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Sassy Peach Goes to Kindergarten: Happy 5th Birthday!

Wow! We made it! Half a decade! That's crazy talk. I said to a friend the other day how much I couldn't believe how far I've com...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy

If You Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy is up next. I love the range of time periods of these books; this particular one finds us in Florence immediately after the Middle Ages. 

The Middle Ages were rough on everyone. The rich owned the land and everyone else worked on it. The Renaissance, which begins in the 1400's, saw a move from an agricultural subsistence to the addition of art and architecture to society. As bankers became richer, specifically the Medici's, they hired more artists. You  might be familiar with Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael -- and no, I'm not referring to the Ninja Turtles. These were famous artists who were commissioned for house paintings as well as some of the most famous art we have in galleries around the world today. 

Your family would have been large -- you would have had many brothers and sisters. Your father would have run his business out of your first floor, and your job was one of the following: as a boy, do well in school, and as a girl, learn how to keep a good house. We can cry about this, but it was 600+ years ago and we can't change it. We can only learn from it. 

Just as in Ancient Greece, the water was no good, so you were stuck with wine. (It's not a bad deal, really.) Your clothes were far more ornate than your own parents' were, and you totally dig that. You wore even more ornate clothes to festivals. Everyone in the Renaissance period loves festivals. That's why today we have Renaissance fairs. Because everyone loves festivals and turkey legs

However, the most important part of this time period was the art. Roman has included in the back of her book a list of some of the most famous pieces of the time and a picture with a caption describing it, including Michaelangelo's David and Hands of God & Adam and DaVinci's Mona Lisa. I am partial to art of this period as well not just because I love sculpture (blame it on my classical background), but because of the famous Lorenzetti brothers and distant relatives (Pietro and Ambrogio, my boys). Roman also includes a list of famous people of the time with a picture and a description, and as usual a glossary. These books are just so handy and informative, and I love that they skew older than her other series that I love so much. I appreciate the time and thought put into this work; it's clear that it is done with an eye toward education, and I am happy to add this one to my arsenal. Were Me and Lived In...Renaissance Italy

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived in...Colonial America

If You Were Me and Lived in...Colonial America is Carole Roman's next addition to the history collection

If you were a settler of Colonial America, you would have left England in the early years of the 17th century. You would have most likely been a Protestant, and possibly even a Puritan. You would have braved a lot to come to this new world in order to live life the way you wanted, including disease, famine, and even death. Your family would have built your house from absolute scratch, as would have your whole village. Crops had to be grown from nothing, so these were a few years in coming. You had no new clothes for quite some time -- after all, where would you get the wool for the fabric? Life was hard the first few years in the settlement of America.

So we all remember the Mayflower from our days in history, right? But do you remember the Speedwell? Yeah, so, in my mid-30's I am finally learning that the Mayflower was NOT the only ship to bring over settlers to America the first go-round. You would think that someone would have told us that in US History at some point, right? Nope.

There were other very interesting pieces of information in here that I can't say I remember from days in school. The story of the first Thanksgiving, and the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans is a bit whitewashed, and while I understand that sitting down with a seven year old and describing the intricacies of small pox may not be high on your to-do list this Wednesday afternoon, there is a level at which you can discuss the commandeering of land that doesn't belong to you and the systematic killing off of those viewed as "savages." This is my one big complaint with this book; I wish it had treated this relationship as less a meeting of the minds and more of the supplanting of colonial culture in a land that wasn't the Brits to begin with.

Otherwise, I did learn some things I didn't know before. There was the Speedwell, obviously, but I also didn't know that there were 32 kids on the Mayflower. While not a surprise -- clearly people brought over their families -- I am not sure I ever knew the actual number. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived in...Ancient Greece

Carole Roman's If You Were Me and Lived in...Ancient Greece is my second installment this week, and I'm having a blast with these books.

If we lived in ancient Greece, we would have lived almost two and a half millenia ago. That's almost 2,500 years. We would have lived in a society that set the paving stones for modern democracy, and yet we would have had slaves. Our family would have lived in small quarters, and we would have eaten what we know today as a Mediterranean diet: olives, figs, cheese, and fish. And wine -- so much wine. It was far more sanitary than water. Boys and girls were treated differently in regards to education. If you were me and lived in ancient Greece, life would be very different.

I found it so interesting that Roman mixed in the gods and goddesses throughout the book, and it really served to emphasize her point early on in the religion was everywhere for the ancient Greeks. Now, what we do know about their "religion" is that the gods themselves were worshiped, but whether or not is could be considered religion is a little dubious to many scholars. Other religions took hold during this time as well, and so it's a complicated subject. However, the incorporation of the many gods and goddesses throughout the book as they pertained to whatever subject she was writing about at the time was a really lovely and spot-on choice.

Roman also mentions more than just gods and goddesses -- Hippocrates is also mentioned, as is Alexander the great and both The Illiad and The Odyssey. There is a glossary as well as a reference page to the gods and goddesses. I am just super impressed with how this book turned out specifically, as I have a fondness for ancient Greece. While I am no expert in classical culture, I did spend a great deal of time with the subject in college as that was my major. I have always been more attracted to ancient Greece than Rome, which is funny considering I took more years of Latin than I want to admit and I'm Italian. Something about the ancient world, Alexander the Great, and the Mediterranean just draws me in. I can't wait for my child to be old enough to enjoy this book with me. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

If You Were Me and Lived In...Elizabethan England

When a new batch of Carole P. Roman books come in, I am always thrilled. I was even more beside myself when I saw that it was a brand new series that extended off of her world series, this time bringing slightly older kids back in time to different time periods. Today's book is If You Were Me and Lived In...Elizabethan England.

If your name is Elizabeth or Henry, you are in luck! You would have fit right in during this time period. Kids were named for kings and queens, because, after all, it's Elizabethan England. If you lived in the big city -- London, that is -- you would have resided in a crowded residence with no bathroom and trash on the street in front of your home. You most likely would have run a business out of your first floor. If you lived in the country you certainly would have had more space, but pests were definitely an issue. No matter where you lived, you would have avoided the water. Just -- don't ask. You were either Catholic or Protestant, and you often ate your meals with many friends and family. Girls were trained to be housewives and boys were sent off to school or to master a trade. If you were me and lived in Elizabethan England, you would be making dinner even as I type this.

I am already super pumped about this series, and it's only my first book. I love that these books skew older and reach a different audience. In fact, I am keeping a small box of "older" books for my baby in order to have more to hand it as it gets older and starts reading more. I would put these books around 4th or 5th grade (unsure where they would fall on the F&P scale, for you educators out there), but they are definitely good to have around. There is a nice, long glossary of terms in this particular book, and the list of people you should know from the time period is pretty comprehensive in terms of history. It's also an informative book, and I love the sneaky learning factor that Roman always includes in her work. I'm excited for these books!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Mothers: A Novel

This is a good story. I wanted to nab this book so bad at Book Expo last year, and I missed the official drop. I was in line for another book, and I saw the woman behind me had a copy. I was lamenting to her how much I wanted it, and she was like, "Here, take my copy." I replied, "No no no, I coldly imagine doing that," and she was like, "Girl, I run a book club with over a thousand members. I'll just head back to the booth and get another copy. They love me." WHAT?!? The amazing kindness of strangers brought me Brit Bennett's incredible debut, The Mothers.

Nadia Turner was just like any other high school girl until her mother killed herself. The grieving girl finds herself in the throes of Luke Sheppard, the preacher's son and no-longer-fixture at Upper Room. When she finds herself pregnant and needing an abortion, Luke hands her the money and disappears from the waiting room. This choice will alter both of their lives in profound ways. After graduation, Nadia heads out to see the world without looking back, and Luke moves on into a deeper depression and decisions that will alter his future. Years later, life will see these two crash into each others' life course again. 

I had a hard time getting into this book; I started reading it then put it down for a couple of weeks. When I came back to it, I was fully in it to win it. I needed a focus, I think, that I didn't have when I started it. The reason this was necessary is because Bennett is one of these writers that has a lot to say in not a lot of words, and I needed to be clued into that and willing to listen while she whispered. It was astonishing, really, to get into this book and realize the gift that was wrapped between its covers. Bennett's prose is like an undercurrent; it's so outstanding that you only realize upon finishing what a gift it was to read it. Like one of those comedies that moves so fast you only laugh after you are a paragraph out -- a "gotcha" moment. 

Her characters came alive -- how easy it is to understand Nadia's wanderlust combined with her guilt for leaving her father. She was an entirely easy-to-relate-to character while keeping a cool distance for us readers. I hated Luke, yet still had a deep sympathy for him when physical tragedy struck the second time. Aubrey, Nadia's best friend, was like someone I knew and cared for myself. They story was insightful, but it was these characters that kept drawing me back. 

I don't know the lady who gave up her copy for me, but I would like to thank her for her kindness and for passing on one hell of a book to me. I'll repay your kindness by giving this book to someone who needs it as much as I did. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

This Is How You Lose Her: Stories

I have yet to pick up any of Junot Dìaz's books, so this week on the train I packed This is How You Lose Her, his most recent collection of short stories. 

Yunior is a young man who gets into all sorts of pickles with women. He is the through line of these stories. From his mishaps with the opposite sex to stories of his childhood, Yunior's life is presented in technicolor for all to see. He has cheated on his fiancé for six years and is devastated to lose her. He watches his brother waste away from cancer while losing his mother. He watches his father lose his mother. Yunior's repeats those same old patterns. He is, however, on all of these stories, simply himself. 

I had a hard time getting into the first two stories. I wasn't thrilled with how the women were spoken about, and while yes, I understand that this is how the character thought of the women he dated, I was still not comfortable with the crude objectification of the physical aspects of these women that were clearly only focused on the sexual aspect of their relationship. In context, yes, it makes sense, but I'm not sold. 

However, as we moved into the stories about Yunior's relationship with his family I became far more engrossed and bought into the writing. Dìaz's astonishing prose really shine in those moments of fragility in Yunior, when he spoke of his brother and the confusion that broke through the hard-hearted surface of Yunior's facade. This carried over into the story of his life after his fiancé -- he was flippant and lost her, and when he recovered years later from his broken heart, he was never the same. It was a beautiful treatise on self-exploration, as told through parallel tracks of Yunior and his best friend. 

I'm now interested to pick up the rest of the Dìaz cannon to see what I think. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Pilot's Wife: A Novel (Guest Blogger Charlotte)


The Pilot's Wife is a 1998 novel by Anita Shreve. This isn't the type of book I'd normally be drawn to, as the cover makes it look like a serious, sappy look into marriage. But, I was intrigued by the fact that it was selected for Oprah's Book Club, and I know better than to judge a book by its cover, so I gave it a try.

The book is about Kathryn, a wife and mother whose world is rocked at the start of the novel when she learns that her pilot husband has died in a plane crash along with all his passengers. From the beginning, it is both a love story and a mystery. 

I'm starting to long for a novel that just goes in chronological order. While The Pilot's Wife doesn't technically start in the middle and jump backwards, it is packed with flashbacks and memories that take the reader through the romance of Kathryn and her husband Jack, from when they met until the day before he left for his final flight.

It's a fast read in part because so much of the story is far from unique: the once-hot romance turned boring, the distant teenage daughter who wants to stay in bed all day, the beachside estate with a dark and stormy ocean as a symbol of loneliness and mystery. That said, the writing is engaging and it's easy to get involved in the story and very interested in Kathryn's point of view and her perspective on the relationships around her.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the mystery aspect of the book. We learn of Jack's death when a union officer arrives late at night and knocks on the door to notify Kathryn. This is the beginning of his presence in the book as a calming but questioning friend, and of Kathryn's quest to find out what really happened, as she's initially sure her husband can't have been at fault for the crash. While the house is constantly surrounded by reporters and news shows on the TV all day, she tries to protect her daughter and make sense of what may have happened.

The Pilot's Wife builds the mystery slowly and focuses on Kathryn's perspective on her husband. As she begins to notice tiny things that tell her about parts of her life that were unknown to her, she begins to dig further. But for me, this is where the appeal of the book fell apart, because after chapter upon chapter of slowly finding little almost-non-existent clues, everything is revealed so quickly that it feels improbable and left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I closed the book wondering at first if maybe my copy was missing the last few chapters. I didn't actually feel that the beginning was slow, but that could be my love for dramatic irony, which a lot of readers find frustrating. But I did feel that the end was too abrupt to be a true, appropriate finish for the story that had been building - it didn't feel realistic to me.

Overall, I liked The Pilot's Wife and I'd suggest it as an easy but well-written read if you're feeling reflective. 

- Charlotte

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Underground Books -- Carrolton, GA

This weekend I went home to visit my folks and be the guest of honor at my baby shower. We are about 10 weeks away (give or take 2) from meeting Baby Sassy Peach, which is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. I hope he loves to read, because he got A LOT of books. I'll post on that later. 

My parents and I drove out to see my brother who is just north of Carrolton, and I had never been there. After eating at The Brown Dog Eatery, which was seriously out of this world -- I can't recommend it enough -- we wandered through the most adorable downtown area and came across two bookstores: Underground Books and Horton's Bookstore, which advertises itself as the oldest bookstore in Georgia. Horton's was closed on Sunday -- bummer -- but Underground was open, and I was in love. 


The store is underground, which made it all the cooler. It had used mass market trade paperbacks in the rafters, and I scored a John Grisham I haven't read yet. (Those are becoming few and far between.) It was a great selection of books, from the used to the new to the discounted to the antique. There was also a cute arch made out of old books. I bought the Grisham plus two Lisa Delpitt books I have been wanting to read. 

We also got a photo of Horton's even though it was closed. I told my mom and my brother they could be famous if I put a picture of them on my blog. 


Those cuties. 

We also passed by a Little Free Library downtown. This place is really quite lovely. 


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood

I can't remember how Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood by Bill Hayes came into my possession, but I'm glad it did. I like to keep one paperback in my purse as my "commute book," and this was the latest, and a fascinating commute it ended up being this week. 

The body contains five quarts of blood. It's our lifeline -- we can't exist without it. It brings oxygen to the heart and gives us energy. We have the ability to regenerate it and give it away. It comes in types, and it may contain antibodies. It can become infected, quickly or slowly killing us. Physicians of yore have sought out ways to use blood (or get rid of it) to cure all that ails us. Bloodletting was in fashion for FAR longer than it ever should have been. Transfers have only been recently in the making. Blood typing is also relatively new in the history of medicine. Blood gives us life, and it perplexes us in the process. 

This was quite different than what I was expecting, and I mean that in a good way. I was expecting a medical treatise of sorts, and what I received instead was history of the pop culture and medical understanding of blood and how that relates to what Hayes has experienced regarding his blood and his partner's blood. His partner was HIV+, which makes blood take on a different form. While you and I may not think about our blood very often, Hayes and his partner think about it multiple times a day. Bloodletting, once a common practice for curing all that ails you, is no longer an option and in fact, is quite frightening for anyone attempting to avoid the virus. How blood is tested in laboratories is now vital to understanding how to survive, it's not just a fascination. When a nurse is charged with reusing butterfly needles in one testing clinic, many are affected and infected by her careless (or even malicious) choices. Blood takes on a larger than life quality for Hayes, and he makes outstanding work of it in this book. 

This has also been interesting to read while pregnant and contemplating the process of growing a fetus and then giving birth. I am B+ but I am also CMV-, which means I don't have cytomegalovirus antibodies in my system. This means that if I lose blood and I need a transfer, I need CMV- blood I order to avoid directly contracting the virus. It's not the end of the world -- if healthy, a body should be able to deal with it -- but I've never been known to deal with big health issues well. You may have had pneumonia -- my case was so bad I was in the ICU for 5 days. You may be a carrier for meningitis -- I was hospitalized for a week as I fought back to life. So you can see why I might be concerned about CMV. It was something that occurred to me as I was packing the hospital bag, as I added my blood donor card just in case. I realized that I needed to tell my partner so that he could file that information in the back of his head in case of an emergency. Blood is no joke. 

I was so happy this book came into my possession. It was fascinating and well worth the time to ingest, and I particularly found Hayes' visit to the blood processing lab to be one of the best moments of this book. It was incredibly informative and fascinating. I would suggest a read on your part if you are interested in a more interesting and personal history of blood than what you will get in a medical textbook. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Testing: A Novel

This was one of my first exciting grabs at my very first Book Expo four years ago. I don't know why it took me so long to get to Joelle Charbonneau's The Testing, but I finally did this last week. 

Cia Vale is out of Five Lakes Colony, and they haven't seen anyone selected for The Testing in years. Since the Seven Stage War, the colonies have sent their best and their brightest to Tosu City to test for university and a government placement. Only once you leave your family, you can't go back. When Cia graduates, she is selected along with three classmates. She heads into the city but finds out quickly that the testing is not as happy an honor as it's made out to be. She must fight to stay alive, and in the process, manage a new relationship and the knowledge that soon she will lose all of her memories. 

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It came out at the height of the dystopian YA movement (years after those hungry novels but right at the release of the movies) and I was terribly interested in a new take. I thought the plot was engrossing enough to keep me reading, and Charbonneau has quite a knack for good end-of-chapter cliffhangers. I am not the first to jump at the chance to read dystopian fiction; it's just not my style. This story, though, transcended that aversion and got me deep into the inner workings of a young woman's quest to stay alive while still retaining her values. 

I also really loved the character of Cia -- she was a strong, fantastic female protagonist, cut from my favorite cloth of problematic while lacking in whininess or self-pity. Cis struggles with hurting other people in the last round of testing, and she shows her empathic side in a scene that involves death at a large level. Watching her struggle with her feelings of fairness was a lovely and honest read. She did what she had to do and it was glorious. I would absolutely feel comfortable handing this book off to my own children as a great story that also reads as a story of female empowerment. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cheddar's Tales: Showdown in Crittertown

The drama continues! Or at least, it does in showdown in Crittertown by Justine Fontes. 

Now that things have settled down around the post office, word on the street is that the local elementary school will have to close due to a budget crisis. Cheddar and the gang love these students and can't imagine not seeing them after school regularly. They hatch a plan with the students to save the school. Meanwhile, a rumor is brewing of war between the post office colony and the library colony. Who is making the weapons and planning to take over? Can Chefdar come up with a solution in time to save everyone from certain ruin? 

Just as with the first book, Cheddar and company are completely adorable and melt-worthy in this second book. Cheddar is a kind soul, and it's clear when he draws up a peace treaty between the Post Office and Library gangs that he cares about not just his own family, but also the greater good of mice in Crittertown. He comes up with the idea to hold an anual Mouselympics competition between the two houses, and it turns out well for everyone. It's a sweet moment, and it has a nice moral to it as well. 

Also I this book, character development begins to expand. Cheddar and Nilla both have crushes in the library clan, even though Nilla's is what led to the sharing of post office information, which facilitated the peace treaty. Poor girl; she just wanted to be loved back. Cheddar, though, has a crush on Poetry, and by the end of the book it looked like it might be headed somewhere. He did give her one of his beloved cheddar crackers, after all. 

As an adult reading this book, I thought it was incredibly humerus that the mice and the children solved the school budget crisis by just raising the shortage. After all, we know budgets don't work like that. However, from a kiddo perspective, it's an uplifting take that shows the power of teamwork and what can happen if we all care just a little about our fellow man (or mouse, if you will). 

Realistic budgeting 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Crisis in Crittertown

So, I'm a fan of the Cheddar's Tales series. It's a super cute, super fun set of books for kids in the early childhood set to be read aloud to by their parents, and in elementary school to read on their own. There's a good, positive moral to the story, and it's still adorable for parents to read. I proudly read Crisis in Crittertown on the train this week. 

Ever since The Change, the mice of Crittertown can understand, read, and speak English. It's the darndest thing, but they sure are enjoying themselves. Cheddar, Nilla, and his gang all live in the Crittertown post office and have a nice life there. They snack on the mailman's crackers, enjoy the daily hustle and bustle, and spend time relaxing and loving life. Then one day they overhear the mailman talking about having to close the post office. Where will Cheddar and his litter go? They sneak out one night to find a new place, heading to the library and a bed and breakfast to a school. Can they find a new home before it's too late, or will the groups of mice not be willing to share their homes with Cheddar and his family?

The cuteness is on overload over here, folks. Cheddar can write. Like with a full-size pencil. He sometimes can't help himself, like when he eats half of a girl's cheese sandwich because he's so hungry. (Cheddar cheese is his favorite, FYI.) He makes friends with dogs and with children, but cats will never work out. He stands up to a nasty, angry gang of mice at the grocery store, and after reading that passage I seriously had to consider how I feel about my local grocery store mice. His adventures were just lovely, and it was nice to read a children's book that was fluffy for me but that I know would be highly enjoyed by the 3 foot set in my life. 

My absolute, no-doubt-about-it, favorite part of this book was the library scene. The mice who call that habitat home all have names that correspond with sections of the Dewey Decimal System. There's Nonfiction and General History. Seriously. I'm not kidding. It's absolutely glorious, and it was just a fun, lovely book to read. I enjoyed myself immensely and I look forward to putting this on my child's bookshelf to one day read aloud with him.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Is Where It Ends: A Novel

This is one of those books I picked up at Book Expo a couple of years ago and it fell in the cracks of my TBR pile. I love me some crime, so Marieke Nijkamp's This is Where It Ends seemed right up my alley. 

It's the first day back to school after winter break, and the students of Opportunity Hugh School are in their annual assembly hearing the same speech from their principal they hear every year. When it ends, students go to leave -- but they can't get out. The doors are locked. In the confusion, Tyler walks in with a gun and begins to slaughter his classmates. 54 minutes later, the nightmare is over. 

The best thing I can say about this book is how disappointed I was in it. I was hoping for a nuanced look at what happens in a school shooting, with some compassion for the victims. Instead, I was incredibly turned off by the graphic and gratuitous violence Nijkamp portrayed. I get it -- it's the reality of this kind of situation. But it felt gory for the sake of shock value, and I wasn't shocked so much as disgusted at the lack of respect for victims of this type of tragedy. 

I found some of the characters to be interesting, if a bit contrived. I found parts of the story to be of interest as well. I was, however, completely turned off my the ending. The night if the shooting, after many students get out successfully, they all hold a vigil at the school. That's slightly unrealistic, as the author seems to have no grasp of shock or the aftermath of violent crime, but it's in the speeches given that my mind was blown. The students come together for their lost siblings and friends, hold hands, and promise that this is where it ends. The hate and the unhappiness. Are you serious? Having just gone through an enormous trauma where dozens of murders were witnessed first-hand, you really think these kids are coming together hours later and holding a rally where they smile at each other? I feel that the author could have used a psychologist on hand to talk about trauma. 

I'm just grateful that this book was on the short side. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mystic River: A Novel

I remember seeing this movie forever and a day ago, and I remember it being very affecting. I can't, though, remember any of the details of the story. So I picked up Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and won the lottery with its story. 

Just hours before she's supposed to run off and elope with her secret boyfriend, Katie goes missing. There's blood in her car, and soon she is found brutally murdered in the woods near where she few up. The man investigating her death, Sean, grew up with her father. They were young and naive, playing outside when the third of their trio, Dave, is kidnapped and sexually assaulted for four days before returning. Now Dave is a suspect in Katie's murder. We always think our pasts will never come back to haunt us -- until they do. 

I was completely blown away by how utterly outstanding this novel turned out to be. I was simply hoping for a good story and an indulgent read, and I got far more than that from this piece. I found the characters to be compelling and full-bodied, leading this story into nail biting territory without being a thriller. I was completely invested in these men and their families, and I found it hard to turn away from them and their story, which was also told so beautifully. When you have a set of characters in a well-developed story, it's almost impossible to say that you don't come to care about them as people. Who cares that they aren't real?

Katie's murder lent itself to the crime angle I love so much, and it was gruesome in description yet honest enough to elicit a sense of sadness from me. Combined with Dave's story, it made me mourn humanity, because while it may not be a terribly common occurrence, both of these stories were all too real. This story reminded me that I do indeed quite like Lehane, and I should seek out more of his cannon. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Waiting: A Novel (Guest Blogger Charlotte)


Waiting, by Ha Jin, is not my usual style of novel. But one of my New Year's resolutions this year was to read more National Book Award or PEN/Faulkner Award Winners. Waiting won both, so I decided to put it first on my list.

Waiting is the story of a Chinese army doctor who is in an arranged marriage but has fallen in love with a nurse who is stationed alongside him. It begins when he has been waiting eighteen years for a divorce, to which his wife will not agree, and then travels back in time to take the reader through the early years of his marriage and the long quest of waiting for his divorce to be allowed and the life of his dreams to begin. The reader sees from the perspectives of Lin, the doctor, and Mannu, the nurse, through the back and forth that unfolds through these long years of waiting. By the book's third act, we are back to that eighteenth year.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the descriptive language used to set the scene of life in a Chinese village, countryside, city, and army camp throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. That is a world I know nothing about and never really gave any thought to, and while the descriptions are short and shy away from flowery language, the scene-setting is strong. I found that I would get engrossed in parts of the story and be envisioning them because of all the details included. For example, when Lin first travels home to visit his wife, this is part of the description:

Shuyu was making a jacket for their daughter, cutting a piece of black corduroy with a pair of scissors and a stub of French chalk. Two yellow moths were circling around the 25-watt bulb hanging from the papered ceiling. On the whitewashed wall, the shadow of the lamp cord severed the picture of a baby boy, fat and naked in a red bib, riding a large carp in billowing waves. On the mat-covered brick bed were two folded quilts and three dark pillows like huge loaves of bread. The sound of frogs croaking came from the pond at the southern end of the village while cicadas' chirping seeped in through the screen window. A bell tolled from the production brigade's office, summoning the commune members to a meeting.

It is almost all nouns and facts, but the vignette is set so that the reader can see and smell and feel it. I particularly loved the descriptions of Chinese foods throughout the book and their contrast to some of the stark descriptions of army and communist life, which are often included as a throw-away like they are in the paragraph above. It gave the book an eerie edge to its touching, personal narrative and made me feel almost as if I was living in that setting, where someone was always watching to see what others would say or do and looking over their shoulders.

I felt like this book had so many insights into the practical considerations of relationships and marriage, and how much they can influence one's choices even more than feelings do. In most young adult novels, if there are practical considerations at all to a relationship, they are seen as something to be overcome - if your parents don't like someone, you can try to convince them otherwise! But in Waiting, all the characters have practical things to consider about one another, such as their age, ability to earn money for the family, or even the rules that the army, government, or culture have about relationships. One aspect I really liked was when the characters would have internal dialogues and almost fight with themselves about this battle between practicality and feelings. Even though their situation was so far from my own, I found it relatable.

Waiting is strangely compelling, even though the story is somewhat predictable and half the book is built on the suspense of whether or not Lin will get a divorce, though we know from the beginning that he will not for the first eighteen years and then he should be able to. The story is not in the actions but in the everyday thoughts and feelings of these ordinary people, who each want what is best for themselves and their own lives while still wanting to be good people in the world. There are moments that are sad, brutal, and confusing, and the overall awareness of the disadvantages women in the story faced gave a mournful tone to even the happiest passages.

This is not a beach read by any means. It is an easy story to follow, and so it can be read in little bits, because you won't forget these characters and what they're going through. There are passages you will read a few times, just to put yourself in them and look around. And while it wasn't written for young adult readers, I found it accessible and, surprisingly, it actually made me more interested in Chinese culture and history without feeling like it was trying to.

- Charlotte 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

That Night: A Novel

I actually read this novel before the previous Chevy Stevens that I posted, yet I completely forgot to post this one! This is That Night.

Toni will never forget that night, the one where her sister was murdered, and she would soon be under investigation, charged, and convicted. She knows that she and her boyfriend Ryan had nothing to do with it, but how on earth could they clear their names? Seventeen ears later, they are getting out of prison and each needs to create a life for him- or herself. They both end up back in their small hometown, where they must avoid each other as a condition of their parole. Too bad Toni can't also avoid the horrible girls who made her life miserable in high school. Soon, though, others connected to the trial start disappearing, and Toni and Ryan come under suspicion. Can they piece together what happened that night before it's too late for them -- again? 

This novel showed that Stevens is really finding her voice. She steps away from the talking-to-the-therapist trope and really digs into her characters from both a first-person and a third-person perspective. She develops strong character arcs in this novel, developing Toni over time from a sullen teenager to an angry grown woman who will stop at nothing to show that she is clear of the charges -- and the conviction -- against her. Ryan is also interesting, but it's really Toni that interested me as a character. The mean girls in her world were great foils that were three dimensional, and it made for a great and gripping read. 

I also really enjoyed the story. There was enough personal buy-in from the beginning that I found myself wanting to come back to the story after I had to walk away. The twist at the end was genuinely surprising, and Chevy has moved away from the over dramatization of a final twist and ended this story with a Big Bang. It made for reading that was indulgent and heart-racing. This is definitely one thriller I would recommend to anyone looking for a great Friday-night read at home alone with a bottle of wine. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Pelican Brief: A Novel

I'm going way back in the John Grisham canon with The Pelican Brief. Arguably, Grisham's first three books are his absolute best, with this being the third. After I read The Client, I'll let you know if that stands for the first four. 

Darby is an outstanding law student in New Orleans, enjoying her time and enjoying the eligible bachelor professor as well. After two Supreme Court justices are murdered in one night, Darby puts together a brief on what could be linking the murders -- and it soon becomes the reason she is running for her life and her beloved is dead. The Pelican Brief, as it's called, names a very dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which is control of land that will yield him billions of dollars. If Darby can survive, she must trust an investigative reporter to get the story out in time. 

This throwback of a Grisham novel was positively wonderful. It was everything I love about his intricate storytelling, his grasp of complicated legal binds, and his awkward insertion of a romance where there really doesn't need to be one. This quite long book read very quickly, because the story is so compelling that it begs to be read. Darby is a fantastic character in her own right; rarely does she need to be rescued and, in fact, is more willing to walk away than trust any man she has suspicions about. I hesitate to call her a feminist character, but she's damned close for a 1990ms portrayal of a woman in pop lit. 

It's been fun to hark back to Grisham's easy work, because it really is outstanding. I know he's a little fluffy for "serious readers" (snort), but I appreciate a good book that reads like water flows through a brand new pipe and that capture my attention so full it's the only thing I want to read. This novel did just that, and it was well worth the time I spent with my nose in a book. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Never Knowing: A Novel

I have enjoyed some of Chevy Stevens' earlier novels, and I picked this one up way back in the spring when I was in Ocean City for a bachelorette weekend at a lovely used bookstore next to our condo. I dug into Never Knowing on the train this past month.

Sarah has spent her whole life wondering who her birth parents are. She had a perfectly loving family, but her father was hard on her and she always get like an outcast among her younger siblings. Before her wedding, she decides to do some digging and finds her birth mother. However, her birth mother doesn't want to see her. After hiring a private investigator to suds out the situation, Sarah discovers that her father is none other than Canada's most notorious serial killer, and her mother was the only victim of his to get away. Sarah knows that as long as the information doesn't get out, she will be safe. Then the information got out...

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and I thought it was a fascinating premise. It was outlandish enough to grab my interest and keep me turning the pages, while still being real enough that the true crime officianado in me could enjoy the juicy, salacious crime details. I love that Stevens incorporated a few known details about serial killers, and she made hers real enough that I wanted to keep knowing more.  I hated the misogyny that was inherent in this novel -- Sarah's "wonderful" fiancé often calls her crazy or overdramatize or tells her that she needs to calm down, to which Sarah always defers and then self-deprecates in a disturbing way -- and it was in both the men in Sarah's life (see previous sentence about fiancé, and her father was annoying too) and Sarah herself, who never really stuck up for herself or grew a backbone. Unfortunately, this overshadowed the interesting parts of the story for me. 

There were a couple of other things that irked me about this book as well. The first is that the story is told in the same format as Stevens' first book, which is in chapters dilineated by therapy sessions. I thought it worked great for the first storyline, but this one not so much. It felt forced when it came up in the story, and I felt that the arc would have been much better served if Sarah was just the narrator and told the damned story. The other thing that bothered me was the ending. There is a big dramatic scene that is the climax of the story's action, then there is a bitty baby climax in the denouement that takes an already implausible story and just makes the whole thing absurd. It was wholly unnecessary and left a bad taste in my mouth. I liked the far-fetchedness of the serial killer storyline, and I wished she had just stuck with that. However, I do realz or this was her sophomore novel, so she was still finding her formula. 

I now feel that my issues with the characters counteract how I feel about the story. That being said, I'm still going to keep reading Stevens' books because I love a juicy story. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10: A Novel

I thought Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood was phenomenal, and I meant to pick up her latest, The Woman in Cabin 10, much earlier than I did, but pregnancy brain is real, y'all. Yes, that's right, I'm expecting. I'm trying to get as much reading in as possible before the baby is due, and come May, I'll have some maternity books to review. But our task at hand today is this outstanding piece of Ware's work. 

Lo is just a simple woman living her life, working her way up the career ladder as a writer at a travel magazine and loving her main squeeze. One night, though, she wakes up to an intruder in her home. The only injury she sustains are the bruises and cuts from him pushing her back into her room and slamming the door -- and the emotional devastation PTSD wreaks on a person. No matter -- Lo must board an exclusive yacht for a inauguration voyage to see the Great Northern Lights. On her first night she meets a woman in the cabin next door, and later that night she hears a murder coming from the same cabin. Who was the woman she met? What happened that night? Who is keeping Lo from finding out the truth about this ship and the crew on it? If she doesn't watch her step, Lo may not make it home alive, because someone will stop her at no cost. 

I was damned curious about Ware's sophomore effort, and whether or not it would hold up to her first. Well I'll be, I might even argue that it surpassed it. Maybe. I was hooked into this book with tentacles that wouldn't let go, and I actually stopped doing important things like my dissertation pilot study so that I could find out what happened. One of my biggest frustrations with Ware's books is the long explaination at the end putting all the peices together; I could have liked more of a punch when we figured it all out. That, however, is a minor complaint all in all. Ware weaves a twisting, fascinating tale of intrigue, and she knows how to capture her readers' attention. 

Ware's protagonists are also terribly interesting to me. I adore her female leads who are incredibly flawed and messy, so un-put-together that they make me look like Attila the Hun. It makes them interesting and worth spending time with. They are the opposite of weak; they fight like the dickens and are tenacious as hell.  They don't give up easily, or even at all. They are fighters, and these are my kind of heroines. Lo is exactly this. She needs to prove she isn't crazy, even when he head of security tries to use recent events against her. It puts her life in danger, but she will fight it. She was a great woman to root for in this story, and it is well worth your time to pick up this book and spend a rainy afternoon with her. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Anna Kendrick's Scrappy Little Nobody

For Christmas my beloved gave me a stack of books (plus Kindle Unlimited!), so you know he loves me. In that stack was Anna Kendrick's Scrappy Little Nobody, and since my roommate also wanted to read it, I decided to pick it up first. 

We all know Anna Kendrick -- in fact, most men you know would give their left but to be with her. She's authentically funny, naturally pretty, and seems like a lot of fun. This memoir traces her years growing up and her early work in the entertainment industry. She has a genuine affection for her family and their sacrifices for her at such a young age to be able to perform on Broadway, and she comes across as a crazy loyal friend as well. It's easy for most people to see themselves as the outcast -- it's a more common self-perception than any of us want to realize -- so her story of feeling out of place in school resonates with a lot of people. 

Her dating life as an adult -- and the bad choices she cops to -- are also incredibly relatable. She strips down and bares her truth about that relationship she kept pushing, and I recognized myself and so many other young women in that moment. How young and naive we were in our 20's, wanting to make a square peg fit into a round hole. How we couldn't recognize that he just wasn't that into us because if we just tried harder we could make him love us. I'm glad we are all past that, Anna included. 

You get the whole shebang with this memoir. Anna tells you about her childhood, her young adulthood, and includes a section on her movie making. It's fun, but the joy of this novel is in her self-deprivation and real humor that comes with her just being herself. She never tries hard; it reads as if she just puts herself and paper and tells you to deal with it. That's my kind of funny girl. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lois Lane: Double Down

OHMIGAWD I HAVE SUCH A STORY FOR YOU ABOUT THIS BOOK. At Book Expo last year, in Chicago, I was running a wee bit late to the floor open event, and I missed that Gwenda Bonf was going to be signing the next Lois Lane book, and I only knew because I was at another signing at the next booth when I saw a poster for Double Down. I begged the booth for a copy, but they were all out. Sadly, of course, I understood. Lois is a pretty rad chick. So I ordered myself a copy. Because I'm worth it. 

Not weeks after Lois broke the case of Anavi and the Warheads, her new best friend Maddy tells her of the odd things going on with her twin sister, Melody. The twins aren't close, and haven't been for years, but it's still Maddy's sister, after all. Melody has been having weird spells, almost out of body experiences, at odd moments. It turns out she answered an ad at school looking for bright students to participate in a science experiment. Ever since, she had these spells and inexplicably grabs her wrist. Lois and the Scoop gang start digging and discover the town mob boss is involved -- as is James's dad, the former Mayor who has been in jail since his corruption case broke. How is all of this connected? Only Lous can put it all together. 

I had a blast with this book over the weekend. I wanted nothing more than a day to read a book cover to cover, and I knew this was my gem. It was everything I hoped for. Lois is still Lois -- driving her dad nuts, getting into spots she has to talk her way out of, and charming the pants off of SmallvilleGuy, the mysterious love of her life she only knows through an Internet chat room. I am so intrigued to see where Bond is taking this relationship, and she does an outstanding job of setting her stories up for long term consumption. There are enough kernels throughout each of her books to keep a longer storyline going, and it never feels overwrought or forced. It's interesting, and enough to keep me coming back. As if Lois herself wasn't. 

Lois is one of those characters that is lovely and flawed but still so strong and independent. In my eyes, she is the perfect heroine, and I love that Bond has taken on her mantel to fly her flag. I despise whiny women characters, and those who are weak willed and fold like a house of cards. Last night, actually, we watched Iron Man (my love is hell bent on intiating me into the Marvel universe). I despise Pepper Potts. How whiny and nervous and anxious to please she was. It was a nice reminder of what I love about Bond's Lois. She's a fighter and independent and young but wants so desperately to be older. I dig it, and I dig her, and I can't wait to see where Bond continues to take her. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Mist: A Novel

I have a habit of asking people what they are reading when they have a book in their hands. This probably surprises no one, as I am a bookaholic. I asked one of my students this semester what he was reading, and it was The Stand. I told him that I am a fan of Stephen King, and we spoke at length about our favorite books. A couple of weeks later he came to class and handed me a stack of King's books, as he was moving and was hoping to not have to pack them. I was thrilled, as I always am when books come to me. The Mist was one of those books, and I recently read it on my way to visit friends in the Southwest. 

It's a regular day for David and his family in Maine. He works on the house, his young son plays around the house, and his wife makes lunch. He watches a fog slowly move in, but thinks nothing of it. This is Maine, after all. It looks ominous, but fog has an innately ominous quality about it. When his neighbor needs a lift to the supermarket, David agrees and Billy tags along. While there, the most rolls in. A frightening sight, anyone who leaves the market is swallowed up in a terrifying, blood-curdling, violent act by an unknown supernatural force. Until they can escape safely -- and who can? -- David and his son must fight for their lives both in and out of the supermarket. 

I love a good, thin dose of King. This book was exactly that. It was frightening enough to grab me and pull me in while being quick enough to the point that I felt satisfied and dismayed at the same time. Upon leaving David's we behind, we are told that's the last time he would see her, and that killed me. My chest hurt, and I wanted to implore him to go back and make her come with them. But you can't change the past -- something most of us know well. 

As I have said on this blog many times, I'm not a huge fan of zombies and the supernatural. What I appreciated about this novella is that we got a glimpse of the evil in the mist, enough to gross me out and wonder what it could be; but we never got a full oicture of what exactly it was and why it was so evil. I appreciate that ambiguity in a novel, as I feel that it lends itself to more terror than actually knowing exactly what it is. Why does it eat humans? What is its purpose? These things we will never know, and in classic King fashion, that's not the point of the story. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Dark Matter: A Novel

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch came out a while ago, and honestly, I read it a while ago. Sometimes I just run behind on my reviews, so here I am catching up the week before Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to winter break to catch up on my blog!

One night, Jason heads out to meet a super successful colleague at a bar. He's feeling a little down on himself -- he's just a professor with a gorgeous artist wife and a healthy son, after all (sense my sarcasm?) -- and on his way home, he is kidnapped by a man in a mask who looks and sounds awfully familiar. He's taken to a warehouse, stripped down, and put into a box. When he comes out of it, he is still himself, and it's still the current time -- but he is somewhere else with a different life. No wife, no kid, and this time he's the successful one. What happened? How did his early choices in life affect where he is now? Most importantly -- how does he get back to his old life that he now wants back more than anything in the world?

So, bad Nicole, this book was read months ago. Maybe I can get away with saying that I was waiting for my husband to read it? Which there is definitely some truth to, as I thought he would really enjoy it. He did -- he whipped through it in a whole day. I was impressed.

I was also happy with this book. I never really got science as an adolescent, and now that I'm older, I find myself often wanting to know and understand more about physics. This book wasn't necessarily a first choice in terms of content (I'm not much of a sci-fi or fantasy person), but I am incredibly happy I picked it up. It had enough science for me to learn something new, and it was enough of a well-told story with a great arc and fantastic characters that I completely bought into the premise and then into the whole story. I was rooting for Jason the entire time, and I couldn't stop turning the pages to get to the rest of the story. It was a complicated enough plot line for me to be in it to win it, and the topsy-turvy curves of the story were fascinating.

The one issue I had was that I wasn't in love with the ending, but I also recognize that there was no ending that could serve the characters to the fullest -- except this one. It still sits with me, but I also believe that the feeling I have is the sign of a good book. I couldn't stop thinking for days about how uncomfortable the ending made me feel, and that is more of a testament to a great book that has gripped me and made me think hard rather than a book that had a dull ending. It was a great choice, and one that made me think deeply.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Panic

Panic is a young adult novel about a group of graduating seniors in a working-class town who participate in an end-of-high-school contest called Panic. It's a tradition in their town, with a large financial reward and lots of huge and even potentially fatal risks. The story focuses on a small group of friends who take on the game, and what they have to win and lose.

I really liked this book because I found that I couldn't put it down. I am not a big fan of scary books, and I don't like anything gory or creepy, so for me this was a chance to read something really suspenseful and a little scary without giving me nightmares. As the contest went on, I was really eager to see what the challenges would be and who would be eliminated, as well as learning more about the characters' stories and relationships.

I will admit that sometimes I was broken out of the story by some plot devices I thought were pretty unrealistic. The author really tries to hammer home the image of a poor, run-down town, and yet the prize money that's been collected by all the students in the school is huge. People have been severely injured or died in the challenges of Panic, many of which require criminal activity and would definitely be noticeable on a huge scale in a small town, but the police and school are totally incapable of catching them or stopping it. Sometimes I would stop and think, "That could not possibly happen." 

I also felt like the characters were sometimes a little flat. Okay, we get it: they're poor. I kind of got the feeling that the author maybe never had been to a town like this and just picked up some stereotypes from movies about what poor people do - living in trailers, wearing trashy clothes, letting their kids have matted hair. I wished the characters were a little deeper, because I could have related to them more. Thinking about what would go through their heads as they participated in these crazy activities was one of the things that made the book interesting.

Still, with those faults, this is a great beach read or book for a weekend night when you just don't want to do anything. I definitely couldn't put it down, and I found that there were a lot of surprises and unexpected turns. It wasn't too predictable, which I think is hard for a story like this. And it kept me interested all the way through to the end. If you're looking for a quick and suspenseful read, and you're willing to suspend your skeptic's eye for a few hours, I would suggest checking out Panic.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rogue Lawyer: A Novel

Newer John Grisham is interesting. It feels like a departure for him, even more so than mid-aughts Grisham. This is Rogue Lawyer.

Sebastian Rudd isn't your normal kind of lawyer. His last office was fire-bombed, so his current office is on wheels, driven by Partner, a former client and loyal companion. He doesn't take normal cases -- he takes the ones others don't want. Provided they can pay, of course. He is the backer of a cage fighter, and his ex-wife hates him with a passion. That's no surprise -- most of the people Rudd knows don't really like him anyway. 

This first book in what looks like it can be a nice, prolonged series is a nice collection of introductory stories. It's less of a novel and more of a compilation with a through line. I compared it to The Closer, the Kyra Sedgewick TV show that ran for a few seasons. (It's one of my favorites.) What I loved about that show was that it was both a procedural and had a through-story that ran throughout the season. This book was the same way. There was an undercurrent story while still lending itself to smaller short vignettes about interesting clients. I don't always love when Grisham departs from his usual M.O., but I totally dig this one. He did a great job weaving it all together. 

I also appreciate that Grisham wrote about some hard stories. He's becoming quite a social justice writer. I've quietly been watching this develop over the years, and this book was very much in that line. He has thoughts on rogue officers, and he still takes the good guy/bad guy line and makes it thick for his readers. Rudd is the only character that toes the line between on the side of right and on the side of wrong; he is, however, on the side of justice. I appreciate that in a protagonist. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life

I had been waiting to read this book for some time, and one day this fall I saw it at The Strand, so I decided to pick it up. I have been following Dan Wilbur's blog Better Book Titles for a while, so I was interested in what he had to say in How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life

Reading is a pain for most people. I know this – when I tell people that I love to read they look at me as though I am some sort of saint. I'm not, I'm just slightly intelligent. Dan Wilbur's blog allows readers to submit book covers with hilarious and snarky new titles describing their contents, and it's been quite a joy for many years. Dan himself is also a comedian, so the success of his blog let him to write a book with quippy anecdotes. The best part of this book, however, is the middle section filled with some of the "best of" book covers.

The rest of the book, however, is just a little "trying too hard." I enjoy Dan's Twitter feed immensely, but early on this book just felt as though it were trying to hard to be funny. I ended up skipping a few paragraphs because it felt as though it were forced and not casual enough to just giggle at. I also get where the jokes are coming from – that no one likes to read – but I also wish that this book has been a little more earnestly tongue-in-cheek as opposed to elitist. It is, after all, being read by people who enjoy reading, a good bit even, and who enjoy reading so much that they find the jokey titles made up for the new covers to be swoon-worthy. 

I'm going to keep enjoying the original website, because that's where the crux of humor regarding a love of literature lies.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman

I picked this up at Book Expo 2015 with the full intention of reading it as soon as possible. I loved Phil Hartmnn (Newsradio, anyone?), and I remember his death as part of the zeitgeist. I read it very recently because my boyfriend's brother was talking about Hartman's genius, and I realized that I could pass this book on to him. This is Mike Thomas's You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman seemed, at times, to be larger than life. How could a man so handsome and charming also be so damned funny? While he seemed like a break out talent on Saturday Night Live, the truth is that he worked for years to make it there. Through his time with the Groundlings through his work on The Simpsons and NewsRadio, Phil was known for his impressions, his heart, and his talent. His third wife, Brynn, shot him before turning the gun on herself in 1998. This book follows Phil through his life, his career, and ultimately, his death.

I was one of those fans of Hartman's, as I grew up in that particular era of SNL. All of his sketches stay with me, and while I would have liked for this book to go further, I do think it did a good job of painting Hartman as more than the circumstances behind his death. It's easy to get lost in the details surrounding his murder, especially if you are anything like me and love a good, salacious murder. I appreciated that this book went farther and spent time talking about what Hartman went though on his journey to experience success.

Thomas was quite sympathetic toward it's characters, and he was particularly kind to Brynn. He spent time talking with Hartman's family about the night they lost their son and brother, and no one appears to be bitter or angry. There is only sadness surrounding the circumstances. The focus of the book is really on Phil's childhood and his rise to fame, all of which encompasses many years of struggle and feeling lost. It's an interesting read, as it portrays Phil as a full-bodied human with flaws like the rest of it. I certainly appreciate that.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Sarah's Key

I will start this review by saying this is one of my absolute favorite books. Is there fault to be found with it? Probably. First of all, it's incredibly sad, so if that isn't your thing, don't read it. Seriously. It will be one of those books you never forget. Second of all, there is no second of all because this book will change your life.

The book includes parallel stories, one during Nazi-occupied Paris and one in present-day Paris, which eventually connect. The modern story, about an American journalist in Paris researching the Vel' d'Hiv, a roundup of Jews in Paris where thousands of men, women, and children were inhumanely imprisoned and then sent to their deaths under the direction of the French police. I found the modern story to be the less interesting of the two stories, probably because I could relate more to the second. Because I am French, I suppose, but also because I am in high school and I have a little brother.

The second story is about Sarah and is told from her perspective. Sarah is one of the children captured during the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, and her young brother is left behind. Being able to see the event through the perspective of a ten-year-old girl gives fresh meaning and humanity to the true horror of what happened. While this is detailed in many fiction and non-fiction novels about the Holocaust, there is something about Sarah's perspective that is emotionally raw, because she simply did not see it coming and does not understand what is happening. The dramatic irony of reading as you know more about her future than she does truly makes you feel sick to your stomach. Her feelings of guilt, anger, and sadness, none of which are her fault, come through in a real way from the perspective of a child.

I did feel that the book got a little less interesting to me once Sarah's story was resolved, because I was less interested in the present-day journalist and her actions. I liked that parallel motifs throughout, tying together Sarah's story with the present day. But I had trouble relating to Julia, the present-day protagonist, only because her struggles seemed so small in comparison to Sarah's story. Your husband making jokes about you, for example, must feel awful and is truly deserving of empathy. But in the setting of Sarah's heart-wrenching and truly maddening story, it is hard not to view Julia's problems as paltry.

I have read Sarah's Key before, but I think this is an important time to read it again. We have all seen the pictures of children in Syria being hurt by bombings, but it's easy to move on from them without connecting them to real emotions. This book helped me to think from those children's perspectives and remember how scared, alone, and unfair they must feel. I think as the rhetoric of the American presidential election grew more hateful and more dismissive of whole groups of people, it's important to be reminded of the humanity of each person, no matter how small, and to see how easily politics can change so that evil is done and no one is empowered to stop it.

Sarah's Key will leave you feeling uneasy and upset, but, as Julia points out about uncovering the story of the Vel' d'Hiv, maybe we owe it to those who suffered to hear, know, and acknowledge their stories.