Featured Post

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...

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Rose for Her Grave and Other True Cases: Ann Rule's Crime Files Vol. 1

Reader's of this blog will know why I am so excited about today's post: Ann Rule's A Rose for Her Grave and Other True Cases: Ann Rule's Crime Files Vol. 1. I have done Volumes 2, 3, and 4, but I have been on the hunt for Vol. 1 for a while. I would like to post on these in order, so this was a fun find for me.

The main title story features Randy Roth, a man who wants to be a victim and claim as much cash as possible. His first wife is MIA, his second wife died after falling off a cliff, his third wife ran for the hills after one of the most frightening rafting experiences I've ever heard (with Randy at the helm), and his fourth wife drowned in a -- guess what? -- rafting accident at a lake. The man had nine insurance claims between the deaths and "robberies" at his home and at those of friends he knew, and he wasn't exactly father of the year either. All of this leads up to one cold-hearted snake who managed to charm single mothers and get away with murder.

Other stories in this volume include murder and mayhem at its finest, because sometimes you know your killer, and sometimes you don't. I'm still stuck on the Roth murder, because I finished it most recently. Although the short story "Molly's Murder" sticks with me as well. It's the story of a young ambitious woman, living on her own, who was just too kind to her neighbor without knowing that he was a disturbed man. I shudder to think about all those years I lived alone.

Back to Roth and his departed wives. It's a fascinating story, one of a man who has no care for anyone -- woman or child, especially his own -- and a story that has no satisfying backstory. We never find out why Roth is so cruel to his own child. We do know that his father left his mother, and that his brother killed someone (no more details in order to not ruin the course of the story), but none of that in and of itself explains why Roth went to great lengths to torture his child and his stepchildren when they weren't perfect. It also doesn't explain why he hated women to the extent that he did. He would woo them and be an attentive lover at first, and then he would abandon all pretense once the marriage license was signed. What a fascinating character, and brought to life by the precision that Ann Rule brings to all of her true crime retellings. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Drowning Ruth: A Novel (Guest Blogger Charlotte)

Hey!

Drowning Ruth was a New York Times' Bestseller from the year 2000, and was a selection for Oprah's Book Club. Set during and after World War I, it tells the story of Amanda, who is raising her niece Ruth after Ruth's mother, Amanda's sister Mathilda, mysteriously drown in a nearby lake when Ruth was young.

This fictional novel is told from a number of perspectives and skips back and forth in time, which was a more novel device 17 years ago than it is now, when it seems to be par for the course in any new literary fiction with any sort of mystery.

However, author Christina Schwarz tackled the style with true mastery, in my opinion. I didn't have any trouble following the switch from one voice to another, and from one time period to another, but it didn't feel heavy-handed or forced. I particularly liked the sections from Ruth's perspective, where I felt like the descriptions matched the understanding and perspective she would have at that age. Authors' voicing of children and teens is an issue that can quickly ruin a book for me, because it's often so fake or forced and lacks any kind of depth. If it's part of the mystery, it's usually predictable. But Ruth's voice here is not only pure and relatable but also adds a great deal to the mysterious nature of the novel and to the reader's curiosity about what truly happened on the night Ruth's mother drowned.

Overall, I felt the building of the characters was the strongest and best part of Drowning Ruth. I felt like I could really see from their perspectives and empathize with all of them, even when their decisions had bad consequences for themselves or the others in the book. I also loved that the setting had subtle elements that reminded me that the book took place in a different time that were interesting and aded to the story but weren't shoehorned in. I was able to get lost in the story and feel as if I was there, and the tone of uneasiness throughout the novel made it slightly uncomfortable in a wonderful way, like watching an eerie film.

The back-and-forth style of the novel allows the author to tease and build the mystery over time. I usually find this style a little boring and predictable since it's used to often now, but one again I felt that Schwarz employed it perfectly and I was truly engaged and surprised as the mystery unraveled and more and more layers were revealed. Drowning Ruth is engrossing while being realistic - the shock comes from how logical and relatable the answers are to you as they are revealed, which I found helped me really get lost in the novel.

Drowning Ruth is a deep, sad novel in which the characters have complex, real relationships and are visited often by everyday tragedies that compile and take a toll. There are moments of joy, for sure, but it is not a happy book. It takes the reader's focus to follow the story and the reader's emotional strength to finish it. I loved that character of Amanda and how her perspective and values deepened and changed throughout the book as she faced loss and decided which secrets to keep and from whom. After reading the book, I realized how skilled Schwarz must have been to make me feel such empathy for Amanda even in the face of all she had done.

