OOTD: Bundled up in plaid

I've found surprisingly great accessories at Walmart while taking advantage of sales on Green Mountain K-Cups. My favorite necklace, which I'm wearing here, is something my mom gave me that she got there. And I got this blanket scarf (similar, way more expensive) and belt there and love the cozy look when I drape it over my shoulders and belt it. My top is from Old Navy, I'm wearing Liverpool Madonna leggings (which are DIVINE and soft and stretchy and high-waisted and make my butt look interstellar-good) that I got at Trunk Shows Boutique, a super cute shop in Pittsburgh, and my beloved Tieks.

After I took my pictures, I realized the belt looked much better with the end hidden in a knot, so here's what that looks like and a slightly closer look at the necklace. The belt is reversible, so yeah. Walmart and accessories. Who knew?


FOTD: Falsified information

Because I just got contacts, I decided to bust out the fake eyelashes. It had been a while since I wore lashes, but it's just like riding a bike. Which I actually can't really do all that well so that's a bad comparison.

This pair is from Ardell Professional's Natural line (similar, a bit more spiky). I bought two sets of Ardell lashes, and the ones where each hair is the same length looked silly on me. For whatever reason, I find the spiky lashes more flattering and natural, which is counterintuitive.

I love the way these make my eyes look huge and youthful and glamorous. They just make the rest of the makeup that much more special. I used the CoverGirl TruNaked Roses palette, a dupe for Urban Decay Naked 3 that I've been loving, Revlon ColorStay foundation, my favorite Elf blush in Pink Passion, Kat Von D Ink Liner in Trooper and Revlon Ultra HD Lip Lacquer in Garnet.

Boom. Lashes, baby.

Shocker: I fell in love with a white bodycon dress


Never in a million years would I have imagined loving a stretchy, white, poured-over-you bodycon dress. I have way too many body insecurities for that. But the Pixley Clora dress I got from Stitch Fix is so perfect for me (Psst... That's a referral link. If you sign up with it, I get $25 off my next box.) I love the material. It's stretchy but thick, therefore forgiving of lady lumps. It covers the top of my arms, which I don't love to flaunt, and is a comfortable length. And it has a gorgeous graphic print that really plays up my curves.

I styled it with my 41Hawthorn cardigan, also from Stitch Fix, tights and my favorite new riding boots from Target. Perfectly casual yet polished for work and kinda glams up my edgy-librarian aesthetic I've been leaning into. It looks excellent with a leather jacket, or worn with a pullover so it just looks like a skirt. I love that I can make it casual or super formal or smoking hot and ready for a night out.

The only thing that would make it more perfect is if it were machine washable. A girl can dream, right?


On the struggle bus

I want to be this.

But usually, I feel like this.

I'm dealing with a LOT right now. Working like crazy, stressing out, dealing with triggers that are flaring up a lot of my Issues. I was going to write a longer post, but I don't really feel like that's necessary. I kind of just wanted to come to this space, because I know that some people (miraculously) are still interested and still read it, to say that, yeah, this blog is still a thing, I've just been really busy and dealing with a lot and not feeling inspired. I can't promise that will change anytime soon, and if I post, it may continue to be sporadic.

But thank you for reading. I appreciate you. I'm going to try to let the strongest part of me run the show, so send me a good thought if you want so I can make that happen.

And maybe also throw in a good thought for me getting a tropical vacation sometime soon. Because I could use some sunlight and Blue Hawaiians and listening to the ocean while I read a trashy book.


NaNo-M-Effing-WriMo, or, I'm procrastinating right now

Two years ago, I participated in earnest in National Novel Writing Month. I didn't make it anywhere near the 50,000 word goal, but I wrote the most I'd ever written for one project, with gusto and a sincere desire to turn all my ideas into something beautiful, funny, touching, tragic and compelling.

Two years later, that same novel isn't done. But I've been working on it, haltingly. I want to use NaNoWriMo as incentive to finish it. I seem to write more in my head than anywhere else. All the ideas flow freely until I'm sitting at my MacBook. I sit here and every possible insecurity surfaces. How do I do this? How do I write something people would read? How do I create fully realized characters with believable motivations, build and destroy said relationships, navigate them through hardships and all the twisted scenarios I envision? How do I put these damn words that are an amorphous blob in my head into something with a beginning, middle and end?

I have about a hundred pages and lots of fragments I want to work in later in the chronology. You know what's hard to write, harder than the virtual reality therapy scenes I'm trying to make happen? Capturing a relationship. It's easy to fall in love. It's hard to take that insanity and passion, or flirtation and evasion, or slow, easy soul melding, and make two characters you're still trying to figure out do it in a way that will resonate and that feels organic. All I keep thinking is, do I know Stella? Do I know Zach? Would they really fall in love with each other? And how? It's so hard to show that. It's not enough to just put two people in a scene and take their clothes off. I want more than that. I want readers to feel it and be convinced and root for these people even if they're being terrible to each other.

