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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...

Monday, January 25, 2016

In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood

Ah, yes, true crime. In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood by Brian McDonald was a no-brainer.

In 2007, the murder of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut rocked the nation. The beautiful family, made up of a father, a mother, and two young daughters, were sleeping when two parolees broke into their home, beat the father, and tied up the women. A night of horror ensued, ending in the early morning hours with the three women dead, the father close to incapacitated, and the house burnt to the ground.

This book was published in 2009, and quite a bit has happened in the way of justice since then. Both perpetrators were found guilty and sentenced to death, and the town has honored the victims. But it's the story of that night that kicks me in the gut every time I hear it.

Overall McDonald's book is a comprehensive look at the events of that July night, and a good chunk of the book is spent exploring Joshua Komisarjevsky's past as a way to try to understand what took over a man to move from a life of petty break-ins to cold-blooded murder. It's an interesting angle on the case, but I have to say that it was just a little too detailed to hold my attention for long. I wanted to hear the victims' story most of all; when McDonald wrote about the family I was the most intrigued.

McDonald did a very good job of telling the story of the events of that night in a clear narrative that kept me focused. I think that if I had picked up this book when it was first published I might have been more captivated; in the past three years more information has come out and more story has been told. McDonald's writing is clear and easy to follow, and I would absolutely recommend this book if you are looking for background on the case or you would just like a good true crime read.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest Blogger Charlotte: The Things You Kiss Goodbye

Hi There!

I’d heard of this book from friends and seen it around with solid reviews on GoodReads. I’d also heard of Leslie Connor before, mostly via Waiting For Normal, which I loved. The Things You Kiss Goodbye has been on my list for a while, though I did skip over it a few times on the shelf for something more lighthearted. I had this feeling all along that this one would get me right in the feels and that’s exactly what happened.

Early on Connor introduces us to Bettina Vasilis. She’s clearly a grunge girl. You know the type. Her family is from Greece, and because of this Bettina naturally feels a bit different from everyone else. Deep down inside she feels like an outsider, and she projects this uncertainty with lots of henna tattoos and grungy mini skirts. Her parents are very strict and have this air of disappointment when it comes to Bettina’s choices, particularly her Bampas (father). Bettina manages her relationship with Bampas by yes-ing him to his face while living an undercover life. She sneaks out and skips classes on a regular basis.

I kind of get Bettina, but I don’t feel the closeness with her that I do with, say, Meg Garcia from I Was Here. You sort of observe this story and character as opposed to feeling a part of what’s happening. Also, in very fundamental ways she seems to weaken as the book goes on, which compounds this issue.

Bettina catches the eye of Brady Cullen. Brady is on the basketball team and socially everything Bettina is not. They sneak around after school for a few weeks, while Bettina is hesitant to take the relationship any further due to Bampas’s rule against dating. One afternoon Brady introduces himself to Bampas and all that changes. Brady is accepted by the Vasilis family and becomes Bettina’s key to freedom and a more normal life.

The relationship is perfect and progresses over a spring and summer, which in high school is an eternity. One day the two run through a rainstorm and end up sneaking into Brady’s basement. He’s set up an old futon mattress with Sesame Street sheets and pushes things too far. Bettina’s not ready and the relationship begins to take an abusive turn. Brady is rough with Bettina on lots of occasions. She brushes it off and blames herself, but the abuse gets worse.

Around this time Bettina meets Cowboy. Cowboy is nice and respects Bettina in all the ways Brady does not.  He is much older and does his best to stay just-friends with Bettina even though it’s clear there’s a strong attraction. With the abuse from Brady continuing, Cowboy is there to care for Bettina and treat her injuries. Cowboy also has a secret that draws him closer to Bettina.

Eventually Cowboy and Bettina come to terms with their relationship and decide to be together. This is where tragedy strikes and the part where I totally lost it, like full box of Kleenex lossssst it! No spoilers, but I’ll say that this is where Connor really shines and something I’d like to see more of in her next book.

