Category Archives: Review

Review: Last Stop in Brooklyn

Last Stop in Brooklyn
by
Lawrence H. Levy

Title: Last Stop in Brooklyn
Author: Lawrence H. Levy
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780451498441
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb
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“Coney Island,” Lazlo remarked.  “It’s where intelligence and human decency go to die.”  (p30)

The third in the Mary Handley series.  By chapter 3 I knew I needed to get the first two, it’s that entertaining.  Fortunately, one doesn’t need to have read the first books to keep up with the plot of Last Stop in Brooklyn.

Mary Handley, Victorian era detective in Brooklyn, breaks all the stereotypical rules about how women should behave.  As her mother frequently reminds her, nice women get married and have a family.  They don’t traipse around Brooklyn as private detectives, solving crimes and speaking her mind to the Manhattan rich.

It starts simply as a case of possible adultery.  A friend of her mother’s son is concerned that his wife is cheating on him.  Using familial pressure, Elizabeth convinces Mary to take the case.  Which leads her to Coney Island, the last stop on the train in Brooklyn.

In her ten days of following Colleen Murphy, Mary notices that she too is being followed and confronts her tail.  Who, it turns out, is the brother of a man wrongly convicted of killing a prostitute in a similar fashion to Jack the Ripper.

Mary agrees to take on the case which leads her through New York police department corruption fed by money from the rich and powerful who run the stock market like Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller.

Mary’s quest to prove Colleen’s infidelity (or not), and Ameer Ben Ali’s innocence takes her to the seedier part of Coney Island where racism, sexism, and violence live cheek by jowl, rarely noticed but ever-present.

My favorite kind of books are the kind which entwine history with fictive, but believable, history.  Levy does not disappoint in this regard.  However, I did find the plot wandered as though Levy were trying to get his bearings, or to fit too much in before then end.  And there were a few times when I was shocked out of the story by Mary’s profane language, and actions which didn’t seem to fit her character or the times.

Despite that, I’d gladly spend another day reading the further adventures of Mary Handley.

I received a free copy of Last Stop in Brooklyn as part of the Blogging for Books program.

Review: The Imagineers of War

Imagineers of War
by
Sharon Weinberger

Title: The Imagineers of War
Author: Sharon Weinberger
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780385351799
Publisher: Knopf
Publisher’s Blurb
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Signature page

[The space race] was always a race, but one in which the United States assumed it had a natural advantage.  The Soviet Union could not produce a decent automobile; how could it possibly hope to best the United States in rocket science?  (p. 31)

Since finishing Sharon Weinberger’s superbly researched book, The Imagineers of War, I find myself coming up short in how to describe it, much less review it.  When talking to friends about it, all I can say is, “Those people are crazy!”

ARPA was founded in 1958 with a mission of creating “the unimagined weapons of the future.”  Originally meant to beat the Soviets into space, ARPA had an unlimited budget, prestige in the Pentagon, and became a magnet for every wacky idea to come along.

The space race went to NASA, formed a year later, and weaponry became DARPA’s focus.  Nearly anyone with an idea could get through the doors to make a pitch.

One of my favorites is Ronald Reagan’s version of Star Wars, a network of missiles in space meant to stop incoming bombs.  Only, Reagan was never supposed to hear about it or take it seriously.  To say Star Wars was flawed in concept would be an understatement of massive proportions.  A lot of DARPA’s ideas made me wince and wonder how anyone thought that was a good idea.

Another interesting one was making a sort of mechanical elephant tall enough to carry supplies and personnel through the Vietnamese jungles.  It never got off the drawing boards.  That it got on the drawing boards leaves me in awe.

And then there are the little details that give me an unfair advantage on trivia nights.  That is, if trivia nights focused on weird historic stories.  In this case, it’s the story of how Agent Orange, the defoliant used to burn the jungles – and everything else – in Vietnam down.  The dangerous effects of this herbicide reverberate even now, over 50 years since its use was implemented.

The men at DARPA were so bent on stopping Communism in its tracks and making it easier for US troops to fight, they lost sight of the costs in terms of civilians in surrounding villages, and their food supplies.  A variety of chemical experiments were made all code-named Agent [some color].  They worked their way through the alphabet until Agent Orange proved to be the one that worked.

