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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 28, 2018

Two Days Gone: A Novel

Toward the end of spring semester, I started devouring any murder mysteries or thrillers that I had languishing on my TBR shelf from past Book Expos. The students in my childhood development also shared a fondness for murder and mayhem, so I powered through a bunch of them to share with them on the last day of class. They were thrilled. One of these was Randall Silvis's Two Days Gone.

Thomas Huston is a celebrated author with a beautiful wife, three kids, and a university job. One night his whole family is slaughtered in their beds, and Thomas ends up on the run. Detective DeMarco, who had known Huston as a friend, takes up the case with suspicions about the claim that Huston is a murder. When DeMarco finds the notes and early writings of Huston's next novel, he proceeds down a rabbit hole that brings out a host of suspects, unclear motivations, and a path that leads to a broken man who lost his family and may only live long enough to avenge them.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book and the story that it told. It was one of those that I wished I had picked up earlier, because I found I quite enjoyed reading it. I was recommending it right and left after finishing it because I was just so impressed at the character development as well as the story arc. Silvis writes compelling characters who are deep and intriguing, and I found myself liking just about everyone save for the whole murder-like person. He peels back the layers of each character like an onion, slowly revealing who they are to the reader so that they never appear just one dimensional or as stock characters. Even the killer, who surprised me, was not just a singular bad guy, but rather full of intrigue and an interesting choice for the story.

Silvis also weaves together an intriguing story that isn't entirely predictable but doesn't shift on a dime. I wasn't able to predict the ending, but then again, I wasn't inhaling the book so that I could get to it. There was something incredibly intriguing about the journey to get to the end of the story, and that made this book different than other thriller's I have read recently. I enjoyed the entire process of reading this story instead of wanting to get to the end so that I could reach a satisfying climax. One of the reasons why is that the end isn't a satisfying climax, but more of a lull in a much larger story. Just because we know who killed the Huston's doesn't mean that justice was served or that anyone in the story gets to live a happy ending. Just as in real life, the end doesn't work that way. We all just keep on moving forward, regardless of whether or not loose ends get tied up.

This was a story well worth reading, and I'm glad that I was able to sink my teeth into it during a restful spell in my crazy life. It was a good choice after proposing my dissertation when I wanted a good story that would intrigue me but didn't necessarily need me to dig deep into my knowledge center to make sense of the content. Instead, I was able to be simply intrigued and surprised, and this book was perfect. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery

Right up my alley and fascinating to boot, Barbara K. Lipska's The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery was a read that I couldn't put down. 

Barbara was a prolific researcher on the neuro-origins of mental illness and the director of the brain bank at the National Institute of Mental Health. Her life's work served as the greatest irony when she began losing her mind in the prime of her life. At first she loses sight in the corners of her eye, and she knows -- it's a tumor. Her breast cancer metastasized to her brain, which was the ultimate cruelty. She has it treated and has confidence in her recovery, but she slowly changes from the loving, caring mother and wife that she has always been to someone she doesn't even understand. Her work can't save her. 

You know me and brain stuff -- I love it. Can't keep my hands off of it, except for maybe when I read murder and mayhem. I was fascinated by Lipska's journey from researcher to the researched, and I found myself overwhelmed by her experience. I love that she opened the book with a particular point in her journey, when she found herself dying her hair and then going for a run, but not realizing she still had dye in her hair and then losing her place in her neighborhood. None of it phased her as she didn't even realize what was happening. It was fascinating to read, and then to jump into her journey from her beginnings in Poland and her journey to the United States. Her research was profound and an incredibly important contribution to the mental health field, and her description of her work at NIMH was amazing.

Then the worst happens, which is the growth of metastatic tumors on her brain. I felt her panic as she realized that she couldn't see out the side of her vision, and her I understood her denial of what was happening even as I was screaming to her that she needed to get to the doctor now. The devastation she felt at having to put her life on hold was acute to me, and her journey was arduous and palpable. I will say that her writing felt a bit stilted, but I chalk that up to a background in academic writing which doesn't particularly lend itself to writing for the masses. (I know this well, as I can be pedantic myself if I don't watch it. See? I just used the word pedantic unironically.) However, her story was so fascinating that I was willing to look past the sometimes awkward narrative voice to dig deep into the heart of the story. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Every Breath You Take: A True Story of Obsession, Revenge, and Murder

Could this be the best Ann Rule book out there? Possibly. Every Breath You Take: A True Story of Obsession, Revenge, and Murder was hands-down mind-boggling.

