fiction · psychological thriller

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.

fiction · YA

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.

dystopian · fiction · YA

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?

black history · nonfiction · space

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.

fiction · historical romance

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.

fiction · YA

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.


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.

books about books · nonfiction

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.


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.

books about books · nonfiction

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.