There were the experiments with psychic abilities and ways to weaponize them.  I couldn’t help thinking of the 2009 George Clooney movie, Men Who Stare at Goats

Outlandish ideas aside, this is the agency that gave us drones and the Internet.  But Imagineers of War is more than a recitation of outlandish ideas, it delves into the politics of various administrations, the Pentagon, NASA, the armed forces and this not so little mysterious agency doing things no one, not even DARPA, completely understood.

The men and, much later, women of DARPA have a vague mission.  To think up and develop weapons of the future to find the enemy and kill it.  It’s easy to understand the inter-agency contests that have arisen since the very beginning.

Weinberger puts this all into context.  The outlandish ideas, the political infighting, the successes and failures, set against the backdrop of impending disaster, imagined and otherwise.  She sets the context of the times with care.  From the Space Race to the Cold War to Vietnam and beyond, Sharon Weinberger tells us why DARPA was created and why even the most outlandish ideas were taken seriously.

Yes, these people were crazy.  But they’re the ones charged with visualizing how to keep us safe from a world that’s crazy.  They may be crackpots, but they’re our crackpots doing their best to imagine a crazy future.

Review: Spinfluence

Spinfluence
by
Nicholas McFarlane

Title: Spinfluence
Author: Nick McFarlane
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-1-908211-11-8
Publisher: Carpet Bombing Culture
Twitter: @NickMcFarlane76

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Publisher’s Blurb

…social media in particular, [is] providing new and exciting methods of harnessing the herd.

Picked up on a lark at a museum gift shop.  The artwork appealed and I could smell the irony as I flipped through the pages.

It’s a not so ironic take on how propaganda has been working on contemporary society.  It’s painfully right.  I wanted to rebel at the language which placed the 1% as w.o.l.fs (Wardens of Language & Falsities) and the working class as c.o.w.s. (Corporate Owned Wage Slaves).

Given the roots of anger in the fight wing of the fight-or-flight response, it is no surprise … that a universal trigger for anger is the sense of being endangered.  Endangerment can be signalled not just by an outright physical threat but also, as is more often the case, by a symbolic threat to self-esteem or dignity: being treated unjustly or rudely, being insulted or demeaned, being frustrated in pursuit of an important goal.

It’s chilling, and at the same time, funny.  Chilling because the quotes from Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels still apply.  Funny because … well .. what isn’t funny about a picture of the cow in a business suit?

And then, the final sealed chapter arrives.  And there, literally in black and white, are the instructions to recognizing and overcoming the Hardcore Propaganda Machine.  The truth appears, and it is simple, if only we pay attention to the lessons of the manual and do the exact opposite.

We need more agitators like Nick McFarlane to show us how we got lost and how to stir things up to get back on track.  For that I am scared, and grateful.

Review: The Last Girl

#ReadingIsResistance

The Last Girl
by Nadia Murad

Title: The Last Girl
Author: Nadia Murad
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 978-1-5247-6043-4
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Twitter: @NadiaMuradPeace
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Publisher’s Blurb

Yazidis believe that before God made man, he created seven divine beings, often called angels, who were manifestations of himself. (p. 27)

#ReadingIsResistance to ignoring the call of bearing witness to the atrocities of the world.  Resistance to becoming complacent in our corner of the world while those around us suffer in unimaginable ways.

I expected to struggle with the content of this book.  I expected it would be hard for me to read about Nadia Murad’s horrifying experience at the hands of ISIS.  I did not expect The Last Girl to be fascinating and easy to read.

Imagine you’re a 21 year-old-woman living in a community where everyone is loved and cared for.  Things are not easy, but everyone gets by and helps each other.  The village in which you live is the only one you’ve known, and your dream is to teach history or do make up for others.  It’s all you know, and it makes you happy.

One day, all of this is torn apart and the life you once knew no longer exists.  ISIS, the most hated terrorist group in the entire world, comes to your part of Iraq and lays waste to everyone you ever held dear.  All the men are rounded up and killed.  A few escape, but not many.   All the women, girls and boys are rounded up in the school house.  These women and girls are sorted into two categories, house slaves and sex slaves.  The boys are sent to camps where they are brainwashed and become fighters for ISIS.

This is Nadia’s story.  And it happened because she is Yazidi, a religion not recognized by the fanatics of ISIS.  There is no tolerance for something different.  Different is “other,” and “other” is not human and can therefore be treated in abhorrent fashion.

