Practicing Normal

Practicing Normal

by Cara Sue Achterberg


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"A deep dive into the dysfunctional dynamics of a 'picture perfect family.' A compelling story about the beautiful humanity in the most ordinary of lives.” – New York Times bestselling author Kate Moretti. Meet the Turners - a socially awkward genius child, an adolescent cat burglar, a philandering husband, and a doormat wife in desperate need of a backbone. The Turners are doing their best to craft a happy life and face down a history they have no control over in a neighborhood where only the houses are similar. And when relationships sprout from seemingly nowhere and secrets begin to unravel, practicing normal becomes harder than it’s ever been.Combining her trademark combination of wit, insight, and tremendous empathy for her characters, Cara Sue Achterberg has written a novel that is at once familiar and startlingly fresh.

“Well written, sometimes light, sometimes frightening, but always intriguing, this bird’s eye view of two lives intertwined among millions is certainly food for thought, especially when one walks a mile in another’s shoes.” – Tome Tender
“I loved this novel . . . this book had me laughing at some points, and it had me wiping away tears at others.” – Comfy Reading
“An awesome read! The theme of living the life of another no matter the situation and not judging without truly knowing is a lesson we should all take to heart.” – Literarily Illumined
“Had I known I’d still be sitting in my favorite chair at 2am, racing to the finish, I probably would have put on my pajamas before I started. (Sometime before lunch…) Yeppers, it was that good. It was compelling, touching, and a bit soul-searching. Oh, and it was fun, too.” –Momma on the Rocks

“GIRLS' WEEKEND is beautifully written. It feels as though you are right there with Dani, Charlotte, and Meg. It's a wonderful read and I highly recommend it to any woman who has ever been struck with a case of the ‘what ifs.’” – Life, Motherhood, and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Surprised me in so many good ways.” – Lost in a Bookstore

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611882445
Publisher: Story Plant
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,121,673
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Cara Sue Achterberg is a writer and blogger who lives in New Freedom, PA with her family and an embarrassing number of animals. Her first two novels, I'M NOT HER and GIRLS' WEEKEND were national bestsellers, published to great acclaim. Cara’s nonfiction book, Live Intentionally, is a guide to the organic life filled with ideas, recipes, and inspiration for living a more intentional life. Cara is a prolific blogger, occasional cowgirl, and busy mom whose essays and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites.

Read an Excerpt

Practicing Normal

By Cara Sue Achterberg

Studio Digital CT, LLC

Copyright © 2016 Cara Sue Achterberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61188-244-5



* * *

Waving to Jenna as she waits at the bus stop, all I can think is, Please let her go to school today and stay in school all day. Jenna is such a smart girl; I don't understand why she doesn't apply herself to her studies. She could be anything. A doctor, even. I was a nurse, but Jenna is smarter than me. Of course, that was twenty years ago. Before I married Everett. Before Jenna and JT were born. Before we ever lived in Pine Estates.

I was the one who chose the house. Everett thought it was pretentious, and it was. All the houses on our end of Pine Road were pretentious. But it was the nineties. Everyone was building McMansions and taking out ridiculous loans to pay for them. Everett had just left his job as a police officer for the job at FABSO (Family and Business Security Options).

We needed to start a new life. We celebrated the new job and didn't talk about the fact that things could have turned out very differently if his captain had chosen to bring charges against him. Instead, he recommended Everett for the job at FABSO and made it clear Everett would be wise to take it.

I remember lying in bed holding Everett the day he turned in his gun and his badge. He was devastated. Being a cop had been Everett's dream since childhood. "All I've ever wanted to be is a cop. If I can't be a cop, who am I?"

"You're a father and a husband. That's so much more," I told him. He didn't say anything about it again. He got to work. He made something of FABSO. And he's tried so hard to be a good dad.

I don't remember much about my own dad, and whenever I asked my mother she would say, "There's nothing to remember about that louse except that he was a louse." When I pressed her later, after I'd grown up, she'd said, "It doesn't matter now. He didn't want to be with us enough to stay."