And my book is, or I want it to be, about so much more than a couple. I want to write a book that will speak to anyone who has struggled with mental illness. That will resonate with the people who feel like this whole damn world should come with a trigger warning. Who love so hard that it makes them go crazy. I want to write something filled with hope but devoid of easy answers. Something darkly funny. Something that says something about friendship, trauma, picking yourself back up, feeling like a fraud, finding a way to feel authentic. I want to include diverse characters. White, black, Hispanic, straight, gay, old, young, rich, poor. And I want a protagonist that will make people go, "YAS QUEEN!" even when she's a monster because they just GET HER.

I have so many ambitions and just collapse under the weight of them and find myself only able to write a handful of words before I'm just disgusted with myself.

So yeah. I'm trying to write a realistic, heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful love story that's also an insightful commentary on the stigma of mental illness, a meditation on finding one's identity, and a speculative romp through virtual worlds. Plus I want to have lots of pretty words that you'll want to highlight on your Kindle. And I want to finish this impossible book two on-and-off years in the making in the next month, even though I've taken up a side hustle on top of my fairly stressful job and a bunch of other stuff I've got going on. Why? Because I'm a crazy person.

So, um, wish me luck? And good luck to all the people doing NaNoWriMo this year. You are all beautiful, inspirational and out of your brilliant minds.


A Very Ms. Marvel Halloween

I dressed up as Ms. Marvel for Halloween.

Not this Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers.

Who later switched to a more efficient getup as Captain Marvel.

But rather this one, my girl Kamala Khan.

I've read three volumes of Ms. Marvel starring Kamala and I'm obsessed. Beyond being a huge step forward for diversity as Marvel's first Muslim-American superhero, and beyond being a super cool shapeshifting badass who happens to have the kindest, gentlest heart, she's just so real. She has complicated relationships with her friends and classmates, she gets crushes, she butts heads with her parents, she's struggling to find out who she is, she's learning how to stand strong in her values while realizing that sometimes there's no easy solution (like her mentor Wolverine told her, sometimes you can't avoid causing pain to defeat an enemy who would cause others pain, because the pain has to go somewhere).

I got the pieces for my costume at Wal-Mart and Target. I already had the red shirt, and I ordered the boots from I made the lightning bolt with duct tape. I think the effect is pretty uncanny. I was excited to tell my co-workers who don't know about Ms. Marvel her backstory (any excuse to nerd out is great) and I was even more excited by the couple of people who got my costume right away.

Not me making that peace sign, although it sure looks like it.

Definitely was a fan of this costume vs. the last time I dressed up as Wendy Testaburger from South Park and was stunned that no one got it.


OOTD: Plaid and stars

There are a million ways I want to style this Comfort by Margaret M faux leather skirt that I splurged on from my second Fix (disclosure: link is a referral link, and if you sign up, I'm credited $25). One idea I like is wearing it over dresses that I think are too short for fall. This time, I chose to wear it with my well-loved plaid Eddie Bauer shirt I got at an outlet, novelty star tights over Target fleece-lined tights and my Tieks. Under the shirt, I wore my American Apparel velvet crop top. Why a crop top? To minimize the bulk under the skirt, since I already have a tucked-in shirt and two pairs of tights (warmth over style, but not by too much!).

I think I got these tights at a Halloween store years ago and never wore them. It's amazing what you can discover when you actually look through your underwear drawer.

I wore my J. Crew hard candy necklace to echo the pink of the ballet flats.

This outfit really works for me because I love to mix patterns and textures. The silhouette is sophisticated and work-appropriate, but it's fun and colorful and me.

On my lips, I'm wearing MAC liner in Brick under Urban Decay Revolution gloss in Assassin.


A few home decor details

I want to share a few snapshots of home decor details. Our new rental is the nicest place we've lived in Pittsburgh, and I've been in a real nesting mood with the extra space, especially in my writing room/vanity area/library.

Paintings above my writing desk

Owl lamp from Wal-Mart
The funny devotional candle was from a metaphysical bookstore in Santa Fe, N.M.,
and the Tobacco & Patchouli candle was from Barnes & Noble.

