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Sassy Peach Goes to Kindergarten: Happy 5th Birthday!

Wow! We made it! Half a decade! That's crazy talk. I said to a friend the other day how much I couldn't believe how far I've com...

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Underground Railroad: A Novel

I had the distinct honor of having Colson Whitehead autograph his new novel for me at Book Expo this year. I almost died with excitement. I have loved his previous books, all of which were read before this blog. This one, though, I knew would be big. The Underground Railroad may be August's biggest release.

Cora was born a slave, and will remain so for all of her days. Her mother, Mabel, is the only known slave in her parts to have escaped and lived to tell the tale; she evaded the South's most notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway, and was never heard from again. Cora is angry at her mother for abandoning her, and when given the opportunity to escape herself, grabbed it and ran. She becomes a part of the Underground Railroad, making her way through South Carolina, North Carolina, and beyond -- with Ridgeway himself on her tail. The experiences that follow Cora to freedom are numerous and varried -- they are harrowing, gripping, and awesome in the most literal sense of the word.

The only thing that I can say that would make any sense regarding this book is, holy mother of pearl. I was completely, 100% entrance from beginning to end. I had a difficult time putting this down, and I found that when I did, my only focus was on getting back to this book as soon as humanly possible. I have been a Colson Whitehead plan for some time, and I believe, although I would have to go back and check, I have read all of his books. I was super excited to pick up this book at Book Expo this year, and to have him autograph it was such a high point in my book blogging career. To have it to be genuinely one of the best books I've read this year takes the cake.

Let it be known, in truth, that more than a handful of times this book was incredibly difficult to read. Oh sure, it's heartbreaking and hard and heartbreaking again, but truthfully it is difficult to read if you or someone who cares even the slightest bit about humanity. At times I wondered if I could keep pushing through, because the truth of the brutality of how we is a country treated slaves, not just in our kidnapping and selling, but in the day to day utility of their lives, was incredibly difficult to face. I have heard others say again and again how they don't feel that they are responsible for the past because their relatives didn't own slaves, but when it comes down to it, we are all responsible for the collective history of our country. This was a difficult read at times, and I had to remind myself that reading this, and facing the reality of what our country did to an entire group of people, was not just important but mandatory in order to be a functioning human being in this society. While I could put this book down if I wanted to, hundreds of thousands of people could not step away from the violence of their everyday lives. I owed it to them, even if it was only in narrative form, to face up to the brutality our country's history.

Whitehead crafts a beautiful and searing narrative that tells the story of Cora and the life she fought so hard to live in freedom. I rooted for her, I cried for her, and my heart leapt with joy at even the slightest sign that she could potentially be safe. While Whitehead paints a fantastical metaphorical picture of the underground railroad that I never could have imagined previously, and this is led me to imagine and redefine the very thing that I feel my education skipped over with just a cursory glance. I can't get over the magnetism of the story and the narrative as well as the characters that way had was able to create. He is in my opinion one of the greatest writers of our generation, and I will always look forward to his next book. However, this one will always stand out as his masterpiece in my eyes.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Reversal: A Novel

New to my "book candy" cannon is Michael Connelly. I have decided after reading a couple of the Lincoln Lawyer series that I just really really really like his books, so I am adding him to my ever-growing list of favorite writers. This was one of those paperbacks picked up at the used book store at the beach, and I was addicted the whole read to The Reversal.

I have relatively recently added Michael Connolly to my list of favorite authors. I am a little sad that I'm late to the MC party, but I guess joining the party eventually is better than not joining the party at all. I happen to have fallen in love with his Lincoln Lawyer series, and I am finding that I may be equally in love with his Harry Bosch series. I also had the pleasure of having him sign a reissue of one of his Bosch novels recently at BEA, and I started following him on Twitter, and he is hilarious. So all in all, I'm a fan.

I picked up this book a while back at my favorite used book store in John's Creek, Read it Again, and I am unsure why it took me so long to get to it. Probably has something to do with my inability to read a whole book for most of 2016, but I now feel like I'm over that hump and am back with a vengeance. I was in the mood for some murder and mayhem and something that wouldn't tax my brain too hard (i.e., not a "work book"), so I picked up the only Connelly I had on hand. Holy moly, was this one good.

Our Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, joins forces with his half brother, Harry Bosch (WHAAAAAAATTTTT?!?!?) to help put BACK away a child killer, Jessup, once convicted, now issued a new trial. A man was convicted of kidnapping and murder in the 1980's, and due to some new DNA evidence, his conviction has been thrown out and the judge has ordered a new trial. The District Attorney needs outside help, so he calls on Haller as a special prosecutor. Interested in the idea of a new, albeit temporary course, he signs up under the condition of working with his ADA ex-wife as second chair and his half brother as the investigator.

There is a mountain of circumstantial evidence, and Bosch searches out new witnesses and old. But what can they use as the smoking gun? As the trial begins, the defense is playing dirty tricks and Haller is doing what he can to stay true to his new position. However, as the trial ticks on, no one really knows where the jury is at.  Bosch keeps working and the more he finds out about Jessup, the more worried he is that the killer will strike again -- and soon. Can Haller and his team go above and beyond to prove that Jessup did it, and put him back behind bars before he hurts anyone else?

This was, above and beyond, the best Connelly book I have read to date. It was incredibly well-crafted, to the point that I was reading as fast as I could, and if I could have, I would have read EVEN FASTER. It was like I couldn't get to the punchline fast enough. I was horrified for the past; I was worried for the present; and I was terrified for the future. I know that this was all fiction, but it doesn't take a scholar to do enough basic poking around on the United States justice system to know that this type of case isn't outside the realm of possibility. It felt very much like having an insider's grasp into a high-stakes court case that felt very real. I know that  many murder cases don't have the "slam dunk" piece of evidence that helps prosecutors know they have a winning case. That's hard, and this book really showed that in an interesting, page-turning way.

I can't tell you enough how much I love love loved this novel. I have been recommending it left and right, as it was just a genuinely *great* read. It was interesting, page-turning, eyes-glued-to-the-page, "OH MY GOD READ FASTER PLEASE" kind of novel. Hence, I would recommend you read it as soon as possible. I am looking forward to diving into some more of Connelly's Bosch series this summer before I start in on the Amazon Prime series.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools

The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools by Dale Russakoff came my way via an education blog, and I checked it out from the library immediately. Very quickly I realized that I was going to want to keep a copy, and I ordered the paperback which just came out a couple of weeks ago. 

Who owns America's schools indeed? In 2010, on an episode of Oprah, three people sat on stage and announced a one hundred million dollar gift to Newark Public Schools, one that was slated to change the course of tens of thousands of young lives: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This gift was hailed as the opportunity to create a school reform structure that could potentially change the nation. The goal was full scale turnaround in five years. Instead, at the end of that time, much in Newark Public Schools has remained the same and, in many cases, become worse for public school students. While the outside was awestruck at what that amount of money could do for the children of Newark, inside there was a push for charter schools overtaking non-charters, closing of neighborhood schools with no bussing system in place to move students, and pockets of good happening despite, not because of, the push toward reform.

I will lay out my biases for you strait up: I am no fan of either of the two politicians mentioned above, and I haven't been for a while. I have had my eye on what was happening in Newark and around the entire state even if I am not paying super close attention. This book, however, sent me into apoplectic hives at the complete disregard of the citizens of a city in which children are suffering because of massive corruption and a privatization agenda. I will not mince my words here, because this is my blog and I can take a stand. I am also the first to say that charter schools are not inherently bad; I will say, though, that I have an extremely negative reaction to the disregard of funding the very institutions that we have promised our citizens will be the key that unlocks a better future. If you don't know how charter schools are funded or how they are run, please do some basic research. That being said, this book does paint a portrait of some great charters in Newark that have the ability to control their own budgets to serve students where they need the most aid. My argument is that this type of flexibility should be available in public neighborhood schools, not just charters. If we, those of us with privilege as well as political and social capital, continue to remove our students from the district schools and place them in charters, we will continue to deplete the education of those who do not have the ability to move schools. And let me stop your argument there -- charter schools are only in theory available to everyone. They are not, in reality, available to everyone. 

Now that THAT is off my chest, I should tell you that, like many books I've been reading lately, this is not an upper. In fact, I found myself boiled over with anger more often than not. As I mentioned early, I am the opposite of a fan of the two politicians who had the strongest hand in this. I appreciate that the author does discuss Zuckerberg's involvement as his first foray into large-scale philanthropy and how he learned from this debacle. While this book is highly critical of the local and state administrations, I also felt that is was a fair critique of what was wrong with the whole five year process of trying to reform Newark public schools. I do understand that the superintendent was stymied by teacher's union contract provisions, and while I am a union member myself, I do believe that it is necessary to come together to figure out how to work with union protections that still serve the greater good of our students. However, it's hard to say that the superintendent was "held up" by the unions when you look at how that one hundred million dollars was spent, hiring consultants out the wazoo and put toward private companies. 

We can do better for our students across the nation, particularly those who are most vulnerable to attending schools in large cities where corruption within the system and a mismanagement of money very easily runs rampant. We can do better for everyone. The hardest part of reading this book was watching money fly out the window while school buildings in Newark are literally falling apart -- ceilings collapsing, pipes bursting, unsafe and unsanitary conditions existing in places where young people hope for an education. There is also a long discussion of unsafe neighborhoods and how they contribute to drop out rates. Education has to address not just what's happening IN the building, but also what's happening AROUND the building. 

The author did an amazing job of profiling in detail individual schools and even individual teachers and administrators who are working incredibly hard to make a difference for the children of Newark. One of my biggest complaints with new management is that they rarely if ever take the time to ask, "Who is doing this well," then take the time to examine in detail WHY the person or program is doing things well. Instead, like the new Newark superintendent, reformers sweep in and decide to change everything based on their own experience. What happens next is what happened in Newark -- people feel as though their own lives and experiences are being ignored and disavowed -- and then they decide they don't care or they fight against you. Let's decide as reformers that we are going to listen to our community members and come up with solutions that work for US, not for THEM. 

On that note, if you want to see change in our education system -- whether it's Newark, Tucson, Atlanta, or Los Angeles -- get involved and do something. Pick up this book, among many others, educate yourself, then figure out how you can pitch in. As one presidential candidate once said, "It takes a village." 

It takes a village, indeed. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Tattered Cover -- Denver, Colorado

In my quest to enjoy myself in Denver, I was recommended to visit the downtown location of the Tattered Cover. I was not let down.

This is the location on East Colfax, and I fell madly in love with it. It was also amazing to have the boyfriend with me, as we haven't actually gone book shopping before. I was worried he may hate me afterward, but it was surprisingly fun and he didn't even flinch when I bought seven books. (You read that right -- seven books). The store has not just new books but also used books, and while they are in one section alone, they are also integrated amongst the shelves with the newer books. It made for some...collecting. 

There are SO MANY BOOKS in this store, and it was similar to what I imagine heaven will be like for me. I would have bought everything if I had the chance. I even bought new copies of three Ann Rule books. (Yes, I heard you gasp through the computer screen. NEW!) This is a place I would lose my entire fortune to if I lived in Denver. What a lovely, lovely place!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Just Fall: A Novel

As I eased my way back into reading this spring, I read a great review of Nina Sadowsy's Just Fall, and I got it right away from the library, so I jumped strait in to this intriguing tale of murder and hidden identities.

After a string of bad dates, Ellie has finally met a man worth marrying. Rob is brilliant, handsome, and crazy for her. One problem -- he disappears on their wedding day after revealing his secret past to her. Whoops. In order to save her life -- and their marriage -- what ensues can only be described as following a diabolical, insane plan to trick the trickers and stay alive at all costs. As the secrets are slowly revealed, is anyone who they say they are?

I had simply the best time with this novel. I found Sadowsky's storytelling style to be really wonderful, bouncing back and forward in time to reveal the backstory to the reader slowly and quickly at the same time. This isn't a device that works for everyone, and not everyone can do it so that the reader stays with the story and becomes invested in the characters. The way that Sadowsky revealed the history and motivations of the characters was awe-inspiring, and I found myself page swiping (I read this in e-book format) as fast as I possibly could. This story was so well written that I whipped through this book in less than two days.

The story itself also brings up some pretty big questions about morality. Ellie is an incredibly sympathetic character, and one you start rooting for immediate. However, she is a murderer from page one. This isn't a spoiler -- this is the plot devise that starts the story. You find out almost immediately, though, that she killed for good reasons. She is immediate sympathetic EVEN THOUGH SHE IS A KILLER. As we move through the story and we get to know more about Rob, similar feelings crop up. He has killed even more than she has, yet he is someone that I found myself wanting to find and still be alive. I guess a lot of this speaks to Sadowsky's ability to create strong character arcs, but I also think she has crafted a story where everything is morally ambiguous, and this is, I think, the most amazing part of the book. What is right and what is wrong, and should these two: a) trust each other, and b) even be together at the end of the day? You be the judge. I sure know where I stand.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe -- Boulder, Colorado

Saturday nights are date night for the boyfriend and me, and since I picked him up from the airport Saturday afternoon, I decided that we were going to continue on to Boulder since it was only 45 minutes away. I am so thankful we did. It was stunning, and we had such an amazing time. 

After I pulled off the highway to check out the UC Boulder campus, I ran into this bookstore, Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, and immediately parked the car. While I am not a big poetry fan, I am a fan of small bookstores and doing what I can to contribute. 

It was a lovely, lovely little place. The boyfriend and I sat in the cafe with some coffee, and I poked through the stack. I ended up not purchasing a book, but I did purchase the small coffee tumbler in the picture to the right. It's the PERFECT size for my morning coffee. I'm a recovering caffeine-oholic, and I've whittled it down to about one cup every morning.

I realized as well that there aren't very many pictures of me on this blog. It's nice to have the guy around to take pictures of me instead of selfies all the time. 

We had a lovely time at the cafe and in Boulder as a whole. I would highly recommend it, and we look forward to coming back and doing some hiking. Check out the mountain, below. It's Chataqua, and the chairs that are set up were for a wedding we just missed. It was really something else. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Furiously Happy

 Jenny Lawson is funny. (The author of Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things) Lawson suffers from clinical depression, anxiety disorder, impulse control disorder, avoidant personality disorder, insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis, and a number of other illnesses or disorders. Maybe “suffers” isn’t the right word. As the title of the book says, she strives to be “furiously happy,” which means living an actively happy life in spite of these disorders, almost as an offense to them. She doesn’t shrink back from her quirky wants and desired and try to be “normal”; instead, she indulges them in a quest for happiness.
And so she’s funny. It says so right in the title, and it’s true. She gets into interesting misadventures, does unconventional things that most people wouldn’t think to do, and has funny conversations with both her husband and herself. Funnier than her actions is her writing, which is sometimes where this book shines. Her turn of a phrase can catch you just right and make you laugh out loud. Like a stand-up comedian, she makes observations on the everyday that make you reflect on the perfect silliness of many “normal” things in life. Here’s one of my favorite examples: “People who think it’s so hard to find a needle in a haystack are probably not quilters. Needles find you… They should change ‘like finding a needle in a haystack’ to ‘like finding a pen that works in a drawer filled with pens that don’t work.’” Her humor is dry, constant, and relatable, which makes the book an easy read.
My only dislike about the book is that, yes, Lawson is funny, but she knows it. It’s like being in class with the kid who’s been told he’s “weird” and now that’s the only personality he fits into, so he puts it on all the time like a show. I felt like there were times she was being weird for the sake of being weird, which began to get old. I started to wonder if her stories really happened as told, or if she was embellishing them to be more silly and interesting. If they really happened as told, I started to feel for her husband, and for her daughter. I did appreciate her quest to value herself for who she is and be an active participant in her own happiness, but I started to wonder if she couldn’t still do that while maybe not waking her family up at 2am to put a saddle on the dog for her taxidermied raccoon to ride in.
That said, I did appreciate that the book is a celebration of the good times and the struggles, and it’s a testament to the rarity and value of a voice that says it’s okay not to be normal. Maybe, in that case, it’s even better that she is sometimes wacky in an extreme way. Lawson has provided a community of acceptance, comfort, and betterment for many people who find themselves on the outside of normality, whether because of disorders or simply their personalities. Her book is a call to people who are sad, hopeless, or even miserable that says that it is okay for them to, in spite of everything, do what it takes to make them happy. It celebrates that we all have value, and have to value ourselves, and sometimes put ourselves before others. And that it’s okay to ask for help and support. I loved those messages, and it was fun to see her fight for herself and improve her life. Her expressions of empathy for her husband and daughter and their interactions with her were tender and real, which I think was perhaps the best part of the book. Despite the heavy-handed quirkiness and the constant effort to shoehorn a joke into almost every sentence, I still found the book laugh-out-loud funny at some points, amusing throughout, and relatable and powerful even in spite of its zany moments.
Furiously Happy is not really a story, but more a collection of short anecdotes that paint a picture of a day-to-day life in the mind of Lawson. All the growth happens in the preface to the book, where she explains what it means to try to live in furious happiness in spite of her depression. After that, the book is snippets of her day, shining a light on her family relationships. While the stories were entertaining, I wanted to know more about her growth and about what brought her to this new life philosophy. Maybe I would have loved the book if it had started earlier and followed her along the process, documenting the struggles along the way. But that is not the book Lawson chose to write, and through the one she did choose, I can hear her voice trying, and succeeding many times, in being furiously happy.

- Charlotte

Nicole's note: I love that Charlotte brought her voice into this book! My original post is here

Monday, August 8, 2016

Capitol Hill Books -- Denver, Colorado

This past weekend I was in Denver, Colorado for a dear friend's wedding. The wedding was gorgeous -- it was at Red Rocks Chapel, where the windows behind the altar opened up on Red Rocks, and the view was to die for. I am thrilled that she is happy and that they both had the day they so wanted. I couldn't be happier for them.

I was also there for a work convention, and on Saturday afternoon the boyfriend was flying in for the wedding. I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to hit up a consignment store downtown, and subsequently, since I was already parked, I opted to walk instead of move my car. On the way, I immediately spotted this:

I'm sure it will surprise you not in the least that I can spot a bookstore a mile away. This one was Capitol Hill Books. So of course I went in.

I have a particular affinity for used bookstores, just as I love finding great secondhand clothes. I love the idea that I am continuing to care for things that have already been loved -- at least enough for someone to try to give it new life -- and that I am supporting businesses that want to give these things new life in new owners. 

I poked around for a while and loved every second of it. The staff was so nice and there are SO MANY BOOKS! I picked up some John Grisham's and Ann Rule's that I haven't yet read. Working on beating those repertoires, you guys. I also got out of there for $21. Seriously. It was a steal. Go visit if you are in town.

Oh, and that secondhand clothing store? Act II is just a few blocks from Capitol Hill Books. I made out like a bandit there as well (three dresses and a cardigan for $30, no joke!). Visit both when you are in town. It's well worth the time!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Hopefuls: A Novel

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close was a book I picked up at this year's Book Expo, and it was well worth carrying this one home in my suitcase.

After Matt joins the 2008 Obama campaign, he gets a job post-win in the legal office of the White House, sending his journalist wife Beth into a new world of politics in Washington, D.C. She misses her home and her friends but tries to get along the best she can. When she meets Ashleigh and her husband Jimmy, who also works for the White House, the couples have found their soul mates and are attached to the hip. When Jimmy moves back to Texas to follow his own political ambitions, Matt and Beth follow to work on his campaign. Can the friendship sustain the huge shift in worlds, or will each of their choices have consequences that will change the course of their relationships, both romantic and friendship?

I will say at the start that I had very high hopes for this book. I am a Close fan, and I was expecting a good book. This one met my expectations, and even surpassed them in some ways. I thought this book was incredibly mature, and that Close's voice has grown with her over time. Though the characters start at roughly the same age as those in Dresses, there was a deeper sense of grown-up-ness about Beth and Matt in this story. I could see the stronger sense of understanding of oneself reflected in this story and these people that Close created on the page. The characters were complex and flawed but still so very human, and I was able to think back to my late 20's (that was a joke --it was half a decade ago, practically yesterday) and remember that feeling of flailing in my career.

The relationship between Beth and Matt is also interesting and worth taking note of.  It was clear to me that he loved her, but when I started to pull back and look at the larger scope of the relationship in relation to the world in which they lived, I found myself wondering whether or not he fell in love with her because of the life they could have together or because of the wife she could be to him in his pursuit of politics. I then wonder if that's callous of me and that the world has made me hard. Which, in turn, is the point of the story. The life these two have chosen to live has made them callous in their own ways and hard toward each other. Hard choices can do that to people. But it's not the hard times that define you, it's how you work your way out of them.

My only beef with this book that I enjoyed tremendously is that the ending felt expected. I was hoping for something more daring or unexpected, but at the end of the day, the safe ending is what most people want anyway. I just know that life doesn't always have safe endings, but thank goodness that literature does. That being said, I did enjoy this book and found myself drawn to it after I had put it down. I felt the lives of the characters to be magnetic, and I thought Beth was a fantastic protagonist and one that drew me in as a reader and kept me around as a woman floundering in her own career. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Goodnight Selfie

Where do I even begin with one of the most adorable children's books I have ever read? This is Goodnight Selfie by Scott Menchin and illustrated by Pierre Collet-Derby. 

A young girl receives the gift of an old phone from her older brother when he gets a new one. While she doesn't have the capability of calling, she does learn the art of the selfie. She goes nuts, taking selfies everywhere in every place. She even takes "elsie's," which are selfies with other people. She takes them all day until it's finally time for bed. She agrees to go to sleep -- on one condition. She gets to take one last selfie of the day: a good night selfie. 

I have been fawning over this book for more than a year now. I meant to review it after the 2015 Book Expo, but it got lost in the shuffle and I just enjoyed it from time to time, taking it off my bookshelf to paw through it and get a good giggle going. This past week, I read it aloud to my boyfriend who was surprisingly amused, although whether it was my very serious reading as though he was a child or if it was the actual book, I will leave up to him to know and me to find out. 

This book was completely loveable and positively enjoyable for the young set. This is a book even for the very young, as it's easy to comprehend and can be read by a young reader or to an even younger reader by a parent. It's a easy-to-comprehend story, as smart phones are so ubiquitous now that any child can relate to taking a selfie. In fact, just this week I saw at least four selfies friends have taken with their infants. So yeah, we can all relate. 

The illustrations are outstanding, the story is adorable, and the protagonist is a young girl. What more do you need to love this book?