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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, June 30, 2014

While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family

I found While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family by Kathryn Harrison while doing research on another book. Of course I picked it up. You had me at "murder."

In the early hours of April 27, 1984, Billy Gilley beat his parents and youngest sister to death with a baseball bat. He then walked upstairs to his sister Jody's room and pronounced them free. What would drive a young man to commit such a heinous crime? How can Jody move on from the hurt and the pain of simultaneously losing her family, and at the hands of her brother? This exercise in teasing out the answers to these questions (and more) makes out Harrison's account, examining both the years leading up to the murders and the years following. This kind of crime, parricide, doesn't happen in a vacuum--so what's the story?

I read this whole book in one sitting, mesmerized by the idea that this not only could happen, but did. Not only is it hard to grasp, but I found myself wavering between what the truth might be and the justification of Billy's actions while still facing the horrifying nature of his crime and the unnecessary brutality of his actions. This book was one big waver-fest. You know from the beginning that Jody has turned out to be a well-adjusted adult who doesn't speak often of her experience, and I found it interesting that she really doesn't speak with her brother at all. What a fascinating case this was, and if you are looking for a book that has right versus wrong, look elsewhere.

Kindle on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, June 27, 2014

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You: A Novel

This was my treat for my plane ride home from France. Appropriate without even being planned--I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum.

Richard, a British artist, married the love of his life, Anne-Laure, a gorgeous and brilliant French lawyer, at a young age. He finds himself straying from his marriage with a young American journalist as he finds himself in his mid-30's and faltering in his art. "Selling out," he feels it is despite the success of his solo show. When his mistress leaves him to marry another Brit, Richard mourns the end of this relationship much to the detriment of his marriage. When Anne finds the mistress's letters, she kicks Richard out of her life, leaving Richard attempting many times to win her back. But is it possible to fall back in love?

I found Maum's novel to be touching and heartfelt while lacking in the sap that I so despise in a romance novel. In fact, I may even call this an un-romance novel. We see Richard wallow in his own pity, but it's never overboard and it done with a bit of a wink at the reader--we know he is a nitwit for letting his wife go and we aren't going to allow him to sneak one past us. It's an interesting balance Maum has found between allowing the character to be authentic and honest with us, his audience, while not allowing him to become a chump whom the reader just wants to strangle for his idiocy.

Another thing that I found so interesting in this work is that Maum has inserted the right amount of soul-searching on the part of Richard for the reader (i.e., me) to not want to shut the book and walk away, which is a problem I find in novels where the protagonist loses something dear to him. Richard's relationship with his wife and daughter felt credible and driven by a solid mix of emotion and reason, and it kept me engaged and invested.

From a very selfish point of view, I thought this was the perfect book to read on my flight home from France. I loved the references to the French regions, the wines, and the cheeses. I didn't spend a whole lot of time in Paris where the bulk of the novel is spent, but I did appreciate the cultural references and the appreciation of certain dishes and drinks. It was heartwarming for me to read this and to actually understand so many concepts that Maum alludes to both implicitly and explicitly. It makes me giggly and happy inside.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Until You're Mine: A Novel

Thriller. Mind-blowing. Didn't see that coming. Hashtags for these, maybe? This is Samantha Hayes's Until You're Mine.

After years of failing, Claudia has almost brought her baby to term. It has been a long road, but it is finally almost time. Her husband, a Navy man, insists she hire a nanny to help with her two young stepchildren and the upcoming bundle of joy. Enter Zoe, a seemingly perfect nanny--almost too perfect. Claudia, a social worker, becomes suspicious that Zoe is not all she is cracked up to be. As pregnant women in the area are discovered murdered in a very specific fashion, Claudia wonders who Zoe really is and what she is doing in her house.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book threw me for a loop; I wasn't expecting that much of a smack in the head. It's fair to say that I was not expecting the ending that I got, which was a wonderful way to knock me off of my feet.

