Cozy comfort reads. So many of us are looking for those right now, and I’m no different. I enjoy a good romance novel (of any heat level, to be honest); there’s just something about a couple falling in love, the yearning, the anticipation, the sparks, that speaks to me and tugs at my heart. So when Traci Borum contacted me and offered a copy of her new novel, Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) (Red Adept Publishing, 2020), I was intrigued by her description of the novel as having a “Hallmarky” feel. I’ve only seen a handful of Hallmark movies (no cable here), but I know plenty of people enjoy their movies and find them comforting, so I was in.
Jill McCallister, author of a popular four-book mystery series, is stuck. Writer’s block has struck hard after she finished her series, and she has no idea what to write next. Desperate for inspiration, she accepts an assigned article on genealogy from a friend’s struggling magazine, only to discover her very own ancestor founded a small Texas town called Morgan’s Grove. Figuring a change of pace could only help, Jill packs up, leaves her small Denver life behind, and heads off in search of creativity and answers about her family in the Lonestar state.
What she’s not expecting is to be pulled so deeply in by the town. Morgan’s Grove and its residents are immediately welcoming, presenting her with the friendly, charming hometown Jill’s never had. Lucille, the woman at whose house she’s staying, quickly becomes a trusted friend and surrogate grandmother, and Rick, Lucille’s handsome, quiet, somewhat distant grandson, slowly moves from mysterious to sympathetic, and then more. After having spent her childhood on the run, Jill’s finally found a home…and maybe even a home for her heart.
Ms. Borum wasn’t exaggerating in her description; Love Stars Here is all the Hallmark without the cheese. The story is set during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which qualifies this as a Christmas novel for those of you who look for those kinds of things (but it worked out just fine at the end of April, thankyouverymuch!). There’s cool weather, gingerbread cookies and a homegrown baking business (and even a yummy-looking recipe at the end of the book!), decorations, Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols, a million mugs of cocoa…if you’re looking for cozy, you’ll absolutely find it here. The romance is a sweet, slow burn and is absolutely appropriate for the youngest of romance lovers.
(And if you like Corgis? There are Corgis in the book. As someone who has been absolutely dying over a friend’s pictures of her new Corgi puppy lately, this made me ridiculously happy.)
Jill McCallister is a delight of a heroine, and her realistic struggles with writer’s block and her difficult relationship with her almost entirely absent mother lends her an air of empathy from the start. Her giving nature with Lucille and faith that her writing mojo will return, even when it feels as though her Muse has abandoned her for good, makes her a joy to read. Rick remains enigmatic through much of the story, but the fact that their romance didn’t move from zero to one hundred immediately made that work for me.
Ms. Borum has nailed small town charm in a big way with Morgan’s Grove. The town has all the appeal of any tucked-away New England seaside village or midwestern crossroads, but without the reality of what we know small-town life can be (no gossip, no true town busybody, no dark secrets). It’s the quaint hometown of our dreams, sweet without veering into saccharine, crisp holiday weather without the glop of five day-old slush, spooky, wind-whipped storms with only minimal property damage, friendly neighbors who are always willing to pitch in and who have your back without talking behind it. If you’re looking for a cozy book-vacation destination, traveling with Jill McCallister to Morgan’s Grove, Texas needs to be on your literary map.
One of the best things about this book was that it wasn’t a high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat novel. Sometimes we as readers want that, and other times, a slow, gentle read that presents each story component wrapped in a soft, hand-knit blanket and accompanied by a steaming mug of our favorite warm beverage is more in order. Love Starts Here fits easily into that latter category and was a sweet, enjoyable read during a time when the outside world’s roar needed to be tamped down by something that felt more familiar, more palatable. Escaping into Morgan’s Grove was the literary break I needed.
Thanks to Traci Borum for sending me a copy of Love Starts Here to read and review!
This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.
Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.
“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.
A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.
I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.
What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.
Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.
Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.
Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.
Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.
