are always coming up. It’s well designed and even though some of the character development was a little shallow, or at least predictable, I enjoyed it all the same.

My (Underground) American Dream by Julissa Arce

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I really enjoyed this memoir – I was able to hear Julissa speak in Chicago for HACE and her story is incredible and memorable. It is so timely and brave as well – definitely one to read.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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Overall, a really well put together novel. I like that it took place all in one day. I didn’t love the interjections of other people’s short backgrounds, though, by the end, I understood why it was there. I feel like the tone of the book kept me distanced just a tad so as to not make it a 5 star but, otherwise, I’m really glad I finally picked this one up.

Sex, Murder, and a Double Latte by Kyra Davis

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This book is what I love about chick-lit. It’s silly and sassy and exciting and a read that you can breeze through in just a few days. I’m a firm believer that a story you can get sucked into – silly or not – is a fun story.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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To say this book is intense is a significant understatement. Add to that some incredible narration and you have a book that is going to draw you in. To be honest I’m not quite sure what to say about the book – it doesn’t skim past the hard parts, it’s going to blindside you in many ways. It’s one of those books that you know is good but you can’t really say you ENJOYED reading.

This is a never-ending list! I’ll keep adding my favorites as I read them and I would LOVE your recommendations on books to read next!

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Becoming a Brewsader – The BEST Grand Rapids Breweries (Ranked!)

Those who know me know that beer is a serious passion of mine (heck, I even work for Molson Coors, one of the largest brewers in the world). So my husband and I took a long weekend in the self-proclaimed “Beer City” – Grand Rapids, Michigan in February 2020.

The best part is Grand Rapids has a really fun little adventure to help direct your activities in the city! You can become a “Brewsader” and get stamps at over 40 participating breweries. If you get 8 or more stamps you can get a free, super-exclusive, t-shirt! Nothing quite gets my competitive spirit going quite like free swag so you can bet I was on board.

The hardest part about seeking to be a Brewsader is selecting where to go. There are a LOT of great options and I spent an absurd amount of time ranking, mapping, and identifying where to go. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of where we went and and how they ranked. You might as surprised as I was!

1) Creston Brewery
Ok – so I loooooved Creston Brewery. We went there for brunch on our last day and I could sing praises for everything. The space – an old furniture factory – was adorable and bright, the food was delicious, the service was perfect friendly midwestern nice, and, the beer! Let’s not forget the beer. So good with lots of unique options – good for brunch and for later if you decide to do so.
Did I mention they had these AMAZING Ice Box Brand Ice Cream Bars in a cooler?! I literally looked after we got home to see if they will deliver to Chicago (sad face, no). So, it’s worth going for that alone.

Our memorable samplings:
– Honey Bear (3.75 – Golden Ale)
– Bokonon (4.5 – New England IPA)
– Blueberry Sweet Street (4.25 – American Pale Wheat – really well balanced)
– Michicalia (4.5 – Sour Gose)

2) Grand Rapids Brewing Co
This place was just down the street from our hotel and one of our first stops due to convenience. It made me wish I wasn’t specifically trying to find other places to go, because I really wanted to go back. The vibe was really fun and the food was excellent. And then the beer! It was SO good with excellent sour options. Really fun, vibrant selections. Definitely a place worth stopping.

Our memorable samplings:
– Rosalynn Bliss Blonde (4 – Blonde Ale – really fun flavor profile
– DDH Imperial Nordic Flux (4.5 – IPA – this one was ASTOUNDINGLY good)
– Petite Chouette (4.75 – Sour – a literally near perfect sour. YUM.)
– Princess Unicorn Pom Pom Party Passion Queen (4.5 – Sour – I would have given it a 4+ by name alone. But it was ALSO good. I mean, come onnn)

3) City Built Brewing Company
We stopped by City Built for lunch as it had latin-style food and, when it comes to bar hopping, it’s easy to get sick of the traditional pub fare quickly. This place did not disappoint with excellent tacos. The space itself was really cute with long tables, high tops, and a big selection of board games. It was super family friendly which made us miss our kids – well, kind of.
And the beer! Super tasty with a lot of interesting options including sours (yay!). Definitely would go back.

