Book Review: A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck

Are you ready to have your heart broken and then slowly put back together piece by piece? That’s what Jared Reck does in A Short History of the Girl Next Door and I loved it!  

A Short History of the Girl Next Door

The book unfolded in three distinct parts for me:

Part 1: Protagonist Matt Wainwright details his life growing up with Tabby, the girl next door, and how he came to fall in love with her. This part of the book is filled with glimpses into the male psyche and what it’s like to fall in love as a 15 year old boy. As the mother/stepmother of boys, I found it fascinating and (I imagine) very true to life. I loved witnessing Matt’s neuroses as he grows both physically and emotionally with Tabby. Trigger alert: this part of the book is particularly sweary. I had no problem with it as I needed it to be true to the make adolescent mind and I strongly suspect that F-bombs abound there but, if swear words are problematic for you or you don’t want your tweens/teens reading them, this book is a hard pass for you!

Part 2: I struggled with this third of the book. It seemed to revolve into a lot of dithering and whining for Matt and frankly, I almost gave up on him. Reck may have dragged the internal dialogue on a little too long for me but I stuck with it and was rewarded: the climax of the book happens 3/4 of the way in. No spoilers but Matt’s life is changed dramatically and we the incredible internal struggle he faces in dealing with that turn of events. All in all, this 1/3 of the book was (minus the piece of action) entirely too internal for me. I’m truly glad I stuck with it though because…

Part 3: We get to see Matt come to terms with his ‘new normal.’ Matt’s adjustment in this portion of the book is well-written and heartwarming but not the highlight. Reck creates characters that are so well-defined and important to Matt that I was truly invested in them. Watching the ways that they cane together to impact Matt’s healing was one of the best part’s if the book. Scenes with Grandpa Wainwright, Murray and Mr. Ellis left me checking my mascara and I love a book that can wring me out emotionally.

Bonus points: Reck makes several references to one of my favorite YA books of all time…The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Really, if you haven’t read it…read Matt’s story and then go buy it immediately!

Overall, I loved this book and am very happy that I invested my tune to read it. It’s filled with laughs, tears, relationships and sports. It’s YA (and you know I love me some YA) but doesn’t condescend to the reader or devolve into ‘meet cute.’ I would recommend A Short History of the Girl Next Door to anyone who needs to feel all the feels!

Book Review: Learning to See by Elise Hooper

I’m so excited to finally have an opportunity review Learning to See by Elise Hooper for you! I finished it last night and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Learning to See

While I have not yet had a chance to read The Other Alcott (Hooper’s first novel,) I’ve been told that it’s an amazing study of a woman overlooked by history. I expected no less from Learning to See and I was not disappointed.

Learning to See is the fictionalized account of the life of Dorothea Lange, a famous documentary photographer from during the Great Depression. Going into the book, I knew nothing of Lange and wasn’t sure I was going to be excited about what promised to be an inspiring story set during a pretty dismal time period. Fortunately for me, I was pretty blown away by what I encountered.

Lange, as portrayed by Hooper, is a tough, determined, young woman who appears on the 1920’s photography scene. She comes to California from New Jersey to escape her disappointing childhood and establishes herself quickly among great artists who were familiar to me, though I had never heard of Lange herself. Lange’s story is peppered with references to the likes of Ansel Adams and Frida Kahlo and those characterizations helped greatly in setting the scene for Lange and helping to set her style and focus apart from others of her time.

Hooper’s depictions of San Franciso prior to, during and after The Great Depression are breathtaking…you can feel yourself caught up in the heyday that comprises the California that Lange enters and the encroaching dread as the country begins to slide into one of the most depressing and heartbreaking periods we have ever known.

I was most amazed by Hooper’s characterization of Lange as feminist. Our ideas about feminism today seem philosophical to me…being a feminist is about holding a certain set of beliefs. Lange, on the other hand, may have had no idea what it meant to believe in feminism but simply embodied it in pursuit of family, independence, love, career and influence. Parts of Lange’s story are absolutely painful to read as the reality of her time and place in history are so well wrought by Hooper.

There was a great deal I didn’t know The Depression…Hooper does an amazing job of describing the state of our country through Lange’s interviews and photographs and drawing a picture that is as breathtaking as it haunting. Hooper depicts Lange’s choices throughout her life…those that are both admirable and questionable…and leaves you both aghast and angry at the obstacles she faced and hopeful for a world with women like her in it.

If you like sharply drawn characters and a strong sense of place and time…and don’t mind making the trek up and down the emotional scale with your protagonist, Hooper’s Learning to See is a great choice for a 384 page adventure!

