Woohoo! I’ve been waiting to read The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren (Gallery Books, 2019) since I learned of its existence, and there was a copy waiting for me last week on the New Books shelf at the library. I’ve been a Christina Lauren fan for ages, so it’s always a banner day when I’m able to grab a copy of their latest.
Olive Torres’s twin sister Ami is getting married. Ami’s always had good luck, while Olive is more the trip-UP-the-stairs kind of gal. While she’s happy for her sister, Olive doesn’t care for Ami’s smarmy, bro-ey husband-to-be, Dane, and even more than that, she can’t stand Dane’s brother, Ethan, who judged her from the first time they met. Insults fly fast between the two of them anytime they’re within five hundred feet of each other, but Olive’s doing her best to keep things cool for her sister’s big day.
However, an incident with food poisoning at the seafood-based dinner throws the whole reception into chaos, leaving shellfish-allergic Olive and buffet-avoidant Ethan the only ones not revisiting their dinners. Upon Ami’s insistence, Olive and Ethan pose as Ami and Dane to take advantage of the honeymoon trip to Maui that Ami had won. But posing as a married couple has unforeseen consequences as Olive runs into her new boss (for whom honesty and integrity are key) and Ethan runs into his ex-girlfriend, whom he never completely got over. In all their pretending, the two actually fall for each other, but the real test of the strength of their blossoming connection comes when they return home to their real lives.
While I ended up actually really enjoying The Unhoneymooners, it started off just a little slow for me, and I think that was due to the fact that other than being cynical and sarcastic, I didn’t have a good sense of who Olive really was. The more I think about it, since this is something that comes up later in the book in terms of Olive’s career, this may have been intentional, especially since she does develop of stronger sense of self and begins to clarify what she wants (and doesn’t want) as the story goes on.
Ethan isn’t wholly likable at first, either, although, seen through Olive’s eyes, he’s not meant to be. He definitely has his flaws, ones that Olive rightfully walks away from at a certain moment, but overall, he’s just as well-developed as Olive turns out to be. Together, their banter is sharp, witty, and as laugh-out-loud fun as any other Christina Lauren couple, though I definitely preferred their later-on banter over their early pre-getting together banter.
Dane is an entire piece of work, and the team here really knocked it out of the park writing one of the sleaziest, yet still completely believable characters in contemporary first-person romance. I only wish they’d included more backstory on what made Ami fall for him in the first place, because his personality and particular brand of bro-ey-ness was so off-putting to me, let alone all the complications that arise with him later on in the story. He never seemed flat or unrealistic, and I daresay far too many women have met guys who fall into the category of being a Dane. UGH. Well written, CL!!!
The second half was much more engaging than the first for me, so while this wasn’t my #1 favorite Christina Lauren novel, I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to whatever they come up with next!
I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂
Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).
But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.
Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.
Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.
Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.
Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.
Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).
There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.
I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)
There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.
I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.
So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂
Ohhhhhh you guys. This has been a terrible month for reading. 😦
So, back in the second week of October, our weather went from about 75 degrees to a low of 33, and we had a massive cold front move in. And because of that, my body FREAKED OUT. I’ve got degenerative disc disease and sacroiliac joint dysfunction (and possibly more things, but who knows, specialists are expensive), and when there are either massive pressure changes or huge temperature swings, my pain becomes utterly unbearable. And that’s what happened a few weeks ago. My entire life got put on hold and I had to cancel a few things because I had pain zinging from my neck to my toes every second of the day.
Even sitting hurt. And driving? OMG. Nope. I still had to, though, and it was enough to make me sweat.
I’m doing a little better off now- driving doesn’t hurt so much, and I can do things around the house other than merely existing and going to bed at 8:30 every night to escape the pain- but during that period of about a week and a half, I pulled out an ARC of The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2019), sent to me by a longtime friend in Michigan (thanks again, Sandy!) and did my best to lose myself in the story in the brief periods where I could focus.
Rhiannon Hunter is creator of one of the most popular dating apps out there, but romance hasn’t really been in the cards for her, and her latest hook-up, someone she could’ve actually seen herself with long(er)-term, ghosted her after one unforgettable night, so she’s really not feeling this whole dating thing these days. It’s business only as she plans to grow her company by purchasing a smaller company, but it’s there she finds the ghoster himself. Samson Lima, former professional football player, is working for his kind-of aunt’s dating website as he tries to figure out his place in this world now that he’s left professional sports behind. He’s still grieving the loss of his uncle to CTE (caused by too many concussions), and he’s unsure of what the future holds for him. Having Rhiannon back in his life, once he explains the very real and very serious circumstances that led to him accidentally ghosting her, would help him feel more at ease with everything.