All that bitterness can't hide the fact that when my father left, he apparently took my mother's heart. She's spent the rest of her life alone. Except for me. And Evelyn. Although, once Evelyn left home, she didn't come around much. These days she visits Mama on Saturdays, unless she has something more pressing to do, which is most weeks. Mama annoys her. I suppose I do too. We don't fit into Evelyn's shiny, perfect life.

When I first met Everett and told Mama about him, she was skeptical. "A cop?"

I told her how he'd wanted to be a cop since he was a little boy, the same way I always wanted to be a nurse. I gushed about how he told me I was beautiful and how he said he'd been certain about us the first time he saw me. Mama said, "Men will say whatever it takes, Kate. When will you realize that?" But I knew she was wrong about Everett.

I met Everett in the ER. I was treating a patient who was high on coke or meth or God knows what. He was lean and riddled with track marks, his strength coming from whatever drug was flooding his body. I didn't recognize him as one of our regulars — the ones who showed up like clockwork in search of pain meds. This guy was out of his mind and covered in his own blood from where he'd scratched his thin skin. Another nurse helped me attempt to strap him to the gurney with the Velcro holds, but he was out of his mind and reached for the needle I was about to use to sedate him. Everett was nearby at the desk filling out forms and heard me yell. In just moments, he wrestled the junkie to the ground and held him still as I plunged the needle in. When the man finally collapsed, Everett lifted him back onto the gurney and secured him.

When he turned and looked at me with his green eyes, the same eyes Jenna has, I knew I would marry him. I told him that on our second date. He laughed. I've always loved his laugh.

When Everett started at FABSO, he made nearly twice the salary he'd made as a cop. I didn't need to work any longer. It was our chance. I would stay home and take care of our happy family in our beautiful house in Pine Estates. It was our new start. I thought we belonged there.

When I open the door to Mama's house, she's already calling for me. She may be losing her mind, but her hearing hasn't deteriorated one bit.

"You're late!" she scolds.

"Sorry, JT had a hard time picking out a shirt to wear today."

"He's not a baby! I don't know why you put up with it."

I smile at her. No sense taking the bait. "You're right, Mama."

"You've always been so indecisive. I swear if I didn't tell you what to do next, you'd stand there like a statue."

"Good thing you're so good at telling me what to do," I mutter as I go to prepare her tea.

Mama wasn't always like this. When Evelyn and I were little, she was our whole world. She baked homemade cakes for our birthdays, and elaborately decorated them with whatever we were currently obsessing over — Tinker Bell, Barbies, guitars, or, for Evelyn, a computer one year, and the scales of justice the year she announced she was going to be a judge when she grew up.

Mama read to us every night. I remember snuggling into the crook of her arm, even when I was too old to be doing it. Evelyn would be on her other side and our hands would meet on Mama's flat tummy. I loved the stories with a happy ending, but Evelyn demanded that she read "real books." She wanted mysteries and thrillers instead of the children's books Mama picked out at the library. So Mama began to read Nancy Drew, but Evelyn went to the adult aisle and picked out John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King. Mama tried to read them to us. She'd come to a part that she felt was too racy for us and she'd hum while she skimmed ahead til she found a more appropriate section before beginning to read again. This drove Evelyn nuts. She'd pout and complain, eventually stomping off. Mama would return the books to the library unread, but it wasn't long before Evelyn was old enough to have her own library card and checked them out for herself.

In the mornings, Mama would braid our hair, pack our lunches with tiny handwritten notes, and walk us to the bus stop for more years than was appropriate. When Evelyn reached high school, she demanded that Mama stop, but she still followed us with her car and waited to be certain we got on the bus safely.

Now that I'm a mom, I know it couldn't have been easy raising us alone. As she's gotten older, she's gotten difficult. But I put up with her increasing number of quirks because I feel I owe her. Evelyn doesn't see it that way, but then again Evelyn doesn't feel she owes anybody anything.

"Here you go." I hand Mama the bitter Earl Grey tea she likes over-steeped with no sweetener.

"I've already missed Phillip," she says as I help her out the door to the back porch. She spends most mornings there, talking to the birds that frequent her multiple bird feeders.

"Who's Phillip?" I ask, mostly to make conversation. She loves to talk about the birds.