I got these Ohuhu makeup storage drawers on Amazon

Eric found this jewelry armoire at a thrift shop, and I store my perfumes on top

Living room accent wall

My sworn enemy
Wood tiles from World Market. These lamps were a dingy white until Eric spray-painted them

Ektorp couch is from Ikea. The throw and the outer pillows are from Wal-Mart,
and the inner pillows are from World Market

Accent wall accent under the stairs, and a dancing fella
Handknit and Harry Potter


2015 Reading Challenge: In the home stretch

I set out to read 45 books this year, and I'm down to 5. So many surprisingly delightful reads have inhabited space in my brain this year, so I thought I'd run down some observations.


FOTD: Muchos besos

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso is quickly resurfacing in my collection and becoming my favorite red. It's matte, bold and the tone is so flattering to my skin tone and, I think, would be universally flattering. To get a clean line, I used my MAC Brick lip liner, which is a bit deeper.

I think a bold rep lip looks great with a brown smoky eye. It's less severe than black, and more stepped up and glamorous than my usual simple black winged liner. I used the Naked Smoky palette, with the shade Whiskey all over the lid, Combust in the crease, Radar over the outside half, and Dirtysweet in the inner half. I kept it in the Urban Decay family with Demolition 24/7 Glide-On liner. A bold look isn't finished without strong brows, and my trusty NYX Auto Eyebrow Pencil in Charcoal did the job beautifully.


Stitch Fix style: First fix, three ways

Disclosure: Links are referral links. If you sign up for Stitch Fix through the link, I get a $25 credit that benefits my wardrobe and wallet!

Everyone I know has been trying Stitch Fix, so I was waiting eagerly and watching tons of unboxing videos on YouTube until my first box was delivered. 

A primer for the uninitiated: Stitch Fix is a site where you fill out a detailed survey about your personal style, body type, and what kind of clothes you like or need. Then, a stylist sends you five items they think you'll love. You try them on, keep and pay for what you want, and send the rest back in a prepaid envelope. A $20 styling fee that you pay if you send it all back is deducted if you buy something. So, if you keep $100 worth of clothes, it'll cost $80, and if you keep none of the clothes, it's $20 for the styling and shipping.

I kept the Everly Elzada Dress ($54) and the 41Hawthorn Abrianna Longsleeve Knit Cardigan ($48) in this gorgeous jewel of a purple. I'm so excited to wear the cardigan with everything, and the dress is exactly my style: fitted but without showing a lot of skin, with a perfect-length flare skirt and a great variegated fabric.

The first look is just the dress with leggings and my trusty biker boots. I think of this as edgy but glamorous. I like the contrast of the boots and the sparkly statement necklace, and the dress is the perfect anchor piece.

The second look just adds the cardigan, and it's instantly artsy and eclectic. The drape on the cardigan is amazing. It skims my back and doesn't look baggy at all, but it leaves room in the front so it can sort of mask your midsection if you had pasta for lunch. And it's so soft with impossibly thin and luxurious material.

The third look is funky and feminine. I tied the ends of the cardigan around my waist, swapped out the boots for booties, and added a chunky floral necklace.

Overall, I'd consider my first fix a grand success, and can't wait to see what my stylist comes up with next.


OOTD: Fall color

Jacket, H&M | Shirt, J. Crew | Skull dress, Hot Topic | Tights, Wal-Mart | Shoes, Clarks | Scarf, handmade
My wardrobe is full of bright colors, so fall style for me is about transitioning how I layer, not what shades I drape myself in. I just love a bright, especially in the dreary weather.

I like outfits that are decidedly feminine but not too delicate. My skull dress frequently gets mistaken for a floral or paisley until someone inspects it further, and there's something very Hocus Pocus witchy about my conservative (super super comfortable) shoes. And of course, a leather jacket toughens it up and ties everything together.

I was disappointed in these tights. I was stoked that they were less than $5 at Wal-Mart, but even though they're supposedly fleeced (read: they aren't), they're basically slightly thicker pantyhose, not super opaque and have weird seams up the butt. But. They work with this dress, so there's that.

My style can be kind of young, so I like some sophisticated touches, like these leaf earrings I'm pretty sure were from Little Black Bag. 

This scarf is a knitting project I just finished. I adapted it from this pattern and instead of doing equal-sized stripes, I just freestyled. I love being able to create a custom garment and feel that sense of pride when I get a compliment and can respond, "Thanks! I made it!"

One thing I'm mindful of in the fall is that when I dress in layers, I want to still be in a cohesive outfit when I remove layers. I like how the gold buttons on my shirt echo the clasps on my shoes and my earrings.


Book series review: "His Fair Assassin" trilogy by Robin LaFevers

Two words: assassin nuns.

