Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Woman in Cabin 10- Ruth Ware

When I saw that March's selection for my library's book discussion group would be The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, I was a little nervous. Not my usual kind of book- I don't normally read thrillers as I experience enough anxiety in my everyday life (thank you SO much, brain)- but I was willing to give it a shot. And I'm glad I did.

Lo Blacklock has lucked into the work gig of a lifetime, a Nordic cruise on a small but stately ship so she can schmooze with the other high class passengers for her employer, a travel magazine. But before she leaves, her apartment is broken into and the burglar traps Lo in her bedroom, setting her emotions on the fritz and exhausting her, because who can sleep when you wake up to a stranger in your apartment? It doesn't help that Lo already suffers from massive anxiety, which at times can be all-consuming, nor does the way she leaves things with her boyfriend Judah aid in any kind of inner peace.

Despite her fatigue and with the help of copious amounts of alcohol, Lo makes it through the first dinner (displeased, of course, to find her former co-worker and ex-boyfriend Ben Howard on the trip), but it's that evening, just when she's managed to fall asleep, that she hears the scream from the next cabin. A scream...and then a splash, as though a body has been thrown overboard. And when Lo alerts security, the man in charge makes it clear that he doesn't believe her: not about the splash, not about the blood Lo saw smeared on the window next door, and not about the woman in Cabin 10, from whom Lo borrowed mascara earlier that evening. Cabin 10, you see, is unoccupied.

What follows is a harrowing nightmare, with Lo desperate to find someone to believe her, and to figure out exactly what she heard and saw that night. Or did she really hear and see anything at all? Who can she trust on board this ship? And will Lo be the next person thrown overboard?

This kept me guessing. I don't read a lot from this genre, so trying to pinpoint exactly who could have been thrown overboard, and by whom, was kind of fun. The reviews on Lo as a character seem mixed; I see a lot of people calling her whiny and finding her annoying, but...

The thing is, I understood her. I understood where she was coming from, and I thought Ms. Ware did an outstanding job accurately portraying Lo's anxiety. I've dealt with anxiety my entire life, exactly the kind that Lo has- not stemming from any particular incident, just something that my brain has cooked up all on its own. Lo's constant chest tightening, her mind racing, feeling like the walls are closing in, feeling stressed (often for no good reason at all), all of these are symptoms I feel on a daily basis. And when you add lack of sleep...

Bit of a detour here. Boy, do I understand what lack of sleep does to someone with anxiety. My daughter was born in April of 2014, and for the next 18 months, I survived on 3-4 broken-up hours of sleep per day. I'd fall into bed around 11, she'd be up at 12:30, 1:30, 3:30, 5:00, and we'd be up for the day at 6 am. And each time I was awake, I'd be awake nursing her for around twenty minutes, and then it would take me another ten or twenty minutes to be relaxed enough to fall asleep. It was a NIGHTMARE of the worst degree. I drove through stoplights. I forgot what I was going to go do the moment I stood up. I couldn't concentrate on anything. I had a hard time finding words when I spoke. I cried constantly. At one point, I had to ask my son where we were going as I was driving down the road. (I was driving him to school. I truly had no idea when I asked him.) My anxiety was ramped up at all times to eleven on a scale of ten. My daughter's about to turn five in April and I still don't feel like my brain has fully recovered (I'm still only able to get about 5-6 hours of sleep per night. It's not ideal). There's a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique; it's utter hell.

All of that was to say that between Lo's anxiety, her growing PTSD from the burglary, and her lack of sleep combine in a very plausible manner to keep both Lo and the reader off-kilter, never quite knowing what's real, what's not, and whom to trust. Perhaps for people who have more experience with thrillers, or for people whose realities don't match more closely with Lo's, this wasn't the book they wanted it to be, but for me, a lot of it hit home and I thought it was done quite well.

I caught a grin near the end when Lo spoke with a Norwegian man who showed her a photograph.

"Min kone,' he said, enunciating slowly. And then, pointing to the children, something that sounded like 'vorry bon-bon.'
Every once in a while, I actually get to use the Norwegian I've learned and it always thrills me when I do. 'My wife,' he said, and then vĂ¥re barnebarn, our grandchildren. Take THAT, people who said I'd never use Norwegian! (It actually pops up more often than you'd think.)

Check out Ruth Ware's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

We'll Fly Away- Bryan Bliss

It is easy to forgive the innocent. It is the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they've ever done.
                                                                    -Sister Helen Prejean

If you're looking for a book that reaches out and punches you in the gut until you're doubled over and gasping for air, We'll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss is the book you need.

Luke and Toby are high school seniors, two best friends whom every adult has failed miserably their entire lives. Luke's dad took off years ago, leaving him with his piss-poor excuse for a mother who constantly leaves zero food in the house and five-year-old twin brothers for whom he's majorly responsible. Toby's dad uses him as his personal punching bag, something the teachers at school pretend not to notice. It's always been Luke and Toby, the only ones looking out for each other, and they've got plans: Luke's got a wrestling scholarship to Iowa next year and they'll both be gone then, leaving North Carolina and all the many ways it's hurt them behind.

But it's never quite as simple as that. With the introduction of Annie, a new girl from Chicago, Luke and Toby's friendship is tested for the first time, and Toby finds himself looking for comfort and approval in places he knows he shouldn't. Things aren't getting any easier for Luke, either; he's got the wrestling match of the year coming up, and his mom has brought home a new boyfriend (an adult who calls himself Ricky; I'll let you infer what kind of guy he is). Toby's dad gives him a car, but of course there's a catch; Mom and Ricky disappear; Toby starts hanging around with an older woman whom Luke knows isn't good for him. All these events lead up to a terrible conclusion, one that's made known at the start of the book: Luke is writing letters to Toby, the only way he can communicate with him, because Luke is on Death Row.

There's a bit of a twist at the end that I think most readers will see coming long before its arrival. What we're truly kept guessing, though, is exactly what Luke has done in order to end up with a death sentence hanging over his head. There's an obvious answer, but his life is full of so many horrible people (whom Mr. Bliss is careful to never let become caricatures) that the obvious answer just wasn't the only one. After I finished the book, I logged it in my Goodreads account, then went upstairs and burst into tears in the bathroom.

This is an emotionally heavy story that will rip your heart out, Indiana Jones-style, and run it over a few times with the lawn mower for good measure. Almost every facet of Luke and Toby's lives is a tragedy; their only escape from the grueling horror of their everyday reality is their time together, often spent in a secret hideout in the woods. But as things change for them, there's a new, fresh heartbreak on every page, and you'll be met with the stark realization of exactly how we treat children who have been failed every step of the way: as so much garbage which we're eager to be rid of, cheering on their deaths as we do.

Back in the '90s, I read Dead Man Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty That Sparked a National Debate by Sister Helen Prejean (normal reading for a 14-year-old? Probably not), which sparked a lifelong interest in prison, how prisoners are treated, and an opposition to the death penalty. So when I saw We'll Fly Away as a suggestion for Book Riot's 2019 Read Harder Challenge (as an epistolary novel), as soon as I read the synopsis, I was in. And I wasn't disappointed, although I'm still in tears over the story, and the injustice of it all. I don't think this is a book I'll get over anytime soon, nor do I think I'm meant to. This is the kind of book that stays with you forever, and maybe it's the kind of book that will have you reconsidering the way you look at the people around you.

We'll Fly Away reads easy but it isn't an easy read, and I don't think there are words for how deeply I recommend this. Read it with a box of tissues nearby, along with some anger management skills, because you'll need both.

Visit Bryan Bliss's website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Time Zero- Carolyn Cohagan

The premise of Carolyn Cohagan's Time Zero drew me in, but reading it forced me to confront my feelings on dystopian literature in general.

