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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction

Jarrett J. Krosoczka's graphic novel Hey Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt with Family Addiction called out to me at Book Expo as a way to speak about these issues, particularly parental incarceration and addiction, with a younger audience who doesn't know that they are not alone. 

Jarrett grew up initially with his mother but when he was a toddler, his maternal grandparents took custody of him because they were concerned about the goings-on in his mother’s home. His mother would disappear for weeks or months at a time, sometimes sending Jarrett letters, but rarely visiting. As Jarrett grows older, his grandparents become more honest with him about the challenges with his mother — she is a heroin addict and has been in and out of prison his whole life. Jarrett, who spent years struggling with who he was and where he fit in, grew even more distant from his mother. Then, one day, his father sends him a letter. As Jarrett moves through adolescence, he must balance his own growing up, his mother’s struggle with addiction, and a new family he never knew he had. 

I was incredibly taken by this book — I read it the very day that I got a copy. It stayed at the top of my bag throughout the Expo and I found myself continually being happy to be standing in line so that I could get back to this book. It was an easy read in that it is aimed for the younger set, and Krosoczka's graphics are really great. It has a consistent color scheme, which I feel helps to set the story for the reader. In fact, as I was in line for another children’s book, I found myself extolling its virtues to a children’s librarian. Here’s the gist of what I told her. 

This book is vitally important for younger children. It’s a middle grade book, so sure, maybe its reading level isn’t quite elementary (although I would have read it as a fourth or fifth grader). But it should be on school library shelves. At one point in the book, Jarrett discovers that one of his classmates also has a mother who is an addict and he never knew. These kinds of secrets can tear children up, and with the amount of children in this country dealing with an addicted parent, it is so very important that these kids realize that they are not alone. One addicted person leaves at least a dozen affected people in his or her wake, and I am always amazed to find out how many of my friends either haven’t felt the sting of loving an addict or remain in denial about it. 

Krosoczka has published a deep, meaningful, and important work for young people that lets them know that they aren’t alone in dealing with hard stuff. The more we avoid talking about addiction, the more power we give the shame surrounding it. We cannot forget that those who love an addict are affected as well, and this includes even the smallest children. I originally picked up Hey, Kiddo for my son, because while he won’t be reading it for a while, I intend to be honest with him about our family’s struggles with addiction. We will not give power to the shame of an illness that affects so many, and I am thankful to Krosoczka for producing a beautiful, open-hearted piece of work for that purpose. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Pretty Is: A Novel

Maggie Mitchell's Pretty Is is part of the catch-up crew of books, ones that I was approved for an advance reader's edition years ago and unfortunately got sidetracked by life. Somehow, though, I come to these books exactly when I need them. 

Carly May and Lois were just twelve years old when thy were kidnapped by a man they knew only as Zed, taken to the woods deep in New York State and held there for six weeks that summer. After their rescue, their families kept them apart to avoid the reliving of those memories. The closure that they both sought, therefore, was never found. Now in their late twenties, Carly May is now Chloe, a D-list actress cast in a star-making role in a book that is a suspiciously familiar story of two girls kidnapped and held in a cabin in the woods. The book it is based off of was written by Lois, now an English professor by day  and pulp fiction writer by night. This event will push the two together again and force them to reckon with their past as they never have before. 

This book was one hell of a thriller — a slow burn through some kindling until it puffed out without you noticing. It was fascinating to watch and follow, and I have mixed feelings about the ending. I wanted a clean resolution — who was Zed, what were his motives, why did he take those specific girls — but we are only left with the same clues as the girls and are left to speculate on the exact motive. On one hand, I thoroughly appreciated that, because often I feel that writers underestimate their readers and provide resolutions that leave nothing to the imagination. On the other hand, it drove me nuts because I so desperately wanted to know what the hell was going on in that man’s mind. 

What is particularly intriguing about this book is that Zed isn’t even the focus — Lois and Chloe are. So we are left with this curiosity in the back of our heads in order to serve the girls. We know everything they know, and the reason we are left to speculate about the events of that summer is because the girls are. It has shaped who they have become and what they need in life, for better or for worse. At times I loved both of these girls and at times I absolutely hated them. They were not terribly likeae characters, which only served to make them realistic. Lois keeps everyone at arms distance, and Chloe seeks affirmation in her looks and her charm. They are extensions of who they were at age twelve, as though they are stuck in time. (I’ve been doing a lot of reading on trauma lately, and Mitchell got this pretty spot-on.)