I didn't need much more to sell me on the premise of the His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers. Daughters of Mortain, the god of death, serve him by training in a convent in espionage, seduction, poisons and weaponry, and in the course of their work influence the course of Breton politics in the late 1400s. They are, aside from the sisters behaving badly, very historically accurate and provide a window to an interesting time and place in history centered on the fraught rise of Duchess Anne of Brittany.

Each book has a different narrator with a distinctive voice, yet the interconnected characters and plots as well as the excellent world building make the novels feel cohesive. I raced through the series and loved each book in a different way.

Grave Mercy — Narrated by Ismae, who was rescued from a violent arranged marriage following a childhood full of rage and neglect, this one reads like Pride and Prejudice with poisoned hair accessories and crossbows. Ismae's story is about devotion and agency. Unquestioning in her service to the convent of Mortain, she's faced with doubts about her faith and how best to worship when she's ordered to kill the man who, despite her initial disdain for him and her charge to pose as his lover, has stolen her heart.

But don't expect a sappy, cheesy love story. Not with quotes like, “I comfort myself with the knowledge that if Duval ever feels smothered by me, it will be because I am holding a pillow over his face.”

This is the one with the most court intrigue. But any boredom or confusion from the politics were soothed by the kickass descriptions of Ismae's many deadly accoutrements.

Dark Triumph — This is the one with the most swashbuckling. It's narrated by Sybella, who has had without a doubt the worst life out of the trio she forms with Ismae and Annith. Sybella is a badass hardened by the most heartbreaking and unrelenting personal traumas a human being could possibly endure. I don't want to spoil her storyline, but here's a blanket trigger warning. Trigger warning. Any trauma you've ever had, or if you're just a sympathetic human being, you will be triggered AF by Sybella's history and inspired by her strength, even if it isn't the warm and fuzzy kind you get from shows on Oprah's network.

Sybella also has a romance, and it's pretty unconventional and swoon-worthy. Not at all as unconventional as Annith's coming up in Part 3, but still, it's a definite odd-coupling that works.

Mortal Heart — Annith's story is the one with the most "What the hell just happened?!" twists. Raised in the convent since she was a baby, Annith is formidable and ready to serve her god, but she's been held back while younger and less prepared girls are sent out, some to their deaths. When the twisty abbess of the convent tells her she's being groomed to be the Seeress, the oracle who guides the convent and never leaves its walls, Annith runs away with little in the way of a plan other than not accepting such an anticlimactic and restrictive fate.

This is also the book with the most supernatural content. We learn a lot more about the mythology of the old gods and meet the Hellequin, riders of Death who gather up wandering souls and escort them to the other side. It's riding with the Hellequin that she meets Balthazaar, a dashing and mysterious individual you won't forget.

This book reunites all three girls, and I would have loved to see more of their friendship and where they all end up. A lot of loose ends are tied and the conclusion is satisfying, but it left me wishing there was another book, or a spinoff that focused on some of the other convents that serve the remaining gods. I would have loved to see more of the servants of Arduinna, the goddess of love's sharp bite. They were basically a bunch of Xena Warrior Princesses. Or a comedy about Salonius, the god of mistakes.

I would without reservation recommend this series. Even the parts that drag pay off, and there's steak under the sizzle of that insane and glorious premise.


First impressions review: A week in Tieks

When I first saw Tieks in a Pinterest ad (a plague on your house, Pinterest, you temptress), I fell in love. The company says it has reinvented the ballet flat. Foldable yet sturdy flats with brilliant teal soles and supple Italian leather. So many gorgeous, vibrant brights, creative prints and classic neutrals.

I spent several months debating whether I could ever justify spending $175 on a pair of shoes, especially ballet flats. Ballet flats are, counterintuitively, notorious foot killers. And the most I've ever spent on shoes was maybe $80, once, for a pair of black stiletto booties I've worn a million times. And that was easily double the most I've ever spent on a shoe before or since.

But I read review after glowing review, lurked on Instagram, heard about the excellent customer service, and lost sleep dreaming of that fuchsia leather. So I decided to take a calculated risk.

Even though Tieks says to size down if you wear a half size, reviews advised me to size up, especially because of my wide soles. Excellent advice. My size 9 shoes fit my size 8.5 feet perfectly right out of the box.

The first thing I noticed about my Tieks other than how insanely cute they were was that they had substantial soles. These are not like the foldable flats you get at the drugstore that are basically socks to stumble home in with your heels in the tote (although Tieks do bring a tote for that purpose). These are legit shoes. I've worn them every day since I got them, walked several miles up and down hills through the city, and stood in them in a crowded bar. My feet felt pretty good and I got no blisters.

I love that the heel isn't elasticized, which can cause irritation, yet really conforms to my foot. The material feels so soft and luxurious to slip my feet into. The only place I've had trouble is along the top, which dug into my foot near my toes a bit, but that's loosened up.