This book was a journey. It’s a bit tough to read at times, especially when Bettina insists on blaming herself for the abuse from Brady. She sticks around and sticks around, hoping Brady will change. In the end, Bettina does stand on her own in all the important ways. If you’re on the fence, I’d say that Bettina’s relationship with Cowboy alone makes the book worth it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dear Mr. You

It's an interesting concept, this Mary-Louise Parker memoir. Dear Mr. You is a series of letters written to the men in her life. I wanted to pick it up, and at a book-oriented Christmas party, there it sat like a gift waiting to be picked up. So I did.

I was discussing this book with a friend who said she didn't want to read it because it came across as pretentious and self-aggrandizing. I thought on that for a while, and realized that once I put this book into the memoir genre, that of course it is, because every memoir is pretentious and self-aggrandizing. It kinda defines the genre. It put the whole thing in a new perspective, and I stopped thinking of this book as a puff piece and more as a way to tell a story.

Here's why I think this is important: Because memoir plays with lives. Mostly your own, but also with others'.  We tell our stories entirely from our own points of view, and that affects other people whether we intend for it to our not. Our truth is our own, and memoir exploits that. So in Parker's memoir, we know that she has dated some famous people, one even leaving her when she was seven months pregnant for a younger actress. I understand Parker's need to tell these stories without naming names, and I loved that each chapter was addressed to a different nicknamed man.

Which leads me to the most profound of the letters, "Dear Cerberus." There has been much written about this all over the interwebs (just Google her name and the chapter title -- no need for me to link to everything here), and the consensus is that the three heads of the mythical dog represent three horrible relationships. I could speculate as to who they are, but really, I don't think it matters. It was the first dog head that punched me in the gut -- the picture of Parker in her new pants, of which she was excited and proud, and being torn down by physically and verbally for it was gut-wrenching. There is no self-pity though; it's a story of what happened and how she reacted to it. We have all had bad relationships, some more abusive than others and in different ways, but it's enough to know that feeling when someone you love turns to you and calls you a name you never envisioned they would.

There were other beautiful letters in here as well. The letter to the cab driver was universal until she turns to him and tells him about why she is in a bad mood -- she's pregnant and alone and she says, "It hurts to even breathe." Oh god, how that hurt to read. Her letter to a former younger lover, who at the time was tremendously younger but now with age she realizes wouldn't be quite so, was ridiculously lovely and so easy to understand. Her letter to her father was moving and gracious. Her letter to the doctor who saved her life was personal to me. To almost leave this mortal coil and to be pulled back to the earth -- there are not enough words on this earth for that gratefulness.

All of this to say that you can find where you fit in with this book if you open it. It doesn't have to be read in order, and these letters are ones you can come back to. Some you can read at a distance with age, and some you can look forward to. It's a lovely little memoir.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data

This book was recommended to me a while ago, and I just got around to getting it from the library this Fall. I loved it so much I bought it so I could highlight and take notes in it. Either I'm a super big nerd or it's a super great book. Maybe both? This is Charles Wheelan's Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data.

Statisticians are not exactly known for their ability to break down their work for the common man, or even to be clear and concise. Trust me -- I know this well. This is why it took an economist to explain some rather complicated points to a general audience. I have yet to find a statistics text book that explains things in a way that I, a non-statistician but someone who does statistics, can understand. I tutor AP Stats, and once we get past the normal curve things get weird. It's just not in most scholars' wheelhouses to be able to explain things to people who don't get them.

So along comes Wheelan, who explains things like the normal curve and regression and probability in ways that I not only got, but I loved. The last semester I took classes for my doctorate, I had an amazing stats class taught by a sociology professor who used econometrics (a specific type of statistics), and my mind was blown. It reminded me of why I loved stats in the first place, and this book reminded me of that class.

I decided to go into this book reading it as though I knew nothing at all about statistics. I found myself constantly highlighting basic definitions and focusing on things I already knew but that were explained so simply and so clearly. Wheelan does a phenomenal job of making these concepts clear and fun (and yes, even sometimes funny) so that the reader, that would be me, can stay engaged and interested. Normally this stuff would put you (read: me) to sleep, but Wheelan does it in such an engaging way that I have been recommending this book to everyone I know who even comes close to needing stats.

This book is one I will turn to if I ever have to teach a stats class. I can absolutely see myself assigning the book, and I find myself actually looking forward to that. After 7 semesters of stats work in my graduate career, I walk away with a book that was never assigned but must always remain a part of my repertoire. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Long Walk: A Novel

A friend and I were speaking about our favorite Stephen King books, and I am fully behind The Green Mile. He, however, was adamant about The Long Walk. We agreed to read the other's favorite and discuss.

It's an annual tradition. 100 boys are chosen for The Long Walk in the spring. You will receive three warnings, and after that, it's done for you. If you fall below a certain pace, that's a warning. If you step out of bounds, that's all three. The winner, though, will live in infamy forever. The Long Walk has been happening for as long as these boys have been alive, and it's an exclusive club -- almost every boy in America applies. Few get in. Rain or shine. No stopping. Hopefully you will make it to the end. Otherwise...

This book was particularly interesting because I wasn't entirely sure whether or not I bought the idea that the main character was going to survive until the end. I won't tell you whether he does or not, because it gives away the ending, but I can honestly say that I spent the entire book in a state of curiosity as to what exactly king was trying to do. I like the character of Garrity, and I found him to be the most compelling for the last two thirds of the book, simply because he became a real human being. I can't see that my feet started to hurt the way that my friends did when he read this book, but I definitely felt the humanity of these boys who were walking nonstop throughout the day and night. It made my heart hurt. 

The hardest part that I had was this book was the inhumanity of the task at hand. Soldiers killed boys who can't make it, or those who receive more than three warnings for slowing down or other offenses. I don't know if it's just me, but as I get older I have less of a propensity for dealing with violence in media. This, of course, coming from a girl whose top five favorite books tend to be incredibly violent book. (Read: The Iliad, The Road, I Am Pilgrim, The Green Mile, etc.) for some reason, in this book the violent seem to be completely unnecessary. What I mean by this is not that King shouldn't have written the book, but that the circumstances set up by King in the book made the violence seem incredibly unfair. I hope that makes sense, as it's not a criticism of King's writing, rather it's a criticism of the dystopian future that King writes about in the book.

So yes, it's entirely accurate to say that I enjoyed this book, however, when I sit down with my friend to discuss our two favorite Stephen King books, I stand by The Green Mile as my favorite. I did enjoy this book, absolutely, but I stand by my original choice.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Killing Lessons: A Novel

I was told at Book Expo this year that this was the scariest book they had on offer. Well then. I want it. This is Saul Black's The Killing Lessons

Two men enter a home one quiet morning. Most of the family doesn't survive -- the young daughter is the only. The two men leave to continue their spree, but it's a far cry from what it appears at that farmhouse. Women are disappearing all over the west and showing up ravaged in random places. What do the objects found inside of them represent? Who are these men who have such little disregard for life? Valerie Hart is the detective on the case, and she will stop at nothing to seek justice -- even if it means putting her own life is at terrifying risk.

Yeah, so I was sold about five pages in. When the men entered the farmhouse, the story was so vivid that I actually felt my heart pounding and I was flipping through the pages faster than I could read. That usually happens at the end of books, so to have it happen at the start was really incredible. Black's prose pulled me and made me want to reach out and give the young girl a push, to get away as fast as she could. I found myself letting out my breath at the end of the chapter, and I hadn't even known I was holding it.

This mystery was strung together so brilliantly that I loved every second of it. I would absolutely say that the moment Valerie put the puzzle together, it was a little contrived, but in all fairness, it wasn't any worse than a Law & Order episode. It was actually quite a bit more seamless than that. It was fascinating, though, to barrel through this story like I was running out of air. It came to a head and blew me away, and for that, I would recommend you spend your own quiet, dark, rainy Friday night alone with this book. If you dare, that is.