Sheila Blackthorne Bellush lived though literal hell with her husband, Allen Blackthorne. Physical abuse coupled with emotional and verbal abuse, affecting not just Sheila but their two daughters, Stevie and Daryl. When Sheila finally is able to take her daughters and leave, Allen continuously hunts them down and makes their lives as miserable as possible. As he becomes a multimillionaire, he nickels and dimes his third ex-wife to keep her in poverty. When Sheila meets Jamie, they build a family together that involves not just her daughters but quadruplets. After enough threats from Allen, the Bellushes pack up their home and escape to Florida in the dead of night. No one knows where they are -- or do they? What Allen wants, Allen gets, even if is the murder of his ex-wife as a form of power.

This may rank up near the top on my list of Ann Rule full-length narrative non-fictions. Not only is the story absolutely bat-shit crazy, but Rule was able to follow the court case closely and put it all in this book. It's actually one of the pieces that I like least about this book -- the last whole half being the arrest of the killers and the trials of them all -- but the first half which tells the story of Allen, of Sheila, and of the events leading up to Sheila's brutal murder were some of the most riveting I have read out of Ann Rule. That's saying a lot, as you know I am a fan. I tried to search for where the Blackthorne/Bellushes are now, but it's surprisingly hard to find.

Sheila was Allen's third wife (although he told her that she was his second), and Blackthorne wasn't their last name when they married; it was Van Houte. Allen changed it after what is a long, winding road of hustling and cheating and moving and shaking. You see what is coming; Allen's treatment of his first two wives was a huge warning side to us readers, and it's a damned shame that Sheila didn't know about it beforehand. Although, I know well that when a woman is in love, very few will be able to get through to her about this kind of thing. Allen cheated and used Sheila's parents, pushing them into debt, and Sheila still stuck by her man. I wanted to scream at her across the miles and the years to run, but she wouldn't have heard me.

The details of the murder are gory and heartbreaking, especially because it was in front of her four babies. I wish for her that her relationship with her younger daughter from her first marriage, Daryl, had been better when she was killed, but Allen was to thank for that. No matter how much I understand about sociopaths, I am always still so surprised at the damage they can cause. Allen was clearly one; he didn't care who he hurt how badly or how often, as long as he kept his perceived power. It's not a surprise that he was eventually convicted, since we know that's how Rule's stories go, but it was still nutty. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Dark Lake: A Novel

I had this juicy thriller on my TBR bookshelf for a while, and I picked it up for some early summer reading by the pool. How indulgent it was, The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey. 

Gemma Woodstock grew up in Smithson and has settled there as an adult, becoming a police officer and having a son with her partner. One day, right before Christmas, she is called to the scene of a murder involving one of her high school classmates behind that very school following the school play. Gemma tells everyone that she barely knew Rosalind Ryan and that it won't affect her ability to investigate the murder. But just like Rosalind, Gemma is full of secrets that she can't reveal, including her affair with her work partner, Felix and the true cause of the suicide of her high school sweetheart in their final year of school. When the case gets personal and Gemma feels her sanity slipping, she begins to wonder if she will ever solve the case and move on with her life, in every way.

I quite enjoyed this story and found it to hit the sweet spot of murder and mayhem with a good story twist. Gemma was an interesting character whom I felt could have been been fleshed out more in terms of character arc. Rosalind came across as subhuman in the way that only the recently deceased can be -- perfect, angelic, beyond beautiful, mysterious. You know. I did find that the story arc was interesting and kept me wanting to find out exactly who killed the woman.

There was a lot going on in this story, and underneath the big story line of Rosalind's murder were several minor story lines, some of which had to do with the big one and some that didn't. If you don't like spoilers, stop here and pick up the book. Otherwise...

The story line that didn't have anything to do with the murder was Gemma's affair with Felix and the difficulty she is having at home with her partner and father of her child, Ben. It was a plot piece that I think was meant to humanize Gemma while also providing us with the characteristic of hardheartedness, but instead I felt that it took away from the task at hand, which was Gemma's relationship to Rosalind and her willingness to take on the murder investigation while there is a connection that is foreshadowed throughout the book. I am having a hard time reconciling this plot point with the main thrust of the book. The other story line that was only tangentially related to the murder was that Rosalind's father was not who she thought it was. We find out who it was, but it feels as though it was an unnecessary piece of the story that muddied up the point of the story.

The personal connection that Gemma has to Rosalind is her high school sweetheart, who broke up with her to date Rosalind. This is connected to the murder (and no, Gemma didn't do it), but it ends up being convoluted and the ending comes upon us quickly. It left me feeling like the story was quite incomplete, as in 50 pages the murder is quickly solved with a slight threat to Gemma, her affair ends abruptly because she pushes Felix too far, and Gemma comes to grips with her past. I would have been much happier with the story if it had chosen a path and stuck with it instead of trying to trail-jump all over the mountain. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ford County: Stories

A little bit of a different John Grisham for you today. I bring you Ford County, Grisham's book of short stories that brings us back to the location of his first book, A Time to Kill, which I loved.

I am going to list out the stories here because that's what I feel like doing today.

"Blood Drive" - A young man is in the hospital after a work accident, and three friends drive up to Memphis to donate blood, only to run into a series of mishaps that waylay them at every turn.

"Fetching Raymond" - A mom and her two older sons head off to Parchman to see her youngest son on death row.

"Fish Files" - What would you do if one phone call could be the key to leave your boring, listless life behind and start over?

"Casino" - Be careful what you wish for, and watch the greed, because before you know it, an enemy you never even knew you had might take it all away.

"Michael's Room" - A man's past work deeds come back to haunt him one night in a grocery store.

"Quiet Haven" - You never quite know what that man is up to, beginning work at him umpteenth nursing home and seeking out odd friendships with the residents. He has some tricks up his sleeve, and they may just break the bank.

"Funny Boy" - A not-quite-prodigal son comes home to die, having left at young age. He was always "funny," which in small town 90's parlance means gay, and he is now dying of that disease. A surprising friendship sustains him until the end.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these stories. One of the blurbs on the back calls it Grisham's best writing, and while I can't quite get myself to fully agree with that statement, I do think that it ranks up there. Nothing, in my mind, beats vintage Grisham in terms of the legal thriller, but this is quite a lovely tome that pitches the residents of Ford county in a variety of lights. The upright citizens are marked by the different characters that come through their lives, and the stories lie in those characters and not the upright citizens. After all, going about your business is no fun to read. Each of these stories has its merits and was worth reading. While I mentioned in an earlier short story collection (Curtis Sittenfeld's You Think It, I'll Say It) how much I loved that she let her stories dangle at the end, Grisham does the complete opposite and it works so well for these stories. He draws them to a close with a kind of ending that feels complete yet leaves you wanting more. These characters are so interesting and their stories are fascinating.

If I had to pick a favorite, I think "Funny Boy" would be it. There was something so human and raw in the story of Adrian coming home to die, more to avoid his friends watching him suffer than to be with his family. In fact, his family is so afraid of AIDS, which was still misunderstood in the late 1980's and 90's, that they ship him off to their other property "on the other side of the tracks." In the small town South, that means the area where people of color live. While in 2018 it feels offensive, there was a beauty in his friendship with Emporia, the woman renting the family home, and how she cared for him in his final days. That relationship is such a beautiful bloom on an island of gross ignorance, and the love she builds for him made my eyes water a little.

There were also laughs in this book, some because they were "haha" funny and some because there was humor in the dark moments. "Blood Drive," for example, should not have been funny at all, but those moments of mishap occurring with these not-so-smart guys on their way to help someone that they don't even know for reasons that make no sense to the observer were a riot. Reading this book with a distance of 25 years (give or take) provided a humor that might not have been the case in the days without the internet and our exposure to different walks of life. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I'm glad I picked it up. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race

I picked up Sara Barron's The Harm in Asking: My Clumsy Encounters with the Human Race forever and a day ago, and I finally dove into it while nursing this past summer, and it fit the bill better than any other book I read during that time. I was up at all hours of the night and found that I could only read comedic work. Voila!

