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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

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, April 29, 2013

Amity & Sorrow: A Novel

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley. Oh. Em. Gee.

Amaranth is the first wife. Of fifty. She is happy in her large family until she discovers her husband's awful secret--one that even she can't forgive. She takes her daughters, Amity and Sorrow, and escapes in the midst of the fire in their temple. She gets as far as the Oklahoma panhandle when she falls asleep and crashes their car. A local farmer, Bradley, comes to their rescue and gives them shelter. As the girls begin to navigate in their world without their plural family, will they be able to learn basics, like how to live and to read? Or will they grasp on to their only known world and refuse to let go? Can Amaranth forgive herself for that which she blames herself? Can she start over for the sake of her girls--and ultimately for herself?

This novel was...it was...well, I feel that to call it outstanding would be to undersell it. It was one of the most beautiful, engaging, and addicting pieces of literature I have read of late. I would have been perfectly fine not leaving my house until I finished this book. I was so engaged with the story, with the heartfelt search for self that was written so earnestly and so thoughtfully. Riley is a genuine writer whose words on the page sing like a bird's sorrowful song. I was addicted to this book like a junkie.

I was astounded at the sociopathy of Sorrow but not surprised by Amaranth's desire to do whatever she could to protect her. I, at times, was floored at Amity's deep and abiding love for her sister, so much so that she was even willing to risk her life. My heart leaped for Amaranth when she set out to find peace in a new life, and I sat on pins and needles with them when they were forced to journey back to the compound. I was willing to stay up all night watching them to make sure they were safe.

In short, I loved this book.

I strongly suggest you add this to your list. Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Life: A Memoir

I have been wanting to read this for quite a while, so I took the plunge recently and settled in with my favorite Rolling Stone. This Celebrity Memoir Friday is Life by Keith Richards.

What is there to say? This is the Keith Richards story as told by Keith Richards. It's funny and honest, clear and musical. Richards spends part of the time talking about his history and the other part about his craft, both parts of which are positively lovely and fascinating. I loved hearing about how my favorite songs came about; I love that "Wild Horses" was inspired by country music and that the history behind it is so nuanced yet complicated.

I loved hearing about Richards' love life and his adoration toward his children. This book made Richards into more than a caricature that is easily made from his persona, be it the drug-addled hilarity of Gimme Shelter or the inspired Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean that was taken from Richards showing Johnny Depp how he never turned his back to a corner while high. This book made Richards human.

Richards is my favorite Stone and I loved this book. It was delightful, and of course I would recommend it if you love the man. Just be prepared to spend a few extra dollars on the Stones albums you don't already own when you finish--you will want them.

For you. Kindle version on left; hard copy on right.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Wanderers

The Wanderers by Jessica Miller is a tale of vampires. Need I say more to entice you?

Ella has been through a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend the summer before she leaves for college. It affects her deeply, and she is still dealing with it when she arrives at school in Vermont, rooming with her best friend and meeting the RA who woos her. As the fall marches on, things get weirder and weirder in Ella's life--people around her are dying horrific deaths, she has trouble remembering a night out on a date, and her new sorority is just...too much. Ella begins to realize the man haunting her dreams may be more than just a figment of her active imagination--it turns out she may know him.

As far as paranormal stories go, this one was interesting. I liked that the paranormal part was played down a bit in favor of more story and character, which is what I prefer. I generally liked Ella's character, but at one point wanted to scream out, "GO SEE A THERAPIST!" The family dynamic of Ella's family was entertaining--her mother being highly overbearing and her brothers being...well, brothers. I have one, I know.

This was a fun, light read that kept me intrigued and interested.

Kindle version below.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Stuck In The Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders

I haven't yet read Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There (although it has been in my queue for some time), but I did pick up Stuck In The Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.

Almost a decade into her marriage, Jennifer made the transition into womanhood. She spent ten years as a father and the last eight as a mother, and in this memoir Jennifer digs deep in her heart and in her family to share how her transformation affected her family, for better or for worse. Still happily married to her wife of 18 years, Deedie, they are raising their two sons who almost men themselves. Interspersing her anecdotes with interviews about family with famous writers, this book explores what it means to be a parent, regardless of gender.

This book sat with me for a while after I finished it. Well, I should back up a bit and tell you that first I raced through the book. I really enjoyed it, quite tremendously, and I was shocked when I finished it in just three short days. I was that invested in Jenny's stories and thoughts that I felt it was just an extended dinner conversation. As I said, it sat with me for a bit after I finished. I am so thankful that Jenny opened her world and her family to me, the reader, and allowed me to be a fly on the wall for a bit.

