Featured Post

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...

Friday, May 29, 2015

Whaley's Big Adventure

Children's Book Week is one of my favorites because the books are short and delicious. I love finding new gems to pass on to the small humans in my life, and Whaley's Big Adventure by Carole P. Roman and Alexander Luke falls in to this category.

Whaley sets off to find other kinds of whales in the ocean. He runs into an orca, a humback whale, a gray whale, a baluga, a sperm whale, and a whale shark, which isn't really a whale but is someone that Whaley wants to play with anyway. After meeting all of his new friends, Whaley asks his mother if he can invite them over for a play date. They all frolic in the ocean together and have a whale of a time.

Did you know that sperm whales have the largest brain of any living animal? I sure didn't, but it's one of many super cool facts I learned from reading this book. I love that there are a small amount of whales presented and one or two big facts are presented. It's enough to learn but not too much to forget. My absolute favorite part of this book, though, is that Alexander Luke was five years old when he wrote this story, and it was brought to life by his grandmother, Carole. This warms my heart.

For purchase below. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

If You Were Me and Live In... Peru and Portugal

Have I mentioned that my goal is to collect the whole series of Carole P. Roman's If You Were Me and Live In...? I don't even have kids. I just want them for myself.

We start with Peru today. Another place I would love to go. Lima looks gorgeous, and the illustration in this book does it justice. The lush green and blue water is well done in these pages. One third of Peru's population lives in Lima! AND MACHU PICCHU. I would love to see this in person. What Roman does with the holiest of ancient sites is she inserts a picture of them rather than draw them and not do it justice, which I think is just brilliant of her. Why do it poorly when you could do it right? Brava, Carole. Also, thank you. Now I want to go there more.

I didn't know that potatoes were a big crop in Peru. How fun! School is called colegio. Carnival looks ridiculously fun and I would do anything to be able to go and throw water balloons at everyone I come across. And the kings of Peru used to eat friend guinea pig--a delicacy! How fun this book was.

Portugal is on my dream trip list. I am not sure why, but I can tell you now that I have read this book!

Portugal was named for its largest city, Porto. Who knew? (You may have. I didn't.) I had no idea that the symbol of the country is a Rooster of Barcelos, which is a small, colorful rooster. And guess what -- THEY ALSO HAVE THEIR OWN CARNEVALE! Can I go now, pretty please?

I have to say, this book was one of the ones that I would say I knew the least about a country. This is one of the reasons I love Carole's books so much -- I often only know so much and these books are so simple and easy to read that I feel like I know so much more after I read them.

For purchase below.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

If You Were Me and Lived In...Greece and Australia

Hey kids! I'm doing another Children's Book Week here on Sassy Peach Reads while I attend Book Expo America 2015. I will be tweeting live (@niccilor) and I will do a roundup post this weekend on all the cool stuff that happens at this monstrously awesome annual event. 

More countries! I could squeal with glee. Not a joke. I love the If You Were Me and Lived In... series by Carole P. Roman. We start today with Australia. 

Is there a human being on earth who would pass up a trip to Australia if offered one? I should think not. It's a dream trip for me, but it will need to be for at least two weeks, as the flight is super long. The Great Barrier Reef, discussed in this book with an astounding illustration, is on my list and I don't even like fish. The representation in this book, though, is really lovely and fun. There is also a discussion of vegemite, which is popular in the country, of which I might try when visiting. When in Rome, eh? Or shall I say, when in the southern hemisphere?

I am also well aware that our winter is their summer, so I want to head there in January. Especially this January, because oh em gee. It's heinous here in New York right now. One new thing I learned from this book is that because Australia is its own continent and is isolated from other countries due to the ocean, the culture of native Aborigines stayed consistent until only 300 years ago (as opposed to the 40,000+ they had already been there). Wow, huh?

Now we are moving northward to Greece, another must-visit on my travel dream list.

Ah, the cradle of western civilization. I was a classics major in undergrad, did you know that? It was a phenomenal education. I have always wanted to go to Athens specifically, but Greece as a whole. I particularly love the pages on the Parthenon, and how Roman used an actual picture with two children visiting as opposed to illustrating. It is a beautiful sight in the book. The discussion of food in this book was particularly appetizing, as I love stuffed grape leaves and tzatziki.

My favorite new fact? School is called sklayoh. Pefection.

You can find previous books in the series I have reviewed here, here, here, and here.