For a month, she was passed around between men who raped her repeatedly, grew tired of her, and sent her to another man.  There is no sugar-coating this, no way to make it easy to take.  Nadia Murad’s memoir makes sure the reader understands exactly what happened to her, and girls like her, in state-sponsored genocide of the Yazidi people.

Murad was a “lucky” one.  She escaped and was helped across the border into Kurdistan where she was reunited with the few remaining members of her family.  There, she realized she needed to tell her story.  She’s gone from someone who had never seen an airplane to flying all over the world relating the horrors all Yazidi suffered at the hands of ISIS.

The Last Girl is a powerful book, and I’m glad to have been able to bear witness to Nadia Murad’s story, and her drive to help others become aware of, and stop such horrifying atrocities around the globe.  I, too, hope that she is “the last girl in the world with a story like [hers].”  (p. 308)

I received a free copy of The Last Girl as part of the Blogging for Books program. In return, this is my honest review.

 

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

2017 Reading in Review

Everyone’s got one.  This is my reading year in review.

Total read:  23
Total acquired:  56
Number of pages read:  5906
Publishing year count:  15 unique years
Author Count:  21 unique authors (7 women)

Favorites: (in no particular order)
(Links to 7Stillwell reviews or What’s Auntie Reading Now? photos)

New (to me) authors I want to read more of:
Pat Conroy
Andrew Smith
Vivek Shanbhag
Tobias Buckell
Elizabeth Bear
Banana Yoshimoto

Review: Zealot

#ReadingIsResistance

Zealot
by Reza Aslan

Title: Zealot
Author: Reza Aslan
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 9781400069224
Publisher: Random House
Twitter: @RezaAslan
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Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy

Publisher’s blurb:

Zealot yields a fresh perspective on one of the greatest stories ever told even as it affirms the radical and transformative nature of Jesus’ life and mission.

#ReadingIsResistance to conventional wisdom, and “truths” which fly in the face of established facts.

Let me just say I’ve had a tough time writing a meaningful review.  It’s so well-researched and well- written I’m sure a third reading is on the horizon.  Ancient religions and the intersection with politics is a favorite topic, and I’ve read so much over the years it’s hard to not stray into tangents.  The short version, is that I loved Reza Aslan’s Zealot more on the second reading than I did on the first.

Aslan puts the story of Jesus into context of the socio-economic-political-religious times during which he lived and preached.  He frames Jesus as a zealot.  “Zeal implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master – to serve any human master at all – and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.”  (p. 40)  In the three years of his ministry, Jesus was plainly, and simply, a rabble rouser.

That’s the Jesus I learned about in church.  He cared for the poor, defied authority and made promises of a kingdom for everyone who believed.  That last one marked him as a failure.  As with any good story, it’s more complex than that.

Aslan cautions, “For every well-attested, heavily researched, and eminently authoritative argument made about the historical Jesus, there is an equally well-attested, equally researched, and equally authoritative argument opposing it.”  (p. xx)

Zealot reflects a methodology towards history and story telling about the world’s most famous character which makes it a great read.  It isn’t about proving faith, it’s about taking an evidence-based approach to discuss why Jesus came to matter so much, and still matters over 2,000 years after his death.  Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of that, and makes me hunger to know even more.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

 

Review: The Witch of Lime Street

#ReadingIsResistance

The Witch of Lime Street
by David Jaher

Title: The Witch of Lime Street
Author: David Jaher
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9780307451064
Publisher:  Crown Publishing
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Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy

Crown Publishing blurb:

The 1920s are famous as the golden age of jazz and glamour, but it was also an era of fevered yearning for communion with the spirit world, after the loss of tens of millions in the First World War and the Spanish-flu epidemic. A desperate search for reunion with dead loved ones precipitated a tidal wave of self-proclaimed psychics—and, as reputable media sought stories on occult phenomena, mediums became celebrities.

Against this backdrop, in 1924, the pretty wife of a distinguished Boston surgeon came to embody the raging national debate over Spiritualism, a movement devoted to communication with the dead. Reporters dubbed her the blonde Witch of Lime Street, but she was known to her followers simply as Margery. Her most vocal advocate was none other than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed so thoroughly in Margery’s powers that he urged her to enter a controversial contest, sponsored by Scientific American and offering a large cash prize to the first medium declared authentic by its impressive five-man investigative committee.  Admired for both her exceptional charm and her dazzling effects, Margery was the best hope for the psychic practice to be empirically verified.  Her supernatural gifts beguiled four of the judges. There was only one left to convince…the acclaimed escape artist, Harry Houdini.

