Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is perhaps the most critically acclaimed book written by one of the most prolific and celebrated authors. It is the story of a woman, Sethe, who escaped slavery, only to be haunted by her past life both on and off the plantation. The book is parts historical fiction and part surreal ghost story. The book has been turned into a film, won a Pulitzer Prize, and continues to be assigned in schools across the country. When we talk about the “great American novel” Beloved makes the list.

There is something funny that happens to books when they’re proceeded with superlatives, they become untouchable and intimidating. A fear creeps in, that the reader won’t understand or appreciate the book, and often that can start long before the reader ever starts reading. That was the case for me when I picked up Beloved for the first time as part of The Stacks Book Club. I was so nervous and intimidated by the book and what I might think of it. Would I “get” it? Would I like it? Would I be moved as so many others had been?

The truth is, my answer was mostly, no. I didn’t really “get” it, I didn’t really like it, and while I was moved by specific scenes and passages, I wasn’t over come by this book. And the more I think about that, the more I think thats allowed.

As I read Beloved I appreciated the skill and mastery of Ms. Morrison. I was impressed by her ability to create layer after layer of meaning in her story. Her ability to write nuance is unmatched in my reading, she understanding of how pain manifests itself in people is art in itself. I read Beloved and understood what makes both Ms. Morrison and the book so great, though I personally was never personally overcome. What I’m learning, especially when it comes to great work, is that both things can be true and live together. There are both technical and emotional components to any good piece of art, and you can appreciate one even if the other doesn’t resonate. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Of all the themes in Beloved, the idea of generational trauma, is what spoke to me most. Morrison connects the years of suffering under chattel slavery to the everyday manifestations of trauma on her characters. She creates characters that are complete with confidence and crazy, which is so very human. Your heart aches for the women in this story, their fear, pain, and rage is deserved, and Morrison never lets you forget that. Weather she is recounting events from years ago or writing dialogue, the trauma in this story is never far from view. It haunts the world of the book.

The book moves between points of view and events without much set up, the years skip around, and sometimes its hard to know exactly where you are in the story. This was challenging for me to connect with, though on a second or third reading, I think this complexity would add so much to my enjoyment of the book. Like in a good scary movie or thriller, Morrison is leaving us Easter eggs to pick up on, only when we’re revisit her novel.

There is a lot to unpack and look into when talking about Beloved it is not an easy read, and the subject matter is not comfortable. This book requires a commitment of the reader. The expectation of greatness from her reader is partly what makes her books so good. Toni Morrison demands you bring your full self to her work, and that you take your time, and if you do, you might just be rewarded with a story that will stay with you for life. This book is worth you time. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but if you read it with an open mind, I think there is much to appreciate about this story.

For a more in depth conversation on Beloved, check out The Stacks Book Club episode with DaMaris B. Hill where we discuss the themes, characters, and social implications of this story.

  • Paperack: 275
  • PublisherPlume (October 1 , 1998)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Beloved Amazon or IndieBound

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris B. Hill

The Stacks received A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing from the publisher. For more information click here.

In her collection of poetry that covers the history of incarceration of Black women in America, DaMaris Hill crafts poems that highlight the pain of being a Black woman and the undeniable strength that comes along with it. She tells of some of the most famous women of the Diaspora as well as many women whose stories were nearly lost to history.

Throughout the book, Hill connects her poems to the history of the women’s lives through prose. I found these introductions to be extremely helpful in contextualizing her poetry. While I didn’t always connect with the poems, I was able to understand the stories being told which enhanced my experience. Poetry can be so personal, having the historical details allowed me to have thoughts about the work even if the poem didn’t speak to me.

Not all the women in the book are famous women. One section of A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing focuses on women from another book, Colored Amazons by Kali N. Gross. These women, have also been incarcerated, victimized, abused and in some cases killed, like their more famous counterparts in this book. They serve as a reminder that not only Harriet Tubman or Assata Shakur have had their humanity stolen away, but rather that their more notorious incarcerations are part of a long line of locking away Black women.