The ups and downs of modeling

As many of you know, I’ve was super excited to be hired as a First Fit model for Gwynnie Bee beginning in January. As a FF model, I go ‘on set’ on Fridays and have my picture taken by a professional photographer in 15-20 outfits that will be made available on the GB website for rental. After the photo is shot, I write a short review of the piece to indicate how it fit on me and whether or not I would recommend it. It’s been a blast! What more could I ask for? Writing and clothes? Yes, please!

I’ve had a ball! 90% of the pieces I’m asked to try on are gorgeous and I love wearing them. The staff and photographers at Gwynnie Bee are super supportive and helpful and the camaraderie between models is one of the highlights. I’ve loved seeing my pictures come out 3x per week and have yet to be more than a tiny bit embarrassed by how I look in any of the shots! The feedback I’ve gotten has been terrific: I hear from people all the time who truly appreciate me putting myself out there so that they can see how the clothes really fit! And, it’s super exciting when a picture of me that I’m really proud of gets posted! (See photo above.)

Of course, there is a little bit of pressure involved in the gig. I worry that I’ll look awkward in the photos or that people will judge my appearance or published measurements. We each come to the shoot ‘hair and makeup’ ready so that our pictures reflect our daily look…not some rendition of us concocted by professionals! So, it’s ‘on me’ to make sure I’m having a good hair day and my blemishes are well-concealed!

And then, of course, there are THOSE pieces of clothing. Sometimes it’s just a style (boho!) that I wouldn’t normally wear IRL but that’s no big deal. Occasionally however, there’s a piece that I just don’t know what to do with! It’s not attractive to me or the fit is all wrong…the colors make me look horrible or my lumps and bumps show. Sometimes, a single dress will get passed to 3-4 models before we find someone who can actually pull it off. Amongst the models on set, we giggle and make fun of whoever has to wear that piece but I take the responsibility very seriously! Some designer has created this dress and, trust me…I’ve seen it in my jewelry business, there’s a buyer for everything! So I don the offending piece, giggle along with the other models and do my very best to rock it! Some of what I consider my ‘biggest wins’ are pictures of ‘difficult’ garments that turn out well! (See pic below)

There’s a lot to learn for a fit model, too. Most of us are not trained models and ideas about what poses look good don’t always come naturally. Luckily, our photographer has been an incredible teacher. He coaxes, praises and instructs to get the very best of each of us! I bet you’ve never even considered how hard it is to make it look like you are walking normally when given 5 feet in which to do it!

I get excited every time I get an email from Gwynnie Bee scheduling me for the next shoot. I take it as a sign that I am doing a good job and meeting their needs. Moreover though, I take it as another opportunity to thoroughly enjoy myself and ‘rock’ some amazing clothes so Gwynnie Bee customers like me can pick the most flattering pieces for them!

Jed and the Junkyard War

Couldn’t wait to share with you what came in my Middle Grade Book Drop box this month! Spencer and I are so excited to read this one: the cover art reminds us of The Fog Diver which has been one of our absolute favorite middle grade reads of all time! We positioned it in the windowsill with two of our other favorites and added an extra picture to show you the adorable little bookmark that came with it!  

Jed and the Junkyard War

We’ll keep you posted as we read…I’ll post a review here soon!

Follow your bliss!

I was lucky enough to receive yet another ARC from The Book Drop and couldn’t wait to share it with you! Look at that amazing turquoise cover with the cut-out! This is one of those books I would buy for the cover color alone! (I’m like that!)

It’s called Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyum and it’s about a divorced, internationally renowned economist who is the divorced father of three. He has an accident and awakens to the idea that life is short and thus begins a journey to ‘follow his bliss!’ I love a good transformation story and can’t wait to find out what happens to Professor Chandra. I could use some inspiration to follow MY bliss! I’ll keep you posted!  

The Book Drop


As you can tell by my post yesterday about Gwynnie Bee, when I find a brand or service that I particularly love, I’m particularly loyal and especially vocal about it!  As many of you know, there are few things I love as much as reading and surprises…so The Book Drop from Bethany Beach Books has been a godsend for the past 4 years!  I pay a very small fee ($8 for Middle Grade, $10.99 for YA and $16.99 for Adult selections) each month and receive a mailer with an amazing book (and often a couple of little goodies) inside!  I’m always thrilled with the books that The Book Drop chooses and have never received a book that I already own!  I love the surprise (surprise(s)…I subscribe to all three boxes!) every month and love sinking into a fresh, new paperback even more!  A couple of months back, The Book Drop took applications for Brand Ambassadors and I just knew I had to apply!  I’d been a loyal customer for so long and had loved the service so much that I relished the opportunity to tell others how great it is.  In January, I was accepted for the team and have been given an amazing opportunity to share The Book Drop with you!  As a Brand Ambassador, I receive (one of) my boxes for free every month in exchange for posting about the book I receive.  Additionally, I may be surprised at other times during the month by receiving an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of a book that the Book Drop thinks I might particularly like.  I’m not obligated to read or write about those books but so far, I’ve been blown away by those selections as well!