Suggested as a book for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a character in their 20’s (although I’m pretty sure she’s only briefly in her 20’s, as she mentions that she recently turned 30, but whatever, I’m counting it anyway…), Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Pamela Dorman Books, 2017) has been a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. It never appeared at the right time for me, though; whenever I’d see it, I would be so far behind in my reading that taking it home seemed foolish, but I was lucky enough to grab it on my last trip to the library, making this my very last library read until they reopen. I have plenty to read here, and the library is still open for ebooks, but still…it feels sad.
Eleanor Oliphant’s life barely qualifies as an existence. She goes to work, she comes home, she eats, she sleeps, she talks to her mother on the phone. And that’s it. No friends, no visitors to her apartment other than the social worker who comes every six months to check up on her. Other people’s behavior frequently baffles her, she can’t relate to her coworkers, and she doesn’t seem to understand that they’re mocking her whenever they speak to her. But the wheels of change are set in motion when Eleanor and Raymond, a coworker, help to save an elderly man who’s collapsed in the street, and, unrelated, Eleanor meets the man of her dreams.
Along with striking up something resembling a friendship with Raymond, Eleanor begins a regime of self-improvement designed to make herself acceptable to the musician she’s developed a crush on. Hair, skin, nails, better clothes, all of this is tackled methodically as she learns the twists and turns of friendship with and through Raymond, and the people she meets because of him. And when life goes wrong and things get difficult, Eleanor comes to understand what friendship truly is and can mean, and what it means to reach out to another human being.
This is a lovely book that’s occasionally hard to read. Eleanor doesn’t seem to understand that her coworkers are often making fun of her when they bother to talk to her at all, and those scenes are painful for any reader with compassion and a sense of decency. Her social awkwardness and extremely literal way of thinking cause her to speak bluntly, offend people without being unaware of it, and often act inappropriately in social situations. There’s never a mention of Eleanor having a diagnosis of any sorts, so whether her behavior is from a condition such as autism or due to trauma and emotional starvation as a child remains unknown. It’s tragic, but despite her inability to respond properly in so many situations, Eleanor is a strong, deep character. The fact that she’s survived this long and gotten this far in life, despite all that she’s suffered (obvious content warnings here: there are mentions of child abuse, sexual assault and rape, several mentions of death, physical and emotional abuse, and bullying behavior from adults), is remarkable, and Ms. Honeyman has created a character that readers will be desperate to see succeed.
Watching Eleanor’s growth over the course of the book was exactly the kind of hopeful I needed at this point. We’re doing okay here, managing everything okay, but it’s still not easy, and reading along as Eleanor tried new things and threw herself into new experiences felt satisfying (even though she was doing them for the wrong reasons. I didn’t enjoy that part, and kept hoping that she would reach that point where she was doing things for herself, but it was fun to see how she experienced things such as a professional hair cut and a trip to the nail salon for the first time), especially since all of our lives are on hold at the moment. Reading about someone who was brave enough to actually start living, after a lifetime of…not…felt…like a relief. It’s no substitute for life itself, but when it’s what you can have at the moment, it’s enough.
What a strong debut novel. I don’t know what Ms. Honeyman has next up her sleeve, but my goodness, what a way to burst onto the fiction scene!
My favorite part of reading is getting to live in another person’s head for a while, to experience life from their perspective and see how it differs from my own. It’s fun to meet characters who are just like me, but I prefer it when they’re different from me in some major way and I can see the world anew. That’s definitely something I found in Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom (Poppy, 2015), which I found as a suggestion for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a character with a vision impairment or enhancement (a nod to 20/20 vision, something I definitely do NOT have).
Sixteen year-old Parker Grant’s life probably isn’t what she pictured it would be when she was little. Blinded completely at the age of seven in a car accident that killed her mother, her aunt, uncle, and cousins have now moved into her house after her father’s death via accidental overdose. She’s strong, though. Hasn’t cried yet, and she won’t. Her friend group helps to support her, and running- by herself, in the very early morning!- keeps her sane.
