memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Lovingly Abused: A True Story of Overcoming Cults, Gaslighting, and Legal Educational Neglect by Heather Grace Heath

One of the podcasts I’ve been making my way through, usually when I cross-stitch or exercise, is Leaving Eden, which tells the story of Sadie Carpenter’s life in and exit from the IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) cult. I fired it up a few weeks ago and listened to an episode that featured Heather Grace Heath, known on TikTok as @backsliddenharlot. She came out of IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles) and ATI (Advanced Training Institute), an offshoot of the IFB that you may be familiar with due to the fact that the Duggar family also belongs to this cult, and she wrote a book, Lovingly Abused: A True Story of Overcoming Cults, Gaslighting, and Legal Educational Neglect (Kindle, 2021), that was on my TBR. I did a quick search, found a library in the state had a copy, and requested it via Interlibrary Loan. A few days later, I picked it up and started reading.

Trigger warnings for physical and sexual abuse, incest, and religious abuse.

Heather’s family didn’t join ATI until she was a little older (she wasn’t *quite* born into it), but her parents were a perfect target for this predatory group. Abuse ran rampant on both sides, and her mother’s anxiety made homeschooling seem like the perfect solution to never letting Heather out of her sight. The “education” Heather gets from Bill Gothard’s Wisdom booklets is horrifyingly inadequate, from its misinformation on just about everything, to its lack of information on things children actually need to know, to its inappropriateness in so many ways, straight to its charts on all the ways victims of rape and sexual abuse are at fault for the crimes perpetrated against them. (And remember, these are all-age booklets. You’re supposed to teach these to your six-year-old sitting right next to your fifteen-year-old.) Not only did this leave Heather with massive educational gaps, it gifted her massive anxiety, fear, and terror. 

The many kinds of abuse Heather suffers turns into trauma, which follows her as she grows, but becoming an EMT serves as an outlet for her stress, and through this, she learns more about the world outside the cult and that it’s nowhere near as terrible as she’s been taught. Slowly, slowly, she makes her way out and begins to shed the years of misinformation fed to her by ATI and Bill Gothard, and becomes someone who helps to shine a light on this dangerous group. 

Fascinating book. While the writing isn’t as polished as you would expect a traditionally published book to be, the information inside is incredibly valuable. Heather is throwing the curtains back on the severe educational neglect perpetrated by these Christian homeschool cults (and yes, she did know the Duggars and mentions them a few times). These cults and ATI in particular promotes sheltering your children from the world as a feature (making it all the much more difficult for them to leave this cult, because their lack of knowledge about the outside world is close to zero), and the lack of actual education Heather describes is nothing short of grotesque. Her book is a plea for more regulation of homeschooling so that no other child suffers the same legal educational neglect her parents foisted upon her (while thinking they were doing the right thing). High five to her for mentioning The Vashti Initiative, the nonprofit I do volunteer work for!

Phew. This book is a lot, but I’m so proud of Heather for writing it and for putting it out there in the world. It’s an absolute force that I think will be so incredibly helpful to other survivors.

Visit Heather Grace Heath’s website here.

Check out her TikTok here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Funny You Should Ask by Elissa Sussmann

Moving along in the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge! I needed a #BookTok recommendation, and as I’m not on TikTok, I had to rely on lists others made. Which worked out well, because Funny You Should Ask by Elissa Sussman (Dell, 2022) was one of the books recommended on there, and it was also a book from my own TBR. Now, I’ve been trying to get a copy of this book from the library since it came out, but every time I looked, it was checked out. I love that so many people in my town read and have similar tastes as me! But this time, it was finally in, so into my bag it went.

Funny You Should Ask tells the story of writer Chani Horowitz and actor Gabe Parker. Ten years ago, Chani and Greg spent a weekend together so she could write an article about Gabe. That article went viral, and questions have lingered ever since about what really went on between the two of them. It was also the article that launched Chani’s more successful career as a writer, so she’s always had that tie to him. Ten years later, Gabe is back in Chani’s life, because now she’s doing a follow-up article.

And things between them are the same, and different. They’ve aged, matured, moved on in their careers, changed as people. Gabe is now two years sober. Chani’s angry that the rumors about what they did won’t die. But the chemistry between them is still the same, and Gabe is determined to set things right. 

Despite all my wait for this book, it was just…kind of okay for me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It contains one of my favorite tropes, celebrity-falls-in-love-with-normal-person. There’s an awesome dog. Although I was uncomfortable with Gabe’s obvious alcoholism in the ten-years-ago parts, I still liked him as a hero. Chani’s determination to make it as a writer struck a chord with me, and I enjoyed the various settings of the book (I’ve never once read a book before this one that actually made me want to visit Montana, so that’s something.). There wasn’t anything distinct that I could put my finger on, but something just didn’t completely work for me, and I think this is just a case of ‘not every book is meant for every reader.’ And that’s fine. This is also happening in the book I’m reading now. Nothing wrong with it; just not for me.

It happens! 

But even if it wasn’t quite the book for me, it might be the one for you. : )

Visit Elissa Sussman’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Uncultured by Daniella Mestyanek Young

A recent trip to the library had me frustrated that so many of the books I wanted were checked out (solely because I’m trying to get through a reading challenge here, people! Otherwise, read on with your bad selves), so as I was examining the new books shelves, wondering if a few of the selections from my list were maybe there, I ran across a book NOT in the reading challenge, but still on my TBR: Uncultured: A Memoir by Daniella Mestyanek Young (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). This was one I was really looking forward to, so reading challenge be damned! I snatched that book up and started reading the next day.

Trigger warnings: sexual abuse and rape of minors and adults, physical abuse, military situations and death

Daniella grew up in the cult known as Children of God and known these days as The Family International. What this cult amounted to was a Christian group dedicated to child rape, with its members taught to share God’s love through sex, and that this was okay, normal, and behavior desirable to God. Daniella, whose own mother gave birth to her at 14, grew up suffering extreme physical and sexual abuse in the name of God. Her intelligence and drive for education (piecemeal at best in the cult) keep her going, and by the age of fifteen, she’s had enough. Daniella is able to leave and live in the United States with a sibling she doesn’t know well, and live life on her own terms.

But life on the outside after having grown up in such a closed-off, high control group, isn’t simple or easy, and after college, she finds herself in the clutches of another high control group: the US Army. Just like the cult, Daniella’s every action is controlled. Her time, her thoughts, her opinions, her activities, every part of her life is someone else’s decision. She’s able to thrive there, but the similarities between the cult and the Army become too much later on, and just like the cult, the Army is easily able to throw her under the bus without a second thought.

Whew. This is an intense read. I’d never thought of the military and cults as using similar control tactics, but this is a comparison that makes absolute sense, and as a former military wife, I’m kind of shocked at myself that I never made this connection before. It also makes sense as to how so many people from strict-ER forms of Christianity wind up in the military (I say strict-ER because the super high control groups like IFB and IBLP, for example, don’t seem to have any kind of tradition of encouraging military service among their members, something that many of the discussion groups I participate in online have noticed). At the time that she joined, Daniella thought that the Army was what she wanted; though she does incredibly well for quite some time, it ends up not being the home she’d been looking for.

Her descriptions of always feeling like an outsider, of being a third culture kid and never quite fitting in anywhere, are nearly as devastating as the descriptions of the PTSD and physical symptoms she suffers from after years of physical, sexual, and emotional torture. Her innate strength is what carries her through; she comes close to ending it several times, and my heart broke over and over again while reading this book.

There’s maybe a little more in here about Ms. Young’s time in the Army than there is about growing up in a cult, but the striking similarities between the two groups, and how her abuse and exploitation continued while serving, will keep you turning pages. Being in the military is tough; being a woman in the military and serving combat missions is even tougher, for many reasons, and seeing how her childhood parallels to the treatment she received while serving is…unsettling at best.

This is an eye-opening book, and one that will leave you shaking your head and pondering a lot of the questions Ms. Young has raised.

Visit Daniella Mestyanek Young’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It seems like everyone in my online book groups is always reading Taylor Jenkins Reid. Her books are constantly discussed. I’ve read her Daisy Jones and the Six, which I loved, and also her Forever, Interrupted (read in 2016, so no link), which I also loved, but I hadn’t made it a priority to read more of her books, and maybe I should have – see, this is why I really do enjoy reading challenges so much, even though they pull me away from reading from my beloved TBR. They push me. And this year, the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge pushed me in the direction of her One True Loves (Washington Square Press, 2016), because I needed a book with a love triangle. 

The book starts off right away with a shocker: Emma is with her fiancé when she gets a phone call from her husband, and then it takes a good portion of the book to explain – deliciously – what this means.

Emma Blair marries her high school crush, Jesse Lerner. Together, the two build the life Emma always knew she wanted – traveling the world, viewing all the things and living in all the ways she never could in her small New England town, running her parents’ book store the way they’d hoped. But Jesse is missing and presumed dead after a helicopter crash with no other survivors, and Emma is shattered, left to rebuild a life that had already started to feel like needing a change.

Back in Massachusetts, Emma reconnects with Sam, a friend and fellow bookstore employee, and the two fall in love and eventually get engaged. And then the phone call: Jesse is alive, and Emma needs to decide who she is and what her future will look like.

Oh man, this was good. Taylor Jenkins Reid has a knack for providing just enough information so that you get the full picture without being bogged down. I flew through this and looked forward to diving into it at every chance. Cliffhangers, heady decisions, deep insight, this book has it all, and I’d love to rummage around in her brain a bit, because she put a lot of things into words for me that I couldn’t necessarily have done before. Who we are changes over time; who we are at one age isn’t necessarily going to be who we are in ten years, and our needs and wants change along with us. There are some really incredible messages in this book, and I appreciated how Ms. Reid incorporated them into such an emotional volcano of a book.

I’ll be reading more of Taylor Jenkins Reid in the future. This book was a great reminder to me of exactly why she’s so very popular. 

Visit Taylor Jenkins Reid’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here

fiction · graphic novel

Book Review: Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu

I don’t often fully review graphic novels; I tend to wait until I get a few of them under my belt and do a multiple-book review post, but this one definitely needs its own review. For the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed to read a book about an athlete or sport, and since I’d read all the hockey romances on my TBR, I went searching for a selection and came across Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu (First Second, 2018), a graphic novel about a college hockey team. I’d seen this around and have heard good things about it, so onto the list it went, and I grabbed it during my last library trip.

Eric Bittle, known affectionately as Bitty, is a former figure skater-turned-hockey player. He’s small, gay, loves baking, and is terrified of being checked (the term for taking hits in a hockey game). He fits right in with the rest of his ragtag teammates, but there’s something special about the captain, Jack, son of a professional hockey player. 

As the seasons and years progress, Bitty grows as a player, a baker, and a friend. The team grows together, becoming closer and racking up wins (and some losses). All leading up to the dramatic conclusion of the book – a cliffhanger that will have even those of us who aren’t normally into series itching to pick up the next book!

Okay, I really liked this. Each character has their own well-formed, distinct personality that shines so clearly on every page. Most characters are known by their hockey nicknames (if you’re a hockey fan, you’re aware of this phenomenon), and that just adds to the fun. The characters are all in their late teens and early 20’s and they’re all fun, accepting, and supportive of each other, putting this book in not-quite-comfort-read territory, but almost. Bitty is sweet, fun, and unashamed of who he is, baking up a storm, constantly Tweeting, and vlogging his way through life. He’s absolutely charming, and I loved his enthusiasm. I read the copy of this book that includes Bitty’s freshman and sophomore years; my library also has his junior and senior years in another book, so I’ll be grabbing that in some future trip, because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!!!

To no one’s surprise (EYEROLL), knuckle-dragging morons have tried to ban this book because it contains gay characters and people who swear. Those people can fuck off into the sun, because Check Please is an incredibly fun and inclusive graphic novel, and I’m entirely invested in this story, its characters, and the world Ngozi Ukazu has created.

Visit Ngozi Ukazu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Up next for the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book about a vacation! These books are always fun, especially to someone like me, who hasn’t been anywhere but my house since 2019. That’s one of the best parts of reading, getting to explore the world from the comfort of my own home. I have a map of the world on the wall in my living room, and it came with little magnetized pins, so whenever I read a book set in a country not the US, I move a pin there. It’s always really cool to see how many countries I’ve book-traveled to by the end of the year. But for this challenge, I stuck to the US and traveled to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina with Book Lovers by Emily Henry (Berkley, 2022). 

Nora Stephens, tough-as-nails literary agent, is taking some time off. Something’s up with her sister, Libby, her younger sister whom she’s always felt protective over, more so since their mother died when Libby was still in high school. Libby wants to take a sisters trip to Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, setting of one of the best-sellers Nora has helped come to life. Unable to say no to her sister (who is five months pregnant with her third child), Nora packs up. The town isn’t *quite* what the book led her to believe, and who’s also there but Charlie Lastra, a fellow New Yorker and editor with whom she has a somewhat contentious relationship. YAY. This will be fun.

But there’s a little more to Charlie than she previously expected, and as Nora works to complete the list of activities Libby set out for the two of them, she not only discovers more about her sister and a clearer picture of their childhood, but she begins to fall for Charlie as well. As multiple spanners end up in the works, Nora realizes she’s going to have to adjust her thinking about her own life, and maybe learn to take a few risks for herself and her own heart.

This was a cute, fun read with a bit of an unexpected edge to it. Nora and Libby’s mother was a struggling actress. She did the best she could for her girls, but they were always struggling, always on the verge of poverty. Libby’s view on this is clearer, but Nora, unable to see how parentified she was as the older sibling, has a much rosier view of this that colors her entire relationship to the past and with her sister. Ms. Henry did a really incredible job of writing the two different views of the same situation, both of which were true and valid. Charlie Lastra is a great hero, responsible, kind of grumpy, and still swoony as hell. 

The settings were excellent in this book. New York, home of Nora, Libby, and Charlie, features heavily; Ms. Henry does it justice and sings its praises in a completely believable way throughout the text. But the fictional town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina is just as much fun, in a much different way, and it was truly enjoyable to take this trip to its dusty little downtown with its struggling stores, eat in its questionable restaurants, and tramp through its woods that lead to its vacation cottages. I’ve been to North Carolina before and absolutely loved it; being able to book-travel back to it was definitely enjoyable.

All in all, a fun, quick read.

Visit Emily Henry’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Arright. For the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book with a queer lead. Sometimes there’s some overlap with other books, and while the rules state it’s okay to have a book work for two or more categories, I’m kind of a purist and prefer to read a different book for each, so I dug around and found One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2021). I really enjoyed her Red, White, and Royal Blue a few years ago, so I was all for diving back into another world created by this fabulous author.

August is new to New York City, and the city is offering her a lot all at once. Her new roommates are incredibly welcoming and as quirky as New York City roommates can be; her job waiting tables at Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes is, uh, interesting, and figuring out the subway…that’s an entirely different story. There’s this girl there, all ripped jeans and Pride pins, and August is obsessed. Jane’s there every time she gets on the train – like, every time, which is…weird. Right?

It turns out, Jane can’t leave the Q train. She’s from the 1970’s, when a power surge shoved her out of time and left her here, and August, who has fallen utterly head over heels, is determined to figure this out. With the help of her misfit band of roommates, August begins to hatch a plan to yank Jane out of the stalemate she’s in, whether that means pulling her into now (and off the Q train forever)…or saying goodbye permanently. 

This is such a sweet, sexy love story, but it’s also a story of falling in love with New York. Casey McQuiston has absolutely written a love letter to the city, and NYC is as much of a character in this book as any one person is. One Last Stop is also so inclusive and queer-friendly: August is bisexual; Jane is a protest-sign waving lesbian from the 1970’s; August’s roommate is trans; there are drag queens all over; people of every race and ethnicity and culture pepper the pages. The setting and the feel of this book is just so incredible, and Casey McQuiston has truly painted a setting  and created a cast I would love to step into. 

I won’t even begin to fully try to understand the complexities of the time travel that threw Jane from the 70’s onto the modern day Q train (weird coincidence: I hadn’t ever heard of the Q train before this book…and the book I’m reading now, right after finishing this one, also mentions it!); physics and energy truly aren’t my thing, but this book makes it fascinating, and the time travel twist – bringing someone from the past to now – was a really fun one. Usually you read someone from now traveling back to the past, so I enjoyed this twist. 

One Last Stop is a fun, sexy, inclusive, smart romance that pulled me in deep. I’d time travel to the world of this book any day.

Visit Casey McQuiston’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

I have wanted to read With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree Books, 2019) ever since it first came out. I mean, LOOK AT THAT COVER! (And I’m not usually a LOOK AT THAT COVER kind of person.) The story itself sounded fascinating as well – single teenage mom whose passion is cooking, trying to figure out her future? Yes, please. And with the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompting me to read a book written during NaNoWriMo, I finally had my chance to dive into this (AND I WON’T EVEN MENTION HOW JEALOUS I AM OF THIS AUTHOR MANAGING TO WRITE THIS WONDER OF A BOOK IN A MONTH. NOPE, NOT AT ALL JEALOUS). 

Emoni Santiago isn’t your typical high school senior. She’s a single mom to her two-year-old daughter Emma, living with her grandma, struggling through school and work and her feelings about her non-present father. Life is challenging at best, but Emoni’s making the best of it, even if she’s unsure about what the future holds. College? It’d be great, but school has always been tough, and money is an ever-present issue for Emoni and her grandmother. 

At the start of senior year, Emoni, who has a gift in the kitchen, gets the chance to take a new elective, a culinary arts class that focuses on the food of Spain, including a class trip to Spain later on in the year. This class will expand not only Emoni’s culinary skills, but her social ones as well: Malachi, the new boy, is gently pushing her boundaries and opening her eyes to the friendship-and-maybe-more she’s been missing out on during the past few years, and Chef Ayden, her instructor, is helping her to understand that a good chef also needs to sometimes follow and not just lead. Emoni’s under a lot of pressure, but this is a year of growth, and her path is as beautiful as the cover of this book.

I really enjoyed this. Emoni is strong, determined, flawed but admirable. She struggles with school but works her tail off to get where she is. She’s fierce in her parenting with her daughter; her grandmother helps out but always maintains a little bit of distance, letting Emoni parent and serving more as an extra set of hands (I truly loved ‘Buela’s later-in-the-book breakdown and desperate need to be herself and not just a grandmother and caregiver. HUGE props to Ms. Acevedo for including this; I hope every teenage girl reading this has this scene cemented in her brain for later in life, should they become parents. It’s so unbelievably difficult to maintain a sense of identity when you’re a full-time caregiver like ‘Buela is and has been for almost the entirety of her adult life, and it’s an absolute NEED that gets ignored by society most of the time. High five to Ms. Acevedo for stressing that importance and showing young girls that they should not only maintain that sense of self but demand that others allow them to maintain it). 

I loved Emoni, not only for her determination, but her consideration for everyone around her. She’s always taking care of her best friend (whose fledgling relationship is adorable), doing her best for daughter even when it’s tough (interacting with her ex’s parents is a time), with an eye on the future and what it will cost in terms of money, time, effort – not just for her, but for her daughter and grandmother as well. Life is so much tougher for Emoni than it should be, but she manages it with grace and strength, and she’s truly an admirable character.

Loved this.

Visit Elizabeth Acevedo’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

I needed a modern retelling of a classic for the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge. I’m not usually super into these – nothing wrong with them, they’re just not my style – so this was a bit of a tough one to pick out. I did finally find one, though, and the best part was that I could share it with my daughter! Together, we read Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Scholastic, 1997), a delightful retelling of the story of Cinderella.

The novel opens with Ella, cursed from birth by a well-intentioned fairy, to always be obedient. Almost no one knows of this curse, save Ella’s mother and the helpful cook. When Ella’s mother dies, her clueless and self-serving father ships her off to finishing school, where she’s quickly taken advantage of by a pair of social climbing sisters who end up becoming – ugh – her stepsisters. A nighttime escape puts Ella once again in the path of Prince Char, and their blossoming friendship is as adorable and sweet as you’d expect.

But the ever-present curse is always there, and it’s ruining Ella’s life. Before it dooms her to a life of eternal servitude, Ella’s got to figure out a way out of it…but how???

Super sweet and fun book! My daughter really enjoyed this. Gail Carson Levine does a great job of leaving plenty of chapters off in cliffhangers (and those were, of course, where we managed to stop reading almost every time!). It follows the path of Cinderella quite well, with a few unique twists, and reminded me a lot of the movie Ever After with Drew Barrymore, which was, of course, another Cinderella retelling. It’s a charming book and makes for an enjoyable read-aloud, especially when you’re reading to a little girl who enjoys fairy tales. I just placed the movie adaptation with Anne Hathaway on hold from the library, so hopefully she’ll enjoy that just as much. : )

Visit Gail Carson Levine’s website here.


Book Review: On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-Being by Julie Catterson Lindahl

The 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge has a prompt asking readers to choose a book that fulfills a favorite prompt from a past challenge. I’ve only ever completed one other PopSugar reading challenge, so I dug through some of the other past challenges to find a prompt from 2019, a book set in Scandinavia. This fit in perfectly with a book on my TBR, so for this, I read On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-Being by Julie Catterson Lindahl (Tarcher, 2005). This had been on my TBR for quite some time, so I was glad to finally tackle it.

Julie Catterson Lindahl lives in what may be one of the coolest places in the world, a tiny island off the coast of Sweden. She, her husband (who is Swedish by birth), and their twins moved to their island cottage full-time in order to find a more relaxing way of life. Julie wasn’t sure how this would work out at first (though it was she who pushed for it!), but as the years have unfolded there, she’s leaned hard into Swedish life and culture and found that it suits her perfectly, and she’s here to share what she’s learned.

Incorporating nature into one’s life is important; the weather doesn’t have to be beach-perfect in order to enjoy time outside. Eating a more natural diet can help you feel more in tune with yourself. What we think of as spa treatments – sauna, massage, etc – help with relaxation. And design – smooth, clean lines, clear space, incorporating curves in some spaces, using natural materials – can help you feel calmer and more present at home and at work. These are some of the things that Swedes have figured out in order to live the good life that many of us have forgotten or ignored, but maybe we should take another look.

For me, the best parts of this book were the descriptions of the Swedish island Julie Catterson Lindahl lives on. Only one neighbor, surrounded by water (and ice in the winter!) and nature, the ability to forage in her own backyard, needing to take a boat to get to the mainland, it all sounds so fascinating! That’s not to say it’s not a lot of work; the family has to be very careful about the garbage they create, as all their trash has to be hauled to the mainland for disposal, and they have lots of plans for backup if the water or power fails. But it seems the benefits far outweigh the negatives here, and adding in some of the activities that Swedes and Scandinavians in general find relaxing and beneficial (and which they think should be available to everyone, regardless of income), such as sauna and lengthy time off work, really adds to an overall feeling of well-being that we here in the US assume only the wealthy should have.

Interesting book that gave me a lot to think about.

Visit Julie Catterson Lindahl’s website here.