fiction · YA

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

For the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book that takes place all in one day. I’ve read a few of these before and really enjoyed them, and as I browsed the lists of suggestions, I found Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (Harper Collins, 2010). I had always wanted to get to this in the past and just never did, so I was glad to have an excuse to finally read it. And it’s really well done, with a main character who is so Regina George from Mean Girls that I couldn’t put the book down.

Samantha Kingston is pretty, uber-popular, and one of the Queen Bees of the school, and she and her friends won’t let anyone forget what that means. She’s dating one of the most popular athletes in the school (even if a nagging sense of doubt keeps telling her he’s maybe not the best choice for her), she and her friends skip classes with abandon, and they treat their families and fellow classmates with all the disdain they deserve. Life is good when you’re on top, right? 

But life is about to be cut short. A terrible accident takes place after a late-night party…and Samantha finds herself reliving the same day over and over again. It’s up to her to finally get this last day right, but that’s going to take some time. Samantha hasn’t exactly been a model in terms of behavior and how to treat people…

This was really good, and despite the overarching sadness (and horror at what an awful person Samantha started off as) of knowing the inevitable outcome, a really great and fulfilling read. Sam really starts off terrible. She’s awful to her parents, her little sister, the nerdy guy with a crush on her, teachers, everyone at school whom she considers lesser than her (and that’s a LOT of people)…pretty much everyone outside her friend group (and, uh, they’re not great either). The constant repeats of her last day range from ‘she tried and failed’ to ‘burn it all down,’ including one *really* uncomfortable scene with her male math teacher. (YIKES.) 

Lauren Oliver does a remarkable job of keeping the reader turning pages for a character who starts out so very unlikeable. Samantha’s redemption arc unfolds slowly; this is a lengthy book, but each day, despite being the same, ends up with a slightly different feel to it, and Sam’s growth, lethargic as it is, is intriguing to watch. The inevitable ending is sad, of course; the reader goes into the book knowing the final conclusion, so there’s no shock there, but it’s still tough to read (and it did leave me with a few questions: how will Sam’s friends and family reconcile the last-day version of her with the person she’s been all the rest of her life, for instance), yet it’s cathartic. 

I’m glad I finally got around to this. Samantha Kingston isn’t a character I’ll forget anytime soon.

Visit Lauren Oliver’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

The 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge called for a romance with a fat lead, so I prowled through the lists and came across one I always wanted to read: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (Balzer + Bray, 2015). I know this was a Netflix movie a while back; I always wanted to watch it, but never got around to it (with a young kid at the time, my TV time was extremely limited). This seemed like a good opportunity to finally get this book into my head.

Willowdean Dickson (Dumplin’ to her mother) is fat and that’s fine by her. She’s comfortable with herself, no thanks to her mother, who runs the biggest beauty pageant in Texas and who’s never been able to come to terms with her daughter’s size. The bigger problem right now is that Willowdean is still mourning the death of her aunt Lucy six months ago. Lucy understood about size, and she never once made Willowdean feel less-than. Thanks to her, Willowdean learned not only to love Dolly Parton, but herself as well.

But Lucy’s gone now, Mom is in full-on crazy pageant mode, her best friend Ellen is moving on in ways that make Willowdean unsure of herself, and Bo, the hot guy at work, is paying attention to her in a way she never expected he would. And suddenly, everything’s thrown out of balance. Willowdean’s confidence in herself – her one constant – is shaken. To prove to herself and her mother that she’s worthy of being a beauty queen as well, she and her new group of friends all sign up for the pageant. Texas beauty pageants may never be the same!

This was cute, and fun. Any book with unexpected drag queens has got to be a good time! There’s so much grief in this book; Willowdean’s closeness with her aunt Lucy was a major part of her life, and her grief at Lucy’s passing colors just about every part of this story, even though much of it remains unspoken. It was Lucy who taught Willowdean to love herself and be confident that she deserved all the best things in life, even though Lucy couldn’t quite seem to fully reach that point herself. I also felt bad for Willowdean’s mother; it’s easy to demonize her and she definitely has many flaws…but she’s also a product of the town she’s lived in all her life, and it didn’t seem like there were many people who encouraged her to think bigger than that (sure, Lucy’s mind was bigger, but some people are able to reach that point themselves, and others need pushing). It’s no wonder she and Willowdean have such a contentious relationship. 

I saw that a few Goodreads reviews were upset with this view for not being as body positive as it’s marketed as, and…I understand their criticism, and I think it’s valid, as it can definitely be read that way. I also think that sometimes we have to work to retain our confidence when thrown into new, unanticipated situations, as Willowdean was with her relationship with Bo. Sometimes throwing someone else in the mix shakes us and we have to fight to keep hold of who we know we are. That’s how I saw this. Willowdean became stirred, but ultimately not permanently shaken, and I liked that. 