But it’s going to be a learning process for both of them, and Rhiannon isn’t going to have an easy time growing her business into what she knows it could be, especially not with her jackass of an ex in direct competition with her. She’s bound and determined to do this one hundred percent on her own…but as she’ll learn, all the best things in life happen when we let ourselves be vulnerable.
Rhiannon is an utter pistol of a character, nearly so driven that I had a little bit of a hard time trying to relate to her. Don’t get me wrong- she’s definitely a fabulous character, a highly motivated black businesswoman who knows her worth and refuses to settle for anything less than she knows she deserves. She’s surrounded by amazing friends and family who are supportive yet flawed (and still lovable!), and she works for what she wants with an almost pitbull-like strength. She’s basically #goals all the way. I am pretty much the exact opposite in every way and had an easier time relating to her best friend Katrina, who suffers from such terrible anxiety that she rarely leaves the house. (*nods at my blog title* If I’m not getting groceries or driving a kid or husband somewhere, I’m either at the library or at home, for real, so I feel you, Katrina…) I long for the confidence of Rhiannon Hunter and wish I could take her Master Class or sit in on her TED talk. She’s got some major trust issues to work through, but that’s not unexpected for romance novels, especially contemporaries, so it doesn’t necessarily detract from her strong personality.
Samson is an amazing hero. Principles for DAYS and he’s willing to put his money (and his professional sports career) where his mouth is. A man who stands up for his beliefs AND he’s in touch with his emotions AND he’s romantic and not at all a serial dater??? You guys, this dude is the sparkly unicorn of romance heroes! Can Samson teach a Master Class, too, one that’s required for all men to take? This could really, really work, y’all. If we can get a hologram all set up, I’m sensing a mammoth Alisha Rai enterprise…
There’s a lot going on in this book, including discussions of the #MeToo movement (so there’s a content warning there if you’re not up for that at the moment); Rhiannon’s ex-boyfriend is a blackmailing sleazebag and needs to be thrown out entirely (calling Whole Man Disposal Services…). If you’ve never read much on CTE (or Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy, the neurodegenerative disease that makes the news often these days in regards to professional sports), this is a great primer; for further reading, Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas is excellent and will give you an in-depth look at how the condition was discovered and all the NFL has done to try to bury evidence of it and research on it. High five to Ms. Rai for throwing the floodlights on a subject that needs as much coverage as possible, especially to an audience that will be majority female and who either have kids now or may have kids in the future who might play contact sports (or be in gym class and wind up with not one, but TWO concussions, one of which he received as a mere SPECTATOR, ask me how I know *stares hard at my son*). We’re the perfect audience for this kind of education, and the stories of Samson’s father and uncle and their struggles with CTE add such depth to the story.
I love a good novel that not only entertains me but educates me as well, and despite the problems I had being able to focus due to my pain, The Right Swipe made for an enjoyable read with a gloriously diverse cast, chock-full of contemporary issues, and a truly adorable love story. Ms. Rai’s next novel in the series is set to come out in April of 2020 and focuses on Katrina, Rhiannon’s anxiety-ridden friend, and you know I’m here for that!
I have to give a shoutout to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast here; this is where I was first introduced to Ms. Rai and thus began following her on Twitter. She’s smart, funny, incredibly charming, and has such a great personality that you’ll be immediately wondering if she’ll be your new BFF upon listening to any episode with her on it (or maybe that’s just me and I desperately need to get out more and develop an actual social life instead of living vicariously through fictional characters), and her Twitter feed is the same way. Even if you’re not into romance in general, she’s such a great person that I highly recommend giving her episodes a listen and her Twitter a follow!
There have been so many great books on feminism and women’s issues that have come out in the past few years and I’ve wanted to read them all. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez (Harry N. Abrams, 2019) caught my eye when a friend read a copy, although the subect scared me a little as well (and with good reason, as it turns out). Nevertheless, onto the TBR it went, and it took me a bit to finish, as I’m in the midst of a nasty pain flare thanks to (I’m hoping) the wild temperature swings we’ve been having lately.
Every woman understands women-centric problems in a deeply personal way- women’s pants pockets, AMIRITE???? But it turns out all those other annoyances we experience daily- some of them deadly- is because of the absence of our gender, or the absence of consideration for the ways women differ from men, as these products or methods are being researched and developed. Ever watched a man text one-handed and then you have to use both hands? Cell phones are designed for men’s hands. Ditto for standard piano keyboards, for those of you out there who have struggled to span certain octaves while playing. Seatbelt not fitting correctly across your breasts or pregnant belly? That’s because they’re designed for men’s flat chests; getting belts to accommodate women’s breasts would be “too difficult” (and thus, since car seats are designed based on men’s bodies- you guessed it, women are less safe and die at higher rates even in minor accidents). And don’t go expecting medication to work as the package states it will- even though we KNOW women metabolize medication differently, almost all medication (even medication for conditions primarily suffered by women!) is designed for and tested exclusively on men. These are problems that are quite literally killing women, yet the general consensus is, “Women are just too complicated, so we won’t bother.”
One of the most egregious examples Ms. Criado-Pérez highlighted was the lack of women on the teams helping to rebuild after a tsunami that devastated southeast Asia (forgive me, I can’t remember if it was Indonesia or Sri Lanka; I neglected to write it down. If you have a copy of the book or remember the specifics and have the time to correct me in the comments, I’m happy to amend this post!); this resulted in the teams of men building houses without kitchens. And lest you think this was a fluke, the same thing happened several years later after earthquakes devastated India- men rebuilt houses which lacked kitchens. And why not? They weren’t doing the cooking- food just magically appears for them- so houses having kitchens wasn’t in their frame of reference.
THIS is why the female perspective is vital, and Invisible Women presents the reader with example after infuriating example. No one is immune from the effects of women being left out- if it’s not you receiving ineffective medication or surgical procedures that do more harm than good, it might be your wife, your daughter, your mother- or it might be you sitting in a car when a woman flies through a windshield and then crashes through yours. Or maybe you’ll be waiting uncomfortably in an ER while the doctors work on that woman. Maybe it’ll be a woman whose finances you share who repeatedly drops her cell phone and needs a replacement because that phone is too big for her hands. In some way, this affects every person on the planet, and thus every last one of us should be putting up a major fuss.
Invisible Women is eye-opening and infuriating and should be read by every member of society. It’s opened my eyes to things I realized were problems but didn’t realize WHY (seatbelts, phone sizes, apps that require that we have our phones on our bodies but WHERE DO I PUT THIS THING WHEN I’M WEARING A DRESS OR IT DOESN’T FIT IN MY POCKET???). Ms. Criado-Pérez is more optimistic about these problems being solved than I am; there are far too many people out there willing to roll their eyes any time half the population even opens their mouths, so I don’t look for any of these problems to be solved, possibly ever. If your take is different, I’d love to hear it. I’m feeling pretty cynical about a LOT of stuff these days…
I’ve been interested in sign language, deafness, and Deaf culture since I was on a fourth grade field trip to some sort of ‘Just Say No!’ retreat when I noticed an interpreter signing to a student from another school across the room. I was so utterly entranced by her signing that I don’t think I heard a word of the anti-drug presentation (no worries, I’ve never done any kind of drugs, so we’re all good). Our teacher mentioned the interpreter later on and said that she was signing to a Deaf student so that he or she could understand what was being said, and I was fascinated. In the next Scholastic book flier was The Gallaudet Survival Guide to Signing by Leonard G. Lane, my mother bought it for me, and I learned the alphabet in one night. Years later, I still know a lot of the signs I picked up as a kid and in the one class I’ve been able to take as an adult (and actually used them this summer when my daughter played with a girl whose parents were Deaf). All that to say, when I learned about The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (Blink, 2019), I was all the way in!
Maya’s in the middle of some pretty serious transitions as the story begins. She’s just moved to Colorado with her single mother and her younger brother, who has cystic fibrosis. If that weren’t a big enough change, she’ll be attending a hearing school for the first time after years at a Deaf school (having fully lost her hearing after a bout with meningitis at age 13). She’s terrified and more than a little cranky about being yanked out of her comfortable world, but she’s determined to make the best of it for her mother’s sake. Nina, assigned to be Maya’s student liaison, becomes a fast friend, and she’s luckily able to strike up a rapport with Kathleen, her interpreter. Both of these help to make the switch a little easier.
But Maya’s not expecting Beau, the popular, good-looking, super-smart student who throws himself into learning ASL in order to be able to communicate with her. Not used to dealing with hearing guys, Maya doubts his intentions at first, until it becomes clear that Beau is all heart. But Maya’s got to learn to trust herself, and to live in the hearing world as a Deaf woman in order to pursue her dreams, and far too many people refuse to make it anywhere even close to easy for her.
While Maya can be short on patience and quick to bite people’s heads off, I enjoyed her. Her instant and complete acceptance of herself as a Deaf woman is so full and so total that it almost feels radical (which is sad to say! MORE HARDCORE SELF-ACCEPTANCE IN ALL GENRES, PLEASE!) and it’s a deep breath of fresh mountain air. I LIKE MYSELF DEAF, she signs when the subject of cochlear implants (a hot topic of debate in the Deaf community) comes up, and I swear, I nearly cheered out loud when I read that. If only we could all love ourselves that much…
Maya’s first suspicions of Beau are understandable; one of his ‘friends’ at school shows her exactly how nasty some hearing people can be towards Deaf people (although there’s a totally victorious call-out scene near the end of the novel that I loved!), and the book does an excellent job at showing all the many frustrations Deaf and hard-of-hearing people face due to lack of accommodations- simple ones!- that society could easily implement in order to make our world more accessible for everyone…but doesn’t. This is really a great book to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is Deaf and learning to live in a more independent way in the hearing world and how much they’re forced to struggle in order to achieve their goals.
Excellent representation in this book, and it’s kind of wild to me that ten months into the year, this is only the second book I’ve read this year with a Deaf character (the other being Victoria’s mother in Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler). Deafness is what’s known as a low-incidence disability, but hearing loss absolutely isn’t, especially among children, and I’m curious as to why I haven’t seen more characters with hearing loss throughout my reading life. I also really appreciated Maya’s bewilderment as to why the kids with cochlear implants hadn’t also learned ASL, as that’s something that has always troubled me as well. Obviously it’s each family’s choice, but technology can fail, equipment can break, batteries and processors are expensive, and if these things happen, the implanted child (or adult!) may be left without a language or way to communicate. Why not give them access to both worlds? I was happy to see that Ms. Gervais had raised those questions and showed how what other families choose to do affects the wider Deaf community.
I also loved the inclusion of Connor, Maya’s brother who has cystic fibrosis. Ms. Gervais shows his struggle, but she also portrays how difficult it is to have a chronically ill sibling (Maya works hard in order to not add to her mother’s troubles), along with showing how stressed out Maya’s single mother gets (but tries to hide it). I did question why on earth one would move a child with a lung condition to Colorado, famous for its high altitudes where it’s harder to breathe, but I don’t know much about the intricacies of cystic fibrosis and thus there may be plenty of reasons why this was a good idea. And sometimes, when your job says go, you go, and that may have been the case for sole breadwinner Mom. Either way, I’m sure she researched the heck out of it and spoke with doctors and other health coordinators, just like any other parent would!
The Silence Between Us is a book that will make you consider and reconsider the hearing world, the Deaf world, how the two work together, and how this cooperation could be even deeper if we’re willing to put in the work (and why not? ASL is gorgeous and fun). I hope this is the beginning of more Deaf characters in YA and beyond.
Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.
Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.
While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.
I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.
Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.
I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).
Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.
Yikes, I’ve been hitting the cult books kind of hard lately, haven’t I??? I’ve got another one coming up as well. I mean, I guess it’s a great time of year to read creepy things, but yeesh, maybe I should throw a ghost or a demon in there along with all the manipulative cult leaders, eh? Gated by Amy Christine Parker (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013) ended up on my TBR after I read another book blogger’s review; I was lucky that my library had an ebook copy, and so onto my Kindle it went!
Lyla’s family has been hurting badly ever since the disappearance of her older sister when Lyla was young. One moment the girls were playing together happily; the next moment, Lyla’s sister was gone forever, and just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the story of the missing girl out of the news. Enter Pioneer, a charismatic young man who convinces the family to leave everything behind and follow him to live in a community where everything will be safe and there will be no more worries.
But the visions Pioneer sees, visions that Lyla’s parents and other adults who make up the community entirely buy into, grow dark, and the community ramps up their preparations for the end of the world, where their community will hunker down in their specially constructed underground bunker. Their reclusive community hasn’t escaped the attention of the local law enforcement community, however, and after a visit from the chief of police and his son, Cody, Lyla, who is promised to her childhood best friend Will, finds herself with a major crush. It’s Cody who prompts Lyla to begin questioning everything she’s ever believed to be true, and after a near-deadly accident, her eyes are fully opened to the reality of Pioneer and the place she lives. But can she convince everyone else before it’s too late?
Gated is a really great example of how easily it is for even fully grown adults to be manipulated. Pioneer is obviously a smooth talker with enough charisma to convince an entire community of families to sell their homes, turn the money over to him, and spend their lives secluded from the rest of the world. He found Lyla’s family via the news about the disappearance of their older daughter, and he absolutely preyed on them during the worst time of their lives. (What is never covered and is something that I wondered throughout the entirety of the book, is if he was responsible for the older daughter’s disappearance. I would have liked to have seen this questioned, because it was entirely in the realm of possibility for his uber-creepiness.)
There’s some insta-love going on between Lyla and Cody, and I found the whole process of Pioneer matching the teenagers up so early on in order to marry them off when they’re adults to be super creepy, along with the parents’ easy acceptance of this! Ms. Parker has really set up a creepy mini-society where the parents have blindly accepted a stranger’s proclamations of what the future will hold and on which they’re willing to bet their children’s entire lives. There’s a good sense of balance, though; she’s also taken great pains to show the best parts of living the way Lyla and her family do: fresh food grown straight from their own gardens, being able to take care of their own needs with building and repairing, a close sense of family and community. There’s a not-too-graphic scene that depicts, off-camera, the death of animals, and while the reader isn’t witness to it (Lyla understands what’s going on when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs to the commotion at the barns), there’s some description that might be hard to read for younger or more sensitive readers.
There is a sequel and it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but given the reviews, I’m thinking it’ll be better to just leave this series where it is and not continue on. If you’ve read the second book and want to change my mind, i’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!
Ahh, the joy of reading on my new Kindle, the latest paperwhite version that replaces my original Kindle Keyboard, which had been giving me problems for a year or so, constantly restarting on its own out of nowhere. (#readerproblems, amirite???) This new one is lovely, and the reading experience is divine. I feel like I will miss the buttons on the side in the winter; I loved how I could keep my hands under a blanket or in my sweatshirt sleeves and still turn pages, but at least I’ll still be able to only poke a single fingertip out and still read, right? (#winterreaderproblems) While The Polygamist’s Daughter by Anna LeBaron with Leslie Wilson (Tyndale House Publishers, 2017) wasn’t the first book I’ve read on my new Kindle, the experience is still pretty novel. 🙂
Anna LeBaron, whose first name is pronounced like Anna in Disney’s Frozen, grew up as a member of a polygamous cult that broke away from the traditional LDS church. If you’ve read anything about these groups before, you’ll recognize her last name as belonging to the group depicted in Jon Krakauer’s stunning work of nonfiction, Under the Banner of Heaven . The LeBaron group has been plagued by murderous leaders and followers who are all too happy to aid them. Anna is the daughter of Ervil LeBaron, who died in prison when Anna was still young. Her father, was, of course, polygamous; Anna has over fifty siblings and barely ever spent any time with him before he died.
Her family was often on the run from authorities for one reason or another, so Anna was regularly with a few siblings in the care of adults other than her mother for long periods of time, often with less-than-spectacular results. She was horrified to learn that she’d been promised to the husband of one couple she’d been staying with (whose wife treated her terribly) as soon as she came of age, and there are some creepy grooming scenes in here. Despite being surrounded by so many people, Anna grew up feeling alone, and when her mother makes plans to send her back to the creepy grooming husband/mistreating wife couple in Mexico, Anna decides to make a break for it and it’s in living with her sister and her husband that her real life outside the cult begins.
Anna’s story is fairly typical for ones coming out of this particular cult, though she chooses not to focus on the rampant hunger that so many of the other former members say plagued their childhood. She joins a Christian church after leaving her mother, but this is presented in a way that implies it’s just part of her story; there’s no proselytizing, which I appreciated. Anna doesn’t seem to be terribly aware of the more dangerous elements of her family’s religious group, at least not when she’s younger (this changes when she moves in with her sister and her sister’s husband, and especially after tragedy strikes), which gives her an interesting perspective towards members of her group who had carried out Ervil LeBaron’s demands for murder. To her, these people were not the murderous monsters who had caused a human being’s death, but the people who loved her and cared for her during her childhood. How she was able to maintain that perspective baffled me a little bit; Anna doesn’t seem at all naive, so perhaps it’s just a matter of wanting to see the good side of the people you have left.
Not at all a bad book; Anna is obviously an intensely brave woman who has been through an enormous amount of trauma and yet managed to make a healthy life for herself on the outside. She’s a great example of resiliency and determination, if you’re needing more of that from your reading, and if you’re looking for another peek into the LeBaron group, it’s a great book for that, too.
For real, though, how is it October??? I just sat down to write September’s post! This whole year has just gone by at rocket speed…
This has been the first full month of my daughter being in school full-time, and it’s been interesting. I’m still at home and will be for the foreseeable future, and I’m kind of getting into a little bit of a routine, which is nice. I have a lot less free time than I figured, though, since I still have SO much to do. It’s not bad, though, and I have a new reading-related category to add to this month’s monthly post. I’m enjoy my quieter days, that’s for sure!
I’m still ridiculously behind on blog stuff, though. I’m really hoping that once it cools off, things will settle down around here and I’ll be able to jump back into the book blogging world a little more. For now, it’s all I can do to get posts written (as you’ll see!).
12. The Polygamist’s Daughter by Anna LeBaron (review to come)
13. Gated by Amy Christine Parker (review to come)
14. Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (review to come)
15. Socks by Beverly Cleary (no review, read out loud to my daughter)
16. The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais (review to come)
Only slightly better than last month! I’ve still been ridiculously busy, so not as much reading time as I would have liked (and barely any reading time some days!) Bring on the colder weather where I can huddle under a blanket and just READ!!!
Reading Challenge Updates
I’m not currently participating in any reading challenges, but I’m already looking forward to these starting up again in the new year!
State of the Goodreads TBR
Currently, my Goodreads TBR stands at 77 books! Some of the books I had placed on there last month were cookbooks, which I checked out of the library and went through, then took off my list, so that helps to explain the slightly reduced number. Also aiding in TBR reduction is the fact that eleven of this month’s books came off my TBR list. Yay me!
Books I Acquired in September 2019
The only book I brought into the house this month was a copy of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, which I bought with a Barnes and Noble gift card. I’ve actually gotten a tiny bit of writing done this month, but not a ton, and not with any regularity. Possibly when the weather turns…
I feel so lucky whenever I get the opportunity to listen to authors speak! There’s a bookstore semi-local to me that often has authors come speak; I need to follow their schedule more carefully. They’re a bit of a drive from me, though, and with needing to pick my husband up from the evening train, being at the bookstore on time might be a bit of a stretch…
Current Podcast Love
I’m currently going back and forth between Cults on Parcast (seriously, it’s starting to feel like everything’s a cult, haha! There are so many more out there than I ever imagined. What the heck, humanity???), and Behind the Bastards (no, seriously, what the heck, humanity????), which I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. The host, journalist and author Robert Evans, reads a script of his weekly research on a terrible, terrible person from either history or modern days, going in depth as to exactly why and how that person was/is awful as he reads to a comedian or fellow podcaster who is coming in cold and knows little about the subject. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s educational, it’s full of incredulous swear words… I’m learning so much from this podcast and it’s seriously fascinating in its depth and breadth of information.
Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge
So, now that my daughter (who is my intense child, the one who makes a bid for my attention every three seconds and has sizzled my brain into a charred, shriveled crisp) is in school full-time, I have some quiet time- most days, anyway- to sit and read some of the things I’ve been putting off because they take more brainpower to get through, and who has that when you’re answering questions about unicorns and responding to “Mama, I’m done pooping!” every other minute? I was never able to finish college, which is a major sore spot for me, so it’s really important to me that I keep learning and keep expanding my world in an intellectual sense. And so my afternoons, after I finish dinner prep, are spent in a reading-and-study session, with books from my own shelves that I’ve wanted to get to for ages.
We’re a bilingual, French-English family (my husband bringing the French via his Belgian-born self), and in the past, I’ve always tried to read at least one book in French every year. Last year, I did this at night and got through Harry Potter à L’école des Sorciers (the first Harry Potter book). But then my husband wanted to watch a bunch of stuff on Netflix with me, so there went my quiet reading time, and I only now got around to reading my French book for the year, grabbing Winnie l’Ourson by A.A. Milne off of my French shelf (Winnie l’Ourson being, of course, the French translation of Winnie-the-Pooh). I did a chapter almost every day, writing down unfamiliar words and then plugging them into Anki, a flashcard app, so I could memorize them. It feels good to be back into language study! Winnie l’Ourson is adorable in both English and French, although I have to say that I found French-speaking Eeyore an entire passive-aggressive pain in the ass. 😀
Along with improving my French, another of my goals for my alone time is to improve my Norwegian, especially my grammar, so I’ve started slowly working my way through Norsk, Nordmenn Og Norge by Kathleen Stokker and Odd Haddal (Norwegian, Norwegians and Norway). This is a hefty tome of Norwegian grammar and vocabulary. I’m on my fourth trip through the Duolingo tree and use that mainly to keep my skills fresh every day, but I’ll be using this book to build more on what I’ve already learned. I’m hoping to find enough time this winter, too, to finally watch season 4 of Skam, a fabulous Norwegian TV series that follows a group of teenagers through their high school drama. I adored seasons 1-3 and just never got around to finishing it.
In heavier English-language reading, I’m twenty chapters into A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. This book has been sitting on my shelf for years and I’m so grateful that I finally have the ability to delve deeply into it. It’s an intense read, shining light on perspectives in American history that we’re never taught in school (for real, I have never, EVER said WTF so many times in one single book. Most pages have something that makes me drop at least one F-bomb; for instance, when a multi-millionaire wrote his son a letter, urging him to pay a fee in order to have someone else drafted for the war in his place because “there are other lives out there that are worth less.” DUDE. WTF!!!). I’ve read quite a bit of history over the years since I left school and am still aghast at how horrible we can be to each other. If you haven’t read this illuminating book yet and you have the time and mental space for it, I highly, HIGHLY recommend it.
I’ll finish A People’s History…probably around the end of the first week of October (I try to read a chapter each day, but there are some days, like when my mother comes up to visit, that I don’t get to it), and after that, I’m going to finally tackle Les Misérables by Victor Hugo in full (in English!). I got through about 400 pages when I was in high school, and then abandoned it during one of Hugo’s long rants on Napoleon. This time, I’ll complete it. I’ve already glanced through my copy, which is 1463 pages, and I’m planning to read around 30 pages a day (give or take, depending on how close the next chapter or nearest break is). I can read 30 pages at a time of anything, so while this will be a lengthy read, I have faith in myself that this will be the time I complete it.
I’m excited about this new project and look forward to sharing with all of you the new things I’m working on each month. This will, of course, be subjective to school vacations and whatnot; maybe I’ll move my more intense reading to nighttimes then. Who knows. 🙂
(Also, I may change the name of this section if I come up with a better one…)
Real Life Stuff
September was, as always, a busy month, but we’re settling into new routines around here. My son is busy with school and choir commitments; my daughter is making new friends and this upcoming weekend will attend her fourth birthday party since school began! I’m busy running after both of them, of course, but I try to spend most mornings working on a household project of some sort, before moving on to preparing dinner and my afternoons with my personal Read Harder Challenge. The shelving units we had in the kitchen were bowing, so we replaced them with heavier metal shelves, which I put together and then switched out all our stuff. That took almost an entire school day (SO MUCH CLEANING to go along with it), and my thighs were killing me afterwards, but the shelves look so much neater and better now. And I spent another two hours folding the FOUR BASKETS of my husband’s clean laundry that had been living on my bedroom floor for MONTHS (yes, I’m laundry-shaming my husband!) and tidying up his shelves. The bedroom looks so much bigger now without four heaping baskets of laundry on the floor! 😀
October’s going to be another busy month. A local university is putting on a performance of Cabaret, so my mother is coming up and we’re going to see that. My son has Homecoming (his girlfriend’s dress is so pretty!), and his choir will have two shows (both of which my mother will come up to see and she and I will spend the day together, which is always wonderful). I’m going to see a documentary put on by the school system’s parent education group, my mother and daughter and I are going to go to a local craft/Scandinavian fair that we visit every year, my daughter’s school is putting on a huge Halloween bash, and then we have Halloween itself (my daughter wants to be something she’s calling a Rose Fairy Princess, and she was amenable to the idea of my doctoring up one of her dress-up dresses with fake flowers, so I’ll have to find the time to do that). Will there even be any time to sit down and read, much less blog? And then we’ll start in with the holidays…
I’m exhausted just thinking about it! I’m about ready for the snow and cold of January and February at this point! 😀
How was your September? How did your reading go? Do you find you have more time to read this time of year, or less?
Happy reading, and may your October be beautiful. 🙂