“Chasing Greatness” by Mike Roberts

My husband will tell you that it’s easy to observe when I’m obsessed with something: I start my own total immersion program, usually by reading a stack of books as tall as the Frankfurt “tv tower” that used to be visible from our balcony back home. My most current obsession, and one that doesn’t seem to want to let up, is learning about teaching. Weird? Well, I am lucky enough to co-teach two biology classes at my current school, and after I finish CELTA certification this summer, I hope to have my own EFL classroom soon. In my head, that translates to “there’s no time like today” to figure out how to be the best instructor possible.

“Chasing Greatness” would not have been picked up by my book radar, had it not been recommended in a newsletter I subscribe to (thank you, newsletter!). The title alone is not that descriptive, where content is concerned, and the cover features a road and a footprint. Author Mike Roberts cleverly finds parallels between teaching and running a marathon (say what?). Although I am not ambitious enough to go long distance, I used to enjoy running when I had the luxury of doing it on beautiful forest paths, which are somewhat lacking here in fields-in-a-square Indiana, so I understand the attraction of the metaphor. Incidentally, it not only works well, but is also presented in a very readable, interesting format.

There are 26.2 chapters (really), each with a title that relates equally to marathon training and teaching, like “It Takes Planning”, “At Some Point, You’ll Want to Quit”, and “People Won’t Understand Why You Do It”. In almost every chapter but one, you will find an introduction that has to do with running, an interview with a marathon veteran, a part that goes into teaching, and an interview with a teacher. In between, you will find questions to ponder and things you can implement in your classroom tomorrow. Each part has a running-related title like Warm-Up, Aid Station, or Cool Down.

People who have been teaching for a very long time might complain that there’s nothing new in this book. I’ve only been at it for a year, so I can’t judge if that’s true or not; personally, I found the book a fast read with lots of great ideas, and I really appreciated the teacher profiles! You may shy away if you’re not athletically inclined or find the color choices for the cover too male-oriented, but please don’t let that keep you from reading this book if you’re looking for inspiration and/or ways to improve your and your students’ time spent in the classroom.

“Chasing Greatness” is published by Times 10 Publications. I actually bought my own copy, nobody is expecting me to review it, and all opinions are totally my own. Read this!

“Challenge Accepted!” by Celeste Barber

In the life of every social media celebrity, there comes a moment when someone finds it a great and original idea to have that celebrity put out an autobiography. If one is extremely lucky, the outcome is funny, witty, or at least interesting. Most of the time, luck has other places to be, and the reader is stuck with something that could best be described as “meh”.

For quite a while, I was a fan of Celeste Barber’s Facebook page, on which she regularly posts photos of herself spoofing outlandishly ridiculous photos of outlandishly photoshopped models in ridiculously outlandish poses. Of course, Ms. Barber looks nothing like an undernourished, photoshopped model, but she’s doing this primarily for fun (often with the assistance of her husband, who is best known by his handle #hothusband), and that’s why fans laugh with her and love her.

When the book was first announced, bearing the same title as the most famous hashtag on the page, #challengeaccepted, I was rather hoping to get a kind of “Best Of” collection of photos, perhaps some outtakes, perhaps some anecdotes. Instead, I got a collection of swearword-peppered, stream-of-consciousness stories that somehow apparently make up enough content to be sold as a biography these days.

Now, generally speaking, cussing doesn’t disturb me much. One of my favorite cookbooks is Thug Kitchen, after all. I just think that overusing language like that is like those drawn-out car chases in movies: mainly filler.

Ms. Barber opens with a reality-lit-type recollection of her son’s birth*. I am one of those seemingly rare women who don’t particularly care to be regaled with blood-and-goop-stained vignettes of childbirth. A couple of chapters later, we delve into Ms. Barber’s school years. I don’t really think it’s funny or cool or inspirational to tell young people who might be reading this book that being bullied isn’t a big deal, because, well, the author was able to laugh it off and now feels like a stronger person for it. And just in case some of that even later stuff in the book was brought forth by some subconscious pang of guilt about writing insensitive remarks like that, devoting an entire intermission to proclaiming how much you love the gay community doesn’t vindicate anyone. Sorry.

