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...

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Optimists Daughter: A Novel

Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter was a lovely holiday read. My sister had a copy that I snatched up to keep me away from my family because they were driving me nuts enjoy.

A young woman comes south to be with her father at a doctor's appointment about the father's eye. What her very young stepmother believes is a simple briar scratch is more likely a detached retina and will require major surgery. Recovery is much more difficult than originally assumed and it does not take long for the father to pass on from this world, leaving his daughter navigate the funeral and his estate in her hometown with her stranger of a stepmother.

This novel was a beautiful piece of work. (Well duh, you are probably thinking, it did win the Pulitzer!) Welty has such a way with prose that makes you feel as though you are a member of the family, or a visiting friend and that you are actually there witnessing the events, even those as private as the emotional take-down of the stepmother. I shuddered in embarrassment when the stepmother's small-town Texan relatives came, how out of place they were! How awkward those moments were for the daughter and her friends!

This was not a very long book and was perfect for sneaking away during the vacation to get some peace and quiet, and maybe even disappear into someone else's world.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories

For those of you out there, like me, who loved Wonder, then have I ever got the book for you. R.J. Palacio just released (yesterday!) Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories, and it's just what you have hoped for.

Wonder was the incredible story of a boy born with a craniofacial deformity who entered into public school. Those he knew in school, though, also have stories both before Auggie came and after the year was over. This book follows three of those characters: Julian the bully, Christopher the old friend, and Charlotte the new friend. These stories dig deeper into the characters that you grew to love and to hate in the original novel, and motivations are shown to be deeper than Wonder could have revealed.

This was such a lovely companion to the original novel. Palacio gives us an introduction explaining that there will not be a sequel to Wonder, only because it's so important to her readers to imagine where Auggie would be as he grows up. I loved that sentiment, and honestly, it may have been my favorite part of this book! Only because I love how much everyone loves Auggie, but I also love how much Palacio cares for her own characters.

That being said, I was impressed with this book. Julian's story told so much about the class bully that I was moved toward the end. It wasn't overwrought, but it certainly brought some context to who Julian was and his motivations. We knew in the original novel that his mother was probably a pain in the butt, and this story confirmed it. It was also super interesting to watch Julian's transformation over the summer visiting his Grandmere in Paris. Similarly, reading about Christopher and Charlotte was also eye-opening, and watching their character arcs through their own stories made for a superb companion piece for the life-affirming story of Auggie.

For those of you out there who use Wonder in your classrooms, consider adding in this companion piece. You will love it as much as I did.

For purchase below. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Rarity from the Hollow: A Novel

Rarity from the Hollow by Robert Eggleton caught my eye when the author himself told me about where he sends the proceeds for this book. I will tell you more about it below, and if you are even remotely interested in this book, I want to urge you to consider purchasing it and reading it. 

Lacy Dawn lives in Appalachia with her worn-out mom, her Iraq War disabled dad, and her mutt Brownie. Lacy Dawn's android boyfriend, DotCom, has come to the hollow with a mission. His equipment includes infomercial videos of Earth's earliest proto-humans from millennia ago. DotCom has been sent by the Manager of the Mall on planet Shptiludrp: he must recruit Lacy Dawn to save the Universe in exchange for the designation of Earth as a planet which is eligible for continued existence within a universal economic structure that exploits underdeveloped planets for their mineral content. Lacy Dawn’s magic enables her to save the universe, Earth, and, most importantly, her own family. 

This book was absolutely fascinating, and it was heartbreaking to boot. Lacy Dawn is such an interesting young lady, and I found the early pages when she was working with her best friend to prepare for a spelling test to be so telling of her character. She is a bit of a loner, but a very special girl. Her healing gifts were bestowed on her classmates, and her best friend idolizes her. She is dependent on DotCom for help herself, and when she is called upon to help save the universe, her willingness to use her gifts for good was interesting to watch and follow. As you read this book though, you have to keep in mind the world in which Lacy Dawn lives. It's not an easy life, being a daughter of Appalachia, and growing up with not much more than a box to play in. I was incredibly struck when she describes the death of a classmate at the hands of her father -- it has stayed with me long after putting this book down. 