In the future, a walled-off Manhattan is ruled by religious extremists who- huge surprise- have deemed women to be second-class (if that) citizens. Women must be veiled and cloaked at all times and aren't allowed to be educated; even learning to read is a capital offense. Makeup, perfume, nail polish, all those are illegal (because their only purpose is to entice men, of course), and women are forced into arranged marriages to the highest bidder at age 15. They have no control over any aspect of their lives and must live out their days being subservient to their husbands, only speaking when spoken to. It's in this world that Mina is taught to read by her mysterious, gruff grandmother, using something Nana calls the Primer, full of fascinating text that doesn't make much sense to Mina, but the pictures of a world that once was enchant her. She's basically memorized the entire thing.

On the day of her Offering ceremony, Mina learns that Nana has broken her hip. Disobeying her mother, she sneaks out to Nana's apartment to retrieve the forbidden Primer in order to keep their secret safe. It's on the way home that she witnesses a stoning and meets Juda, who rescues her from the angry mob that would have trampled her in their zeal for punishment. After her Offering, negotiations begin and Mina's set to marry Damon Asher, a boy that repulses her but whose family is rich and who offers her family the best price for her. It's a visit to the Asher household that sets a series of events into motion that will end with death, revelation, and change.

The reality that every rule that Mina lives by, a girl somewhere in the world is living by now is a sobering one, and that was what pulled me toward the book in the first place, along with the premise of a world ruled by religious extremists (I do love a good story about religious wackos). But this book didn't really do it for me, and I don't think that has anything to do with the book itself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I just don't love dystopian books in general and I think I like the idea of them more than the reality. There's something about the characters in dystopian novels that I have a hard time connecting with- they never seem quite real to me in the way that contemporary (or even historical) fiction characters do. I had the same reaction to Divergent and The Hunger Games. While I liked them and found them to be well-written, they just weren't necessarily the books for me. Time Zero falls along those lines; there's nothing wrong with the writing or storyline, I just personally failed to connect.

If you're into dystopian literature, this might be one for you. The dynamics between the characters are fascinating; Mina's mother is a swampbeast of the highest order, which makes it difficult to understand how her marriage with Mina's father works. Damon Asher's mother has some pretty serious issues and her marriage to Mr. Asher is kind of a trainwreck. But Nana? Nana is a grade-A badass and the kind of character we would all hope to be if we were stuck in her reality. With the exception of Juda and Nina's father, the men are horrifying creatures, hell-bent on lording every last iota of power they can scrounge over anything female, and the world Ms. Cohagan has created is strong and terrifying. The escape scene, set in dark and flooded subway tunnels, was my personal favorite; its description will put you right there, floating on a plastic outhouse door and praying for safety. I was a little disappointed in the ending; I hadn't realized it was meant to be a series, and so this novel ends on quite a cliffhanger (this is solely because I'm not really a series reader, but I know there are tons of readers out there who are!). If you're into the fictional downfall of society, definitely check this book out, because it offers a new twist on a frightening future.

Are you a fan of dystopian literature?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space- Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly has been on my radar for a while. It's been front and center on bookstore tables, on display at the library, and I think I've seen it on just about every book blog out there. And don't forget the movie, which was wonderful (and I'm usually not a fan of anything dealing with space. Too many chances for things to go wrong and for the astronauts to get lost up there. Anxiety!). I'd always planned on reading it, but I never thought I'd get to it so soon (more on that later).

During World War II, the NACA (the agency that would eventually become NASA) needed calculations done for the research and construction of new aircraft, and a large number of those doing the calculations (by hand, of course!) were black female mathematicians. Making what was a good salary at the time, these women worked long days, often into the night, churning out packets of sophisticated equations, often without full knowledge of what they were working on or what the final results of the project ended up being. And they did it all in a world that, up until this point, had steadfastly refused to acknowledge their talents and successes solely due to the color of their skin.

Ms. Shetterly tells the story of women like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden, painting a picture of their lives both before and after coming to the NACA, and the times they lived in. Even as these women were filling pages after page with face-melting math, black soldiers in uniform were being spit on by their fellow Americans and being refused service in restaurants. As they calculated trajectories and handed in the scores of math that would make military victory (and eventually space flight) possible, people who looked like them were still being told to sit at the back of the bus. Before coming to the NACA, one of the women featured made less as a teacher than the white janitor who cleaned her school (something like $850 per year; the starting salary at the NACA was $2,000). The discrepancy between what these women had to offer and how their 'grateful' nation treated people who looked like them is nothing short of infuriating, and for that reason alone, this book is a must-read.

But the book goes beyond that and celebrates the lives of women who were remarkable by any standards, and even more so due to the fact that they were able to rise far beyond the limits their country set for them. This is a story of exceptional accomplishment in the face of institutional adversity, and it'll force you to examine exactly what we as a country are throwing away, what we might have had but chose not to, when we do things like underfund schools and condemn children in impoverished neighborhoods to subpar education.

So many times during this book, I had to stop and seethe at how hard the women had to struggle in order to access what they needed to be able to contribute to society. What on earth are we thinking when we make things more difficult for people to access education? And on that note, quite a few times I had to read certain sentences multiple times in order to get the basic gist of what Ms. Shetterly was saying. Math and science were never my thing (hence the book blog and not, say, an illustrious career in a STEM field), but whew, the complexities of what the women in this book were doing every single day were utterly mind-blowing. Man, am I glad that there are people out there who can do that kind of stuff, and I wish our country invested more in education so that the accomplishments of the women of Hidden Figures were without the fierce battle it took for them to get there.

I picked this book up on Friday thanks to the library book discussion group I attended on Thursday (which was AWESOME!!!! I loved it so, so much and I'm already signed up for next month). The librarian who led it was talking about BookRiot's 2019 Read Harder Challenge, and while I've normally shied away from most challenges in the past, with the exception of this year's Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge, attending this discussion gave me the confidence to take on the Read Harder Challenge. If I don't complete it, that's okay, and at least I'll have read some amazing new authors and books along the way, but I've got my eye on the goal here. Reading Hidden Figures was my first read for this, and it checks off #6, a book by an AOC set in or about space. I'm off to an amazing start.

Have you read Hidden Figures? How do you deal with the anger and frustration you feel when you read about how our country has treated and still treats people of color?

Visit Margot Lee Shetterly's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Destiny's Embrace- Beverly Jenkins

'Okay,' I said to myself as I walked through the library. 'I have enough books at home, I'm going to read a few from my own shelf, I'm not going to check any books out this time.' And then I walked by the display of books by black authors for Black History Month. And all my resolve went up in a puff of smoke and a blur of motion as I snatched up Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.

In my defense, I've wanted to read one of Ms. Jenkins's books ever since I saw her in Love Between the Covers, a documentary on romance novels and authors and the industry surrounding them (if you haven't seen this, it's wonderful). I enjoyed everything she had to say and looked her up on my next library trip. At the time, my library only had her work in ebooks and I wasn't reading those at the time (long story why, but it involved being frightened of losing my momentum for reading down my Goodreads TBR list), but she's never fallen off my radar. And now, she's on it in a big, big way.

The year is 1885. Thirty-year-old Mariah Cooper, the daughter of a mean-spirited, abusive hag, lives in Philadelphia, where she works as a seamstress in her mother's shop and is occasionally courted by the weak-willed Tillman Porter. When her mother goes too far, Mariah flees to her aunt's house across town, and within weeks she's on a train bound for a new life as a housekeeper in California. She's determined to become her own woman, leaving the browbeaten, unloved version of herself behind for good.

Logan Yates lives and works on the profitable ranch he owns with his loving stepmother and brothers. Sure, his house smells- and okay, looks- like a barnyard, but that's just the bachelor way, isn't it? Alanza, his stepmother, takes the liberty of hiring a housekeeper. Enter the lovely Mariah, and she and Logan cannot butt heads fast enough. Each decision to be made is one they can spar over, and Logan can't stop thinking about his alluring new employee. He's made it clear that he has no interest in marriage, now or ever...but Mariah may have changed all of that for good.