It’s a sign of our times that I feel it necessary to sidetrack to tell you that I am not implying that dedicating a chapter to your love of your friends and fans is somehow wrong. It is, like a lot of things in this book, unnecessary. Ms. Barber talks early on about one of her close friends who happens to be gay, and what she says about him should make her feelings clear to any but the dullest of readers. There, glad we’re past that.

Anyway, the bullying incident really rubbed me the wrong way, and I very nearly decided not to finish the book at all. I did, though, and it wasn’t complete rubbish. It also wasn’t particularly funny, or witty, or inspiring, and I really don’t see the point to it. Somehow it has an odd tang of being aimed directly and primarily at an American audience. What version do the Aussies get? Or do they already know everything there is to know about Celeste Barber?

My take on “Challenge Accepted!” is this: if you love her because of her self-deprecating humor and the way she casually skewers advertising, decide if you primarily do so because of her photos. If the answer is yes, this is a challenge you do not need to accept. But if you’re curious about what goes on in the life of an Instagram celeb who is more like you than most, go for it.

“Challenge Accepted!” is published by Amazon Publishing. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review, although I’m sure someone is regretting that decision right now. All opinions are, unless otherwise stated, my own.

*if there is no such category as reality-lit, someone’s been snoozing at the helm.challenge

Review: “Divorcing Mom” by Melissa Knox

With this and my last review,  I seem to be on a bit of a mental health track, but I assure you it’s complete coincidence. I was sucked in by the promise that “Divorcing Mom” would be humorous, and while it is very well written and engaging, you won’t find much to laugh about.

Melissa is fourteen when she is first sent to Dr. Sternbach, her mother’s psychiatrist. This is New York, don’t you know, and for decades (and perhaps still) it was stereotypical that at some point, as a New Yorker, you would go to therapy. If there was no discernible reason, the shrink would surely find something wrong with you. What is wrong with Melissa is her parents’ sham of a marriage, orchestrated and dominated by “Aunt Berkeley”, her father’s therapist and muse. Dad is an abusive alcoholic, mom is an overly naive narcissist with masochistic tendencies. Melissa’s younger brother escapes from this setting by embarking on a course of substance abuse and truancy early on. All Melissa wants to do is dance, but soon she is informed by Dr. Sternbach that dance merely serves as a replacement for the sex she so obviously craves and as an outlet for her need for attention.

Through high school, college and beyond, Sternbach directs every aspect of Melissa’s life, dangling her pathetic mother in front of her like a Virgin Mary to be emulated. Her only confidante is her cousin Ceci. But when adult Melissa learns of her own mother’s abuse at the hands of her grandfather, this fragile alliance proves to be built on shaky ground.

I’m not sure why the book stuck with the title “Divorcing Mom” since every effort Melissa makes to do so is thwarted quickly and effectively by her psychiatrist. Only well into her grown years can she finally emancipate herself and find the distance she needs to maintain her relationship and her sanity.

“Divorcing Mom” is a shocking insight into a different kind of abuse, perpetrated by a professional who seems to care very little about his patients’ well-being, as long as he can be in total control. If psychology and mental health are of interest to you, I recommend you give this a read.

“Divorcing Mom” is published by Cynren Press. I received an ARC via Netgalley. All opinions are entirely my own.

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Review: “The Girls of 17 Swann Street” by Yara Zgheib

When I lived in Baltimore, I took Russian in college for two years. Unlike many of my fellow learners, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One benefit was working with a language tutor. Mine was a young woman named Helen. We got friendly and occasionally hung out together. Once, we went shopping at the mall. It was then I first began to suspect that there might be a problem. Helen was willowy, slender, with big, brown eyes and gorgeous dark hair. She could have grabbed anything off the rack and worn it without having to think about it. And yet, here she was, spending two hours trying on skirts in various shops, never quite satisfied with how she looked. Not with how the skirt looked on her, but how she looked in the skirt. In the end, she put a couple of things on hold, but told me later she never went back to pick them up.

Another time, she very excitedly confided in me that she hadn’t had any food at all that day but had been running on cappuccinos alone. The caffeine kept her going, and in her mind, the froth and milk provided all calories she needed for whatever she was doing. Uncomfortably munching on my Chinese food, I wondered how she managed to dance and work out like she claimed she did on basically nothing but water and air.

When Anna collapses in the bathroom of the apartment she shares with her husband, Matthias finally realizes that he needs to be the one to seek help. This help is to be found at 17 Swann Street, a live-in facility for women with eating disorders. Told from Anna’s point of view, the novel takes the reader by the hand and leads you up close to the faces of these women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, who at some level know that things are not well and yet cannot bring themselves to admit that they are not in control of their lives at all.

If you have never lived with or next to a person with an eating disorder, this behavior may seem strange and hard to understand. Why would someone not be able to see what damage they’re doing to their body, to their relationships? Meeting Anna, Emm, Valerie, and the other residents of 17 Swann Street will give the reader reasons, situations, and circumstances, reveal the struggles, triumphs and failures, the denial, shame, and secret hopes of those who have lost their own voices to their disease. The book is written in a straight-forward manner: as Anna fights to save herself and her marriage, the reader is drawn along; pity is neither necessary nor wanted, empathy is. This novel is a sensitive guide to Anna’s journey. I found it spellbinding and recommend it highly!

Yara Zgheib is not new to writing; in fact, she is rather prolific and quite eloquent. Despite this, nobody seems to have bothered to interview her yet. You can read her own blurb on her book here and find more of her writing at Womanscape.

“The Girls at 17 Swann Street” is published by St. Martin’s Press. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. All views, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

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Review: “Bleak Harbor” by Bryan Gruley

I am a big fan of the television show “Ozark”. The writing is superb, the cast stellar. The characters are often frustrating, and it’s a bit bizarre when you find yourself regretting a drug lord getting murdered because he was just such an entertaining figure.

In a way, the tone of Bryan Gruley’s novel reminds me of my guilty pleasure show. The setting is quite a ways from Missouri, in southern Michigan. Andrew ‘Pete’ Peters, after failing as a financial advisor, decides to take his family away from Chicago to open a pot shop. While Pete is struggling with his business, wife Carey is struggling with her weekly commute back to Chi-Town, where she is loathe to quit her job and attempting to blackmail her employer. Meanwhile, son Danny is struggling to maintain his mental balance after the death of his beloved dog. When Danny is kidnapped, the Peters family suddenly finds that there is no such thing as a small lie and that there really are skeletons in everyone’s closets.

Just like in “Ozark”, there are plenty of times when the characters get so frustrating that you just want to toss Gruley’s book at them and tell them to get their act together already. This is not a bad thing! In fact, I found characters and plot quite engaging, even if the pacing seemed a bit uneven at times. The penultimate twist of the thing is delicious, even if it wasn’t too difficult to figure out, especially if you’re a seasoned viewer of crime dramas. The one thing that left me oddly unsatisfied is the very ending, which seems a tad contrived, but is probably meant to set up a sequel.

If you enjoy a gritty crime story paired with dirty family laundry, you’re going to love this book!

“Bleak Harbor” is published by Thomas & Mercer. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. All views are, needless to say, my own.

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Review: “The Quick Guide to Classroom Management” by Richard James Rogers

Some of you know that I started a new job in August. I was looking for a way to do something resembling a practicum in Teaching English as a Second Language, but I also needed to get paid. What worked out for me was taking a position as ESL School Assistant at a local high school. When I started, I knew that I wouldn’t really be teaching anyone. The job description sounded like providing assistance to kids who were struggling to keep up with their school work because of language restrictions. After my first day, during which I shadowed an experienced assistance, I was ready to throw in the towel: it appeared that her day primarily consisted of trying to get kids to be quiet and persuade them to do any work at all. Fortunately, I decided to go back the next day and see my own students, and I have been committed to the cause ever since.

However, I also quickly realized that in fact I would need to find a better approach at getting students to do what they needed to do to get the work done that was due. Yelling, talking to them in the hallway, and pleading with them to pretty-please do the reading wasn’t going to help anyone. So, being me, I sought help from experts. At some point during my research, I ran across Richard James Rogers’ book, which had garnered some good reviews and looked useful at first skim.

For a beginning teacher, a career changer like me, or someone who is in dire need of some new ideas on wrangling kids, this is a great resource. As Mr. Rogers is a graduate of the British school system, the real-life examples are based on it, but they are quite easily transferable to various subjects and settings. The tone of the book is wrought with gentle humor, a trait that is certainly helpful to any teacher. There are also wonderful illustrations by one of Mr. Rogers’ former students, some of which are lovely examples of what great note-taking can look like – useful when you’re trying to show your students how to take notes properly.

As you might have guessed from the title, you will find plenty of classroom management tips in these eight chapters, all of which aim to ignite students’ interest and keep them hooked to prevent bad behavior or nip it in the bud. There are tips on using tech in classroom, building good relationships with parents, doing proper exam preparation, and what pitfalls to avoid with new colleagues. The final chapter talks about teaching overseas, which is of particular interest to anyone in my future field of employment.

Every once in a while, Mr. Rogers runs a promotion of this book on Amazon, where you might be able to snag a copy of the Kindle version for free. But even if you don’t, if you fit any of the profiles mentioned above, this is a good investment.

“The Quick Guide to Classroom Management” is self-published using Create Space. I purchased my own copy, and all opinions are, as always, my own.

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Review: “Friday Black” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Last year was the year I got back into short stories. I actually read quite a few collections, most of which were excellent and therefore highly recommendable. For a while, I was reading like a mad person, cranking out reviews, and in my spare time, I went to work. Then something weird happened: work took over more and more of that precious time formerly dedicated to books! The truth is, I had “Friday Black” finished months ago, and here we are, only getting around to talking about it!

Let’s start with the summary: these twelve stories are compelling, thought-provoking, told from fresh, unique viewpoints that will send hooks into your brain and hang on long after you’ve closed the last page. Some stories are exaggerated accounts of events many of us have witnessed, like the absolute craziness during big sales., like in the title story or ‘In Retail.’ Others are social observations with a sci-fi twist, like ‘The Era’, ‘Zimmer Land’, or the closing story, ‘Through the Flash.’ These narratives get up close and personal with some uncomfortable situations and characters, which translates into requiring the reader to take time for proper digestion. This is an amazing collection, but you will not breeze through it in an afternoon, nor should you.

To learn more about the author and what inspired “Friday Black”, take some time to listen to this review podcast by the New York Times.

“Friday Black” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I was lucky to snag an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

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Author Interview: Peter Stafford-Bow of “Corkscrew” and “Brut Force”

During this hectic time of year, it is as difficult as necessary to occasionally take a timeout and allot a few minutes to enjoy the lovely things in life: a mug of hot chocolate, a foot rub, a good book, or at the very least, a good interview. I am tickled to present to you today a mini interview I was able to snag with Peter Stafford-Bow, whose novels I had the pleasure to review this year. Click the book title to find out more about “Corkscrew” and “Brut Force.” Then grab that chocolate, put up your feet, and get ready for the inside scoop about Felix Hart’s upcoming exploits, the secret to remaining incognito, and what should be on your wine list this season.

Stop and Smell the Pages: There has been relatively little time between your first book, “Corkscrew,” and the latest, “Brut Force.” How many adventures did you plan for, and how has the initial concept for the novel(s) changed?

Peter Stafford-Bow: Actually, Corkscrew was written 3-4 years ago and self-published. I landed an agent and publishing deal after I’d sold a few thousand copies – I’d been working on Brut Force since well before Corkscrew was ‘discovered’ by the traditional publishing industry! I definitely have another couple of Felix Hart novels in me. After that, it really depends whether my readers want more! Or, whether Netflix insist on a five-series deal, of course.

SSTP: The ending of “Brut Force” gives a pretty big hint that Paris-Blois may not be done with Felix quite yet. What could possibly follow a rigged wine tasting, assassination attempts, and multi-layered conspiracies? Will Lily return, and could she be the woman to permanently partner up with him?

PSB: I’m not sure whether either Felix or Lily are the type for settling down! The third novel sees Felix sent on a sabbatical, after accidentally killing his Gatesave CEO, to work for an African charity. Paris-Blois make an appearance, as do the Minstrels of Wine. That’s quite enough spoilers though, you’ll have to wait until summer 2019…

SSTP:  In an interview after “Corkscrew”, you made a joke about turning the novel into a movie, if only Hollywood would get in touch already. Personally, I’d love to see an on-screen adaptation. Has anyone picked up on the idea? And even if not, who would your casting choices be for any of the characters?

PSB: I haven’t sold the rights yet, though I understand my agent has had a couple of enquiries. I think Felix should be played by Bradley James. I think he’d bring great depth to the role of a drunken, caddish layabout.

SSTP: After two successful novels, how much longer can you remain the Banksy of viticulture? Has anyone managed to discover your secret identity just by reading the books?

PSB: A few people have tried to guess, but to no avail. Most people get my gender wrong, for a start! I have employed a few tricks to obscure my identity. I have a body-double to attend book signings, for example, and when I dine with my agent, I suspend a silk screen across the table, so he only sees my silhouette.

SSTP: In a similar vein, are you doing author readings for “Brut Force”? How are book sales overseas? Do we stand a chance of seeing you here in the US?

PSB: Over half of my sales are in the US! The market is much bigger, of course, and I’m honoured to have quite a big readership in the wine regions of the West Coast. I would love to do a Stateside publicity tour – and I’m well overdue a research trip to Napa, Sonoma and the Willamette Valley.

SSTP:  And finally: with the holidays approaching, what are your wine tips to make a grape enthusiast happy?

PSB: My top tip is to seek out relatively unfashionable wine regions! Germany and Austria make superb wine, of course, and there are some gems in Slovenia too. I’m a big Sherry fan and, as a patriot, I have to recommend English Sparkling Wine. There are some magnificent fizzes being made by some of the very small, boutique producers, such as Oxney, Wiston Estate and Hoffmann & Rathbone. Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Review: “Sugar” by Monique X

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? After her divorce, Monique suddenly finds herself struggling to make ends meet for herself and her two young daughters. When she loses her job on top of everything else, she decides to follow the advice of her friend, Amanda, and gives the world of Sugar Dating a try. This book chronicles her two-year adventure with various Sugar Daddies and duds. Monique enjoys gifts, travel, sex, and as a bonus learns how to become more self-confident. Finally, she decides to dedicate her professional life to writing.

If you think that all sounds like a load of fluff, you know how I felt about it. The cover art seems to support the idea, and honestly, in the middle of a stressful semester of teaching and taking another TEFL course on the side, I was very much down with the idea of gossipy brain candy. Alas, the content was more stale cotton candy (or candyfloss, to my Commonwealth readers) than Quality Street (that’s toffees and such, in case you’re not familiar with it). Monique likes to compare her Sugar Dating career favorably with other services, such as escorts, which she considers as soulless business arrangements for sex. Honestly, I don’t see how, if that were the case, any of them would be different than prostitution: you need money, so you meet men of different financial standing for sexual favors and, in the case of Sugar Dating, free extras like trips, clothes, and meals. If that is your choice, so be it, but don’t pretend like one form of arrangement is somehow morally superior to another.

The wealthy men who enjoy Monique’s company remain mere sketches, shadowy nobodies whose biggest qualifiers are the different ways in which they perform in bed (or other locations). Despite the fact that the reader is told several times throughout the book that Monique is in fact a writer, it’s pretty obvious that she is not an editor. Her choice of descriptors is rather limited and sometimes a bit unfortunate, as when she goes on and on about a client’s “Asian eyes.” She also loves the word ‘just.’ I mean, LOVES it. If the letter E is the most commonly used letter in the English language, then the word JUST is the most frequently used word in this memoir, which reminds me way too much of the teenagers I work with and gets a bit old after a chapter or two. I read every single word of the astonishing thirty (yes, 30!) chapters of this book and cannot find any reasons to change my initial assessment of ‘meh.’

Does that mean there isn’t an audience for “Sugar”? Not at all. Fans of E.L. James who are sad there aren’t any more “50 Shades” books might like it for the sex, even if it is described clumsily and explicitly in equal proportions. People looking for travel destinations might enjoy the occasional vivid descriptions of the places Monique is invited to. Readers looking for relationship advice may safely skip this book and take away this piece of wisdom: if it’s a personal connection you’re looking for, sugar dating is not the best choice for finding a partner.

“Sugar” is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an ARC in exchange for a review. It should be fairly obvious that all opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

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Review: “Brut Force” by Peter Stafford-Bow

Sometimes, this humble little blog truly surprises me. Through my contact page, I have received offers for ARCs, which I appreciate very much, even if my list is currently quite full and pirate capers aren’t so much my genre (sorry, but thank you!). Occasionally, I get comments from people who are too shy to comment. And sometimes, I get emails from an author I’ve reviewed. Let me tell you: all that communication really makes my day! I hope you have realized by now that even if I don’t much care for a particular book, I try to be fair about the reasons why I feel that way. Rare is the book I really, truly hate, and those I would not waste anyone’s time reviewing (yes, I have axed titles from my Netgalley list even, because they were badly researched, poorly written, or worst of all, both). You should also know by now that I mean it when I say that opinions on books are my own. If you offer me a review copy and I have reason to niggle, I will.

One new title that has given me absolutely no reason at all for complaint is Peter Stafford-Bow’s latest novel, “Brut Force,” the sequel to Felix Hart’s adventures first set forth in “Corkscrew” (my review here, just don’t ask what was going on with that introductory paragraph). Young Felix Hart is now a few years older, but still living with an assortment of colorful characters in his Little Chalfont flat, still going strong at Gatesave as Head of Wine, and unfortunately for him, still entangled with wine & spirits leviathan, Paris-Blois.  When two local wine aficionados decide to pit Old World and New World Pinot Noirs against each other in a double blind tasting, the reputation of Paris-Blois’ own market-dominating wine is at stake. Never a company to deal fairly when trickery can be employed, Felix’s old acquaintances, Pierre and Sandra resort to blackmail to get Felix into the contest as a judge whose job it is to ensure that Paris-Blois comes out on top. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan, whatever the plan of the moment may be, and Felix ends up being quite entangled in not one, but several conspiracies, working hard to escape unscathed while desperately trying to sort out who’s friend or foe.

I liked the first book. It was different and amusing, even though Felix, being a typical young man in many respects, occasionally made me want to slap him upside the head. Older Felix still loves his life, his job, and the ladies, but I find him far less irritating and far more entertaining. From page 1, I couldn’t help but break out into chuckles, which some of the people passing the breakroom at work may have found odd. Mr Stafford-Bow has found a wonderful balance of humor, pacing, and plot twists to make “Brut Force” even more engaging than “Corkscrew.” The very end of the book plants a suggestion that the novelist may not be done with Felix Hart just yet, and that is a promise I’m very much looking forward to seeing fulfilled! Another point I find refreshing is the loving care given to wine descriptions, as one would expect from an author who is intimately familiar with the industry. It’s fairly commonplace these days to find a writer indulging in lengthy descriptions of fine meals (see Donna Leon or Andrea Camilleri), so why not wine? Finally, this is really more of a technical issue, but one I found quite wonderful on a personal level: the editing is superb. Normally, I find misspellings, lost words, or grammar errors, even when I’m not looking for them (believe me, I don’t look, really!); “Brut Force” was fabulously free of any of those.

Do I have a niggle? Yes, a very tiny one. I would have preferred it had they left the subtitle “The further, staggering adventures of a professional wine buyer” off the cover. Sure, it’s punny, but it seems entirely unnecessary. Would that keep me from wholeheartedly recommending this book to you? Not at all! If you love wine, mad capers, or simply a fun read, get yourself a copy. It will lift your mood and erase frown lines from your face. I’ll drink to that!

“Brut Force” is published by Acorn Publishing. I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a review. All opinions are, as always, my own.

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