The look she gives me is just like the one JT gives me when my random "Wow" comes at the wrong time in one of his lengthy soliloquies on his current obsession. "Phillip is the male cardinal who has begun stopping by each morning. He comes over the fence from the southeast. He's usually here before the chickadees move in and take over the birdbath."

I look at the crowd of birds fighting over the seed at the feeder. They all look the same to me. "I've got to take care of a few things at home after I run JT to school; I'll be back at lunchtime."

"Always leaving me!" she complains. "You can't even spend five minutes with your mother."

I'd protest, but there's no point. She sees things the way she needs to see them. Rewriting history is one of her specialties. I've been listening to her do it all my life. When Everett and I took the kids to the beach last summer, she said, "Must be nice! I've never had a vacation." Yet, I remember several summers when Mama took Evelyn and me to the same beach we were headed to. Or when I graduated from nursing school, Mama said, "I've always said you'd make a fine nurse," when, in reality, she'd been telling me for years that I could never be a nurse because I was so weak at chemistry. She thought I should have considered something in business — like being a secretary. She's been spinning her stories of Evelyn's escapades, my mistakes, and my father's general louselikeness for so long, she probably believes them as gospel truth. They are, I suppose, at least to her mind.

I hurry home, hoping JT has finally decided on a shirt for school. We're going to be late if we have to argue about it.



* * *

I wave to Mom as she drives past on her way to Gram's house. I don't know why she drives. It's a perfectly nice day and Gram only lives a couple blocks up the street. She lives in the old part, where the houses are pretty much all one-story brick numbers with window boxes full of plastic flowers. Old people live there. Or young people without much money.

Our end of the street is for the rich people, not that we're rich people. We just pretend to be. Everett — my dad — makes decent money, I'm pretty sure, but nothing like the money Mr. Braddington pulls in. I should know. I spend plenty of time in the Braddingtons' house. And today, that's where I'll go just as soon as my mom's car is out of sight, but before the bus pulls up to take me to school.

I don't see the point of school. Bunch of idiots there. And not just the students; the teachers aren't such a bright bunch either. It's a waste of my time. I'm sure I'll catch hell for it from Everett, but I can't stomach the jerks today. I grab my backpack and double-time it to the Braddingtons' house.

I know it's empty. On a day like today, Mrs. Braddington will be on the golf course teeing off. Wells and Tiffany will have already left in Wells' fancy corvette, headed to school. I don't know why they go to the public school. I'm sure the Braddingtons could afford the Country Day School. Wells is a junior, like me. He's a big deal on the football team. And a state-ranked wrestler. Plus, he runs track. The guy is your all-American dream, if that's what you're into.

Tiffany is a freshman. She made waves when she started at Cramer High. Everyone knows she modeled for J.Crew as a kid. She's cardboard pretty and already hangs with the mean girls in my grade. I guess she's too good to be an actual freshman.

I've seen the pictures of Tiffany in the J.Crew catalogs. They're blown up poster-size and plastered all over the Braddingtons' house. There are pictures of Wells, also. In most pictures, he's holding a trophy. He's always been beautiful, too. That's how I think of all of them — the Beautiful Braddingtons. Alliteration, see? I wasn't snoozing through English class last week.

The Braddingtons have an alarm system, but it's easy to get around. The control box for the alarm system is in the garage, which has a cat door for their overly obese cat. They've had to enlarge it twice. The cat happened into the right family. It's diabetic and Mrs. Braddington gives it shots every day. I've seen the meds and the instructions on the counter.

Getting into the Braddingtons' is easy as pie. I'm small enough to get through the cat door. I found their security code the first time I stopped in, but even if I hadn't, I could easily disarm their system since the box is right there next to the door. I could simply pull the wires to the phone and power. I don't need either.

I learned how to disarm home systems from following Everett around on his job when I was little. He works for a security company. He's even made geeky YouTube videos. In one of them, he dresses up like a repair guy and shows a customer how a burglar could easily break into his house. He overacts ridiculously, as if he's some Hollywood star. They still use that video on cable channel advertising. Embarrassing for all of us, but Everett actually watches it pretty much every time it airs.

