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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...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Drunk Mom: A Memoir

Because why wouldn't you want to pick up a memoir titled Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska?

Jowita seems to have it all: a loving and handsome boyfriend, a brand new beautiful bouncing baby boy, and happiness at her fingertips. The only problem with this is that Jowita is an alcoholic and she can't handle not living on the edge. She was sober for three and a half years before deciding to take that first sip at a bachelorette party--after all, a little won't hurt, right? Soon she finds herself spiraling downward into a dark abyss that will claim everything she loves and wants in life.

This book was absolutely captivating in its intense rawness and honesty about what addiction looks like from a young woman who seems to have it all. I am, first and foremost, astounded at Bydlowska's willingness to basically run naked through Central Park, which is what this memoir is. She lays it all out for us to read, rock bottom (sort of literal--read the book) and all. She tells us about feeding her child on bathroom floors, waking up in strange places with face indents, consciously lying to the people she loves knowing that they don't believe her but they will pretend to anyway. This takes a certain amount of cojones that I'm not sure I could have.

Bydlowska, however, remains up front about addiction the entire time. She in no way glamorizes her choices; this isn't a cinematic-grade beautiful film that shows us how things look when she is full-out drunk by making the camera spin. This is about as down and dirty as an addition memoir can get, and it's astounding in it's breadth and honesty. She tries to explain what happens in her mind when she needs to drink even though it doesn't make sense to anyone who isn't an addict. She explains why she hates AA yet it's ultimately the only thing that takes. She wants to be a stronger person but the pull in her brain won't let her.

I absolutely think this book is worth a read, particularly if you (as many do) have a hard time understanding why people can't "just quit." If only it were that easy, there wouldn't be so much time, effort, and research invested in why the relapse rate is so high. I found this account a way to try to make sense of this from a single person's perspective, and Bydlowska makes it clear that she can't guarantee tomorrow. She will try; addiction is tenuous at best.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Did She Jump? My Daughter's Battle with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder affects a great number of Americans, and the family and friends hurt as well. Joan E. Childs, LCSW explores the pain of those caregivers in a book dedicated to her daughter's struggles, Why Did She Jump? My Daughter's Battle with Bipolar Disorder.

Joan received the worst news a mother ever could after a two-day drive cross-country--her oldest daughter, Pam, jumped from her father's high-rise apartment to her death. This suicide was devastating but not a terrible surprise; Pam had been wrestling with bipolar disorder for most of her adult life. It ended a marriage and broke apart friendships, but her ultimate act left a family reeling and so many who loved her wondering why. In this memoir, Childs digs deep to express her anguish over her daughter's final moments, the circumstances leading to them, and the aftermath of one woman's devastating illness. 

It's difficult to imagine or even explain what it's like to love someone who struggles with Bipolar I disorder, and those left behind in the wake of the choppy waves of such disease have a hard time describing what it's like to move through the days on eggshells. This is ultimately what I think is the most important part of Childs' memoir. She tells Pam's pain, and her own, with such pathos and love that it's easy to understand why she is so broken-hearted even when you want to take Pam to get on medication herself. Watching someone you love spiral down into paranoia, pain, and self-destruction is the most helpless feeling that may exist, and Childs uses her position to try to express what that feels like. It's impactful.

Childs opens the memoir with a letter she wrote to Oprah. She was angry, so angry, at the lack of care she could offer her daughter. Our current mental health system is flawed as I'm sure many are aware; it is near impossible to help those who suffer unless they self-commit or pose an actual harm to others (a worry about harm doesn't count). A great article from the Washington Post explains in more detail why this is the case. You watch this throughout Childs' story running as a constant theme and it's flabbergasting as an outsider that someone who needs help so badly is so unable to get it. It's a startling read, and heartbreaking.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts: A Novel

I heard the Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey was crazy creepy, so of course I picked it up right away. 

Melanie so, so special--the most special of them all, in fact. Even though every morning she joins her classmates strapped to her chair, head and all, she is by far the best and the brightest. Her teacher knows it, she knows it, but most of all, the head of the program knows it. For these reasons, Melanie may change the world. That is, if she isn't killed first.

It's hard to summarize this book without giving anything away, because the reality of the story is that as soon as you start talking about it when you are in the know, you will give things away. So I will stay as generalist as I can, but if you don't like any spoilers at all you should probably just go ahead and buy the book (link below) and give up your next weekend and read it and prepare to have your mind blown because it's just that kind of novel. So there.

Well, wait, I will give you this next paragraph. This novel is part post-apocalyptic, part zombie novel, part thriller, part science fiction, part sciencey, and part holy crapola. It's a page turner because it's so unbelievable yet so not far off from what could happen in a world of biological terrorism, and that's scary and fascinating all at the same time. If you watched the movie Outbreak at your twelfth birthday party with a bunch of friends who maaayyyyybbbbeeee weren't prepared for such adult fare and were creeped out the whole night (no? just me?), this book will keep your eyes on the page. If you watched the movie and didn't bat an eyelash, then you may be a sociopath but you would still like this book.

Ok, let's dive into it. Melanie, as I mentioned, is so special that she is taken from her classroom to be dissected. I won't say when or why, but know this will happen. (You will have suspected this by about page 50 anyway, so it's only a partial spoiler.) This is when the exposition ends and all hell breaks loose. It turns out the entire United Kingdom has been invaded by a fungus that causes humans to eat each other. So smart be damned--Melanie will try to eat you. If this isn't bad enough, soon the compound where the studies are taking place, run by the military, is compromised by the "hungries," and anyone who is still living is soon on the run. Easy-peasy. I am sure nothing could possibly go wrong with this.

Melanie is a very sympathetic character and I was very drawn to her; it was easy to understand her crush on her teacher, and throughout the rest of the story it was easy to justify why you liked her. Then there is the story. The science in this book is mind-blowing and not too far from being pretty right-on. (Although let's make it clear that I am not a biologist because I am already getting one PhD and I really don't want to get another which is good because it's kind of a one-shot deal.) The science of this story is enough to keep you into it if you decide you don't like the characters (which you will, so don't worry about it).

Pick it up below and be mesmerized. And you will be mesmerized. I was.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Big Little Lies: A Novel

I love Liane Moriarty and I will read anything she writes. So when at Book Expo America, I asked someone what they were in line for and they told me Liane's new book, Big Little Lies, I almost died and cut in line. I didn't, and my patience paid off. 

What really happened that school trivia night? Someone is dead, but was it an accident? You never know what is happening behind the scenes. The parents of Pirriwee Public School behave badly in so many ways: one campaigns to get a Kindergartener expelled for bullying, another lives for carping on her ex-husband's new wife, and they all look the other way when it comes to their own children. They all, too, hide their own secrets behind closed doors. Three friends move through the year together, but as the secrets slowly start to leak out, they will lead to the ultimate climax.

It will come as absolutely no surprise that I loved this book. Even more than that, I adored it and I want everyone to read it right now so we can all talk about it. I called my mom immediately and told her about it. Ever since What Alice Forgot I have been passing on Moriarty's books to my mom and we gush about them. This is no different, except since it's an autographed ARC (advanced review copy) she isn't allowed to take it out of the house and she has to wear gloves. Kidding about the gloves. Sort of.

Anyway, I described it as classic Moriarty but deeper. I loved her earlier stuff and obviously I think she is a grand storyteller, but more than that this book got into some pretty deep issues regarding domestic abuse that Moriarty treated with such care and humility. I felt she really captured the psychology behind why women stay in such relationships and she treated it delicately with the character of Celeste. There didn't seem to be any preaching or any pandering, but instead treated Celeste as a genuine person with a beautiful arc that allowed us to watch her suffer and live while still grow as a character.

