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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What’s been going on, and what’s coming up

Due to that pesky thing called ‘work,’ I haven’t had a lot of time to read this week, but there are two books in the queue that should be ready for review by about mid-week. One is a collection of short stories, the likes of which you’ve probably not read before. The other is a kidnap drama set in a small town in Michigan.

I also received a nice surprise just yesterday: Peter Stafford-Bow, author of “Corkscrew” offered me an advance look at his follow-up novel, “Brut Force”! This one, being an actual paper copy, I’ll be able to take to work with me, so look forward to some fun stuff coming up very soon!

Perhaps you remember how excited I was back in July, when I won a copy of “Vegan Yack Attack on the Go!” Unfortunately, that book never arrived, and despite my best attempts to find out why not, there’s neither book nor information. I know it shouldn’t make a difference, but that whole event has kind of turned me off getting a copy, at least for now. Instead, I have purchased two cookbooks from my summer reviews, “The Ultimate Vegan Breakfast Book” and “The Vegan 8.” We have tried two recipes from the latter (finally!), and they were both winners. Currently, there are no cookbooks in the immediate queue, although I caved in and bought the Kindle version of “Deliciously Ella: the Plant-Based Cookbook.”  It is not scheduled for release in Germany and the US until April 2019, but there is a very good chance I’ll review it before then.

What have you been reading? Tell me in the comments!

Review: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield

Dear readers, I’ll tell you one thing: if I had as many real comments as spam comments, this blog would be quite lively! Alas, you are rather quiet consumers, operating -and hopefully buying books- in the background. Some real gems have made the reading list this year, and today’s book is a must-read for anyone who loves a well-told tale.

One winter solstice night, a badly injured man appears at the door of the Swan, the inn at Radcot. The small doll he seems to be holding turns out to be a girl, drowned in the river, but soon the girl who was dead becomes the girl who is alive again, stirring the imagination of the Swan’s regulars. Who is she? Could she be Amelia, daughter of the Vaughan family, who disappeared from her home two years earlier? Is she Alice, the granddaughter the Armstrongs never knew? Or might she even be Ann, long-lost sister of Lily White?

Ms Setterfield skillfully entwines the mystery of the girl’s identity with the fate of three families, each suffering from a secret that could break them apart. As in any good tale, the relationships provide the momentum: fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. The ratio of male to female characters seems well balanced, and no one particular person demands all of the readers attention.

I’m not usually a fan of big books and would probably not have picked this up at the store, even though the cover art alone is enticing. Fortunately, you cannot tell the size of a novel from a digital copy that takes mere moments to download. I “cracked open” the book and was immediately enthralled. The language is beautiful and the plot, like the often referenced river, carries the reader along, sometimes languidly, sometimes with a forceful pull that makes you realize at four in the morning that you’ve gone long past the point of “just finishing that chapter.” There are magical elements to the narrative that appear quite natural in the setting, and with these little hooks, the story will stay with you for some time. Hint: this book would make a great gift for a reader in your life…

“Once Upon a River” is published by Atria Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. You can bet that all opinions are my own, except where otherwise stated.

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Review: “The Psychology of Time Travel” by Kate Mascarenhas

THIS PREVIEW MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In 1967, time travel ceases to be a theory and becomes reality, a triumphant success for a project spearheaded by four female scientists. Soon enough, the pioneers, Margaret, Barbara, Lucille, and Grace, hop between present and future as if they’ve never done anything else. Unfortunately, Barbara soon begins to show signs of mental instability, a side effect of time travel. To prevent any stigma to fall upon the project, the remaining pioneers decide to force Barbara into resigning.

Some fifty years later, a student finds a badly disfigured body in a locked room in the basement of the museum where she volunteers. Who is the dead woman, and why was she murdered? In order to find the answers she desperately needs to regain her equilibrium, Odette decides to join the Conclave, the organization regulating and facilitating time travel.

There is a lot to like about this novel: all the primary characters are women, which is a refreshing change of pace. The premise of the book is certainly intriguing, and the setting unique. These are the strong points of “The Psychology of Time Travel.”

The story is interesting enough to easily allow the reader to pick up what part of the plot takes place in which timeline, but all throughout, I never connected to any of the characters. While I wanted to follow their exploits until the conclusion, it was like looking into live-action panorama box from the outside, which made the experience somewhat less than satisfying.

A plot point that bothered me incessantly was the flippant way in which time travelers reveal the future to other characters and even meet their older and younger selves. Considering the rigorous selection and training process potential time travelers have to go through before joining the Conclave, it would be downright dangerous to simply spring someone’s future on them, not to mention that apparently in this story, too, you can’t really change anything about it, just as you cannot change past events.

Furthermore, the book could have benefited from vigorous editing. The writing style reads very much like the original intent was to submit a short story that kept getting longer and longer, and even as short story, this would have looked like a decent second draft at best.

Ms Mascarenhas clearly has a passion for story-telling and some refreshingly unusual ideas about alternate realities. I look forward to reading more tightly crafted novels by her in future.

“The Psychology of Time Travel” is published by Crooked Lane Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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