It's been a long time since I read a historical romance novel, but this was just plain fun to read. There's enough steam to make it spicy, but the sex scenes aren't terribly graphic. Ms. Jenkins's style never veers into the purple prose I remember reading in the romance novels of my youth; there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of clothing or scenery, just enough to create a crystal-clear image in the reader's mind of the beautiful California ranch land Logan owns and the finely-sewn blouses and skirts Mariah has created. Her female characters are strong but not so over-the-top that they're not believable for the times they live in. While this is a typical romance in that it ends happily (and don't we all need that so badly these days? Heavens knows I do), there are several things that make this stand out, including a scene in which a small parade of local men come by the ranch to propose to Mariah, and another outside a jewelry store, after another woman notices Mariah's (happy) tears and inquires after her. That one brought tears to my eyes as well. But what stood out most...Let me backtrack a little.

The stigma around romance may have faded a bit over the years, but be assured, it hasn't left entirely, and that's something I learned in my own home last night. Upon noticing my copy of Destiny's Embrace on the kitchen island, my husband squinted at it, then said, "Whose book is that?"

"Mine," I responded.

He laughed. "That's what you're reading these days? I would've thought you'd be reading something more intellectual."

Before I could bean him in the head with a rock like Mariah did to Logan, he left to attend to our daughter, leaving me to mentally scoff, Okay, man who reads comic books.

Which is entirely my point. There's nothing wrong with comic books, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with romance novels. Not everyone needs to read, say, a calculus textbook at all times; it's totally okay to read for straight-up entertainment if that's what you're looking for and what you need at the time. Reading is reading, and anything that gets anyone reading is a wonderful thing. The joke is really on my husband here, because I learned a lot from this book, including about

  • Calafia, the fictional warrior queen often depicted as the Spirit of California
  • James Beckwourth, the fur trapper and African-American pioneer who discovered the mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas between Reno, Nevada and Portola, California
  • William Leidesdorff, who helped found what became San Francisco
  • Estabanico/Estevanico, one of the first African-born men to reach the continental US
  • Biddy Mason, a nurse and midwife who also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

I never learned about any of those people in school, so if this is what a non-intellectual book looks like, I'll be over here, buried under a pile of non-intellectual books, plenty of them with Beverly Jenkins embossed on the front.

The other really great thing about this book is that it's changed the way I think towards historicals, or at least some historicals- or maybe even historicals back when I last read them. I think I'm more willing to give them a chance, and I definitely want to read more historicals by authors of color, because that's a perspective that I need more of in my reading life. I'm halfway tempted to head back to the library and dig through that Black History Month display again...but I'm going to have to hold off, because today's library trip yielded another stack of books.

So much for reading from my own shelves, again.

Are you a fan of historical romance? Have you read Beverly Jenkins? If you can recommend other historical romances by authors of color, I'm listening (and scrawling down the names, and checking my library's website)!

Visit Beverly Jenkins's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Lucy and Linh- Alice Pung

A prestigious private school setting, a group of popular girls more vicious than a seething mass of pit vipers, and the immigrant experience all combine to make a deeply thoughtful novel in Alice Pung's Lucy and Linh.

Lucy Lam, born in Vietnam of Teochew Chinese heritage, is shocked to find that she's been chosen as the single recipient of this year's scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an exclusive Australian private school, especially since everyone knew that scholarship belonged to Tully, the nose-to-the-grindstone girl who aces everything. Laurinda is an entirely different world, filled with filthy rich girls whose attendance there mirrors that of their mothers and grandmothers years ago. Lucy's immigrant father works at a carpet factory and her mother, who doesn't speak English, spends nearly all her time sewing for pennies in their unventilated garage while also caring for Lucy's toddler brother. Even Laurinda's uniform cost is a stretch for her parents, but they make it happen, and Lucy's ready to build a better future for herself and her family. Nervous, but ready.

Right away, Lucy begins to see the serious flaws behind Laurinda's polished exteriors. Barely anyone applauds a flawless piano recital at the beginning of term. Mrs. Grey, the headmistress, seems keen on making Lucy aware of her entrance to the school as a nod to diversity. And then there's the group of girls known as the Cabinet, three Laurinda legacies who make the characters from Mean Girls look like pious, charitable nuns. After Lucy is sent to remedial English with one of the girls' mothers, Amber, Chelsea, and Brodie take Lucy in, but never in a way she's truly comfortable with. The Cabinet's influence on the school administration quickly becomes apparent, and after a series of incidents in which a teacher is fired and another student is seriously injured, Lucy begins to remember who she really is, what's important to her, and why she left her friends behind to come to Laurinda in the first place.

This is deep and serious YA about values, self-discovery, bravery, friendship, and standing up for what's right (and, you know, malicious friend groups). There's a heavy message, but the book itself never feels heavy, nor does the writing get bogged down with the importance of Lucy's journey. Even as Lucy recounts her parents' struggles to make it in a new country, the novel never drags; the family's optimism and faith in their own hard work and appreciation for their new home shine through and give the story a hopeful feeling. Lucy's mother is, I think, the most admirable character in the book. Her determination to better her family's future, her commitment to her work and children, her drive to keep moving forward in life one inch at a time made her such a sympathetic character, and so very real, especially when compared to the privileged mothers of the members of the Cabinet. The image of Quyen bent over her sewing in the garage late into the night, the air around her heavy with dust motes, is one that will remain with me.

This is Mean Girls set in an Australian private school with an immigrant flair, which deeply adds to the story and the egregiousness of venomous friend groups, and provides a fantastic contrast between the wealth of the average Laurinda student and the Lam family's meager circumstances. It's something that the movie was missing, I think, which plays out well here and makes for a fuller, richer story. I'd had this on my kindle for a while and opened it the other day on a whim without rereading the synopsis, so spending a few days in Lucy's world was an unexpected gem, as was spending that time in Australia (which I always enjoy reading about!). Overall, this is a great take on the malicious friend group trope, told through a fresh perspective that renders it unique.

Visit Alice Pung's website here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

All We Ever Wanted- Emily Giffin

It's fitting that Emily Giffin's All We Ever Wanted is set in Nashville, as that's where I was living when I first fell in love with her books. I hadn't even read this book's inside flap before I began it; as soon as I saw her name on the spine, I added it to my stack of books, so the setting was actually a surprise when I began reading it while waiting for my son's school play to begin (I managed to read 55 pages while we waited. My son was ushering and had to be there early, so hey, free reading time for Mom).

Nina Browning is living the good life. Ever since her husband Kirk sold his tech company for an obscene price, money has been no object for any of the Brownings, including their seventeen year-old son Finch. Nina knows things have changed since they joined the ranks of Nashville's uber-elite- her marriage, especially- but things are still good. Finch has gotten into Princeton, and maybe next year she and Kirk will be able to get back on track. But when word comes to Nina that Finch has made a terrible decision, one that has consequences not just for himself, but for others at his exclusive private school, Kirk's reaction to it will have Nina questioning everything she thought she knew.

Tom Volpe has been struggling to raise his daughter Lyla alone for years, ever since his unreliable wife left them when Lyla was young. And it hasn't been easy, especially on a carpenter's salary, even if her scholarship pays the majority of her tuition to Windsor Academy. When Lyla comes home drunk from a party and Tom sees the pictures on her phone, he knows he needs to make some heads roll...but that's easier said than done in a community like Windsor's, and with a daughter like Lyla.

Lyla Volpe didn't mean to get quite so drunk at that party, and that picture really wasn't a big deal, especially since she's liked Finch Browning for, like, forever. Besides, like he said, it wasn't him who took it. Can't everyone just back off and stop trying to ruin her life? Lyla's got some hard lessons to learn, lessons that may come at someone else's expense.

This was good. Ms. Giffin absolutely nails the disdainful attitude some of Nashville's filthy rich have towards regular people (I had the distinct displeasure of being acquainted with some of those people through another friend- who is nothing like them and is an absolutely wonderful person!- and found nothing impressive about them whatsoever). Their nose-wrinkling dismissal at anything they suspect of being even somewhat liberal, their certainty that throwing money at any problem will solve it instantly, their lack of interest in anyone's feelings but their own are all things I've seen in action (and it's horrifying; I think this kind of thing seems over-the-top and slightly unbelievable unless you've actually witnessed it. One Goodreads review referred to 'caricatures rather than characters,' and I completely understand how one might see that. It's something I would've thought as well before having witnessed it myself. Unfortunately, having lived in this area and seen some of the behavior of the type of people Ms. Giffin was trying to portray, I can't be so dismissive), and I was pleased to see exactly how well this novel covered these attitudes.

