fiction · romance

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

Remember used book sales? (Heck, remember going anywhere? To anything? In person? EVER??? HAHAHAHAHAHA *sob*) Last year I managed to stop by quite a few, one of the really great kinds where you cram as much as you can into a paper bag for one low price (I wrote about one here, the one where I purchased this particular book). I’m desperately hoping that the women’s education group that puts these on will go back to it once the pandemic is done, because those book sales are something I look forward to for months, and they’re always crammed full of people (so, uh, this definitely needs to be over before then!). But one of those sales is where I picked up a copy of Come Back to Me by Mila Gray (Pan Macmillan, 2014). The cover looked enticing, so into the bag it went, and since I paid only seven bucks for the entire bag, I could afford to take the chance. Man, I miss those book sales.

Jessa’s life is ruled by her military father and his PTSD-fueled moods. She and her mother walk on eggshells around him, she’s changed her entire college and career plans in order to suit his iron-fisted control, and she never, ever dates. Not that she doesn’t have feelings- big ones- for her brother Riley’s best friend Kit. Kit and Riley joined the Marines a few years ago and Jessa’s been pining away for Kit ever since the last time he was home on leave. And now that he’s back again, she can’t keep those feelings at bay.

Kit has had it bad for his best friend’s sister for a while, but being deployed to Sudan has made it easy to do nothing about it. Being home on leave for four weeks ups the ante, though, and suddenly things are exactly where he always dreamed of them being for the two of them. She’s everything to him, and it doesn’t matter that her dad hates his guts. They’ll figure out a way to make their long-distance relationship work.

But this is a military romance novel, and when tragedy strikes, both Jessa and Kit have some reckoning to do with their pasts and their futures. Can they move beyond the pain to find their way back to one another?

This is a solid New Adult romance with solid writing and a good, if not slightly predictable, romance. It’s sweet and flows well, which makes it an easy, enjoyable read. Jessa and Kit work well together, and as someone who has been in a military relationship-turned-married (turned divorce, turned vowing to never get involved with anyone in the military ever again, turned falling love with a longtime friend who was finishing up a deployment with the National Guard so maybe don’t trust me on this one here, haha), Ms. Gray nails all the turmoil that comes with that. It’s constant stress and worry, being alone more than being together, waiting for that phone call or email or letter (or text/video chat these days, you lucky ducks!), and counting down the days until you see each other again. Stress, stress, stress. I don’t miss those days one bit.

There are some content warnings here: death (one of which is described as it happens, though not in graphic detail); emotional abuse; PTSD; brief discussions of suicide, and sexual assault. Jessa’s dad is a piece of work. His story wraps up a little too nicely for me; I worry that readers may get the wrong idea of the ease of tackling long-term PTSD. The story isn’t focused on him, though, which may account for Ms. Gray’s choice to sum up his story a little more swiftly than his own novel would call for.

I was mildly irritated by a few things in the novel, specifically the cardinal sin-lines of how Jessa’s ‘not like other girls,’ and ‘Kit isn’t like normal guys.’ I admit to scrunching up my face when I read both of those lines. No, no, no. Editors everywhere need to have their red pens at the ready for any versions of those. Unless Jessa has three arms and Kit is missing his entire face and has a functional tail, yeah, they’re both like every other person out there and there’s no need to slam other girls and other guys by demeaning them in order to prop your main characters up. There was also a throwaway line about how Kit lost his virginity at age 14 to the babysitter, but since his sister was older than him, I’m unsure of whom the babysitter was babysitting, and this unnecessary line creeped me way, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out. Forget these lines, though, and the rest of the book is perfectly solid.

I don’t know that I want to read more of this series- like I said, I’ve been through my own military romances and don’t necessarily feel the pull to relive them, but I’d definitely read Mila Gray again.

Mila Gray is the pen name of author Sarah Alderson. Visit her website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Meet You Under the Stars (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #2) by Traci Borum

Back in the spring, author Traci Borum contacted me to read the first romance novel in a new series that she’d penned, Love Starts Here. I enjoyed it and was happy to read and review the second in the series as well, Meet You Under the Stars (Red Adept Publishing, 2020). Who couldn’t use more sweet, cozy romance in their life right now??? And after a heavy nonfiction as my last read, I definitely needed the literary equivalent of a soft fuzzy blanket to wrap myself up in!

Chaynie Mayfield came back to her hometown of charming Morgan’s Grove to help her mother after her father died, and although she enjoys it there, her life seems a bit…stagnant. Her job as a librarian technician is great, but it’s got no room for growth, so it’s application time and she’s putting out feelers all over the country. Her boyfriend dumped her last Valentine’s Day and there are zero prospects on the line. Life just is…until her boss assigns her the gargantuan task of putting together a Valentine’s Day event for the library. The historic building, home of many of Chaynie’s fondest childhood memories, is also beginning to undergo extensive renovations, headed by none other than local architect Greg Peterson, a guy she only vaguely remembers from high school but who looks really, really good to her today.

Working together to plan both the Valentine’s Day Movie Night and a children’s alcove renovation, Chaynie and Greg slowly grow closer, though Chaynie is hesitant. What about her plans to leave Morgan’s Grove? Greg couldn’t possibly be into her, anyway, they’re just friends…right? It’s a case of everyone else seeing first what Chaynie’s unsure of, and she’ll have some major decisions to make. Hopefully she’ll remember to listen to her heart…

What a sweet book. Morgan’s Grove is small-town life as we all dream it could be (definitely not like the small town I grew up in. A guy I went to high school with and who never left town is currently in prison for murder, so… *laughs nervously*), and it’s a lovely place to take a literary tour of when we’re all stuck in our homes. A charming town square, local businesses that aren’t in constant danger of going under, locals who care deeply about the community and want to participate in town activities, a library in a historic building (with donated funds enough to do the proper renovations! Don’t get me started on how this played out in my community! *snarls*). What a dream town Ms. Borum has created. I loved coming back here.

Chaynie is delightful as a main character, penning a children’s book while her artist mother creates the illustrations in their spare time. She grows in confidence as the story moves forward, learning to take chances and realizing that it’s okay if things don’t always go the way she’d hoped, finally realizing what she has right in front of her and taking full advantage of it. Greg as a hero speaks more through his actions than his words (and there are a few scenes where the romance is in what’s left unsaid! I love that kind of tension!), something that speaks deeply to me, and I appreciated his dedication (and his long game. You’ll see what I mean when you read the book. Go, Greg!).

If you’re looking for five-alarm heat levels, this isn’t it; Meet You Under the Stars is a very sweet, slow-paced romance with the heat level of a cozy cup of tea and your favorite winter cardigan. It’s more of a cozy fireside story than a slow burn, but I’m here for all heat levels and watching Chaynie grow into the realization of her feelings for Greg made for a delightful winter evening read.

If you’re in the market for a slow-paced romance set in a modern-day Mayberry, Meet You Under the Stars is the trip you need to take- but don’t forget Love Starts Here first!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t by Stephen R. Prothero

I had the privilege of attending a Zoom webinar on continuing Holocaust education a few weeks ago, presented by a local university and given by professors, a rabbi, and Holocaust educators. It was fascinating and deeply moving, and one of the things that a Holocaust educator said struck me, about how in order to understand the Holocaust, one must be religiously literate, and she made the suggestion of reading Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen R.Prothero (HarperOne, 2007). I put it on my list and grabbed it on my last library run (can you tell how slow my reading has been lately? My last library run was before Thanksgiving *sob*).

Stephen Prothero shines a light on America’s disturbing lack of religious literacy in this book. No, Jesus did not part the Red Sea. No, Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife. And if you can’t name any of the Five Pillars of Islam or describe the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, you’re not alone- most Americans can’t, either, and what’s even worse is that far too many people can’t describe most of the basic tenets of their own faith’s theology. This is especially true for Christianity, it being the dominant religion in the US, and Mr. Prothero provides many examples of this.

When exactly did we become so religiously literate? It goes much further back than the 1950s and 60s, and some of the history of how we lost our taste for in-depth religious knowledge- even of our own faiths- may surprise you. Stephen Prothero makes an excellent case for becoming religiously literate- we can’t truly call ourselves educated without understanding religion (and not just our own!)- even if we’re not believers ourselves. Religion permeates every aspect of our society, our literature, our history, and our politics, and religious literacy is a necessity for full participation in an educated society.

This book is more about shining a light on our problem of religious illiteracy and how it came to exist, rather than providing solutions (other than pointing out the need for classes in the basics of world religions for high schoolers). There’s a lot of history here, from America’s earliest days of Puritans and Deists, the Protestant/Catholic divide, religion’s role in such historical events as the abolitionist movement, Prohibition, the New Deal, and more. Mr. Prothero rightfully argues that American and world history cannot be understood without at least a basic grasp of religion. Imagine trying to study the Crusades without knowing what each side was fighting for. Imagine reading about the Spanish Inquisition without previous knowledge of the beliefs and history that led that society to that point. Imagine trying to read The Grapes of Wrath or Les Misérables without any knowledge of Christianity- the biblical allusions and allegories would go entirely over the reader’s head, and they would miss out on so much. Being religiously literate gives people a fuller, richer, more thorough understanding of nearly everything.

This book has really got me thinking. My husband prefers that our daughter be raised without religion, which is fine with me, but I do feel she needs to be religiously literate in order to be fully educated (I was raised Catholic, am in the process of converting to Judaism, and I have a decent grasp on both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, plus I’ve read books on various sects of Christianity and other religions, and I’ve taken a fantastic comparative religions class. I’m not worried about myself here!). I’ve read several books on world religions to her, and I point stuff out to her all the time, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s enough, and I’m unsure of how to instruct her further in the cultural aspects (stories, practices) of religions I don’t follow, since most of the materials out there about religion that’s geared toward kids are for kids being raised in that religion. We’ve read books like A Faith Like Mine and One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, both really great books that give overviews of the major world religions, but I’d like to go a little more in-depth, and I’m not sure more resources are out there on ‘this is what we believe and here are some of the stories in our scriptures’ without ‘This is why you should believe this, too!’ for kids. If you’re aware of any books that cover this kind of stuff- for any religion- that’s geared towards kids, leave a comment below, because this is definitely something I’m interested in learning about! When life goes back to normal, I’ll have a chat with our children’s librarians and see what they can come up with.

To sum it all up, Religious Literacy points out a major flaw in both the American educational system and in the way American religious institutions handle their deeper doctrinal and theological teachings. If you’re interested in religion in any manner (or education!), this is a great book. It’s information-dense, however, which is great for normal times when it’s quiet and you can focus, but makes for a slower read when, for example, you’ve got all of first grade blaring out of an iPad several feet in front of you. 😉

Visit Stephen R. Prothero’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner

Why is it that I always seem to read gardening and foraging books when it’s cold out? I think I’ve only ever had the sense to read one of these books when I could actually put the information I learned in it to use. Just seems to always work out that way, and on my last library trip before they closed to everything but curbside pickups, I grabbed a copy of Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner (Lyons Press, 2013). I’ve always been interested in urban foraging and have read plenty of books on the subject, but I haven’t really done much with what I’ve learned, other than make a lovely batch of dandelion jelly a few years ago, with dandelions collected from the surplus in my yard (and only in a year when we had so many, there were tons left over for the bees. My two cups of dandelions didn’t even make the tiniest of dents). The community college here offers walking tours of the prairie outside the school with an expert who points out edible native plants, so I’m hoping to take one of those tours when life goes back to normal. Until then, I read on!

Rebecca Lerner is an urban forager, hunting for edible, usable plants in Portland, Oregon, and the surrounding areas. She begins her story with an experiment, having been assigned an article where she lives solely off of items she’s foraged for a week. The experiment fails massively, since Rebecca is a novice, but she learns from her failure and is determined to improve her skills. Immediately, she pinpoints everything she’s done wrong and sets out to learn from friends and locals who are skilled foragers. She finds new greens, edible berries and nuts (even those that need a lot of work to be edible- like acorns), plants that serve as natural medicine and tea, and a way of living that suits her just fine.

This one was just okay for me. It started out fine; Ms. Lerner’s enthusiasm is admirable, and I appreciated her ability to showcase the mistakes she made- who hasn’t made enthusiastic-yet-massive screwups at the beginning of a new project? I enjoyed following her adventures in the streets and urban landscapes of Portland, the process of learning to cook these new-to-her foods, and her descriptions of their tastes. It was easy to feel as though I was right beside her, tramping through a neighbor’s yard, minding the spikes and thorns of these edible plants, and tasting the explosions of flavor of nature’s gatherable bounty.

Her enthusiasm for her homemade medicine cabinet alienated me a bit, however. I’m not against natural medicines, but she displays excitement for certain things that I 100% know have been debunked by peer-reviewed studies. And boasting that her homemade medicines helped people get over their colds in two to three days isn’t exactly the flex she wanted it to sound like (you know, the normal amount of time people would get over a cold?). Her explanation of why people stopped using these homemade medicines fell flat for me (husband is a molecular biologist; it’s all science, all the time here, and I’ve done a lot of reading in the past on the natural health and supplement industry. There’s no conspiracy or power-grab takeover; many of these natural cures simply don’t show any levels of effectiveness when put to rigorous scientific testing). The placebo affect is real and I’m all for using that to its full effect, but I dislike the more woo-based treatments being passed off as being as or more effective than evidence-based treatments.

This isn’t a bad book, despite my being turned off by her allegiance to her homemade medicines. It’s a fun story of learning to appreciate what the earth offers around us, learning to notice the bounty and learning to take advantage of it in a respectful way. It’s a fairly quick read if you’re into this subject.

Visit Rebecca Lerner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary

Sometimes when you browse around on NetGalley, you find a book that calls out to you and that you know you have to read, whether you get approved for it or not, and fortunately, I was lucky enough to be approved for All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O’Leary (Grove Press, 2020). I was born in 1980; AIDS and HIV were fully on my radar by the time I turned 10. Even in the Catholic school I attended, we watched videos and learned about the virus and the devastating effects it had on the human body and the gay community. In eighth grade, my class watched And the Band Played On. I remember our teachers being very emphatic about the ways you could and couldn’t catch the virus, and that it was okay to hug people who had it, touch them, take care of them. I’m part of the first generation for whom AIDS has always been a concern, for whom these stories have always been in the news, and, having heard the name Ruth Coker Burks before, I knew this was an important book that I needed to read.

Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend in the hospital in her home state of Arkansas on day in the early 80’s when she became intrigued as to why a door was covered in red and the nurses seemed afraid to go in. Upon learning that the patient had AIDS, Ruth went in anyway and proceed to sit with the man, holding his hand and staying with him until he died. Afterwards, she buried the man’s ashes in her family’s cemetery; his own family refused to take custody of his cremains. This event set Ruth down a path that would define her entire life, taking care of sick AIDS patients and being with them when they died, feeding the ones who were still alive, advocating for them to receive medical care, housing assistance, and disability pay. As they grew sicker, she upped her level of care, and she began a course of education, aiming to prevent the spread of the disease in the gay community around her hometown. In a time where no one else stepped up to the plate, Ruth Coker Burns recognized a need and saw her responsibility to be the solution.

Her life wasn’t an easy one. Her community, including her church, ostracized her. Work wasn’t easy to come by. Her former in-laws offered no help with or for their grandchild. Friends expressed disgust at what she was doing and dropped her. Displaying acts of courage that are rare these days, Ruth never gave up, creating a family and a loving community out of the men she was helping to live and die with dignity.

All the Young Men is a necessary story for any reading list. This is a gut-punch of a book that will introduce younger readers into the perversion of humanity that was the AIDS epidemic, where parents refused to have contact with their children, where patients were starved for human touch, where the friends that nursed a person through his last days were thrown out or barred from attending funerals by the family who had previously cast the ill person out. There are numerous painful moments throughout this book, for Ruth, for her guys, as she called them, for their friends. She bears so much pain with courage and grace, never once giving in to despair or turning someone away because it’s too much. If you need to restore your faith in humanity and in the idea that one person can indeed make a difference, Ruth Coker Burks’s story is one to read.

The writing style of All the Young Men is more ‘down home Arkansas’ than it is Shakespeare, but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the story at all. What Ruth Coker Burks has penned here is a stunning narrative of her own human decency, about which she never brags or boasts, in a time when the world was starved for it. She showed up when others refused. She held the hands of the dying when others wouldn’t even enter the room. There’s a quote from Frederick Douglass that says, “Praying for freedom never did me any good ’til I started praying with my feet.” While others sat in the pews on Sunday, listening to and agreeing with a pastor who condemned her, Ruth was praying with her feet.

All the Young Men is easy to read in style, but tough on emotions, as it should be. This isn’t a particularly fun time of history to revisit, but it’s important, especially these days, when we’re seeing record numbers of people disavow the humanity in others by refusing to protect them from Covid-19. It’s difficult to be confronted with the fact that we really haven’t come that far. But what makes the difference is that people like Ruth Coker Burks exist and are out there praying with their feet, caring, helping. ‘Look for the helpers,’ Mister Rogers taught us. Ruth Coker Burks is one of the best helpers, and this book, and her life, is a testament to that. Would that more people had her sense of compassion and duty.

All the Young Men is an introduction to the terrible realities that the gay community faced in the 80’s and 90’s as a virus was allowed to run unchecked through their numbers while the government sat back and twiddled its thumbs (sound familiar?). If you read this book and are interested in learning more, I’ve got two books for you that will give you a deeper understanding of why Ruth was left alone to care for the AIDS patients of her community.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts is probably the number one book I recommend to people in real life (most recently, to someone in the grocery store!). It’s an in-depth history of the AIDS epidemic, and it’s heartbreaking in every sense of that word. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that the book is 656 pages; it reads like a novel and will not only have you in tears but will leave you with a sense of rage like you’ve never known before. Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.

Secondly, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese is the memoir of a doctor who stepped up and cared for AIDS patients in eastern Tennessee when no one else would touch them. Like Ruth Coker Burks, he greets his patients with compassion and allows them to retain their dignity when no one else would, helping to destroy the stigma around AIDS patients and reminding the public that these were people, not just a diagnosis.

Huge thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for allowing me an early copy of All the Young Men to read and review.

Visit Ruth Coker Burks’s website here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw by Mark Crilley

I stumbled upon The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw by Mark Crilley (Watson-Guptill, 2016) a few weeks ago while looking for books on how to draw. My daughter is fully remote at school and everyone does art remotely, and at the beginning of the year, she expressed anxiety over having to do art by herself. So, not having done art since I was a kid, I decided to jump in there with her and bought myself a sketch book and some colored pencils. It’s been…interesting. I enjoy the process, though I definitely need more practice, but I’ve been looking for some help, and I definitely found it in this sweet little graphic novel.

David is a young kid who wants nothing more than to draw better than his school nemesis when he stumbles upon illustrator Becky drawing in the park. He pesters her enough to give him a drawing lesson, and with that, she becomes his somewhat reluctant mentor, giving advice on perspective, shading, background, and more. As David’s art skills develop, so does Becky’s affection for him, and by the end of the book, they’ve both grown and benefitted from these art lessons.

What a sweet, sweet little book. I read it all in one setting but absorbed a lot of the advice Mark Crilley gave in the pages. David is an eager, somewhat pestery little character, and Becky’s mild (most of the time!) irritation is well-deserved, but they work together well and David is receptive to Becky’s criticism, providing an excellent example for younger (and heck, even older) readers. Aspiring artists would do well to follow this book for some awesome do-it-at-home art lessons. I wish I had time to do exactly that, but even just reading it, I feel as though I’ve learned a lot. (Some of the instruction echoes what I’ve heard from my daughter’s art teacher, which is neat!) We’ll see if my art improves this week! If you’re learning to draw, or would like to draw better, you shouldn’t miss this one.

Apparently Mark Crilley has a YouTube channel as well; I definitely need to find time to check out his drawing lessons there!

Visit Mark Crilley’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

I don’t quite remember how Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (Quill Tree Books, 2020) came to be on my reading list (or at least where I found it), but I know WHY, because it ticks so many of my boxes:  

*YA

*diverse book

*characters grappling with religious and social issues

*contemporary as heck

*amazing voice

In fact, Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and serves on the Honorary Advisory Board! How cool is that?!?!? (Thank you to the founders and members for this group, for the work you do to keep our shelves stocked with books that represent everyone! It never ceases to amaze me how much better YA now is than when I was young.). By whatever means I discovered this book, I’m glad I did; this is some fabulous YA.

Del’s been in love with Kiera since their kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz, but she’s always been attached to someone else. Now that she’s finally single, Del’s ready to swoop in and make his move, but he never expected to follow her into his church’s program for pledging purity. *record scratch* Kiera’s not thrilled with Del or his reputation (which he hasn’t exactly earned), but he’s determined to game the system with the help of Jameer, another student in the program with whom Del has made a bargain: he’ll get Jameer answers to his sex questions from the Healthy Living class at school that Jameer isn’t allowed to take, and Jameer will aid Del in his quest to finally get together with Kiera.

But things are always a little more complicated than they may seem. Del’s town has had a rash of teen pregnancies and the community is still reeling from that. His college-age sister has some mysterious new gig. His job stinks. But the friend’s he’s making at the Purity group are turning out to be solid. Del has a lot to learn: about life, about purity and sexual expectations, about what it means to be a good man and how to treat women. The Purity Pledge may not be what he expected, but getting involved leads to everything he needs to move forward in life.

Whew, this is a great book. It’s my first Lamar Giles novel, but already I can tell he’s a master of voice. Not one time during the reading of this book did I go, “Wow, this is absolutely an adult writing for teens;” Mr. Giles is right up there with Angie Thomas, nailing the voice of a Black teenager searching for answers, identity, and his place in the world. Del is a flawed but solid character, and his growth throughout the novel is admirable. He sometimes needs to be shoved there a little, but he readily absorbs the lessons he’s taught by the people who surround him, and he’s not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and to rewrite his life goals when he needs to.

The supporting characters are fabulous; they’re all distinct characters with distinct personalities and goals and character arcs (have you ever read a book where the other characters are kind of interchangeable? Absolutely none of this going on here!). There’s religious and social commentary here, stated in a way that makes sense to teenagers (who will absolutely call you on your crap if it doesn’t add up, something that Mr. Giles seems to understand well!), but never, ever in a preachy way. This isn’t a faith-based novel whatsoever, but it’s a story set in a family whose members are searching for various things, and those things are occasionally conflicting, which adds extremely readable drama.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Lamar Giles, because this was just a super solid, thought-provoking, entertaining YA that deserves to be read far and wide.

Visit Lamar Giles’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart

My fascination with strict, cult-like (or straight up cult) religious movements extends to the Christian Nationalist religious right that has taken over much of American politics (and boy, is there a lot of overlap between the cultier groups and this political movement), so I was excited in a kind of want-to-read-it-but-dreading-it-at-the-same-time kind of way to learn about Katherine Stewart’s latest offering, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020). Along the same vein, I deeply enjoyed her The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children and highly recommend that one as well. I had to wait to read this one, though, until I was in a better place, mentally-speaking. It’s difficult to read about the power-seeking people who think my friends and I are close to the pinnacle of evil and everything wrong about this country, especially when these people are the ones in charge.

Katherine Stewart has once again penned a deep dive into the members of the far religious right who want nothing more than power, power that includes the ability to force everyone to live the way they think is right, according to their extremist interpretation of their religious scriptures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a different religion or of no religion at all; you still need to follow their precepts because that’s what their religion says, and according to their interpretation, they and no one else should be in charge of the government.

Her calm, measured style exposes the lengths to which they’ll go in order to achieve their goals; nearly everything they do is based on lies- easily disproven ones about the founding of the United States and the goals of the Founding Fathers, but they’ve twisted the meanings of these original sources to fit their warped ideas of how American society should function. Women should have little to no place in public life. Gay people should be executed, rape and slavery are totally cool (to be fair, these views are somewhat more of a fringe belief even in their groups, but I’m well acquainted, through my years of cult-watching, with the awfulness of one of the men who has publicly stated these things. He was ousted from his now-defunct ministry after being sexually inappropriate with a nanny. So Christlike and God-fearing, amirite?). Our nation has become ‘pussified,’ as one of these pastors has claimed, and he goes on to say that when Jesus returns, his sword will be an AR-15. I wish I were making this up, but it’s all in the book, and all documented.

The content in this book is deeply disturbing, but it’s important that people realize what’s been going on in this country, what these groups have been working towards, and how much progress they’ve already made. I don’t want my daughter’s only option for a future to be a wife and mother (and I say that as someone who is a full-time wife and mother and have been for pretty much the entirety of my adult life). I hope my son, should he choose to get married, can marry someone who has been raised to be a full partner in marriage. I don’t think everyone marching in lockstep in terms of beliefs, ideals, and actions is ever a good thing, and I fully believe that, should these people ever manage to force our society into the one they want, the infighting would start immediately, with certain denominations who helped them achieve their goals getting thrown under the bus right from the start (they team up with certain factions of Catholics when it comes to things like banning abortion, but as soon as they got into power, the Catholics- whom they don’t see as real Christians- would be one of their targets. I was raised Catholic and ran into some of this as a teenager; it took me a few years to discover exactly why that woman treated me the way she did). It would be messy and not at all the complete restructuring they want to imagine it would be; with so much power at stake, I can’t help but believe that these people would begin tearing each other down in order to grab as much power for themselves as possible.

I was pleased to see Ms. Stewart’s takedown of David Barton, who remains a champion of the Christian Nationalist movement even as his work has been debunked time and time again by nearly every history department who has taken up the task. If the only way you can make your point is by lying (which goes directly against those Ten Commandments they claim to live by), you don’t have a point, and David Barton seems like the biggest liar of all.

This is a great book, but it’s dense and packed full of information, so read it when your 2020 brain isn’t too exhausted to handle it all.

Visit Katherine Stewart’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly roundup: November 2020

It’s December already! Although, technically, I think it’s actually still March, right??? What a weird year.

Slow but steady month around here, folks- nothing new. My stomach is still recovering from the stress it went through with the elections earlier this month. Our Covid numbers are horrible where I am. 11-12,000 cases per day, 150-200 deaths each day. My daughter’s school decided to go virtual for the week after Thanksgiving; I’m thinking they’re hoping that anyone that’s going to be symptomatic will be by the time the kids go back. I wish they’d go all virtual until after winter break; I think that would be the smarter, safer move for everyone, especially since yesterday’s return to virtual school involved stories from all the students about where they traveled to to spend Thanksgiving and with whom they spent it (one girl is *still* out of state and will be all week). It’s all such a nightmare.

But we’re doing okay and staying healthy at the Not-At-the-Library-Because-They’ve-Returned-to-Curbside-Pickup-Only household! I’m not getting much reading time in; I can’t read during the day because I also have to pay attention to my daughter’s classes so I can keep her on track and reinforce what she’s learning, and then we do extra stuff when she’s released from her virtual learning sessions. But I’m making my way through my last stash of library books and then I’ll move on to reading some from my own shelves, because I promised I’d be better about that this year, and I will. 😊

Let’s get this recap started, shall we?

What I Read in November 2020

1. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

2. Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

3. The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez

4. The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

5. Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

6. Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen

7. The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

8. The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

9. An Introduction to Judaism by Nicholas de Lange (no review)

Quiet month around here! Five of these were from my TBR; two were read-alouds (don’t bother with The Frog Princess; the writing was so awkward and the dialogue so stilted that it made for a kind of terrible read-aloud); one was an impulse grab. An Introduction to Judaism was a short book but a slow read; the author is at Cambridge and writes in such an academic style (and in a way that shows he is way, way smarter than I could ever dream of being!) that getting through this took all month, especially with my limited reading time. Six fiction; three nonfiction.

Reading Challenge Updates

Nothing from my own shelves this month (other than the two read-alouds, but that’s solely because I’ve been anticipating another library shut down, so I grabbed a STACK of books), but I’ll do my best to get back to those next!

State of the Goodreads TBR

173 last month; 176 this month! Not too much creep, so that makes me happy! We’ll see what this looks like next month, haha! All those ‘Best Books of 2020’ and ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2021’ lists should be making their way to the internet soon. Craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapppp…

Books I Acquired in November 2020

Um…none? I don’t think?

Bookish Things I Did in November 2020

So, not entirely bookish, but at the beginning of the month, I virtually attended a seminar on the future of Holocaust education in the US, which was both sobering and super interesting, and I added a book or two to my TBR from this (one of which I have checked out from the library right now!).

Current Podcast Love

Still listening to Judaism Unbound, and I’ve added in Stuff Jews Should Know, which is super fun and informative. 😊 The iTunes podcast player keeps shutting it down and telling me some episodes are temporarily unavailable, which is annoying and wakes me up at night, so I’ll only be able to listen to this one at certain times.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

On hold until life goes back to normal, although I’m trying to keep a Judaism-themed book going at all times (I have one on stories from the Talmud next), which also factors into my other reading time, so this kind of counts? Maybe?

Real Life Stuff

Just another month of quarantine life around here! We just did virtual parent-teacher conferences for my daughter; she’s doing really well in everything (especially reading!), so I’m very happy with her progress- not that I doubted it, because I’m literally RIGHT BEHIND HER at all times during school, haha! Her math has improved as well; I really love the curriculum the school uses, as I feel it teaches math in such a logical way. She has such a better grasp on math than I did at her age, which makes me incredibly happy. She’s also started picking up chapter books and reading them on her own, which is a HUGE deal. She’s currently enjoying the Bad Kitty series; I get such joy out of watching her read and giggle.

My son has taken up cooking as a hobby, so I hang out with him in the kitchen and help out when he needs advice (I also chop onions for him; he reacts pretty badly to them!). He’s made some seriously amazing food so far, including a baked ziti that was restaurant-quality and better than anything I’ve cooked in the last eight months. I highly approve of this new hobby!

My husband and I have been watching The Path on Hulu at night, and since it’s about what basically amounts to a Scientology-like cult, you know I’m in. I’ve been knitting hats for a mobile homeless shelter (for whenever things go back to normal) while we watch (at least most nights! Some nights I’m too tired), so I’m at least trying to make the best of that time.

Thanksgiving was quiet here. I made a turkey-flavored seitan with white bean mushroom gravy, my son helped make not-crab cakes (made with black-eyed peas; he also made crab cakes for the rest of the family) and a red pepper tomato mayo sauce, cheese potatoes, green beans, and rolls. We had a store-bought cheesecake for dessert. Everything was SUPER delicious! I’ve spent half of my adult life living out of state from the rest of my family, so Thanksgiving with just the four of us was really nothing new. We did meet up with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law for a masked, distanced outdoor walk afterwards, but that was the extent of our gathering. No virus-sharing for us!

That’s about it for us, it was a quiet month. Hang in there, friends. We’ve got Hanukkah and Christmas coming up, still distanced- except for the people who won’t, and that’s going to overwhelm our healthcare system. The small hospital where I was born is at capacity with HALF of their patients in there because of Covid. Don’t be one of those people; wear your mask, keep your distance, celebrate virtually so we can all be here to celebrate in person next year. And, as always, fight for justice and equality wherever you go; elevate the voices that get pushed out of the way; lift as you climb. Society doesn’t function to the best of its ability unless we’re all able to participate equally.  

Happy reading, friends! May your December be full of warmth, light, love, and amazing books.