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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...

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

There is a lot to talk about today, kids. This is Bruce Wagner's The Empty Chair. 

In these two connected novellas, an author that has collected people's stories comes across two that are strangely connected. In "The First Guru," a gay man searches for inner peace after the suicide of his young son. "The Second Guru" is a story that temporally occurred before the first but must come second, according to the author, in order for us to understand the connection. In this story, an aging woman named Queenie found herself in more than a few jams as a young woman and sets out on her own spiritual journey in her later years. When the connection between these two emerges, it is simple yet powerful.

I was incredibly taken by the first story, that of a man whose name we never know but whose story is lovely and devastating all at the same time. The phrase "the empty chair" refers to so much both physically and metaphorically, and it comes across so clear in this first novella. I felt that the man was speaking with me in the interview and not with the fictional narrator, and that was the most wonderful part of this novella. While the story is being told in just one place and time, I was able to witness the character arc fill the space fully and deeply. It was a wonderful piece of writing, and I found myself really contemplating my own beliefs while reading this section. A good piece of work will make you think.

I did not find myself quite as happy with the second novella; I found it to be meandering and unclear at times and when I got halfway through the section I realized that I just wasn't getting it. I pushed through, but ultimately decided that I would focus my energies on the beauty of the first section of writing.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Running with Scissors: A Memoir

I had yet to read Augusten Burrough's Running with Scissors, and I thought this past summer would be a perfect time to pick up the paperback version and indulge in a little kookiness.

Something is wrong with Augusten's family. His mother is crazy and his father could care less about anything. When his mother announces that Augusten will soon be under the care of her therapist Dr. Finch, Augusten is unsure of what will happen to him. The Finch's, after all, are even crazier than his mother. In his years in their home, Augusten discovers he is gay and takes a much older lover, finds his best friend, and gets into shenanigans he would have missed otherwise.

This is the kind of summer beach read that I love. It was wild and out-there and a devil of a read--one where I found myself smiling and having a ball of a time. I especially recommend this book in paperback because it is the perfect indulgence of a vacation read. (I personally find paperbacks to be like the private chocolate stash you don't tell your family about that is in the back of the junk drawer in the kitchen. Shhh...) It is on the light side, meaning that you can read it in a few days, but it still has the substance you look for in a summer book.

I did find myself often wondering how true this story could actually be. Upon further thought, though, I realized I didn't care because it was exactly what I want in a story. A little exaggeration, a lot of memory, and a sprinkle of crazy. Well, okay, never mind--it's a cup and a half of crazy. It didn't require me to make a flow chart of characters--they came off the page themselves and lived in life. I was able to take a ride-along on the crazy train for a few hours. 

And let me tell you--it was a blast.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Harry Potter Series

A beautiful, lovely, merry Christmas to you all! For those of you who do not celebrate this particularly holiday, I hope your season is merry and bright. To celebrate my love of book reading today, I am bringing you J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, but not in the usual way. 

I came to this series as an adult. I was just a little too old for the first couple of books when they were released, and by the time they caught my attention in college my tastes skewed away from fantasy. I always wanted to read them, but I was always distracted by the gazillions of other books I wanted to read. 

Finally, this summer, the Museum of Modern Art did a showing of all 8 movies in the course of a week. At this point I had read Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban. I was definitely interested in finishing the series, but again, I was distracted. I had even tried racing the 3rd grader I was babysitting to finish the series--she won.

So I took on the challenge of 8 Harry Potter movies in 7 nights. The first two movies mimicked the feel of the first two books--almost children's lit and children's movies, and I appreciated that the director was able to hold on to that feeling of whimsy and danger but still staying safe. By the time I reached the fifth movie, Order of the Phoenix, I got it.

Half way through the movie, it hit me like a ton of bricks: "I get why people love these stories." I get how meaningful they are, the fight between good and evil although it is only as clear as you understand it. I get the protectiveness that fans have over this series, and why they hold it so close to their hearts. It's not just because Harry is a great character--he certainly is, but that's not just it. These stories are epics in the most literal sense; they are one long, narrative poem that tells the story of a flawed hero and his incredible, strong, growing, loving companions fighting for what they believe is right and just. It is classic in every sense--it's what we as humans have been drawn to since the dawn of the story.

So I decided to make the last four books happen before the end of the year.

This will not be a post as per usual. I will not be synopsizing the books; many other websites will do these books justice where I can only scratch the surface. Wikipedia is just one of many. Head there if you need a catch-up before continuing. I will wait.

Ok, then. Good to go? Me too.

The first two books were very YA, and I liked them for what they were. It was Harry's childhood and it is hard not to love him and his raggedy group of friends. These are classic stories of good versus evil, whether that evil is as simple as a bully (Draco Malfoy) or as complicated as You-Know-Who.There is a certain simplicity about these first two stories, and arguably the third, that resembles what an ideal childhood should be--for a wizard, or a boy. The reality is that we all have simple evils
and complicated evils, even if they aren't wizards and witches. Moving forward in life is necessary if we want to keep living. There is also a certain simplicity in Harry's ignorance as to the enormity of his role in the world that is heartbreaking. He is a child, and there is no reason he should know what he must come to know at the end of Order of the Phoenix. The larger truths and complications with which he must wrestle as he matures are a part of his identity formation and begin to define him. I am specifically thinking of the mental wrestling Harry does in Half-Blood Prince when dealing with the weight that comes with being chosen rather than Neville. (You didn't think you would get out of here without some psychobabble, did you??? Nonsense, my friends.)