I found the storytelling to be compelling and enough to keep me in the book the whole time. Intriguing and beguiling, I found myself wanting to go back to the story in my downtime. Hayes tells the story from three different perspectives--Claudia's, Zoe's, and a third-person perspective of the police officers. I loved that Hayes included personal strife with the police officers to make them a bit more human and less official caricatures. I appreciated her ability to tell the story from multiple perspectives, leaving me with a firm belief as to who the unreliable narrator was. It was clear by voice who was speaking when.

This novel gripped me and I was thankful I picked it up. You all know I love a good thriller and I certainly found it in this one. It is well worth a read if you want something you don't want to put down for your lazy summer days but you still want to be spooked enough.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Firky: A Novel

What a charming read that blew me away. This is The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin.

Alice Island has just one bookstore--Island Books, run by a surly gentleman by the name of A.J. Firky. He once owned the bookstore with his wife, Nicole, a native of the island, but she died tragically one evening trying to save a deer. One night after he passes out from his usual too-much-to-drink, his prized possession disappears from his home. Then a few days later a baby is abandoned in his bookstore. A.J. finds himself learning how to let go of his resentments and give to something greater than himself. Only he doesn't know how deep this will soon run.

Bottom line up front: I adored this book with my whole heart and soul. This is one of the most beautiful, lovely, whimsical, fantastical, sweet, genuine stories I have read in so long. I felt as though I was on a magic carpet ride reading this book. I found myself smiling and giggling and overjoyed at the prospect of coming back to it again and again. It was so wonderful.

It's hard not to be completely drawn to A.J. and everyone else in his life. At times things are curiously mischievous yet always grounded in reality. A.J. starts off as sullen and grouchy but, as the pages turn, we realize he is a man who has had his heart broken in a million little pieces and just doesn't know how to put it back together again. That's where Maya comes in. She shows up and changes A.J. for the better, so much so that watching his life come together made me clap my hands with glee. A.J. is a part of a community, and these are people I so want to know and to live with and to have part of my life.

I didn't want this book to end. I found it utterly amazing, looking back, how much occured in the beginning of the book that wound up at the end telling the whole tale so comprehensively. Zevin is a wonderful writer who spins a yarn thoughtfully and carefully and with great love for her protagonist and supporting characters. I am in love with the Firky world.

Hard copy only below.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Seating Arrangements: A Novel

Since I loved Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead's newest, so much, I decided to pick up Seating Arrangements this week. I am so glad that I did.

The Van Meter family is about the celebrate the wedding of their eldest (and very pregnant) daughter Daphne at their beach home in New England. What is normally a very quiet retreat for the patriarch, Winn, soon descends into wedding madness and familial strife of the WASPiest kind. Winn and Biddy's youngest daughter Livia has recently had her heart broken by a family friend in a horrid manner, Winn has a crush on one of Daphne's bridesmaids, and the groomsmen are a group to behold. Ah--do hear the bells?

Nothing screams "discord" like a group of White, old money New Englanders with names like Muffy, Greyson, and Biddy. And a lot of Bloody Marys. Like, a lot. I loved this book for the same exact reasons why others didn't--because it is about the closest thing to honest WASPiness I have read in contemporary literary fiction. (To be clear, I don't count Edith Wharton as "contemporary," but I feel that she is a good counterpart to this portion of Shipstead's [soon-to-be] cannon.) I loved how absolutely important everyone's crises were in this book--heartbreak, life choices, joining exclusive golf clubs, pressure to become a lawyer rather than a marine biologist, whether or not to have an (absolutely ridiculous) affair with your daughter's bridesmaid in the unfinished house of your (perceived) rival. It is beyond hilarity to me because it is so far removed from my life as a graduate student/former theatre administrator in New York City. #canyoufeelmeladiesandgents?

There is so much to say. The names of the characters slayed me. The grudges that are held over such petty things like supper clubs and membership and houses and happiness are delightful. Reading this book was almost like watching a reality television show based on a group of people that would never deign to be caught dead on such guache fare. I think it's a credit to Shipstead's abilities that she could create such despicable characters with such heart and not make them into the caricatures that most certainly could have easily become.

