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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...

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Goodbye Stranger: A Novel


Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead is one of those books that I read and then wondered where it had been all my life.

Bridge, Tab, and Emily are the best of friends. They have agreed to never fight, which works out well for their friendship. Seventh grade, however, has changes in store for them. Bridge, who survived a horrible accident as a child, decides to start wearing cat ears and befriends Sherm, a classmate she's known her whole life without really knowing. Emily begins playing varsity sports and meets an older boy who pressures her for sexy pictures. Tab begins exploring her feminist leanings and gravitates toward a strong teacher presence. As Valentine's Day approaches, these three friends will see their lives collide in ways they couldn't have imagined in the early days of their friendship.

I found myself utterly and totally taken by this book. The best way that I can think to describe how this book made me feel was like light, sweet buttercream frosting. It was sweet and captivating  and sturdy while not being too heavy or turning me off. It had enough bite to keep me coming back and finishing the whole thing without feeling guilty or lost. The thing that I found most fascinating about this book was how languid and light it felt, but I mean that as being far from an indictment as you can imagine. It was like floating on the surface of a private pool -- quiet and serene while still being everything you never knew you always needed. I found myself repeatedly coming back to these characters, which is what drove the book. The characters drive the story, and they were just so full-scale enveloping of me as a reader. They hooked me.

Stead is an outstanding writer; she knows how to grip her audience without relying any tropes or anything even close to thriller-like. She writes three-dimensional, full-bodied characters who I grew to adore, and I one-hundred percent bought into who they were and what they were going through. Em's full-steam trajectory into the popular crowd is easy to understand when you are on this side of it; how she was roped in and so desperately wanted to stay there and fit in. It's also easy to see how Bridge and Tab don't get it and continue on with their own lives, as Tab goes about finding her feminist side and denying help to Em in her quest to send an older boy a sexy selfie. Bridge's willingness to help plays off of Tab's search for self, and when that selfie gets out, Em's self-concept is challenged and she must find a way to deal with it. I wanted to scream at her not to do it, but I also know that you can't keep teenagers -- and pre-teens for that matter -- from doing what they want. It was hard to watch it happen, and you know it's going to happen, because you live in this world; however, it's important to watch how these young women in the story deal with it.

This was a coming of age tale that was contemporary and lovely, and it tells the story of three girls on the verge of a new world in an empathetic, kind, and honest fashion. I can't recommend this book more highly. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Killing Kind: A Novel


During my read-a-thon in order to get books out to my students at the end of last semester, Chris Holm's The Killing Kind jumped out at me because who doesn't love the blurb about an assassin assigned to kill another assassin who assassinates assassins?

Right.

Michael Hendricks is dead. At least, he is on paper. In real life, he is a rogue assassin who only kills other assassins. It meant that he had to leave behind his only true love, Evie, but the greater good called and he took it. He is a skilled assassin and there is only one person who knows who he is and where to find him. Until someone else does. A group of organized crime families is tired of having their hit men picked off, so they call a man whose sadistic side knows no bounds -- but he's the only one who can find Michael. Will all that Michael has worked for -- secrecy, clandestine operations, and keeping the woman he loves safe -- be gone in an instant?

I was super impressed at how fast-paced this book was. I was in immediately, and even though it took me about a third of the way through to keep strait which assassin was which, once I got the hang of it I was completely sold. Michael is a solid character, and he is a man who has a deep and abiding code. You don't call him; he calls you. He and his war buddy, Lester, who was the only other man from their convoy to make it out alive, use what's left of their lives to do some right in the world. They have a code, and like my buddy Oman says, "A man's gotta have a code." (It's from The Wire, in case you need to go watch the first season right this instance.) Michael has a code, and frankly, I found myself being completely fine with the murders he committed. Is there anything wrong with killing the really bad guys and saving others, possibly innocent, from uncertain death? (Don't answer that. I'm thankful I will never need to know the answer to that.) Michael just happens to also use the money he earns from hitting the hitters to financially take care of the only family he ever had: Evie.

The story was a good one, and one that I whipped through in a matter of hours. It really is a page-turner, and what you think should be the end really isn't, and then you keep going until the flash-bang ending. It was satisfying and finishing, but also frustrating, which is a great way to end a thriller such as this. That isn't sarcasm -- I really appreciate that Holm didn't end his novel all squeaky clean with everything ending up happily ever after. That's not life -- life is complicated and messy, and so is the ending to this story. I found myself cheering on a killer to win against another killer. It was an intriguing story to be sure, but it was also a test of your ability to suspend disbelief for a while. I [hopefully] will never know if there are assassins out there hunting assassins, and I'm grateful for that. I like my quiet little boring life where everyone likes each other and no one does anything illegal.

Maybe I should run a background check on my beloved?

Kidding, darling.