I would give this book a go if you are into thrillers and crime and murder and mayhem. I found myself desperate to go back to it until I reached the conclusion, and I am secretly (well, not so secretly now) hoping for a sequel to find out some information that Mitchell left me hanging with. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Princess in Black: Science Fair Scare

The Princess in Black: Science Fair Scare by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham is part of a series that I did not know about before Book Expo this year. One major reason for this is that prior to this Book Expo, I hand no need to look for elementary and middle grade books. That has changed since the addition of my little guy as well as my desire to find books for my teacher education students, and this year was a feast of goodies.

Apparently I have been missing something, which is that The Princess In Black has so many adventures, and her science fair is just one of them. Why has no one told me? In this adventure, Princess Magnolia, our protagonist, heads to the science fair to present on her work regarding how seeds grow into plants. There are many princesses presenting, and everything is going well until one boy's volcano starts talking. Wait -- is that right? It turns out that boy, Tommy, added monster fur to his volcano to help it erupt, and erupt it does -- right into a big old monster who is set to destroy the entire science fair! Can Princess Magnolia, err, the Princess in Black, get rid of the monster (in a humane way, of course) and save the science fair before the monster eats it all?

I am so very happy that I picked up this book to have on my son's bookshelf as he heads into elementary school in a few years. Not only is it so much fun without being scary, but it features female protagonists who are also superheros when they aren't princesses. The Princess in Blankets joins the Princess in Black to fight the monster while also aided by other princesses who are at the science fair. It is important to me to surround my child with female heroes deliberately and frequently, because he, as a White male, will be surrounded by his likeness frequently and unconsciously. I loved the moral of this story, and how the girls saved the day. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ohio: A Novel

The premise of Stephen Markley's novel Ohio was so compelling that I fought tooth and nail to get an advanced copy. 

One hot, muggy night in The Cane a few years bah, four classmates converge on their hometown (New Canaan, but really, who calls it that?) on a series of missions that are inextricably bound even if they don’t realize it. Bill is running an errand for an old friend, muling something he doesn’t know but would love to find out because the drugs he’s taking are nuts. Stacey has been asked to meet with her nemesis, the mother of her high school lover who has run away and wants it to stay that way. Dan is a veteran of three tours who is back to visit his folks and catch up with the only woman he has ever loved. Tina seeks a reckoning for choices others made for her that have steered her life since high school. Tonight will change the trajectory of so many lives, leaving the wreckage of the baggage of the past out and open for all to see. 

So, I’m dead. I was so utterly, completely destroyed by this novel that I can’t even see strait. This was such an outstanding piece of work that I honestly thought I might never read anything else ever again. This absolutely killed me. I felt myself slowly creeping back to the book after I put it down, wanting to be back in the world of these kids who were just that — kids — as they watched their world change so drastically. These characters are a little younger than me, and I understand their zeitgeist because it is my own. I know what it is like to live without war, without the prison industrial complex, and without the full invasion of addicting, homemade drugs. The landscape of their lives has shifted dramatically in small-town post-industrial America that it’s no wonder those who get out can, and they never return. Those who stay end up barely living if they remain alive. 

I could see some of the twists and turns coming, but I did not see the biggest one, the undercurrent of the reason they all are back. This history, this Eason, draws them all like a magnet back to their center and holds on to them as if their lives depended on it. No matter how far these four have come, they will never be separate from their inner core. Stacey wrestles with her demons and the loss of the first person she truly, whole-heartedly loved. Bill’s demons are all in his head, and he must wrestle with himself in order to breathe. Dan is truly heartbreaking — a man who gave up everything to serve and lost so much, except loyalty. Tina — man, I rooted for Tina once I figured out what she was up to. I wanted her to find a solution so badly. 

This novel was incredibly affecting, so much so that my heart hurt after I closed the final page. It was truly a gift to read in every way, and I’m so grateful it came into my life. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Dave Eggers' What Can a Citizen Do?

I love Dave Eggers, and when I saw he was releasing a children's book, What Can a Citizen Do?, illustrated by Shawn Harris, at Book Expo, I absolutely stood in line for his autograph. He made it out to my son, so that he will know that he is a citizen and there are so many things that he can do.

He can do so many things -- join causes, write letters, build things, stand up for beliefs, do kind things for others. The key is that a citizen must be engaged and they must be part of their society. Do things to help others regardless of who they are and what they need. After all, we never know the battles that others are fighting. Being a part of something is bigger than me and you -- we are citizens.