Hard copy below.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception

Dost thou knowest how I can't stay away from pop psychology books even though I read psychology day in and day out? Of course thou dost, which is why thou is reading this current post on Joseph T. Hallinan's (excellent) Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception.

I have mentioned it many times here on this blog--we as humans believe we see the world correctly and that we are rational, logical creatures that have the ability to be objective. That is utterly and completely false. It can easily be argued, as Hallinan does, that self-deception serves an evolutionary purpose; it allows us to survive even when the odds are against us. It also rewires our brains into believing we can do things that we sometimes can't and oftentimes would not if it were not for the necessity of life.

I don't say this often about pop psychology works: This book is outstanding. It is one of the few books that accurately portrays research for the layman in ways that are easy to understand but still present the essence of the studies that are cited. I know this because I have actually read most of the studies Hallinan discusses, and I was incredibly impressed with his ability to distill the research down for the everyman while still keeping its essence. And for that I say, "Bravo, Joseph T. Hallinan!"

Some major concepts discussed here include the placebo affect, of which I am a great fan and think it serves a great purpose in our lives. Humans have a great way of convincing ourselves of things that are so outlandish and crazy (e.g., I swear someone broke into my downstairs neighbors apartment the other night and was planning on breaking into mine through theirs to murder me and my cat...yeah) that it's no surprise that we can convince ourselves of small and significant things as well (e.g., aren't you feeling better now that you have eaten dinner?). You know the "close door" button in elevators is a placebo, right? As is often the button you press for the walk signal. It's not just sugar pills, folks.

I was so impressed by this book that I'm keeping it on my Kindle, and I fully intend on adding it to my recommendation list for my own students. It was an easy read that was so right on point that I look forward to reading anything Hallinan does in the future.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, June 16, 2014

John Grisham's The Chamber

It's John Grisham Day! I love a good Grisham novel for the beach, so while I was on Spring Break a while ago I picked up an early one, The Chamber.

Adam Hall grew up knowing nothing about his relatives. He had his immediate family--at least, until his father committed suicide when Adam was just a teen. It is then that he finds out the deep, dark family secret--he has a grandfather, a member of the KKK, on death row for the bombing of a law office and killing two young boys. Adam now just happens to be working for the law firm defending his grandfather and finagles his way on to the case. Can he save his long-lost grandfather's life? Will he even want to when he finds out the truth?

As per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed my quiet time with Mr. Grisham. This book is one of his original classics and it shows. I love how many of his stories take place in Ford County; it is nice for me to read a whole bunch of "y'alls" and hear about food and lifestyles that are a part of my childhood.

That being said, I was very taken by the story. I was surprised, actually--I found myself really sitting with the characters for long after I put the book down. I was at dinner with my family and wondering what would become of Sam Cayhall's soul after his execution, where on earth Aunt Lee had run off to, and how Adam could be so forgiving of such monstrous sins on the part of his relatives. There was a lot unsaid in this book, particularly in the realm of Sam's daughter Lee, who is Adam's aunt. She clearly went though much more turmoil than Grisham spells out for us and it is a harrowing yet moving addition to the story.

I appreciate that Grisham tells long and detailed stories with conflicted characters; he makes you choose for yourself how you feel about what's going one (at least in his early books). The death penalty is a fraught subject and it shows in this narrative--everyone has to pick sides, either out of conviction or because he or she just has to do the job for which they are hired. Sam's conversion from a tough and angry soul to his acceptance of his faith is quite a character arc, and it was fascinating to read and to be so involved in the transformation.

So yeah, it's another Grisham win for the beach books.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, June 13, 2014

We Are Called to Rise: A Novel

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride is one of those rare tangled-web stories that I buy into hook, line, and sinker and genuinely love.

A group of people who never in a million years would have thought they would be connected are thrown together under the most tragic of circumstances. A young immigrant boy who is just trying to find his place in school; his army soldier pen pal who is dealing with demons beyond comprehension; a volunteer child advocate who cares deeply about the voiceless; a mother whose Iraqi war vet son may be about to go off the deep end. These stories collide under the most heartbreaking of circumstances, and show that the human spirit is greater than a simple token.