#ReadingIsResistance to the rigid rules of defining the inexplicable.

We all want answers to what our lives mean.  We want to know where the dead go when they leave us.  We have trouble letting go, and most of all, we just want things to make sense.

In The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher writes about the rivalry between science, seances, Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a woman named Mina.

Spiritualism after World War I is a fascinating pocket of history.  It’s about the search for meaning after a meaningless war in a time of great chaos.  How do people make sense of the enormous changes happening around them?

Jaher’s overly-detailed, too long book does an adequate job of telling the story of the search for meaning and Truth.   It’s a great discussion about the need for contact with loved ones who are gone from the lives of many, including Houdini and Doyle, far too early.

It becomes political as Houdini sets out to prove once and for all that all those who hold seances are frauds.  In this book, he isn’t really a nice man.  His belligerence about proving Mina Crandon wrong, while at the same time longing to talk to his dearly departed mother, is off-putting in Jaher’s hands.

More sympathetic, to a point, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lost his teenaged son to the trenches of war and grieves deeply.  Doyle becomes convinced there should be a way for all those grieving for those the war took to communicate with them in Summerland.

Enter Scientific America and it’s prize money offered to the person who could prove to a committee of judges they were genuine in their abilities.  For over a year, the search covered the US and Britain.  Each time, the psychic was uncovered as fraudulent.

Then Mina (aka Margery) Crandon, with the right social credentials, comes to the attention of all parties involved.  Of course, nothing could be proven and the prize money was never awarded.

The story of Mina’s seances is one of strong personalities determined to prove themselves RIGHT at all costs.  Houdini insists she’s a fraud but only talks about how Mina could do her “tricks,” including manifesting her frolicking dead brother Walter and ectoplasm.  Doyle is intent on proving that communication with dead is not only possible but can become commonplace.

The other judges on the panel get caught between these two strong personalities and Mina Crandon’s gentle, witty personality.  They also get swept up in the grandeur of the Crandon’s upper crust credentials.  It must have been an emotional whipsaw for these poor judges who are portrayed as hardly up to the task.

There is so much detail it’s easy to get lost.  Yet, the more salacious stuff is hidden behind innuendo.  There are many portrayals of the searches Mina had to go through before every seance, including examining her vagina to make sure she wasn’t hiding any number of icky things in there.  I was creeped out by this.  The poor woman.  I kept thinking, “You wanna put your hands where?”  Alarming.

There were slight hints of sexual impropriety between Mina and some of the judges, including Houdini.  But only hints.  I suppose, given the times, slight hints were all the original sources would provide.

I’m skittish of the paranormal, so am at a disadvantage in understanding the fascination with heavy tables rising under their own power, ectoplasmic projections, and all the other attendant activities which seem to attend seances.  I’m not at all convinced we should be messing with paranormal things we can’t possibly understand.  Things just seem to go wrong all the time.

After all the buildup, the logical conclusion of no conclusion was an anti-climax.  Of course there was no way to ever prove Mina Crandon’s veracity.  Houdini died from the infamous punches to his stomach shortly after the Scientific American was called to a draw and officially disbanded.  Mina Crandon lived on, complimenting him gently.

It is a fascinating story but sadly, Jaher’s skills were not up to the task of making it a fascinating read.  To give him credit, it’s a complicated story, one I’m sure he grappled with in trying to bring it into shape.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

Review: A Kiss for a Dead Film Star

#ReadingIsResistance

A Kiss for a Dead Film Star
by Karen Vaughn

Title: A Kiss for a Dead Film Star
Author: Karen Vaughn
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9780143111689
Publisher:  Brain Mill Press
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Brain Mill Press blurb:

Isaac Rubenstein has no choice but to kill himself.
He’s in love with Rudolf Valentino, and now Valentino is dead. His acolytes are committing suicide all over the city. The window to definitively display his devotion is closing, and for once the New York tenement apartment he shares with his mother, his grandmother, and his siblings is quiet. It has to be now.
Unless he doesn’t, because his grandmother calls out for him right before the blade touches his skin. Unless he does, and the cuts bleed away his heart’s blood.
In Karen M. Vaughn’s romantic and darkly funny melodrama, Isaac Rubinstein does both. Dies, and is united with his beautiful Valentino. Lives, and finds a reason to live.
A Kiss for a Dead Film Star is a astonishing debut collection of stories that inspire weird love and uncover surprising caches of eroticism. Psycho-medical-magical realism intertwine with old and new New York City, epic love stories, and tales best told in the smoky alleys behind bars or beneath the covers. Karen Vaughn’s capacious imagination and remarkable voice glitter—this collection is a comet that comes around rarely.