Where to start with this lovely piece of work that I love so much that I might not let my son touch it before his 18th birthday? Or, you know what, since his prefrontal cortex doesn't finish developing until he's in his mid-20's, he can't touch it until then which is fine because I wasn't about to let him out of the house anyway. But since I want him to be a good citizen, maybe I should take everything in this paragraph back and send him out into the world.

I love the sentiment of this book, and the poem itself is just wonderful and lovely. That the thrust of the book is to be a good citizen, which means recognizing that there is injustice in the world and that it is your job to fix it, is not just a sweet and ambitious idea, but it's the reality of our current circumstances. I have heard for years from parents of small children then they can do their part by teaching their children to love everyone, and the reality of that idea is that it's privileged, uninspired, and missing what is required to be an active, meaningful citizen. In order to teach our children to be citizens we must make explicit for them how to be good citizens -- caring for others, finding the helpers (thanks, Mr. Rogers!), being the helpers, giving of your time and your talents in any way that you can, and standing up for what is right. It is not enough just to love others -- oh sure, it's sweet -- but we must also teach our children to be active.

That is what is at the heart of this gorgeously illustrated, deeply worded book for young people. May my son always know that he must be a citizen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Florida: Stories

I loved Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies (which I have et to finish, years later!), which I'm not sure I ever blogged about, so I requested her new book of short stories, Florida, as soon as I could. 

I wasn’t entirely sold by the first story — that of a suburban mom who walks her anger off for hours every night, watching her neighborhood change and shift throughout the seasons. But the second story brought me in a bit — that of Jude and his life’s tale in 14 pages. This story was fascinating, in that Groff takes you from Jude’s childhood to the day he sends his daughter off to college. It’s a wild ride, one that manages to break your heart while also being somewhat bare bones. It speaks to Groff’s astounding storytelling, that she can speed through a life and you feel like you know him intimately.

“Dogs Go Wolf,” the third story, is what completely sold me. The tale of two young girls left to fend for themselves on an island, alone, was gripping and jaw-dropping. Groff has this ability to create fully formed characters within a single page, so that when you realize the tragedy of their existence you can’t turn back and in-know it. I was both intrigued and devastated by these two girls, hoping for them that their mother wouldn’t be the jerk that she was and that she would come back for them. It wasn’t meant to be, and we as the readers are better off for that. We leave with more than we came with. 

Through the story of the woman with a head injury camping with her two sons, we move into another one of Groff’s masterpieces, a story in which a woman opts to ride out a hurricane at home, only to be visited by the great dead loves of her past. This story was surprisingly moving and I found my throat catching in moments. It is a little life-flashing-before-your-eyes but with an honest twist, as there are no holds barred between her and her ghosts. 

The next two stories were equally arresting — one of a pair of friends on holiday in France, where secrets peek around every corner, and the other a woman on annual holiday in Brazil in which her mettle is tested by a storm. As the stories progress, Groff’s writing continues to make its mark as she weaves the tales of these women who are three-dimensional and full of life and love and missteps and small triumphs. You may think you know what is going to happen, but Groff will surprise you with what you least expect, and boy, is that a feat. 

As I rinsed out the last of her stories, I put down this book better than when I came to it, and for me that is a mark of the beauty of this work. I need to turn back to Fates and Furies next, this time with a fresh appreciation for Groff and her storytelling. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Whistler: A Novel

I may have mentioned this on the blog before, but my husband is the greatest man alive. Not only do I love him for who he is, but he understands and encourages my book obsession. How does that relate to John Grisham's The Whistler? Well, it was one of two books he gifted me for Christmas a couple of years ago -- in hardback no less. Knowing full well that my TBR pile is actually a TBR bookcase that's overflowing. That's love. 

The investigators on Florida’s Board on Judicial Conduct rarely get fired up about their work. There is no shortage of corrupt judges and a big shortage on funding. They do their job, deal with what they can, and go on with their lives. That is, until the day that Lacy Stoltz, a seasoned investigator, gets a lead on one of the biggest cases of anyone’s career. It involves many moving parts — a corrupt judge in the pocket of a mysterious billionaire who no one has eyes on, an Indian reservation and casino, and an informant who changes his own identity too much to keep of track of. It seems like a complicated case but it soon becomes dangerous — no one guessed when they went to law school that they might also lose their life. 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. It was a slight departure from the Grisham formula while still holding true to the legalistic thriller that he does so well. I don’t remember in the past being drawn to Grisham’s female characters; it could possibly be because he doesn’t often have female protagonists that are strong and smart and the actual lead of the story. I could be wrong — I’m not going back to check right now — but it worked in this story. I quite liked Lacy and her firebrand attitude. I liked that she was a badass at her job but when tragedy strikes, she is still a fully-developed human who dead with things the way we all do — caution and putting walls up and wariness about other people’s motives. 