I also loved all of the supporting characters in this book. The main characters of Madeline, Celeste, and Jane were fascinating and well worth the read in and of themselves, but it was also Madeline's mixed up family relations that were funny and meaningful, and figuring out who these three women were in the context of their communities was funny and engrossing and positively funny. Even the "mean girl" of the story was a sympathetic character; while she was incredibly obnoxious (as I imagine she would be if I met her in person), she was also easy to understand and relate to her meanness. We all know someone like her.

The story was really fantastic, and to be honest, I really had no clue who was going to kick the bucket until toward the end when all the pieces started fitting together. It was an incredibly crafted and tightly woven story and I might have to say that I think this is Moriarty's best piece to date. It is almost 500 pages that reads as if it is so much more. I must forewarn you--if you pick this book up, don't expect to put it down until you are done.

Hard copy available below.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beyond IQ: Scientific Tools for Training Problem Solving, Intuition, Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and More

As you've seen in posts past, such as this, I am very interested in books that make psychological research more relatable on an every-man level, so I picked up Garth Sundem's Beyond IQ: Scientific Tools for Training Problem Solving, Intuition, Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and More.

According to the author, it's not just about having smarts--it's about using them. This pop psychology book takes up the matter of the intelligent quotient (the infamous IQ)--how it is defined, how it is viewed, and how it is measured. Sundem bases his work on Robert J. Sternberg's definition of intelligence and provides his reader with exercises at the end of every chapter to master each chapter skill he discusses, arguing that it's not intelligence that gets you the goods, it's skills such as creativity, intuition, and emotional intelligence.

So... I make it very clear on this blog that I don't like to pan books, and my intention isn't to pan this one, but rather to examine what this book hits on the head and where it falls short of giving non-psychologist readers strong information that helps them. (I may not succeed. Let's see how this goes.) Intelligence is a matter that is widely debated amongst my set, particularly in the realm of the teacher training classroom. I discuss many theories behind the theory of intelligence whether I buy into them or not, and I like to encourage healthy debate as to what people believe intelligence is, how should be measured, and how that information should be used. I would also like to point out for the record that one major definition for intelligence is the accumulation and use of knowledge, so I was puzzled as to why the author's thesis was this very (frankly, pretty often accepted) definition. I was puzzled as to why it came across as though it was being promoted as "revolutionary."

There are things I appreciated about this book, such as Sundem's push to get information out to the world about aspects of intelligence that aren't extensively known, such as working memory and heuristics. I am also a big fan of Sternberg myself (call it an academic crush), so I did welcome a book oriented toward getting his research out there. Sternberg has done a great deal of work on intelligence, so the connections back to his work were nice to see.

However, beyond just the issue of the definition of intelligence, I also take issue with the exercises in the book. Specifically I have a problem this idea that you can do these exercises that are advertised as "skill-building" and then suddenly be better at life than someone who scores well on an IQ test (in one of the blurbs, Goodreads I believe, they advertise Mensa members as the ones you can beat). If you doubt my take on the advertising, check out the Goodreads and Amazon pages. What I take issue with is this idea that IQ doesn't mean anything when in fact a great deal of research has been done on the topic and the score can be useful in many capacities. Look, I think things like intuition and willpower and emotional intelligence (each of which is discussed in the book) are all important, but let's face the fact that they are different things that have their own massive bodies of literature behind them and in addition they all form who we are as humans. Not to mention that they all inform any intelligence score that we may get. Saying that things other than intelligence are more important rather than treating the concepts as apples and oranges (as in, not entirely comparable but both have a purpose) makes this book fall short of its goals.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America

I have always been intrigued by people who choose to go on bicycle journeys, so Brian Benson's memoir Going Somewhere: A Bicycle Journey Across America piqued my interest.

Brian has a bit of wanderlust and after college finds himself hanging out down in Mexico for a while. There he meets the enigmatic Rachel--gorgeous, free-spirited, and confident. They slowly fall for one another, and when it's time to go home they agree to meet in Brian's home town in Wisconsin and bike together to Rachel's home in Portland. It will be there great adventure. After they set off they come face-to-face with some harsh realities of the physical, mental, and emotional persuasion. They slowly discover what they are made of and what their relationship can truly stand.

I personally had never thought about taking a bike tour around the country, but I found this book planting ideas in my head. It's hard not to relate to Benson who narrates this story in the first person. (It is, after all, a memoir.) His candor and openness is where this book gets its finest moments, and anyone who has set out on a personal journey and has been pushed beyond limits they never even knew they had set for themselves can relate to it. I found myself wondering if I, too, could make the physical journey. This was probably the most interesting thought process that came out of this incredibly well-done book.

The story is captivating, and as I moved through Brian and Rachel's journey with them I wanted to call out to them on the road because it felt that I was there with them. Benson has a knack for conversational writing that comes across as personal and knowing, and it made this story really come alive on the page. Their journey through their relationship, frankly still very new and lacking in a bit of realism since they met away from home and didn't have the day-to-day slog of living as part of their experience, was a beautiful journey that I was invited on. Living and loving is hard work, and to hear Benson speak of how inadequate he felt on the beginning of his journey all the way to reading his thought process as he learns to understand Rachel's hopes and fears as well was really wonderful. Overall I was so happy to have cracked this book open and that I was able to take time away from life to ride with these two.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life Drawing: A Novel

I am not quite sure what I expected out of Robin Black's Life Drawing, but I can tell you what I got--a stunning debut novel that blew me away. 

Augusta, or Gus to those who love her, and her husband Owen moved to a small patch of land in a remote northeastern town after Gus reveals to Owen that she has had an affair. They rebuild their marriage and their world in this small, secluded home, and each works on their art; Owen is a writer and Gus is a painter. Suddenly one day a neighbor moves in, and Gus finds herself becoming close with Alison, a woman about the same age who has gone through her own share of hard knocks. This kicks off a series of events that will soon shatter each of their lives.

So, yeah, about this. What I mean when I say that I didn't know what to expect, what I mean is that the the first sentence of the novel is so spectacular that I wasn't sure if I was going to get a thriller, a love story, or just an intense narrative. It was a little of all of them, but mostly it was a tightly-woven, first-person narrative that kept my nose in a book's spine for HOURS. (Ok, it wasn't really a SPINE so much as it was a Kindle screen if you want to get all technical about it.) Gus is the narrator, so we see her side of things up until the very end, and it is a journey worth taking to discover her story.

I give nothing away when I tell you that this book starts with a death. You find out immediately. I won't tell you whose, even though you find out in that first sentence. In fact, that sentence is so explosive that you just have to read the novel to find out the answer to about six questions that sentence brings up. I guessed wrong several times. It's that impending death, though, that catapults you through the novel and the brain power needed to put the pieces together. Once I finished, I have to admit that the story felt so abutted to my inner workings that it made complete sense--these people's lives could have only turned out this very way. The conclusion was inevitable. But holy hell, what a conclusion it was.

This novel was simply outstanding, and I am thankful that I picked it up without knowing too much about the story. I knew going into it what I told you here, and I hesitate to say more because you also deserve to dive into the story with a willingness to allow the characters to be who they are and become what they will. Happy reading.

Hard copy for purchase below:

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Hundred-Year House: A Novel

I found an incredible novel, and it's called The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai. Seriously. LOVED. IT. SO. MUCH.

Laurelfield, the family home of the Devohrs, a second-tier wealthy family, is just outside of Chicago. After the suicide of matriarch Violet, the home was turned into an artists colony for decades until the granddaughter, Gracie, arrived with her husband and settled in to their wealth. Gracie's daughter, Zee, is a Marxist scholar who has returned home with her poet-scholar husband after receiving a position at the local college. They live in the carriage house and are soon joined by an out-of-work Case, Zee's stepbrother, and his artist wife Miriam. The house, however, may be haunted by Violet and her horrible death. It may also deeply affect everyone in the house, a house that holds so many secrets and stories that it defines the cliche, "If these walls could talk."

So, yeah, about this book. I loved it. All of it. This was one of those so-great novels that comes along only a few times a year and makes (MAKES YOU, I SAY!) tell everyone you know to read it. It has a ghost story, people going crazy (BUT ARE YOU THE ONE WHO IS CRAZY?!?), it has emotions and relationships and secrets galore. And see, the thing about those secrets? Unless you know that there even are secrets, you will never find out what they are. I found this book to be so incredibly interesting and engrossing and a novel. Like, a real, grown-up novel that made me laugh and lean in further to not miss a thing.

These secrets, man. They drive the second half of the story. You spend the first half even just finding out that the secrets go deeper than you can ever imagine, and then it is all turned on its head. You won't expect it and you will love it. The characters are so fully-formed that they come to you ready to party. They each have an incredible character arc, and over time it's hard not to cheer each and every one on, including a couple of periphery characters. There is one storyline where Zee tries to sabotage a colleague, and instead of thinking he deserves it for being such a jerk, I actually wanted to support him. When Zee makes a final decision about her sabotage, I found that I was shocked but not surprised--of course she would make the choice that she made. I can't tell you what it is, though--because it's just that fabulous.

Basically I want you all to read this book right now. It was simply lovely and I need someone to talk to about how much I loved this book.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever

I read a not-so-friendly review of Walter Kirn's latest release in the New York Review of Books, and in it they mentioned one of his older pieces, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. So instead of his new one, I picked up this one. 

Achieving was never a problem for Walter growing up; in fact, it was a bit of an art for him. His goal was to get Princeton, and to Princeton he got. It took winning a poetry contest (done!), doing well on the SAT's (check!), and heading to college a bit early (no sweat!). Arriving at Princeton's golden doors, however, Kirn discovered that the meritocracy shifts after high school. It's no longer about the highest achiever; it's about the person with the most money laughing last and best. The points come from having rather than having-not. And those books you should have read growing up? They would be great to know. Yesterday.

This book was an interesting take on the classic overachiever, and at times I felt it became a bit self-pitying. That is really my biggest critique, so I will leave that here on the table and move on to why I really did find this book to be an important and interesting read. A recent conversation in my "office" (that being a cubicle that's not really mine in a school lounge) focused on what college is, what it means, and how the system is set up. It was right before I picked up this book, serendipitously, so it came into my life at the right moment. Kirn's story of overachievement until it doesn't work any more is not as incredible as it sounds; in fact, it's a lesson learned the hard way by many in colleges and universities, public and private.

It is a major culture shock to go from a high school where you are a star--you know you will do well and your identity is based upon knowing you are a success--to showing up in a larger environment and suddenly what was once superb is now mediocre. What was once outstanding has suddenly become just fine, and what once made you the smartest kid around is only the tip of the iceberg in the way of being good at things. It rocks your identity and self-concept, especially if you have defined yourself (even unknowingly) as a pawn in the meritocracy--achieve and you will succeed. I think Kirn has written a memoir that touches on the bruise of this identity crisis in a way many can relate to. In fact, I am currently teaching a summer grad class and this was a topic of discussion today. I told the story of how, my first year in college, I scored poorly on an exam in a class I had no business taking (a sophomore-level lit class!) and it dawned on me that I would have to drop the class. It was earth-shattering to me that I would have to drop a class. It felt as though I was conceding defeat. That I wasn't good enough. That I couldn't hack it. A failure--when in reality none of those things were the case. It didn't matter, though. I, too, was lost in the meritocracy. That being said, I could relate to a decent portion of Kirn's narrative.

So what next? Kirn's story is one that many face, and his took place almost two decades ago. It is worth, as educators, ruminating on a story such as this to really face larger, systemic issues in higher education. In the meantime, I'm going to go grab another book.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dollbaby: A Novel

I have found myself lately attracted to Southern writing, whether it be light and airy or Gothic. Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal is fit the bill.

A young Ibby finds herself on her estranged grandmother's doorstep in the summer of 1964. Her father has recently died and her mother can't handle her, so Fannie, her grandmother, takes her in. One challenge--Fannie has a habit of ending up in the asylum after one of her spells. Ibby's visit and questions about the family she never knew trigger one of these, and Ibby is left with Queenie and Dollbaby, Fannie's cook and housekeeper and mother-daughter pair, to solve the mystery of the deep, dark family secrets that remain hidden in nooks and crannies of her New Orleans estate.

This novel was absolutely, positively charming. So much so that I simply couldn't put it down. I wouldn't necessarily say that I whipped through it, but I was so completely invested in the characters that walking away from them just wasn't an option. McNeal has created a world of such full-bodied characters with far-reaching and complementary arcs that I find myself wondering why I can't read more of this book right this very second. The language is accessible and has a great deal of movement to it in a way that allows me to fully buy in while still recognizing the subtleties of her familiarity with these people. I don't know McNeal personally, but I imagine she knows her characters inside and out, and that familiarity is what makes these characters come alive on the page.

There was a richness to the story as well. I particularly appreciated that McNeal did not make Fannie a crotchety old lady who didn't want her granddaughter; my heart broke when she was carted off to the asylum because I just knew how much there was still to pass between Ibby and her grandmother. This choice allows us to better know Queenie and Dollbaby, and I just LOVE the relationship between Ibby and these two and the bond that is forged and information that is passed. Basically what I am trying to tell you is that I loved this book and I think it is well worth a read if you are looking for a great, solid piece of literature. So there.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Happy Third Birthday, Sassy Peach!

I am a toddler, you guys. It's like I am learning to walk and speak in full sentences. Except, you know, I'm a grown woman in grad school running a book blog.

This, my third year blogging, saw 164 book reviews, averaging out to one book every 2 and half days. I am a maniac.

I survived my second year of Book Expo America and it was amazing (and exhausting). I wish I could say that more milestones were coming to me, but it was a regular glorious year for me. I finished up my second year in my PhD program, and I only have one semester of classes left before I begin dissertating. (EEEK!)

As usual, my compilation of the best books I have read over the past year. Most were released in the past year, but a few were not--I just happened to love them and want to make sure you know it. Each post contains a link to purchase the book if you are interested, so click away, kids.

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

To Be a Friend is Fatal by Kirk W. Johnson

Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

The Professor by Robert Bailey 

Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

Monday, July 7, 2014

Cop Town: A Novel

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter caught my eye this weekend for a good travel read. Murder! Mayhem! Suspense! In Atlanta no less! I will take it.

1974 in Atlanta - it was a different time, a different place. Only recently did the Atlanta Police Department allow African American officers, and women are an unwelcome sight. An executioner is knocking off police officers and no one knows why. When Jimmy's partner is shot and he gets away, a manhunt ensues that encompasses the entire department. His sister Maggie and her new partner Kate set off on their own investigation since no one trusts them on the official one. Will their guts get them killed? Or will it pay off in the end?

I thoroughly enjoyed this thriller; it kept me engaged and completely curious throughout the story. It was an interesting premise, and there isn't a whole lot I can say about the actual story without revealing a few literary twists and turns, so I will do my best here.

First of all, I loved that this story was set in Atlanta before my time. I adored reading the street names and knowing exactly where they were and what they look like present day, leading to me to use my imagination as to what someplace like Cheshire Bridge Road would look like 40 years ago. The segregation of the city was even more pronounced than it is now (and, frankly, it's pretty pronounced), and I felt that Slaughter really captured that and the heightened racial tensions of the city in this novel.