The soles and the rest of the shoe are really easy to keep clean with just a quick wipe with a slightly wet paper towel.

My one real complaint is how easily scuffed these are because I'm a klutz. I already have a couple of scuffs along the toe, so I'll have to add to my investment and get some pink shoe polish.

Oh, and they squeak. The only way I've remedied this a touch is by putting baby powder on the bottom of my foot to reduce the noisy friction. Because squeak-squeaking flats sound much less sexy than click-clacking pumps.

So are Tieks worth it? That's entirely up to you. I made sure to get a color I thought would work really well with my wardrobe, so that I can wear these constantly and get my cost per wear way down. These are definitely the best ballet flats I've ever owned. My Tieks are beautiful, comfortable and versatile. I love them so much that I'm planning to save up for another pair. I love the Galactic Green, Matte BlackChestnut and Electric Snake versions, even though the ones beyond the basic $175 colors are outside my price range.

Tieks are my new favorite shoes. I feel so chic in them. Which are your favorite shoes, and how much were they? What are your favorite investment pieces?


WEN Fig Cleansing Conditioner: A Public Service Announcement

I wanted to love WEN.

After success with several cleansing conditioners both when I relaxed my hair and as a curly girl, I decided to try the infomercial darling. I should have known WEN Fig Cleansing Conditioner and I weren't going to get on when I had to basically Hulk-smash the pump to get it to work.

Then came the actual washing. And the horror.

The first thing I noticed was the very heavy menthol smell. That's fine — reminds me of being sick as a little kid and my mom rubbing Vicks on me so I could breathe. That scent is sort of comforting.

What wasn't comforting was the tingle. It wasn't so much as tingle as the sensation of having Biofreeze all over your scalp.

The steam from the shower only made it worse. My scalp felt colder and burned more. My fingers felt frozen. I shouted for my husband because I seriously needed moral support. 

"What is — holy shit!" As soon as he opened the door, a wave of Biofreeze smacked him in the face.

"I'm burning! Help me!"

I rinsed it out and my fingers and scalp still felt so uncomfortable. The only thing that sort of ameliorated the terrifying feeling was blasting hot air from the hooded dryer onto my head.

I tried. I really did. I Googled whether other people had such an unpleasant reaction to it and felt like I was in the solid minority. I even tried using it for less time, which helped just a little bit. I made it through the whole bottle, because it was, after all, a splurge.

The one redeeming quality about it, which makes it that much more of a shame that it sucks in every other regard? It detangles like a friggin' dream. This thing has slip like you wouldn't believe and sometimes I'd slap it onto the ends of my hair to help my conditioner along. Worked like a charm.

An evil, evil charm.


Skin care laboratory

Recently I've been sampling lots of skincare. Skincare is the least sexy beauty category for me, because I'm an instant-gratification girl who loves the immediate payoff of experimenting with colors and formulas. That's part of why sampling skincare in small doses is a bit of a fool's errand. Results often are not seen until you've been using something long term. Plus, the way I've done it is even sillier — I've sampled many products at once, so if I did have results, I wouldn't know exactly what product I could thank.

Regardless of my silliness, here are some thoughts on some products I've been playing with:

Nip + Fab Skin Dragon's Blood Fix Plumping Serum — You know I bought this for the name. It has a silky consistency that kind of reminds me of Smashbox's foundation primer, but more slippery and hydrating. I've been using it day and night instead of moisturizer, and my skin has felt pretty soft and nourished without any shine.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Treatment (in small white container) — People rave about this $100+ brightening lotion that I tried to fade my hyperpigmentation marks from acne. I asked for a sample at Sephora along with Flora. The main ingredient is lactic acid, which is available in other (cheaper) products. I want to say that it slightly lightened my marks over a few weeks, but not in a way that makes me want to run out and drain my bank account. Plus it kinda burns.

Sunday Riley Flora Hydroactive Cellular Face Oil (small oil in container with black cap) — Smells a little like flowery Crisco. Claims to improve skin elasticity and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. I like adding a few drops of this to the Dragon's Blood serum to make me look a bit more luminous and awake. Plus it feels soothing and moisturizing. 

Neutrogena Rapid Clear Treatment Pads — I got these not for my face but as a budget alternative to the Bliss salicylic acid pads Into the Gloss recommended to combat ingrown hairs. These work like a charm. I use them twice a day when I remember and they keep ingrowns at bay, and when I forget, it's ingrown city.

Clinique Smart Custom Repair Serum — I've screwed the pooch on this one because I haven't tried it much, yet think it will probably be the most beneficial (and at $60, it's more in my price range for fighting hyper pigmentation than Good Genes). Jen at From Head to Toe raves about this. I'll report back if it helps when I use it consistently.