I also appreciated that this story had twists and turns that I didn’t see coming but even if I had, I would still be left guessing so many details. Those moving parts I mentioned. This was a complicated story that could have twisted out of control but Grisham kept the story centered and grounded in the one solid understanding that power corrupts and the love of money is the root of all evil. I passed this book on to a friend of mine to enjoy as much as I did. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

D.C. Trip: A Novel

D.C. Trip by Sara Benincasa is another one of those books that has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years and I decided it was about time that I picked it up this summer. Oh my god, you guys. Oh my god. I died. 

Alicia Deats is a novice teacher in her first year at a high school in New Jersey. She is madly in love with the awkward and square math teacher, Bryan, and she volunteers to co-chaperone the sophomore class trip to Washington, D.C. that spring. Sivan, Gertie, and Rachel have been best friends since nursery school and are excited about the trip -- Gertie especially once she finds out the boy she has been in love with her whole life will also be on his school trip then, too. They will, however, have to deal with their enemies, the "cuntriad," who are definitely out to get them: Peighton, Brooklynn, and Kaylee. In the meantime, they are expected to learn their history in our nation's capital.

I found this book to be laugh out loud funny. Without a doubt one of the most fun books I have read in a while (because murder and mayhem isn't exactly "fun," if you know what I mean), I found myself sitting outside on my front steps the other day finishing the last 10 pages because I wanted to just enjoy them rather than having to put the book down and come back to it. I walked into my apartment building with a smile on my face and a skip in my step. Benincasa has written a book that just has so much joy and lust for life. She takes her characters so seriously, and that's why they are funny. She is a clearly lighthearted person (I follow her on Twitter and I think she's hilarious), and she gives her characters a full body and soul and that's what makes her writing so on point.

Alicia is a wannabe-hippie and we have all known girls like her who found their "inner spirit" and fully believe in making their own deodorant. One of my favorite quick moments in the story is when the girls catch her removing her dreamcatcher earrings after a discussion of cultural appropriation at one of the D.C. museums. [Insert me giggling here.] She is a little bit of all of us -- a girl who doesn't quite know who she is and where the boundaries are, and at 23 years old she is discovering them. Bryan is a grumpy gus who is hiding his insecurities in his intelligence. On one hand I wanted Alicia to win him over and on the other, I couldn't figure out why she wanted him so badly.

The thing I loved most about this book was the story arc and Benincasa's ability to toggle between one main story line (the class trip) and the two sub-story lines (Alicia loves Bryan and the trio's exploits). It was seamless and easy to read while also being just plain brilliant. Benincasa has a quick wit, and it works in writing for high school characters and their cadences, speech patterns, and emotional needs. Never once did I doubt that she had experience as a high school girl because these characters were so on point. Hell, even Brock, the typical popular boy who is dumb as a rock, was completely on point and absolutely hilarious. When he gets around to reading an emotional book, you will sit on edge while he gets advice from the class punching bag and then reviews the book later on the bus. Just go read it for yourself.

This book was an outstanding summer read and I couldn't recommend it more highly. It was funny and sweet, and now I need to go find more of Benincasa's work so that I can fill my heart with happiness again. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life.

Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. by Anotonia Felix is a new biography out on Senator Elizabeth Warren, and this one focuses specifically on Sen. Warren’s work and how she came to be such a staunch consumer advocate. 

Elizabeth grew up in Oklahoma, the middle-class daughter of two parents who tried to give her and their three sons a “regular” life. That was until her father suffered health issues and her family went into financial dire straits. Her mother, who didn’t believe women should work unless it was necessary, went to Sears and took a job to keep her family above water. Elizabeth fought her tooth and nail to go to college. From there, to now, was a long road full of gusto, grit, and gumption. 

This biography was overall fantastic in that it provided me, the reader, with an intelligent yet accessible summary of Sen. Warren’s work in bankruptcy law. It’s a complicated subject, and one that is easy to tune out of when in books due to a lack of comprehension. I am one smart cookie, but I get bored when I can’t understand. The big advantage this book has is that Felix breaks down complicated legal concepts for the average reader. She does an incredible job — I now have a much stronger understanding of Sen. Warren’s work and why she is the advocate she is today. 