Our memorable samplings:
– #happyfriendsgiving (3.75 – sour)
– Even Higher Life (3.75 – IPL – how could I resist a play on High Life?!)
– Tender Elvis (4 – Farmhouse Ale – Saison)
– Noah On Monroe (4.25 – Sour)

4) New Holland – The Knickerbocker
Okay – so as a nationally (or at least regionally?) distributed beer, we knew New Holland needed to be a stop. I mean, who hasn’t tried Dragon’s Milk? We decided to take a tour here and it was a good one – samplings with a good education of the brewing and distilling they do on site.
But – the place is huge and it was crazy busy while we were there. Even with the size we couldn’t get a seat anywhere after the tour so we didn’t get to try much. If you can get there when it’s not a mad house (not sure if that ever happens?) then it’s worth going.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dragon’s Milk (4.25 – Imperial Stout)
– Tangerine Space Machine (4 – New England IPA)

5) Founders Brewing Co.
Ah – Founders. This was a must go for a variety of reasons for Eric and I. Centennial IPA is a family favorite and so we purchased the tour and made it our Saturday night stop.
First off – I personally wouldn’t go to the tour. I’m spoiled having worked for Molson Coors and I’ve been able to see on multiple occasion the big operations for Miller in Milwaukee and Coors in Golden, but even still I think if brewing would have been new to me the tour still would be disappointing. None of the operations were running and everything was shown from an overhanging balcony. It definitely wasn’t worth the time or money.
The taproom area was nice and had some live music while we were there. We didn’t stay because it was exceptionally crowded and the ordering process was actually a little confusing. Still, Founders beer is delicious and if you haven’t had it, it’s worth a stop. We just didn’t love the overall execution of the process.

Our memorable samplings:
– K.I.T. Pale Ale (3.75 – Pale)
– All Day (4 – IPA – a classic)
– Hello Jane (4.25 – IPA)
– Kentucky Breakfast (2 – Stout – guys, I’m just not a big stout fan in general but oof, I really don’t like KBS. Sorry, I know there’s a lot of KBS lovers out there)
– Solid Gold (3.5 – American Light Lager)
– Rubaeus (3.75 – Fruit Beer – let’s face it, I’ll always be a Rubeaus fan. After all, it’s what I consider to be a “gateway” to the best style of beer, souuuurs!)

6) Atwater Grand Rapids
Full disclosure – we specifically went to Atwater because this was the newest craft partner to the Molson Coors family and I was excited to give it a try for the sake of my work.
And I’m glad we did! The space was cute and the beer flight has some really tasty prospects. I will say this is the place where we encountered the worst service but I got the sense it was a bit of an off day so don’t judge too harshly. It’s definitely a good stop if you are in the area for New Holland.

Our memorable samplings:
– Fog (3.75 – IPA)
– Whango Raz (4.75 – American Pale Wheat – I loooved the balance of the mango and raspberry in this one)
– Hey Diddle Diddle (4 – American Pale Wheat)
– Sunshine in January (3.75 – blonde ale)

7) E.B. Coffee & Pub
This may be surprising to you, but finding breweries open for breakfast wasn’t an easy feat (I know, right? Amateurs). And that is where E.B. Coffee & Pub did not disappoint. It’s a drive – maybe 15 minutes – outside of Grand Rapids. If you’re looking for that morning option this is a solid location. No one blinked at our double beverage order of latte and beer and we were able to sit in some comfy chairs around the fireplace.
We only sampled a little of the beer selection but the two we had were solid options if not mind-bending.

Our memorable samplings:
– Dirty Dancer (4 – Blonde Ale)
– Blackberry IPA (4 – a dark IPA)

8) TwoGuys Brewing
Excellent reviews made this our first stop on the way into town from Chicago. Such a stereotypical hipster brewery. It used to be a convenience store from the looks of it and the tables were all wobbly and all the workers wore flannel, beards, and beanies. It was kind of adorable. The food was decent and the beers were good, but the ambiance was a bit lacking. If you’re driving past it’s not a bad spot but if you’re already in Grand Rapids you don’t need to make the trip out.

Our memorable samplings:
– Gingerbread Joe (4.5 – winter warmer – not normally my style, but good)
– TwoGuys IPA (4.5 – IPA – a very solid IPA)

9) Brewery Vivant
This brewery had a super high rating, ties to the founder of New Holland, and is in an amazing old refurbished funeral home (coooool!) – so I was psyched to go. We made the trek (a little over a mile) from downtown which was actually a really nice walk past some historical buildings. But – to be honest – we were a little disappointed.
Their beer were mostly farmhouse style and, while seemed decent, didn’t do much for us. The menu was quite small and a litte frou-frou/pricey for our tastes (think duck confit, etc).