Sephora Sleeping Masks — I like how inexpensive these are and like the idea of overnight face treatments. However, there's definitely more than enough product in one package for multiple uses, yet it's not packaged in a way conducive to multiple uses. I didn't see any "wow" results from these, but they're OK.

Lush Pearl Massage Bar — This bar has argan and rose oils, smells like Lush's Rose Jam fragrance and melts onto my skin as a super-softifying lotion. I keep it on my nightstand in the metal container Lush sells and especially love rubbing it into my ashy elbows.

Have you tried any skincare lately? Do you try one product at a time or lots of samples?

Book review: "Falling Under" by Danielle Younge-Ullman

I have been so fortunate during this year of binge-reading to find books that make me go, "Wow. THAT is the best book I've read this year. That may be one of the best books I've EVER read." I may be a woman made of bad choices, but I make excellent choices about books.

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman was an excellent choice about a woman who makes bad choices. It may be one of the best books I've ever read. In fact, I'd go as far as calling it my soulmate book. So many of its themes speak to me personally, and so much of its structure and execution speak to what I want to accomplish as a writer.

Mara Foster is a painter who is dealing with some seriously heavy shit:

1. There are broken homes, and then there's Mara's insane childhood, with her cold, demanding mother and her mentally ill, irresponsible and hard-drinking father, who even after divorce manage to constantly rip each other apart at Mara's expense.

2. She loves bad-for-her dudes, and that's a problem.

3. One of those problems is Erik. He's not her boyfriend. He's a friend with benefits, but without the friendship, and with a whole lot of shared baggage.

4. Hooking up with Erik is pretty much one of the only times Mara leaves her apartment. She's agoraphobic. But she doesn't want to admit it.

5. She's got so much talent, but every time she paints the good stuff, she goes nuts, so she makes her living selling geometric paintings that appeal to lowest common denominator clientele, aka furniture stores, through her patron and former lover. It's a pretty meaningless, empty waste of her talent.

6. One of the conditions of her employment is that she not touch alcohol, because when she drinks, things get messy.

7. Her (wonderful, amazing, vivacious) best friend is a lesbian in love with a closeted women whose mother is a super-conservative, super-religious lawmaker.

8. Oh, and her college boyfriend died, and she's really messed up about it years later.

The book is mostly in present tense, around the time when Mara meets Hugo, a sweet, normal guy who may be her chance for stability and happiness. Hugo is adorable and funny and rolls with the punches of Mara's eccentricity, but it doesn't matter that he could be good for her. Because in Mara's experience, love is very bad for her:

"Oh boy, I should not be kissing this man. ... I should not be pulling him closer and letting myself feel that crazy stupid thing people call love. I should not be falling in love, because love will pull me under."

Then there are many chapters told in second-person that flash back to Mara's profoundly unstable childhood, the teenage beginnings of her still strong friendship with Bernadette (who wins the awards for Favorite Best Friend in A Book AND Favorite Lesbian) and her past love affairs. One thing that's so refreshing and different about this book is that even though there's a current, core romantic relationship explored, it dives so deep into every relationship that has shaped Mara. It makes her that much more real as a character that we know her history with the much-older Caleb, her mentor who she desperately wanted to stay with her; Lucas the romanticized, posthumous ideal, and Lucas, the reality; the deep, disturbing yet in a weird way sweet connection with Erik; and the laughs and romps she shared with Sal.

I love that her past is such a part of her. None of it just resets because she's met someone. My heart broke the further she got into what really happened with her and Lucas before his death.

"I wonder whether I will ever breathe air that is clear of his ghost." 

I loved being in Mara's head. I loved that the book was unrelenting and raw, that it depicted sex and love so honestly, that it had so much pain and even the laughs hurt because they came from a place of coping with pain. I understood so intimately how Mara's life is like this spinning teacup ride through states of some semblance of OK and sickening spirals of agony.

Mara is pushed to the edge by what's in her head and in her past. I feel like I sit here and write book reviews and try to be really confident about the words I put down, to not make any apologies about what I write and just hope I'm making myself as clear as possible. But I know I'm failing in explaining what this book meant to me. I want to reread it right now and come back and try again — that's how badly I want to get it right.

Falling Under is a beautiful book about what it means to save yourself, about what you can't run away from and what you should run toward, about the darkness and the light of love and how either can wreck you.

"Love digs you out, pulls you out and up with your bare skin and soul open to the world, to the harsh everything."

But it isn't a depressing book. There's bold hope throughout its pages. Hope that doesn't rise from naivete or unfounded optimism, but from slow, against-all-odds striving up and away from the claws dragging you under.

Original Moxie Shape Shifter review

You might say that Original Moxie's Shape Shifter cream and I could write a bad romance.

The first time we met, I was introduced to this flexible-hold marvel by Pittsburgh's curl whisperer. But this attractive tub came with a lot of baggage — a $32.99 price tag. My curls did look banging, so I took a sample home, did some Internet stalking of reviews, and finally decided to start this relationship.

What has followed has been a test of my will. I've tried to use this sparingly, but it works so much better when I slather it on. The slippery cream works best on soaking wet hair, and it elongates and defines my curls, making them so bouncy and pliable with the softest hold of any styler I've tried. And it smells amazing, like a thick, rich and just slightly spicy dessert. It makes my hair irresistibly touchable. It tames the frizz from my trouble spots. It's perfect to add to second or third day hair to redefine. Getting the front of my hair to spiral without manipulation is next to impossible. Enough of this stuff makes it a breeze.

I have fallen in love.

My hair on wash day after using Shape Shifter. I added some Deva Curl Shine Spray and Original Moxie Hair Bling for shine. Look at that definition! Look at those moisturized waves!

I've tried to see other stylers. The first ingredient in Shape Shifter after water is flax seed gel, so I got some flax seeds from a friend, boiled them and made my own gel. It was OK, except it felt like I was dipping my hands in snot and that grossed me out every time I used it. I forced myself to finish my super-sized CVS hair gel, which suddenly made my hair seem so much crunchier than it did before. The Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl Enhancing Smoothie that I had sitting around didn't give me as much definition and made my hair look dull, so it remains in the youthful indiscretion section of beauty-related purchases. You go sit in the corner, Shea Moisture.

The closest I've gotten to the satisfaction I get from Shape Shifter is Miss Jessie's Jelly Soft Curls. It doesn't leave my hair as soft or moisturize it the way Shape Shifter does, but it does give me great definition without the crunch, has a pleasant scent that kind of reminds me of dryer sheets or detergent or something laundry-related, and it's cheaper by the ounce. Plus it beats Shape Shifter on leaving my curls shiny.

Despite my best efforts to keep it casual with Shape Shifter, the panic I feel now that there's barely a teaspoon left in the jar is stronger than my frugality. I wish I knew how to quit you, Shape Shifter. But you're the best I've ever had.


Scent Trunk review: Sample curated, niche fragrances

Disclaimer: I received this box in exchange for an honest review. 

Calling itself the "Netflix of fragrance," Scent Trunk is a startup subscription service that delivers three fragrance samples tailored to your tastes. It's $18 a month, and the price goes down to $16 a month or $15 a month when you subscribe for six months or a year, respectively.

Here's how it works. You make a scent profile of specific notes you enjoy, and you can look up where a scent fits, whether it's fresh, floral, oriental or woods. When I was done, mine looked something like this:

Then, Scent Trunk sends you small vials of three scents they think you'll love. You rate them, and they use your opinions to curate your next box. There are two things that stand out about Scent Trunk. First, they have perfumes from independent brands you've never had sprayed in your face at a department store. Second, they want to educate clients about fragrance so they buy something they'll truly enjoy.

In my elegant little box, which arrived within the week and included cards describing the fragrances, their attributes and longevity and sillage, I was treated to these scents:

Olympic Orchids Golden Cattleya: This was the first scent I tried and I loved it. Liquid gold, rich and thick and expensive smelling. But kinda tarty, in a very good way. Sexy. It was creamy, rich, sweet, and I definitely got that cream soda vibe the scent card promised. I thought the honey was the obvious scent that rose from this, although my friends who sniffed the inside of my elbow all said vanilla was their first impression. When I smell this, I have to close my eyes. It's also got killer longevity. This is the one I'd be most likely to buy a full-sized bottle of.

Amouage Jubilation 25 Woman: This was a challenging fragrance for me. Did I love it and want to bathe in it, or did I hate it and want to take a shower and get it off me? A little bit of both, but after a few wears, I grew to love it. Its sharp start faded within seconds to leave behind something soapy that comes through the spice. But there's a lovely, close-to-the-skin drydown when the leather and musk are prominent. It's sweet, but not cloying. Floral, but not astringent the way a lot of popular florals read to me. Weirdly, it occurred to me the first time I wore it that it smelled kinda like how people describe Angel by Thierry Mugler in the best-case scenario, except on me Angel smelled like spicy BO and made me ill. The Amouage smells refined yet comforting, like eating apple pie at Gatsby's. At $280 a bottle, this is wildly out of my price range. But that's what's so cool about this service — getting to try stuff I'd never in my wildest dreams be able to wear otherwise.

Note Fragrances Honey Blossom: This was the easiest one to like. It's lovely, pretty, sweet, unchallenging. It would be a perfect everyday perfume. Here's the thing with me and perfume: most of the time, when a girlfriend says "smell this," I dislike whatever it is. It bores me, or it stings my nose like rubbing alcohol with a dash of something sorta floral on top. I love smelling pretty, but sometimes I think I'd prefer to smell intriguing than smelling pretty. This one stood out the least for me, but it was a good middle ground — it would be universally likable, but it's still interesting. I feel like there's some subtlety and craft here.

I think Scent Trunk is an awesome service to try whether you're a fragrance expert looking to branch out and discover niche fragrances (really steps up your scent street cred to wear something no one else has heard of yet!) or if you're just starting out and want your own perfume stylist to help you pick something out.

Ready to give Scent Trunk a try? You can use the coupon code clever25 to get 25% off your first box. They're also doing a giveaway for a free box.


Book review: "Unteachable" by Leah Raeder

"The night I met you was like someone handed me a winning lottery ticket and said, 'You can only have it if you don't tell anyone.' "

“...The thought of how much happiness lay scattered across the universe, unrealized, in fragments, waiting for the right twist of fate to bring it together.”

Whoa, baby. Let's see if I can wrestle this beast down.

Leah Raeder's Unteachable is one doozy of a book. It's 320 pages of overwhelming emotions. The premise alone is enough to cause serious lip-chewing and hand-wringing. Barely legal high school senior Maise wraps up her summer with a steamy car hookup at a carnival, convinced she'll never see the hot guy she rode the roller coaster with again. Except he turns out to be her film teacher. And now they sorta kinda can't live without each other and INSANITY ENSUES. Basically, Raeder laughs at your "forbidden love" stories and says, "take that, wimps." 

This is a slim volume densely packed with well-developed characters, shocking plot twists, location changes and a TON of drama. Daddy issues. Good mothers and baaaaad mothers. Fraught friendships and coke fiends. Secrets. Lots and lots and lots of graphic sex. That's a big draw. This book is hot. But it's also deep, beautiful and challenging.

That time I did standup comedy

Everyone wants a crack at that sign when the show's over

This is how you make yourself do something daring — you tell people you're going to do it, rendering backing out impossible.

A few months ago, Eric and I went to an open mic night at the Pittsburgh Improv. Having never been to an open mic night, we expected something shabbier than what we got. You know, just a few sporadic and awkward people stepping up in some rinky dink hole in the wall. Which is not at all what we found.

Instead, Stand-Up Pittsburgh is a well-organized event in a swanky location. You eat dinner, you down cocktails, you laugh your ass off. It's awesome. And the whole time I was there, on the verge of peeing my pants and splitting my face, I thought, I want to do this. I want to do this I want to do this I want to do this.

So I did, not at the next open mic but the one after that. I wrote jokes, I scratched jokes out. I mined every exasperating situation for humor. I made weird connections, like between sexual harassment and dinosaurs. I binged on standup specials on Netflix and studied Amy Schumer's delivery like it was my second job.

I invoked all my favorite female comedians on Twitter and was stunned and fangirling when they actually responded.

I mean COME ON. It was surreal and cool and when I realized that I kind of hated my Twitter handle, which I've since changed to @whatisliz.

So there was no backing out. The priestesses of comedy had spoken, plus girls from my knitting group had already bought their tickets. You have to have four people there to see you to be allowed to perform. And I had seven! Seven awesome people showed up to support me and I felt like such a lucky girl.

Some of my cheering section
When I was just a spectator, it was on a light night during which only six or eight comics performed, two of them women.

This time, there were well over a dozen performers, and I was the only chick. No pressure to prove women are funny or anything. Add to that my already intense nerves and the fact that while waiting I'd accidentally already had a G&T and some lemony shooter thing on an empty stomach.

I got up there in my too-tight purple velvet pants and mercifully sturdy heels and I honestly couldn't tell if I was funny or not while I was up there. I saw smiles, I heard laughs here and there, but I couldn't really see many people from the stage and I was really in the zone. It wasn't until people were coming up to me after my performance that I started to feel really good about what I did up there.

Getting up in front of a crowd of strangers and friends and saying ridiculous, obscene things like a filthy little troll was liberating. (I mean, saying "vagina" into a microphone is basically a feminist act.) I put myself on blast and people responded to it. Being a broad and not a lady, the version of me that's all Id and moxie and wit, devoid of a filter, was my everything. A soaring high I intend to repeat.

Now I'm not just going about my day. I'm searching for material.