There is, though, a certain weightiness that comes with reading these books for the first time as a fully-formed (I think, anyway) adult. The

questions that loom over me in these books are not ones that I could formulate as a teenager, let along grapple. What if you were asked to sacrifice yourself for the greater good? Dumbledore's choice was of a great magnitude, one of which I am not sure I could ever understand nor do. I can sit here and say I would, but to know your death and to accept it so readily is heavy stuff. Harry's willingness to put his life on the line to save Sirius in the Ministry, and even more than that, his friend's willingness to possibly sacrifice their own lives, is enormous. It shows a kind of love that is only possible when given wholly and selflessly. That is a hard thing to grasp if you have never felt it, but Rowling dives deep and gives you it.

Moving away from the story for a moment, I was astounded by the gift of watching Rowling's writing grow over the course of a decade and seven books. I think she is a beautiful writer (see

her newest here), and it is clear how much she cut her teeth on these beloved characters. She is talented to begin with, but her growth with Harry and the crew is just beautiful. Stunning, even.

I find that I want to spend more time in the world of Hogwarts and Harry more as an adult than I would as a child. I think I would have sped through these books and loved them for their story, but as a grown woman I want to sit and ponder on their greater meaning. The battle in Deathly Hallows is soul-crushing and soul-satisfying; the build-up, though, in Half-Blood Prince might have been my favorite. We live in this day and age in a world filled with fear of the unknown, be it terrorism, disease, or the economy. I found this resonating with the inhabitants of Rowling's world while they were lying in wait for Voldemort to return. No one knew quite what to expect, only that the other shoe had to drop. It was, after all, prophesied.

This post has not been to sell you on reading the books; in truth, you have probably already read them and found your own reality within them. This was a coming of age story of such depth, breadth, and beauty that it is hard to not sit down with them and judge them each on their own merits.

I am glad I finally came to these books, but it had to be in my own time, in my own way. These are a joy to experience, but it has to be when you are ready. They hold so much within their spines, and the journey must be your own.

I have links below to purchase the books in all forms. If you haven't yet made the journey, choose your time and crack them open.

Meet you on platform 9 3/4.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir

It's memoir time again, folks! Today we have Kambri Crews' stunning Burn Down the Ground.

Kambri grew up in rural Texas poverty, the daughter of two deaf parents intricately connected with the Deaf community. Her mother is gorgeous, kind, and everything every woman in town wants to be--her father, however, is a philandering rage-aholic whose violence will soon land him in prison. To make the marriage work, her mother moves the family to the boonies of Texas, building a home and a life until it all comes crashing down due to her father's vices. It's not until she is an adult that Kambri can begin to seek answers and find a balance between her adult fear of her father's uncontrollable mind and the child-like deeply ingrained adoration that will always be.

I had read in several places what a searing and moving memoir this would be, and I was not disappointed. I was thoroughly engrossed in Kambri's story, and while it would have been interesting on its own, I feel that Kambri's willingness to bare her soul gave the story the gravitas that it certainly deserved. It is a heart-wrenching story, told from the perspective of a young girl who adores her father and can't understand the incredibly grown-up situations that endanger a marriage and a family.

This young girl becomes a teenager who watches her brother become so like her father, and she fears them both for whom they have become and that of which they are capable. This girl then becomes an adult who must face the hardest of challenges--testifying against her father in an attempted murder case because it is the right thing to do. These phases of Crews' life inform this remarkable story that will gut-punch you, make you angry, and pull at your heart. Life isn't fair, but how we deal with it informs whom we are, whom we become, and whom we will forever be.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Murder Code: A Novel

I LOVE MYSTERIES. I just do. Say "murder," and I am immediately needing to pick up the book. This is The Murder Code by Steve Mosby.

Detective Hicks is a seasoned detective who understands that behind every murder there is a reason--and it's always a reason that can be deduced. One night, a woman's body is found, bludgeoned to death. All signs point to the ex until, the very same night, another body, that of an itinerant man, is found. There is no connection, and as the murders keep occurring in great numbers, Hicks and his partner become more and more frustrated. The killer is defying logic. There is a code in these murders--can they find it in time to prevent so many others from losing their lives?

I really loved this book. I wasn't completely sold for the first quarter, but I am soooooo happy I stuck with it. By the time I hit the 3/4 mark, I was obsessed--couldn't put it down. It came at the point Hicks consulted with a data expert, one who looks for patterns. I will say that I couldn't figure out the pattern until the protagonist did, and I thought it was quite impressive that a story could be weaved so intricately.

I loved the side story that was happening as well, that of Hicks dealing with his past and his present. His estranged wife is pregnant, and he has yet to get excited about the baby. Some of this has to do with his abusive childhood, and some of it is just what happens over the course of growing apart from your mate. It was a great part of the story and really heightened the intrigue hovering over the main event. I love a good story that makes me think and pulls me back in every time I have to shut the book, and this was certainly it. It was a great thriller. 

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

The reality is, if Open Road Media publishes a book, I most likely am dying to read it. So I picked up Susan Brownmiller's seminal Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape now that it is an e-book.

This treatise on the history of rape is mind-blowingly detailed, meticulously researched, and emotionally difficult to come to grips. This encompassing history of our understanding of rape and its uses throughout history in war, the sociology of what it used to mean and what it means today, and the racial and sexual implications that have ignited such passionate ardor amongst so many are explored in this work of deep and profound significance.

I will be upfront with you in saying that this is not a short book, and it's not one for your beach vacation. It is, however, a powerful dissertation on a very contentious subject. I realize that the psychology of rape--as in, it's about power and not about sex--has only been recently accepted. (By recently, I mean the past few decades.) It is a tough subject about which to converse, and it is still very much misunderstood in more circles than it is otherwise. This book was originally published in 1975 at the (arguable) height of the feminist movement, so it is no surprise that many critiqued it as a feminist manifesto. I, for one, don't feel that speaking out about a life-changing event that occurs in 1 of 6 women (1 in 4 on college campuses) should be considered a "feminist issue." I consider this a human issue.

The history of rape in war and the exploration of the psychological and social historical underpinnings of the act are the underpinnings of this astounding book. Brownmiller also explores rape in prisons, race relations in the South in the early to mid-twentieth century, the myth of the heroic rapist, and how authorities have historically viewed rape reports. All of it is the most well-researched, in-depth writing I have seen in some time.

The fact that for generations, women reporting their rapes were (and to be frank, still are) viewed as women who just changed their mind afterward. They were (and still are) judged on how much they fought back--if there are no outward bruises, you must not have fought hard enough. Even as recently as last year, the idea that a woman cannot be "legitimately raped" still exists. Is that not horrifying to you? It certainly is to me. This, my friends, is only a small section of the book.

This book is angering, a call to arms to force us to make a change. It is a little disheartening to me that not much has changed in almost 40 years. Things are, though, beginning to make a breakthrough. Or at least, this is what I hope. Women are speaking out and refusing to be silenced. We are taking to heart Brownmiller's belief that rape shouldn't be confined to the backrooms of the police station. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back. It all has to start, though, with that first step.

Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Visitation Street: A Novel

Anything that is recommended by Dennis Lehane I pick up immediately. Hence my rush to read Ivy Pochoda's highly recommended Visitation Street.

One hot summer night, Val and June take a raft out in the bay next to their Red Hook neighborhood. The next morning, a local teacher finds Val under the dock barely alive. June, however, is nowhere in sight. What happened out on the water? Where is June, and is she even alive? How could this happen in their own community? This mystery sets the tone for an examination of two Red Hooks and the community members that call this neighborhood home--who they are, what they do, and how they inform each other.

This book felt as dark as the bottom of the water; the mood which which Pachoda left me was palpable and thorough, weaving through my inner being like tunnel slowly filling with the tide. It was quite amazing, really; to have that deep, dark, midnight blue pervading her prose as an ever-present reminder of how quickly innocence is lost. By the time you get to the end of the soul-searching narrative, you find that it ultimately doesn't matter what happened on the water that night--and it's only when you accept that the "what" doesn't matter that you find out the "why" of the whole story. It matters. It really does.

It is only when you take a step back do you realize that the sinister motives you seek in events are within your own walls. I thought this book was so honest in its portrayal of two versions of the same neighborhood; there is Visitation Street, where the middle-class folks life, and there are the projects, where drugs are ubiquitous and violence is ignored. How easily children move between these two worlds, and how far away the adults are from one another.

The summer of the events in question is one that will change so many lives. Cree, a young man who lost his father to violence at a young age, hopes to head off to college when his mother is stymied by her own body. Val deals with her memories of what happened on the water and the ghost of June yelling in her ear. Fadi runs his deli, helps out a shadow of a boy, and pins his high hopes on the incoming cruise ships. Jonathan teaches music while dealing with his own secret regarding his mother's death. The summer brings them together and forces their searching for themselves both with and through others.

So, yeah, I loved this book. I loved how dark and soul-searching it was and how it made me question what I believe about humanity. I believe there is an answer for everything, and even if it's crazy to you it makes sense to someone else. (That's the psychologist in me.) I loved the depth of Pachoda's writing and her willingness to give it all to her characters.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Rainmaker: A Novel

You didn't think I would get through the summer without a John Grisham novel, did you? Of course not. This is The Rainmaker.

Rudy Baylor is in his last semester of law school--broke, starving, and anxious to get his career started in a perfectly fine Memphis firm. During a clinic for what he calls his "old people law" class, he is approached by a couple whose son is dying due to an insurance company's refusal to pay for treatment. He is ready to hand off the case to another big-shot lawyer when he finds himself out of a job, out of his apartment, and a bankruptcy on his hands. This case is all he has left--and he finds the fraud runs much deeper than his clients and the case is much larger than he ever could have anticipated.

I will not shy away from telling you that the book is somewhat predictable; it's very much David versus Goliath and I am sure you have no doubt who will win. That does not, however, mean that I didn't have an enjoyable two days eating this book alive at the pool. It was classic Grisham, in that the little guy will come out ahead but not without a few bumps in the road. I appreciate this kind of tale, and it was very reminiscent of my Grisham beach book from last year. This means that I was able to kick back, relax, and let myself get swept away in this legal thriller with a willing suspension of disbelief.

There was also a subplot involving Rudy's romantic life which I thoroughly enjoyed. In most of Grisham's books that I have read thus far his protagonists have been married, so it was fun to read a book that involved a roundabout-type romance (nothing straightforward for this man!). Since I am not particularly a lover of bodice-ripper boy-meets-girl type books, it's nice to have the storyline woven into something that piques my interest (like a legal thriller where I can root for the underdog).

Was this book worth a beach read? Absolutely.

Get yo'self the novel below.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Which Brings Me To You: A Novel in Confessions

Oh, how I love a unique novel. This one is epistolary, and so original in concept and execution. This is Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott's Which Brings Me to You.

A woman and a man meet at a wedding. They almost sleep together in a coat closet--until he decides he might actually kind of like her and may not want to ruin it by sleeping together on the first non-date. Instead, he suggests they get to know each other the old fashioned way--through letters in the mail. What these two learn through the process of communication, about each other and about themselves, will either lead to the greatest romance in history or one hell of a romantic bomb. 

I had a blast with this book. It was such a unique concept for a story that I was fascinated by the layout. The character development was really great--by the end of the book I felt that I grew to know each of these people as separate individuals yet the potential beginning of coupledom. It was really fascinating and fun.

Dating in the time of electronic communication is frustrating, full of constant misunderstanding, and general untruths that can be dispelled with the click of a mouse. (I know, I'm in the midst of it.) It was heartening to read the story of a couple who was able to move past the lack of emotion in text messaging and awkward silences over the phone to pour out their feelings on paper. (Yes, these are fictional characters.) Taking stock of your romantic past to a potential romantic future--daring and awesome.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Want Not: A Novel

I enjoyed Jonathan Miles's earlier work, Dear American Airlines, so I grabbed his newest, Want Not, as soon as I heard it was coming out.

Thanksgiving Day 2007. Micah and Talmadge are freegans living off the grid in New York City when Talmadge's old college buddy comes to visit. Elwin is a professor of linguistics whose wife left him for a celebrity chef and his father is suffering from Alzheimer's. Dave, a ruthless debt collector, and Sara, his trophy wife, are both on their second marriages, Sara's husband having died in the World Trade Center. Her daughter, Alexis, is a teenager with a fraught relationship with her parents. As these three story trains run on their separate paths, they will soon collide in a life-changing way that will leave each of them affected forever.

I am usually not a fan of the triptych formula where stories collide, but Miles has a sneaky way of making you fall in love with him and his storytelling. You forget while reading his prose that he is guiding you up a shallow slope until you get to the top, look down, and realize you are standing on the highest cliff you have ever seen. Then he pushes you off.

The largest and most important theme of this book is waste. How do we view our consumer culture? Do we use everything that is available to us, or do we waste what we have both created and been given? When we look at trash, do we see it as waste or do we see it as untapped potential? Who gets to decide what is trash and what isn't? This is a theme I have been struggling with lately as I have been trying to come in under the national average of four pounds of trash per person produced every day.

I found Micah to be the most interesting character in this book; when Miles explores her backstory in detail I was rapt. It was fascinating and horrifying, lovely and astounding. Miles has a brilliant way of exploring his characters so that the reader knows them. Like, really knows them. I sit in awe of this book and its exploration into the deep, dark recesses of the human psyche and the implications of this on the world.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cartwheel: A Novel

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois is a novel inspired by real events--although it is truly a work of beauty and care on its own.

Lily Hayes is an enigma. Still practically a child, she flaunts her escapades in front of her family yet is privately conservative. When she is arrested for her roommate's murder while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, her family's lives are turned upside down. Her divorced parents and younger sister rush to her side, with everyone at a loss as to what to do next. As the prosecutor builds his case, two sides of Lily emerge--what people perceive, and who she believes she is. But which is the truth?

This book was intriguing, and I found myself with a furrowed brow quite often. Lily was truly a girl of many faces. I love that duBois really went with that theme in this book; the theme being that we are only whom we are perceived to be was eye-opening and truly terrifying. I think it's fair to say that we all realize this on a subconscious level, but the depth at which duBois explored this understanding in this book is really interesting and though-provoking. See, Lily from her own point of view is misunderstood, desperate for a place in the world, seeking an identity. Shockingly, she is exactly who she is supposed to be in her early 20's. The follies of youth, eh?

Another resonant theme I took out of this novel is how every single thing we do is construed in the light in which people view us. Every single thing that we do on a daily basis can be used against us when viewed through a lens of malice. Lily's email messages about how boring she found her roommate, Katy; her cryptic phone message for her sister in the middle of the night; her lying about having been fired. All of these things could have been completely innocent--Katy was a goody-two-shoes; Lily did, after all, just break up with her boyfriend the night of the phone message and of Katy's murder; and she was embarrassed about having been let go. However, when paired with another suspect's story, all of these are seen as more evidence of the crime. Just living your life and being who you are could result in evidence for the prosecution.

{I will give you time to shiver, then go delete your entire online presence.}

Basically I am telling you that this book is astounding in its depth and resonance at this very place in time in the world. duBois is a beautiful writer whose willingness write a variation on a theme that goes so much more into the psyche of our modern world is worth a read and more than a few thoughts. You just never know...

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eleven Days: A Novel

Punch me in the gut, why don't you, Lea Carpenter? This is Eleven Days, a novel.

Jason has been missing for eleven days. He is a Special Operations Forces member of the Navy, and he was on a top-secret mission the night of Bin Laden's capture. Sara, his mother, is at home waiting for any news. She is alone; Jason's father died years before and he is her only child. She is kept company by one of Jason's colleagues, but she must go through the days with only her memories. What makes up who we are? How did we get here? What is the measure of one's sacrifice to our nation when that person is someone's child?

This absolutely incredible novel had me inconsolable on the 7 train. Tears. The ugly cry. The heaving. There was a point in time where I thought I was reading narrative non-fiction. I thought this was someone's real life. It is, I imagine, on some level--Carpenter tells us in her notes that on the night of Bin Laden's assassination there several other raids that occurred throughout the middle east. How many more were willing to sacrifice their lives for this country? Politics aside, it was incredibly affecting to read the tale of a man (a boy, really?) who believed in his country so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice. It makes my heart so proud yet so hurt.

The characters were so vivid and lifelike that I felt at times that I should go to Sara and help comfort her. After all, isn't she a dear friend of mine? Don't I know her, understand her? NO?!? SHE'S NOT REAL??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S FICTION??? This is a huge part of what aided in my delirious confusion about whether or not this was an investigation piece; oh, sure, even the cover says, "A Novel," but really, couldn't that not be fake? It's a testament to Carpenter's storytelling and the beauty that she has given us on the page that I felt so torn between fantasy and reality.

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes me feel unworthy of its goodness; this is that book for me. Its powerful storytelling, its incredible prose, and its humbling characters are enough to make the finest reader weep. A stunning piece of work.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Night Guest: A Novel

All I ever desire in a good novel is a tight-knit story with incredible characters that keeps me turning the page. So here I find myself, absolutely in awe, with Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest. 

Ruth's life is quiet; she lives in the holiday house she and her late husband bought early in their marriage on the coast of Australia. He passed away quite suddenly after retiring there, but Ruth has created a regimented lifestyle that includes phone calls with her son every Sunday. One blustery a day a stranger comes, claiming to be a caretaker sent by the government. Everybody but Ruth thinks it's a good idea; eventually she gives in and before long finds herself completely dependent on Frida. Soon it's almost as if Ruth is completely losing her mind. Who is Frida? Who sent her, and what does she want with Ruth?

I loved this book. I found myself jaw-droppingly invested in Ruth and finding out the truth about Frida. I desperately wanted to figure out what was happening, and I refused to let the book leave my sight until I did. I was completely bought in to the story regardless of how fantastic it got; that feeling of madness was palpable yet unbelievable in the best readership way possible.

McFarlane has written prose that is as addicting as it is beautiful, and she has created characters of such depth with arcs that are astounding for such a short time. Her ability to jump back in time and forward again without skipping a bit or losing her reader only made the story more fascinating, and her set-up of the story with the truly fulfilling characters is just stunning. This book is a thriller of the most literary sort; while not as intricate as a Le Carre book, it has that same unfolding storytelling feel. It's simply gripping.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, November 29, 2013

If You Were Me and Lived In...KENYA!

If you recall from Children's Book Week this summer, I fell madly in love with Carole P. Roman's If You Were Me series. So when I get a call from her to look at her new book, the answer is a resounding YES.

If I were you and lived in Kenya, I would call your mother a different name, I would play much different sports, and the food would be so different and delicious! This book explores the different ways children grow up in Kenya from names of everyday objects to activities, customs, holidays and daily living. 

I am absolutely, positively, madly in love with this book series. Kenya does not disappoint--I learn as much as any child would by reading these books! From geography and everyday basics to special events and activities, Roman covers all of the bases with strong vocabulary to boot. I particularly love the personal angle that she puts on these books; she allows young children the opportunity to identify with the main character in a way I haven't seen in many other children's books.

I would also like to point out the Roman puts a pronunciation guide in the back of the book to aid in the development of morphemes that children might otherwise be unaware. I also thoroughly enjoy her illustrations--they feel realistic while still being child-friendly. Her educator roots shine!

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. Get this for the small person in your life.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Lima Bear Stories: The Labyrinth, The Megasaurus, & The Cave Monster

You may remember how much I loved Bully Bean, the newest of the Lima Bear Series during last Children's Book week. Well, I have a little more loveable Lima goodness, and I couldn't be happier. Links below to buy for the upcoming holiday season! 

We begin with The Labyrinth. Good King Limalot Bear names his lovely young daughter, Belinda Bean, as queen of the land. Everyone was thrilled except for the jealous Mean ol' Bean. He tries to sabotage Belinda by luring her into a labyrinth to see a beautiful garden only to leave her trapped in the maze. However, Mean ol' Bean's cousin, L. Joe Bean, finds out in enough time to rescue Belinda and trick Mean into getting lost in the labyrinth himself. Being mean to others gets you nowhere. 

The Megasaurus brings us back to King Limalot and his land, only this time there is a MEGASAURUS on the loose--and he loooooves beans! He consulted with his wise counsel (of owls, of course), but every plan they concocted only made the Megasaurus more angry and determined to eat the beans. Finally, King Limalot summoned L. Joe Bean, who came up with the brilliant idea to scare away the Megasaurus--that worked! Sometimes you should listen to what everyone has to say--the best ideas may be where you least expect them.

The Cave Monster has captured L. Joe Bean and is holding him hostage in his deep, dark cave. Lima Bear and his friends hatch a plan to save him, but they don't expect the Cave Monster to fight back. Only with bravery and valor can they save Joe in time. When friends work together they are stronger than when they work alone--teamwork is everything. 

These books are not just fun--they also carry strong messages with them. I have said time and time again that my preference in children's books are those that have great illustrations, fun stories, and strong messages (or morals of the story) that are not so in-your-face. This is what I love about the Lima Bear series--they really hit this trifecta of goodness in children's lit. I love hitting kids with a message that is embedded in the story. The importance of friendship, teamwork, and not being afraid to take on something big and scary are all great messages for kids in early grades. Be brave! Be strong! Be a good friend!

My favorite part of these books is that they have a section for parents in the back with suggestions for extending the book. For example, in The Megasaurus, one of the suggested activities is for caregivers to make monster masks with their small readers and to discuss things that frighten them. I also love the vocabulary of the books and that the Werk's do not shy away from using big words such as "labyrinth" or "megasaurus" (while still providing a glossary in the back for full definitions). 

I also love the idea of the "beans" being characters--L. Joe Bean is a pinto, Lima Bear is a lima bean, etc. The illustrations of big, bold, and colorful, and I am so excited to have these on my shelf. These books put a big smile on my face and make me so happy. They are worth a purchase for your own shelves.

For your small reader:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stella Batts: A Case of the Meanies and Pardon Me

Happy Thanksgiving Week, everyone! 

In honor of the upcoming holiday season, I am featuring some fabulous children's books I have read as of late to help facilitate your small-person shopping. I urge you to visit your local bookstore (or the links below) to buy books for those in your life this season--the world is so much better with a good story. 

For my favorites for larger people, visit my blog birthday post for suggestions.

She's baaaack!!! It's my absolute favoritest in the world heroine, Stella Batts. I loved the first two books in the series so much that when I was given the offer to read her next two I am not even sure I breathed before shouting (through email), "YES!"

You may remember that in a previous book, Stella's best friend, Willa, moved away--across the country! Now, in Pardon Me, Stella is best-friend-less, and no one wants to be that. But finding a new best friend is harder than it looks. Stella's father introduces her to the new girl in town, Evie, and they become fast friends. Stella cannot wait to introduce Evie around school, but when they get there Stella learns that friendship is not always a closed-off event. Sometimes you must share friends.
In A Case of the Meanies, Joshua the mean kid is back with a vengeance--would you believe he didn't invite Stella to his birthday party? He invited everyone else in the class, and to make it worse, he is having it at Batts Confections! Stella wants to avoid the party altogether, but circumstances beyond anyone's control forces her to play hostess to her arch nemesis. Can Stella behave herself and be the bigger person?

Le sigh. These books are just the cat's pajamas. I love reading about Stella and her hijinks, but more than that I love the moral that comes out of each of these books. In Meanies, it turns out that the invitation never made it to Stella (because of Joshua!), but understanding that perception is reality for our heroine helps us learn that just because you are angry at someone doesn't mean that you shouldn't do what is right. In Pardon Me, Stella must learn that friendship isn't as black and white as she believes it or wants it to be.

These are hard lessons for even adults to learn, and I love how they are addressed in these books with such pathos and ethos, in such an accessible way for children, particularly girls. Finding strong female protagonists who can serve as a role model for children as young as 7 or 8 is not an easy task, and I am so thankful for these books. I have a solid series that I can recommend to parents of young girls (and boys--let's not leave them out!), and that makes me the happiest camper on earth.

Thank you, Courtney, and please keep these coming!!!

Kindle versions on left, hard copies on right:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is one hell of a Russian soap opera that goes on, and on, and on...

So there's this chick, Anna, who is married to a pretty powerful guy in Russia like, forever ago. She is, however, unsatisfied with having married rich (and frankly, how is). She needs love. So it's no surprise when one day she catches the eye of the ultra handsome and debonair Vronsky. He's everything she's looking for--virile, young, and sexy. So she has an affair with him. And no, this won't end well. In the meantime there is a ton of stuff. Like, characters coming out the wazoo.

I will be upfront and say Anna is one of my least favorite characters in all of literature. Never have I come across such a whiny, weak, and annoying woman--everything that I hate in characters. She cheats on her husband, which is completely forgivable because he sounds like a total numb nut, but then she proceeds to go all crazy-girlfriend on Vronsky. She accuses him of loving others, of not loving her, and she generally alienates him until she can't take it and throws herself in front of a train for no good reason other than that she has thrown herself into a tizzy. Ok, ok, sure--she was probably depressed and who wouldn't go crazy having nothing to do but worry over your super hot lover all day. (Because it's not like she has a new baby for whom she needs to be caring and loving.) Lesson learned--cheating begets jealousy. I mean, if he cheated with you, he will most likely cheat on you.

I get why this book is so convoluted; back in the day you had to keep the masses entertained when there was no television. (Don't you think the late nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia would just die over Scandal???) After a while though, it was all like, I get it, Leo. Look, I realize that many out there love this book, and I have mad respect for you over this. I wish I could say I will revisit this classic over and over again, but the truth is I won't. I had no sympathy for Anna as she walked toward the station to give herself over to the grief that she created for herself in her head. I wanted to care, and I wanted to be waiting with baited breath. But I didn't, and I wasn't. Look honey, I get it--I have been cheated on and cheated with. (That's another story for another blog.) But you have to stand up, dust yourself off, and live with your choices. Sometimes life is rough.

Kindle versions below:

Hard copy versions below:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Scarlet Letter

Ah, it's classics time. And really, what gets more classic than adultery and public shaming in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Hester Pryne cheats on her husband. She gets knocked up. She has to wear a bright red "A" on every dress she owns. The baby turns out to be kinda awesome and fairy-like--Hester names her Pearl. Lots of stuff goes down, we find out the father, and we are all like, "Whoa. Really? That dude?" Pearl grows to love him. It's all good.

Well, kinda. I mean, Hester goes through some major stuff, y'all, and it's rough for a bit. But she is super stoic. She's all like, "I'm proud of my baby. She's so much better than yours." Which is kind of true according to Hawthorne. She's a little Sprite. And adorable. Super adorable.

Overall, yeah, I enjoyed it. There were times though, when I was all like, "Nat, get to the point dude!" I loved the conclusion, but that might have been because Hester came across as far more elusive than anywhere else in the book--and that is saying something. I am happy that I finally had a chance to read this piece of classic literature, but I can't say it has been my favorite.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Brooklyn: A Novel

My sister gave me a huge stack of books about a year or so ago, and I have been slowly making my way through them. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin was one of them.

 A young Irish woman is encouraged to leave her home and travel across the ocean to a faraway land called Brooklyn, where she can work and attend school to become a bookkeeper--her life-long dream. With the help of a local priest and some rare jewels of friendship, Eilis makes her way through those first agonizing months in a new culture. When she meets a gentleman that could be something special, Eilis discovers that life can change in an instant and that sometimes love is more than just butterflies in the stomach.

This book has the epic feel of a Bronte novel with sprinkles of classic New York literature thrown in for good measure (in the vein of The Godfather or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). I enjoyed reading about places I know but decades prior to my familiarity. I liked that Eilis attending Brooklyn college was such a big deal at the time, and I knew well the living situation described in the book. Reading it felt deep and involved.

It was, however, the relationship between Eilis and Tony, her beloved, that I enjoyed exploring the most. I respected Eilis's practicality and level-headedness about love and her relationship, and it was wonderful to read about a young woman in the 1950's care so deeply about starting and holding on to her career as a bookkeeper. When, in the final section, she returns home to Ireland for a visit, I sat in fear the whole 60 pages that she wouldn't return to Brooklyn. Whether she does or not is not the point; rather, it's the terror the reader feels that she will lose the life she has built and will break Tony's heart that drives to reading of that last section.

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Six Months Later: A Novel

I love a solid premise, so when I heard about Natalie D. Richard's Six Months Later, I jumped at the chance to be intrigued and baffled.

Chloe is a just-fine student who finds mooning over boys with her best friend Maggie to be much more fun. When she is startled awake after falling asleep in study hall, she finds it is six months later, she has aced her SAT's, and her boyfriend is the most desired bachelor in school. What happened to her? Why can't she remember anything? How did she become such a wiz kid? The answers are far darker than anything she could imagine--and if she digs too far, she may pay the ultimate price.

I love a good thriller. I find when something is intriguing and somewhat mind-boggling I am nose-to-the-book and really can't be bothered to accomplish anything in life. I was fascinted by Richards' weaved story and her ability to pull back layers of a mystery in a reveal that kept me reading and reading and reading until I found I had plowed through  it.

The end of the story felt a bit melodramatic and far-fetched, but I am willing to look past this in favor of the storytelling throughout the book as a whole. If I were a young adult I would eat the end up. It would have totally been my cup of tea, and since this is a YA novel, my personal opinion of the ending can be set aside in favor of viewing it from the point of view of the intended audience. I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the intrigue, and I would absolutely recommend this book for the young adult in your life. Or yourself, because you will like the book. (I said so.)

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction

I am always on the hunt for a memoir that keeps my eyes on the page, so I opened up Karl B. McMillen, Jr.'s Triumphs and Tragedies: A True Story of Wealth and Addiction this week.

Karl and Thelma build a life for their young family in California, growing their business and raising two sons close in age. The pull of the 1960's, however, is too much for their teenagers on a search for freedom from thought and from life. The drugs that are available to them are cheap and free-flowing, and soon Karl realizes that both of his sons are addicts. The next few decades bring struggle, heartbreak, and ultimately forgiveness to the McMillen family.

This was an interesting exploration of the pain that comes with loving an addict (or two, in their case) and the desperate search for help. Each person goes through their own journey in learning how to deal with the addict in his or her life, and this was one journey of many. What was the most interesting about it was the time period in which Karl's boys became addicts, which was the 1960's. It's a time far removed from my lifetime; I would have liked to see more of an exploration of the drug culture during that time.

I often found myself frustrated with Karl over the simple matter of enabling. It seemed throughout the entire book that he was the enabling force in his son's addictions; if they were arrested, he did what he could to get them out and save them from themselves. If they screwed up, he would seek answers for them. By the middle of the book I wanted to scream at him--could he not see that his willingness to right the wrongs of his addict sons was simply adding fuel to the fire? On one hand, no one can understand what having an addict as a child is like until it happens; I understand the desire to protect your child in any way that you can if the ability and means are there. On the flip side, however, I also understand that fixing things for your children (doing their homework for them or continuously bailing them out of jail) will teach them to never be self-sufficient or give them an avenue to learn to care for themselves.

Overall this was one man's story of his triumphs and tragedies, and I think it is wonderful that McMillen has gone to the effort to share his experience with others going through similar travails.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

After winning the 2012 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, of course I picked it up. This is Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and  Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

A young man, his father, and his older sister are arrested for beating and setting fire to a one-legged woman in the slums of Mumbai. But this case is not as clear cut as it initially sounds. The people in question are neighbors, and the woman was their next door neighbor who set herself on fire. How did this all get so tangled? It's a story you can only understand from the beginning--and through the lens of a life so many of us will never see. Right on the other side of the airport wall in Mumbai is the Annawadi slum, and the course of events over three years are chronicled in Boo's tale of life, work, and just trying to stay afloat.

Holy moly, there is not a single shred of doubt in my mind as to why this book took home the National Book Award. It reads like an incredibly thoughtful and intense novel, but it is so much more than that. I had to remind myself several times throughout the book that this was something that truly happened, not just an intricate and deeply moving tale weaved by an ingenious mind. It could have easily been that.

But as they say, truth is always stranger than fiction.

I was so taken with this book from the very beginning. Boo sets up this story with a hook that grabs you from the moment you crack open that cover. Abdul and his family, his neighbors, the crooks and the thieves, all of these people make up the story that you will read. (And you will read it; links below to buy the book for yourself.) It breaks my heart that this kind of corruption exists, and with it there is pain, suffering, and a desperate daily fight to keep your head above water. It is astounding and amazing and stabbingly painful to inhale these stories.

This book was absolutely incredible and is a must-read for your upcoming edification.

Get this amazing piece of work for yourself. Kindle on left, hard copy on right:

Friday, November 8, 2013

Father of the Rain: A Novel

Once in a while a novel comes along that hooks you in like an octopus's tentacles in the middle of an ocean whirlpool, clinging to your soul. That was Lily King's Father of the Rain.

Daley's relationship with her parents is complicated to say the least. Her liberal, free-spirited mother takes Daley and leaves her New England WASP alcoholic father one summer in her childhood and things are never the same. Her father falls into a deeper abyss and remarries her best friend's mother. He becomes even more verbally brutal than he was before they left. As Daley reaches adulthood she begins to accept that she cannot control her father's treatment of her and that she must move on in order to be whole--until she is called back to her father's bedside as he hits rock bottom. Can she learn to move on, or will she always be in the grasp of the man who filled her heart and summarily broke it over and over and over again?

I found this book to be heartbreaking, lovely, and angering all at the same time. There was one point where I was so mad at Daley's choices I threw the book across the room. I mean I actually lifted up the book and launched it across my living room I was so mad. I won't tell you the exact choice, but it was one where I felt she gave her father more credence than he deserved. She gave up a piece of her soul, I felt, and I couldn't handle the anger I felt at her willingness to throw away an amazing opportunity to stand by the man who so forcefully broke down her psyche for so many years. 

What I mean by this is that King's characters are so real, so genuine, and so well-developed that I cared about them. She is an adept writer and I found myself living in Daley's life. I wanted the best for her, and I wanted her to choose well. I hated the power her father had over her, and I wanted to shake her and make her aware that she didn't have to take it--that she had choices, and she could say no. This was such a beautiful book and I am so thankful I was able to live with it for a few hours.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave: A Novel

I want nothing in life more than a beautiful book. I had that in Maggie O'Farrell's lovely Instructions for a Heatwave.

It's  a hot July day in 1976, and London is the midst of a heatwave. Robert leaves for the store and doesn't return. His wife, Gretta, is at a standstill while her children gather around her from as far away as New York City. She holds on to a secret that might lead them to Robert, yet if she shares it will change everything. Her children, estranged from her and from one another, must rally together and look past their own difficulties in life to band together for something bigger than themselves. 

So I don't know how I managed to gloss over O'Farrell's first five books, but shame on me. This book was as lovely as floating on a cloud, unsure of your direction but with a willingness to go along for the ride. O'Farrell's story doesn't cover a lot of time, but she packs it full of familial revelations that are game-changers. Nothing blows up; these are revealed with a certain grace and unfolding that resembles an out-rolling carpet.

There is a certain amount of grace to O'Farrell's prose that reminded me of a well-trained ballet dancer. If you are looking for a well-written book that will keep you involved and mesmerized, this was that very book for me. The characters were created with such layered depth that it seems almost easy to write them off until you realize how simply complicated they are--just like most people I know. It becomes hard not to root for them, and for the Riordan clan overall. After a while you realize that finding Robert is secondary to the healing that must happen both between family members and internally as well .

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.