For purchase below.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Funny Girl: A Novel

I have a confession -- this is my first Nick Hornby experience. [Pause while I wait for book lovers the world over to yell in my face.] I can't quite tell you why that's the case, only that it is. I have added About a Boy and a few others to my list, but here is his newest -- Funny Girl

Barbara has known since she was a little girl that she is funny -- and that she should one day be a star. She competes in a local beauty pageant, wins, and immediately abdicates as she can't imagine spending one more whole year in her provincial town. Instead, she hightails it to London and work in a local department store. After a chance encounter in a club with a modeling agent, she skyrockets to fame in a comedy series that will entertain the UK for years. She is Sophie Straw, comedienne extraordinaire. As she seeks jokes, fame, and love, we follow Sophie through her career as a beloved star.

This book was just everything. I couldn't put it down, because it was just that delightful and full of gusto. I loved Barbara, and I grew to love the Sophie she became so early on in the book. Sophie was so full of spunk and relish of life and so full of love for everyone and everything. We follow her through her affair with her co-star to her discovery of her love for the quiet guy hanging out in the back (which was a reminder of Mr. Big's "Be With You," for all of you children of the 80's). Her trajectory through being "discovered" after a million auditions to insisting on auditioning for the smallest of parts, all the way through complete fame and lasting impact, was tinged with a twinge of happiness for a beloved member of the family. Someone who deserves the absolute best in life and got it. That friend you aren't jealous over, because it's just something that she deserved to have.

Charming. This book was absolutely charming. It was also full of substance, which is something you don't always get with books that have adjectives thrown around them like charming, sweet, lovely, and full of life. This book really was the whole package, and I found myself hoping that there was secret footage of Barbara and Jim hanging around somewhere on the internet. It sounded like a show I would really love, just as much as I loved this story and Hornby's incredibly prose to tell us about a girl with a dream. 

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Hours: A Novel

While I was a fan of the movie many years ago, I have never taken the opportunity to pick up Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours, so I took advantage of my summer and took it on vacation. 

Virginia Woolf, in 1923, is beginning what would become her most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while struggling with a deep depression that will eventually overcome her. Laura Brown, in 1949, is a struggling housewife with a young son who only wants to break out of the confines of her suburban life. Clarissa Vaughan, in present day, is planning a party for her best friend, who has just won an award for his work as a novelist but is also dying of AIDS. These three women have lives that are intertwined without ever knowing it, and once they are woven together no one will ever be the same.

Ok, so we all know that this is the 1999 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. (Really, there is a sticker on the front of the book that says so.) We also know that the Academy Award-winning movie starred some heavy hitters. So it would be redundant of me to go on and on about how good the book is. At this point, 15 years after it's publication, I have a distinct feeling you might already know that, or at least that you can glean that from a bit of internet research.

Instead, I want to tell you about a reaction that is not like me. I was surprised at how angry I became halfway through realizing that people were going to die. Now, this is not a spoiler as anyone who knows anything knows that Woolf committed suicide a few years after the publication of her novel. I also told you in the synopsis that Clarissa's best friend has AIDS, so he will also have to go at some point. Maybe it's just because I read this book at the beach, I was upset that people had to die. I mean, look, I love murder and mayhem just as much as the next person, but it was the suffering of everyone that took me aback. Please note that this is not a criticism of Cunningham's work, but more of a personal exploration for why I felt the way I did. In fact, I would say it's a testament to Cunningham's writing that I was so bothered in the first place. I always say that if you care enough to have feelings about a story or a character, even if you dislike them, then it's the sign of a strong writer and a strong work.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Cunningham this past fall in conversation about his new novel at Queens College. He had some really great things to say, but what stayed with me the most was his discussion regarding how he sees his characters. He said that he pictures his characters vividly, and sometimes he will be walking down the street and he will see someone who looks exactly as he pictured one of his characters. He also said in response to a question from the moderator that even after such heavy-hitters were cast as these three women in the movie version of this particular book, he has two versions of who the characters are in his mind: his original depiction and then these fabulous counterparts in the movie. I realized I feel the same; that it doesn't matter to me if I see the movie first or not; I still have a picture of how I see the characters in my own head.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I Was a Child: A Memoir

I was incredibly interested in the idea of an illustrated memoir, so I picked up Bruce Eric Kaplan's I Was a Child this weekend. 