The book I’m giving you a sneak peak of today is an ARC I received on Friday.  It’s Middle Grade, and if you’ve read anything else I’ve posted or heard me on the Modern Mrs. Darcy podcast, you probably know that Spencer and I obsessively read together every day!  We’re currently in the middle of The Mysterious Benedict Society for the second time but are now chomping at the bit to start this one too!


The Book I’m sharing today is Tin, by Padraig  Kenny.  It has a 3.82 rating (quite good!) on Goodreads.  From what I’m able to gather so far, it’s the story of a ‘real’ boy (Christopher) who lives in a steampunk world and becomes friends with a number of ‘mechanicals.’  A devastating accident occurs that changes Christopher’s life and sends him on an amazing and riveting (see what I did there?) adventure!  It sounds like so much fun and a little reminiscent of The Fog Diver…a book we received from The Book Drop a couple of years back and ADORED!

I can’t wait to read it and will absolutely post more when I do.  But, for now, two things:

1) Tin releases on Tuesday, March 26th so head over to or your local independent bookstore to grab a copy!

2) Sign up for The Book Drop yourself…and get 10% off by using my code:  MAMAPANDA at check out.

I’ll be posting lots more ‘book stuff’ here in the near future so subscribe to my blog to be notified when more goodies appear!

Rockin’ It!

Its been a little while since I last posted and a lot of things have happened!  Perhaps most surprisingly, I’ve become a model!  I know, right?  I’ve been a customer of Gwynnie Bee for nearly five years and have loved having the opportunity to ‘rent’ my clothes.  Since I had surgery in 2011 for an ovarian tumor, my weight has bounced all over the place and Gwynnie Bee has served me well for two reasons:

1) I always think I’m going to lose the weight so I don’t want to invest in new clothes, and

2) Gwynnie Bee provides amazing name brand fashions in ‘all the sizes!’  I’m able to get pieces that are equally as beautiful when I’m a 20w as I can when I’m a 12!

The story is this:  it’s Netflix for women’s clothing!  They release new styles on their website every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  I choose the pieces I like and put them in my ‘closet.’  I pay for a monthly subscription (the plan I choose includes 3 rotating pieces per month) and they send me three items from those I have closeted.  I wear them, don’t wash them and put them in the purple bag prepaid return mailer and put them in my mailbox.  As soon as they receive one piece, they send out something else from my closet!  That goes on for the month!  If I’m efficient about returning my pieces quickly, I can get 9-12 pieces a month!

As I said, I love the service.  One of the things I’ve loved most is that every time they post a new piece, they show it on a regular model and then two ‘First Fit Review’ models.  The models are of various sizes and they write a short review of how they felt about the piece and how it fit!  It’s a huge help in deciding what might look good on me!

Well, in November, I got an email saying that Gwynnie Bee was casting for ‘First Fit’ models in Columbus.  I modeled and was in pageants as a child and young woman and must have been having a good hair day the day I got the email cause I thought, ‘I can do that!’  I sent in an application and was called in for a casting call.  By December, I was hired and in January started shooting on a real set with a real photographer!  The experience has been amazing!  I love getting to try on all the fashions and love even more that I’m putting myself out there to help someone else find a style that will make her feel beautiful!  I happen to love the picture I included above…my husband says I look ‘sassy’ and that makes me happy!

If you’d like to check out Gwynnie Bee for yourself, go to of #GwynnieBee for a free month, on me!

It’s a great company and a terrific service!

Hey! Where’d she go?

January 2010, Facebook:  ‘My little guy came home from school today and his daily sheet said that he had been very sweet and wiped the tears of a friend who was crying. I told him, “Spencer…Mommy is so proud of you. Your teachers said that you were very nice today and wiped your friend’s tears when he was sad.” He said, “Yes…I pushed him and he cried. Then, I wiped his tears.” Well…’

Sorry for my absence, folks!  Between the holidays, a new job and an upcoming vacation to Disney…blogging has fallen by the wayside!  I promise though…I’ll be back in late January with more posts about PANDAS, favorite books and more anecdotes from the life of Mama Panda and company!  Can’t wait to tell you more about my life as a stepmom!

Stay tuned!

That’s ME! What Should I Read Next? Episode 106


What Should I Read Next? Episode 106

I’m honored to have been asked to participate in Anne Bogel’s amazing podcast:  What Should I Read Next?  I’ve been a huge fan for a couple of years and have listened to every episode so I was incredibly excited to get to be Anne’s guest for Episode 106.  We talk about my reading life, how I read with The Dude and Anne makes recommendations for what we can read next…together!  I hope you’ll tune in.  If you are a book lover or you have kids who love books…this is a great podcast for you!  Let me know what you think and feel free to leave any recommendations that YOU might have for me in the comments here or on Anne’s site!