The multiple narratives worked well in this book in order for the reader to understand every side of the story. Lyla could be frustrating in her minimization of Finch's behavior, but I felt that it was an honest portrayal of a teenager who just wanted the situation to blow over and for things to go back to normal. Overall, I think this is a well-written novel that raises a lot of questions: how far will we go to protect the ones we love? How much does money change things, and how much should we let it? Everything may wrap up a little too nicely at the end for some readers, but these days, with so much turmoil in the world, a nicely-wrapped ending is exactly what I'm looking for, and this book fit just what I needed to read at the time.

There is discussion of sexual assault and rape in this story, though neither is graphic.

In front of the Nashville Parthenon (in 2010), which appears in the book.

It's always fun for me to read a book set somewhere I've lived, and Ms. Giffin did a great job with this setting. Several years ago, I read a book set in Nashville that had so many easy-to-verify errors that it was laughable. (I even paused to read a sentence out loud to my husband about one of the main characters pulling up and parking directly in front of a certain business, at which my husband blinked and said, "You can't park there!" To which I replied, "THANK YOU!") It's definitely a danger of setting a story in a place you don't live, but fortunately, I didn't notice any of those kinds of errors in this novel.

Do you enjoy reading books set in places you've lived or have spent time? 

Visit Emily Giffin's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction- Gabrielle Moss

This week, if the library were a compendium of internet memes, it would have whispered, "Hey girl...I hear you like books, so here are some books...about books." Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss is not just a book about books, but a time machine back to the literary classics of my childhood.

Paperback Crush first appeared on my radar this past summer, and quite a few of us in a book discussion forum I'm part of freaked out. A book about all the books we devoured as tweens and teens? Bring. It. ON. We were stoked, and so when I was reminded of this book the other day, I looked it up and was overjoyed to discover that at that very moment, there was a copy waiting for me in the New Books section of my local library. Off we went.

Gabrielle Moss has painstakingly cataloged a just-shy-of-exhaustive history of those books you inhaled during the '80s and '90s, with photos of the covers splashed across the neon-colored pages. She details the popularity of series books in these decades, most of which I at least remembered, with the exception of the NEATE Series (published by Just Us Books; I hadn't heard of them, but I enjoyed reading Ms. Moss's write-up of the company's history and mission and will be on the lookout for their books from now on). She also points out that many series books were written by authors who went on to bigger and better things, such as Candice Ransom, Eileen Goudge (I loved her in my early 20's), Katherine Applegate (who would go on to win the Newbery award for The One and Only Ivan), and even Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine before their days as masters of teen horror (I had no idea Stine also wrote under the pen name Jovial Bob Stine; I owned one of his books as a kid).

These years were the decades of the series: romance series, series about sleepaway camp, sports-themed series (baseball! Horses!), horror/thriller series, chronic/terminal illness series (hellooooooooooo, Lurlene McDaniel!), boarding school series, and series about friend groups where each friend had one defining characteristic (the bossy one; the artsy one; the one whose personality was that she was originally from New York City or California, because of course). There's a lot of rightful bagging on the Sweet Valley High series, which I was thrilled to read- I'd read so many of the Twins and High books as a kid and always thought Jessica was a Grade-A swamp witch as well, so I appreciated Ms Moss being able to see the Wakefield twins' lives for what they were: a high-drama soap opera for teens in novel form.

This book also brought back authors I hadn't thought of in years but who made up a formative part of my youth (Barthe DeClements, whose first name I'm still unsure of how to pronounce! Paula Danziger!), and books that I read that were probably entirely age inappropriate but I scarfed them down anyway (eleven probably wasn't the best age to read and reread a novel about teen prostitution/trafficking, right? Steffie Can't Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, if you missed that one). And holy cow, I'd completely forgotten that Slam Book was written by Ann M. Martin (of the Babysitters Club fame). That was another one that I read and reread at probably ten or eleven, despite the gruesome depiction of a suicide. Cripes, no wonder I developed such fierce insomnia as a teenager. I especially appreciated the love she showed Norma Klein, who was one of my favorite authors for years. Klein was always overshadowed by Judy Blume, but her books were just as monumental in introducing topics such as sex and abortion into teen lit (which I read well before my teen years. Thank you, used bookstores!).

And I was surprised by the chapter on middle grade and YA horror; I hadn't realized how much of that I read during those years, but nearly every cover on the pages was familiar to me. I haven't read all that much horror as an adult, and I don't care for thrillers, so I'm trying to figure out why I stopped reading that genre so much. Did I get my fill? Could no one take the place of Christopher Pike (whose real name is Kevin McFadden?!?!? I had no idea!)? I'm going to have to think about this some more, and maybe look into picking up a book or two with a more supernatural flair.

The only criticism I have for this book is that it ended fairly abruptly, and that it ended at all. I would've loved for this book to continue on endlessly, drowning me in wave after wave of nostalgia for the long days of my childhood where I never had to worry about dishes or scrubbing out the toilet or chronic pain, and where a trip to Waldenbooks meant coming home to spend the rest of the day holed up in my room, nose stuffed in the latest offerings of whatever author was my current favorite. If you're around my age (I'm 38) and you spent your youth guzzling books like I did, you absolutely cannot miss this book. Beg, borrow...maybe not steal, but find yourself a copy, because this book is an utter delight.

Side note: I don't often make note of publishers, but I did notice Paperback Crush is published by Quirk Books, whom I've loved ever since I reviewed an ARC of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith for them years ago (and laughed until I was sobbing in the McDonald's PlayPlace while my son played). They've consistently come out with awesome stuff, and Paperback Crush is yet another example.

Check out Gabrielle Moss's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order- Marlene C. Miller

Fewer than one hundred outsiders have joined the Amish and stayed. Marlene C. Miller, author of Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order, is one of them.

Marlene Miller grew up in a troubled and volatile home. Her parents argued frequently and were abusive by today's standards and at the very least overly heavy-handed with the physical discipline for the times (Ms. Miller was born in 1944; her parents beat her and her siblings with a dog leash). Her family was always poor, and her best friend died of polio at the age of eight. In high school, her hard work led her to become head majorette (something she never lets you forget), and she began dating the young Amish man (raised in the church but not yet baptized) who would become her husband at age 16. He proposed on the day she graduated high school.

They planned a small wedding, Johnny dragging his feet the whole way, but on the day of the ceremony, he called her up and told her he couldn't marry her on account of his wanting to join the Amish church one day. Not ideal, since she was more than a little bit pregnant at the time! After an angry meeting with Marlene's parents, he finally consented to going through with the wedding (the text doesn't make him seem terribly enthusiastic about this), and after she had the baby, she became a Christian when she was convinced she was going to hell while washing dishes one day. As one does. This conversion led her to tell her husband she wanted to become Amish.

What follows is a description of a life of relentless work, interspersed with childbirth on the regular. Amidst Ms. Miller's heavy learning curve of all the things an Amish farm wife needed to know, she gave birth to ten children in thirteen years- how this happened, I'm not exactly sure, because her husband almost never seemed to be home. Johnny farmed and worked several jobs in town in order to make ends meet; when they had the time or energy to create all those children baffled me.

While Ms. Miller is perpetually optimistic about their poverty and difficult circumstances, their Amish life comes off as fairly grim. She never fully learns to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Accidents abound on their farm (two near drownings, one child was run over by a wagon, another cracked his skull trying to repair a gas well on the property), their firstborn dies in a car accident that's surrounded in mystery at age twenty-one, another son ended up in prison, and the majority of their surviving children left the Amish altogether. Marlene herself suffers what sounds like bouts of depression (egged on by, I'm sure, exhaustion and the never-ending hormonal fluctuations brought on by constant pregnancy and birth), and comes close to leaving at one point (but of course, she prayed, and that fixed everything right up).

I enjoyed the story of this, but the heavy-handed religiosity irritated me right from the beginning. I'm absolutely not opposed to reading the stories of people of faith; one of the most beautiful books I've ever read is I'm Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan, which analyzes the deep faith of both Madigan and Rogers. I loved that book for exploring its subjects' religion without promoting an agenda. 'Here's what we believe and think' is great, especially because it allows the reader to make their own decision on how they feel about those beliefs; 'You need to believe this or else' isn't conducive to further conversation, and Called to Be Amish is more towards the latter. In the first few pages, Ms. Miller proclaims that no one can be truly happy without Jesus, which irked me. I find that kind of attitude stifling; making absolute proclamations like that does no one any favors and is a good way to alienate readers of different backgrounds. This book was on my TBR list from a while back, and while I'm not sorry I read it, I suppose I was hoping for more detail on what it took for Ms. Miller to adapt to Amish life, with no electricity and having to give up all the trappings of her past life.

Do you read books about the Amish, whether fiction or nonfiction? I'm guilty of reading a few 'bonnet books,' as I've seen them called, in the distant past, but haven't for quite some time. Having learned about some of the dirtier underside of the Amish community (puppy mills, animal abuse, physical and sexual abuse of children), I've long since stopped being able to romanticize it as a way of life. That doesn't mean I won't read things about them in the future, but this book didn't necessarily inspire me to want to read more, either.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks- Annie Spence

It's winter. It's ridiculously cold, we're all stuck in the house, and I've been thinking I need to get out more, since I currently get out pretty much not at all ever, unless I'm taking the kids somewhere. A quick glance at my library's website informed me that next week's book discussion group would be covering Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence. All their copies were checked out (not surprising), but a neighboring library had one, so I picked it up the next morning. 'I hope I can finish it before next Wednesday,' I thought, as I settled down to read.

I finished it that night.

Annie Spence isn't your stereotypical librarian. For one, she's got a swear-word vocabulary that rivals even the bawdiest drunken pirate crew (or my seventh-grade classmates at Catholic school, or the online moms group I've belonged to since 2002; take your pick). And she writes letters in her head to the books she encounters at work. Books she loves, books she's hated, books she's never read, and books she's weeding. With a wicked sense of humor and a deep love for literature, Ms. Spence shines a spotlight on each book's features and flaws, praising when due, tearing to shreds when earned (and hoooo boy, are there some real winners in the 'weed' pile!).

Ms. Spence is Not Your Mother's Librarian, and what stood out to me the most, besides the ridiculous amount of times I burst out laughing while reading this, was how never-ending a job weeding the library collection is, much like the constant search for rotten fruit and vegetables in a produce department. Books that haven't been checked out in fifteen years, books that are woefully out of date or out of touch with the population they were written to reach, books that haven't aged well, they all have to go. If you're familiar with the site Awful Library Books, you'll have an idea of what gets weeded and why; if you're not familiar, check them out. They've long been a favorite of mine.

I did enjoy the letters more than the chapters with book recommendations, but that's solely because I hadn't picked up the book looking for that, so that's on me (I did write down one author to check out, and one title that intrigued me, which hilariously also came up later in the day on the episode of the All the Books podcast I've started listening to). This is a fun, fast read, and it may have you eyeing your local librarian a little closer (is she as funny as Annie Spence? Could we be friends? Wait, what's her favorite book?).

I have to say, this book did strike a pang of jealousy in my heart. In a perfect world, I'd love to go back to school to become a librarian, but alas, due to a multitude of circumstances (finances, the unpredictability of my back being good enough for me to be able to work and pay off loans, children who need pesky things like to be taken and picked up from school, etc), it's not possible. Instead, I'll forge ahead with my goal of reading everything the library has to offer, and next week, attending their book discussion.

Do you enjoy books about books? I'm plowing through another one right now; unsurprisingly, it's one of my favorite genres. Do you attend your library's book clubs or book discussion groups? This will be my first and I'm curious as to what I should be expecting.

And lastly, my favorite quote from the book:

Basically, if you've spoken to me in the presence of a bookshelf in the past decade, I wasn't paying attention.

Solidarity, sister.

Visit Annie Spence's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Ration Book Cookery- Gill Corbishley

I'd first learned of wartime rationing when I was young from books like Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, so the concept wasn't new to me, but Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley gave me a new perspective on it and opened up a door to some serious questions.

This is a small book (see the pen I included in the photo for comparison). It appears to be part of a set of books on food history. It came to me via interlibrary loan and I'm bummed that my home library doesn't have the complete set, as I would absolutely read the entire thing- the sociopolitical history of food is something that fascinates me. Even though I took two pages of notes, I blew through this tiny book in less than an hour and it left me wanting more- not due to any shortcomings, but simply because the book itself was so short and the subject matter is so interesting.

So, back during World War II, the troops had to be fed and fed well in order to keep up their strength to fight against the Axis powers. This meant sacrifice for the homefront, and those people played their own part in the war effort, changing their diets, growing victory gardens, and making do with what little their ration coupon books offered. Now, while Americans rationed as well, the rationing was much stricter in Britain. 'What exactly was rationed?' you're wondering. Here's a list:

  • bacon
  • ham
  • sugar
  • butter
  • meat
  • tea
  • margarine
  • cooking fats
  • cheese
  • jam
  • marmalade
  • treacle
  • syrup
  • eggs
  • milk
  • sweets
  • bread

Even fuel was rationed; people were asked to cook in homemade hayboxes (they could be made out of the box your gas mask came in!). Why cook stewed dried fruit for two or three minutes on the stovetop when you could have the same results cooking it in a haybox for...three and a half hours??? Never mind that. It's for the war effort, ladies! 

The book does contain recipes as examples of what women (because it was mostly women) cooked; I copied down the recipe for Mock Goose, made out of red lentils, onion, and breadcrumbs, as well as a recipe for Eggless Mayonnaise, made out of a baked potato, mustard, salt, vinegar, and salad oil. There are some other interesting recipes, such as a mock marzipan made from white beans and ground rice, and some more questionable-looking recipes, such as Eggless Pancakes made from flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, and an unspecified amount of milk and water; a cake made with mashed potatoes; and mashed parsnips with banana flavoring as a substitute for actual banana, which was in scarce supply. Hard pass for me on that last one.

I learned a lot from this small book. Rationing started in Britain in January of 1940; it didn't actually end until June of 1954. That's a long time to modify one's diet. It did help improve Britain's health overall, though; before the war, half of Britain suffered from some sort of malnutrition, but with the aid of all that victory garden produce, the cod liver oil (and later orange juice) distributed with the rations, and the cooking suggestions offered by the government in their 'Rations aid the war effort!' campaign, malnutrition became less pronounced in the population. The book also contains many examples of government-created posters designed to buoy enthusiasm and support for rationing; they're actually kind of cute and add a little flavor of history to the pages.

Ration Book Cookery got me thinking this morning. How would we respond to rationing today? I'm coming at this from an American perspective, and I don't think that it would go over very well here, to be honest. Having worked retail (and having seen far too many arguments go down on social media), consumers here are deeply entitled to what they think they're owed merely by stepping into a store. If the stores were suddenly empty of Oreos, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, and pork rinds (not to mention most other daily staples), and those same customers were instead told to plant a garden, were only allowed a certain amount of meat per month, and were told to make mayonnaise out of potatoes...These are the same people who will gladly trample their fellow human beings to death the day after Thanksgiving over some sort of gadget that the receiver will most likely lose interest in within several weeks, if not sooner. Asking them to give up their normal way of eating for an indeterminable amount of time for something that doesn't directly affect them? Heck, we can't even get people to protect their children from deadly diseases for the greater good, as a friend of mine pointed out. I think there'd be at least a few riots, possibly a lot, depending on which political party made the decision to ration. And it saddens me that this is the conclusion I've reached.

(Me? I'd be mostly okay. I'm vegetarian; a large amount of what I eat is vegan, so I'd be cool with the lack of animal products. I'm a pretty creative cook and am well-versed in making do with what I have on hand. I've made desserts out of multiple kinds of beans; I know many ways to substitute for eggs in baking; I'm happy to garden, although I'd need some help, because summer is typically a nasty time for my back to flare up. And I'm happy to sacrifice for a cause greater than myself. But the people who insist that it's not a meal without meat? There'd be a huge learning curve for them, and probably not a small amount of complaining. Bread and sugar would be a tougher one for me, but when duty calls...)

What are your thoughts? Could Americans (or people from your country, if you're from elsewhere) handle WWII-style rationing today? Could you? And do you think it would be implemented the same way? Obviously there would be medical exemptions for people with dietary health concerns (nothing high carb for diabetics, no rations of peanut-based products for those allergic, etc), but could we trust that the rations would be handed out fairly and not in a biased manner? I feel as though some factions would call for something like a zip code-based rationing system, with more resources going to those in wealthier areas (look at the inequality of the school system in the US), but I hope I'd be proven wrong about that. What do you think? 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Hamartia- Raquel Rich

I'm not into science fiction. Never really have been. With the exception of the Star Wars movies (the older ones, not the newer. I blame my dad watching them when I was young; I must've imprinted on them), it's never really been a genre that spoke to me. But when Raquel Rich offered me a copy of her sci-fi novel Hamartia for review, it piqued my interest, despite it being so far outside my normal reading boundaries, and it might inspire you to read outside yours as well.

Grace's worst nightmare is coming true: her son is dying. Nine year-old Jordan has been stricken with Metagenesis, a disease in which the sufferer loses their soul and eventually dies. It's slaughtering humans, but Grace never expected it to come knocking on her door, especially not now, when things are already complicated enough with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Marc. But all the doctors say the same thing...except one. In a secret meeting, Dr. Claudio Messie, the leading Metagenesis expert, proposes a solution to Grace: go back in time, locate one of Marc's former lives- because Marc is, of course, her soulmate- and inject him with the contents of a syringe that will mark him as Jordan's donor soul. Jordan's life will be spared, and humanity will celebrate Metagenesis's cure. Simple enough, right? Maybe not so much.

Thus begins Grace's journey to a time more than eighty years in the past, to the early 2000's, with her former best friend Kay as support. What should have been a quick trip turns into a major undertaking when David Williams, the donor soul, is nowhere to be found; Grace and Kay are being followed; their room is ransacked; and Grace isn't sure she can fully trust the woman who used to be her best friend. Grace's ambivalence only grows when a familiar-looking stranger clues her in to the intricacies of the donor soul cure: if she goes through with it, Marc- her future husband, whom she's not entirely sure she's truly over- will die.

What's a time-travelling gal to do?

This is a doozy of a story. Ms. Rich doesn't shy away from complexity, yet handles it with aplomb, taking the reader on a wild journey with peril and Sophie's choices around every corner. The ending doesn't wrap up neatly, instead setting the novel up for an ambitious and intriguing sequel. This is sci-fi for people who have shied away from the genre in the past. It's time travel and futuristic cars, not space weapons or alien creatures, and something about Ms. Rich's voice reminds me a little of Veronica Roth (she of the Divergent series). So even if you've renounced science fiction, Hamartia may be the book that will change your mind.

I'm glad I read this. I enjoyed Grace's heart-pounding race through the past for even a chance at saving her beloved son's life, and was especially entertained by Grace and Kay's confusion at the bizarre things they encountered while there (people ate that stuff? Single use products? Oil- the kind you can't even eat- was at the center of the economy? I'm with them). Having read this, I'm definitely going to be taking a closer look at the books marked Science Fiction at the library, instead of wrinkling my nose and passing right by. Hamartia might have opened a whole new door for me.

Huge thanks to Raquel Rich for providing me with a copy of Hamartia for review!

Check out Raquel Rich's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The reading must go on!

We lost power for a bit last week. Wind gusts of up to fifty miles per hour knocked the electricity off just as dinner finished cooking, which was great timing, but left us snarfing our $5 Aldi pizza in the dark. (I'm thankful I'd decided not to cook that night; trying to eat something like soup in the dark would've been more of an adventure than my stain-fighting abilities could handle.)

Nevertheless, I persisted, snuggling up with the battery-powered lantern to continue reading my book. Which got me thinking about all the other oddball places and situations in which I've spent my time turning pages.

  • in the hospital, pregnant with my son and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum (I kept having to put the book down; reading one of the heavier hardback Harry Potters with what's essentially your 14th IV in less than two weeks is, uh, painful, to say the least.)
  • in the chair during three separate root canals (Hyperemesis gravidarum does no favors for your teeth, either.)
  • outside during parades and cross-country matches in all sorts of weather
  • before choir concerts, band concerts, and plays
  • burning with fever and feeling terrible during bouts with the flu (I finished Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov during one bout; another had me blowing through the last two books of the Twilight series.)
  • Parkside. Poolside. The side of the McDonald's playplace. All the places you take small children to play. 
  • multiple migraine-inducing places with loud music and flashing lights where sadists throw children's birthday parties
  • so many car trips
  • waiting in the car: for my son at school, my daughter at preschool, and my husband's train
  • a beach and hotel room in Mexico, an airplane heading to Paris, another one heading home from Belgium
  • on a hospital bed, waiting to receive sacroiliac joint injections
  • during tornado warnings, floods, blizzards, searing heatwaves

You know how it is. Reading. All the time, in every place. Sometimes with a tiny hint of, 'Are people going to think I'm weird for reading here?', immediately followed with, 'Eh, who cares!' Constant comments from other people: "You're reading here?" "How can you concentrate here?" "Did you seriously bring a book?" "You must be the best-read person I've ever met." And my favorite, "You are always reading!!!"

Yes. Yes, I am.

Tell me about the places you've read. By the side of the road as you waited for a tow truck? At the zoo in front of the lion enclosure? In the shower with your kindle in a waterproof, see-through bag? (Don't think I haven't contemplated that.) I'd love to hear all the interesting, surprising places you've exercised your love of reading.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Beartown- Fredrik Backman

Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a book I've seen popping up over and over again on the blogs lately (mostly in photos with other books, as luck would have it); it wasn't until someone posted a full review that I realized the book centered around a town's hockey team. My son and I are big hockey fans (can you be anything else, living this close to Chicago? Let's just not talk about how the Blackhawks have been doing lately, though...), and I've developed a love for hockey books, so even though I had approximately nine million other books to read at the time, I still grabbed this from a display at the library last week. And my goodness, I'm so glad I did.

Beartown is the story of a washed-up, nothing town deep in the woods. Everyone says the town is finished; there's hardly anything there anymore except a winning junior hockey team that has no right to be as good as it is. If they can win big this year, maybe this town can come back; maybe that new hockey school will be built there and the commerce will follow it. The hopes and dreams of an entire town, not to mention its future economy, lie on the shoulders of these young hockey players.

A terrible incident at a party after the semi-finals will change everything, pitting neighbor against neighbor, teammate against teammate, forcing everyone to make decisions about truth, justice, and loyalty. It's not just Beartown's future that hangs in the balance; it's everyone who lives there.

This was riveting. Fredrik Backman delves deeply into human nature and presents the reader with characters who are relatable, recognizable as our friends, neighbors and family, even as they make terrible decisions that harm other people. His ability to weave a story that incorporates so many characters, so many points of view, is on par with Stephen King (whose narratives from The Stand and It are some of my absolute favorite pieces of writing; despite the length, I've read each of these multiple times throughout my life). There's violence in this story, but it's never gratuitous nor designed to shock, and having sworn off reading more Pat Conroy novels due to the graphic nature of some of his scenes, I appreciated that.

I very much enjoyed this, blowing through it in less than twenty-four hours, and I see there's a second in the series, Us Against You. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've continued on and have read this. I'm definitely interested in reading more from Fredrik Backman; I'd never heard of him until I started seeing A Man Called Ove all over the place, so I'm surprised to see how many books he's written. All the more for me to read!

Beartown does contain a rape scene, and what follows is what I think most women know to expect from humanity in general after something so terrible is made public: the doubts, the anger and threats towards the victim, people siding with the accused rapist. Knowing this, be kind to yourself and choose another book if you need to.

Visit Fredrik Backman's website here.

Follow him on Twitter here. (He tweets in both English and Swedish; I have a moderate level of Norwegian and can understand a lot of what he writes, although to me, Swedish looks like Norwegian spelled wrong. ;) )

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story- Hyeonseo Lee with David John

In the comments of my review of Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Susan from Bloggin' 'Bout Books recommended The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and I was thrilled to see that my library had a copy (I seriously love my library, if you couldn't tell. Their book collection is phenomenal). And so as soon as my stack of books began dwindling, I grabbed a copy of this book.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea to a family of good songbun, meaning their status was decently high. Their lives weren't terrible compared to their fellow countrymen scrounging for food and dying in the streets, but as Hyeonseo grew, the cracks in the system became visible, and the country she'd always been told was the greatest country on the face of this earth began to seem...maybe not quite that great at all. But surely the things she viewed on illegal South Korean movies and Chinese television can't be real, right? So many cars, all those buildings with flashing neon signs, fancy clothing...all that is just propaganda, right? Life can't be that good anywhere.

Just before she turns 18, Hyeonseo, wanting to do something adventurous for once in her life, decides to slip across the border (which she can see from her house), to visit family in China. But once she arrives, her mother and brother pay the price for her recklessness, and Hyeonseo can no longer return home. Thus begins her saga of living illegally in China, reinventing herself over and over as only one without a country must. Life on her own is a struggle, always worrying about those she left behind, and far too many people want to create a new kind of prison for her. After years of hard work and constant fear of deportation, Hyeonseo finally makes it to freedom in South Korea, where life becomes both better and more difficult. And there's still the question of her family in North Korea. Don't they deserve the kind of freedom she has, too?

Ms. Lee's story expands on Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, showing the dangers North Koreans face when they leave the only home they've ever known. She points out that for people who escape because of starvation and fear of death, the transition to freedom comes little easier, since there's nowhere to go but up; for people like her mother and brother, who led a relatively comfortable existence, a free life in Seoul, where everything must be earned via a job (for which they are entirely unqualified, having been educated solely with North Korean propaganda), can be painful and confusing. Her story, and ultimately those of her mother and brother, are success stories, but how many are not?

This is a story of courage, strength, and indefatigable determination. Ms. Lee's description of homesickness is heartbreaking; even when a place is terrible and hurts so many people, it's still home, and knowing that you can never return home is a unique kind of pain. My heart aches for her and for the thousands upon thousands of North Koreans for whom home is only a memory and never again a destination.

Far from satisfying my curiosity about North Korea, Ms. Lee's story has only piqued it further. While Nothing to Envy told more about those who suffered deeply under the Kim family, The Girl With Seven Names explains what life was like for those who had it easier. I'd love to read a memoir by a defector who escaped due to dire circumstances, to understand exactly what their path to building a life in the outside world looks like. Goodreads has several lists of books on North Korea; the longest has 105 books, so it looks like I'll definitely have a few options.

Visit Hyeonseo Lee's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Heretics Anonymous- Katie Henry

I read about Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry recently on someone else's blog (and for the life of me, I can't remember who; if it was you, please leave me a comment and I'll credit you with a link to your review here! This made me realize I need to start writing down where I find all these great recommendations). The cover alone made me laugh, and the premise made it sound like it was my kind of book. Religion in YA? Bring it on!

Thanks to his father's job, Michael's moved a lot throughout his life, and this time he's landed at a private Catholic high school. Which wouldn't be the biggest deal, except he's an atheist, so it's a little uncomfortable. Feeling out-of-place and friendless on his first day, Michael latches on to Lucy after her no-holds-barred response against the quote about well-behaved women rarely making history in theology class. Surely Lucy's like him, not fitting in among all these sheeple.

Except Lucy does believe. Maybe not exactly the way the Church would want her to, but she still counts herself in. In spite of this, Lucy drags Michael with her to the group of friends who have dubbed themselves Heretics Anonymous, which includes a gay Jewish boy, a Reconstructionist Pagan girl, and a dresscode-flaunting Unitarian. Together, they decide to start shaking things up at the school. Rules, especially the pointless ones made by hypocrites, were made to be broken, right?

At first, exposing the school's hypocrisy merely triggers debate amongst the student body, but when Michael's family situation causes him to make a few decisions based on anger, the real-life repercussions begin to fall outside of the group. It's no longer fun and games when everyone's getting hurt, and Michael will have to use what he's been learning at St. Clare's Preparatory School in order to make things right.

This is a laugh-out-loud book (I figured the people sitting by me in the library were going to think I was nuts, with my constant chuckling as I turned the pages) with themes of justice, redemption, and self-reflection. Ms. Henry never gets in the reader's face with a message; rather, she lets the group of friends' actions and emotions speak for themselves. The friends are able to engage in spirited but productive debate over issues such as dress code and the school's firing of a married lesbian teacher, defending each other when appropriate, telling each other to back off when necessary. While they may not always agree perfectly with each other or with the Church and school, their ability to express their feelings on each matter at hand and make the others understand the importance of their position is invigorating. Far from being a heavy-handed morality message, I think Ms. Henry has written a great example of what a cohesive friend group should look like here.

I attended Catholic school from two years of preschool all the way up until eighth grade graduation, and while I no longer consider myself Catholic, a lot of this rang true for me, particularly the religious jokes (I think we all made the joke about cannibalism at one point in our many, many hours of religion class) and the seething debate over religious issues and doctrine (I don't remember one girl in my class who was okay with the idea of never using birth control, and you better believe we pushed back on that one). I do remember a few students who were more pious than others, but none quite as extreme (or as snotty about it) as Theresa...but then again, we were a pretty small school, so I'm sure students like her exist somewhere.

There was a moment that stopped me in this book, that surprised me. Close to the end of Chapter 14, Lucy brings up the Magnificat. *(If you're not familiar, it's from the Gospel of Luke, 1:46-55, where Mary sings after she's been told she's going to give birth to the son of God.) It's Lucy's favorite because it's revolutionary, and she tells Michael about how it was banned in Argentina in the 1970's after being used by mothers of people killed by the military, and how it was banned in Spain in the 1930's by Francisco Franco. This all struck a chord with me, not because I was familiar with it (I can't remember if we were taught the significance of the Magnificat or not), but because I'd recently read something about it and couldn't remember where. When I got home, to my surprise I actually found it again, a Washington Post article titled 'Mary's 'Magnificat' in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.' Up until the point I read this article back in December, I had no idea how revolutionary or subversive these verses have been considered, and it was fascinating to me to see this pop up again in my life.

This was really a fun, funny, thought provoking book. I see that Ms. Henry has another book coming out in August of this year, titled Let's Call It a Doomsday; you better believe I'll be breaking down the library door to check out a copy!

Visit Katie Henry's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating- Christina Lauren

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating is my third Christina Lauren book and is adorable, sweet, and oh-so-swoony. I love dual (or multiple) narrative books, and they do it so very well.

Hazel is eccentric, full of energy, close to the very definition of 'hot mess.' Josh is calm, relaxed, the coolest cucumber you'll ever meet. Hazel's chaos and disorder; Josh is buttoned to the neck and organized to the hilt. Josh is just coming out of a long-term relationship that ended badly; Hazel has  never had great success when it comes to dating. But opposites attract, and they do it in a big way in this fabulous slow-burn rom-com.

They first meet in college, with a few awkward incidents involving vomit, sex, and post-wisdom tooth removal painkillers (not all at the same time, thankfully). Yet when their paths cross again years later, they're able to immediately slip into a comfortable friendship, despite their differences. After an apartment flood that displaces Hazel for weeks, Josh's sister gets him to agree to let Hazel stay at his place. He's not going to be there anyway, as he's off visiting his long-distance girlfriend...who's cheating on him. And has been. For almost half the relationship. Ouch. Upon his immediate return, Hazel takes it upon herself to pull him out of his funk, and as their friendship grows, they set each other up on double blind dates...disastrous ones. Which leads them to have drunken sex, which totally changes nothing. They're still friends, still double-dating...right?

When Josh sets Hazel up with a friend who turns out to be the guy who broke her heart, the stakes are raised, and Josh begins to realize his feelings for Hazel run far deeper than just friends, while Hazel still continues to think she's not quite good enough for him. A spanner in the works makes time of the essence, though, and Hazel will have to get past her fear of ruining their friendship in order to define what she and Josh truly are to each other.

This was beyond adorable. I will admit, I had a hard time warming up to Hazel at first, though I did find her more relatable as the story went on. She's loud and quirky and no-holds-barred; I'm more of the 'text my husband from another room because yelling downstairs would be exhausting' levels of energy, and I'm not sure I'd be able to handle someone like Hazel in real life. But in the book, she works, and she provides a lovely balance to Josh's more relaxed nature. I found Josh to be a swoony delight; I was utterly charmed by everything about him. He's so sweet with Hazel, so loving with his sister and parents, and I absolutely loved his connection with his Korean heritage and the occasional reference to his being bilingual (my marriage is similar; my husband is Belgian by birth and speaks both English and French). His growing feelings for Hazel were written so well; nothing was rushed or felt like it moved too quickly, and the ending- THE ENDING! That finally chapter practically had me on the floor. SO FULL OF ADORABLENESS.

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating is the swoon-worthy slow burn rom-com you need in your life. Drop everything and read this book, because it's like a soft, fuzzy blanket you can wrap around yourself on the coldest day of the year.

Visit Christina Lauren's website here.

Follow Christina Lauren on Twitter (and then follow Christina and Lauren separately!).

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

My Favorite Half-Night Stand- Christina Lauren

I fell in love with the writing duo of Christina Lauren last year after reading Dating You/Hating You. The writing and plot were so sharp and fast-paced, and the chemistry between Carter and Evie was magnetic (and it's a book set in Hollywood, so you know I'm down for that!), so I was excited to find two of their books on the library's New Fiction shelf this week. My Favorite Half-Night Stand didn't disappoint one bit.

Millie's life isn't perfect- her mom died when she was young, leaving her family fractured and Millie unable to open up about her pain; her father has been newly diagnosed with Parkinson's and she can't deal- but it helps that she has the most amazing group of friends. Guy friends: Ed, Chris, Alex...and Reid. Reid's the guy she considers her best friend; things have always been just a little different with him, a little extra. When the five of them realize they need dates for their university's upcoming black tie gala, the perpetually single workaholic friends make a pact to join a dating app, but that night, Millie and Reid burn it down in bed together. No biggie, it's just a one-time thing...right?

When Reid begins to talk to women on the app and Millie gets nothing but dick pics and lascivious come-ons, she creates a second, secret profile...and matches with Reid. She's sure he'll recognize their private jokes in the message she writes, but when he doesn't, she finds herself opening up to him in a way she can't in real time. Their repeated steamy encounters only complicate the situation, especially when Reid's still chatting with Daisy, a gorgeous blond, and Cat, Millie's fake profile. When things come to a head, Millie needs to decide what she truly wants...and Reid will have to decide if he can ever trust his best friend again.

I loved this. Lying about identity always makes me uncomfortable in romance novels, but Millie's character was so genuine and the chemistry, not only between her and Reid but among the friend group, was enough to make up for my unease. Each character has such a distinct personality and way of interacting with the others that made the group scenes an absolute delight to read; they had me wishing I had my own bad pun-cracking, loud belching guy friend group to wipe the floor with in Friday night Monopoly games, and the group chat scenes add an extra bit of modern day fun. Nothing about Reid and Millie together seemed forced, and I really enjoyed how each morning after situation contained no awkwardness, just an easy back-to-normal continuation of the way things had always been between them. Their witty banter had me laughing out loud several times (to the point where my husband asked if I was okay from the other room).

Christina Lauren is (are? What verb form does what looks like a singular person who is actually a writing team take???) a master of contemporary romantic comedy, and My Favorite Half-Night Stand slammed it way out of the park for me. I've got Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating coming up next and I can't wait to dive in.

Check out Christina Lauren's website.

Follow Christina Lauren on Twitter. And for more Twitter fun, you can follow Christina and Lauren separately! 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary- D.L. Mayfield

Ahh, interlibrary loan and your cover-obscuring stickers...

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L Mayfield came to my attention via Episode #59: of the What Should I Read Next podcast, titled Prescribing books for what ails you. Ms. Mayfield was the featured guest, and based on some of the things she said, I thought I might enjoy her book.

I was correct. Assimilate or Go Home tells the story of her life among the Somali Bantu refugee population in Portland, a group of people that are, she states, some of the least successfully acclimated refugees the US ever attempted to resettle. Many of them had never lived with electricity or indoor plumbing; some of them had never climbed up stairs before coming to the US. The vast majority were illiterate in their own language, which makes learning written English difficult, if not impossible, especially when the trauma they've suffered is factored in. The Bantus were an ethnic and cultural minority even in their home country; even so, had it been possible, they would have chosen to stay there, rather than come to such an unfamiliar and difficult place..

Having long dreamed of becoming a missionary and bringing God's kingdom (if she could only figure out exactly what that was...) to those who needed it most, Bible college graduate D. L. Mayfield began her volunteer work with the Somali Bantus positive that her mere presence would be all that it would take in order for them to accept Jesus and for their lives to improve. What actually happened was something very different.

Throughout this collection of essays, Ms. Mayfield details the challenges faced by the refugee families- language, poverty, culture, racism, bigotry, among many others- and describes how her presence often made the situation worse. Wanting to share her church's Harvest Day festival with three headscarf-wearing Somali girls, whom she dressed up as Bollywood princesses, only proved how 'other' her own church community saw them; showing off her newborn baby, who was born quickly after what sounded like a fast diagnosis of pre-eclampsia, only drove home her privilege with the fact that had this happened to these women in Somalia, they and their babies would have died- most of them had already lost at least one child. 'The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became,' she admits. Clawing one's way out of privilege and a smaller-than-you-realized worldview is no easy task; Ms. Mayfield does it, but realizes that it comes at the expense of those she's supposed to be serving.

This is a memoir of hard-won humility, of unlearning just about everything you grew up being taught and thinking you know about the world around you. To be honest, I found Ms. Mayfield's honesty and ability to examine her long-held beliefs and ideas extremely refreshing. While I'm not especially religious, I see far too many religious leaders with that white savior complex that Ms. Mayfield admits she originally had, with no contrary evidence altering their worldviews: this is the way things are, and if you do XYZ, then everything will be perfect and fall in line. It's not quite that simple, Ms. Mayfield writes, and she's correct.

This is one of those books where I would read a paragraph; pause; read it again; think about it; then write a line or two down in my reading binder (do you keep a log of notes as you're reading? I find it helpful. I use a binder because Walmart was out of notebooks the day I went in. Out. Entirely. Again. One time they were out of extension cords. The Walmarts here are bizarre). D.L. Mayfield shares a lot of poignant insights that, while they stem from her Christian faith, apply universally, and she does it in a way that begs the reader to follow in her footsteps. Examine your ideals, your biases, your preconceptions about how the world should work and how people should act, and replace them with reality- not how you want it to be, but how it is. That's where God, and growth, and peace,  and understanding, will be.

Even if you're not religious, this is a worthy read, both for the story and for the painful lessons that Ms. Mayfield learned (and that so many of us could stand to learn as well). This should also be required reading for anyone beginning work, volunteer or otherwise, with any marginalized community. It's not a soft, gentle read by any means; it asks hard questions and demands changes, but it's a challenge we should all be up for.

I was pleased to see that Ms. Mayfield is represented by Rachelle Gardner; I've followed her on Twitter for years and I've read and enjoyed other books she represents. Do you read the acknowledgements? I always enjoy scanning them and seeing if I recognize any names.

If you're interested in this topic, books with similar themes include The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (for more on the refugee experience), and The Childcatchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (for another example of the damage the pervasive attitude of white saviorism can wreak).

Visit D.L. Mayfield's website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.