Bruce Eric Kaplan is best known for his cartoons in The New Yorker, but in this lovely, whimsical remembrance of a piece, he explores the bits and pieces of his memory that make up his childhood. It is a sharp reminder of how we all remember our own childhoods -- rather than as a flowing narrative, it comes back in paragraphs and anecdotes, often accompanied by flashbulb memories. Kaplan captures that type of memory as he explores his relationship with his parents, his childhood, and his home. 

There was something so indelibly charming about this memoir, in the way that Kaplan was able to tell his story in small illustrations and with only a paragraph or two of prose. My particularly favorite one was when his father insisted on locking the door every night with a hook and eye lock which would keep out absolutely no one in the event of an unfortunate break in. Nonetheless, every night, the hook and eye was fastened. I loved the stories of his parents, and of the memories of the trips on the New Jersey turnpike as an adult. 

Growing older is hard in some ways, great in others. The hardest part of getting older is your parents getting older. Just a few years ago I looked at my parents and realized they weren't in their 40's anymore. That is the perpetual age I will always see them as since that's what they were in my 20's when I got to know them best. But I'm now in my 30's, and my parents are pushing 60. (Well, my dad is already 60, so there. Sorry to out you on my blog, G.) My parents look great for their age, and if I look even a fraction as good as my mom does right now, my future rich husband will have a trophy wife on his hands. (Wait a second, wouldn't he already???) What resonated with me the most right now in my life was Kaplan's memories of his parents, both as a child and reflecting on them as an adult. I found it moving and touching. 

This was a lovely memoir that I was able to read in a day. I will keep it and go back to it in another year, because I think it will speak to me in a different way at another time in my life.  

For purchase below. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories

When the hot new book of the week is released, I usually have to pick it up, and Katherine Heiny's book of stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow did not disappoint.

11 stories about about women who love, lose, cheat, hurt, and just simply live their lives. Maya anchors the collection, a woman in love with her boss and her boyfriend both. Sasha commits to a drink with her boyfriend's wife, only to realize what a bad idea that really is. Gwen is in love with her roommate, but does he or doesn't he love her back? Josie's lover has found a new one -- on Twitter. Nina is sleeping with her running buddy while hosting the local minister in her garage apartment. Lives are messy in the real world.

These women all make up the strong, lovely, flawed, and honest characters of this incredible story collection. I mean, I heard it was good, then I read it and absolutely fell in love with Heiny's ability to tell a short story with sparkling sentences that lay out the absurdity of her characters while still making them entirely real and easy to relate to. I can't say that I have ever been in the position any of these women have been in, but I do know what it is like to be a young woman (I'm still young, damn it) dating and having feelings about gentleman callers and wanting to be seen as sexy and yearning and caring. This is exactly what this collection captures: the feelings and the feels and the complexities of being a human being living a life that is not a linear and logical path.

It is the through line of Maya that was particularly extraordinary. She is a young woman who is in love with her boss and wants to break up with her boyfriend, but not necessarily in that order. She more yearns for her boss because she wants to break up with her boyfriend. However, in the stories that follow, and I can't tell you what happens because it spoils the exact reaction I believe Heiny wants out of you, she becomes someone I cheered for even as she was making bad decisions. I loved her boyfriend and his family, and I just got who they were. Those we love tend to bring out both the best and the worst in us, and we in turn see the best and the worst in them. When we get into relationships, we choose the other person's family for better or for worse. Maya stays with her boyfriend in part out of comfortable love for him, but also out of longing for the love of his mother and the annoyance of his sister.

This collection was just marvelous, and I could not recommend it more. It is a shining star in the world of short stories, and you would be remiss in not adding it to your summer reading queue.  

For purchase below. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Far End of Happy: A Novel

The Far End of Happy, by Kathryn Craft, had me at "standoff." You know I love this stuff. It kept me around, however, because of so much more. 

Today is the day that Jeff moves out. Ronnie Farnham knows that today will be difficult for everyone -- her, the children, her estranged husband. She doesn't have a clue how bad it's about to get. Jeff locks himself in their farm stand office with a shotgun and unlimited amounts of alcohol. The authorities are brought in, and there begins a long standoff between a suicidal man who believes he has nothing to live for and the world who wants to save him.