This is McBride's debut novel and it is a great one. It is so empathically written, with such heart and such gusto that each character takes on a life of his or her own. This novel is written from all perspectives, and as you watch the climax coming you can see something is going to happen and you keep hoping against hope that it's not what you think it is, and as these lives begin to collide you understand that this could not have happened any other way. It's heartbreaking but it's understandable; you can't look away.

As we get older (well, I hope this is a general "we" anyway), we begin to see things as far more complicated than we ever could have as young people. Avis was probably the one I most gravitated toward. She was a fifty-something housewife whose husband ups and leaves her for a younger woman. That she can barely deal with, then you add on her recently returned Iraqi vet son who just hasn't been the same since returning, you feel this is a powder keg about to blow. She was so sympathetic as a character and, in my opinion, the best-developed in this book. Watching her try to help her broken son and her daughter-in-law while she tries to prevent a tragedy you know must be coming is astounding and heart-pounding.

I also love that Las Vegas was truly a character of its own in the book. The city comes alive with the people who live there, who recognize the draw of the lights but live in the quieter shadows of a town that lives off of the thrill. It was really incredible and lovely.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Born on the Fourth of July

There are few movies that have affected me so deeply that I would say they changed my life; Born on the Fourth of July is one. I recently picked up the original book by Ron Kovic and gave it for a spin.

Ron Kovic is America's boy. Born on the fourth of July, he joins the army in his youth to fight for his country in the Vietnam War. He suffers a life-changing, debilitating injury on the battlefield, and the poor care he receives is enough to drive him to fight for long-term change in how veterans are treated and how his country chooses their wars.

Full disclosure: This is not an easy book to read. It is honest and it is raw, raking on you to truly understand the horrors of what happens when we send our men and our women off to war. I say that early on because, while I loved the movie, even that was lighter fare than Kovic's book. (And that's saying something--the movie is terribly powerful.)

Kovic does not mince words in this memoir, and he does not hold back. At times I felt as though I was reading a horror show, only it was as honest as can be. For those of us whom have never seen a war first hand, it is incredibly important that we read work like this and meditate on it. How for granted we take not just our freedom, but the ability to not fight in wars thanks to others who do. In light of the current VA scandal, this was an incredibly timely book even though it was written almost four decades ago.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Take This Man: A Memoir

The premise sounded interesting, but the name of the author was even more so. This is Brando Skyhorse's Take This Man

Brando Skyhorse came about when his mother fell in love with Marlon Brando's Oscar acceptance (or lack thereof)--even though she was of Mexican decent, she always wanted to be American Indian. Hence the last name she gave her son. She also was desperately searching for a father for her son, leading to five marriages and the cover up of Brando's father from a young age. Why not? She never told a story unless she could exaggerate it into something amazing. Only after years of searching does Brando discover his own truth.

This memoir was jaw-droppingly interesting. Characters like Maria do exist in the real world, and, after all, truth is stranger than fiction. From her working as a sex phone operator (accusing her young son of it being his idea, after all) to dragging her son on cross-country adventures seeking out the latest American Indian getting out of prison to (hopefully) be her next husband, Brando's childhood lacked stability and he quickly learned how to get along within it. His list of fathers was one crazy after another; those who stole his allowance to those who tried but just couldn't make it happen. No matter the circumstance, his mother managed to drive each and every one away in her attempt to seek out the perfect life.

He clings to his grandmother, June, for stability. She was a fun and feisty character, but she was portrayed so lovingly that it is hard to understand where Maria came from. There had to be some pass-on of what made her the way that she was; possibly it was not having a father herself. I was frustrated at times that June would allow Maria to live in her home and bring along the crazy, but to each his own, I guess. It's a wonderful memoir that Brando tells with his recollection from his childhood, and it makes him that much more interesting.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Ways of the Dead: A Novel

While I was at Book Expo this past week, the number one question I asked publishers when checking out a book was, "But does someone get killed?" I just want murder and mayhem. I got it with Neely Tucker's The Ways of the Dead.

