Sunday, April 5, 2020

Book Review: Adequate Yearly Progress, by Roxanna Elden

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

“Mr. Hernandez.” In the doorway stood Hernan’s least-favorite assistant principal, Mr. Scamphers. He was giving Hernan the look one might give a child who had indeed put someone’s eye out in a game he’d warned them would only be fun until someone got hurt. “You are out of compliance with the Curriculum Standard of the Day Achievement Initiative.”

“We’re working on the scientific method,” said Hernan, pointing to the board. “Isn’t that the standard?”

“The standard is to be written on the board in its entirety, Mr. Hernandez, as per this morning’s announcement.”

“Sorry.” But then, since Hernan wasn’t actually sorry, he added, “It’s just that we were already in the middle of the lesson when that announcement came on.”


“Well, I’ll certainly make a note of that.” Scamphers scribbled on his clipboard.


Working in a school, I see some of the teaching guidelines and buzzwords in behind-the-scenes emails. I’m also privy to some of the unexpected student behaviors (good and bad). I’m not a teacher though, and hearing the full brunt of some expectations and experiences in this book may have made me a bit glad of that.

Official synopsis:
Book Review: Adequate Yearly Progress, by Roxanna Elden
Each new school year brings familiar challenges to Brae Hill Valley, a struggling high school in one the biggest cities in Texas. But the teachers also face plenty of personal challenges and this year, they may finally spill over into the classroom.

English teacher Lena Wright, a spoken-word poet, can never seem to truly connect with her students. Hernan D. Hernandez is confident in front of his biology classes, but tongue-tied around the woman he most wants to impress. Down the hall, math teacher Maybelline Galang focuses on the numbers as she struggles to parent her daughter, while Coach Ray hustles his troubled football team toward another winning season. Recording it all is idealistic second-year history teacher Kaytee Mahoney, whose anonymous blog gains new readers by the day as it drifts ever further from her in-class reality. And this year, a new superintendent is determined to leave his own mark on the school—even if that means shutting the whole place down.


While the teachers in this book mostly chose to work at a school with mostly disadvantaged children to make a difference, the year they get a famous educational consultant as their superintendent is the year their "making a difference" backfires for many of them. There had always been a degree of teaching-to-the-test and working with unmotivated students; now their "Believer Score" is paramount to their career success, because "Believers make Achievers."

All the inspirational stories, crazy acronyms, and metrics for diluting all of the teachers’ work into success scores and measurable results are laughable. My kids came running down the hall to see what I was laughing about when I came across the mention of the "starfish story." I’ve heard the story at multiple motivational seminars and sales trainings, which just goes to show how much their school district is turning into a number-generating, success-driven clearinghouse for their customers, I mean, students.

Overall, this book (the first novel by an author with other non-fiction educational texts) is an amusing satire, with a few too many relatable anecdotes to be funny all the time. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. I was pulling for most of the teachers (we didn’t know individual students as much), but most of their stereotypes were pretty clear. I’d recommend his book to most who work in the educational field, but remember to go into it as I believe it was intended – a funny satire.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley works in the school kitchen, when the school is open. She has enough casual teacher friends and overhears enough chit-chat to recognize that anything is indeed possible in a job working with children, who are largely unpredictable. She also blogs at SweetlyBSquared.com.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Book Review and GIVEAWAY: Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, by Rashi Rohatgi {2 winners, ends 4/9}

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

I run down the stairs, only the tips of my toes gracing the smooth, hard floors, and slip through the gate, pretending to latch it behind me, hoping the moon will discourage thieves or rapscallions from testing its truth. The sweet moo of the cow nestled into the space between our house and the alley makes me smile, and I know that though this is not how Mumma might have imagined it, this is how I will become a woman.

The streets are not empty; a city of Chandrapur’s size and honor bustles whilst most of its citizens are abed. Any other year, my white nightgown would have the street sweepers, the deliverymen with bicycle-wagons full of fish and fowl and fruit, the mouse eaters gape; instead, I float as though in a sea of ghosts.

“Are you all right, miss?” asks a woman with pan-reddened teeth and a village accent so thick I lean in to make sense of it even as I recoil from the scent of rotting jasmine that surrounds her. An opium-eater! Perhaps. But when I nod and rush forward, she does not follow.


I feel like I’m learning a bit more about Indian culture and traditions with each book of Indian fiction I read. Every author has made it sound so beautiful – I think it’s not just the authors appreciating the beauty, but the value the culture places on its beauty.

Official synopsis:
Book Review and GIVEAWAY: Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, by Rashi Rohatgi {2 winners, ends 4/9}
It's 1905, and the Japanese victory over the Russians has shocked the British and their imperial subjects. Sixteen-year-old Leela and her younger sister, Maya, are spurred on to wear homespun to show the British that the Indians won't be oppressed for much longer, either, but when Leela's betrothed, Nash, asks her to circulate a petition amongst her classmates to desegregate the girls' school in Chandrapur, she's wary. She needs to remind Maya that the old ways are not all bad, for soon Maya will have to join her own betrothed and his family in their quiet village. When she discovers that Maya has embarked on a forbidden romance, Leela's response shocks her family, her town, and her country firmly into the new century.
The author’s conversational style made me feel like I was hanging out with Leela, Maya and their friends and family. Oddly enough, while I felt like we were nearly in the same room, I forgot that the story was taking place in 1905. Since I have a limited knowledge of world politics, the background wasn’t obvious to me, and I sometimes didn’t understand what was really going on.

I felt the conversational style, while very readable, never lent what maybe should have been a sense of urgency to the sisters and their motivations. The emotion of the characters felt about the same through everything in the book, to me.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I may have enjoyed it a bit more on my Kindle, as there were some words I didn’t understand initially.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley is a wife and mother. She enjoys reading and shopping online. Find out about more of her bookish adventures at SweetlyBSquared.com.

GIVEAWAY:

Two of my lucky readers will win a copy of Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow!

Enter via the widget below. Giveaway will end on Thursday, April 9th, at 11:59pm EST, and winners will be notified by email the next day, and have 24 hours to respond, or an alternate winner(s) will be chosen.

U.S. residents only, please.

Good luck!

Where The Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, by Rashi Rohatgi

Monday, March 30, 2020

Book Review and GIVEAWAY: The Darkness We Hide, by Debra Webb - 5 winners, ends 4/6

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

“You questioned her,“ Billy argued. “What else did you want to know? I’m certain she’ll answer whatever other questions you have. I’m just trying to figure out what else you could possibly want to ask.”

Pryor’s face darkened. Now he was the one pissed. “Are you serious? He shook his head. “Obviously, Chief, you don’t understand how this works. DuPont is more than a mere pawn in Addington’s game. She is the game”

“Why don’t you explain what you believe that means?” Billy suggested. “Because I have a feeling that it means something entirely different to me.”

“Apparently,” Pryor said, emphasizing the word, “your personal relationship is adversely affecting your ability to be objective.”

Billy laughed. “Why don’t you stop beating around the bush and just say whatever it is you have to say, Pryor. You’re dancing all around it, and I’m here to tell you I’m not going to say it for you.”

This was what he wanted. He wanted Billy to say the words suggesting Rowan was somehow a part of what Addington was doing. No way in hell he was going down that path. The man was out of his mind.

“This all started with her,“ Pryor said.


While this was the third book in The Undertaker’s Daughter series and had a fairly intricate case of characters, I was able to follow along despite having not read the previous two books.

Official synopsis:
Book Review: The Darkness We Hide, by Debra Webb
For months, Doctor Rowan Dupont has been staring death in the face. It followed her back to her hometown of Winchester, Tennessee, ten months ago, cloaking the walls of her family’s Victorian funeral home like a shroud. In investigating the mysterious deaths of her loved ones, Rowan has unearthed enough family secrets to bury everything she’d previously thought true. But each shocking discovery has only led to more bodies and more questions; the rabbit hole is deeper than she ever imagined.

Despite settling in to a comfortable life with Police Chief Billy Brannigan, Rowan knows dangerous serial killer Julian Addington is still out there. She can’t let her guard down now. Not when she’s this close to ending his torment once and for all. But with a storm brewing on the horizon, she’ll get only one shot before the impending darkness takes hold, threatening to wipe away every truth she’s uncovered—and everything she holds dear.


What a story! Rowan DuPont is the only member of her family left after her twin sister and both parents had come to tragic ends before this book starts. She and her boyfriend (the chief of the local police department) are now still trying to figure out the convoluted story of her family and other deaths that all seem to link back to Rowan. We usually found out the mysterious link to Rowan and her family after someone was murdered.

Looking back, there were quite a few characters introduced (usually on their way out), but not knowing them from the previous books didn’t really confuse things. It’s obvious which parts of Rowan’s story could have been covered in the previous two books, but everything we needed to know was explained enough for this, the third book, to be understandable.

Luckily I like a far-fetched story. Because Rowan’s background? Whoa. Overall, I’d still give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars, especially for the creativity of the plot. If I happened across either of the first two books, I wouldn’t mind reading them too. The author’s style was definitely engaging and entertaining (which feels like a weird thing to say in a book mostly based on murders, but oh well).

{click here to pre-order - the book is out tomorrow, March 31st}

Becki Bayley is questioning the necessity of any apparel besides PJs, and the occasional shirt to look presentable during video communications. She misses junk food and still doesn’t like cooking. While she may run low on some supplies, she's still got a case and a half of Cherry Coke. Check out more of her book reviews at SweetlyBSquared.com.

GIVEAWAY:

*Five* of my lucky readers will win a copy of The Darkness We Hide!

Enter via the widget below. Giveaway will end on Monday, April 6th, at 11:59pm EST, and winners will be notified via email, and have 24 hours to respond, or an alternate winner(s) will be chosen.

U.S. residents only, please.

Good luck!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Quick Pick book review: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Quick Pick book review: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
  • Opening linesEveryone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
  • Reason I picked up the book: I started watching the series on Hulu and wanted to read the book as well. 
  • And what's this book about?
  • From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

    In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

    Enter Mia Warren—an enigmatic artist and single mother—who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

    When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town—and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

    Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
  • Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys a dramatic novel about families and mothers.
  • Favorite paragraph: Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once per week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Every morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she'd gotten from Higbee's as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of wine—red, which the news said was most beneficial for your heart—a faint scratch in the wineglass marking the right level to pour. Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute. She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them—and believe she did. She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children.
  • Something to know: The TV show is already a bit different from the book. However, I liked both of them.
  • What I would have changed: Nothing although I wanted to know more about the characters' lives at the end than the author gives us.
  • Overall rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.
  • Where can I find this book? Click here to purchase on Amazon.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book Review: Tigers, Not Daughters, by Samantha Mabry

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

Rosa had just found a place to sit near the peak of the roof when she heard a rustle from the oak tree. The leaves then shook, but it was too small of a shake to have been caused by a squirrel. Rosa took a step back down toward the tree. It was dim in the twilight, but she swore she could see dark red deep in the tree. Her first thought was that it was the wing of a lonely bird.

Rosa took another step and lost her balance. There was no traction between the sole of one of her shoes and the roof tile, so her right foot slid forward six inches. She fell on her left knee and caught herself in an awkward split. Rosa closed her eyes and let out a breath. Another airplane flew overhead. When she opened her eyes she saw the red again, deep in the leaves. Crouching, Rosa leaned forward as far as she could. She didn’t look down.

“I’m here, I’m here,” Rosa said, pressing the palms of her hands into the roof tiles to gain as much traction as possible. She wanted to be ready for anything. Then she said, “Play tricks.”


The four sisters in this book are all about family being a necessary, sturdy foundation for whatever else life throws at you. Despite their struggles, the sisters’ reliance on each other and them all being there felt like a comfort, even when they didn’t appreciate each other.

Official synopsis:
Book Review: Tigers, Not Daughters, by Samantha Mabry
The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.

In a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award–longlisted novel
All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story.

This book gave a feeling of hope (eventually) to what didn’t sound like a very charmed life of the Torres sisters. Ana (the oldest sister) seems larger than life, both to her younger sisters and to the neighborhood boys who make a hobby of observing the sisters. But her death strikes them all with the same power. Before-Ana-died and after-Ana-died are the segments of life for them all.

A year later, the younger girls still have no idea what life is supposed to be without Ana. Unfortunately, each of them is floundering in her own way. Creepy signs that maybe Ana isn’t so far away after all finally start to bring the sisters to the same team again. The girls united are a force to be reckoned with. The ghost of Ana doesn’t seem to be exceptionally good or bad, but she helps the girls remember who they are together.

I loved the prose style of this book. The girls were objectively not happy, but they didn’t need to be fixed. The ghost of Ana wasn’t scary, just making her presence known, and the girls responded in their own individual ways. It was all presented in a matter-of-fact way, and the resulting emotions were up to the reader.

Overall, I’d give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars. I would be curious to read the author’s first book and see what else it said about the characters.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley is at home. Everyone is at home. Reading should be faster than ever, but social distancing has many distractions. Becki also enjoys blogging at SweetlyBSquared.com, washing her hands, and talking about herself in the third person.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Book Review and GIVEAWAY: This Terrible Beauty, by Katrin Schumann {ends 3/21}

Guest review by: Becki Bayley
“It will be all right,” he tells her, “as long as we keep working honestly. And by that, well…what I’m trying to say is the struggle to tell our truth must never stop. I want to do this in service of my country –”

“But doesn’t that dilute it? Art with a purpose?”

“It’s about believing. It’s about that and trusting our hearts are in the right place, that we have the good of others in mind, too, not just ourselves. See? Work with a heart, yes, it’s work with integrity.”

All this talk about his “work” is an infinite loop of learning for her. This is the first time Bettina has considered work to be anything other than a place you go to complete defined tasks in order to earn money and be part of a community. For her, work is physical, practical. Peter’s work is not like this – it involves exploration and analysis, an opportunity for expression, for sharing and testing out ideas. In particular, he explains, he loves taking popular literature and letting the kids play with it, creating allegories or drawing on mythology and rewriting. It’s clear that his students adore him, writing him letters in their perfect cursive declaring their admiration.

He reads to her from one of his notebooks the text of a banner he put up in his classroom: An education that does not awaken the youth to a sense of conscience and personal moral responsibility is not worthy of that name. – Eduard Spranger, 1947. But her gut tells her to be wary of trying to shape the creative impulse into a sword or a scythe.


I love the way this author takes someone who is a villain by circumstance (a German after WWII) and shows how this casting changes their life. I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.

Official synopsis:
Book Review and GIVEAWAY: This Terrible Beauty, by Katrin Schumann {ends 3/21}
On the windswept shores of an East German island, Bettina Heilstrom struggles to build a life from the ashes. World War II has ended, and her country is torn apart. Longing for a family, she marries Werner, an older bureaucrat who adores her. But after joining the fledgling secret police, he is drawn deep into its dark mission and becomes a dangerous man.

When Bettina falls in love with an idealistic young renegade, Werner discovers her infidelity and forces her to make a terrible choice: spend her life in prison or leave her home forever. Either way she loses both her lover and child.

Ten years later, Bettina has reinvented herself as a celebrated photographer in Chicago, but she’s never stopped yearning for the baby she left behind. Surprised by an unexpected visitor from her past, she resolves to return to her ravaged homeland to reclaim her daughter and uncover her beloved’s fate, whatever the cost.


I really liked the realness of this book. Everything isn’t sunshine and roses, especially on an occupied island after your previous country loses the war. And not participating as a citizen is not an option. Is true love still an option? Some parts of life happen regardless of the world going on around us.

The telling of this story alternated between Bettina’s life at the end of World War II on the island where she’s spent her whole life, and her modern-day life ten years later in Chicago as an acclaimed photographer and a loner. I felt that her life at the end of the war is a story that hasn’t been often told. Living on an occupied island that was becoming part of East Germany was a limiting and oppressed existence that is hard for us to even imagine. Coming of age and trying to decide who you are as an adult during this backdrop sounds extremely challenging.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy WWII era fiction or characters dealing with moral dilemmas. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.

{click here to purchase - currently free for Kindle Unlimited!}

Becki Bayley is a reader, a thinker, and a writer at SweetlyBSquared.com for more than 18 years.

GIVEAWAY:

One of my lucky readers will win a copy of A Terrible Beauty!

Enter via the widget below. Giveaway will end on Saturday, March 21st, at 11:59pm EST, and winner will be emailed the next day, and have 24 hours to respond, or an alternate winner will be chosen.

U.S. residents only, please.

Good luck!

This Terrible Beauty, by Katrin Schumann

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Book Review and GIVEAWAY: Far Away Bird, by Douglas A. Burton {ends 3/17}

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

Hypatius led Theodora past a bowing male chamberlain and into a doorway off the main hallway. She couldn’t suppress her awe at the interior of the bedchamber. In her experience, sleeping quarters weren’t unlike the fornices she worked in – small, practical, and disconnected from the world. But this chamber was cavernous. The ceilings hovered high above, like a fisherman’s net of timber beams. A fireplace occupied the back wall; only this one had an ornate marble mantel adorned with numerous shimmering candles. In the middle of the room was the largest bed that Theodora had ever seen. The bed and canopy looked like an enormous green cube with each face of the cube parted down the middle, its curtains forming a triangular opening that showed a silken bed within. Beside the bed, Theodora spotted silver jugs and chalices.

“Wine?” she said and filled two cups.

“Yes, please. Though I doubt there’s enough wine in the empire to drown out the memory of this evening.”

She handed him a chalice of wine that trickled over the rim. “Stop it. It’s hard to love another person when others are watching.”

“Is that what you call it? Loving another person?” He laughed and guzzled the wine, allowing trails of the red liquid to run alongside his mouth and drip from his chin. When he finished, he wiped his face. “And is that what it was on stage tonight with that man in the faun costume? Love?”

“Yes,” said Theodora, undaunted. She took a quick sip of wine, slipped out of her gown, and crawled onto the bed. The feathery fabric enveloped her naked skin like a cool and soothing caress. She laid onto her back with arms stretched out above her head, raising one knee and smiling at Hypatius. “I’ve loved an aspect of every man at one time or another. I find the attractive part of him, and that’s the part I love.”


I enjoy historical fiction, but I don’t recall reading anything based on this time period before. I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed getting to know the characters and how they lived.

Official synopsis:
Book Review: Far Away Bird, by Douglas A. Burton
Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople’s red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women’s rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world’s greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history. Theodora seems impossible—yet her transcendence teaches us that society can’t tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes. And her name was Theodora.

What an amazing period in history. While the synopsis hints at the actual accomplishments of Theodora, I haven’t researched any of that. This book gives us a powerful portrayal of Theodora’s earlier years, and the events that seem to have shaped her later achievements. The story also had me wondering at the lives and policies of Emperor Justin and his son Justinian.

Unfortunately, much of the stories of Theodora’s earlier years were entirely too believable in their oppression and abuse of women of a lower class by men in positions of power. The idea that her treatment at the hands of oppressors inspired her so strongly to defend those in similar positions is beautiful. The author described Theodora’s challenges, emotions and resolutions with amazing compassion and clarity.

Overall, I’d give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. This is definitely an adult book, with some explicit scenes from Theodora’s early life as a prostitute and performer. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to adult history buffs, especially with any interest in this time period.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley is a wife of one and mother of four (two human, two feline). She enjoys reading, writing, sunshine, bird-watching, and sleeping in. She also blogs at SweetlyBSquared.com.

GIVEAWAY:

One of my lucky readers will win a copy of Far Away Bird!

Enter via the widget below. Giveaway will end on Tuesday, March 17th, at 11:59pm EST, and winner will be notified via email the next day, and have 24 hours to respond, or an alternate winner will be chosen.

U.S. residents only, please.

Good luck!

Far Away Bird, by Douglas A. Burton

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