This book is a demanding read that will make you feel deeply and question your own values and how you would face conflicts of loyalty. It's not relaxing or comforting to read. That said, I really liked it and would recommend it if you like character-driven literary fiction with an element of mystery. 

- Charlotte

Thursday, April 27, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy

If You Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy is up next. I love the range of time periods of these books; this particular one finds us in Florence immediately after the Middle Ages. 

The Middle Ages were rough on everyone. The rich owned the land and everyone else worked on it. The Renaissance, which begins in the 1400's, saw a move from an agricultural subsistence to the addition of art and architecture to society. As bankers became richer, specifically the Medici's, they hired more artists. You  might be familiar with Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael -- and no, I'm not referring to the Ninja Turtles. These were famous artists who were commissioned for house paintings as well as some of the most famous art we have in galleries around the world today. 

Your family would have been large -- you would have had many brothers and sisters. Your father would have run his business out of your first floor, and your job was one of the following: as a boy, do well in school, and as a girl, learn how to keep a good house. We can cry about this, but it was 600+ years ago and we can't change it. We can only learn from it. 

Just as in Ancient Greece, the water was no good, so you were stuck with wine. (It's not a bad deal, really.) Your clothes were far more ornate than your own parents' were, and you totally dig that. You wore even more ornate clothes to festivals. Everyone in the Renaissance period loves festivals. That's why today we have Renaissance fairs. Because everyone loves festivals and turkey legs

However, the most important part of this time period was the art. Roman has included in the back of her book a list of some of the most famous pieces of the time and a picture with a caption describing it, including Michaelangelo's David and Hands of God & Adam and DaVinci's Mona Lisa. I am partial to art of this period as well not just because I love sculpture (blame it on my classical background), but because of the famous Lorenzetti brothers and distant relatives (Pietro and Ambrogio, my boys). Roman also includes a list of famous people of the time with a picture and a description, and as usual a glossary. These books are just so handy and informative, and I love that they skew older than her other series that I love so much. I appreciate the time and thought put into this work; it's clear that it is done with an eye toward education, and I am happy to add this one to my arsenal. Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived in...Colonial America

If You Were Me and Lived in...Colonial America is Carole Roman's next addition to the history collection

If you were a settler of Colonial America, you would have left England in the early years of the 17th century. You would have most likely been a Protestant, and possibly even a Puritan. You would have braved a lot to come to this new world in order to live life the way you wanted, including disease, famine, and even death. Your family would have built your house from absolute scratch, as would have your whole village. Crops had to be grown from nothing, so these were a few years in coming. You had no new clothes for quite some time -- after all, where would you get the wool for the fabric? Life was hard the first few years in the settlement of America.

So we all remember the Mayflower from our days in history, right? But do you remember the Speedwell? Yeah, so, in my mid-30's I am finally learning that the Mayflower was NOT the only ship to bring over settlers to America the first go-round. You would think that someone would have told us that in US History at some point, right? Nope.

There were other very interesting pieces of information in here that I can't say I remember from days in school. The story of the first Thanksgiving, and the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans is a bit whitewashed, and while I understand that sitting down with a seven year old and describing the intricacies of small pox may not be high on your to-do list this Wednesday afternoon, there is a level at which you can discuss the commandeering of land that doesn't belong to you and the systematic killing off of those viewed as "savages." This is my one big complaint with this book; I wish it had treated this relationship as less a meeting of the minds and more of the supplanting of colonial culture in a land that wasn't the Brits to begin with.

Otherwise, I did learn some things I didn't know before. There was the Speedwell, obviously, but I also didn't know that there were 32 kids on the Mayflower. While not a surprise -- clearly people brought over their families -- I am not sure I ever knew the actual number. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived in...Ancient Greece

Carole Roman's If You Were Me and Lived in...Ancient Greece is my second installment this week, and I'm having a blast with these books.

If we lived in ancient Greece, we would have lived almost two and a half millenia ago. That's almost 2,500 years. We would have lived in a society that set the paving stones for modern democracy, and yet we would have had slaves. Our family would have lived in small quarters, and we would have eaten what we know today as a Mediterranean diet: olives, figs, cheese, and fish. And wine -- so much wine. It was far more sanitary than water. Boys and girls were treated differently in regards to education. If you were me and lived in ancient Greece, life would be very different.

I found it so interesting that Roman mixed in the gods and goddesses throughout the book, and it really served to emphasize her point early on in the religion was everywhere for the ancient Greeks. Now, what we do know about their "religion" is that the gods themselves were worshiped, but whether or not is could be considered religion is a little dubious to many scholars. Other religions took hold during this time as well, and so it's a complicated subject. However, the incorporation of the many gods and goddesses throughout the book as they pertained to whatever subject she was writing about at the time was a really lovely and spot-on choice.