Dark and humorous at times, this book reached for absurdity in its plot to teach a deeper lesson about childhood and when children have to deal with adult circumstances. No child should have to save the world, just like no child should have to deal with the death of her childhood friends and her father's mental illness. It's a story that holds meaning if you let it come to you. 

Author proceeds have been donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia where the author worked in the early 1980s: Children’s Home Society Of West Virginia. It's a private, non-profit child welfare agency caring for more than 13,000 children, youth, and families throughout the state of West Virginia each year. The list of the services they provide is incredible, and well worth your support.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lois Lane: Fallout

OH MY GAWD. You have no idea. Just...amazing. This is Gwenda Bond's Lois Lane: Fallout

Lois Lane has been to more schools than she can count. Every time she walks in, she hopes this time will be different. She is brassy and honest, which doesn't always work to her advantage. This time, at Metropolis High, she is determined to blend in. That is, until her first morning when she calls out the principal on his refusal to stop a young woman from being bullied by the Warheads, a group of students who take conforming to a new level. Lois begins researching this for her new job at the city paper, with some help from her mysterious online friend SmallvilleGuy, and what she uncovers may be more dangerous than she could ever imagine.

I am madly in love with this book and I now want Gwenda to be my best friend. This story just blew me away on so many levels. The first being that it is a fantastic story. It is timely and catchy, with a focus on virtual reality headsets. It of course made me feel super old and all like, "Why would these kids want to spend time in virtual reality," and then I remembered that kids like video games and stuff. (I am not a Luddite by any means, but I'm not much of a gamer.) The story had a fantastic narrative arc in and of itself, and the integration of present day technology was just superb. I'm madly in love.

Another way that I loved this book was the weaving of Superman into the story while not focusing on the superhero as the crux of the story. He helped Lois, for certain, but this was Lois's story first and foremost. And even more than that, Lois was a strong young woman with her own flaws that never resulted in her needing saving, but rather in finding ways to work with those around her to solve the challenges she faced in trying to help her friend and seek truth. (Or capital-t Truth?) It was a true series of events that featured a strong young woman, and that alone is good enough for me to recommend this book.

See, Lois has a bit of a mouth on her. It's something I can relate to. I am a feisty young (ahem) woman who often gets into trouble by speaking my mind. I'm not alone in this, however, and I know this is something that a lot of young woman can relate to. It was such an absolute relief to read a book that showed a character who looked like me, sounded like me, and had to find ways to talk herself out of ridiculous yet important situations like me. This book was not just wonderful, but it was important to me. I could see myself in it. And for that, I am thankful to you, Gwenda.

So yeah. Worth picking up for the young adult woman in your life. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Killer Next Door: A Novel

I loved Alex Marwood's debut, so I picked up The Killer Next Door this week to satisfy my crime craving. 

It's an "up and coming" area, but the rents are still good. The building attracts those who live month to month, and the landlord is creepy, but for the residents of 23 Beulah Grove, the price is right. A girl has recently run out on her place, which isn't unusual, but Collette doesn't mind -- she needs a place, and fast. Everyone keeps to themselves for the most part until one horrible, excruciatingly hot night, when an accident brings them all together. The problem is that one of them is a killer, and he will go to the ends of the earth to keep them all from finding out.

This book creeped me out to no end. Seriously. I just about lost it a third of the way into the book, and I can handle quite a lot. It was astounding, really, and it is one more pin in Marwood's hat that continues to make me believe in the power of Marwood's storytelling abilities. This writer has the ability to craft a tale that is realistic and incredibly well-researched, to the point where I want to ever avoid a situation in which a killer lives in my midst. The worst part about that statement I just made? So does everyone else. And there was nothing they could do to know.

The killer was extraordinarily creepy, and the description of his preservation of his "girlfriends" was what made me shudder so deeply. This combined with Collette being on the run, and clearly being the next target, made me uneasy about sleeping alone. For the record, both of my roommates are wonderful, but what if. What if, you know?!? I may need to start intermittent mandatory inspections. [Looks around quickly, checks under the bed for boogeymen.]

On a more serious note (no guys, I'm not searching your rooms!), this story was astounding and I would highly recommend it for your reading pleasure if super creepy thrillers are your thing. They are totally mine, and this hit the spot. My mother, for example, should not read this book. I found the characters to be sympathetic and well-crafted; I completely understood how the older woman with the long-term lease felt completely violated when her home was invaded while she was on vacation. I've met this woman before, particularly in New York City. Everyone was someone I knew in some way, and this heightened the heart-pounding events of the last half of the novel.

So well worth a read, I would say. 

For purchase below.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Drop: A Novel

Honestly, I picked this one up because it was at the library on the "new" shelf and I know that I enjoy Dennis Lehane. Simple as that. I have yet to read a good chunk of his work, but he is a superb storyteller and I had a feeling The Drop would be no different. 

It's three days after Christmas and Bob has yet to take down the decorations at Cousin Marv's, the bar he works at. On his way home from work, he hears whimpering coming from a trash can in an alley. It's a baby pit bull that has been beaten to within an inch of its life. Living in the apartment above the cans is a broken woman. Bob rescues the puppy and befriends the woman, but things start to come to a head. Marv's is robbed by two men in ski masks, but the problem with this is that the bar is really run by the Chechen mob. The owner of the dog hunts Bob down and wants his dog back...things are busy in Bob's life.

I am a fan of Lehane's even though I have only read a couple of his novels. This one was short and sweet and packed quite a punch, so overall I was happy with my selection. I found myself very drawn to Bob, even with all of the secrets and slow reveals. I found myself wanting to know him, and it was no surprise that the woman in the alley also wants to know him. He was one of my favorite types of characters -- broken and in need, but not needy. It's difficult to find these kinds of characters in a novel without them coming across as whiny, and I found Bob to be honest and stoic while still needing to find his own brand of healing. The pit bull was a parallel metaphor for who Bob was and who is healing into, and it was an interesting and nice juxtaposition.

The robbery conspiracy may have been my favorite part of this story. I love a good mob story, and this one brought out the best in the completely f&%$ed up world of what it means to be a small-time made (or wannabe-made) man. People are complicated even though we want to be seen as simple, and this story exemplified that not just with Bob, but with all of the players, not the least of which include Marv. The best laid plans of mice and men.

For purchase below. 

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the Wold's Favorite Board Game

This was a book that I would have thrown on my TBR pile and then wondered why I didn't pick it up earlier. Thank goodness my book club picked it for the April read, because I didn't miss what I think is one of the most astounding pieces of history I have read as of late. This is Mary Pilon's The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the Wold's Favorite Board Game.

Charles Darrow, broke during the Great Depression, one night had a stroke of genius and created a game for his family to play that harked back to their trips to Atlantic City. He sold it to Parker Brothers, and the rest is history. Or so you think. Mary Pilon's masterpiece turns that old narrative on its head, taking us on a roller coaster ride of economics, feminism, Quakers, and the true history behind the beloved board game of Monopoly.

I absolutely adored every second I spent with this book and I could not recommend it more. (I just got strait to the point there, didn't I?) I absolutely, positively, without a doubt loved the non-fiction narrative of this story. I would have never in my wildest dreams imagined that the Clarence Darrrow story perpetuated on the boxes of the world famous game could have been one of the most elaborate falsehoods in the history of gaming. (I may be exaggerating, but it's how I feel.) Monopoly was in the public domain, and was based off of a game invented by a woman -- Lizzie Magie Phillips. How amazing is that?

This was our book for the MashReads book club a couple of months ago, and it was such an absolute treat to meet Mary and talk to her about this book. First of all, I loved that it read like a narrative and was far from being a dry historical piece. It was interesting, and I cared very much about the characters involved. My question for Mary, though, was whether she set out to write a feminist piece, because even though this was far from being a manifesto, it sure does have a woman at its center, changing history and being a general badass. While I can't remember her answer word for word, I do remember how much she enjoyed Lizzie and researching her.

I could ramble on all day about how much I loved this book and how worth it it is to pick it up and give it a read this summer. Just do it. Then run out and play Monopoly, which is what I am doing with my mom right this second. 

For purchase below. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

I read a blurb about T.J. Mitchell and Dr. Judy Melinek's Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner recently and run to get a download from the library.

Dr. Julie Melinek began her work as a forensic pathologist in the New York City medical examiner's office just two months before the attacks of September 11. She quickly learns how to determine cause of death and label homicides, accidents, and natural deaths. She must come to grips with some horrible ways to die, all the while giving the dead the respect they deserve. September 11 tries her in ways that nothing else could, and she emerges from her training well equipped to take on whatever the future holds.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book on many levels. I think that the work Dr. Melinek does is fascinating, first of all, and I am very appreciative that she took the time to share her experience in narrative form. This book can be very technical at times, and what I appreciated most about this is that if you are interested in the super technical work, you get it here, but if you get lost and have to glaze over it, it doesn't hold the story back. Dr. Melinek tells her story with such ethos and pathos, and she clearly takes what she does seriously. It was really incredible to read her work (Mitchell, her co-author, is her husband) and understand how much respect she has not just for her profession but for people like you and I who will one day end up on her table. I only hope other medical examiners are as caring and honest as she is.

Dr. Melinek's treatment of her work on September 11 is not just commendable and laudable but also honest and heartbreaking. I won't get into detail here because it is her story to tell. It was a kind and straightforward telling of the hardest 8 months of her life, and I am grateful she shared it with her readers. Her efforts to preserve the dignity of her fellow Americans was truly a gift to read. Well worth your time, I would say. So pick it up. 

For purchase below. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Thirteen Reasons Why

Hello readers! Nicole here. I have a super fun treat for you while I kick off my Myrtle Beach vacation this week. Charlotte, #bestguestbookbloggerever, is doing Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why today. The reason I am so excited about it is that I posted on this book three years ago, and I very much want another take on it. So the biggest thanks in the world to Charlotte!!! (I'm also glad we have similar feelings on the book.)

I am signing off so you can hear from the woman herself. 

Hi there,

Reading "TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY" was, mostly frustrating. The book, written by Jay Asher, was a New York Times bestseller when it came out 8 years ago. The numbers in the stylized title are just one of many examples of the way this book screams "I wrote this for teenagers!" 

Nonetheless, I can see why it was so popular. It is pretty compelling to read, and once you start you are drawn to keep reading and figure out the details of what happened. The overall premise of the book is that a high school boy has received a set of cassette tapes in the mail, and he must listen to them all to learn the thirteen reasons (sort of) why his classmate has killed herself. Knowing from the beginning that there are thirteen reasons, and being given lots of clues along the way that tie the reasons together, make the reader want to keep going. I think that is the best thing I can say for this book.

I had two big frustrations with the book. First, I felt like the author was really enjoying his own abilities and jokes, which is not something I enjoy. It feels pedantic, like he's trying to hard to create something meaningful and connect with teenage readers. Some of the motifs in the book were really heavy handed. In particular, there were lots of references to childhood songs or nursery rhymes and lots of mentions of sweetness, both literally in terms of candy and sugary drinks and figuratively in mentioning people's personalities. I know that these were intended to be symbols of childhood, and of things that can seem harmless and fun but really aren't: sing-song teasing and overly sweet things that actually make you sick. But I just felt that by the tenth or twentieth reference, the author was trying to hard to make the book into something we could write an essay about in class. His references to literature that lots of high school students read, from his direct mention of Holden Caulfield to his indirect-but-obvious shout-out to William Carlos Williams, just reinforced my feelings that he was trying to hard to connect with me.

My second, and much bigger, frustration with the novel was that I found it very hard to sympathize with Hannah, the girl who has made the tapes in the story. Her reasons for killing herself, which I won't give away here, seemed for the most part to be everyday occurrences in high school life. Most of the people she was seeking to blame for her suicide had wronged her in what seemed to me to be very insignificant ways. What's more, she had set up an elaborate blackmail system to ensure that they all felt blamed for their part in her actions, which she seemed from her way of speaking on the tapes to enjoy very much. Most of the book builds up to learning how the protagonist who is listening to the tapes is involved in her suicide - and the result there seemed like a cop-out from creating any complexity to the main character. I was frustrated with her, page after page, for her choices in how to handle the things that happened to her and how to embarrass and blame everyone else around her. It was as if she could not see that she was continuing a cycle of difficulty and pain around her.

That said, when I finished the book, I wondered if those feelings were the goal of the author. Because if the book had shown Hannah as horribly wronged and I had related to her response to the world around her, I might have left it feeling that in her case the suicide made sense. Instead, I ended the book feeling like these trivial things that happened to her, which many people around her may not have realized had a lasting impact, caused her to do something that anyone outside the situation would have viewed as a bad decision. 

That feeling in itself got me thinking about the reasons that many teenagers and young adults kill themselves, and how the small ways we may wrong another can have a real lasting impact on people who are having a hard time. How simple kindnesses can make a difference. The fact that the author ended the book by showing such a simple kindness in action is evidence to me that maybe, just maybe, his intention was for me to feel frustrated with Hannah, so that I would see that the choice she made was a bad one, and would remember that even the smallest acts of ignorance or cruelty can have a lasting impact I wouldn't have expected. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that was his intention, which in the end makes me kind of appreciate this book and understand what made it so popular. Even so, I think he could edit some of the self-amused puns out of his next book and give us a little more credit as readers.


~ Charlotte

For purchase below. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Max the Brave

This is, arguably, the best children's book I have ever read. I picked it up at Book Expo America this year and read it immediately only to fall madly with Max. You will too soon enough. 

Max is a kitten who is new to the world. He desperately wants to chase a mouse, so he goes out in search of one. He asks every animal he comes across, only to be turned down by rabbits and birds and the like. He then runs across a mouse who throws him off his trail. The ending of this book will make you cry with happiness. 

I am madly in love with Max and I want him to come live with me. I am not sure how you can begin to understand my deep and abiding love for Max. He is not just adorable -- I mean, just look at that picture on the cover -- but he is captivating in his search for the ever elusive mouse. He asks everyone around if they are the mouse. Each replies no. Including the mouse himself, who passes him off to a much larger creature, whom Max tries to capture. Much to his regret, I might add. This book is incredibly clever, beyond adorable, and is one of my all time favorite children's books. I will be holding on to this copy and picking it up for a giggle on a regular basis, because I'm worth it. And Max is, too.

For purchase below.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Juneteenth for Mazie

In my work with preservice teachers, one item of note we discuss is how important it is to find children's books that represent children who are not the majority culture. I was so excited to pick up Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper at Book Expo America this year, and to present it to my students as a way to diversify their bookshelves.

Mazie is sad one summer night, because she always wants to go out and play but has to go to bed instead. Her grandfather comforts her by telling her the next night, they will celebrate. It is Juneteenth, which is the day that celebrates the emancipation of slaves. They will eat and dance, and they will celebrate the most glorious day that allowed her great-great-great grandpa Mose had the opportunity to be realized as the citizen of this country he was. 

I absolutely adored this book. It was the perfect length for a child, and the description of what Juneteenth celebrates was exactly on level. The story moves through many decades of the struggle for equality, and the representation of the annual celebration makes for a very happy book. I also want to rave about the illustrations. They are gorgeous. The story can tell itself strictly through the pictures in this book, and I was floored when I read this. Honestly, I don't want anyone else to read my copy because I desperately want to keep it pristine and untouched on my bookshelf. 

The most moving picture to me was when they reached the back of a man's head taking the oath of office for what is clearly the President of the United States. It's a stunning picture in it's simplicity, and the American flag in the background with the man's right hand raised is a moving reminder that, no matter how short we have fallen in our efforts to be of equal standing, we have still made strides as a nation.