Elizabeth, always a bright and intelligent child, gave up on college early to marry her first husband. Reading this I wanted to scream into the book, “NOOOOO STOOOOOOPPPP.” We know how brilliant she is and where she is going, so it would all turn out fine, but it broke my feminist heart to watch her make this decision for the reasons she made it. It was important to me to read her story and understand how she became the lawyer and advocate that she is. 

One particular note of importance here is that Felix has done an incredible job of making Sen. Warren’s research and academic work on bankruptcy research accessible for the masses. It still wasn’t simple, but it was laid out clearly in layman’s terms so that we can understand the how and they why of the senator’s academic trajectory. It was so clear, in fact, that I’m going to keep this book to reference it when I need a jolt remembering Sen. Warren’s work and the reasoning behind it. 

Felix has painted an incredibly empathetic portrait of Sen. Warren, and I might have been easily swayed if I were less of a skeptic. I happen to be a fan of Sen. Warren as a woman, an academic, and a politician. I also would expect nothing less out of her biographer than praise. However, at times — most notably the final notes of the book — Felix is a little starry-eyed when writing about the senator. It’s not enough to be bothersome, but it is something that I noticed while wrapping up the book. 

I have already recommended this book three times and I just finished it. It’s well worth a read about the woman behind the watchdog. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Mars Room: A Novel

I read about Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room as a highly-anticipated summer read, so I immediately hopped on the library request train for it.

Romy Hall is on her way to her permanent prison assignment to begin the first of her two life sentences. She has left behind her young boy in the care of her mother, with whom she's never had a great relationship. As she reflects back on the events that brought her there, starting with her work at the strip club The Mars Room, we visit her scrappy life on the fringes of society, her choices and her independence, and the unfair way that systemic issues put her away. She moves forward in her life in prison, creating a life for herself with no hope of getting out, forming alliances and friendships and aching for her baby boy. When there is no hope of seeing the outside again, how do you hold on to what you love the most?

I originally wanted to find out what the life sentences were for -- of course it was murder, but what's the story there? -- and while you find out early on, it takes the whole book to put the pieces together, ending with a flash-bang punch in the gut when you realize that even though every story has two sides, it's only because there are two perspectives. It's not necessarily because both people are right. I think I was oblique enough in that description for those who don't want spoilers, but I'll go in detail in the paragraph below. Skip to the following if you don't want to know some details.

We find out very early on that Romy killed her stalker when he showed up at her new home in a new city, the one she moved to in order to get away from him. This seems fairly cut and dry, because of course she felt threatened. Even though I stick by that throughout my next statements, Kushner did a ram-bam-thank-you-ma'am treatment on the stalker when we hear his story in the final few chapters. In his mind, he was in love with her and only wanted to make sure she was OK by following her around. Now, we know that this would have escalated -- it almost always does -- and I still feel the protagonist was in the right for defending herself. The issue here is the mind of the stalker. It's not a malicious series of events in his mind, even if you and I would agree that his actions were creepy and inappropriate. This is what makes Kushner so remarkable; she doesn't aim to make things black and white and she has an incredible ability to whack you over the head with empathetic story telling.

Romy is a character that I grew to love and I looked back on her life with in hopes that I could fix the things that went wrong. Not her choices, but the things that happened to her that stacked up against her. It's easy to say that her choices led her to those moments, but it's far more complicated than that. She chose to move, she chose a life with a man who could give her just what she needed at that moment, she created a community in her odd little world, but it couldn't spare her the fate that she faced. Reading her tale of her trial was painful because it's the story of so many indigent accused. Whether or not they deserve to serve a life sentence isn't the way of the justice system -- it's about the counsel you can afford. Unfortunately for a large swath of the population in the US, that's an overworked and underpaid public defender. Just listening (well...reading) to Romy's conversation with hers when she calls from prison asking about her son is infuriating. While I understood her anger and despair, I also understood that the public defender couldn't give his all to everyone when they were no longer on his docket.

Kushner's book is a wonder, and it's hard to put down even as you despair over its contents. This is an incredible piece of writing that repulsed me at times, broke my heart at other times, and made me desperate for the survival of the women she writes about. All of this was done because she has an ability to pull her readers in with her prose, her characters, and her story arc. It's incredible, and well worth the time to stick your nose in its pages.