I think.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Neverworld Wake: A Novel


I was simply ravished by Marisha Pessl's Nightfilm (in fact, I just recommended it again the other week), so I salivated when I found out that she had a YA novel coming out this summer. 

Beatrice’s friends had a nickname for her: Sister Bee. She was always the kind one, the innocent one of their group of six. Which is why no one blames her for ghosting after the death of their leader and her boyfriend, Jim. One year later, she decides to find out what really happened to him, so she joins the group for her former best friend’s, Whitley’s, birthday. It’s on the way home that things go off track — and the group ends up stuck in the Neverworld, where they must relive the same 11.2 hours over and over again until they, as a group of five, decide who gets to live while the rest must pass on into death. Only when they all have nothing left to lose do they truly get to the bottom of their friendship and what happened to Jim that awful night of senior year. 

I was quite taken by this book. Pessl is a hell of a writer and crafter of stories. I saw many parallels to Night Film and the themes that pull her to the words she puts on paper. Her crafting of this story was robust and fascinating, and she took this idea that has existed forever and a day — purgatory — and built off of it to create a sub-world that exists within a few seconds of wherenyou and I sit in the space-time continuum. It was mind-blowing at times, and I was in it to win it. Pessl has an incredible pull on me and it hurts so good. 

I am still trying to figure if I was surprised by the ending revelations or not, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is Pessl’s specialty. On one hand, they were surprising and on the other, they were in front of me the whole time. The hints that were laid down on the narrative path were like Hansel’s breadcrumbs, leading me back to where we started in a story-circle. No one is above blame, but sometimes degrees of blame matter. I often tell my students that it’s not always about what mistake you made, but how you go about fixing it that makes you who you are.

The characters were all interesting, but I was most fascinated by the relationship between Bee and Martha. Cold, distant Martha. You don’t quite figure out what she is up to until the end, and it doesn’t entirely make sense except that it does to her. It begs the question of whether or not the means justify the end, but that’s not for us to decide. It’s Martha who gets to make that choice within the four walls of the story. It made for a compelling read, one that I found myself going back to for even just a few seconds if I could. What a journey it was. I’m still puzzling over some of the details, particularly the ones that come to light in the last chapter, but I also have to be accepting that I will never know the answer. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Boo-Boo! A Children's Book


So many children's books! I loved that Boo-Boo! by Carol Zeavin and Rhona Silverbush, illustrated by Jon Davis, featured a family of color, so I picked it up at BookExpo this year for my son.

JoJo is a toddler who loves to run. One day though, she falls and hurts her chin. Her father cares for it by comforting her, washing it, and putting a bandage on it. He tells JoJo that he knows it's scary, but she will get better. He even lets JoJo put a bandage on his face!

This book review came up at a very appropriate time. Just today at the park, my son was having a blast in the water fountain sticking his hands in the jumping water and practicing his walking. He got a little ahead of himself and face-planted on the brick. He was devastated, and he got a pretty big scrape on his nose and chin. Once he calmed down and I got him home (and, let's face it, took a nap), I read him Boo-Boo! The book could not have been more perfect for what we needed.

I love love love that JoJo is a girl of color who is interacting with her father. I want diverse books for my son, and this one hit the spot. There is also a "tips" guide on the last page for caregivers in how to deal with kids when they get injured. I certainly appreciate that, even if I didn't see it until after my son's first big face dive. I adore this book, and I will be purchasing additional copies for my son's friends. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

God: A Human History


Reza Aslan's Zealot was high on my "enjoyed" list, and I learned quite a bit from it. Looking back on that post, I wish I had written more in-depth about my thoughts on it and how the book effected me. So I decided to pick up God: A Human History when I saw it available for advanced review. 

I have been a fan of Allan since reading Zealot, and I find him to be an accomplished scholar who does outstanding historical research. This should come as no surprise seeing as how this is literally his job. I need to spell that out early on, though, so that we can be clear in explanation that the dude has got a point. You don’t have to be an atheist to find his work to be incredibly deep and explanatory. However, if you don’t like exploring knowledge that may contradict your faith, you should look for another work. That being said, I would encourage you to explore historical facts that you believe might not support what you have faith in — you might find some insight into why you believe what you believe. 

So now that my disclaimer is out there, let’s get to the meat of the book. I have a teensy background in religious history just through reading my beloved non-fiction religious scholars, but I had never explored the origins of the human belief in God. It’s funny now that I think about it, particularly as cognitive psych-oriented I am, that I have never spent time mulling over this. Hence my fascination with Aslan’s latest work. 

Where does God come from? Not in terms of physical origin, but in our own thoughts and minds. Who is he, and what is he like? Since no one on this earth actually knows (not even you), we as hominids with complex cognitive reasoning skills have created a likeness in our image because it’s what we can understand. How can we possibly imagine a being that isn’t something within our cognitive framework already? (This starts to get complicated on my end in terms of psych concepts, so as simply as I can explain it: we can’t know more than we know, so the conception of God is super complicated.) 