I enjoyed this one.

Visit Julie Murphy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Return by Sonia Levitin

Next up on the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge: a book set in the decade you were born! I was born in 1980, and luckily, on my TBR was The Return by Sonia Levitin (Fawcett Juniper, 1988), set in the 1980’s. It’s historical fiction (wait, does that mean I’m historical, at this age???), along with being Jewish fiction and young adult. It hadn’t been sitting on my TBR for too long, but I was glad to get to it, because it covered a topic I knew little about.

Desta lives in Ethiopia, a member of Beta Israel, a persecuted group of Jews who are struggling to survive. Her parents are both gone, and she and her brother and sister live with their aunt and uncle. Food is scarce; Desta isn’t allowed the education she truly longs for; the locals treat Beta Israel with contempt at best. Life is difficult, but there’s still joy to be found. Rumors are swirling that there are ways to leave, though leaving Ethiopia is forbidden for Beta Israel, and when white Jews come from America to speak with Desta’s group, her brother begins making plans to escape to Jerusalem. When their hand is forced, she and her brother grab their little sister and start out on a dangerous journey to a land they’ve only ever dreamed of.

Phew. This is a tense book, but I deeply appreciated the glimpse it gave me into the lives of Ethiopian Jews before and after making the dangerous trek to Israel. I knew the briefest bits of their story, mostly about the airlifts that rescued them, but I didn’t know the details, and this story really helped fill in some of the blanks, especially about the difficult conditions they lived under in Ethiopia and why they were so difficult. 

It’s interesting how much writing styles have changed in YA since this was published. I feel like this very much would’ve fit the style that was prevalent when I was a tween (just after this was published), but it’s so different from what’s new today. (Not a criticism, just an observation. Of course styles change, but every so often, I’m reminded how far YA has come!) I’m glad I got to this so quickly; I’m always thrilled to expand my Jewish knowledge, so this was a really interesting read for me.

Visit Sonia Levitin’s website here.


Book Review: We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

Arright, straight up: THIS is why I love reading challenges so much.

So, for the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book with mythical creatures. I’m not much of a fantasy-type reader, tbh; it’s just not something that’s ever really appealed to me, and as I went searching, nothing on the lists of suggestions really appealed to me, either (I think this was actually the last category I filled out, and that’s because I went back to it later, after not being able to make a decision at first). Finally, I decided on We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry (Pantheon Books, 2020), a story of a New England girls’ field hockey team that gets involved in witchcraft. Witches, I can handle! And oh my goodness, I’m SO glad I read this book!

In first person plural omniscient (I think that’s right!), Quan Barry tells the story of the Danvers, Massachusetts (just outside of Salem) girls’ field hockey team in their senior year of 1989-90. Their team stinks; last year was so not good, but this year…they’ve learned a few things from the witches of Salem past, and things are shaping up to be different. After a ritual or two, the wins start piling up, and as the girls feed the darkness with some chaos here and there, their wins only increase. But what is it that’s causing this to happen? And how far are they willing to go?

If you’re my age or older, this is a glorious throwback to the delights of the 1980’s. Quan Barry has captured the magic of the area in all its glory: the music, the clothing, the celebrities (hello, Emilio Estevez!), the relative freedom experienced by most teenagers at the time. Someone on Goodreads describes this as Heathers meets The Crucible and that nails it (I too picked up on the Heathers vibe; score one for me!). If you like all those great old 80’s movies, you’re going to love this book.

I wasn’t 100% sure about reading this going into it. It’s so far outside what I normally read, so it was a tentative beginning. And then, the more I got into it, the more I fell in love with all the bold, daring characters and the overall fun-yet-still-a-little-dark tone of the book. By 100 pages, I didn’t want the book to end. I’m so very, very glad I decided to participate in this year’s Popsugar Reading Challenge. The best part about these challenges is finding new-to-me authors and being pushed to read outside my comfort zone. I never would’ve picked this up without being prompted, but reading this was so incredibly joyful and fun, and I wish I could go back and read it again for the first time!

Visit Quan Barry’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

I needed a celebrity memoir for the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge, and what do you know, on my TBR was I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (Simon & Schuster, 2021). Jennette is best known for playing Sam Puckett on the Nickelodeon show iCarly, but she’s also a talented writer. I started learning of her toxic relationship with her mother at the beginning of the pandemic, when an article she’d written made the rounds, and, having watched all of iCarly with my son and now my daughter, I was horrified. I knew I’d eventually want to read her memoir, but the wait lists at my library were miles long, so I was prepared to be patient. However, I got lucky, and the book pulled me in so strongly that I finished it in hours. Drop whatever you’re currently reading and get a copy of this book. NOW.

Jennette McCurdy was raised by a toxic narcissist mother who physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her her entire childhood. Mother Debra was a cancer survivor and often used this status to gain favors and sympathy from everyone around her. The book opens on a scene where she’s going through the nightly ritual of making her children watch her goodbye video she had recorded for them when she wasn’t expected to survive, and criticizing their behavior on the screen (never mind that they were all younger and already traumatized). Acting had been Debra’s dream, never Jennette’s, and she pushed her daughter into it and began to live vicariously through her. Jennette, already feeling responsible for managing her mother’s emotions from her preschool years, does her best to smile through the auditions and performances that she hates to keep her mother happy.

As Jennette grows, her mother teaches her to have an eating disorder in order to stay small, so she can play younger roles, since Jennette’s work is paying the family’s bills. This, combined with the stress of a career as a child AND managing her narcissist mother’s emotions, has terrible effects on Jennette’s mental health, and the constant criticism and stress of working in Hollywood only add to it all. When Debra’s cancer returns and ends her life, Jennette, left without the ability to manage any of her emotions and without the knowledge of who she is without her mother, spirals.

Every chapter of this book will reach out and grip you by the throat, then punch you in the gut, then tear your heart out and stomp it flat. The devastation that Jennette’s mother wreaked upon her life easily explains the provocative title (my daughter saw the title and was shocked; I simply explained to her that not everyone is lucky enough to have parents that treat them well, that some kids have parents who hurt them, and she understood and was sad). I absolutely blew through this masterpiece of a book, but I spent the entire time just devastated for Jennette. We watch a lot of iCarly around here, and it hurts me to know not only what she was going through when filming those scenes, but that she didn’t even want to be there in the first place. I’m so sad for everything Jennette McCurdy has suffered.

I’m also furious at Hollywood, like ragingly burn-it-all-the-fuck-down, STOP-USING-CHILDREN-IN-TELEVISION-AND-MOVIES furious. Jennette was hideously exploited, used, and abused by SO many adults in her work life, adults who were ultimately there to make money and who weren’t going to let something as silly as the mental and physical health of children get in their way. How disgusting are we that we KNOW this is a problem, it’s been a problem for a long time, and yet we continue to look the other way. If this book doesn’t make you think twice about Hollywood and children participating in it, I don’t know what will. As someone who grew up loving Nickelodeon, I’m utterly disgusted by how deeply soulless that network has turned out to be.

Jennette’s on the road to recovery. It’s not a smooth path, but, as she says, it’s important to not let the slips become slides, something I can deeply relate to. She’s a remarkable person, and I’m 100% cheering her on.

This is a deeply powerful memoir, one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. Emotional and physical devastation on every page, and yet Jennette’s writing will propel you through the pages at rocket speed. I’ve read that even people who weren’t aware of who Jennette McCurdy was before this book were as similarly affected as I was, so even if you’ve never watched a single episode of iCarly, this is one book you do NOT want to miss. I cannot state how strongly this book touched me, and how much I deeply wish that Jennette McCurdy is able to heal and cultivate the future she wants and needs.

Amazing, amazing book. If I could give it a hundred thousand stars, I would. 

Content warnings exist for physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, eating disorders, sexual exploitation, illness and death of a parent, and emotional trauma. 

Visit Jennette McCurdy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice by Benjamin Gilmer

Another 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge book checked off! A month or so ago, my friend Alexis posted on Facebook about The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice by Benjamin Gilmer (Ballantine Books, 2022). Alexis is one of the most intelligent people I know, and when it comes to nonfiction, she and I share similar tastes, so I checked out the Goodreads page for the book and immediately added it to my TBR. It fits the Popsugar category for a book recommended by a friend, so I was thrilled to dive into it, and it didn’t disappoint whatsoever.

Upon interviewing and later accepting a job at a rural North Carolina medical practice, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer was surprised to learn that the doctor who created the vacancy he would be filling was also named Dr. Gilmer (Vince Gilmer, to be exact), and that he was no longer in that position because he was imprisoned for murdering his father. At first, Benjamin was fairly terrified of this other Dr. Gilmer, who seemingly snapped, murdering his elderly father with Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, cutting off his fingers and discarding them in a pond outside the clinic, then returning to work and working alongside his co-workers as though nothing had happened. Who was this man? Would he ever get out and come after Benjamin for taking over his life?

But the more Benjamin Gilmer learns about this other Dr. Gilmer, the more intrigued he is. Something’s off. Something’s wrong. Dr. Gilmer had blamed his behavior on SSRI discontinuation syndrome when he represented himself in court, but the defense accused him of faking his symptoms. Benjamin Gilmer knows it’s got to be more than that, and with the help of colleagues, the mystery unfolds piece by piece until it becomes clear: prison isn’t where this other Dr. Gilmer needs to be. He desperately needs medical attention, and getting access to it will be a years-long struggle for not only him, but for Benjamin and an entire team of people across the country.

Holy COW, this book is a wild ride, and whatever you’re expecting, it’s likely something different. The book takes a turn about halfway through, and I just kind of sat back and went, “Whoooooaaaaaaaaa.” Benjamin Gilmer goes from panic mode to dedicated seeker of justice, and…it’s inspiring as much as the forces working against Vince Gilmer are infuriating. This is one of those books that will have you seeing red and determined to do whatever you can to burn our entire ‘justice’ system down and rebuild it from scratch. This is something that has needed to happen for decades – likely centuries, honestly – and The Other Dr. Gilmer is another large piece of evidence that what we call justice in this country is anything but just.

The Other Dr. Gilmer is an incredible read (and it’s becoming a movie!). It’s my first five-star read of 2023, and it’s one that will stick with me.


Book Review: House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon

I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. I learned fairly early on in my adult life that I don’t necessarily connect with the characters well, and in general, the genre is a little too slow-paced for my tastes. But someone from a Jewish books group on Facebook recommended House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon (Atria Books, 2020), and it sounded fascinating. I’ve also had good experiences with some Jewish literary fiction, so I decided to give this one a try – and it fit a category for the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge of a historical fiction book. Double win!

On a reluctant visit to his birthplace of Amsterdam, Israeli author Yoel Blum discovers familiar faces in a video at the local Jewish museum: his mother, his sister, and…a baby who isn’t him. A return trip to Amsterdam, this time without his wife but with a plan to stay much longer, sets him on the path to figuring out the mystery of that video so he can both understand and also base his next novel on it.

The story of Yoel’s past unfolds slowly, the story running parallel to his own, occasionally in the same paragraph (which sounds like it would be confusing, but it’s really not. It works well, in a way I found surprising for me, since literary fiction usually isn’t my jam). The struggle of his parents to adapt to the quickly changing situation in both Europe as a whole and Amsterdam, where everything was supposed to be safe; the increasing dangers; the food shortages; the disappearance of his father; the arguments with friends and neighbors; the disappearances of so many people around them, all terrifying and horrible. Yoel’s knowledge increases bit by bit as he gets to know the city of his birth, and he develops a new understanding of not only his childhood, but his relationship with his mother, his wife, and even his grandchildren as the truth of his path unfolds. 

This worked really, really well for me. It’s not entirely clear as to what parts of the 1940’s-narrative are fiction and what are based on what Yoel is learning about his past, but the story comes together almost seamlessly, blending expertly with Yoel’s present fact-finding discovery trip. It’s tense, to be sure, and there’s a mystery that isn’t too difficult to figure out, but it’s emotional and devastating all the same. Yoel’s growth as a writer, a husband, a parent, and grandparent is gentle over the course of the novel, culminating in some tender scenes at the end of the book, leaving me wishing I could stick around and see more of not only how his life changes upon his return to Israel, but how this new book of his is received by his fans.

I’m really glad I took the chance on this book. I’ve gotten such great suggestions from my Jewish book group, and this was no exception. 

Follow Emuna Elon on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

I’ve only seen Felicia Day in a few things (Supernatural being the show I know her the best from), but I enjoy her quirky acting style. I have another book of hers on my TBR, but since it’s at a different local library, I hadn’t gotten to it yet – but when someone mentioned she’d written a memoir that included parts about how she was homeschooled and how it affected her life, I knew I had to read it (as someone currently homeschooling/pandemic-schooling my own little weirdo). You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (Gallery Books, 2015) went onto my TBR and came home with me my next library trip (usually, books sit there a little longer than that, but everything else was checked out that day! My town is big on reading, which is awesome). 

Actress, writer, and director Felicia Day is known for being super into geeky things like online gaming and is super popular online, but growing up, she was a friendless homeschooled kid (for hippie reasons, not God reasons, as she puts it). Her mom seems to have had a more hands-off approach in terms of curriculum and learning, but she did expect Felicia and her brother to read widely and constantly, an approach that obviously worked well for at least her daughter’s learning style. Felicia went to college early, double majoring in both math and violin performance, ending up with a 4.0, but what she really wanted to do was act. However, along the way, she discovered the internet, the joys of online gaming, and how anonymous camaraderie from behind a screen can change your life.

After college, it was off to Los Angeles, where it took years to build up a career. Sometimes, her online gaming addiction got in the way, big time, and Felicia began to use what she knew in order to develop her own web series, catapulting her into stardom and into the role of Queen of the Internet. It’s not all fun and games – celebrity stalkers are definitely a thing, and Gamergate reared its filthy head and sucked her in as well – but this is a great story of hard work, being true to yourself, and building what you love. 

This was a quick, fun read. It’s eight years old this year, and there were a few things that hadn’t aged super well – a few things like fat jokes that made me wince – but overall, it was a decent read. I didn’t necessarily learn anything that will help me be a better homeschool parent – I think my daughter isn’t quite as motivated and/or dedicated or curious as Felicia was (she’d be content to draw all day or play Barbies, or play games on her kindle and never do another math problem in her life if I didn’t make her do other things), but it was definitely interesting to read about how having the time to develop her own interests directly led to Felicia’s career. I can only hope my own daughter eventually knows herself that well.

Visit Felicia Day’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Eva and Eve: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What a War Left Behind by Julie Metz

The Holocaust is such a complicated subject, and it’s no wonder that so many children of survivors go on to write their own memoirs, because that kind of trauma is something that’s passed on, that reaches forward through the generations. I’ve read quite a few of these memoirs so far, and I’m sure I’ll read more, but my feeling of responsibility to read them all is how Eva and Eve: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What a War Left Behind by Julie Metz (Atria Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. 

Julie Metz’s mother, Eve, rarely talked about her childhood experiences in Vienna during World War II, and Julie never felt as though she could ask. When her mother died, discoveries among her possessions led Julie to begin searching for the past her mother kept buried away, and this search would take her across countries and continents.

From Vienna to Italy, emailing, calling, and video chatting with people across the US, Europe, and Israel, Ms. Metz began piecing together the story of her mother’s life: daughter of a successful businessman whose survival came thanks to the necessity of the products his factory created and coincidentally, due to his love of hiking; sister to two brothers sent away to England early on, before things got too complicated in Vienna. She tracks the changes that came to Vienna and to her mother’s family and friends, the struggles they had in day-to-day life, the difficulties surviving (and despite those difficulties, how they were shielded from the worst of the suffering), and their escape to America via a trip through Italy, and the ship that brought them across the ocean.

Ms. Metz’s search is one of obvious dedication, and I’m sure it was emotional to visit all the places her mother lived and that were stolen from her and her family. I did feel like from time to time, the book dragged a little, but the overarching goal of the author and the tense journey of her family members out of war-torn Europe kept me turning pages. It’s a story that illustrates that even survival leaves scars and pain that echo through the generations. 

Visit Julie Metz’s website here.


Book Review: Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg

Yet another pandemic book out there. I feel like I’ll be reading these the rest of my life, trying to make any kind of sense of this baffling time. Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg (Harper, 2021) went on my TBR the moment I learned about it, and although it was a bit different than I expected, I’m glad I read it.

Back in March 2020, when the world shut down, this meant that colleges, including medical schools, also closed their doors. Some medical schools made deals with their students and local hospitals to graduate their students early so the students/new doctors could go help the exhausted, overworked doctors dealing with the fallout of the early days of the pandemic. Emma Goldberg’s book follows six of these newly graduated doctors on the front lines of the pandemic in New York.

It was an easy decision for these students to say yes to; helping others was why they became doctors, so despite their families’ and partners’ fears, they began working with COVID patients. Many of their patients died. Others struggled through and made it home. One in particular left behind a profoundly disabled adult child, with no one else to care for him, leaving the hospital scrambling to find a place for him for months. But the students persevered through it all, growing as people and as physicians.

This book is set during the early days of the pandemic, when the country was still very much, “We’re all in this together! Let’s stand outside and cheer on the healthcare workers!”, giving this book more of a feeling of optimism than I think any of us still taking this seriously really feel, and to be honest, this aspect of the book just kind of made me sad. I’m STILL seeing Facebook posts about how the hospitals and doctors are killing people with COVID on purpose, that they get extra money from the government to do so (EYEROLL), and I kept wondering how these not-quite-so-new-now doctors are dealing with that mess, and those kinds of patients. 

The writing here is fast-paced, and it keeps the book moving. Emma Goldberg covers her subjects, these new doctors thrown into the thick of it, with respect and clarity, and I appreciated the peek into their chaotic world and the brave choices they made.

Visit Emma Goldberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.