Roman also mentions more than just gods and goddesses -- Hippocrates is also mentioned, as is Alexander the great and both The Illiad and The Odyssey. There is a glossary as well as a reference page to the gods and goddesses. I am just super impressed with how this book turned out specifically, as I have a fondness for ancient Greece. While I am no expert in classical culture, I did spend a great deal of time with the subject in college as that was my major. I have always been more attracted to ancient Greece than Rome, which is funny considering I took more years of Latin than I want to admit and I'm Italian. Something about the ancient world, Alexander the Great, and the Mediterranean just draws me in. I can't wait for my child to be old enough to enjoy this book with me. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived In...Elizabethan England

When a new batch of Carole P. Roman books come in, I am always thrilled. I was even more beside myself when I saw that it was a brand new series that extended off of her world series, this time bringing slightly older kids back in time to different time periods. Today's book is If You Were Me and Lived In...Elizabethan England.

If your name is Elizabeth or Henry, you are in luck! You would have fit right in during this time period. Kids were named for kings and queens, because, after all, it's Elizabethan England. If you lived in the big city -- London, that is -- you would have resided in a crowded residence with no bathroom and trash on the street in front of your home. You most likely would have run a business out of your first floor. If you lived in the country you certainly would have had more space, but pests were definitely an issue. No matter where you lived, you would have avoided the water. Just -- don't ask. You were either Catholic or Protestant, and you often ate your meals with many friends and family. Girls were trained to be housewives and boys were sent off to school or to master a trade. If you were me and lived in Elizabethan England, you would be making dinner even as I type this.

I am already super pumped about this series, and it's only my first book. I love that these books skew older and reach a different audience. In fact, I am keeping a small box of "older" books for my baby in order to have more to hand it as it gets older and starts reading more. I would put these books around 4th or 5th grade (unsure where they would fall on the F&P scale, for you educators out there), but they are definitely good to have around. There is a nice, long glossary of terms in this particular book, and the list of people you should know from the time period is pretty comprehensive in terms of history. It's also an informative book, and I love the sneaky learning factor that Roman always includes in her work. I'm excited for these books!


Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Mothers: A Novel

This is a good story. I wanted to nab this book so bad at Book Expo last year, and I missed the official drop. I was in line for another book, and I saw the woman behind me had a copy. I was lamenting to her how much I wanted it, and she was like, "Here, take my copy." I replied, "No no no, I coldly imagine doing that," and she was like, "Girl, I run a book club with over a thousand members. I'll just head back to the booth and get another copy. They love me." WHAT?!? The amazing kindness of strangers brought me Brit Bennett's incredible debut, The Mothers.

Nadia Turner was just like any other high school girl until her mother killed herself. The grieving girl finds herself in the throes of Luke Sheppard, the preacher's son and no-longer-fixture at Upper Room. When she finds herself pregnant and needing an abortion, Luke hands her the money and disappears from the waiting room. This choice will alter both of their lives in profound ways. After graduation, Nadia heads out to see the world without looking back, and Luke moves on into a deeper depression and decisions that will alter his future. Years later, life will see these two crash into each others' life course again. 

I had a hard time getting into this book; I started reading it then put it down for a couple of weeks. When I came back to it, I was fully in it to win it. I needed a focus, I think, that I didn't have when I started it. The reason this was necessary is because Bennett is one of these writers that has a lot to say in not a lot of words, and I needed to be clued into that and willing to listen while she whispered. It was astonishing, really, to get into this book and realize the gift that was wrapped between its covers. Bennett's prose is like an undercurrent; it's so outstanding that you only realize upon finishing what a gift it was to read it. Like one of those comedies that moves so fast you only laugh after you are a paragraph out -- a "gotcha" moment. 

Her characters came alive -- how easy it is to understand Nadia's wanderlust combined with her guilt for leaving her father. She was an entirely easy-to-relate-to character while keeping a cool distance for us readers. I hated Luke, yet still had a deep sympathy for him when physical tragedy struck the second time. Aubrey, Nadia's best friend, was like someone I knew and cared for myself. They story was insightful, but it was these characters that kept drawing me back. 

I don't know the lady who gave up her copy for me, but I would like to thank her for her kindness and for passing on one hell of a book to me. I'll repay your kindness by giving this book to someone who needs it as much as I did. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This Is How You Lose Her: Stories

I have yet to pick up any of Junot Dìaz's books, so this week on the train I packed This is How You Lose Her, his most recent collection of short stories. 