Our memorable samplings:
– Jam Jar (3.5 – Farmhouse Ale – honestly, this reminded me of Rubeaus but… not as good)

All in all, it was a huge success and definitely a cute/fun town to visit. We were there in February so I can’t speak for outdoor options but I bet a lot of these places have them and have adapted for the social distancing requirements as well. We hope to go back to Grand Rapids soon and add to our list (even though we already earned the shirt!)

If you go, we found the Hyatt to be a solid place to stay for both comfort and location – it was very easy to walk to pretty much all these breweries and there were others in walking distance we didn’t make it to.

What did we miss that we have to make sure we get to next time?

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The Most Unique (and Best) Airbnbs in the World

I take the question of “where should we stay?” very seriously when I travel. I don’t stop at a Hilton. Like food, where you stay tells the story of a place and I make it my mission to stay in a place where I want to take a picture before I mess up the sheets. Here is my list of the most amazing and unique places I’ve stayed.

A Treehouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts

That’s right. A giant, friggin’ treehouse. SQUEE. It was roomy and so unique! Beautiful grounds, luxury inside, with a compostable toilet in the tree house and rustic outdoor shower that made it feel like real tree house living. Highly recommend!

A prison cell in Ljubljana, Slovenia

This has literally been my go-to “fun fact” about myself since 2009. Because no one believes me when I say “I’ve spent two nights in a Slovenian jail.” Not technically AirBnB but still thoroughly amaaaazing.

Hammocks Galore in Galapagos

The White House in Puerto Ayora was a delight. Tiny rooms but plenty of hammock space and such a great location. I mean, I pretty much just love the Galapagos so you probably can’t go wrong anywhere but this, THIS place is a great start.

Cloud Forest Views in Mindo, Ecuador

Las Terrazas de Dana are AMAZING. Filled with tropical plants, beautiful views, unfortgettable hikes, and food we just couldn’t get enough of. Go to Mindo because it’s beautiful, but REALLY go to Mindo because this place is to die for.

Balcony Dreams in Sinaia, Romania

Sinaia is a sleepy little ski town famous for the Peles Castle. While not the most famous castle in Romania, it’s a beautiful and wonderful little spot. The Vila Camelia was a wonderful true Bed and Breakfast with a delicious spread, gorgeous house, and I scored a beautiful top floor room with balcony that looked at the most beautiful mountain view!

The Sweetest Spot in Topanga, California

She isn’t kidding when she calls this the sweetest spot. Fluffy white blankets, comfy beds, a beautiful view – everything right down to the coffee cups are absolutely adorable. Such an amazing getaway spot – just don’t let the drive up the Canyon road intimidate you!

Dar with Beautiful Rooftop in Fez

This was such a magical place – finding it was a treasure hunt and walking inside was a breath of fresh air. It’s been a few years so I don’t know if the same staff is there but I STILL remember how delicious the chicken tagine was that we had from the cook.

The Fortress in Vermont

Okay – full disclosure – I haven’t actually stayed here. But it’s run by good friends of mine and it is on my “must go” list… and it looks AMAZING. I have no qualms promising epic views and hospitality.

Keep checking back for updates! Also – I would LOVE to hear about your favorite spots!!

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My Book-Ish Tour (In and Around) Boston

In the Summer of 2019 my husband and I took off for New England for a week. He had a Pinball Expo to attend to promote the newest game for his company which meant I had a few days to frolic around the area. That, of course, meant that I scouted out all the literary things I could find in the area and woo-boy I found some amazing things!

Boston

First off, we spent a day in Boston. We stayed in a nice little airbnb in the North End of Boston. It’s a very Italian area, super walkable and pretty centrally located. We didn’t have a lot of time in the city but racked up the miles by trotting around the area and following the Freedom Trail which is, very conveniently, marked on the sidewalks.

I’ll be honest, while I did enjoy Boston, after spending so much time traveling elsewhere – and especially a lot of time in Europe – I wasn’t overly impressed with the history. My favorite tidbits of Boston weren’t really part of the Freedom Trail. The Boston Public Library was nice to pop into with a beautiful study room (any library with long tables and green lamps wins me over)

We also kind of stumbled across two memorials that I didn’t read anything about in my copious Boston Tour Book research that felt very powerful to me. The first we found was the Iraq-Afghanistan Memorial which had hanging dog tags. It was a beautiful and moving way to capture the numbers.

The second was the Holocaust Memorial which was easily the most moving I have ever seen. The tall glass columns were filled with steam and name after name after name. Being able to step into the grating and be immersed in the sensation was… emotional. Don’t miss this if you make it to Boston.

Holocaust memorial

Cape Cod/Plymouth

After Boston we spent a couple days exploring Cape Cod and stayed in what can only be described as one of the coolest places I’ve EVER slept – an EPIC tree house in Plymouth. It was both luxurious and rustic and since it wasn’t quite on Cape Cod proper we didn’t have a crazy amount of traffic to deal with either. Honestly – I could have stayed there a week. The local spots were adorable and the tree house was a dream.

From there, we went up to Sturbridge for the pinball expo and HERE is where it start to get bookish. I waved good-bye and popped into a number of drool-worthy places for the literary inclined.

Concord, Massachusetts

It was a blisteringly hot day when I made my way to Concord, but I didn’t let it stop me. I parked downtown and walked down to the Minute Man National Park which was a lovely place to stroll through and read a little history. The town is famous for Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who wrote “the shot heard round the world”), and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

After walking the park, I found a couple websites that directed me to the cemetery where I could creep on/pay my respects to these literary heroes. It was a nice detour walk back into town.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I popped into a number of shops in the adorable little town proper but my absolute favorite was Nesting. I don’t usually go bananas about little shops (honestly, I get intimidated by almost any place that isn’t a coffee shop or book store) but I felt comfortable in the twists and turns of this adorable beige and tan beauty. Definitely check it out if you are there – LOTS of cards and journals.

Before leaving town I knew I needed to find my way to Walden. It was mysteriously closed in the morning so I waited in a gigantic line. The parking lots were huge and the place was packed – which, for me, was a bit tongue in cheek given why it was famous. I almost turned around, worried the magic would be gone, but decided I would make good on my entry fee and found a path that circled the lake.

Walden Pond

While it certainly wasn’t the peaceful wilderness that Thoreau experienced, it is a truly gorgeous lake and I’m glad I stopped. The walk around the lake was pleasant but you could easily bring your swim suit and spend an afternoon – just be prepared to share the space if it’s a nice day.

The park did a great job highlighting where Thoreau was and there were a few literary gawkers there like me and not just sunbathers.

Hartford, Connecticut

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mark Twain and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see his home in Hartford. The drive from Sturbridge was an easy one and I got to check off another state from my to-do list as well.

I got into Hartford early and planned to pop into a coffee shop for some writing and reading. I went to Blue State Coffee as they promised to donate 2% to democratic initiatives. The brew was tasty but, I’ll be honest, the downtown area where I needed to park and walk was not pleasant. I was nervous to leave my rental car where I did at 9am and Blue State overall had a cold atmosphere. I had hoped to walk around downtown Hartford but ended up getting my coffee, writing a journal entry, and heading to the house.

The Mark Twain House was a delight and well worth the drive to Hartford. The tour was expertly done. The information about Twain was super interesting but, even more, the house itself was awesome and fascinating. Very beautiful and unique with a top-notch gift shop.

I didn’t get the chance to visit the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and center as I ran out of time but it’s literally on the same grounds, which is super neat. I did pop into the gift shop which was full of feminist loveliness.

All in all

I had a lovely time bopping around the area and finding book-ish things to do. I can’t report on any really great coffee shops unfortunately (I went to a few but didn’t LOVE any of them). I also wish I could have gone up to Salem or a few other key historical spots. But if you’re in the area, I highly recommend the places I’ve highlighted here!

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Reading between the Wines – our Top Book Club Books (a never ending list)

Choosing a book for Book Club is a lot harder than it sounds. You want something people are going to enjoy but also something to talk about. Easier said than done.

Our Book Club – “Reading between the Wines” (which is, yes, the most adorable name on the planet and one I cannot claim to have come up with myself) has been in progress for ~5 years. Here is a list of the (mostly) unanimous great books that led to even better discussions.

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Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This is a beautiful book to make you laugh and cry and gives a LOT of fodder for discussion!

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Verity by Colleen Hoover
Honestly, it’s not common for our books to have a viseral reaction. Some of us will gush or dislike a book, but generally we accept good as good and move on. This book, however, will change you. For the better? … Probably not. But MAN does it make for great conversation.

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Becoming by Michelle Obama
We tend to do fiction but this was such a beautiful and timely book and one we all wanted to read. It also led to a lot of amazing discussion about what we knew, what we thought we knew, and more.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Honestly, chick list/rom com type of books don’t often play well in book club (at least not ours). They are often met with “I liked it!” and then crickets. But Eleanor packs just enough of a punch that we had a lively conversation about it in addition to generally enjoying it.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
So, it certainly helps that at least 2/3 of our book club are in love with Trevor. But, that aside, this book is as fantastic as it is memorable as it is eye opening. It’s easy to spend plenty of time combing through this book and chatting about his life growing up.

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Beartown by Fredrik Backman
This was a bit of a stretch for our little group but it nestled in quite comfortably. There are a lot of pieces to this novel and topics to pick out and dissect. And a sequel to boot (we read that too!)

What should our next book club book be?

This list is ever expanding so come back to see the latest top recommendations!

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The BEST Mystery Novels and Series (an ever expanding list)

The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1)
Robert Galbraith

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If you want to hear about (one of) my most recommended books – it’s this one, right here. This series blew me away. I don’t know what I expected but what I got was amazing characters, truly interesting mysteries and a perfect balance of both. Even if mysteries aren’t typically your “thing” pick this up!

A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1)
Deanna Raybourn

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Can’t help it, guys, I love these books. I actually started this series on book #4 and was smitten with it. Here are some of my favorite things about this series:
1) The language – I am certain that Raybourn has a BLAST writing these books. The time period allows her to be flowery, even overly so. She uses the subtleties of archaic language to say the most absurd and downright naughty things. I constantly find myself giggling at it.
2) The play with time – I love how these books are set in the 1800s but the protagonist doesn’t quite fit. She is a protagonist of the now and her witty remarks are gold in these stories
3) The partnership – Stoker and Veronica are adorable and make me snicker-giggle constantly.

The story itself is lovely as well, but it’s really about the people and the writing. I’ve enjoyed the stories immensely. 

Caravan
Dorothy Gilman

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I’ve read this book twice now and it is truly incredible. It has everything – every twist and turn you can imagine. It’s the story of a young girl told by an old one where you can feel the truth of it but with the knowing eye of an old woman looking back. This is a book where horrible, terrible things can happen to the characters and somehow you still want their lives. This book is magic wrapped up in one neat little package and now I can’t say anything else without just positively gushing.

Gilman is a forgotten rock star of mysteries and I recommend this one AND all Mrs. Polifax!

City of the Lost (Rockton #1)
Kelley Armstrong

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I took a risk on buying this book with only a short synopsis read. I was very pleasantly surprised. It has a truly interesting and unique premise, a great main character, solid support characters, and some really interesting stories. The best part was that I legitimately didn’t know where the story was going – not when it came to friends, love interests, what was going to happen next, or, of course, “who dun it.” The whole series is a great read.

The Chestnut Man
Søren Sveistrup

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Complex without being confusing, unique without being unbelievable, and horrifying without being gross. Great characters who have enough of their own issues to be interesting but not so much so that they are distracting. I truly didn’t guess the ending. 

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars #1)
Rob Thomas

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So, so many reasons to love this book. Let me list them for you!
1) Veronica Mars – anyone who has watched the series (and it’s horrible mid-cancellation) practically wets themselves when there is anything new that comes out. It’s with good reason. All the new Veronica Mars stuff has been fan-tastic.
2) The audio book is read by Kristen Bell – okay, this time I did wet myself. No shame.
3) It’s actually a good story – the book reads just like an episode; and I mean that in a good way. It’s fast-paced with a good mixture of characterization and crime action. The story keeps you guessing but doesn’t put you in the dark either. It was a quick read without being skimpy.

Sex, Murder, and a Double Latte (Sophie Katz Murder Mystery #1)
Kyra Davis

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This book is what I love about chick-lit. It’s silly and sassy and exciting and a read that you can breeze through in just a few days. I’m a firm believer that a story you can get sucked into – silly or not – is a fun story. Yes, this is dated and I don’t really have a thing for Russians – but I am glad I picked up this book.

I would love your recommendations for what else should be on this list!

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