Today at the Braddingtons' house, I fix a big bowl of ice cream — Peanut Butter Swirl — and take it to the window seat that looks out over the backyard, which includes a fancy outdoor kitchen, a pool shaped like a tennis racket with a hot tub on the handle (you can swim between the two!), and a golf tee with an enormous backstop. The Braddingtons also have the biggest bird feeder I've ever seen. It looks like an old-fashioned hotel with a tin roof and dozens of balconies where the feed comes out. A neon sign on the top of it says, "Fly Right Inn" and holds the extra bird food that automatically refills the feeder whenever it gets low. My gram would probably kill to have a feeder like that. I've thought about stealing it for her, but then the Bs would figure out someone's been here.

Gram is crazy about birds. As in, she's so crazy she thinks she can talk to birds and they talk to her. I like to mess with my mom sometimes and say shit like, "Maybe she can talk to birds. How would we know — we don't speak bird."

"That's ridiculous, Jenna. No one talks to birds."

"Sure they do. People talk to birds all the time." Which is true, right?

"Your grandmother is getting old. She's confused. She cannot communicate with birds."

"I just think we aren't experts. It's possible. People talk to dolphins all the time."

"It's not the same."

"Sure it is."

"It doesn't help your gram to encourage it. She's struggling to keep her mind sound as she ages."

This is Mom's way of saying Gram is going nuts. Mom should know since she spends every day over there taking care of her. If anyone's crazy, it's Mom. She has no life because she has to be there to feed Gram all her meals and clean every possible speck that ever lands in her house, or Gram will start yelling about the mess. She's better off outside talking to the birds. Her yard has a ten-foot privacy fence, about fifteen bird feeders (that Mom fills EVERY day), and four birdbaths. If I were Mom, I'd park Gram out there first thing in the morning and come back after dark to roll her back inside.

I finish up my ice cream and take my English book to the chaise lounge in the sunroom. That's my favorite room in the house. Before I go, I'll wash my dishes and put everything back the way it was, reset the alarm, and slip back out the cat door. Maybe today I'll visit the seven dwarfs over at Ms. Cassie's place.



* * *

I've just finished cleaning up Mama's lunch dishes and settled her down for a nap when Everett calls.

"You need to get over to the Braddingtons' house."

"What? Why?" I ask. Susan Braddington and I aren't really friends. They live across the street, but I've only been in their house once. Back when we first moved in, I tried in vain to get to know Susan. The Braddingtons are the only family with children on our end of the street. Our kids are nearly the same ages and, when we moved in, I imagined us becoming best friends, sharing mornings at the bus stop and afternoons at the Braddingtons' pool.

Susan has always been pleasant enough, politely refusing every invitation I made. Sometimes I wonder if it's because of JT. The one and only time I've been in their house was the day JT got upset about something I can't even recall. He was probably about four. He'd run blindly across the road and up their driveway. I'd chased after him, but he was fast. Finally, he tripped over the low stone wall that banks their driveway. His knee was bleeding. It wasn't a big deal, not really, but Susan Braddington heard him crying and came out to help. She invited us in to wash the cut, but when she approached JT with a can of first aid spray, he began shrieking and kicked a dent in their drywall. I tried to explain, but it was impossible over JT's screaming, so I picked him up and carried him home.

I sent Everett over to offer to repair the drywall, but Susan insisted there was no need. Since then, the Braddingtons always wave whenever we see each other, but they never stop, never chat. Why in heaven's name was Everett insisting I had to go there now?

"I don't know, but Jenna is there and so are the police!"

"Oh my God!" I drop Mama's soup bowl in the sink with a clatter. So much for Jenna going to school and staying there.

"What is it?" screeches Mama.

"I'm trying to reach one of my buddies at the department to figure out what she did and what can be done," says Everett.

"Katie! What happened? Don't ignore me!"

"I'll go there, now," I tell him.

I grab my purse and tell Mama, "It's nothing. Take your nap. I'll be back in time for dinner." I can hear her calling to me as I race out the door.