So ancient relatives of ours created God in their own image. Religion helped settle hominids and, Aslan argues, pushed us from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural one. We created many gods pan-culturally with similar backstories based on historical events, and those gods had the ability to do specific things that humans could relate to. They were an explanation for a species who are primarily meaning-makers. (Now you are getting a part of my human development class mixed in with Aslan!) 

Then comes in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I could go into it all here, but you should read the book yourself because it is an awesome (in the most literal sense of the word) intellectual exploration of humans and deities and how we got to here. 

Aslan discusses some important-to-me topics in here such as theory of mind and ancient Hellenic culture, and I was amazed at my ability to synthesize it all. I was fascinated and humbled by the research presented and the depth of Aslan’s understanding of from whence we come. I only read one chapter at a time so I could ruminate on his words and the string of his narrative in relation to my own history and conception of the divine. 

The most moving piece of his book was the conclusion when Aslan opens up about his own journey to believe in what he does. He leaves the journey up to each of us, but indeed I identify with his short but profound words about his own beliefs, because I share them. He says in the last chapter that to reach this point in your beliefs, you have to come to it willingly and deliberately, and this struck such a strong cord with me. He’s right. I, too, have come here willingly and deliberately. What a beautiful thing it is. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Guest Blogger Charlotte - The Glass Castle: A Novel

Hello!
Anytime I asked my friend for a book recommendation, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was the only book she would tell me to read. So, after a few months, I finally decided to pick up the book she continually raved about.    

The book is a memoir of Jeannette Walls’ more than dysfunctional life from childhood to adulthood. Growing in up in poverty with an alcoholic father, unpredictable mother, and her three siblings, Jeannette retells her different experiences. The story begins later in Jeanette’s life with her on the way to a get-together when she sees her homeless mother digging through trash on the streets of New York. After this shocking start of the book, the audience is drawn in as she goes back in time to her being three years old and from there the story is written in chronological order, with each chapter being a moment in her life. 

The story is heartbreaking, encouraging, and completely stunning as she experiences events that do not seem possible, such as hospital trips, lack of food, and homelessness. The Glass Castle opens the door to a perspective that is often overlooked. I spent the entire time rooting for Jeannette and her family as they encounter many setbacks caused by a number of variables, whether it is family members or outside sources. It is a story of human life and human nature as the characters grow and continue through life. You may love and hate different characters, but I felt that most of the time I simply saw the characters as real people doing their best to figure life out. 

The writing itself is also captivating. There was not a moment when reading the book that I felt disconnected to the characters or the story. It was as though I was living through the eyes of Jeannette, feeling devastated whenever a bad event happened to the individuals in the story and ecstatic when the characters finally caught a break.

As soon as I finished reading the story all I could do was sit and call my friend who had recommended the book because I had loved it so much. I would say this is definitely a book to put on everyone’s to-read list as it makes you cry, think, and laugh. Overall it is an extraordinary story written in a unique and impeccable manner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Our Kind of Cruelty: A Novel


Holy. Mother. Of. Pearl. I heard that Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty was a gripping, wonderful thriller, but I wasn’t expecting THAT. 

Mike and Verity were college sweethearts, and for several years after university they supported each other moving up in their careers in London. Mike takes a job in the United States for a short time, and upon his return, his relationship with his beloved V is over — or is it? She won’t answer his emails or calls, and she’s getting married in a few months. But it’s all part of the game they play, this Crave, and Mike believes, no, knows, that if he plays his role the way he’s supposed to, he and V can be stronger than ever before. If only she would speak to him, though. No matter. Soon. 

Heads up — I can’t talk about this book without throwing in a few spoilers, so caveat emptor. 

I honestly didn’t know what to make of this book as I read it with a mouth agape and my head cocked to the side. This is, by far, a huge compliment. It is astounding that Hall could write such an incredible piece of work that treats a mentally ill man with such a deep humanity that sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what the truth is. Even as Mike is reaching in his interpretations of Verity’s communications, and you know he is reaching, you still aren’t sure which was is up and you ask yourself, “Am I really sure that she’s not playing a Crave?” Because she could be. When we are in Mike’s head as his first-person narrative unfold, we could very well be there. He is both a reliable and an unreliable narrator, and it’s mind-boggling at times the mental gymnastics he goes through to convince himself that he’s seeing what he wants to see. 

Hats off to Hall on the construction of this book as well. I thought for sure this would give me the ending most of these books do, which is that the woman ends up either dead or fighting back and forever scarred. This story, though, ends even worse than that. The first part of the book focuses on Verity’s upcoming wedding and Mike settling back into London, building a home for Verity when she decides to leave her now-husband. The second part is post-wedding when Mike’s determination ends in a spectacular fashion and everyone’s lives are changed. The third part is the most frightening of all, and it’s what I didn’t expect when I picked up the book. What the actual living fuck? 

(Again, a compliment.)

I was so blown away that I was both repulsed by the events and enraptured in what was going to happen. I couldn’t have predicted this ending, and I was spellbound. This story is just simply jaw-dropping, and it’s absolutely worth any praise you’ve heard of it. One of the blurbs said something along the lines of being glued until the very last, chilling line. I didn’t necessarily find that last line most chilling, but rather the first of the author’s acknowledgements. Save it until the end, and it will put the book in an even stronger context. 

Ms. Hall, if I may address you directly — you are incredible and I bow down to you for this raw and intense portrait of violence against women. It feels so real it’s frightening. Thank you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

We Made It SEVEN Years!

It never fails to excite me to realize that I've been running this blog for as long as I have. It's still fun, and it's still important to me, so here we are. 2018 and still reading like a fiend. Hopefully by this time next year I will have completed my doctorate and will be on to less stressful things. 

This year has been fun. A baby, my dissertation proposal, and an extra Master's degree (an M.Phil., in Educational Psychology, in case you were wondering).

I think my count goes something like this: 87 posts this month covering 86 books with 12 of those being guest posts -- a huge thank you to Charlotte for taking over while I recovered from having my wonderful baby boy. I am a little bogged down right now with some papers and my dissertation, so I am keeping this short today. Mostly, though, I just want to thank you all for sticking around and reading the books. 

Some of my favorites:

Novels


You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Heartshire High by Charlotte Leonetti

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Non-Fiction 

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


Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover


The Gardner and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

Birds + Bees + Your Kids: A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love, and Relationships by Amy Lang

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy by Courtney Jung

The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups by Erika Christakis

Children's

Max and Bird by Ed Vere

Thursday, July 5, 2018

B. F. Skinner's About Behaviorism


I can't even remember where I acquired a copy of B. F. Skinner's About Behaviorism, but I do remember that I picked it up as a work book. In a basic ed psych course I teach a primer on behaviorism, and while I understand the basics of operant conditioning I felt it would be good to read it from the horse's mouth.

The history of paychology is fascinating to me, even if it is the story of a long line of White dudes. Human beings are complex, irrational beings who think they are logical and objective and who are anything but. Skinner, however, decides that he doesn’t agree with cognition as a concept and instead becomes the father of radical behaviorism, coining the concept of operant conditioning and changing how we as a people see our relationship with the environment. He says that cognition has too much weight placed upon it in understanding human behavior, and that instead we are at the mercy of our environment and our direct responses to external stimuli. 

(Watch me pull up my pants and stretch my arms, because we are about to get into this, kids.)

The first, and most important, thing I have to say is that Skinner has a point. (Go ahead and pick your jaw up off the floor if you haven’t been a student of mine and haven’t heard my point in Behaviorism as a whole.) It is vital that we as scholars understand where we came from, because even if the theory doesn’t explain everything (and no theory does, FYI), there are pieces of every psychological theory that have merit and have allowed researchers to build off of it. Skinner’s explication of operant conditioning is quite accurate, but he was rigid in his determination to convince everyone that it was the only and primary explanation. 

On the chapter entitled, "Thinking," Skinner was lucky that I didn't throw my out-of-print copy in a dumpster fire while cursing his name. His big thing is the "so-called thinking processes," because he doesn't believe that cognitive processes are a part of decision making, as it's really a reliance on behavioristic decision-making that is either approach or avoidance goal-based. (While he didn't use the "approach/avoidance" terminology, that's essentially what he's getting at.) I rolled my eyes so hard I almost saw my brain in the back of my head. 

There is no reason the operant conditioning can’t exist in tandem with cognitive processing. I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Just because his theory isn’t the be-all-end-all doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. Maybe he could just slow down on the definite statements. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Who? A Celebration of Babies


Who?A Celebration of Babies by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Natascha Rosenberg is the sweetest, most adorable book. I picked it up at Book Expo this year as part of my movement to pick up more books for my son. Because the 500 we currently have just isn't enough.

This book goes through a series of questions asking who the baby is seeing. From birds and dogs and cats to grandmas and grandpas and parents to cars and toys, just about everyone and everything you can imagine are present in our world within these page.

What makes this book worth purchasing is the diversity presented throughout its pages. It's not just babies of different races, but babies of different complexions within races. There is a grandmother who wears a head covering, and a a set of twins. So many babies are represented here, and while I would have liked to see a baby with a physical disability to round out the group, I am so happy with this book. My son loves it too, from the beginning to the end. I caught him looking through it on his own yesterday, actually, and it was the sweetest thing to see. I'm thrilled this early reader is on our shelves, or, more specifically at present time, flung across our living room floor.