The joy that radiates throughout this book, and it's clear and straightforward yet simple story is really just perfect. I'm in love with this book, and you will be, too.

For purchase below.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Lucy in the City: A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills

I have a fondness for the name Lucy, as my canine niece holds this moniker. She also lives in the city, so when I had the opportunity to pick up Lucy in the City: A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills by Julie Dillemuth and illustrated by Laura Wood, I grabbed it and ran.

Lucy is a young racoon who heads out one night with her family to forage for food in the city. She doesn't listen, however, and is so engrossed in a jar of peanut butter that she doesn't notice her family has left her. Scared and alone, she decides to find her way home. With the help of an owl flying high above her in the sky, she remembers bits and pieces about the walk to the trash cans and slowly but surely makes her way back home. 

Well, isn't Lucy just positively adorable? Who wouldn't love her? The illustrations are super fun in this book, with Lucy being scrumptious and the city blocks coming alive from a bird's eye view. I particularly fell in love with the family sneaking around the city at the beginning of the book to find food. It was ridiculously cute. Lucy was a sweet character, and I could easily understand the fear that struck her when she realized her family was gone. (One question -- did the family have so many kids that they really didn't realize they left Lucy behind with her nose in a peanut butter jar??? Touche.) Her finding her way home was clever and sweet, and really taught a great lesson about how important it is to take a deep breath and take challenges one small step at a time. 
The real live Lucy
For purchase below.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON'T!

At Book Expo America this year, there were so many great children's books to choose from. I picked up If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON'T! by Elise Parsley, and thank goodness I did!

Alligators are trouble. They throw paper airplanes, they draw funny pictures that make you laugh, and worst of all, they eat humans, which means you have to give them gum to keep them busy but that's against the rules. Which means you get in big trouble. Like, all day. Sigh. If you ever want to bring an alligator to school -- don't.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I loved this book. I mean, I just loved this book. It is silly and ridiculous and absolutely perfect in every way. It is a delight of a book, and I will be keeping it for myself because when I need a laugh, I will be opening this book. First of all, the illustrations are perfect. Colorful, big, and joyful. The kids are depicted exactly as I love them -- big and round and soft and crazy. And the story. It is hilarious. Magnolia, the young lady who brings the alligator to school, is a riot. She is seemingly innocent in her endeavor (after all, the teacher said to bring some thing from nature) and tries so hard to explain to you, her audience, why it is a bad idea to bring an alligator to school. Which makes her positively charming. I completely felt for her, poor girl.

So pick this up for your child. You won't regret it.

For purchase below.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Captain No Beard: Strangers on the High Seas & The Aurora Borealis

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me! It's time for more of Carole Roman's Captain No Beard series here on Sassy Peach, Book Blogger.

In Strangers on the High Seas, Captain No Beard has a new crew mate on board, but she's not old enough to contribute much. She also poops her pants. No Beard finds Cayla, the small crew member, very annoying and always in his way. When Barnabas the Scurvy Dog's ship comes upon them ready to attack, will No Beard accept help from Cayla or will he be able to save his ship on his own?

In The Aurora Borealis, Captain No Beard and his crew find themselves heading toward the North Star -- and it's freezing there! When No Beard decides he wants to take a piece of this area home with him, the crew revolts. Then they come upon the Aurora Borealis -- the most beautiful, colorful thing any of them have ever seen! Instead of stealing it, Hallie convinces No Beard to recreate the Aurora Borealis in his room.

I really do love Captain No Beard. I think he is such a creative, lovely boy who teaches a lesson in all of his books, whether it is inclusion as in Strangers on the High Seas or honesty and creativity in Aurora Borealis. I find it so important to teach a strong lesson in children's books, and I feel that Captain No Beard does that with fun and inventive situations, including animals that talk and encourage No Beard to make the right decision. 

I also love that Cayla is now integrated into Captain No Beard's crew once she shows up in Strangers on the High Seas. The relationships between characters is clear and encourages sibling participation, which is something I've never been personally good at. (Sorry, Laura.) I love that it's vital to the storyline and encouraging for young kids. 

For purchase below.