As I drive to the Braddingtons' house, I try to apply some lipstick, glancing in the rearview mirror. My hair looks terrible, yanked into a haphazard bun this morning while arguing with JT about his shirt. It'd taken nearly the whole morning to get him dressed and then over to the school. He'd insisted I walk him in, even though that was one of the skills the teachers wanted him to master by now — walking into the building by himself.

He'd refused to even get out of the car alone.


Excerpted from Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg. Copyright © 2016 Cara Sue Achterberg. Excerpted by permission of Studio Digital CT, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Practicing Normal 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
EEClark 10 days ago
'Practicing Normal' is a true term as far as real life is concerned. This story is about the Turner family, which could be any family, just trying to live life as best they can one day at a time. We have three narrators and three stories/points of view which really creates a very well rounded and supremely interesting read. There is Kate, the mom who is always second guessing herself and trying to fit in with the other more wealthy neighbors. She has unfortunate doormat tendencies and having a son with Asberger's and a mother who needs constant attention and care, she has a more than full plate. Everett, the dad who is a serial cheater but still professes to love his wife. He thinks he's hot stuff but cannot abide or accept the fact that his son has Asberger's Syndrome. And then there is Jenna, the willful, brilliant teenage daughter who is on the cusp of womanhood and rebellious as hell. They all tell their sides of their family life story and it is just a wonderful, wonderful narrative. I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend this book. It is so honest and real and the characters are wonderful. This could be any one of our families. Thank you to the author, Cara Achterberg for my special signed copy. Again, highly recommended!
JerseyGirlBookReviews More than 1 year ago
Practicing Normal is a compelling women's fiction story that easily draws the reader into the drama and emotions that come with the complexity of life and the the dynamics of relationships. Set in the town of Pine Estates, the reader can't help but get drawn into the Turner family's story as they face the complexities that occur in their life. Told in the alternating perspectives of Kate (Mom), Everett (Dad), and Jenna (teenage Daughter), the reader can't help but get caught up in the intriguing dynamic of this family, as they each struggle to practice living "normally" while surviving everyday life issues. Author Cara Sue Achterberg weaves an intriguing women's fiction story that will easily keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. The Turner's story has a great mixture of humor, drama, angst, heartbreak, and crazy trials and tribulations, but their family dynamic is both realistic and compelling, it is the kind of story that anyone can relate to, and provide a chance to ponder about their own family's style of living. Practicing Normal is an interesting women's fiction story of trying to live a "normal" life while learning to survive life's challenges and twists and turns. Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author / publisher in exchange for my honest review.
BooksDirect More than 1 year ago
This book tells the story of the Turners, a "normal" family who are anything but normal beneath the surface: Kate, the mother, spends her days caring for her elderly mother and her twelve-year-old son JT, who has Asperger's; Everett, the father, is having an(other) affair; and Jenna, the sixteen-year-old daughter, skips school and routinely breaks into the neighbors' houses. When Kate's sister, Evelyn, gets in touch with their estranged father, she sets off a chain of events which will have tragic consequences, but which might also save this family. "Practicing Normal" is told from the points-of-view of Kate, Jenna, and Everett, leading to some repetition in the narrative. While I enjoyed the female perspectives, I'm not sure that Everett's viewpoint is necessary, as it doesn't really add much to the story. It also serves to highlight the fact that the only family member we don't get to hear from is JT; I would have been very interested to hear his take on things. The similarity in the names "Everett" and "Evelyn" - both shortened to "Ev" at times - leads to some confusion. I loved the support characters, especially Cassie and Wells. This is a delightful look at family and all their failings. While it does have some dark moments, the story is ultimately uplifting. Warnings: coarse language, sexual references, sex scenes, mental health issues. I received this book in return for an honest review. Full blog post (16 June):
TeresaKander More than 1 year ago
I love the title of this book--at most times, we're ALL just "practicing normal," hoping the rest of the world doesn't see past that to dysfunction we're trying to hide. The author gives us this story from the perspective of three of the family members: dad Everett, mom Kate, and daughter Jenna. For me, this gives us a deeper look into what's going on than just having one person's perspective. Everett and Kate, and their relationship, really frustrate me. Everett seems to think there is nothing wrong with having a constant revolving door of mistresses, and Kate, who knows about them, allows him to get away with it so she can keep her family together. For me, no matter how much you want to give the impression of being a "normal" family, there are still certain behaviors which shouldn't be acceptable--and serial cheating is definitely one of them. And there is an incident we learn about between Kate and Everett which would ABSOLUTELY have had me showing him the door, with or without the cheating (in fact, it is something which contributed to the end of my second marriage, which could be why I reacted to it so intensely.) Jenna has her share of issues, but she seems to be self-aware and honest about them. And she is generally very good to her brother, able to relate to him in some caring, loving ways. The idea of her breaking into houses just to spend time there, not to steal things, is rather heartbreaking for me. It's like she needs to go elsewhere and fantasize about a different sort of life. By the end, some major decisions are made, and life is beginning to change. This is the second book I've read by the author, and I enjoy her style and her ability to take us deep inside the minds of her characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, I plan to recommend it to my book group. It has many topics for good discussion - marriage, parenting, adolescence, aging parents, sibling interactions, family secrets, and Aspergers. And, what is normal? The character development evolves throughout the book- each character speaking in their own voice. The format keeps the reader engaged, alternating from one to another. There is Kate, the mother, wife, daughter, sister, who tries to please everyone. Everett is the husband, father, philanderer who struggles to balance his life. Jenna, their teenage daughter, searches to find her place and surprises herself along the way. JT, their son, who has been diagnosed with Aspergers and is able to teach others some important lessons. Each character has his/her own quirks that may or may not be seen as "normal". Don't we all have some traits, habits, or characteristics that may not be seen as "normal" to others? Cara Sue Achterberg's new novel could be your next book group selection or your summer beach read. It has interesting characters who make you want to continue reading. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it!
whatsbetterthanbooks More than 1 year ago
Authentic, heartwarming, and intriguing! This is a thought-provoking novel that reminds us that life is unpredictable and that when it comes to “normal” perspective is everything. The story is told from three different points of view; Kate, a mother, wife and daughter who spends all her time and energy taking care of those around her; Jenna, a teenager struggling with hormones, individuality and new love; and Everett, a husband and father who is impatient, selfish, and too wrapped up in his own wants and needs to appreciate what’s right in front of him. The prose is reflective and sincere. The characters, including all the supporting characters, are complex, strong, and endearing. And the plot is a compelling tale full of familial dynamics, friendship, infidelity, secrets, coming-of-age, honesty, humour, love, as well as an in-depth look into the stereotypical mentality, difficulties and extraordinary abilities that those with Asperger’s experience. This is the second novel I’ve read by Achterberg and once again she has blown me away with this well-crafted, touching story that gives us a real, raw look into a contemporary multi-generational family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received an advance copy for an honest review. Practicing Normal was a wonderful book filled with very realistic characters we meet in every day life. I love how it is written from different character’s view point instead of in chapters. It makes the story/stories flow and intertwine almost seamlessly. I loved how I felt the emotions and the change of tones based on which character I was reading. Each of them so very different, yet similar. I did not want to put it down once I started, really wished I could have hung a do not disturb sign on my door!! The main character Kate and her husband Everett seem to have everything in the ‘perfect’ suburban life, but looks can be deceiving. It weaves a great story about understanding what love really is and the sacrifices we all make as well as what we are willing to do for the ones we love. A great reminder that things aren’t always as they seem. I think if each of us looks really hard at the people we know and love, near or far, we will find someone we know who is “practicing normal.”
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
The title of this book is "Practicing Normal", but I'm not really sure any of the members of this family are normal. However, I did really enjoy meeting this family. The author did a great job making the characters seem real and I have been lost in their world all day and loved it! There were lots of chuckles while reading and there was a lot of pain going on in this family. I seriously don't know how the mother did it all. No wonder she was losing weight. I really felt sorry for her. The ending has a sad part and a few surprises as we finally learn the secrets about Kate and Evelyn that their mother guarded for years. And, their mother is definitely not someone you would want to spend a lot of your day with, she's pretty crusty. Thanks to The Story Plant and Net Galley for approving and allowing me to read this very entertaining book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.