If the struggle and power of Black women interests you, this is a book for you. If you are working on reading more poetry, this is a great place to start, especially because the context Hill gives her readers allows for more understanding. Certainly parts of this book are a challenge to read, don’t shy away from that. The emotional responses are intentionally evoked by Hill. The discomfort is part of the story.

Listen to DaMaris B. Hill discuss this book, and much more on The Stacks

  • Hardcover: 192
  • PublisherBloomsbury Publishing (January 15, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young

The Stacks received What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker from the publisher. For more information click here.

Damon Young is known for bringing his authentic voice to his work. He is funny, he is observant, he is smart, he is Pittsburgh, and he is Black. All of this can be said as well, for his new book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker. Young takes apart his life and reconstructs the most important and formative stories, people, and ideas into essays. And instead of telling us all the whats in his life, he is clear that he wants to show us the whys. We get glimpses of what it means for Young to be alive as a Black man in America in 2019. He shares his anxieties, insecurities, victories, and tragedies with us.

There are four essays in this book that really stand out. They all engage with Young and his relationship to women in some way. Weather it be the health care system and his mother, his unconventional love story with his wife, the hopes he holds for his daughter, or his own reckoning with the kind of man he once was in the face of Rape Culture, Young is grappling with his humanity in relationship to those around him and society at large. Thus, these essays take on an urgency that isn’t found elsewhere in the book. You can sense Young’s anxiety around diving so deep, and luck for us he writes these essays anyway, because they are truly impactful.

The other essays in What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker cover a variety of topics from Black anxiety, use of “n-word”, homophobia, and gentrification. These essays are solid but don’t always strike the same thrilling balance between humor, insight, and vulnerability that are present in the above mentioned essays.

Damon Young is powerful voice in Black culture, as the co-founder of Very Smart Brothas and Senior Editor at The Root, and he is a voice that is unpretentious and relatable. He is speaking of his own experiences and observations inn this book, and because of his ability to articulate the whys behind so much of his life you leave the reading experience with a lot to digest. I don’t know that this book changes your life, but I do think it will make you stop and reflect about how you can live a little better.

We had Damon Young on The Short Stacks and he talked all about What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE. He drops so many gems throughout the episode, you won’t want to miss it.

The Short Stacks 12: Damon Young//What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker

  • Hardcover: 320
  • PublisherEcco; 1st Edition edition (March 26, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Richard II by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare wrote ten of plays that are fictionalized accounts of real events and people, they are called the “History Plays” and are similar to how we today would watch a biopic. The story is based on truth, but dramatizes and imagines the story in a new (and hopefully) entertaining way. Richard II is one of those History Plays and is the first part in the eight play series that includes Richard II, HenryIV (both parts), Henry V, Henry VI (all three parts), and Richard III.

My expectations were very low for Richard II. I had seen a production years ago in New York City and found it to be very boring, however in reading the play I was thoroughly entertained. To be fair, it is a play about politics and legitimacy of governance. It is a dramatization of a theoretical conversation around who can and should rule the people. Which is to say, it is a lot of talk and not so much action, though the opening scene and the final two acts are pretty engaging. The middle of the play does drag a little, but overall I was engaged.

The language in Richard II is readable, even if Shakespeare is challenging for you, this one is pretty approachable. The characters are straight forward and tell you what they are thinking and planning. The plot is very linear, without the interruption of comedic scenes. Shakespeare utilizes language as a way to differentiate the characters. Richard, speeches are long and languid, he is eloquent and paints pictures of his one psyche through his verse. Bolingbroke is direct in his language, almost polished, and very direct.

If you like reading Shakespeare, I think this is a solid play that leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Its not the greatest ever, but after reading it, I think it is overlooked without reason. Richard II, was a reminder of why I started my #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, so that I could revisit old favorites and find new ones.

If you want more on Richard II I suggest checking out the Lend Me Your Ears podcast hosted by Isaac Butler (hear him on The Short Stacks), who you might know as co-author of TSBC pick, The World Only Spins Forward (listen to the conversation). The podcast takes on six of Shakespeare plays and connects them with current social and political issues.The episode on Richard II is fantastic, especially as a companion piece to reading the play.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I’ll be reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Richard II on Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozke Shange

Wild Beauty is a compilation of poetry from one of America’s most iconic poets, Ntozake Shange. These poems span decades of her work, from her first choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf through to previously unpublished poems that deal with modern events like The Pulse Nightclub Shooting. Shange’s themes of beauty, home, pain, empowerment, joy, and the African Diaspora are all present throughout the book.

Wild Beauty is one of my first attempts at reading a collection of poetry, and I’m glad that I was able to read this book in conjunction with The Stacks Book Club with author, poet and performance artist, Gabrielle Civil. We talk about the anxieties around reading poetry and what makes a poem “good” and what it means to “get it”. All of which I found truly helpful in my own journey into reading poetry.

My biggest take away from our conversation and this book, is that I like poems that are referential to events and people. I like to know the context of the poem. I respond to poems that tell stories and engage with history and the world as I have seen it. Those poems exist in this book, poems like “Crack Annie”, “Dressing Our Wounds in Warm Clothes”, and “Ode to Orlando” all stuck with me because I was able to find common experience and understanding with Shange.

I didn’t like every poem in this book. Many were hard to get through or engage with. Sometimes that was because the phonetic spelling Shange uses through out her work, was distracting at times, though at other times it was powerful. (I should also note each poem in this collection was translated into Spanish as well). Sometimes I couldn’t figure out where Shange was coming from. I’ve learned, that that is totally ok. I’ve learned that just because a poem doesn’t work for me in the moment doesn’t mean it won’t work for me in a year. I also learned, that just because I don’t like a poem doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with me or the poem. We’re just in two different places.

I don’t know that I can recommend any book of poetry to anyone. It seems to me to be very personal. Though, I do know I recommend you check out my conversation with Gabrielle, as it is useful to anyone who loves poetry, or anyone who is hoping to add poetry to their reading life.

Hear Gabrielle Civil on The Stacks and then hear Gabrielle discussing poetry and Wild Beauty for The Stacks Book Club

  • Hardcover: 288
  • Publisher37 Ink; Bilingual edition (November 14, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Wild Beauty Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

The Stacks received Women Talking from the publisher. For more information click here.

Women Talking is just that, a book about women talking, it is also so much more. Between 2005-2009 women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia were drugged and raped by a group of men in their colony, Women Talking is inspired by these events, and imagines a secret meeting between eight women and one man (their note taker, and our narrator) in a barn on the colony where they debate their options. Do they stay and fight or leave their home?

What is remarkable about this book is Toews’ ability to present multiple nuanced arguments for both staying and leaving, and never fully force us to pick one. She allows her reader space to understand the many sides without asking us to make the ultimate value judgement on what is right and wrong. What is the thing that must be done. Which, in a piece about rape and violation, seems like the most obvious choice, but going against that impulse is what keeps Women Talking interesting instead of predictable. She gives her characters the contradiction we so often resist in ourselves and those around us. She gives her characters the permission to be right and wrong in the same breath.

Toews is a professional writer, and it shows in the book. Her use of craft and nuance and the patience within the story make for an emotional (if not anxious) read. You’re never quite sure where she is taking you. She infuses Women Talking with the humor that is real and truthful in the face of trauma, but she does not shy away from the brutal unexpected pain that is also true when one is faced with the realization that they never have been, nor never will be safe. She complicates all of this by giving us a male narrator who is non-threat to the women. He is an interpreter for us and for the women, it is a layer that is practical and provoking.

Women Talking feels like a long conversation, a debate, a back and forth that never fully settles. Mostly this feels intentional, but there is a part of the book that feels safe in the unanswerable questions. Toews allows her readers to come to their own thoughts, but that also allows the reader to hide in their own biases. It is easy to be on the side of the women in the story, and it is easy to say these acts are heinous, but there is never a true call to respond, there is never a true call to react. Women Talking lacks the potency to make a point that feels somewhere out of reach. I am not sure what the take away from this story was, perhaps just that pain is part of life and we must carry on and find the joy in these things. Or maybe, that we all have the power to make choices for ourselves. These messages are true, but not particularly potent or urgent in this moment, or in the scope of the story.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book though I felt slightly underwhelmed when it was all said and done. I loved reading Toews’ story and her thinking and sensing her mulling over the questions she was asking through her characters. I’m not sure if she, or we, or they, every get to the answers, and perhaps none of us ever will.

Click here to hear Miriam Toews on The Short Stacks discussing Women Talking and more.

  • Hardcover: 240
  • PublisherBloomsbury Publishing (April 2, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Women Talking Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Experiments in Joy by Gabrielle Civil

The Stacks received Experiments in Joy from the publisher. For more information click here.

To be perfectly honest I’d never heard of a performance memoir before I read Experiments in Joy, the second book by author and artist Gabrielle Civil. I was only nudged to pick up this book after booking Civil as a guest on The Stacks. In the case of Experiments in Joy, a performance memoir is a mix of letters, conversations, performance notes, photos, stage directions, criticism, and poetry to tell a fractured story of Civil’s life as an artist. It covers a handful of her performance pieces and gives them a fuller context than simply seeing the piece live.

I’ve never read anything like this book, and as a reader I oscillated between enjoying Civil’s process and being annoyed at having to read descriptions of things I would much rather be watching. The how of these pieces coming together was much more interesting to me than the actual what (think excerpts of scripts) that was sprinkled through out.

Civil is very honest and open with her audience, allowing us to read intimate letters from past collaborators and lovers. She shares insecurities in her own work and confronts her process head on. She also shares her joy and anxieties, her successes and reflections.You get to know her, and like her, through her process. This isn’t the kind of memoir where you hear about Civil’s childhood (at least not too much). It is more a memoir of the work itself as opposed to the person, though those things become inextricably linked when dealing with performance art.

Like in a collection of poems, some sections resonated with me and sparked interest, others were mere blips on my radar as I read toward the end of the book. I think that is ok. It doesn’t all have to land, and the sections can be read alone or in the context of the entire book.

If you’re an artist or someone who likes to grapple with the art of creation this book might spark something in you. If you’ve heard Gabrielle on The Stacks, you might likewise be intrigued to read this book. Hearing her speak about this book, and her first book Swallow the Fish, made me understand her work and the genre of Performance Memoir a lot better.

  • Paperback: 276
  • PublisherCivil Coping Mechanisms (February 15, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Experiments in Joy Amazon or IndieBound

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together by James J. Sexton, Esq.

The Stacks received If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.

In his how-not-to book about marriage, James Sexton gives us a load of relationship advice from the vantage point of a man that has seen a whole lot of marriages fail. Sexton has been litigating divorces for over twenty years, and according to him, he has seen it all. He shares his advice, observations, and a few funny stories in his book, If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late.

Sexton finds a way to keep this book engaging by never settling into a pattern with his advice and keeping it light (for the most part) and funny. He understands the task at hand and the expected form of the book, and plays into the genre perfectly. He also gives us juicy antidotes about people’s affairs, sexual fetishes, grocery shopping, and one crushing story about an abusive pimp. Like I said, Sexton has seen it all, and he has no problem sharing it with his readers.

Some advice in this book is basic, and common, and what you hear from every relationship expert ever. Suggestions like, listen to your partner, pay attention to your partner, communicate with your partner, show up for your partner. All of that is in this book. Of course you get that in this book and any book on marriage, but Sexton does liven things up a bit. He contributes advice like, splitting custody of your kids even when you’re happily married, having your money in “yours”, “mine”, and “ours” accounts, embracing a diverse sex life. He also suggests you treat your marriage like the only car you’ll ever have for the rest of your life, so what are you buying? And how often are you changing the oil and getting the brakes checked?

As I was reading, I sometimes felt like Sexton was over simplifying complex human emotions and interactions. Obviously he sees marriages in the final stages where a lot is on the line (custody, finances, housinng, etc.) and this amplifies any understanding of marriage (just as death can amplify any understanding of life). That isn’t to say he is wrong, it is just to say his advice comes from a very particular point of view, lacking any insight on how to be married “right”. It is all deductive reasoning. If this failed in one marriage, do the opposite and you’re all set. I’m not sure marriage is so simple as Sexton implies. He might be right, but he also may not be. Just because we agree something isn’t white, doesn’t mean it’s black.

If you’re looking for an easy read about relationships from a point of view you might not always consider, you should check out this book. It is an enjoyable read, and though I wouldn’t stake my marriage on it, it did help me look at things I do with my husband and think, I could certainly be a better partner in these ways. It was worth my time, and I’m glad to have read it.

Click to hear James Sexton on The Stacks talking about If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late and more.


To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare earliest comedies, and was the February read for the #ShakeTheStacks Challenge. It is the story of Proteus and Valentine, two young men who are best friends and in love with two different women, Julia and Silvia. As the play goes on, things change, mostly Proteus, and the whole thing goes off the rails. There is crossdressing, a dog, some rebels, love songs, and banishments. Its a whole thing.

This play is not a great read, it is much better on stage. A lot of the humor is physical, revolving around Launce and his dog, Crab. Not to mention Proteus’ change in a allegiance makes most sense when its seen, on the page it feels manic and unfounded.

The women in this play are fiercely loyal and committed to their own happiness. They both are able to express their free will in a way that many women characters are not, even in today’s literature, especially that written by men. Both Julia and Silvia get to be a little mean, which I love. Sure, they’re also a little spoiled, but their hearts are in the right place.

The ending of the play has left scholars stumped/in debate with each other for centuries. The pay off of the complicated and morally troubling ending is really something. Seeing the play (and having been in it, as Silvia), and how each actor plays the ending is really what makes the ending so confounding.

The writing to The Two Gentlemen of Verona is very straight forward, and if you’re new to Shakespeare’s plays it is a great pick. Otherwise, I might not suggest this one. It doesn’t have a ton to say that doesn’t get said better in other plays like A Midsummers Night Dream or As You Like It. The Two Gentlemen of Verona feels like a place that Shakespeare started exploring themes like, loyalty in conflict with love, women dressing up like men, and love triangles gone wrong.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I’ll be reading Love’s Labour’s Lost.


To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption by Vanessa McGrady

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.

In Rock Needs River, Vanessa McGrady shares her journey from deciding she wants to be a mother, to adopting her daughter Grace, to eventually taking in Grace’s homeless birth parents. McGrady navigates the sometimes murky boundaries of open adoption in this debut memoir. The Stacks sat down with Vanessa McGrady to discuss her book and her experiences on Episode 45, which you can listen to for more context on the book.

McGrady is amazing at connecting with her reader, from nearly the first page I was with her. Rock Needs River is, if nothing else, totally readable. There is an openness and honesty with all that comes up, even the complicated stuff, like murky boundaries, family relationships, and entitlement. McGrady doesn’t fein modesty, nor does she shy away from sharing traits that aren’t always so desirable.

The biggest challenge in Rock Needs River is that much of it feels rushed or unexamined. No characters (aside from McGrady) seem fully developed, which leaves them challenging to connect with. The same is true of the main conflict in the book, Grace’s birth parents. Their situation is glossed over and unspecific. McGrady wants to help them (and is clearly generous in letting them move in), but she doesn’t really get into anything beyond her shock and her disappointment in them not getting back on track. This part of the book could have benefited from more interrogation and introspection. It is this lack of specificity that ultimately hurts the book.

McGrady finds the time to reflective on moments throughout Rock Needs River, but comes up short when she has to fit the pieces together and bring the bigger narrative into focus. The book is a quick and easy read, but I sometimes found that it wasn’t grounded. I would recommend this book to people looking to get a glimpse of what one story of open adoption is like, though I think it would be best to pair with other adoption stories for context and perspective.

Click here to hear Vanessa McGrady on The Stacks talking about Rock Needs River and more.

  • Hardcover: 182
  • PublisherLittle A (February 1, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onRock Needs River Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.