I realize that the subject of transsexuals and transgenders makes some people uncomfortable--I love people who own who they are. Many of Jenny's thoughts have affected my view of things, such as what is the definition of gender neutrality (does it mean you get to be nothing or does it mean the freedom from making a conscious decision daily about whom to be?) or what it means to judge someone for their choice in partner when you yourself can't stand the sight of your heterosexual spouse. These are just a handful of nuggets that I took away from this book, and now you should pick it up for yourself and revel in the words of Jenny and her marvelous friends that she interviews in the interludes.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Defending Jacob: A Novel

Defending Jacob by William Landay is one of those books about which I heard a ton then picked it up after everyone already read it. I am OK with that--it's still a great read.

A young boy on his way to school is found murdered in a park one morning. Andy Barber is the district attorney assigned to the case. He follows protocol and finds a likely suspect--until the day he is brought into his boss's office and put on leave while the police arrest his own son for the murder. Andy believes his son to be innocent through and through, even as the evidence mounts against Jacob. As the case moves forward, Andy works side by side with Jacob's defense attorney in the trial of his lifetime. At what breaking point will Andy face the possible truth about his son, and will his family ever be the same?

This was a mind-bender of a crime story. I constantly went back and forth on whether or not Jacob was guilty, which I believe was the design of the narrative. This case is like many that go to trial--we may think we know the truth, but it is often a layered and impenetrable fortress of truth, lies, and everything else in between. Jacob's mother falters in her faith early on, and while it is easy to see why she believes her son to be a monster, it is equally easy to see Andy's devotion to his belief in the goodness of the child he created. Everything can be explained away with a bit of logic.

Once the trial ends (and I will not be giving away anything on this blog), the most mindblowing part of the book is still to come. The last 100 pages will give you the answer to every question you have during the book and will leave you with even more. It was one hell of an ending, and my jaw dropped as I raced through the last 10 pages.

You may think you know, but you have no idea. Pick it up for your summer reading.

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Makes Sammy Run: A Novel

This novel was written over half a decade ago.  Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? was listed in Entertainment Weekly's list of books that have had a hard time coming to the big screen.  After reading this--what is arguably a sweeping epic--I can understand the difficulty of this great story being put on screen.

Sammy Glick is a rough-and-tumble kid from downtown New York City who gets a job at a newspaper.  He meets Al Manheim, the narrator of the novel, and gets on his nerves right quick.  Sammy rubs Al the wrong way, which is not for naught as Sammy soon lies, schemes, and bullies his way up the ladder through management.  Soon Sammy is in Los Angeles working in pictures, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Sammy continues to screw over anyone and everyone he can to get to the top.  It's only when Sammy gets screwed back that he can begin to understand the pain and misery he has caused others--and it has finally caught up to wreaking havoc on himself.

This book was originally published in 1941, and it's easy and quick to see how writing styles have changed.  Schulberg's writing is dense and highly descriptive throughout the book; it almost feels as though this book could be rewritten today and brought down in the number of pages needed to tell the story.  Narrative style has also changed quite a bit; this story doesn't move quickly and almost makes you ask in the end, "Did anything really happen at all?"  I had to commit to this story for the long haul.

I don't want you to misunderstand me--I did enjoy the story.  Sammy is a despicable character and he is a great read.  His character is deplorable, addictive, and as an outsider you hate him yet you understand why people can't say "no" to him.   When he eventually gets his comeuppance, it's difficult not to smile and think, "That's what you get, son."  I appreciate stories where that happens.  Don't get me wrong, though--the good guy doesn't win in this story.  But isn't how life works sometimes?

Kindle copy on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jerusalem: The Story of a City and a Family

I was wholeheartedly blown away by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertuzzi's Jerusalem: A Story of a City and a Family. When I got my hands on this book I was bowled over.

During a volatile period in the world's history (1940-1948), a family sticks together to make it through the chaos. Over three generations, fifteen family members make it though years of war and family strife. Members of the family leave, never to return; others show up unexpectedly. Altogether they find a way to have faith in their country and themselves.

This graphic novel was just positively stunning. I was blown away by the conceptual yet so realistic setting of the story and the graphics in this book. Graphic novels are necessary for emotional depth. Pictures are needed when words fail.

The story is raw and painful at times. I can't even begin to imagine what one must go through living in a time of war; this novel, however, begins to represent it pictorially for the reader. It's an honest and lovingly depicted story, and it's so clear how much Yakin cares about his past and wants to share it with the world. He does it in such a brilliant way that it is a gift from him to us.


Friday, April 12, 2013

The Dreams of Ada

The Innocent Man referenced Robert Mayer's The Dreams of Ada several times, so I added it to my list of to-read's for the spring.

In 1984 in Ada, Oklahoma, Denice Haraway goes missing from her convenience store job. A cigarette and a beer can are left behind. There is no trace of her anywhere. The police focus on two boys in town, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. The only problem? They most likely didn't do it. The crime scene was cleaned up by the convenience store owner before the police even thought about securing it, the sketch of the suspects was identified as several men around town, and no body was found. Tommy confesses to the crime--only he tells the police about it as a dream with few accurate details. This does not stop the Ada DA's from prosecuting and the jury finding the boys guilty. Tommy and Karl are sentenced to death.

It still blows my mind that this kind of thing is possible even though I know it is and to this day The Innocence Project has aided in the exoneration of over 300 inmates across the country as of February 1, 2013. Obviously it happens. But the drive behind the prosecution of people without the evidence to support the prosecution--and then the conviction even though the evidence does not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt--blows my mind.

I am also aware that false confessions happen with alarming frequency. Most people assume that if you confess, you must be guilty--why on earth would anyone not guilty confess? "I would never do it," you say to yourself. The truth, however, is that with enough goading, with enough sleep deprivation, and with enough promises to make your life more difficult/far easier, you would probably give up your own mother. Chances are even higher if you have a low IQ, emotional disturbances, or are ignorant of the law. Tommy and Karl just weren't aware that they could demand attorneys.

Mayer is a fantastic writer. He takes what could have been a dry retelling of a court case into an honest and thoughtful rendering two men's lives--and those of their families--ruined emotionally and financially. He spends a good amount of time with Tricia, Tommy's sister still living in Ada, and my heart just broke for her. She was only trying to get by with her husband and children. They sank their livelihood into Tommy's defense sure that if they had a good lawyer the truth would come out.

How wrong they were.

Yours to read. Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best of Us: A Novel

The winter doldrums won't get the best of me--I picked up Sarah Pekkanen's The Best of Us in order to vicariously live through their Jamaican vacation of relaxation, sun, and fun.

Four college friends reunite for a week-long trip to Jamaica to celebrate Dwight's thirty-fifth birthday. Dwight has gone from super nerd to one of the richest men in America, so the vacation is on him. His wife, Pauline, spares no expense for the trip--only she is covering up a deep dark family secret. Tina and Giovanni, college sweethearts, are struggling to raise four kids while keeping their marriage on track. Savannah's husband doesn't show up for the vacation, so she must admit to her friends they are separating. Allie is running from a secret that may destroy her perfect life. Together they all seek to find peace in their lives in the most idyllic spot on earth.

My expectation going into this book was that it was going to be chick-lit-y. It was a little, don't get me wrong, but I was so impressed by the character development. Pekkanen is a genuine and smart writer who knows how to craft people on the page who become three dimensional and real. I was quite taken with these people and their stories that I didn't want to put the book down. I wanted to live inside this Jamaican villa for just the length of this story. These people were so flawed, so honest, and so fun--it was a joy to feel that I was a part of this group of friends.

This book is an excellent beach read for this upcoming summer. I am thankful that I read it while vacationing through 20cm of snow--I was aching for some sun and I felt that I was on vacation with this group vicariously. I enjoyed my time with this book and would highly recommend you pick it up yourself for some lounge chair relaxation by the pool.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Mothers: A Novel

Jennifer Gilmore's The Mothers: A Novel sounded so lovely and poignant that I had to pick it up for my vacation reading. I may have been away, but I was a busy reading bee!

Jesse and get husband Ramon can't have children. They seek out adoption, but this road is far more fraught than how simple it sounds. The process is an emotional roller coaster for the couple, filled with the ups of meeting others in their position and the downs of feeling out of control of their own situation. As birth mothers begin to contact the couple, Jesse reaches a new dimension of emotionality as women take advantage of her emotional state and disappointment becomes a daily war.

This book is super emotional and not for one who cries easily. (Then again, maybe it's just the book for you!) It's a rough subject--infertility is difficult and misunderstood by many. Adoption is even more hard to fathom if it's not something you want to or need to do. People often say the most asinine and idiotic things to parents (especially those-to-be) in the midst of difficult times, and this book looks at this. It is told in first person from Jesse's point of view, so we also experience these emotions from her angle.

I will be the first to say that this is an experience through which I have not yet been, so I had to remind myself when reading to just sit with Jesse's emotions and to not judge them. I can't understand her pain so it was important that I just experience it. I was angry alongside them as they dealt with the emotional warfare brought on them by needy birthmothers who were less than honest, and I looked forward to cheering for them when the inevitable happy ending came around.

My one major issue with this novel is the abruptness of the ending. I realize the intention of the author was not to entirely give us a happy ending but rather to have us deal with the long and winding road of the journey. I would have liked, however, to have been able to bask in the joy of Jesse's and Ramon's elation and love of their new child. Rather, the ending felt rushed an didn't leave me with a sense of completeness.

Yours to own! Kindle on left, hard copy on right:

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

Ah, yes, John Grisham again. The Innocent Man this time. You didn't think he would stay away from this blog long, did you?

In 1982, a small town sees a gruesome murder of a beautiful young woman in her apartment. The authorities focus on Ron Williamson, a man known for his mental instability, drinking, and womanizing. The only problem is Ron didn't kill Debra Sue Carter. Five years after the murder he is convicted and sent to death row. Only with the gusto and determination of his sisters and lawyers who believed in true justice he and his so-called accomplice were released almost two decades later. Lying jailhouse snitches, tainted evidence, and ignored alibis allowed a true murderer to go free for so long.

True crime, here I am, at your service! What I enjoyed most about this book was that it read like a typical John Grisham story while actually being true. Grisham clearly did his research and left not a stone unturned in his search for Ron and Dennis's stories, and in turn Debbie's. Grisham obviously set out to write a wrongful conviction story, and he sure as hell got one. Ron's story is not the first of justice wrongly served, and he certainly won't be the last. But perhaps we can learn something about overeager prosecutors and investigators unwilling to cast a wide net in search of justice?

This was a great read for a relaxing day. It doesn't tax the mind too much yet still provides a thrilling reading experience (as in, it's a "thriller"). The story kept me interested in knee deep in the lives of Ada, Oklahoma's residents. I am looking forward to picking up Dreams of Ada, a book about two other men who were wrongfully convicted by the same court over a "dream confession", which figured prominently in the overturning of convictions of Ron and Dennis.

Get this book for yourself. Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Reckoning: A Crime Novel

I lovelovelovelovelove a good mystery. I just do. So when I came across a description and positive reviews of Jane Casey's The Reckoning, I was sold and picked it up last week.

Maeve Kerrigan is a police officer thrown into a case that will chill you to the bones--a man is targeting perpetrators of sex crimes and brutally torturing and murdering them. As Maeve investigates these killings a deeper truth starts to become unearthed; this case is far more complicated than a simple avenging angel. The truth will send Maeve all over London on a hunt for a band of killers working on a greater scale--and it may leave Maeve emotionally scarred in the process.

I lovelovelovelove crime novels, so I sunk my teeth into this one like a hungry vampire. I loved London as the setting and I found Maeve to be a beautifully flawed and honestly written character. I enjoyed seeing her arc as a woman and as a cop. Her sexist and crude partner, Derwent, is a fantastic foil for Maeve and brings out her feisty side.

Regarding the story line, I won't give too much away (you know how I hate to do that), but I will say that this book isn't what you think it is. Halfway through you will take a detour into territory completely unexpected, so buckle your seatbelt and hold on to the door handle--you might be in for a bumpy ride. I loved that this story was so much deeper than it's promised premise, and I loved living in this book this week.

To purchase:

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster has become one of my favorite books.  I didn't read it as a child, and I only came to it on it's 50th anniversary when I read a blurb about it in Entertainment Weekly touting the anniversary edition.  I was so fascinated by the work, however, that I fell hopelessly and maddeningly in love.

I don't think I would have appreciated the brilliance of this book as a young person.  As an adult I read with such glee the puns on words and numbers.  I giggled like a child at the cleverness of the word play and the use of particles of speech.

There isn't a lot I want to say because I feel that if you don't read this that you are missing out.  What love and fondness I have for this book, and for this journey, and for, at the end of the story, the understanding that to keep from being bored with life we have a mission that we owe to ourselves.  Be a little more curious and be a little more open, as you never know what you might accomplish if you don't know what you can't do.

Thank you, Mr. Juster and Mr. Feiffer for completing my world.

For you to own: