Jesse’s Girl- Tara September

I was only a year old when Rick Springfield’s classic ‘Jessie’s Girl‘ was released, but I enjoyed the song when I was a teenager, and odds are you’re familiar with it as well, the story-set-to-music about a man who’s in love with his good friend’s girlfriend (although today was the first time I’ve ever seen the video. The feathered 80’s hair! The aggressive style of dancing that seems to appear in so many videos from that era! All we’re missing is a keytar and some blinding neon…). So when Tara September contacted me to offer me a review copy of her novel, Jesse’s Girl (independently published, 2019), I was in. A romance novel would be perfect to balance out some of the heavier stuff I’ve been reading lately.

From the moment he met her seven years ago, Reade has wanted Gwen. Unfortunately, Gwen is Jesse’s girl- and Jesse Clark isn’t just some random guy, he’s Reade’s lifelong frenemy, as well as a senator who’s been tapped as the next VP pick. Yikes. The best Reade has been able to do has been to stay in their small Texas town in order to be near Gwen and her daughter Maddie (who is also Reade’s goddaughter). But things are changing in a big, scandalous, splashed-all-over-the-news kind of way. Senator Clark has run off to Mexico with his intern, embezzling funds and draining the family bank account before he left, leaving Gwen high and dry, homeless and with no way to support herself and Maddie. Enter Reade, offering up his place to stay. Gwen agrees, but only on a temporary basis. She’s going to do whatever she has to to stand on her own two feet.

In this mix of Forced Proximity and Innocent Cohabitation tropes, the tension between Reade and Gwen grows, and they can’t seem to help ending up in some *ahem* hands-on situations. All Reade wants is to make Gwen his. Could it be possible that she’s feeling the same way?

Jesse’s Girl is well-written and fun, making for a mostly enjoyable read that did indeed counter the more depressing stuff I’ve been reading lately, so I definitely appreciated it for that. Though it’s not without its issues, I’ll start with what worked.

A book based on a song? FUN. If you know of other books like this, hit me up, because I’m loving the concept.

Reade’s genuine affection for Maddie, Gwen’s daughter, is adorable. Even though Maddie is only Reade’s goddaughter and not his biological daughter, he thinks of her and cares for her as if she’s his own even before she and Gwen move in; afterwards, he enjoys attending her ball games and helping her with homework. Emotionally, this felt deeply satisfying and provided some necessary depth to Reade’s character.

Jesse, as both a person and a politician, is smarmy and unctuous and awful, Gross with a Capital G. He’s over the top, but he’s done well, and I had no problems believing in any aspect of his personality whatsoever, especially given some of the primordial ooze sludging through DC these days. Without spoiling the ending, I found Jesse’s resolution both realistic and plausible, and I’m sure you will too. *heaves huge sigh*

Now. What didn’t quite work for me:

Reade as a character is more than a little obsessive in his thoughts, and occasionally his actions. He has a framed picture of Gwen in his apartment, and while Gwen never learns about it, I gave this a lot of side-eye. I would’ve accepted a stash of cell phone pics that he saved from her social media accounts without a second thought, but a framed picture implies a level of effort that made me uncomfortable. Gwen takes up almost all of the real estate in his brain, and his thoughts stray to the physical far too often, even when such thoughts aren’t appropriate for the moment. His constant preoccupation with Gwen borders excessive and eventually became a little tiresome to read. More wistful longing and less fixation on the current state of blood flow to his groin would have deepened my sympathies for his unrequited passion.

Gwen occasionally drifts toward the naive, and one scene in particular had me squinting at my kindle. Reade, who is a lawyer, meets with a client in a seedy dive bar (incidentally named Double D’s Breastaurant) off the side of the highway . The client, Tad, who chose the location, is the thrice-divorced only son of a rich Texas oil man, and Reade is horrified to find that the spandex-clad waitress Tad’s trying to grope is none other than Gwen. During their confrontation later that night, Reade questions whether Gwen is worried about people recognizing her there as Senator Clark’s jilted wife. She responds, “I was worried about that at first, but the men that go in there aren’t up on the latest political affairs, and I hardly look like a senator’s wife in this outfit and caked-on makeup.”

