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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...

Thursday, June 30, 2016

If You Were Me and Lived In...Egypt

Another brand-spankin' new addition to the If You Were Me and Lived In... series. This time, Carole Roman has added Egypt to her cannon, and I was so excited to see this. Let's dive in and learn something new!

There was so much I learned from this book. The second-oldest university in the world is located in the capital, Cairo. I should have guessed, as this was not far from where the Library at Alexandria would have once stood. I did know about the Pyramids at Giza, and it was really wonderful to see these presented so lovingly in this book. There was a description of taking a boat down the Nile, and a discussion of going to visit King Tut. The description of cooking Egyptian food was just seriously not fair, because I feel as though I desperately need some of that middle eastern cooking, and the holidays that family take together sound absolutely delightful.

I love the young woman on the cover wearing a head covering. What a fantastic representation for young girls to see. The more we make representations of different belief systems the norm, the more we can see them as just part of a story. That leads me into my happy description of why I love these books so much, this particular one making that rise to the surface. There is so much of the world I have yet to see, and it's incredible to me how Roman can make these cultures come alive on the page. It gives not just me, a silly grownup with a budget for travel and a love of learning new things, but it also gives the young people in my life (and anyone else who picks up these books) a sense that the world is a much larger, more diverse, and quite a more loving place, then we actually often give it credit for. I love giving these books as gifts, and I will continue doing so.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

If You Were Me and Lived in...Italy

New additions to the series! I am so excited when I get the latest If You Were Me and Lived In... series, but this time it was different. I identify strongly with my Italian heritage, and Italy is one of my absolute, most favorite places in the world. I was almost in tears reading this, and I'm so thankful to have this on my shelf and in my life.

Oh, the Boot. Italy's nickname comes from the country's shape. Did you know that the country is actually The Republic of Italy? That the Vatican is considered a separate country, therefore making it a country in a country? So many other important information is contained within these pages, such as what you might be named, where you might live, what you might visit or do for fun, and absolutely what you would eat! 

If you were me and lived in Italy, your life might be a lot like it is in the United States, but cooler. I would never hide the fact that I am absolutely biased. I love gelato, but I also love the larger cuisine, of which Roman dedicates a nice big page to covering. The dishes that I love are so accurately described, so much so that I find myself starving as I type this. I never called my grandparents by their traditional Italian names, for several reasons, one of which is that I found out in my 20's that my grandmother is actually Polish. (Don't ask. No one in my family communicates.) I did, however, grow up with a fascination of this country and my family roots. 

I am beyond thrilled that Italy finally made the cut and has it's own book in the series. Thank you, Carole, for reading my mind!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Can a Princess Be a Firefighter?

Welcome to Carole Roman Book Week! We all know I'm a big fan of Carole's children's books, and I happen to have quite a few of them on my coffee table, so I figured I would use this last, quiet week in June to review them all. 

Can a Princess Be a Firefighter? Roman asks in this title. It's a legitimate question if you think about it. One of the issues with gender typing in children's books that I speak about often with my students is that they are very stereotypical. Looking past the overwhelming sea of pink on the cover, this book really delves deep into gender stereotypes and addresses them head on. 

A young girl asks her parent if she can be a firefighter. Why not, is the reply. You can be whatever you want to be, the parent says. That could be a chef or a judge, a firefighter or a princess, a dentist or a fairy. The world is your oyster. Every job requires work and skill, and whatever you want to be, you can. 

This is a lovely, short book for the younger set that doesn't require too much in the way of hefty reading but does provide enough meat for parents to read to their kids. I enjoyed the cast of characters that reflected the jobs that the little girls could be, including a cowpoke! How fun for those reading this book. At one point, the girl asks if she could be both, and her parent explains that she can be as many things as she wants to be -- and that's the message of the book. The illustrations were a bit of a departure for Roman in this book; they were done by Mateya Arkova, and they were a bit more whimsical than her usual books. The lines are a bit softer and the dresses are flowy-er. The girls in this book are ultra feminine, which I find to be an interesting departure from her other books. (Also, for the record, I would like that balcony in the early pages.)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City

I couldn't remember when I picked this book up what exactly I signed up for. Was it AIDS? The economy collapse? New York City? So much happened in 2009 it is hard to remember. (Am I even old enough to say that? Yes. Yes, I am.) This is Choire Sicha's Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City

John is a New Yorker. He has recently graduated with student loans and is working at a large financial firm. 2009 was a hard year. Layoffs were happening like clockwork. Neighborhoods were changing before our very eyes. The Mayor was trying to stay around. Friends were coming, friends were going. John has an active dating life, and friends galore. As he moves through a pivotal year, friends come and go, dates come and go, and John falls in and out of love. Life gets complicated and life remains simple. The city changes and the city remains the same.

Honestly, I am unsure how I feel about this book. While I would say that I enjoyed it, I also felt that there were times where I couldn't quite figure out the point of it. I think this has more to do with me than the book though, and my lack of desire to relive my 20's in any way that comes close to being palpable. I was there, and still am in some ways. Making so little money. Owing on student loans. (I am thankfully free of this one.) Having pennies in the checking account. Going out, drinking, doing whatever to get the mind off of it. Being indecisive. Being young. It's all good, and we should all do it once. But I'm so happy to be on the other side of 30 it's ridiculous. I don't pine for the "good ol' days." I didn't feel one way or the other for the characters, except Diego. Like John, I did not like Diego. You probably won't either. Then again, he wasn't written to be likable. He was written to represent that boyfriend of your friend who is just a jerk. And he is spot on.

I loved the writing style, the storytelling function that was used here. It was arguably fourth person, in that it went beyond just talking about the characters and dove into a very meta-language. It talked about the story as if it were in the distant past, not just six years ago. Details were obscured by veiled references, but if you pay attention to the world around you then it was easy to pick out the details. It was really fantastic reading it from my perspective and taking in all that happened that year. It was quite a doozy. It was a hard year. We all made choices, and since I was aaaallllmmmmoooost the same age as the main characters, it was easy to relate to them. Shacking up with a partner, even if you don't know him or her well, was and still is easy to do in New York City where the rents are high and the space is small. The storytelling device used for this piece makes it worth a read. 

For purchase below. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather

I'm about an hour post-book, and I'm still reeling and wondering what the &$/@: I just read. Holy hell, that was something. Jincy Willet's Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather is something else.

Dorcas is the spinster librarian twin of Abigail, the voluptuous town hussey. Two women who couldn't be more different, yet remain close. When In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story is released, chronicling Abigail's relationship and subsequent murder of her husband, Dorcas sits down to read the book and correct all of the inaccurate information, chapter by chapter, before shelving the book. It is a tale of love, lust, and artistic temperaments.

Willet is an outstanding writer, and an original one to boot. I can honestly say that I've never read anything like this. She has a truly original voice that is quirky and funny without meaning to be. It's effortless in a Wes Anderson kind of way. Dorcas is an amazing character -- specific and fleshed out in the most clear way possible. She is the narrator, and even though you get to know her best, Abigail is also a very well done character and as you watch her life overtaken by Conrad Lowe, the obnoxious and controlling halfwit writer she falls in love with, you want to shout out to her to get some self esteem and knock it off. Instead, you watch her waste away and slowly crawl to to what may the inevitable ending, but really isn't. (I shall say nothing else; spoilers!)

I was left a little flabbergasted by this novel, as it's not conventional by any means. It was quite incredible, actually, and now that I've finished it I'm quite ashamed I let it sit on my shelf for five months before picking it up. It is a whirlwind of a novel, and a shockingly fast read (a full day of travel and I was done -- the last ten pages speed by like a Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo).

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal

My Achilles heel is Ann Rule. I just love the detail she includes in her books, and she picks cases that are borderline unreal. This is Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal.

In 2004, Jenn Corbin was living with her two sons and her husband, Bart, in a suburban Georgia home. To outsiders she had an ideal life, but the truth is her world was coming undone. Her husband was far from the man she believed she married, budgeting her down to the last penny and following her every move. One December morning her seven-year-old son finds her dead of a gunshot wound on her bed, and Bart's perfect life starts to unravel. Soon Jenn's "suicide" as it was staged to look like is connected to another suspicious suicide in Bart's past -- his ex-girlfriend from dental school. Both women died as they were trying to leave a relationship with Bart. Could their deaths, 15 years apart, be intricately related?

I remember this case as it happened not far from where I grew up, and it happened not long after I graduated from college. The players are like so many I know from my past life, and it was spooky reading about places I know well -- restaurants, roads, houses, and neighborhoods. But even more than all of this, Bart Corbin freaked me out (and still does). He is a classic sociopath, someone who cares so little for the pain and suffering of others and lives under the delusion that everyone would just simply believe him if he staged his wife's murder as a suicide. The best part was his genuine belief that no one would connect it to Dolly Hearn's death a decade and a half earlier. This book is, as this story is, such a crying shame--two lives taken with no apparent reason other than a man's pride. Those two lives ripple out to so many others', including their sons, mothers, fathers, and sisters and brothers.

What I love most about Ann Rule is that when she finds a good story she gives you all of it, soup to nuts. She is such an astounding writer that I often find myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the case I'm currently reading about. When she gets her hands on something, she makes sure to explicate it so clearly and magnificently, and you are privy to the inner lives of so many without even having to try. It's really a treat to read, and she has become my guilty pleasure as of late. I am spending the upcoming break from school with the first four of her true crime compilations...so happy reading, all!

For purchase below.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Girls: A Novel

Arguably one of the hottest books on tap for the summer, Emma Cline's debut novel The Girls, is an astounding piece of fiction that will sound eerily familiar if you have any background on the turbulent 1960's. [Insert spine shiver here.]

My love of murder and mayhem has a special caveat I should add -- I love high-profile true crime stories. Needless to say, I have done my fair share of amateur research on Charles Manson, and that is one fascinating story. If you ever get an abundance of time, you should read Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter, as it will change your life for the...better? If you can say that about a true crime book. Manson is a crazy, compelling character, and the more you read about him, the more you start to wonder if you are going crazy. It's super cool and incredibly informative. I start out telling you about another book because this fictional novel has a different, if equally, compelling hook.

It's 1969, and a summer that would live in the history books as a violent one. For 14 year old Evie, though, life is beyond miserable. Her father has left her mom for his much younger co-worker, and her mom has started dating Frank, who is currently already married yet still practically living with them. Her best friend has abandoned her as teenage girls are wont to do, and when Evie one day sees Suzanne -- not traditionally beautiful, but certainly magnetic -- she is drawn into what can only be described as a cult, led by the charismatic and controlling Russell. Everyone does what Russell says, and if you don't...there will be hell to pay. Now and forevermore. But when you are in -- well, you can live in infamy if you follow his direction.

My biggest draw to this book was the raves about the prose, and the early readers were right about that. Cline is a consistent, strong writer and I loved reading her story. More than just her sentences and words, though, was the character of Evie and the focus on the girl who got away. We know early on that Evie is not mentioned in conjunction with the vicious murders this leader and his followers are known for, but we do know that Evie gets more and more entangled with the group and knows more than anyone has ever given her credit for, for better or for worse. It's a suspenseful interplay between the reader and the writer, and Cline kept me on the hook the whole book. She excelled not only in prose, but also in her character and storytelling. She took an incredibly famous, mind-boggling true story and in fiction made it empathetic and riveting.

I have heard people ask again and again how someone could murder for someone as nutty as Manson in real life or Russell in this fictional story, and while I understand it on an intellectual level, Cline really drives this point home for the reader and makes it clear that these leaders (mostly men, but let's not be sexist here) prey on the weak and the young, removing them from safe zones and making them dependent upon the one leader. As Evie looks back on that summer and the decisions that led her to stay at the ranch, she is thoughtful about the reasons she was driven to and attracted by this group while still not apologizing for her life. Her character was really amazing.  The moment where Evie is drawn in by Russell -- her first sexual experience -- was erotic and disturbing at the same time, and it set up a tone for the rest of the book that constantly struck a power balance between what Evie wanted and what she felt compelled to do. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter

I read a review of Walter Kirn's book on Clark Rockefeller, which was mixed, and instead the reviewer recommended Mark Seal's outstanding The Man in the Rockefeller Suit. What was I to do other than pick it up? (Answer: Nothing.)

A young man immigrates from Germany, bent on making it in America, no matter the cost. He uses and abuses those in his wake, taking advantage of their trust, their kindness, and their generosity. His name changes along with his story in each new place he settles, until he finds the one identity that works: Clark Rockefeller, black sheep of the infamous family. Everyone believes him, including his wife, a Harvard MBA and rockstar finance whiz. Then one day it all starts to fall apart, and Rockefeller's house of cards implodes on itself, leading to kidnapping, a fugitive run, and a murder conviction.

So yeah, it turns out this book was seriously awesome. Mind blowing, really. I can see why so many think they wouldn't be duped by this man, and how easy it is to brush off his wife as dumb and clueless. What you have to keep in mind about this story is that a large chunk of it took place before Google and the ability to have the world at your fingertips; simply typing someone's name into a search engine was not possible. So when someone plays off being wealthy and old money, it wouldn't be terribly hard to believe. Many fell for this man, hook, line, and sinker. It's no wonder that his wife did, too.

There is no question that Christian Gerhartsreiter, Rockefeller's born name, is a sociopath. He is definitely crazy, and what is so interesting in this account is how desperately he believed, or at least wanted to believe, his own lies. To the point that he would sacrifice his freedom and his daughter, and not the least of all, his own sanity. It's beyond crazy that he could live such a huge lie for so long, but then that begs the question: To him, was it even a lie at all--or was he genuinely convinced that he had made himself into the self-made of them all, a Rockefeller?

Either way, if you want to read some fantastic narrative non-fiction, this is the story for you. It is an intricate web of deceit and insanity, and if it weren't true, I would tell you to go jump off a cliff. He is the man of many faces, and spending some time in this book is enough to make you distrust your own mother.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel

This was one of the hot books of this spring, so I picked it up from the library and I swear to you that I whipped through it faster than you can breathe. Seriously -- two days. It was that good. This is Lydia Millet's Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

A woman decides to leave her neglectful husband with the child he didn't want. He only married her for her family money, which wasn't even that much to begin with. It's fine -- ever since her daughter's birth, she's been hearing voices. Sometimes she feels like she's going crazy, but how much of it is her marriage? She leaves him, only to have him hunt her down in her various incarnations. She's done a good job of hiding from him for a while now, until she suddenly hears about his new political campaign. She knows he's coming for her, and he does. He will stop at nothing to find her and bring her back to be a political prop. He says he will let her go when he's finished -- but will he ever really let her go? Or will her life be in danger, because it's better, politically, to be a widower than a divorcee?

Like I said, I whipped through these pages like high-end butter. It was fascinating the way that Millet wove her story with the protagonist such a strong, yet broken, woman. Even as the story went deep into her relationship with the voices, never once did I think that our protagonist was crazy; in fact, I couldn't wait to keep reading to figure out the explanation as to why these voices occurred, because it was clear to me that she was *sane*. I loved her as a character; so rounded and developed yet with such a full character arc in the story, and I adored her daughter as well. She was such a three-dimensional character that added to the story.

I have been attracted lately to stories of sociopaths, and the husband was absolutely one. Throughout this story I felt like I was going crazy in the same sense that our protagonist was. How was he hearing her conversations, and how did he know what was actually going on? Where was the bug, and where would she be safe? This book gripped me tightly and wouldn't let me go, and I found myself spiraling with the character. Millet writes such strong prose coupled with strong woman characters, and I can't wait to go back to pick up more of her work.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Still Missing: A Novel

Lately I have been needing books that are easy reads. That is in no way meant to be insulting; in fact, I live for these books. While at the beach for a dear friend's bachelorette party, I found a used bookstore right next door to our condo. Of course on a rainy Saturday I made us all go check in, and that is how I got my hands on Chevy Stevens' Still Missing.

Annie O'Sullivan's life is moving along just fine. After a fight with her mother on the way to her open house (sell it!), her only goal is to find a buyer for this place and make it to dinner on time with her boyfriend. This, however, is not meant to be. Annie is abducted from the open house and taken to a cabin in the woods outfitted especially for her. Who is this man who abducted her, the man she calls The Freak? Why did he choose her especially? As her year in captivity soldiers on, Annie must adjust to her new life of military-precision schedule (including peeing at certain intervals in the day) and a lack of fresh air. How does she get away, and how will she rebuild her life?

I'm not giving away any spoilers when I tell you that she does, in fact, get away. We know this because the first chapter opens with her speaking to her therapist about the abduction. Annie is working on putting her life back together, albeit begrudgingly, because how on earth do you do that? I love Chevy Stevens. I only recently discovered her when I picked up an interesting-looking book at BEA last year, and then I wondered where this woman has been all of my life. She is a frightening author -- I told my friends in the bookstore that if you want to never be able to sleep alone again, you should read Chevy. I stand by this statement after reading this.

Now, I will say that there was a plot point near the end that I felt was a bit contrived, and no, I won't tell you what it is because it is a bit of a surprise, but other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was really happy to have something to take my mind off of a long weekend at home with my family. Chevy comes up with great plots that on one hand make me really want to be friends with her and on the other make me really never want to meet her. This story was incredibly creepy; when Annie first makes it to the cabin and finds everything padlocked and hard, melamine-like plastic, I was incredibly freaked out for her. When The Freak starts asking very specific creepy things from her, I was also creeped out. And when Annie had to do what she had to do to keep him happy, my heart broke for her. All in all, it was a book I was happy to have spent time in and, if you are a fan, worth your time as well.