This collection of essays explores Barron's world all the way from her childhood and high school experience as a mall worker and hopeful lesbian-wannabe to a college student who cannot handle alcohol but still wants to be a druggie to an adult who desperately wants to adult but still ends up being asked to give business advice on being an escort to her dream man on what she thought was a date. Barron's crazy life is our essay-reading pleasure.

Laugh out loud, snortingly funny. That's how I felt about this book approximately halfway through. I found Barron's wry sense of humor to be absolutely amazing, and I was so grateful for these stories when they came into my world. Barron doesn't take herself too seriously (except for when she does, to our comedic reading pleasure), and her willingness to just simply be herself is a gold mine for us. The time that she strutted down a NYC street feeling like she was the shit while farting is amazing. Her desperate desire to be a lesbian for the cache is wonderfully hilarious. Her dating life sounded suspiciously like mine for the majority of my adulthood.

All of this to say, it felt like I had a spirit animal in Sara Barron. My stories are definitely not as good as hers, but I felt a kinship of epic proportions through her writing. As a younger version of herself she wanted to be something, even if she didn't know what that thing specifically was. She is so easy to relate to if you have ever been young, single, and making mistakes as you find yourself. She is also easy to relate to as someone who just wants to find herself and bases those searches on what she thinks she needs to be rather than who she is. I get that, and I got this book. It was hilarious, and I regret nothing. (Except maybe those fake glasses in fifth grade.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives

I saw a segment on The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson a couple of months ago when it came out. I was thrilled to then get approved for a review copy, and I'm purchasing a paperback to take notes in. I love it when my work and my child-rearing intersect. 

We live in a world that is very different from that in which our parents were raised, and you can see it every day in every way. I sure do. I often explain to people that my parenting style is laissez faire so that no one will be surprised when I don't follow my toddler around like a helicopter. In general I receive praise, then I watch the person who just praised me worry over my child as the helicopter parent that I work hard to avoid being. It's absolutely fascinating to me that the same people who will start their sentences with, "When I was coming up/raising kids, we didn't [insert whichever obnoxious phrase one wants to utter here]," are the very same ones who will start pointing fingers and screaming, "BUT WHERE ARE THE PARENTS" and "IT ALL BEGINS AT HOME."

I should take a moment and describe what I mean by laissez faire parenting before you think I let my kid juggle knives. We are with our son constantly, and if we aren't, we have a babysitter or grandparent with him. He is, after, all, almost a year old and not quite able to turn on the stove yet to make himself dinner. He still needs supervision. But I don't say no very often -- unless it's dangerous, which electrical outlets are, and I made him cry the other day by yelling at him -- because when I say no, it's dangerous, I want him to understand that I'm being serious. I let him explore and yes, I even let him tumble, never in a serious way, but so that he will learn his own limits without me imposing them on him. He gets to make choices about what he does most of the day, and as long as it isn't going to kill him, I let my controlling nature take a backseat. This is because I want my child to be self-driven. (See where this is going now?)

So reading this book wasn't exactly eye-opening for me -- after all, I teach child development and am intimately familiar with the research on developmental psychology -- but it was confirmatory in that I have made the right decisions both in my teaching and in my parenting. One of my best friends said to me as a warning that it's very hard to let your children become who they are without controlling them. I knew then, and I stand by it now, that it's not as hard for me as it is for most people. It may be if you want them to turn out a specific way, instead of who they are meant to be. (On this note, I also highly recommend Alison Gopnik's The Gardner and the Carpenter.)

It is mind-blowing to me that parents have such a difficult time allowing their children to just be, but it is also so easy to understand. The desire for control is a part of us, whether it's hard-wired or socialized. This trickles (or maybe flows like rapids) into parenting, much swifter than even the best parent would like. I have seen it in my friends, my partner, myself. I just happen to be much better at taking a backseat with my son than most people I know, and I'm thankful for my training and my work to teach me how to do this.

I want every single one of my friends with kids to read this. I want every single one of my teacher education students to read this. I want everyone in the world to read this, because these men tell you how to get results. This is backed up with research, and it's backed up by experience. I am so thankful that my parents raised me to be self-driven, as much as my mother would have loved to control so much about me. I was never paid (or otherwise reinforced) for my grades, and at first I was jealous that my friends received cash for A's and I didn't. Then again, I never had much of a desire to make A's. I was a solid B student with an occasional A and a more-than-occasional C. My parents never cared, or at least they never told me they did. My mom would ask, "Are you proud of these grades?" If my response was affirmative, she was fine with it. If my response was negative, she told me to fix it then, because they were my grades and I was the only one responsible for them.

Wow. Radical, huh?

But it worked. I realized very young that the power of learning is so much stronger than the power of numbers. I didn't go to an Ivy League school, and thank goodness for that. I am a product of the public education system, including college and two Master's degree (and one day I will finish my damned PhD), and I'm damned good at my job. I love what I do, and it turns out I'm happy. Happier than someone with an Ivy League diploma and $200k in student loans? Who am I to say?

I see how this manifests itself in my teaching. As the years go on and I find that I am "blamed" for students not doing well, I have emphasized in my classes that I don't give grades, you earn them. It's a radical notion that many young people still have a hard time understanding, but it's true. I have also had to add a syllabus clause stating that "OK does not mean A," and I go on to say that if you request to leave my class early, come late, or miss the whole class, I will always say, "OK," because you are an adult who can make the decision for yourself. You are not a hostage in my classroom. However, choices have consequences and you must abide by those. Have you heard the phrase, "For every syllabus clause there is an awkward story behind it"? Yeah. It's true. Most of these are because we have to remind young people that they are self-driven, and we are not their keepers.

This past semester, I had a student I will call Jenny, who has a four-year-old son. She was telling me about the fights she would have with him over homework, so I asked her what homework was doing for him. She spouted off what we all believe -- that we need to learn to do our assignments so we can succeed in school. I asked her, "What if I told you that the research shows no correlation between homework and academic success?" She was shocked. I asked her what the penalty would be if her son didn't do homework. She looked dumbfounded when she said probably nothing, because it's preschool. No one had ever told her that before. I explained that she needed to tell her son, "I love you too much to fight with you about your homework." It's a phrase I've been using for a while that figures prominently in this book. I explained that even at 4 years old, her son could make choices and then deal with the consequences. The following week she came to class and I asked her how the week went. She lit up and said, "Oh my god, it was AMAZING." She explained that she took my advice on Monday night, and her son went to bed without doing his homework. The next morning he woke up and insisted on doing it to make his teacher happy, and they hadn't fought another day that week.

The point of this book is to help you help your children become self-driven. They are more than a number, and they are more than their accomplishments. They are people who are being driven into stress levels that are unprecedented in teens. Teach them to take care of themselves, and work with them to set limits. Whether it's homework, technology, extracurricular activities, or college prep -- all of which are covered in this book -- CTFO. Chill the &%#$ out. Success isn't a high GPA or a certain seal on a diploma. It's being a person who feels confident, competent, and autonomous. I love how strongly Ryan & Deci's self-determination theory figured into this book. It's my jam, and now definitely my favorite book. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

BookExpo 2018: A Recap

It was a great Book Expo this year. I am always surprised at how many books I manage to take home even when I am being consciously choosey. It’s a talent, I tell you. 

One of the remarkable things I found from this year was a new genre for me. I had picked up several children’s books over the years, but this time I found myself actively seeking out elementary and middle grade books in addition to children’s books to start building my son’s library. I got some magical pieces too, and I’m excited to share them with you over the next few months. 

Wednesday was a calmer day; most of the floor wasn’t open and it was panels galore. The Adult Buzz panel happened this day, so the rush to pick up Haley’s after was particularly insane since it was the focus of the show that day. I managed to get what I wanted, and I wish I could sit down and read them all right now. 

Thursday was the busiest day, and I was shocked midday when my shoulders started aching from my bag. I looked through all of my selections to see if I could lose any, but I wanted them all. 

Yeah. Nuts. I was able to get the new Ruth Ware and I’m dying to read it! Andre Dubus III was so kind and chatty, and Jill Lenore was so feisty and sweet. It was also incredible to (briefly) meet Gary Shteyngart. 

Friday was back to quiet, with more YA and fantasy drops. A nice chunk of these books are for my son. 

Doris Kearns Goodwin told me to say hello to my husband for her (heart melts!) and the small red book toward the bottom is about a mouse who makes it on Broadway. Love. 

It was a great three days, and surprisingly calm as compared to years past. I kept a low social media profile because I just wanted to experience it in full and not be focused on others. I went to some great panels and generally enjoyed myself.