To throw more complications in the mix, her ex-boyfriend Scott, who is an ex for a MAJOR reason, is back in her life, though she’s doing a good job at replacing him with Jason, the nice guy from the shoe store who sold her her latest pair of running shoes. Parker can try all she wants, but she can’t outrun her past or the drama of her present for too long…
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. Parker is…blunt, and that’s putting it kindly. Her personality comes off as brash and inconsiderate, and while I kept reminding myself that this was a teenager who had only recently lost her last surviving parent, it seemed as though this had been part of her personality her entire life and wasn’t a new quirk caused by grieving and trauma. I don’t mind a character with a sharp, snarky personality (such as Julia in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; I felt Erika Sánchez created in Julia a character whose struggles with depression and anxiety played out well in her sharp mouth and shortness with other characters), but Parker’s constant irritability and lack of tact as her sole personality trait grew tiresome to read. While I would expect a teenager who has experienced so much loss in her life to be belligerent and sharp-tongued, we’re rarely given a chance to see any other side of Parker, even in her own thoughts. A little more vulnerability would have gone a long way for me.
That said, I did feel that Parker’s blindness was covered well, and it almost became a character itself but without being a Major Issue. Her blindness just IS, it’s not something to overcome or struggle with, and that was something I definitely appreciated. Her independence (and occasional struggle for it) is strongly featured and was a pleasure to read. A friend once related a conversation she had with a parent of a blind child, and the parent had said the general rule she lived by was that if she expected something of a seeing child that age, she would expect it of a blind child as well. Thus, if she expected her seeing six year-old to scrape off her dinner plate in the trash and rinse it off in the sink, she would expect the same of her blind six year-old. I kept this in mind as I read and was pleased to see that play out, both in all the things Parker can do, the things she *does* require help with, and the nervousness with which her aunt handles her. Her aunt, who probably never expected to be raising her blind niece, doesn’t seem to have done any research or consulted with any experts on how to be her niece’s advocate and ally, and is a character who will get your hackles up in Parker’s defense. Her same-age cousin, however, doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s almost a relief at how normal (though full of tension!) her interactions with Parker are. Her regular friendgroup, however, is perfection.
The two love interests had me scratching my head a bit. Scott, Parker’s ex, doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond his affection for Parker and his desire to help her. Remembering that their major connection occurred when the two of them were in eighth grade puzzled me a bit- I know, I’m an adult reading YA, but even when I was younger, I had the wherewithal to realize that relationships that happen when you’re 13 aren’t exactly the pinnacle of what lifelong romance should be, and so Scott’s dedication as a 13 year-old boyfriend and the way he’s maintained these feelings all these years seemed…a little farfetched. Jason, the shoe store employee, starts out strong, and then fizzles out pretty hard. I wasn’t terribly impressed by either of them, to be honest.
Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!
I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.
North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.
I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.
What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.
I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.
Okay, gang. Gather close for another round of Book Blogger Confessions.
This? This was my first Agatha Christie novel.
I get it. She’s super popular and people love her books like they love their children. I’ve heard librarians talk about how Christie’s books circulate as much or more than any other modern popular author and how they have to replace her books frequently due to constant use. Mysteries are some of the most popular items at almost every library, my own included (I asked at our last book club). And I almost never check them out.
It’s not like I’m opposed to the genre. I don’t mind watching movies with mysteries in them. I’m just BAD at them. And not just bad, like BAD. Really bad. I almost never guess the identity of the killer (and when I do, I’m practically doing a touchdown dance, it’s that rare for me to figure it out). There are too many characters, everyone seems suspicious, and I really overthink things and make them way more complicated than they have to be. I don’t love having to be *that* on guard while I read- don’t get me wrong, I love using my brain when I read, it’s why I enjoy nonfiction so very much- but mysteries? They’re like those logic puzzles…that I’m also bad at.
But Agatha Christie was already on my list this year, as she was an author I’d never read before and I wanted to know what I was missing out on. And it just so happened that the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge included a prompt for a book from a series with more than 20 books. I’m not a big series reader as it is, so I was a little nervous about this, but it just so happened that Agatha Christie fit this prompt with her Hercule Poirot books, and thus Murder on the Orient Express (HarperCollins, 1934) went on my list.
Detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express train when it runs into a snowdrift overnight and is stopped…and so is the heart of one of its passengers, dead after being stabbed multiple times. One by one, Poirot meticulously questions the motley crew aboard, searching for the pipe smoker, the owner of a scarlet dressing gown, and someone with the initial of H. Twists and turns abound, with each interview revealing new pieces of the puzzle to only Poirot, until at last, he’s able to click the final piece in place, revealing the dastardly plot and the name of the killer. All aboard for one serious thrill ride!
First off, and if you’ve read this, you won’t take this the wrong way- the ending is the best part. YES. I absolutely loved how Poirot ended this, though I won’t say more in case there are people other than me who are new to this book. Just a brilliant solution to what could have been messy. True justice right there.
I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s plain writing style. She never veers into much description, which made me happy. I’ve disliked long descriptive passages since I was a kid, when I would sometimes just skip over the flowery description altogether. Her writing is quite to the point, much like Poirot’s questioning, and that makes for a delightful read without much fuss.
I don’t know that this made me love mysteries any more than I did before, however. There are still a lot of characters to sort through, I still overthought every last bit of information Poirot wrangled out of each passenger, and much like the two men who were aiding his questioning, I remained baffled by the identity of the killer to the very end. I’ll never be a world-renowned detective (or a world-renowned…mystery reader…); that fact is very, very obvious by my obliviousness. I mean, at one point, I was like “How did all these people, connected with that, end up on this train???” I never once considered… At times, I’m far too jaded with the world, and at others, I give people way too much benefit of the doubt.
If you’re hiring, never hire me for a job figuring stuff like this out. I’d be terrible at it.
And then there was this passage in the book, which I will file under “Things Published Before World War II That Immediately Did Not Age Well”:
Anyway, this was a fun book and I’m glad I’m better acquainted with Agatha Christie’s style. One more author and one more reading challenge book ticked off my list!
And back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge! One of their prompts is for a book you meant to read in 2019, and…really, that could apply to a lot of books, but the one that really stuck out in my mind was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday Books, 2018). This book made the rounds of the blogs last year and I always wanted to read it, but the only time I came across it in the library, I was already so backed up with books that I knew I’d never get to it if I took it home at that time. So on the shelf it stayed, until my final pre-COVID-19-shutdown trip to the library, where I grabbed it and stashed it in my stack (I still have three books left to read…and like an entire library of books on my own shelves, shhhhhh).
A phone call from Korede’s beautiful younger sister Ayoola more than likely means trouble, and three times now that has proven to be true. Three bodies that Korede has helped move, three clean-ups that she’s now participated in, three dead boyfriends is the number that officially makes her sister a serial killer. But what’s a big sister to do? Protecting her little sister has always been her job…even now, when she doesn’t understand why her sister keeps killing the men she dates.
Korede takes solace in her job as a nurse, unburdening herself to a comatose patient and attempting to begin a romance with her handsome doctor co-worker Tade. Just when it seems like things are beginning to take root, Ayoola shows up at Korede’s work and it only takes one glance from Tade before his gaze is permanently fixed on Ayoola. Korede is not only bitterly hurt, but concerned for Tade’s safety. When her comatose patient awakens with full knowledge of the assistance Korede has given her sister and Tade reveals his plan to propose to Ayoola, things look dire, but there’s more than one inevitable conclusion to this dark story.
My Sister, the Serial Killer was definitely worth the wait. I loved everything about it- the setting (I have a map of the world with little magnetic ‘pins’ hanging on my wall, and I place a pin in the countries where a book I read is set. I was thrilled to be able to place one in Nigeria for this book, which brings me up to 13 different countries so far this year, not counting the US); Korede’s stoic support of her sister, even through her disapproval; Ayoola’s arrogance and narcissism- what a frustrating character!; Tade’s complete buffoonery when it comes to Ayoola; the comatose patient’s reawakening; the very premise itself! Not only is there a female serial killer, she’s young and arrogant enough to assume her sister will always be there to cover up her crimes for her. This is one fascinatingly dark story!
I had some inkling of how the story would end when I spotted the original Nigerian title in the copyright info (you can see it on Goodreads; I won’t post it here in case any of my readers are about to read this book!), and it did ultimately play out in the way I suspected it would, but it was still absolutely worth every second of the read. It’s dark, but not heavy, and it made for a surprisingly fun read, if you can call a book about a serially murdering sister fun. It would make for a fun summer beach read, if you’re lucky enough to be able to read on the beach and not, say, worry your child is going to drown the second she steps off the towel. *laughs nervously*
Have you read and enjoyed this? I’ve heard a few people say it was too dark for them; for me, it was just dark enough, the kind that made me kind of laugh at how terrible Korede’s situation was, like, “GIRL! NO! Don’t help her, just run and change your entire identity!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book!
One down off the TBR, finally! Confession, though: I added this to my TBR because I wanted to read Tessa Dare, and The Governess Game (Avon, 2018) was one my library had (so I wasn’t necessarily longing to read this book specifically). I’ve followed Tessa Dare for ages on Twitter and have adored her on there and thus felt the need to engage with her work. As luck would have it, the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge includes a prompt for a book by an author who has written more than 20 books, and Ms. Dare fits right in with that category! I was happy to kill two birds with one store and checked this out from the library the day before it closed.
Alexandra Mountbatten is not having the best of days. The man she’s been fantasizing about for months after interacting with him (barely) at a bookstore has resurfaced in her life, and it…didn’t go well. And after losing the bag of tools she uses to set clocks in the homes of her customers, she’s forced to return to Chase Reynaud’s fancy home and accept his earlier bizarre offer to act as governess to the two ill-behaved orphan sisters left in his care. His playboy reputation, Alexandra’s schoolgirl crush, and the terrible behavior of the girls, none of it matters- Alexandra’s desperate.
But Alexandra’s sharp mind helps her to see the weak spots in both the sisters’ and Chase’s defenses, and it’s not long before everyone has come to love this unexpected addition to the household. In a one-step-forward, two-steps-back fashion, Chase and Alexandra will find their way to each other, but not without a few heart-stopping- and heart-pounding!- moments along the way.
I’m nearly aghast that Avon publishes both this absolutely wonderful, feminist, sex-positive and healthy historical romance, alongside the dumpster fire novel It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The two books are light years apart in terms of quality, with Ms. Dare’s work the clear winner by a million miles. Alexandra is not only confident but full of self-respect as well; she takes pride in her hard work, her education, and who she is, despite a lifetime of difficult circumstances. Her friends are supportive and respectful; they cheer her on and push her to achieve her goals and grow as a person. She’s a strong heroine who can be emulated and imitated, and I knew within several pages that I’d absolutely read more of Ms. Dare’s work. The same could not be said after several pages of It Had to Be You.
Chase is a pretty decent hero. He’s a rake, for sure; he’s been around the bush more than a few times (while managing to keep himself clean and free from illegitimate children, a feat covered in the book), but for reasons that make him a bad boy with a heart of gold, one in need of healing. He’s a man with a sense of humor and not afraid to follow or let himself be bested by a strong woman, and that was exactly the hero antidote I needed at this point in time.
I’m always so impressed by well-written (and FUN!) historical romance. The research has to be daunting- I’m not sure I’d even know where to start. But included in each one of these books is a free history lesson- it’s never names or dates or battles (unless you’re reading something with a more intense historical background, like Outlander), but more of a sense of the daily life of the members of a certain class during the time period the book is set in. Dress styles, decorating trends, speech, class hierarchy, how certain professions went about their work, food choices, it’s all in there, and to be honest, I love these lighter historical romances. (When I say lighter, I’m comparing this to books like Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews– that felt heavier to me and not as enjoyable as The Governess Game or Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.)
Have you read Tessa Dare? I’d love to hear any recommendations for what else I should read from her (besides everything!). Tell me about your favorites!
Back to Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! They’re prompting readers to choose a mystery where the victim (or victims, as some mysteries go) is not a woman. Mystery isn’t really my genre (and I’ll go into why in a future post), but I really got lucky with The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2019). While the main conflict does center around an unsolved death, the story itself is about so much more than that- family, culture, immigration, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, friendship, conflict between generations…this is a complex novel that goes well beyond any kind of ‘whodunit.’
A restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant is struck down by a hit-and-run after leaving work late one night, leaving his family in upheaval. Nora, a struggling musician and composer who hasn’t quite found her path yet, reluctantly returns home to a mother who has never fully accepted Nora’s career path. Maryam, the widow, has complex feelings toward her homeland, America, and her deceased husband. Coleman, the detective covering the case, is also making personal discoveries; Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, has fallen hard for his returned friend, but he’s also carrying the weight of PTSD from the Iraq war, as well as the PTSD, alcoholism, and rage of a veteran friend; Efraín, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident that killed Driss Guerraoui, is afraid to come forward for fear of what authorities might do to his family.
Told in alternating viewpoints (including that of the deceased), Ms. Lalani shows the complexities of life in America and the weight each of us is expected to carry, as residents, as citizens, as friends and family. Relationships are forged and broken, out of pain and fear. Some characters fit in better in their surroundings than others, and there’s a heavy pall of the culture of American individualism that hangs over nearly every scene. It’s increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships these days, and this is evident in the loneliness and the wrenching decisions each character must make.
The Other Americans is a mosaic of stories centered around the death of one central figure, and while the initial premise- who caused Driss Guerraoui’s death?- is a sad one, the novel advances far beyond that to showcase the struggles of all varieties of Americans- immigrants, those of the second generation, veterans, working class people, parents, undocumented immigrants, children going against their parents’ wishes after growing up in a country their parents don’t always understand… There’s joy and sadness, triumph and regret, and always the knowledge that one must continue to put one foot in front of the other despite any terrible circumstances life throws one’s way.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel doesn’t necessarily read heavy, although it wasn’t the most uplifting of choices during this strange time. I was rooting for Nora and Jeremy until they fought and he lashed out at her in a way that felt unacceptable to me, and to be frank, I was disappointed at how they ended up. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I felt Nora should have had enough self-respect to shut him down permanently after the things he said to her.
The Other Americans was a surprise for me. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but despite its sadness, I deeply enjoyed it (especially the multiple first-person viewpoints. TOTALLY MY JAM. GIVE ME ALL THE MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON VIEWPOINT BOOKS!).
Ahhhh, the library. Remember that place? Do you remember ANY places? We used to be able to go places, right?
What a weird, weird millennium this month has been. We started out quietly and have ended up with the majority of us isolated in our homes. To be honest, I saw this coming at the beginning of the month and began preparing accordingly, filling in the few gaps that remained in my pantry (with things like another 50lb bag of bread flour, two pounds of yeast, extra soy sauce, a bulk tub of peanut butter, etc. We’re also well-stocked with toilet paper, so there have been no worries there for us). I also managed a trip to the library the day before it closed, so I still have a stack of books to read- not that I’ve been doing a great job of reading. It’s hard to focus, hard to stop hitting refresh on my computer screen, and I’ve heard plenty of other reader friends say the same thing. So if you’re struggling to get through that stack of books, even though you suddenly find yourself with all the time in the world, you’re absolutely not alone.
Not a great month for reading, and an even worse month for reviewing, but I’m cutting myself ALL OF THE SLACK. Everyone is worried and anxious and scared at this time, and it’s not easy to focus. It took me an entire week to read His Hideous Heart; during normal times, I would’ve blown through that in two or three days. But it’s okay. I’m doing the best I can right now, and so are you.
Reading Challenge Updates
So, the good thing is that everything I have from the library, which is still like six or seven books, are from my reading challenge lists, so I’m still working on that for the time being. After that, though, these will have to be put on hold until things calm down enough for the libraries to re-open. Totally understandable. Fortunately, I’ve got PLENTY of reading material here at the house, along with access to ebooks through my library (some of which will work for my reading challenges!), so I won’t run out of things to read anytime soon.
Here’s what my reading challenges look like right now:
There’s a second page to this, but there’s been no change, it’s still blank, so I won’t post that. Nor will I post this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy challenge, as there’s been no change to that.
I think I only read five challenge books this month, but that’s okay. This year is different in a lot of ways, and how I go about and complete these challenges is going to look different too. ALL THE SLACK-CUTTING GOES HERE.
State of the Goodreads TBR
Still at 109 books, so it’s holding steady from last month, which is good! I’m not particularly worried about it creeping up right now, though. If I find things I want to add and it makes me happy to add them, I’M ADDING THEM.
Books I Acquired in March 2020
None for me that I can remember, but we did buy a math workbook and a 300-page workbook of first grade material for my daughter. Does that count? 😀
Bookish Things I Did in March 2020
Before the world shut down, March wasn’t a terrible month. I went to a library program where a woman did a historical reenactment as Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide Anne Frank and her family. A few days later, I went back to the library (where they already had out a vat of hand sanitizer) for a program on the rock band Fleetwood Mac, which was SUPER fun and interesting! Everything after that, unfortunately, was cancelled, including Nicola Yoon’s visit, and my Judaism class’s Shabbat. Super bummer, but understandable.
Current Podcast Love
Still listening to and loving Unorthodox! I’m not having as much time to listen as I did before, though, since everyone is home and I don’t want to blast it in the kitchen as I cook…
Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge
Currently on hold until life goes back to normal.
Real Life Stuff
Phew. What a MONTH. And there will probably be more exactly like this, for a while.
The good parts: My husband’s job is perfectly fine and he’s considered essential (his research involves the mouse colonies at the lab, so he’s partially responsible for keeping the mice, which are the culmination of years of research and a LOT of money, alive), so things are okay for us there. He’s working a slightly reduced schedule and sometimes going in at weird times in the lab’s attempt to reduce the amount of people in the lab at any one time, but financially we have zero worries at this time, which makes us very, very fortunate.
The bummers: my son’s senior year. He’s doing mostly okay with this and is enjoying doing school online, but he’s pretty sad about missing all the senior year choir stuff, and I feel really, really sad about this for him. I’m going to miss all his last performances and all the things he’s worked so hard for, including the springtime a capella group. Odds are there will also be no prom (he’s not bothered by this, but I know a lot of other kids are) and no graduation, either. It’s a sad way to end his compulsory education.
My daughter’s kindergarten experience. She’s really missing her friends, her teacher, and the routine of school. We’re doing a full day of schoolwork most days- I homeschooled my son until he was in fourth grade and still have the vast majority of the books I used with him (I kept them specifically in case there was a time when the schools shut down, and boy are they coming in handy), so she’ll be doing well educationally whenever the schools are able to start back up again. We read the first two Molly books in the American Girl series, which led to a lot of really great conversations about rationing and sacrifice and having to make do with what you have (VERY timely right now!), and it helped my daughter to understand better what’s happening and why the grocery stores have empty shelves, and why we can’t afford to waste anything.
My back. UGH. YOU PICKED A FINE TIME TO LEAVE ME, LUCILLE. My back has been utter rubbish the past two weeks. I’ve iced, I’ve heated, I’ve stretched, and still I can’t move without at least wincing and sometimes moaning in pain. It’s come down to me messaging my doctor, and I’m now on a course of prednisone to try to get the swelling down in order to decrease my pain and give me a little better range of motion. Being stuck at home isn’t all that bad for me, but being in that kind of pain was a major downer. Fortunately, the prednisone is making a serious dent, for which I am ridiculously grateful.
My days look like this: wake up, drink coffee, brush teeth and switch from my nighttime sweatpants to my fancy daytime sweatpants, school the girl, lunch, school the girl, walk, clean the kitchen, cook dinner, eat dinner, shower, read, bed. Lather, rinse, repeat (and I’m not complaining; I’m guessing that a lot of your days look similar). I have to say I do envy parents of older kids, those parents who are able to kick back a little and throw whatever you want on TV and not have to worry it’s inappropriate for younger eyes, or who can work on other projects without having to be on Child Destruction Watch or Question Answering Duty every other second. (I seriously, SERIOUSLY feel for the parents who are attempting the impossible in simultaneously homeschooling/supervising schoolwork, working from home, and supervising smaller children. You guys have all my sympathies!) Basically, we’re all struggling in different ways here!
Two things that have been giving me a lot of enjoyment throughout this ordeal:
The Wild Birds Unlimited Barred Owl Cam. We’ve been keeping an eye on this girl since the second week of March. She’s beautiful. Her three eggs probably won’t start hatching until the end of the first week of April, possibly the second, but it’s fun checking in on her and seeing what she’s up to. We’ve caught her with a dead mouse, a squirrel leg, and an earthworm, and sometimes she sharpens her beak on the righthand side of the owl box. Hearing her hoot at other owls in the distance is also pretty wild.
2. The Cornell Lab FeederWatch Cam. These guys, and the waterfowl in the background, can get LOUD. This feeder is often really busy and it’s lovely to watch all the birds- and the stupid squirrels, who constantly try to jump on the platform and often miss, resulting in a huge cartoon-like crashing sound- come and go, and how they interact with each other. It does start to stress me out when the feeder gets low, though!
3. Cincinnati Zoo’s Home Safari. We’re a few behind, but the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens are putting on a ‘home safari’ for the kids stuck at home every day, featuring an appearance by one (or more) of their animals and an educational talk given by the animal’s keepers and handlers. My daughter and I are really enjoying these and look forward to the new ones.
4. Geography Now. Paul Barbato, aka Barby, runs a web series featuring every country (I’m not sure what letter he’s up to now; my daughter and I just finished with the E’s, as we’ve been at this series for a while). Each 10-15 minute video features a fast-paced explanation of a country’s history, demographics, culture, physical geography, and more. Younger kids will need the video paused often so that certain things can be explained to them, but older kids should get most of what he’s saying. We’re using this as part of our schoolwork in conjunction with The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World by Roz Hopkins, which I picked up years ago from a yard sale in hopes of teaching my daughter a little more about the world. The book is colorful and awesome, and we’re learning a lot about all the various different countries. Between the book, googling more of the stuff we find in the book (pictures of landmarks and geographical features, languages, music, etc), and viewing an episode of Geography Now, this takes up a good half hour for us every day, and it’s FUN!
My Introduction to Judaism class is still meeting online. While it’s not the same, it’s still a major uplift for me to learn and connect with my classmates. The synagogue is offering a lot of online meetings as well, and my daughter and I were able to connect for a preschool storytime the other morning, which was really nice for both of us.
So that’s about it! The calendar for April is wide open, with the exception of my daughter’s birthday at the end of the month. She already understands that there will be no party with family and friends, but that once this is done, we’ll both have a party and we’ll do something awesome together as a family to celebrate. It’s yet another bummer in a whole lot of bummers, but I’m glad she’s so accepting and understanding about this. If this had happened even last year, I don’t think she would have been mature enough to get it, so I’m deeply grateful for the growth she’s experienced this year.
Friends, you’re all in my thoughts and in my heart at this difficult time. Reach out- to me, to your friends, to your family, to each other, to members of your community. Being quarantined and isolated doesn’t have to mean being alone. We’re all in this together; we’re each one of us responsible for keeping each other healthy. Staying home and staying apart is difficult, but it’s necessary, and the sooner we all get indoors and stay there, the sooner this will all be over. But we can still meet up in chat rooms, on Zoom and Facetime and all the other awesome virtual places that make this time a little more bearable. Stay away from each other physically, but connect in other ways. This is a group effort here and we’ll get through it by working as a team. ❤ Please let me know in the comments how you’re doing.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay at home, and stay connected, friends. I wish you a safe, healthy, peaceful April.