Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

Anyone who has ever moved into a new home knows that sometimes there’s just something a little bit … off … about some aspect of the house. I mean, if The Husband and I had a dollar for every time a perplexed contractor turned to us and said, “Well, I’ve never seen that before,” all the while knowing that they’re wondering what the fuck the previous owners were thinking and simultaneously thinking that we must be the stupidest schmucks alive, then we would be rich enough to own several vacation homes.

What? Just us? OK, well, then.

There’s something wrong with Julie and James Khoury’s new house. An odd, unexplainable sound. And then, even more troubling incidents. Unexplained bruises. Cryptic writing on the walls (literally). You know, the usual.

Their marriage is in trouble, too. James has a gambling addiction. They’re trying to make a fresh start. Oh, and Julie and James’ reclusive, eccentric neighbor seems to know something about what nobody seems to want to tell them.

The Grip of It is a psychological horror novel by Jac Jemc, which I was delighted to review in today’s edition of Shelf Awareness. It’s a quick, fast read, perfect for a rainy afternoon in autumn. If you’re participating in R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, this would be an excellent choice to add to your reading queue this season.

 

 

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She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton

“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone will probably tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for an answer. They persisted.” 

So begins She Persisted: 13 Women Who Changed the World, written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, a picture book for readers of all ages.

The book was inspired by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s impassioned, vocal opposition to Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation for Attorney General in February 2017 — and the resulting backlash and instant meme from Senator Mitch McConnell’s response to her. (“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”)

For each of the 13 women highlighted in She Persisted, there’s a brief biography (“she persisted” is included in every description) and a poignant quote accompanied by soft, inviting illustrations. While some of the most famous names in history are included (Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Oprah Winfrey), there are others whose accomplishments might not be as well known (Clara Lemlich, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin). All represent diverse individuals who have made groundbreaking achievements and discoveries in fields such as medicine (Virginia Apgar), journalism (Nellie Bly), politics (Margaret Chase Smith), sports (Florence Griffith Joyner), education (Ruby Bridges), science (Sally Ride), the legal profession (Sonia Sotomayer) and more.

There are, of course, countless more women whose tenacity and dedication resulted in remarkable, life-changing contributions to our world — which is exactly the point of this book that celebrates “all women who persist every day.” For young people, She Persisted serves as both women’s history lesson as well as motivation for dreaming big dreams and staying determined when those ambitions seem difficult or are met with backlash from others.

For grown ups, it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come — especially when current events seem otherwise.

Click image below to purchase She Persisted for yourself or to encourage a young person to dream big and never give up. (As an Amazon Associate, I will receive a very small commission from your purchase to help to support this blog and its content.) 

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Two Perfect Late Summer Reads

With the turn of the page to August, it seems like summer’s pace has a way of intensifying. What better time, then, to savor what remains of this time through a perfect summer read that offers just the right blend of substance without being too heavy and dark.

Here are two books that I recently reviewed for Shelf Awareness that would be perfect for summer days at the beach, by a lake or wherever you seek rest and relaxation.


Cocoa Beach sweeps readers across war-torn Europe to the tropical landscape of Central Florida in this breathtaking family drama set amid the backdrop and aftermath of World War I.  Bootleggers, bandits, criminals and conspirators are in abundance here, along with unconsummated marriages, grand estates and deception galore.

This was the first book I read by Beatriz Williams (who I also had the pleasure of interviewing for this piece in Shelf Awareness) and it won’t be the last. If you enjoy historical fiction spiced with romance and danger, Cocoa Beach is definitely where you want to be.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams
William Morrow
2017
384 pages

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo captures the silver screen era with such luminosity that it is easy to forget that these are fictional actors and actresses. Evelyn Hugo’s seven marriages have been tabloid fodder for decades, but now that she is approaching 80, she intends to reveal all about the one true love of her life and hires a relatively unknown writer, Monique Grant, to pen her biography.

I’ll admit to judging The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by its cover, assuming this was going to be a light, frivolous romance. I was wrong. It’s a fast-paced read with much more substance here than one might think.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Atria Books
2017
400 pages

Visit Shelf Awareness for my full review of Cocoa Beach (as well as to read my interview with Beatriz Williams) and my full review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

I am an Amazon Affiliate. Some links may take you to Amazon’s shopping pages. By making a purchase, I will receive a small commission which helps to sustain this blog, its content and its author.

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Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Too Much, by Jennifer Latson

The Boy Who Loved Too Much: A True Story of Pathological Friendliness
by Jennifer Latson
Simon & Schuster
304 pages
2017

Before reading The Boy Who Loved Too Much, I wasn’t very familiar with Williams Syndrome, a genetic neurological condition characterized by developmental delays, cardiovascular issues, visual-spatial challenges, distinct, elfin-like facial features and above average musical and language abilities.

Eli D’Angelo is among an estimated 30,000 people in the United States with Williams Syndrome. For three years, journalist Jennifer Latson followed Eli and his mother, Gayle, to explore the impact of Williams on their family. The result is this informative book, which I reviewed in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

You can find my full review here.

 

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In Memoriam: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Sad news today in the Philadelphia poetry world. Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, author of the poetry collection Slamming Open the Door and founder of Musehouse, A Center for the Literary Arts in Chestnut Hill, has died at age 61.

I didn’t know Kathleen personally but her poems chronicling her profound grief in the aftermath of her 21-year-old daughter Leidy’s death from domestic violence in 2003 resonated with me seven years ago. Below is a slightly-edited version of my review of Slamming Open the Door from April 2010.

My deepest condolences to Kathleen’s friends and family.

Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

I never should have read this book.

I never should have read this book because it should never have been written … because the subject of these incredibly heartbreaking poems, Leidy Bonanno, should still be alive.

Leidy should be alive today, not memorialized so lovingly on the pages of Slamming Open the Door, a collection of poems written by her mother Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.
Her name is pronounced “lady” and her nickname was Ladybug – hence, the ladybug on the cover and the images of them throughout the book in illustrations and in several poems. We meet Leidy as a child (“Meeting You, Age Four”), as a nursing school graduate (“Nursing School Graduation Party, Six Weeks Before”), as a 21-year old victim of domestic violence (“Hearsay”). Her beautiful face greets the reader, and you smile wistfully back, only to be immediately choked by the first poem, “Death Barged In.”

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.
He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.
Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me.

As painful as it must have been to do, I’m grateful to Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno for sharing Leidy and her story with us. In each poem, in each line, she gives us every emotion that accompanies Leidy’s death. We are there with Kathleen and her husband as they call Leidy’s cell phone, as they drive to her apartment, as the police officer gives them the news. We’re there in the flashbacks at Leidy’s graduation party from nursing school, and we know exactly who Kathleen is talking about when she writes:

When Dave clears his throat,
and raises his glass to toast her,
we raise our glasses too –
and Johnny Early, a nice young man
from Reading Hospital,
smiles and raises his glass.

In Slamming Open the Door, we see the full spectrum of grief, from the anger to the absurd.

Sticks and Stones

To you, who killed my daughter—
Run. Run. Hide.
Tell your mother
to thread the needle
made of bone.
It is her time now
to sew the shroud.
The men are coming
with sticks and stones
and whetted spears
to do what needs doing.

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh  and say
you bet that’s how she felt.
Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.
And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without the pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,
and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,
don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesdays and wonder
if you want to go too.

I saw this at the library and started reading it while my own daughter was selecting her books (the irony not being lost on me), and couldn’t put it down. Leidy’s story – that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of one’s background or education or anything – is one that needs to be told to as many people as possible. It’s a story that needs to be told, too, because it shows us that we’re not alone in our grief – that although the specific circumstances and details might differ, we have all experienced similar emotions.

Although, understandably, the majority of the poems focus on Leidy’s death and the aftermath, Slamming Open the Door is also a tribute to her all-too-brief life.  She lives in the hearts of those who loved her, and for those of us who didn’t know her, we get to do so in these 41 emotional and contemporary poems.

Slamming Open the Door is the recipient of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award.

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The No Meat Athlete Cookbook (spoiler alert: you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy this one)

I’ve become somewhat of a slacker with running. There are enough reasons for that to warrant a separate post, I think, and I do want to get back to more of a fitness routine. I’m starting with walking; The Girl and I did two 2-mile walks on the beach last week and that felt good, so that’s something.

When I started running last fall, I went back to eating chicken. I thought I needed the additional protein for my increased workouts. That experiment lasted only a month or two because a) I didn’t really notice a difference (it’s not like I suddenly became a triathlete) and b) after 20 years of not eating meat* the stomach woes were too much. Within a month or two, I was happily back to being a gluten-free pescetarian.

Around this time I discovered the No Meat Athlete  site and podcast, which reinforced that it was definitely possible to eat a plant-based diet while partaking in high-intensity fitness activities like marathons. Even though I’m nowhere near that point — and may never be — NMA offers a lot of great information, strategies and recipes for athletes of all abilities.

I was thrilled to review The No Meat Athlete Cookbook by Matt Frazier and Stepfanie Romine  in Tuesday’s issue of Shelf Awareness. They offer athletes at every level 125 plant-based recipes providing a powerhouse of essential nutrients for strength and endurance.

“It’s everything in the food–and the remarkably complex interactions of countless nutrients–that our bodies thrive on, not a single constituent,” the authors state. Because the body also requires less time to process whole foods, more energy is available for workouts and a full recovery afterward.

While athletes are this cookbook’s focus, there’s plenty here for people who are simply interested in eating a plant-based diet.

Thanks to Shelf Awareness for the opportunity to review The No Meat Athlete Cookbook. Read my full review here.

* There was a brief period in 2011-2012 when I ate chicken. The kids and I were still living in Delaware while The Husband commuted back and forth from Pittsburgh, and it was just easier for the three of us to eat the same thing. And then I got a job where I was on the road extensively, often in rural parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. After that ended, so did my meat consumption.

 

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Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

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