Okay. So I can possibly buy that second part, but what Gwen seems to have conveniently forgotten in that moment is that the customer who had been groping her earlier that day was the son of a rich Texas oil man, and I have a hard time buying that anyone involved in the oil industry isn’t 100% marinating themselves in both state and national politics. Environmental laws, fracking, taxes, oil prices, lobbying, safety regulations (and deregulation), all of these and more are political by nature, and if this is Tad’s family business (and he’s the only son), politics absolutely are his bag, baby, and he was in the bar. While I admire Gwen for doing what she felt was necessary to provide for her daughter, having been an involved senator’s wife in an oil state, her lack of shrewdness towards the realities of politics here felt out of place.

Although the reader is immediately tossed into the deep end when it comes to Reade’s infatuation, when Gwen’s affections turn toward Reade, they seem to come out of nowhere though she claims they go way back. I was expecting more of a gradual buildup on her part, especially due to the fact that they keep ending up engaged in awkwardly timed gropefests, so her admission of longtime attraction threw me a bit.

So while I definitely had a few issues with it. overall, I enjoyed Jesse’s Girl. If I were into grading books like schoolwork, I’d give it a B-. Now, if anyone can tell me how to get that song out of my head, I’d be much obliged (the first person to suggest I listen to Baby Shark will receive one free slap upside the head, doo doo doo doo doo doo).
Thanks to Tara September for providing me with a copy of Jesse’s Girl to read and review!

Check out Tara September’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · horror

They Come At Night- Nick Clausen

I was a HUGE horror fan when I was younger. I loved scary movies and scary books with a passion. Zombies that want to eat my brain? Bring it on. Creepy child-murdering clowns that live in the sewer? I’ll read that (multiple times!). Haunted houses, weird noises, all the ghosts and goblins that go bump in the night, I. Was. IN. And then, as an adult, I moved away from reading these things. The only reason I can think of is that maybe adult life was scary enough without the added fear, but I’ve come to realize how much I’ve missed this particular genre, and so when Danish author Nick Clausen offered me a copy of They Come At Night (Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2019), a horror novella (just LOOK at that cover!!!), for review, I readily accepted.

Jayden and his friends are average teenagers with plans for some serious fun. His friend Richard’s parents are off to Paris and what they don’t know won’t hurt them, so the kids are using their cottage, located on what seems to be a sparsely populated beachfront, for a little getaway. It’s time for sand, some beer, and ogling the super gorgeous Sienna, but things go awry almost immediately when they spot a boy in a red shirt nailing an iron anchor into the woodwork of the cottage door. He runs off, but after a night of strange occurrences that include loud banging and the terrace door being covered in odd scratch marks, they find the boy again. Chris had been attempting to nail the anchor to the door to protect the house against…them, those creatures that left the scratch marks. The former owners didn’t protect themselves, you see, and now they’re dead. All the locals know about this. They know what’s coming; the vast majority of them have fled town for the time being, and so should Jayden and friends. The teens don’t heed his warnings, but they should, because when the tide comes in at night, so do they.

At 70 pages, this is a quick read, but it’s CREEPY. Jayden and his friends make all the wrong moves at pretty much every turn (you know how you want to scream at the characters in a horror movie, “Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie? DON’T GO UP THERE!!!” Plenty of that in here!), placing themselves directly in the path of these terrifying creatures (ones I hadn’t even begun to imagine!), all of it leading to an absolutely terrifying conclusion that will keep your heart pounding until the end and leave you never wanting to go anywhere near the ocean again.

I finished reading this the evening of April 23rd. That night, after I went to bed, I kept waking up (not because of the story; I wake up a lot at night for various reasons), and every time, my mind immediately went back to this story and what they were (no spoilers!), and how it all ended. It’s still on my mind (and I’m glad we’re going to a lake this summer and NOT the ocean!). It’s been years since I really read much horror, but between They Come At Night and Welcome to Halcyon (Dead Mawl #1), which I read earlier this year, I definitely think it’s a genre I need to explore a little further.

Nick Clausen is traditionally published in Denmark, but is in the process of translating his books into English and making them available via Amazon in the US. If you like deliciously creepy horror stories that make your heart race and leave you with an eerie feeling that lasts for days, check him out!

Mange tak for bogen, Nick! 🙂 Huge thanks to Nick Clausen for sending me a copy of They Come At Night to read and review.

Visit Nick Clausen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.


The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World- Sarah Weinman

I think it was around 2008 that I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, maybe 2007. I’d been going through a classics streak and trying to get through all those books I should have read but never got around too, and I plowed through the book during the last days of a run of the flu (actual influenza, with fever and body aches, the whole nine yards. YUCK. Also, don’t judge my reading choices when I’m ill…). It was…a creeptastic book, that was for sure. Humbert Humbert is a jarring narrator and Nabokov did an amazing job at absolutely making my skin crawl with how awful Humbert is. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea that much of the story parallels a real life case, one that Nabokov absolutely knew of, because it’s referenced right there in his novel. I learned of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman from an episode of All the Books! the other night, and I actually sat up out of bed to put in on my Goodreads TBR list, thinking it sounded fascinating and figured I’d get to it sometime in the murky, distant future. Imagine my surprise when I came across this at the library the next evening before book group! I literally gasped and marched it right to the checkout.

Sally Horner was 11 years old, in the midst of stealing a five-cent notebook from a drugstore in 1948, when Frank La Salle, pretending to be an FBI agent, stopped her and told her he wouldn’t turn her in and send her to a reformatory school if she would report to him. Fearful of her single, overworked mother finding out she’d been stealing to impress some girls at school, Sally agreed. She didn’t see him again for months, but when he reappeared, he meant business. Before Elizabeth Smart, before Jaycee Dugard, before the scores of women and children that have made headlines for the horrors they’ve suffered, there was Sally Horner, abducted at age 11 by Frank La Salle, who held her captive and raped her for twenty-one months.

There are obvious content warnings in this book for rape and child molestation (and not just Sally), along with a description of a mass shooting. Just like in Lolita, Frank takes Sally on a cross-country journey, far from her native Camden, New Jersey; from Atlantic City to Baltimore, onward to Dallas, and finally San Jose, he forces her to pose as his daughter. It’s not until she trusts a neighbor enough to answer her questions truthfully that she’s able to ask for help. Sally returns home just shy of her thirteenth birthday, having spent close to two years being held by her rapist. Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. After her return, Sally lives for only two more years.

Mingled with the recounting of Sally Horner’s far too short life is the story of how Nabokov wrote Lolita, how older male predators were a theme he explored throughout his literary career, how he struggled to tell the story he wanted. Sally wasn’t his inspiration; he’d been working on the novel for years before her disappearance and eventual return made headline news across the country, but the details of what happened to her did seem to inspire him to be able to pull the whole story together. Even in the screenplays he wrote (which were ultimately mostly rewritten by director Stanley Kubrick, although Nabokov still received credit, along with the Oscar nomination) made allusions to the case, making his denials of shaping the story around the Horner case seem facetious at best.

This is one of those stories that I can’t believe hasn’t been better known until now (and it makes me wonder what other books exist that are heavily based on real-life cases and the general public isn’t aware of it. Can that even be done anymore?) Although far too many people misinterpret it, Lolita is a cultural phenomenon at this point; even if you haven’t read it, odds are you’ve at least heard of it and have a vague idea of what it’s about. That this could stay so far out of the mainstream that even Sally Horner’s family had no idea of the connection until a family member read the brief Wikipedia entry on Sally is utterly flooring to me.

Ms. Weinman mentions several times throughout the book how difficult this story was to research: practically everyone connected to the story has since passed away, records, both official and non-, weren’t saved or maintained. and even the places where the story took place (such as Sally’s hometown of Camden, NJ) have disappeared or undergone such great changes that they would be unrecognizable to someone from Sally’s day. Hearing something like that from the author made me enjoy the book all the more, because I’ve often thought that researching a nonfiction book must be an incredibly daunting task. It was kind of cool to hear that, at least in this case, my suspicions were correct.

The Real Lolita is the book where the literary biography meets true crime. Even if you’ve never read Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, this would still be a great read, and if you’re into true crime, this is definitely right up your alley. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!

Check out Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Chasers of the Light: Poems From the Typewriter Series- Tyler Knott Gregson


Other than a few poems here and there (including the poetry in the last book I read) and reading Shel Silverstein with my kids, I haven’t really read poetry since my early 20’s. I used to enjoy Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost…but that was pretty much it. Other than those authors, poetry always kind of seemed…flowery…to me. Inaccessible. For other people, but not for me.

Enter the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, where one of the tasks is to read a collection of poetry published since 2014. I stared at that part of the list and thought, ‘Okay, guess I’m reading some poetry this year!’

When I visited the library with my list of available books, I originally meant to check out The Sobbing School by Joshua Bennett, but someone else appeared to have grabbed that first, so instead, I grabbed the other book from the list that they stocked, Chasers of the Light: Poems From the Typewriter Series by Tyler Knott Gregson (Tarcher Perigee, 2014) and added it to my stack. It’s a small, smooth book that fit nicely with my other books, and I had to say, I was looking forward to reading it. I’ve really been enjoying reading outside my usual genres this year, and it felt good to be trying something I hadn’t attempted to read in a long time.

Gregson begins the book with the story of coming across a typewriter in a secondhand store, typing a poem on it with one of the blank sheets torn from a book he was buying, and the typewriter then followed him home. The majority of the poetry in this book appears to be typed on torn-out pages, receipts, and other scraps; others are set against Gregson’s own photography, and still others emerge from pages where he has blacked out the rest of the text (these were really neat, and this would make a fabulous exercise for any writing teacher, if they could bring themselves to destroy a book in order to do it!). Aesthetically speaking, this is a really pleasant book.

The poetry, I thought, was lovely. Several made me stop and think; I often had to reread because I found the lines beautiful and wanted to let the words resonate. One in particular stopped me short, the imagery stunning: ‘I want to leave goosebumps/everywhere I have not yet/ kissed and spend the night/ trying to read them/ like Braille.’


I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite as much as I did. I have a BAZILLION things on my TBR list, and I don’t know that I’ll be running to the poetry section every trip to the library, but…maybe once in a while, I’ll check it out. Because…I did enjoy this. Although I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more when I don’t have my daughter chattering in my ear as I’m trying to read. 😉

If you’re interested in knowing more about what kind of poetry is in this book, Tyler Knott Gregson has a Pinterest board dedicated to poems from this series. Check it out and see if this is a style you might enjoy reading.

Visit Tyler Knott Gregson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesday: April 24, 2019

It’s Wednesday, so that means it’s time for another WWW Wednesday (which I haven’t done in ages, because life and stuff). WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam @ Taking on a World of Words.

To participate, simply respond to these three questions:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Let’s play!

What are you currently reading?

Well…I finished a book last night, and so, when I finish with groceries and laundry and hauling people that I married and gave birth to from one location to another, it’ll be this:

Jesse’s Girl by Tara September. Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

“I wish that I had Jesse’s Girl”* 

Successful Texas lawyer, Reade Walker, curses that damn song every time it plays, all too aware of the irony of its lyrics. After all, he has been secretly and painfully enamored with Jesse’s girl, Gwen, for nearly a decade. It was love at first sight for him, but sadly she’s not his girl. She belongs to the one man who betrayed him and knows Reade’s hidden family secret. Yet Reade can’t seem to love anyone except the one woman he can’t have. Or can he make her mine? 

When Gwen Clark’s senator husband runs off with his intern and all their money, the ensuing scandal turns her life upside down. Deserted, penniless and desperate to provide for her six-year-old daughter, Gwen has no one to turn to but Reade Walker. The one man her heart desperately wants, but her pride dreads having to ask for help. Despite welcoming them into his home, it seems like Reade can barely stand being in the same room with her anymore, let alone under the same roof–in the same bedroom. But Gwen is determined to get her life back on track. It is past time to rediscover her own dreams…if only she can keep her aching heart from breaking all over again. 

With all the dark, depressing stuff I’ve been reading lately, I’m looking forward to diving into a romance!

What did you recently finish reading?

They Come At Night by Nick Clausen (review to come). CREEPY, CREEPY horror novella. I kept waking up last night thinking about it, and I may never go in the ocean again…

What do you think you’ll read next?

Another pick for a Book Riot Read Harder 2019 Challenge, with Rabbit-Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time by Doris Pilkington (Ms. Pilkington was born Nuri Garimara and is an indigenous Australian author). I’ve heard of this book many times over the years, so it’s about time that I finally read it. It’s a short book, clocking in at 135 pages, so after I finish this, I’m FINALLY going to read two books off of my own shelves! One is another Book Riot Challenge book, and another will count for part of the 2019 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge (that poor neglected challenge needs some attention ’round these parts!).

What are you reading this Wednesday???


Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny

Reading a book full of writing penned in prison wasn’t exactly on my mind at the start of the year, but when I took up Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge in late February, this was one of the tasks on the list, and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny (Arcade Publishing, 1999), was the only suggestion I could easily get my hands on (I always go for what my library offers first, before resorting to interlibrary loan. Saves the library money that way!). Incarceration has always been a subject that has interested me, so I figured this wouldn’t be a difficult part of the challenge.

What I wasn’t counting on was reading 20 pages and then getting struck down by the stomach virus from Hades, so what should’ve been a book that lasted two or three days ended up lasting almost a week. Anyhoodle.

Doing Time is a collection of prison writing- essays, poetry, and fiction- by various inmates incarcerated in various places around America, the country that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. There’s no doubt that we have problems with crime in this country (for many, many reasons, too numerous to get into here), but this book helped me to put into words something that’s irritated me for a long time. One of the best predictors for successfully avoiding a return trip to prison is a higher level of education. Educate your prisoners and it’ll cut the recidivism rate. But unfortunately, in this country where prison is big business (a good look at this terrible truth is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan), we cut educational programs for prisoners- sometimes entirely- and focus on punishing, rather than rehabilitating, which in turn makes it more likely that the prisoner will reoffend and wind up back in prison. This is a process that not only creates repeat offenders, it creates more victims. Furthermore, education in prison is shown to affect the prisoners’ behavior: inmates who participate in education programs are calmer and provide a calming effect on the rest of the prison population, which in turn keeps the guards and prison staff safer. So the next time you hear a politician talk about how he or she is ‘tough on crime,’ ask yourself what ‘tough on crime’ really means, and how that person’s proposed policies match up with what actually lowers crime, because punishment alone makes harder criminals and leads to more violence both in and out of prisons.

This is a book that alternately made me angry, and then sad. Some of the writers admit to what they had done that landed them in prison; some never mention it. That’s neither here nor there, though, in the grand scheme of the book. Some of the writing here is remarkable. There are stories and poems based on things the authors experienced within prison walls, essays on prison riots and the drug problem in the US, poems about the grief of incarceration and a life thrown away. It struck me again while reading this what a deep shame it is that the US doesn’t focus on rehabilitation, because by not doing so, we are wasting so much potential. People who could, with a bit of time and work, be helped and be trained to make meaningful contributions to society are instead thrown away like trash, their lives wasted and humanity all the poorer for it. This book is a testament to that point; Jimmy Santiago Baca (poet and author; a movie based on his memoir, titled A Place to Stand, was released in 2014; find him on Goodreads) and the author Richard Stratton are two of the writers, are featured within its pages. These men were, through education, able to work their way into becoming model citizens- Baca was even illiterate when first incarcerated. The editor does mention that most of the inmates whose writing appears in this book are those lucky enough to receive higher or continuing education while incarcerated, and the short bios in back of the book advertise several people who became professionals such as college professors and business owners. Isn’t that a better outcome than a seven in ten chance of ending up back in prison (the current recidivism rate)?

The writing in this book isn’t pretty in content. It’s gritty and painful and desperate at times; even the hopeful stories are tinged with an edge of sadness. How could they not be? But they’re eye-opening, a glimpse at a world where (hopefully!) I’ll never have to travel, and a world that’s greatly in need of deep reform if ever we want to realize the true potential of people who have made a few wrong turns in life.

Learn more about PEN America by visiting their website here.

favorite things

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Books I’ve Loved About Mister Rogers

Today, I want to talk about Mister Rogers.

It was around three years ago when I first started thinking deeply about the iconic children’s television host. Things were getting more than a little chaotic in the world, and it seemed that everywhere I turned, people were being terrible to each other. Really terrible. Some of them were even people I knew personally, and often more than not, this behavior was shocking to me. I sat in my cozy living room, watching a lot of disturbing events unfolding, listening to people I grew up with laughing at the pain of others, and I wondered where it had all gone so wrong. I wondered what was so different about their lives that had made them turn out like that, instead of the loving, caring people they had been raised to be, and in order to distance myself from the hurt they were causing, I began searching for something to bring me a sense of inner peace, something that would calm the distress that the social media schadenfreude and the constant influx of bad news had caused me.

And then I remembered Mister Rogers.

Fred Rogers was more than just a staple of my TV diet when I was a child. The zip-up cardigans, the tie shoes, his gentle way of speaking, they were all part of the soft fuzziness of my childhood. I remember curling up in front of the TV and watching those orangey yellow crayons whizzing by, being fascinated at how things were made and grateful to Mister Rogers for making it possible for me to see that. And the sounds of the show are seared into my memory: the cheery ‘ding ding’ of Trolley as it rolled from the house into the Land of Make Believe; Lady Aberlin’s airy voice; the rising piano as it burst into the theme song; Mr. McFeely’s chirp of “Speedy delivery!”; the jam sessions at Negri’s Music Shop; Fred Rogers’ quiet, placid way of speaking. All of these made up such a special part of my youth, so it’s not a surprise that my thoughts returned to those days of visiting the crayon factory when things got a little too crazy in real life.

Part of Fred Rogers’ reappearance in my life was in thanks to reading down my Goodreads Want-To-Read list. I’d marked a few books about him as want-to-read who knows how long ago, and this was when I gladly began picking them up. First up on the list was one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. The premise of the book sounded wonderful: a reporter, struggling with his personal life, strikes up a friendship with Fred Rogers. Madigan’s marriage was crumbling, and his relationship with his own father was rocky, and so he turned to the gentle television host, writing him and asking if Fred Rogers could be a stand-in surrogate father and be proud of the person Madigan was trying to be. I opened the cover, flipped to the first page, and began reading.

Within several sentences, I was full-on sobbing.

It’s not often that a book moves me as deeply as this one. The friendship- the love– between Madigan and Rogers was deep, rooted in faith and the firmly held belief that we are all worthy of being loved exactly as we are right now. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow and change and become better versions of ourselves: it just means that it’s okay to be who we are and that we’re loveable solely for being that. As their friendship progressed, Madigan was able to repair the rift in his marriage and even become closer with his father, all with Fred Rogers reminding him in the background, through phone calls and letters and visits, that he was proud of him.

This book is deeply moving. It’s a reminder to us all that we’re loveable just the way we are- and so are the people around us, a message that is sorely lacking in society these days. When I look around me, a lot of what I see being pushed is that others are not worthy of our love, our care; they’re too poor, too foreign, too different, and thus should be treated differently, the exact opposite of what Mister Rogers taught and stood for. Much like John Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table, this book was a good reminder for me that love is indeed the answer and that I need to act out of kindness, always, even when it’s difficult. I’m Proud of You is absolutely a five-star book for me. While I’m not particularly religious, I did enjoy the faith-based aspects of this book; the faith of Fred Rogers is more akin to the religious teachings I grew up with: love others, treat them well, accept and love others for who they are, and help them to grow into their best selves. It’s not something I’ve seen enough of lately, and it was a comfort to find it in this book.

Soon after, I picked up Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long. Make no doubt about it: the soft-spoken Mister Rogers was indeed radical and subversive. Not in an in-your-face way; never once did he scream his message or incite violence to make a point. Fred Rogers quietly nudged the culture around him in the way he knew it should go. He regularly included people of color and people with disabilities on his show because he wanted society to accept them more readily and with open, loving arms. He advocated for peace and against war, turned the idea of traditional gender roles upside down by highlighting working mothers and diaper-changing stay-at-home fathers, showed that eating a vegetarian diet was one way to care for the planet (did you know Fred Rogers was an original financer of Vegetarian Times magazine?), interviewed disabled neighbors and talked with them about their disabilities and their lives, pushed for racial equality, and spotlighted blue collar workers and professions. He told kids it was okay to be scared, to be sad and cry, that talking about their feelings was normal. His was a voice of love, acceptance, and inclusion in a culture that far too often pushed hatred, divisiveness, separation, and cruelty. This book highlights the ways Mister Rogers’ deeply held beliefs were made manifest in his show, and it was fascinating to see how, for instance, his pacifism turned up in the scripts for The Land of Make Believe. I’ve rewatched some of those episodes with my daughter, and the message stands strong and still valid today: war is scary and hurtful and is something to be avoided, no matter how much work it takes.

And of course I read The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography that chronicles the history of the TV host and advocate. King covers the events of Rogers’ life, to be sure, but he also humanizes him, highlighting his sense of humor and his struggles as a parent in a way that made me both laugh and nod vigorously, because if even Mister Rogers was baffled by how to effectively parent teenagers, maybe I’m not doing so badly after all. But even as he writes about Fred’s use of swear words (oh yes, even Mister Rogers!) and the pranks pulled on the Neighborhood set, King still maintains an air of reverence for him, and reading this was like a warm hug that lasted all 416 pages.

These books have affected me deeply over the past few years. Though he passed away in 2003, Mister Rogers lives on through the enduring and heartfelt legacy he left behind. He reappeared in my life at a time where I was struggling with so many things, including terrible sleep deprivation. I desperately needed someone to tell me that I was still loveable even though I felt like I was failing badly in just about every aspect of life, that the hatred I saw around me was not normal and not okay, that loving my neighbor- and myself- was the right thing to do. And I found that again in being one of Mister Rogers’ neighbors. To remind me of all this, I used the birthday money my paternal grandmother had sent me to purchase a Mister Rogers necklace (from the Etsy store of rabbithole33). It’s a lovely, well-made item, and a great reminder that I’m lovable just the way I am…and so is everyone else. I wear it when I need to remember that, and it helps. I’m far from perfect, but I’m absolutely trying to be the person Mister Rogers knew I could be, in word, thought, and deed. I hope he would be proud of me, too.


The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq- Dunya Mikhail

Another pick from Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a translated book written and/or translated by a woman, and what was available at my libraries from the list was The Beekeeper: Rescuining the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail. Don’t be fooled by this book: it’s a slim tome, coming in at just over 200 pages, but every page is a punch in the gut.

Iraqi-born poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail fled Iraq after facing increasing threats in the mid-90’s. The Beekeeper is a collection of first-person narratives of Yazidi women who were kidnapped by Daesh (also known as ISIS) and forced to become sex slaves for them. An unlikely hero emerges, a beekeeper named Abdullah Shrem. He can’t sit idly by and watch his neighbors, his fellow countrymen and women, continue to suffer, and so he begins an informal operation designed to retrieve these women by any means necessary. His cellphone always on hand, Abdullah is ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to secure freedom those enslaved and tortured by Daesh.

This book needs ALL the content warnings. Rape and violence of every type abound, including mass killings, people being buried alive and being forced to dig their own graves, and parents being forced to watch their children slaughtered in front of them as punishment (there are pictures of the wrapped bodies of these dead children in the book). It’s as brutal as any book about the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide, so be aware of that if you’re not in a good place to read about the absolute worst kind of suffering that man can inflict upon their fellow human beings.

‘You won’t find a single family here who hasn’t had someone disappear,’ someone says near the beginning of the book, a remark that I found heartbreaking and infuriating. This is one of those books that deserves to be read simply because we need to be a witness to the suffering of the survivors and be aware that this has gone on and is still going on. Thousands of women remain in captivity; some have returned only to find their entire families have been slaughtered. Others haven’t returned at all. These are human rights violations of the highest order, and I feel it’s incredibly important to bear witness to their stories.

It feels like I’ve been reading a LOT of really heavy stuff lately. I’m about ready to go on a Christina Lauren binge just to get some happy, fun material in my life to break up the heaviness of human atrocities that have filled my reading list recently. I’ve got a few more library books and a few review books, and then I may just do that…

Visit Dunya Mikhail’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade · YA

Summer of the Mariposas- Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Another task on Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge is to read an #ownvoices novel set in Mexico or Central America. I always read through the suggestions, make note of what looks interesting, and then check to see what’s available at my libraries. Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall looked like an interesting choice, and it was available at the library in the next town over, so onto the list it went.

Odilia and her four sisters (Juanita, twins Velia and Delia, and Pita, the youngest) are out swimming at their forbidden swimming hole when they discover a dead man floating in the water. They don’t want to call the authorities, because that would mean constant surveillance of their beloved swimming hole; telling their exhausted, overworked, newly single mother would only get them in trouble, because they weren’t supposed to be swimming in the first place. Instead, the girls decide to load up their father’s car (he left a year ago, he’s not using it anyway) with the body and drive it to the dead man’s home address in Mexico, which they discover on the ID stuffed into a pocket, along with a stack of cash.

But it won’t be a simple trip. A ghostly weeping woman known as La Llorona informs Odilia that this is going to be a journey that will transform all of them. She gives Odilia a magical ear pendant to help her along the way, and the girls set off towards adventure. When dropping off the body doesn’t exactly herald the reception they thought it would, they continue on to their abuelita’s house, meeting a witch, a fortune-telling blind woman, a warlock disguised as a donkey, a seriously creepy pack of owls, and a chupacabras. La Llorona appears on and off throughout the story to guide them, and the Aztec queen Tonantzin offers magical assistance through the gifted ear pendant, but what they really find throughout their journey is the strength of their bond and the deep love that exists between them and their mother.

Phew. There’s a LOT going on in this book. The inside flap of this book pitches this as ‘a Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey,’ and I think a big part of the reason I failed to connect to this book is that it’s been…somewhere around twenty-four years since I had anything to do with that particular piece. I really wish I’d been able to draw the parallels between the stories, but it’s been far too long. I also lack any kind of background in any Mexican or Aztec folklore, so that definitely didn’t help. Had I been more fully versed in these things, I think reading this book would have been a different experience and I would’ve felt more connected and more deeply invested.

It’s a lovely, well-written book, although I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in the beginning to accept that the sisters would all just pick up and leave with what seemed like no concern for how their mother would react to them having left without even a note. And that’s not even considering the fact that the girls were seemingly okay with riding in a stuffy car in the summer heat with a waterlogged dead body. Talking owls and donkeys, sure, I’ll buy that; teenage girls chill with sitting next to a dead body for a lengthy car ride? Mmmm, no. The relationship between the girls and their grandmother is lovely, however, and their reunion with their mother and eventual showdown with their father are both handled extremely well. And I absolutely adored the bits of Spanish sprinkled throughout the story (there’s a glossary in back), and the chance to see Mexico through the sisters’ eyes.

So this wasn’t quite the book for me, but if you enjoy retellings, stories of bonding between sisters, and stories with magical and fantastical elements, it may be the book for you!

Visit Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Ahimsa- Supriya Kelkar

I love books set in India. It seems like such a diverse, complex place, and the Indian authors I’ve read always do such a wonderful job of surrounding me with the sights and sounds and colors of their country. And the descriptions of the food are almost always enough to send me running to my favorite local Indian restaurant (fun fact: when I was pregnant with my daughter and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically ‘morning’ sickness that can kill you, I was reading a book set in India and the descriptions of food had me feeling like I could actually eat that food and not be sick. And it was true! It was only a small amount, really, but it was delicious and that made me so, so happy, because I could barely eat anything else at all). All that to say that in the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge, one of their suggestions for a children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009 was Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar, and I was happy to discover that one of my local libraries had it waiting on the shelves for me.

It’s 1942 and India is still under British rule (and once I picked this book up, I realized I’d gone from one book about colonization to another…). Mahatma Gandhi has asked families to give one family member each to the fight for freedom, and ten-year-old Anjali is horrified to learn that it’s her mother who will be that one person. While the movement is centered around ahimsa, or non-violence, Anjali knows people who have died and can’t imagine losing her mother. Her becoming a freedom fighter means big changes for the family, starting with discarding all the clothing made from the Indian cotton that the British spun in England and sold back to Indians at a high price, in favor of wearing only homespun Indian garments. Anjali isn’t happy about this at all, nor is she thrilled when her mother begins working with the Untouchables, the people of the lowest caste. Because it’s not just the British who need to change; Indian society must make changes of their own, as Anjali and her family learn.

This is a story of one step forward, two steps back, as it seems every story about the struggle for freedom is. Anjali’s parents make mistakes and eventually correct themselves and grow; Anjali begins to question things she’s been taught her entire life to be true. While Anjali is Hindu, her best friend Irfaan is Muslim, and though their differences have never been an issue in the past, they become a source of strain as Hindu-Muslim tensions rise under the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

This is a fascinating look at India in its final years of British rule, as seen through the eyes of a child and her family who are learning to question everything. It’s lovely and intense and frustrating and frightening all at the same time. Anjali is a typical headstrong ten-year-old who is forced to grow up a little too quickly thanks to the times, and her parents are inspiring, both for their dedication to the cause of a self-ruling India and for their growth and their ability to admit when they’re wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set in this particular time period in India, so Ahimsa opened my eyes to both the struggle for freedom and that gap in my knowledge (and I’m definitely interested in learning more). This would be a really great parent-child read-aloud for anyone interested in India (or for homeschoolers doing a unit study on the country). It’s a complex book, and while I think I would have enjoyed at when I was younger, I think a lot of it would have gone over my head.

If this review isn’t up to my usual standards, I apologize. I was all ready to write this up on Monday and then my daughter started throwing up…and then I started throwing up. It’s been pure misery around here, and even sitting up for too long is exhausting (and I’ve got two more reviews to write). I haven’t gotten any reading done because holding the book has been too difficult! Like I said, MISERY. I’m ready to feel better soon! Needless to say, I probably won’t be running off to my favorite Indian restaurant quite yet, mostly because even just walking across the room makes me dizzy and out of breath. Maybe when I get better. 🙂

Do you find that there’s a particular country you just really love reading about? I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Supriya Kelkar’s website here. (And she has a new book coming out in 2020 that looks AWESOME, so I’m looking forward that!!!)

Follow her on Twitter here.