A judge's young daughter is found murdered across the street from her dance studio in a shady part of Washington, D.C. Newspaper reporter Sully Carter is on the case, and he quickly discovers that the three boys arrested are small-time cover ups for something much bigger than anyone expects. There have been previous disappearances and murders within the same block; is it possible that these are all connected? Why does no one--police, his boss, the neighborhood--want Sully to pursue these leads? Is the secret too big to come out?

Yeah, I was sold on this one from the first chapter. It is rare (for me, anyway) that a book opens with such a creep-tastic scene that every single female I know is frightened of, one that gave me a cold chill. I have nightmares about it, so I guess maybe this wasn't, like, the best thing for me to read, but it hooked me immediately and I was all in. The only thing about that opening scene--you don't get all of the information. So don't jump to conclusions too quickly.

There is also Sully. Oh, Sully. He is a damaged (both physically and emotionally) human being, having seen humans act worse than anyone could ever imagine. He covered wars in other countries, ones so brutal and inhumane that nothing could surprise him in the crime-ridden areas of our nation's capital. I love how scheming he is; he gives his work all he's got even though he may be an alcoholic bordering on a nervous breakdown. He was a fantastic character, one with heart and full of honesty even if it means being a broken person.

This book takes place in the late 1990's at a time when people still depended on their newspapers and before technology has reached the lengths it currently has. Sarah, the first victim, may have been saved if she had her cell phone on her. In 2014 she wouldn't have left the dance studio without it. In 1999, what a different story. It is fascinating to read a "period piece" (because yes, folks, it is!) set 15 years ago when time seems to have stood still yet everything about our lives is different. If these murders had taken place today, would the nation still be riveted on them? Who is to say. We may never know. Here's hoping, anyway.

Hard copy for purchase below:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel

I wanted a book this week that would be a good, strong story with sympathetic characters. I won the lottery with Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler.

Little Wing, Wisconsin is the childhood home of four friends who all came back to roost. Leland became a famous rocker, Ronny ran the rodeo circuit, Kip was a trader, and Henry still runs the family farm. As adults they find themselves back at home trying to find themselves as they settle into adulthood. This isn't as easy as it sounds, as discovering who you are in the place that knew you as a child means a shift in empathy and a growth in the friendships you have always called dear.

I was hooked on this book from the very first chapter. I understood who these people were and what their relationships signified from the very beginning--and I could tell immediately that there had to be more to the story. Leland, or Lee as his old friends call him, wants nothing more than to be in the home that he loves with the woman he loves--a famous actress whom we all see in the glossies. Only Kip, ever with the posture, sells them out by inviting the paparazzi to his own wedding, alienating all of his friends in the process. Henry and Beth, childhood sweethearts who married and have two beautiful kids, appear to be the most stable of their friends. Poor Ronny who became a little slow after a drunken fall appears to always be the man a step behind. All of these understandings, though, can be turned on dime. You can't always judge these books by their covers.

I was thrown for a bit of a loop in the second chapter when the story shifted perspectives, but as it rolled on I thought it was so important that the story shift as it is not the story of just one person but a group of people whose choices have affected one another whether or not that was the intention. The events take place over the course of about two years, but it's enough to make you fall in love with these men and their loved ones. Marriages will falter, one will fail, and they will each surprise you. This story does such a wonderful job of telling the truth of being a grown-up: marriages are hard yet we jump into them with stars in our eyes; the people we love may turn out to be those don't know at all; we make promises we can't keep and then become broken-hearted when promises are broken on us; and at the end of the day, sometimes belief in those we love is all we have. I loved this book.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Expo America 2014

Hi kids! So... Last week was Book Expo America, otherwise fondly known as Bookapalooza. It is something I now look forward to every year while dreading the aches and pains and exhaustion that comes with it. That being said, it is truly an amazing thing that I get to do--three days of books. Highlights are below!