#ReadingIsResistance to lack of imagination.  Karen Vaughan’s short story collection, A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, is filled with characters who are, well … characters.

Take, for instance, the histrionic Isaac Rubinstein in the title story, who grieves the way only a star struck teenager can.  Rudolph Valentino has died, and Isaac must make the perfect symbolic gesture to show both Valentino, and the world, just how much Isaac adored his movie star.  The breathlessness of Isaac’s panic and need to make this gesture, is there.  Vaughn’s writing makes the reader feel great anxiety for the fate of this wistful teenager.

In “Still Life With Fossils,” dinosaurs talk to each other from the afterlife, welcoming them to a tribe only they can experience.  This story takes the question, “Is there life after death,” in a very unexpected direction.  It’s my favorite in the collection.

The spooky story “Limbs,” takes being different from everyone else to a new level.  Take a family of migrant Mexican farm workers and then give them a secret they have to hide at all costs.  Frightening.

I’m glad to have read this little collection of stories.  Each has a different voice with intriguing themes.  Months after reading, they still haunt me.  Especially the dinosaurs.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

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Review: Kitchen

#ReadingIsResistance

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Title: Kitchen
Author:  Banana Yoshimoto
Published: 1993 (US Translation)
ISBN-13: 9780671880187
Publisher:  Grove Atlantic
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Grove Atlantic‘s blurb:

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Mikage, the heroine of “Kitchen,” is an orphan raised by her grandmother, who has passed away. Grieving, Mikaga is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother (who is really his cross-dressing father) Eriko. As the three of them form an improvised family that soon weathers its own tragic losses, Yoshimoto spins a lovely, evocative tale with the kitchen and the comforts of home at its heart. In a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seeming simplicity is the ruse of a very special writer whose voice echoes in the mind and the soul.

#ReadingIsResistance to the mundane and mainstream.  To the idea that love, death, and everything inbetween follows rules.  And to the idea family is constrained by blood lines.

I’m finding the more broadly I read authors who are less like me, the more entertaining my world becomes.  And I’m finding Japanese authors have wriggled into my readers’ heart.

Enter new (to me) author Banana Yoshimoto, who says on her website she chose the nom de plume because she liked banana flowers.  Which is so completely different from the racist term I had most often heard regarding Asian Americans.  And while Banana Yoshimoto is not Asian American, but Japanese, that racist epithet is what I immediately thought of.  I worry about what that might say about me.

Kitchen is a tenderly written book about death, love in many forms, and what family comes to mean.  The title symbolizes the place Yoshimoto’s narrator, Mikaga, becomes most comfortable.  The kitchen is what becomes home, regardless of circumstance.  A well kept, well stocked kitchen is balm to jangled nerves and the problems which plague every human being.

I came to Japanese writing through Haruki Murakami, the voice of Japanese magical realism.  Yoshimoto’s book has hints of magical realism, but it’s grounded in the realities of lives filled with grief from mutual loss, and happiness from mutual kinship.  And just under the surface are the oblique references to what can only be referred to as … otherworldly.  I’m not sure that’s the right word, but it will have to do because those are the themes touching on the indescribable.  It’s the evanescence we all chase after as we seek answers which are bigger than we are.

Mikaga finds comfort in her kitchens, which ground her and give her space to deal with the just on the tip of the brain/heart/lips thoughts of heavier concerns.  Kitchen may be about love, and death, and family; it’s also about finding a resting place among the chaos.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance.

Review: The BFG

#ReadingIsResistance

The BFG
by Roald Dahl

Title: The BFG
Author:  Roald Dahl
Published: 1982
ISBN-13: 9780142410387
Publisher:  Puffin
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Puffin blurb:

The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, or any of the other giants—rather than the BFG—she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that the giants are flush-bunking off to England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

Such delightful word play.  And a story about unlikely friends who join forces to save the children of the word from those nasty bone-crunching children of the world.  There’s nothing more to say other than don’t deprive yourself of this wonderful little story.

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance.