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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, is a book I am glad I read and a book I’m glad I did not have to read for school. Let’s start with the basics:

• It’s short.
• It has swears and sexual language in it.
• It gets put on a lot of lists of the best YA novels ever (this is why I read it).
• It gets banned by schools a lot (this is also a little bit why I read it).
• It was written in the 1970s and is kind of dated, so it can be hard to get really lost in it. I also found that the fact that it had LOTS of character who were all boys made it easy to get confused and meant that I had trouble getting lost in the book.

Like so many young adult classics, it’s a book about the dangers of mob mentality, the importance of standing up for yourself, and the ability to make an impact in an unfair world. I can’t say that I loved reading it, if only because it felt dated and I wasn’t able to really get absorbed in the book. It took a lot of energy to read. I think maybe stories set in high school, where the norms of communication and friendship change so much over time, have trouble aging well.

But even though I didn’t love reading it, I kind of loved having read it. This book sticks with you. The lessons and themes are ones we’ve seen again and again, but there are two things that make them particularly meaningful and special in this book, and I think they are the two things that make the book such a work of art.

Thing 1: The situation is so mundane. It is easy for an author to make drama in a dramatic situation. In Lord of the Flies or 1984, for example, there is an elaborately dramatic and abnormal setting in which the reader can watch rebellion take place. In those settings, we can try to think “What would I do?” and it’s easy to tell ourselves that we would take a stand, we would be brave, we would make a difference. Those settings are separate from our reality, and while we can relate to the emotions and connect them to the real world, they are more like allegories than they are an example of day-to-day life.

But unlike an island plane crash or a dystopian future dictatorship, the setting for The Chocolate War is so, well, boring. Everyone at Jerry Renault’s school is asked to volunteer to sell chocolates for a school fundraiser, and he chooses not to volunteer. That’s it. That’s his big rebellion.

And yet, it’s everything. The beauty of this book is that you can truly see and understand how those tiny things mean so much and make such a huge impact on yourself and the world around you. The kind of things that seem like a big deal in high school and people tell you, “In ten years, you won’t even remember this.” The kind of things that make you so deeply, profoundly upset, and when you try to explain them to your parents they sound like nothing so you end up saying, “you don’t understand” or “you had to be there” and leaving it at that. Comier expertly shows how such a small action can actually be giant, and that alone is worth reading the book.

Thing 2: The hero doesn’t win. Sure, The Chocolate War is far from the first novel where the good guy doesn’t get his way. In fact, both the novels I mentioned before are good examples of the good guy not getting his way – evil wins, and the good guy must find a way to go on (or not) without getting to be a hero at all.

What’s rare, however, is for the good guy not to win in a mundane setting. It would be easy and believable for some good to come from Jerry’s protest. It wouldn’t feel cheesy or contrived – in a school setting, the reader could conceive of a victory for right over wrong. When it doesn’t come, we feel cheated in a way that we don’t in dramatic, fanciful settings. When fanciful settings have a dark and unsatisfying ending, they still have a kind of satisfaction in thinking, “I’m so glad real life isn’t like that.” The Chocolate War doesn’t deliver even that satisfaction – it just ends, unresolved and unsettling, the bad guys keeping the power. It feels bad, but small enough that it feels real, which is what makes it unshakeable. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a real book. It’s a book-reader’s book. Immediately after reading it, I looked online to see if I could find any other books by Gail Honeyman and was sad to see there are not (yet!) any others. But she is a wonderful story in her own right – a great literary success with her first book at 40, which gives me hope as an author.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story, not surprisingly, of Eleanor Oliphant, a lonely, single woman who works in an office in England. The story is told from her point of view, and it is truly a window into another world. She has coping mechanisms, funny observations, rationales, and troubles. While you the reader are hearing from her perspective, you can imagine how she is seen from the outside. She is sophisticated in some ways, with elegant language and a detailed but dated code of politeness, but in other ways she is completely lacking in the basic skills needed to be “normal”. Her world is dictated by practicality in ways that leave others puzzled or even offended, and she obviously and simply doesn’t fit in. She knows it, as well.

What is most amazing about Eleanor Oliphant is the depth of the characters, including Eleanor herself. She is not a one-dimensional weirdo. She is bright, funny, and shockingly relatable. She is also sad, lost, and at times irritating. She is a person, and you feel that you know her very well, yet a large part of her remains a mystery.

Unlike so many “special” narrators – I’m looking at you, girl-in-the-bubble from Everything Everything and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as just a few of many, many examples – Eleanor is not precious and perfect. What a relief. That is, I think, what makes her real.

The surprise of this book is that there is a bit of a mystery woven throughout – what made Eleanor this way? I think the revelations of Eleanor’s past are woven so well through the book that they don’t disrupt the flow of the story, until they do, sneaking up on you and creating a faint but creepy overtone to the book. It almost lets the reader experience what Eleanor might experience, going about her day and forgetting about troubles in the back of her mind until they pounce upon her without notice. It has the effect of helping you understand Eleanor and care about her, even as you realize you don’t know the whole story.

Don’t choose this book based on the plot – the plot is not the thing. It’s a book about emotions and rationalizations. A book about loneliness and humanity. The language is not simple and the jokes are not spelled out for you, which makes them all the more rewarding, The characters are regular people. As in the real world, this book does not have clear good guys and bad guys. This review is making it sound terribly boring, but it is the opposite. You will be enthralled, and you will root for Eleanor, and some of the scenes are truly heartbreaking. Nothing dramatic and cheesy happens, and yet it is somehow more dramatic than so many novels packed with momentous scenes.

I think above all these. it’s a book about perspective. Seeing the world from Eleanor’s perspective is eye-opening.  It may even make you aware of some things that you yourself do or think and how they may be perceived by others. It should certainly make you pause a moment before thinking a cruel or rude thought about the weird kid, the loner… the person you usually ignore. Because once you get to know Eleanor as a person, with all her imperfections, you can’t get her out of your head.

If you love character-driven literary fiction, books from the perspective of a unique narrator, or suspense novels, I suggest you give Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a try.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Diary of Anne Frank

This month I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but before you click away because it’s a smaller or younger read… Stop! Everyone knows the story and the way it sadly ends, but it is so important, especially now, to read it.

The book takes place in Holland during Nazi occupation. A young girl named Anne is 13 years old when the Franks, Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel go into hiding. For the next 3 years of her life, the Secret Annex, their hiding spot, becomes their home. They cannot leave or be heard or seen. They experience bombings, gunshots, and burglaries, but Anne continues to write. In the end, hopes are high because the Allies are approaching, only it is not soon enough and the diary entries soon stop.

I think the most shocking for me was how normal Anne was in her entries. I mean she is just a regular teenager; she talks about her hair, friendships, and self-criticism. Aspects of the war are only spoken of when there are air fights, or burglaries occur. She adjusts to life and this, the war, becomes her new life. I feel that this was so important because it shows how that this is just a young girl’s diary. She shares her thoughts and feelings while living through one of the worst events in history. It shows the world that when these events occur they affect real people with feelings, aspirations and hope. Although it is known that tragedies affect many individuals, reading Anne Frank gave a reality check.

Something else that affected me while reading this is that she is the age of my brother.  Obviously World War II had taken the lives of people younger and older than him, but reading Anne’s diary who could have been his classmate or even him is terrifying. It also makes events today more real and horrific. There is such a disconnect and a ‘us vs. them’ sense that we often forget to be empathetic, accepting and/or helpful. It’s easier to walk away but if it was someone you knew or read their diary, your point of view would quickly change.

It’s understandable that as one becomes older, the book may seem less appealing, as it is a teenage girl’s diary. Sure, the book is long at some points but it’s a book where in the end everything connects. It’s just a must. You get to see a personal account to such an inhumane moment in history. And although it seemed to have occurred such a long time ago, it really really has not; in fact I found myself having some of the same interests as Anne.

We have to do everything in our power to stop this from happening again and honestly currently we are failing. Do not let these people’s sacrifice and tragedies be forgotten or be in vain.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

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 days of Book Expo America
  • 1 baby
That's right -- 1 baby. He's a doll, you guys. This is the craziest, off-the-wall, most insane thing I have ever done, having a baby. It's incredibly emotional.

Looking over the past year, I read a ton of amazing books. This may be my best compilation yet. Here we are, in no particular order except by genre, the best books I read this year. As usual, not all were published in the past year; these are just what I read this year.


The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools by Dale Russakoff

Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opioid Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Not My Mother's Kitchen: Rediscovering Italian-American Cooking Through Stories and Recipes by Rob Chirico

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools by Jonathan Kozol

Obedience to Authority: The Experiment that Challenged Human Nature by Dr. Stanley Milgram

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips


The Fortress by Danielle Trussoni

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware


Max at Night by Ed Vere

Ada Twist, Scientist and the series, links found in post by Andrea Beaty

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: If Not For You

Short version: If you love cheesy, predictable romantic stories, If Not For You might be fine for your beach bag.  As long as you also love clich├ęs and trite dialogue. Otherwise, skip it.

If Not for You, by Debbie Macomber, is a very long novel that starts like a Lifetime movie and ends exactly where you think it will. The story is about a woman named Beth who moves from Chicago to Portland, Oregon to escape her overprotective mother Ellie. One day, her friend Nicole sets her up on a blind date with Sam. They obviously don’t connect, until later when Sam witnesses Beth get into a car accident.

It should be noted at this point that the characters are all standard stock romance novel characters, and each one is completely as one-dimensional as possible. Beth is quiet and polite, a teacher, a lover of classical music – you can also see the halo. Sam is a brooding, tough loner mechanic who likes rock music. He likes guitar and she likes piano – how can they ever get along? But somehow, in a twist that’s a surprise to absolutely no one except Beth and Sam because how could I possibly love someone different than me, etc etc, they fall totally in love. I feel like “Beth” and “Sam” even sound like the names you’d give these characters when you came up with the story in fifth grade. Because about fifth grade is when the idea of “he watched me get in a car accident and that made him fall in love with me” should lose it’s appeal, right?

Maybe I’m wrong. This book is a New York Times Bestseller, so people found it entertaining I guess. Admittedly, if it were half as long, it might be good as a relaxing read, like watching a cheesy romantic movie. There’s a reason those aren’t usually four hours long though.

The story was pretty well written and easy to read – you definitely don’t have to do any work to understand what’s happening in the story. From the beginning until the middle of the book, I actually enjoyed it. It was sweet and cheesy and made me smile. I found the love story entertaining and felt like I knew the characters personally. Characters like Sunshine, the quirky aunt, felt real and relatable, even if it was because they’re exactly like thousands of other quirky-aunt-who-paints-and-tells-me-to-follow-my-dreams characters in thousands of stories before, with literally nothing unique or new added (she’s named Sunshine, for heaven’s sake). That quickly changed however, when the book started to prolong itself and all I could do was cringe. Extra details and events seemed forced and strange considering these were adults and not teenagers. The story dragged out in minutia that added nothing to the predictable ending.

In the end, I kind of enjoyed it for what it was, but I have to say I also took some perverse pleasure in how standard and formulaic it was. If that’s what you like, this book won’t rock the boat and won’t disappoint. If you’re looking for anything unique or interesting, this isn’t the book for you.