This book is based off a real event in the author's life, and I wish I could know what happened. This may be the next best thing. What I found to be the most interesting part of this story was the use of the standoff to explore relationships in every part of Ronnie's life. She went to journalism school in New York only to find herself back home in her small east coast town. Her mother was hoping she would fall in love with her best friend's son, and lo and behold that is what happens. When Ronnie sees the 12-years-older Jeff after many years apart, it's love at first sight. She stays to marry him, but as the years push forward he pulls away.

That relationship was interesting enough, but it was the one between the mothers that was also fascinating. Jeff's mother and Ronnie's mother have been friends for decades, and the bond (and tension) between the two adds another dimension to an already harrowing story. We as the readers figure out very early on that Ronnie's father committed suicide, but Ronnie is the last to know. It adds to the events even if at times it feels like you just want it out on the table for crying out loud.

One frustrating part of this book was Jeff's mother's feelings toward Ronnie and the delusional point of view she held toward her son. Everything was Ronnie's fault until the very end, and even some more then. It's hard being the objective reader on the outside, because while I could completely understand why she thinks this way, it's difficult as an outside reader to feel like I can justify her selfishness for a whole book. Then again, I'm not a mother, so take that with a grain of salt.

I found myself wanting to read until the end, even if the ending was a forgone conclusion. The final moments of a mixture of love and pain are well worth hanging on until the end. Life is a journey, or so I've heard, and we have to take the good with the bad and roll with the punches. If we don't, it's sure going to be a long ride. 

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Guest Blogger Charlotte -- Vanishing Girls: A Novel

So I just finished Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. On one hand, the book is incredibly well thought-out, organized, and very tightly written. On the other hand, I didn’t necessarily need to finish the entire book to know how things would turn out in the end, as you sort of get the gist of that after a dozen or so pages. The surprise ending just isn’t that surprising.

The book is basically what The Sixth Sense would look like if Lauren Oliver wrote it.  It follows a very well worn path that many psychological thrillers have gone down before. It’s like the author is betting that this will be her audience’s first exposure to this sort of twist… not sure about that one. To me, reading this book was kind of like hearing your favorite band cover a song you don’t really care for.

For better or worse, I found myself putting the obviousness of the plot aside and still enjoying the book because I appreciate Oliver’s talent as a writer and the way she brings her characters to life. The relationship between sisters and main characters Nick and Dara is quite compelling and well constructed. There are a few other gems.

Nick works at an amusement park called FanLand. The dynamic between the crew at the park feels a lot like the movie Adventure Land and provides the perfect platform for character development. I definitely cherished every FanLand section of the book and felt like I was there.

The drama hit home and was more everyday teen than the stuff I’ve been reading lately. I appreciated that the characters or their issues aren’t over-sensationalized and that Parker, the girls’ neighbor and love interest, is just a regular guy and not a secretly famous musician.

The book is weird but so well written that it could easily stand on its own sans the totally telegraphed plot twist. That said, Lauren Oliver writes with plot twists so you sort of know what you’re getting when you pick it up.

I was hoping for Panic (My favorite book of hers). Vanishing Girls has its moments, but it is most definitely not Panic. It’s also not Before I Fall.

So if you find it difficult to read a novel where the end is obvious from, well, the beginning, then you’ll probably have to dig deep to finish this one.

For purchase below.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Yoga for Beginners: What Every Yoga Beginner Should Know Before Practice

Over the weekend I picked up Ashley Leesburg's Yoga for Beginners: What Every Yoga Beginner Should Know Before Practice. Even though I am a practiced yogi (still a practicing yogi!), I thought it would be good to go back to basics.

If you are interested in trying out yoga but don't know where to begin, spend a dollar and pick up this book. It covers everything from why you should practice to what you should expect in a room, from props to poses.

There are so many reasons to choose to practice. I have found a calmness in the practice, and I have found a confidence in my body that I never knew I could have. I am amazed at the strength that I have built over time, even after I stepped away from it for a year (thanks, grad school!), and I continually amaze myself at how much flexibility I've held onto through the years after my gymnastics training. Yoga has also done tremendous good for my lower back, which I injured in elementary school and has bothered me throughout my life. My mother used to try to cajole me into going, and I thought I would never have the patience for it, but it turns out she was right. (Do you hear that Mom? You were right.)

This book covers tips and tricks for basic poses, and there are even pictures that help you understand what these look like from the outside. You will have an understanding of what you are getting into and how to take advantage of your first few sessions in the practice. 

For purchase below.