I loved the female characters in this novel; Slaughter gave them a three-dimensional appeal that allowed them to be full-bodied humans while still dealing with issues of sexism and a personal life. I appreciated that they weren't caricatures of single-sided; they genuinely had feelings about their work and their actions, and they had choices to make in both their personal and professional lives. I really appreciated it, and felt that made it worth the read.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Flying Shoes: A Novel

I was incredibly intrigued by Flying Shoes' premise, particularly that it was loosely based off of Lisa Howorth's personal family experience of losing her young brother.

Mary Byrd is living her life as a housewife and mother in Mississippi when she receives a call from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia--a reporter is calling to ask her questions about her stepbrother's unsolved murder. It happened 30 years ago when he was just nine years olf, and the details were horrific. How could it be dredged back up after all this time? Mary Byrd finds herself making plans to head back home to meet with the police; after all this time there has been a break in the case. She leaves behind her own messy life to discover details she isn't sure she entirely wants to hear.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I found myself with a quiet night in this week and it was just what the doctor ordered. It was intriguing enough to keep my focus and make me want to keep reading but not thriller-like so I didn't feel like I had to rush through it. I could just enjoy the story, the characters, and the writing enough to savor it like a warm bowl of soup on a cold winter's night. Only it was a horribly humid night in the middle of a summer rainstorm. It was a nice juxtaposition to the ice storm that grounds most of the characters in this story.

I will freely admit that I originally picked up this book due to the crime angle, but I was the most pleasantly surprised with the Southern literature perspective that Howorth brings to the table. Her descriptions of the Southern way of life are not just spot on; they are explanatory without sounding as though they NEED to be explained. It is seamlessly woven into Mary Byrd's lovely narrative in order for us to better understand her, Charles, her husband, and the relationships she has had with both her own mother and her mother-in-law. Being Southern is a way of life, and Howorth does a great job of explaining not just why this is, but how it is, and she allows her reader to soak it in without feeling patronized.

There was one storyline of which I wasn't terribly fond, but I am overlooking it in favor of how wonderful the rest of the story was. It was less about the gory details of the murder and more about how a person deals with something of the sort when it is long past and it has been attempted to be dealt with. I am thankful that I have never had to deal with anything similar, but I can imagine that this is an honest portrait of dealing with such horror particularly when it comes back up three decades later.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy

For avid readers of this blog (there are "avid readers," right?), you know how quickly I will drop everything to read true crime. I have no idea why I hadn't heard of Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy before, but shame on me. This book made my year.

Anne Rule was a housewife with young children when she began working at a suicide prevention hotline. She worked nights, often with a young, handsome, charming, and very caring volunteer. They worked side-by-side for a couple of years, getting to know each other and becoming, at least in Anne's eyes, close friends. Ted Bundy would soon become one of the nation's most notorious serial killers. His actions would shock those who knew him--even leading them to defend him early on. Anne, a future true crime novelist, was among them. 

Wowza. I don't know how I had never read this book previously. It's everything I ever hoped for and more, y'all. Anne Rule was yet to become a true crime novelist and is now one of our most prolific, and in part it is thanks to her experience with Ted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and a big part of it was the alternating stories between Anne's experience with her friend Ted and the step-by-step history of the murders as we know it today. It was almost surreal to read this encounter--it is the very embodiment of the cliche, "Truth is stranger than fiction." Who could have made this up?

Ted Bundy has always fascinated me in the a similar vein to my love of true crime. Him especially though, and even more after reading this book, which I would argue is really the defining story of Bundy's killings. Rule dives into what made him who he was and what drove him to such lengths as to pursue woman for being exactly that--women. Rule looks into what makes a sociopath and why Bundy could not be considered insane for committing these crimes. She also takes a cold hard look into why she trusted him so much, and she is very upfront in discussing the moment she realizes that she, too, had been played by this man.

This was a flabbergasting read, one that I had the pleasure of diving into headfirst and loving every second. I really like Rule's writing style and I am looking forward to picking up more of her books. They are, after all, true crime. New author romance for me!

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.