Wednesday brought me to the Blogger's Conference where I met some super cool book bloggers and heard from the YA author Maureen Johnson. She was hilarious and smart and fun in general. I learned a ridiculous amount at this conference, and you should look out for a new Sassy Peach logo coming your way this summer. [Finger's crossed, anyway.]

Then the floor opened at 9 AM on Thursday. Holy cow, this was something else. If you recall, I only went on Saturday last year due to the horrible internship I took on for the summer. [Seriously, I am over 30--what was I thinking taking on an "internship"???] This year was madness of the best kind. My journey started off with a signing from Neil Patrick Harris on an excerpt from his upcoming memoir. Yes, you read that right. See above. Creeper shot.

I made out with so many books I had been looking forward to. The 11 AM and 2 PM hours were crazy--at one point on Thursday I had five books I wanted in the span of an hour; I got four of them. I missed the last signing by a few minutes, but I was at least able to tell Jesmyn Ward how much her book, Men We Reaped, moved me. One of the books I did get was Anjelica Huston's A Story Lately Told, and she was so gracious and kind to everyone in line. I was so impressed and I like her even more than I did before her autograph.

This year was the year of my idols. I met R. L. Stine (-->) and got the first Fear Street book in over a decade. Remember the series? My love of crime may have come out of his books as well as Mary Higgins Clark's books. I also met her by the way. Yeah. Like I said. Crazy town. Anyway, I told Mr. R. L. Stine that he was a staple of my childhood, and he replied, "A staple? I have never been told I was a staple before." He totally was. The cheerleader series had such a big effect on me that I won't shower in a locker room. I have an irrational fear of being locked in by a sinister force that will then turn up the heat on the water and melt my skin off. Like it goes.

I scored what was arguably one of the buzziest books this season at BEA, Terry Hayes' I Am Pilgrim. It's not signed as it was in that darned 11 AM block, but as I was getting my Colm Toibin book signed (CAN YOU SEE WHY I AM SO GIDDY?!?), they had just a handful left at the booth and I got my grubby little mitts on it. I am not saying I am whipping through it, but I am whipping through it. I am seriously in heaven with my books. Final count below.

Here I am rocking my "I Love NYPL" button. I am a proud library user and supporter, and I urge you to be as well. The New York Public Library has kept me reading even when I have been brokey mcbrokester, and their programming is exceptional. Support your own local library--every dollar helps.

Ok, so now let's talk about one of my favorite books of all time, This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. I read it a few years before this bad boy blog started and have raved about it since. In fact, it's the first book I recommend when someone asks what I have to offer in the way of recommendations. It has always gone over well (I am four for four!), and I have re-read it. And I don't re-read books. So that should tell you something. When BEA announced that they were going to open BookCon (the open-to-the-public Saturday extravaganza at BEA) with a panel and sneak peek of the upcoming September film, I jumped on the ticket. There was the added bonus of Tina Fey and Jason Bateman being on the panel. Don't get me wrong, I love both of

them, but I was most excited about the book being transformed into a film.The panel is above and a shot of the screen of the stars is to the right. I would have loved a better shot but the panel was super packed and I only had my phone. So there you go. It was really interesting and the clips I saw were great. I have a feeling I am going to love the movie as much as the book. I also managed to get a copy of the book signed by Jonathan Tropper, so I am happy as a clam. This is really heaven for me.

Ah yes, another childhood idol. That, my friends, is Ann M. Martin of The Babysitter's Club fame. These books were also such a staple of my childhood that I can't imagine the reader I would be without them. She was so gracious and kind, which only makes me want to go dig out my books and read them again all the more. 

Let me ask you this--why wouldn't you want to participate in the make-your-own-romance-cover-photo?

Then this happened. Which is just amazing.(I have a sick sense of humor. Always have.)

Ta da! Final haul: 62 books, 5 excerpts, and a bajillion bags. Which I need for moving at the end of the month. Isn't this picture beautiful? That's what 62 books looks like.