Yunior is a young man who gets into all sorts of pickles with women. He is the through line of these stories. From his mishaps with the opposite sex to stories of his childhood, Yunior's life is presented in technicolor for all to see. He has cheated on his fiancé for six years and is devastated to lose her. He watches his brother waste away from cancer while losing his mother. He watches his father lose his mother. Yunior's repeats those same old patterns. He is, however, on all of these stories, simply himself. 

I had a hard time getting into the first two stories. I wasn't thrilled with how the women were spoken about, and while yes, I understand that this is how the character thought of the women he dated, I was still not comfortable with the crude objectification of the physical aspects of these women that were clearly only focused on the sexual aspect of their relationship. In context, yes, it makes sense, but I'm not sold. 

However, as we moved into the stories about Yunior's relationship with his family I became far more engrossed and bought into the writing. Dìaz's astonishing prose really shine in those moments of fragility in Yunior, when he spoke of his brother and the confusion that broke through the hard-hearted surface of Yunior's facade. This carried over into the story of his life after his fiancé -- he was flippant and lost her, and when he recovered years later from his broken heart, he was never the same. It was a beautiful treatise on self-exploration, as told through parallel tracks of Yunior and his best friend. 

I'm now interested to pick up the rest of the Dìaz cannon to see what I think. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Pilot's Wife: A Novel (Guest Blogger Charlotte)

Hey!

The Pilot's Wife is a 1998 novel by Anita Shreve. This isn't the type of book I'd normally be drawn to, as the cover makes it look like a serious, sappy look into marriage. But, I was intrigued by the fact that it was selected for Oprah's Book Club, and I know better than to judge a book by its cover, so I gave it a try.

The book is about Kathryn, a wife and mother whose world is rocked at the start of the novel when she learns that her pilot husband has died in a plane crash along with all his passengers. From the beginning, it is both a love story and a mystery. 

I'm starting to long for a novel that just goes in chronological order. While The Pilot's Wife doesn't technically start in the middle and jump backwards, it is packed with flashbacks and memories that take the reader through the romance of Kathryn and her husband Jack, from when they met until the day before he left for his final flight.

It's a fast read in part because so much of the story is far from unique: the once-hot romance turned boring, the distant teenage daughter who wants to stay in bed all day, the beachside estate with a dark and stormy ocean as a symbol of loneliness and mystery. That said, the writing is engaging and it's easy to get involved in the story and very interested in Kathryn's point of view and her perspective on the relationships around her.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the mystery aspect of the book. We learn of Jack's death when a union officer arrives late at night and knocks on the door to notify Kathryn. This is the beginning of his presence in the book as a calming but questioning friend, and of Kathryn's quest to find out what really happened, as she's initially sure her husband can't have been at fault for the crash. While the house is constantly surrounded by reporters and news shows on the TV all day, she tries to protect her daughter and make sense of what may have happened.

The Pilot's Wife builds the mystery slowly and focuses on Kathryn's perspective on her husband. As she begins to notice tiny things that tell her about parts of her life that were unknown to her, she begins to dig further. But for me, this is where the appeal of the book fell apart, because after chapter upon chapter of slowly finding little almost-non-existent clues, everything is revealed so quickly that it feels improbable and left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I closed the book wondering at first if maybe my copy was missing the last few chapters. I didn't actually feel that the beginning was slow, but that could be my love for dramatic irony, which a lot of readers find frustrating. But I did feel that the end was too abrupt to be a true, appropriate finish for the story that had been building - it didn't feel realistic to me.

Overall, I liked The Pilot's Wife and I'd suggest it as an easy but well-written read if you're feeling reflective. 


- Charlotte

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Underground Books -- Carrolton, GA

This weekend I went home to visit my folks and be the guest of honor at my baby shower. We are about 10 weeks away (give or take 2) from meeting Baby Sassy Peach, which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. I hope he loves to read, because he got A LOT of books. I'll post on that later. 

My parents and I drove out to see my brother who is just north of Carrolton, and I had never been there. After eating at The Brown Dog Eatery, which was seriously out of this world -- I can't recommend it enough -- we wandered through the most adorable downtown area and came across two bookstores: Underground Books and Horton's Bookstore, which advertises itself as the oldest bookstore in Georgia. Horton's was closed on Sunday -- bummer -- but Underground was open, and I was in love. 

  

The store is underground, which made it all the cooler. It had used mass market trade paperbacks in the rafters, and I scored a John Grisham I haven't read yet. (Those are becoming few and far between.) It was a great selection of books, from the used to the new to the discounted to the antique. There was also a cute arch made out of old books. I bought the Grisham plus two Lisa Delpitt books I have been wanting to read. 

We also got a photo of Horton's even though it was closed. I told my mom and my brother they could be famous if I put a picture of them on my blog. 

 

Those cuties. 

We also passed by a Little Free Library downtown. This place is really quite lovely.