nonfiction · memoir

Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian- Jill Grunenwald

When I went searching through my library’s online card catalog for Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard by Laura Bates, I came across another book that hadn’t hit the shelves yet but was available to request, and so I did. Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald (Skyhorse, 2019) ticked so many of my pet subject boxes: prisons, libraries, reading, reading in prison, prison libraries, books about reading. I wasn’t the only one in line, though, so I ended up waiting for probably around six weeks or so before I received the email to come and pick up my book. (Who ARE you other local readers? We could be such good friends!)

Fresh out of library school at a time when the economy stank more than a swampy landfill baking in the August sun, Jill Grunenwald applies for job after job and receives nothing, until the day she applies for a job as a librarian in a correctional facility. The ad is so vaguely worded that Jill doesn’t realize she was applying to work in a prison until later. As it stands, her first days on the job are marked by deep anxiety- what on earth is she doing as a prison librarian?

The job takes all of Jill’s wits and more; while her facility is minimum-security, there are still men who will take advantage of anything they can. Public masturbation is indeed a thing in prison (not just for public transportation anymore! Ugh); librarian-signed permission letters aren’t enough to make it okay for an inmate to take safety scissors back to his cell; breaking your elbow while rollerblading is NOT conducive to safety while working behind bars. There are good days and bad days, little wins and setbacks. Being a prison librarian is a unique job, and Jill shares the ups and downs in the pages of this memoir.

So.

Reading Behind Bars is worth a read alone for the subject matter (and if you’re interested, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg is probably right up your alley as well). Working a non-security position at a prison is pretty interesting, and the ins and outs of the protocols Ms. Grunenwald had to follow in order to maintain safety standards for both herself and the inmates added a little flavor to the story…at first. And then the repetition began to feel pedantic and tiresome. What the memoir lacks is a more personal touch, of how the author grew and changed and was changed by her experiences in the prison. I didn’t feel like I knew her any better by the last page (although I liked her; she totally seems like the kind of person I’d love to hang out with!), nor did I get a true sense of what her time at the prison meant to her, and I would have liked to.

I did enjoy reading about about how she needed to update the entire (and non-existent, when she arrived) online book catalog, along with entering the enormous stacks of donated books. While she was outlining what a horrible amount of work it would be, and such drudgery, I was practically salivating over the prospect (I had to do something similar with the entire catalog of movies in the video rental store I worked in as a teenager. WHY YES, I AM OLD, THANK YOU. Another teenage employee and I tackled the project and got it done in a ridiculously short amount of time, and I enjoyed every last second of it). Personally, I would have enjoyed reading more about this project and any other efforts she made to improve the library, especially since I think it’s fairly well-known that prison libraries aren’t exactly a priority for the institutions that house them (and lately, prisons have been making the news for removing books; you can read about one such case here; I’ll be over here with my blood boiling).

Speaking of which, another section I liked was her discussion over her discomfort of the constant censorship of material in prison; I could entirely relate to and understand that. I may not agree with certain books and some subject matter, but I would never try to stop anyone from reading them, and I can imagine that being required to do that by one’s employer would start to itch like a too-tight wool sweater before long. These too are sections that make the book worth a read. I’ve come across some interesting discussions about this on Library Twitter (I really do love libraries in every form!), so if you haven’t delved into censorship as a topic of study, Ms. Grunenwald lays out some fabulous examples that will hopefully get the hamster in your head racing in its wheel, so that you’ll be as incredulous as I am that prison libraries are out there banning Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. WTAF.

Anyway, while this wasn’t exactly the book I was hoping it would be, I still enjoyed it for the look it gave me into a place I’ll (hopefully!) never be- definitely not as a librarian, because I can’t afford school and my crummy back makes me the world’s largest liability, and hopefully never as an inmate!

Visit Jill Grunenwald’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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fiction · YA

Opposite of Always- Justin A. Reynolds

Another book that came from the recommendation of a fellow book blogger, and another book down from my TBR! This was checked out from the library ALL. SUMMER. LONG (you go, local kids!!!), but now that they’re back in school, Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019) was back on the shelf and subsequently in my enormous heap of library books.

Jack King is the king of Almost, never quite reaching his goal no matter how hard he tries. Years of longing after his best female friend, who is (conveniently? inconveniently) dating his best male friend, have, however, been entirely wiped out by Jack’s attendance at a party during his college visit. There, he meets Kate, with whom he shares an immediate and nearly tangible connection. Hoping to leave ‘almost’ in the dust, Jack begins a slow, easy relationship with Kate, but of course nothing could be that simple.

It turns out that Kate’s sick- really sick- and suddenly, with a speed that Jack can barely comprehend, she’s dead. It’s almost more than Jack can take- until all at once, he’s thrown back in time to the night that he and Kate met. Can he prevent her death? Is that what he’s supposed to do? Or could his best friends, Franny and Jillian, need a little help too? It’s Groundhog Day for the YA set as Jack battles time, over and over again, to finally ditch that King of Always mantle.

If you enjoy that classic Bill Murray film, or even if you’ve ever wished you could have a do-over, this book is worth looking into. Jack is extremely likable as a character; he never quite measures up to what he truly wants to be, and I think that’s something that so many of us can relate to, no matter what our age. His relationships with his best friends are endearing and supportive- we’re talking serious friend goals here (with the exception, of course, the timeline where Jack makes a few decisions that affect Franny negatively, but to his credit, he learns from this), and his commitment to Kate undeniable. The supporting adult cast is also really amazing. Jack’s parents are older and are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary during the story, and while Jack on occasion gets grossed out by their physical affection, it’s obvious that he appreciates what their long-lasting love has given him. Franny (short for Francisco) lives with his abuela, who is a pillar of support, and even his mostly-deadbeat, fresh-out-of-prison father has an admirable character arc throughout the course of the book. Mr. Reynolds really hit a grand slam here in showing how much change is possible, even for adults who have been hardened by time and circumstance.

I love the concept of short-distance time travel, as well as repeated days and situations. While Bill Murphy kept waking up on the same day at the end of every day, Jack lives out a period of four months, time and time again, in order to get everything right- and there’s even a time when he goes FULL Bill Murray and kind of throws his hands up and does basically everything wrong, which I seriously loved. This is the only sci-fi element of the whole story, and it was so enjoyable to read.

And I can’t finish this review without mentioning how much I enjoyed a book with an entirely non-white main cast. (I’m trying to think of any side characters who were mentioned as being white, and none are coming to mind. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll amend this post!) The skin color or ancestry of the characters isn’t necessarily a focus of the story; it’s just part of who they are, and these are just black characters living their lives (lives steeped in time travel, of course!). The only other book I can think of that I’ve read that can claim an all (or mostly) black cast of characters is The Gift Giver by Joyce Hansen (again, please feel free to correct me in the comments if you’ve read this book and I’m wrong; it’s been a few years since my last reread of this, but from what I recall, the cast was mostly black), which I read repeatedly and loved as a child. Would Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins count here? I can’t remember if there were any named white characters in that story. Reading over my review of that book makes me want to read more from Ms. Bev! I digress… The books differ in that The Gift Giver takes place in the Bronx, amongst families who are struggling financially, whereas in Opposite of Always, these are just middle class black families living their lives. While Franny’s abuela works multiple jobs and is often late to his games because of this, it’s never focused on heavily, and it’s a nice change from so many of the books published when I was young, which strayed heavily into ‘The Dangers of a Single Story‘ territory whenever a non-white character showed up. A book like Opposite of Always is a huge deal just for its cast alone, and it makes my heart sing to know that it’s been so popular.

So, to recap: YA. Time travel with a Groundhog Day-bent. Romance. Saving the girl. Saving friends. Making things right and getting chance after chance to do it. A cast of characters that makes this book stand out. Sharp, snappy writing with a sense of humor and captivating characters. What’s not to love? Don’t let the size fool you; this heavy tome will have you flipping pages like the wind, desperate to know if Jack ever manages to work things out. And if you’re into reading books before the movie comes out, GET ON THIS TRAIN NOW, BECAUSE THEY’RE MAKING A MOVIE OUT OF IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Visit Justin A. Reynolds’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World- Melinda Gates

I’m struggling to remember where I heard about this book. If memory serves me correctly (and it doesn’t always these days!), I think I first heard about The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates (Flatiron Books, 2019) from an episode of the BookRiot podcast All the Books!, but I’m not entirely certain. It was the comparison to Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide that had me running to add it to my TBR. If you’ve read Half the Sky, this is an astute comparison; if you haven’t, go ahead and add it to your TBR right now, along with The Moment of Lift, because both are five-star books for me.

Melinda Gates is probably best known for being married to Microsoft’s principal founder Bill Gates, and for co-founding their private foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which does amazing work around the world to alleviate poverty, but before she married Bill, she worked as a manager at Microsoft and was (and still is!) passionate about getting more girls and women into STEM careers. Becoming a stronger voice in the foundation wasn’t an easy choice for her, due to her shyness, but after traveling and learning from women all around the world, Melinda realized that that was exactly what she needed to do.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so much money that, I remember learning years ago, they can’t actually give it away fast enough, and part of this is because they take their time making sure that they’re giving in a sustainable way, to projects that help the receivers grow and be able to produce on their own, instead of just throwing money at a problem (and thus being more harmful to an area when the money suddenly dries up). But what Mrs. Gates has learned from her travels, from women all around the world, some of whom live in the most dire circumstances imaginable, she shares in this book, and so much of what she’s written here resonated deeply with me. Her thoughts about human nature- sometimes our basest nature- are profound and beautiful, and I copied down two pages worth of notes and quotes.

For example, her claim that ‘there is no morality without empathy’ put into words something I’ve always felt very deeply, but never really had the wording to describe. She goes on to say:

“Morality is loving your neighbor as yourself, which comes from seeing your neighbor as yourself, which means trying to ease your neighbor’s burdens- not add to them.”

Two other paragraphs that struck a deep chord with me:

“It’s often surprisingly easy to find bias, if you look. Who was omitted or disempowered or disadvantaged when the cultural practice was formed? Who didn’t have a voice? Who wasn’t asked their view? Who got the least share of the power and the largest share of the pain? How can we fill in the blind spots and reverse the bias?

Tradition without discussion kills moral progress. If you’re handed a tradition and decide not to talk about it- just do it- then you’re letting people from the past tell you what to do. It kills the chance to see the blind spots in the tradition- and moral blind spots always take the form of excluding others and ignoring their pain.”

In story after story from women around the world, Mrs. Gates shows examples of how bias and the base human need to create outsiders in order to falsely empower ourselves can be overcome through education and understanding (though it might not be as simple as it first seems, in many cases). The Moment of Lift is a book that will have you examining your own biases and thinking deeply about what you can do to make yourself, your community, this world, a better place- for women, and not just for women, but because when we empower women, we empower everyone. Equality benefits every member of society, and Mrs. Gates shows this throughout the book in powerful examples.

This is a book I feel like I could reread over and over again throughout my life, and maybe I should, as a constant reminder to always check my biases and to always work to be more inclusive, not less. The Moment of Lift is beauty and wonder, along with tears and heartbreak (there are plenty of devastating stories, including stories of rape, child death, and child marriage), but with the message that pushes the reader to strive for growth and the creation of a better world. If you read one nonfiction book this year, let it be this one.

Visit Melinda Gates’s website for The Moment of Lift here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Suburban Micro-Farm- Amy Stross

I’m not a country girl whatsoever. I admire the people who leave it all behind and go live on the farm of their dreams out in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not for me. I grew up in a smallish town and I start feeling claustrophobic when I’m anywhere with less civilization than that small town (which is still pretty small). I am, however, a huge fan of permaculture and making the best use of what growing space one has, and so on my spree of putting gardening and homesteading books on my TBR, I added The Suburban Micro-Farm by Amy Stross (Twisted Creek Press, 2018) and immediately requested it from the library. Amy Stross knows what she’s talking about; along with having worked as a landscape gardener and a CSA manager and being certified in permaculture, she runs a blog called Tenth Acre Farm about her own suburban homestead, handing out tips and ideas about permaculture gardening in the suburbs like candy at a parade.

The Suburban Micro-Farm is a gorgeous book, crammed full of beautiful photographs of flowers, vegetables, fruit, and landscape, right alongside information about what permaculture is and how we who live in the suburbs can turn our lawns and what we previously thought of as unusable areas, into productive gardening zones that cut our food bills, provide plants and shade for pollinators and other native creatures, and turn our boring lawns into beautiful, generative farmland. If you’re ready to move beyond the rain barrel, Ms. Stross has plans for rain gardens, if that’s something that suits your property, and she offers up ideas for everything from container gardening to raised beds to shady spaces to wide expanses of lawn. There’s literally something in here for everyone who’s looking to turn every inch of their property from something that consumes into something that produces.

This book really got me thinking about better usage of the land we live on, and we’ve already started with some work that will hopefully improve it and set us down the path to growing more of our own produce (and I have more work to do as soon as this heat wave passes! I’m not spending hours out there in 89 degree heat…). I love that she’s not afraid to admit that she’s made mistakes in the past and that sometimes it just takes trial and error to find what grows best on your own particular property. Her message of ‘try to figure out what went wrong; figure out what you need to solve the problem; sometimes you just have to try again next year’ really resonated with me; it helps my perfectionist tendencies to hear someone with far more experience and expertise to say that not only is it okay to screw up, it’s expected, and it’s not a big deal. We can always fix it next season.

If you dream of turning your home into a homestead and your lawn into a lush garden exploding with gorgeous produce, you need this book. It’s one I’m considering actually buying, because it’s that good of a reference. Ms. Moss introduced me to quite a few new concepts, including that of a tree guild, which intrigued me, as we have a baby apple and a baby plum tree that we planted last year, along with two tiny cherry trees that we sprouted from pits (this isn’t as simple as, say, sprouting a bean; it involved freezing the pit in sub-zero temperatures for a time!). I love those trees and want them to be as productive and healthy as possible, so this is something I’ll definitely put to use!

Grow food, not lawns. It’s a fabulous concept, and hopefully in a few years, I’ll be participating in it more!

Visit Amy Stross’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger- Rebecca Traister

Women’s anger- whether it be about inequality in its multitudinous forms, sexual assault, or our current rocky political landscape- has been making headlines for quite a while now, and for good reason. Most of the women I know are pretty angry about a lot of things these days, and I’m right there with them, so when I heard about Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister (Simon & Schuster, 2018), I knew I had to read it. One of the reasons I read so much is so that I’m always learning, always checking myself and my biases, always looking for ways to improve myself. Maybe reading this would help me feel so not alone in the anger and disgust that has become a constant companion these days.

Women’s anger has never been fully accepted in western society, and in the US, it’s mostly been brushed off, ignored, laughed at, and silenced, but throughout history, despite being denied equal pay, equal rights, the right to vote, the right to control her own fertility, even the right to obtain her own credit card or own property, women’s anger has been effective at initiating social change time and time again (and STILL we’re not taken seriously, wtf). Ms. Traister covers some of these incidents, but the bigger focus of the book remains on more modern issues.

Good and Mad focuses a lot on the outcome and aftermath of the 2016 elections and all the many, many issues raised because of them, and also the positive things that have come out of this anger. One of the benefits of our collective anger is that so many more women have become more politically activee and have run and are running for government office in unprecedented numbers (it’s about time!!!), and her portrayals of all the women who have found an outlet for their anger in political work is empowering.

Women’s anger has made clear, too, that we have a long, long way to go on racial equality in this country, and Ms. Traister gives space at the table to women of color who are fed up with not being heard by white women, especially those white women who benefit from the patriarchy and by doing so are happy to let women of color suffer (and I was very glad to see it; more intersectionality in all things, please!). I’ve seen this far too often online; we all need to do a better job of listening to each other, and especially listening and learning from women of color. When they say something is harmful to them, believe them and work to change your ways. It’s easy to get defensive and claim you didn’t mean anything by what you said, but it’s better to apologize, learn why what you said or did was wrong, and work to change your behavior. It’s the only way we’ll evolve as human beings, and it’s so, so necessary.

What I learned, and appreciated learning, most from Good and Mad is that our anger, women’s anger, isn’t unhealthy. It’s a valid emotion; it’s the system that insists we must oppress it for someone else’s benefit and comfort, and while I enjoy making life pleasant for those I love, I don’t need to make the world pleasant for those who don’t see me as an equal. Ms. Traister’s work has definitely inspired me to keep my anger burning in a productive way.

(And, just as a side note- check out the Goodreads reviews for this. Women AND men are reviewing it positively! In my review of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers & the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman, I noted how a friend had pointed out that only women were reviewing the book. When I scrolled down through the reviews of Good and Mad, my eyes nearly popped out to see the first handful of reviews were by men! Amazing!)

Visit Rebecca Traister’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Story of Those Who Survived- Andrew Wilson

Another book on the Titanic, added to my list after our trip to the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri, this past summer (and the museum is mentioned in the book!). I’m the type of person who, when I get interested in a subject, I often tend to read about that subject until I’m sick of it, so I’m trying to pace myself more with the Titanic; I think I only added two books to my TBR when I went searching post-vacation. Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraodinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson (Simon & Schuster, 2011), however, was exactly what I was looking for in a book. I’ll explain.

Almost every book on the Titanic disaster recaps the early days of the ship and the dreadfulness of the iceberg crash and subsequent sinking, and Shadow of the Titanic is no different in that regard. It begins, in fact, with an absolutely terrifying description of the sounds survivors heard as the ship itself went down, the crashing and banging of pianos and tables and dishes as they tumbled through the ship or fell overboard, the groan of the ship as it broke apart, and the terrible screaming of people as they jumped or fell to certain death in twenty-eight degree water. One survivor admitted to never being able to take his sons to a baseball game, because the roar of the crowd reminded him too much of what he heard as the Ship of Dreams sank. Where this book diverges, though, is by following select survivors throughout their lives and pinpointing how their experiences as Titanic survivors affected them. This isn’t a book about the ship, it’s a book about the people who, against the odds, lived through this disaster.

And Mr. Wilson doesn’t just follow their lives immediately after their return to dry land; for the survivors profiled in this book, he devotes entire sections that cover their whole lives, including how they ended up on the Titanic in the first place, and then recounting their lives, the highlights and the lowest of lows, until their deaths. Spread throughout is more information about the Titanic, and how its aftermath affected culture and history around the world.

I found this book deeply fascinating, both in its presentation of information that I previously hadn’t known, and in how varied survivors’ reactions to what they’d been through could be. It seemed as though most of them suffered from what we know today as PTSD, but for which there was really no term for back then, and anyway, society didn’t much allow for anyone to talk about those kinds of things. People were just expected to pick up and move on with their lives fairly immediately, and some did this with more grace than others (for lack of a better term; I would’ve been an entire mess, and quite a few people were, including at least one woman who spent the rest of her life in a sanitarium). There were a handful of suicides, some terrible stories of widows arriving back to land to find that their husbands had left them deeply in debt, women who had lost both husband and sons, and people who never seemed to be able to get their lives back on track afterwards. There were people who wound up making a living off of being a survivor and others who couldn’t bear to talk about it (and who forbid others around them to talk about it as well). It really runs the gamut, and there’s no singular profile of a Titanic survivor; Shadow of the Titanic makes that very clear.

If you’re interested in the Titanic, I highly recommend this book. It’s not exactly uplifting reading, but it’s an intriguing study in survivor psychology in the years after the Titanic sank and shouldn’t be missed if this is one of your pet subjects.

Visit Andrew Wilson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction

Daisy Jones & The Six- Taylor Jenkins Reid

Everywhere I turned this spring and summer, it seemed like everyone was reading Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Ballantine Books, 2019), and with good reason. Having grown up listening to my father’s classic rock music (he had, literally, thousands of CD’s when I was young, the best music collection I’ve ever seen), a fictionalized account of an up-and-coming rock group bringing in an up-and-coming singer-songwriter and collaborating to make one iconic album before self-destructing, told in interview format, sounded amazing. The only time the library had a copy available, I already had five or six (or more…) books at home, waiting to be read, and I couldn’t justify adding another to the pile, but lo and behold, it was my lucky day when a copy showed up on the Lucky Day shelf at the library a few weeks ago. I grabbed it and blew through the book in a few days.

The Six, a rock band headed by recovering (after a while!) addict Billy Dunne, is young, hungry, ambitious, and full of promise. Their first album did well and they toured successfully. They share their origin story, two brothers working together to form a band, pulling in friends and newcomers until they find their perfect sound, working together until they make it. But what really makes them shine is collaborating on a single with California wild child Daisy Jones. Daisy’s been known on the Sunset Strip since her early teen years; sex, drugs, more drugs, and rock stars have been her thing from the beginning, but she’s talented, in both singing and songwriting, in her own right. After some major deliberation, when their collaborative single skyrockets up the charts, she’s in the band, but it’s not without major, MAJOR drama.

She’s an addict while Billy fights every day to stay clean. She’s fire and ice, and Billy’s married with kids. She wants one thing, Billy wants another (and the rest of the band is an entirely different story). Daisy Jones and the Six go from one extreme to another, until it’s too much and the entire thing blows like a volcano. Their story, from exciting beginning to overly dramatic ending, isn’t one you’ll want to miss.

Daisy Jones & The Six is told in interview format, the entire thing. If you were around for VH1’s Behind the Music, it’s like watching an episode of that, but in book form, and it’s SO much fun. I adored that show, I adore rock history (I nearly died the day I was listening to NPR and they introduced their ‘rock historian,’ Ed Ward. I was like, “That’s a JOB??? How can I apply????”), and thus I adored this book. Taylor Jenkins Reid obviously loves all these same things and it shows in how much research she’s put into this book and how well she’s captured the zeitgeist of the 70’s, not only with music and drug references, but with speech patterns, clothing choices, behavior… So many times, I sat back, grinning at how well she nailed all of this.

I was so happy to see that she referenced Stevie Nicks in the acknowledgements; I had Daisy pegged as a Stevie Nicks-like character from the beginning of the book, based on her wild ways and her unique, husky singing voice. I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac in high school (everyone else was listening to grunge and alternative and I was over there blasting Rumours and every Jackson Browne album on my CD player), and Daisy’s story with The Six fit in so well with what I know of bands of that era. The constant drug use, the terrifying ups and downs of fame, the highs and lows of working with so many different personalities, all of whom are fighting for the spotlight; Taylor Reid Jenkins absolutely nails it all. From time to time, parts of it reminded me of Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, which is probably my favorite book of all time- it also follows a rock group through the 70’s, its origin and breakup, and the fallout it caused for each member, focusing mainly on the romance between one band member and another’s sister (which sounds trite, but it’s not). It’s a novel heavy with emotion, and while it’s a romance, it’s also very much centered on our sense of identity and what we need to keep it intact. I read it mostly as a romance when I first read it at 16; as I grew older, I came to understand the female MC’s feelings of suffocation so much more. It’s an amazing book, so for Daisy Jones & The Six to evoke nostalgia for that book is a testament to how wonderful Daisy and company really are as characters.

Such a great book; I’m so happy I finally got to read it. That Lucky Day shelf really came through for me!

Visit Taylor Jenkins Reid’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · time travel

TheWriteReads On Tour Presents: A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

I fully blame my mother’s stash of time travel romances (so popular in the 80’s and early 90’s!) for my love of a good time travel story, and when I heard about TheWriteReads‘ latest blog tour book, A Different Time by Michael K. Hill (Tangent Press, 2019), the young teenager in me that used to sneak books from the downstairs coat closet leaped up and begged to join in, and who am I to say no when a story deals with communicating with the past???

Keith Nolan has been a little more than down on his luck for a very long time. His parents both died young, leaving him alone, fending for himself in this big lonely modern-day world. His job pays the bills, but it’s not exactly fulfilling, and his social life consists of a single guy friend with whom he eats takeout food and plays video games. No girls to speak of, Keith’s a little too shy and awkward for that. One of the few things in life that does bring him joy is spending his weekends combing flea markets for the comic books that will complete the collection of Uncanny X-Men his father left him. But when he finally manages to complete his collection, Keith is stunned by the realization that he never planned for what to do with his life beyond that. Enter Lindsey…

Or, not exactly. Lindsey, an artist and a dreamer, is trying to figure out her post-high school life in 1989. Her impatient mother isn’t willing to let her take her time, and her skeezy stepfather isn’t making Lindsey’s home situation any easier. Desperate for someone, anyone, to talk to, Lindsey pulls out an old camcorder and begins to record a video journal in the hopes of talking out her problems and getting her life in order.

The discovery of an old VHS-C tape at a flea market has Keith running for the VCR and an adapter tape, because merely touching the tape sends tingles running up his arm. And as the tape plays and Keith watches Lindsey, somehow, some way, the two realize they can communicate with each other. It doesn’t make sense to either of them, but Keith knows this is something special, something life-changing…if only he can track down Lindsey’s other tapes. But how? And will he be too late?

While it’s not traditional time travel, it’s still close enough to make my time travel-lovin’ heart squeal with joy. Keith is a sympathetic character from the start. In the beginning, we see him as a young boy, surrounded by the love of his parents on a birthday trip to New York where he’s saved from being run down in the street by the woman who turns out to be his favorite children’s book author, and the next thing we know, he’s a new adult, still aching over the loss of his parents who died on his fourteenth birthday. It’s easy to ache along with him and root for him as he searches (in some vividly disgusting situations!) for Lindsey’s other videotapes.

Lindsey is just as sympathetic. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce and subsequent move from Hawaii to California, Lindsey is so many of us in the years after high school, unsure of which way to go and which path to take. Her mother has, for all purposes, abandoned her emotionally in favor of focusing on her new and extremely skeezy husband (there’s a content warning here for an attempted assault, along with what skews toward emotional abuse from her mother, so please beware if you’re sensitive to these subjects), and Lindsey’s sadness and confusion make her a character you’ll desperately want to find a happily ever after.

What Keith and Lindsey discover together through the tapes is close to instalove, but it’s magical and spellbinding and otherworldly. Some of the best descriptions of the entire book come when Keith is desperately tearing through flea market dumpsters in a frenzied search for Lindsey’s other tapes. Do NOT eat while you’re reading this section; the phrase “garbage juice” alone should tell you enough of a reason why, and I was applauding Mr. Hill’s ability to create a scene I could practically smell from my comfortable reading place in my (better-scented!) home. It was entirely grotesque, incredibly entertaining to read, and it ended up being my favorite part of the book because of how easily I was transported right into those dumpsters alongside Keith.

This had a completely different ending than I expected it would, which pleased me quite a bit; I love when I think I have everything figured out, but it turns out that I was wrong and the ending is actually far more interesting than the one I was expected. The concept of being able to communicate with someone in the past has intrigued me for years, I even adored it in my childhood- if you’re familiar with the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, that book involved both time travel and communicating with the person with whom Charlotte switched places via letters strategically hidden in a bedpost- but the concept of being able to speak to someone through old VHS tapes was a new (and deeply intriguing!) one to me, and A Different Time has now got me wondering what time travel books will look like in the future when characters travel to and communicate with people of this era. Youtube videos? Files on old jump drives? There are so many possibilities here!

What a fun and ultimately charming book Mr. Hill has written. I’m so happy I got the chance to be a part of this blog tour, and if you’re a fan of books with elements of time travel and a little bit of the supernatural, A Different Time is worth YOUR time.

Thanks for stopping by on this blog tour- huge thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Michael K. Hill for allowing me to take part- and I hope you’ll check out some of the other stops!

Visit Michael K. Hill’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Saints and Misfits- S.K. Ali

Another book from my TBR! (I know, I know I’ll never tackle it completely, but at least I have a GOAL, right???) I managed to grab a copy of this right after my son went back to school- I live in a really amazing area (I know I say this a lot, but I really do love it here), and Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017) was on several school summer reading lists here, so every time I looked for it at the library during the summer, it was checked out. But when the kids went back to school, BAM- there it was on the shelf and I snatched it up like a ravenous seagull who has spotted a French fry in a McDonald’s parking lot.

This isn’t the easiest book for which to write a synopsis, so this will look a little different than my usual reviews. Bear with me here, because this book is SO. WORTH. IT.

Janna, a young hijabi, is struggling. Struggling with her parents’ divorce, struggling with her brother moving back home and taking over her room (forcing her to bunk with Mom), struggling with her brother’s Little Miss Perfect possible-future-wife, struggling with a crush on a non-Muslim boy, struggling to remain true to her convictions even when it’s hard, and most of all, struggling with having been sexually assaulted by a Muslim boy that everyone thinks is the most pious member of her community. To say that her plate is full is the understatement of the century.

The story centers around Janna navigating her school year, attempting to manage all these different parts of her life, with the assault and the young man who committed it looming largest over all the others. Janna’s identity as a Muslim is strong; though she sometimes makes decisions she later regrets in regards to her hijab and her crush on Jeremy, it’s her faith in herself, her confidence that her truth will be listened to and taken seriously by her own community where her crisis lies. When everyone loves the person who harmed you, whom can you tell? I think we’ve all seen in news stories these past few years that far too many people are willing to wave away any evidence, no matter how damning, when a woman comes forward about being sexually assaulted, and Janna’s fears here are both troubling and all too real.

I love-love-LOVED Janna as a character. She’s absolutely not perfect, and I was so able to relate to her- if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most people will be able to. We’ve all made decisions that go against what we believe; sometimes, we later realize we were wrong in those decisions, and other times, we learn that we need to redefine what we believe because it no longer fits who we are, but we’ve all been Janna. What made me want to scoop her up and hug her forever, though, was the paragraph where she stated that she would rather suffer in silence than have people blame her community because of her assault. I can’t speak from personal experience here, but I know it’s not easy being a member of a community that far too many people (people who have zero personal experience with Muslims and who have even less knowledge of Muslims or of Islam itself) mindlessly vilify, and while I understand and applaud Janna’s need to uphold and protect her community in that way, it broke my heart that she understood that pressure well enough to name it, and it furthered my commitment to help make this world more accepting and loving for anyone who has ever found themselves on the outside. A teenager who’s suffering but who understands that her community doesn’t need more bad press- the sheer reality of this is so heavy. We’ve got to do better.

I’ve got to do better.

I loved Ms. Ali’s portrayal of Janna’s Muslim community- the fun, the warmth, the activities, the varying degrees of practice and piety, it all felt so very alive and real. The way Janna’s non-Muslim best friend Tatyana fit right in in mosque activities was so sweet, and I adored Sausun (who works up to wearing niqab, the full face covering) and her brash personality- I learned SO much from her. She’s such an empowered character, and I loved how much she made Janna think. She made me think, too, and those are the kinds of books I LOVE.

This is a seriously important book- because of the Muslim author, because it features a teenage Muslim girl who wears hijab as a main character, because it centers around a Muslim community, because Janna is every teenager who has ever struggled with family, friends, and crushes, because it covers sexual assault (I wish so hard I could introduce Janna to Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; they would understand each other and could help each other heal), because of all these reasons and more. Nothing I say could possibly do this jewel of a book proper justice, because its truths and beauties run so very deep.

If you’ve made it this far, there are obvious content warnings for sexual assault; Janna has flashbacks throughout the story and is most likely suffering from PTSD related to the assault. There are also constant microaggressions (her gym teacher insisting on calling her hijab a hajeeb no matter how many times she was corrected drove me NUTS; it’s so disrespectful and I’m so, so sorry that anyone has to put up with crap like that); if these things are too much for you, wait for a better time to read it and be kind to yourself. If you’re able to handle these subject matters, this is an utterly amazing book that will allow you to see the world maybe a little differently than you’re used to, but so much of it will still look familiar, because we all have so much more in common than we have differences. 🙂

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali is also on my Goodreads TBR, and after reading Saints and Misfits, I’m looking forward to reading that more than Christmas and my birthday and the first warm day of summer combined. I’m so, so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and I truly hope Ms. Ali never, ever stops writing. So many people, myself included, need stories just like this one.

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly roundup: August 2019

Welcome to September!

Summer is winding down, and the kids are either back in school or are headed that way. Hard to believe the summer went by so fast, but it does every year, doesn’t it? I barely had a single chance to catch my breath this month; I spent so much of the summer getting all the appointments made that my daughter needed before starting kindergarten (doctor, dentist, eye doctor- dentist had to be cancelled TWICE due to illness, and eye doctor took multiple attempts to find glasses that fit her), getting the house back in order from being sick all spring, preparing for vacation/vacation/getting the house back in order from being gone on vacation, etc. We had so few days to just relax…and now whoooooosh, summer’s over! So it goes.

It took me most of July and a good part of August to get caught up on my reviews (and I’m still a few behind); I did nothing at night but write out two and sometimes three reviews, for about a week and a half, so my list looks a little smaller this month than usual- less reading time! But that’s okay. Let’s get started with this recap.

What I Read in August 2019

  1. A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming by Kerri Rawson

2. Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

3. Kindred by Octavia Butler

4. The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

5. Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates

6. Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

7. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

8. Titanic: Voices From the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

9. A Different Time by Michael K. Hill (review to come in September as part of a blog tour)

10. Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (review to come)

11. Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (review to come)

I think August has been my slowest month yet, reading-wise! That’s a combination of using my nightly reading time to catch up on reviews and having less time to read during the day as we tried to cram in all the necessary back-to-school activities. I’d hope that my reading would pick up in September, but I’m not sure that it will, since I have a TON of projects that I’m trying to get done around the house. Eight of these books were on my TBR, though, so that’s eight books down!

Reading Challenge Updates

I’m not currently participating in any reading challenges, other than trying to tame the beast that is my TBR.

State of the Goodreads TBR

Uhhhhh…

About that.

My Goodreads TBR currently stands at 89 books, up from 80 last month. I CAN EXPLAIN!!!

So, now that my daughter is a little older and can be kind of trusted not to throw herself in front of a passing truck if we blink while we’re outside with her, we’ve started ripping up some stuff in the yard in order to use the land more wisely. My husband tore down a giant ugly fir bush, and I raked up all the crap left behind (and toted it to the backyard; we’ll eventually burn it), and we’re going to turn that (sizable!) patch into a native flower garden in the spring- although right now we tossed down some kale seeds in hopes of a late kale crop. Once my back calms down a little bit, I’ll be out there with heavy-duty work gloves, ripping out old, sad cacti and other various spiky weeds so we can plant stuff in those spaces. All that is to say that I put a bunch of books on urban farming and growing food on my TBR, so that’s why it exploded the way it did this month!

Books I Acquired in August 2019

I received a copy of A Different Time by Michael K. Hill for a blog tour! Other than that, I don’t think I brought any books into the house this month. 🙂

Bookish Things I Did in August 2019

No real bookish events, but my husband did get me a new Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday! My elderly Kindle Keyboard had been having issues for about a year already, so this was a fabulous surprise. I haven’t even had the chance to use it yet, because I’ve had a steady flow of physical books, but as soon as I get these cleared out, it’s Kindle time, baby! Check out my gorgeous cover:

Current Podcast Love

After floundering a bit, I discovered Cults on Parcast, with Greg and Vanessa, whose voices are SO soothing that it would sometimes take me five or six tries to listen to an episode, because I would just fall asleep (and I’ve seen other people talk about that as well!). Cults is super fascinating and freaky, a look into often deadly religious groups, a few of which I’d heard of but (to their immense credit, because this is one of my biggest pet subjects) most of which I hadn’t. If you’re at all interested in cults and seriously weird religious groups (SERIOUSLY weird, like dudes claiming to be God or Jesus on earth, and the followers who actually take them seriously and hand over their teenage daughters to this guy because they’ve totally bought into it instead of running away screaming like most people would- SO many stories like this), give this a listen, I really felt like I learned a lot.

I listened to all the back episodes that Podbean offered, and today, I started listening to Behind the Bastards, a podcast about some of the worst people in history. So far, it’s really interesting and I’m looking forward to delving into it more next week (after the long weekend, when the kids are back in school).

Real Life Stuff

PHEW.

My son is now a senior in high school (so he’s ridiculously busy), and my daughter officially started kindergarten! The first three days were half days, but this past week was full-day. She has two friends from her gymnastics classes in her class, she made another friend who sits next to her, and a girl in first grade who was in preschool with my daughter when she was 3 remembers her and seeks her out on the playground all the time, so no worries there. She’s pretty tired when she comes home, though, which has led to some…rather screechy evenings around here. Poor kid. It’s a long day for five year-olds.

We live about a mile away from the school, so in the mornings, I walk her there and walk her back. If the weather is okay and I don’t have to pick my son up, I walk to pick her up and then we walk home. During school hours, I’ve been trying to find a balance between getting done all the BAZILLION house projects that I couldn’t do with my daughter interrupting me every three seconds and taking some time for me, and all that is to say that I’ve had some days with step counts like this:

Remember when I said my back hurt? Yeah. That’s a lot of walking.

So what have I been doing? The first few days were half days, so that didn’t leave much time to get stuff done, but come Monday, even though it was raining, I was bound and determined to start tackling my Hoarder-style garage. It’s looked like this pretty much since we moved in 4.5 years ago; after falling out there late last fall, I swore I would tackle it once my daughter went to school. Before:

Yeah. I felt exactly as embarrassed as you think I would every time my husband opened the door- and this is after I’d already done a little cleaning (albeit in the back right corner, not really visible in this picture). UGH. After 2.5 hours of absolutely disgusting work (combined with the 30 minutes I did earlier, on a different day), here’s the not-yet-finished-but-looking-better result:

I stopped working at this point because A., my back was entirely done, and B., both the garbage can and the recycling can were full to the top. My plan is to work on this on the days before trash pickup days in order to leave *some* space for household trash throughout the week (although we’re lucky if we have a single bag most weeks, along with some smaller bags from when I scoop the litterbox; the majority of our food-based garage goes into our compost, and I try to recycle as much as I can). The right side of the garage is going to be a little more difficult; it’ll be a lot of heavy lifting and I’m not sure how my back will take to that, but I guess we’ll find out when I get to it! The project isn’t complete yet, but I’m ridiculously happy about how it’s turned out so far. I’ve been out to that freezer probably fifteen times since I did this and didn’t have to worry ONCE about falling- whereas before, it was a constant worry, and like I said, I fell last fall, which is a huge concern with my bad back. So yay for me. 🙂

I’ve also organized all my cabinets, my drawers (including vacuuming them out), and my kitchen island; I cleaned out the coat closet (and ripped up the dry-rotted mat that sat in front of it and scraped all the pieces off that had stuck to the floor, GROSS) and cleaned off one of my daughter’s bookshelves in the living room. And since I had space, I organized everything out in my garage freezer (the only things I could stand stocking up on are corn and spinach…). We bought new shelves for our kitchen, so once my husband puts those together, I’ll be busy reorganizing my pantry goods, so I’m looking forward to being able to do that!

What’s next? I need to clean out the laundry room again; it’s not too bad, but could stand a little reorganization and a sweep for cobwebs. My daughter’s room is getting a complete overhaul; that’ll take at least one full day, and possibly more. After the garage is totally done and I clear some stuff out of the yard, I’ll have more time for myself, and then I’ll get started on some ME projects. 🙂

Speaking of which, my Blue Blanket Project (or what I’ve started thinking of as my Frozen blanket!) is coming along, slowly but swimmingly:

If anyone is interested, I’m using this pattern. It’s a nice, mindless project to work on while watching something with my husband or visiting with family.

So that was my August! Not as much reading going on as I would’ve liked, but such is life sometimes, and I’m looking forward to a long, cold winter of plowing through book after book after book this school year. I have no idea how long it will take for me to clean up the yard the way I want, or when I’ll actually get the garage finished- this is all both weather-dependent and my back-dependent, but I’d rather tackle those completely and quickly, so I can stop thinking about them! 🙂

I wish you a lovely September, full of great reads and beautiful weather no matter where you are. How was your August???