Book Review: A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick

The next prompt on the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading challenge was for a book that features two languages, and while many of the books I’ve read so far would qualify here, I like having a new book for each category, so I poked through my TBR and found A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019). I have a map on the wall where I keep track of all the places I’ve ‘traveled’ to in my reading throughout the year, so I was happy to be able to put a pin in Papua New Guinea!

Don Kulick is a renowned anthropologist and linguist who has spent a good portion of his career living and working in Gapun, an extremely remote village in Papua New Guinea, studying the demise of Tayap, their native language. Why was it being abandoned in favor of Tok Pisin, and what did it look like when a language was voluntarily left behind? What would the community lose, and how would it be affected? Over several decades, Don Kulick lived with the villagers of Gapun, getting to know them and their lives and working hard to compile what he could of the Tayap language before it disappeared completely.

But this book isn’t solely about language. Mr. Kulick’s time among the people of Gapun is fascinating and eye-opening. While their remote lives in a village that lacks even the basics of what Westerners would consider technology look extremely different from ours, at heart, the people are extremely similar to us. They gossip about each other. They desire more for their lives. They raise children, they fall in love, they grieve losses and try to find meaning when someone dies. And, increasingly, violence between the people of Gapun and outsiders becomes a part of everyday life.

There’s so much to consider in this book that I think it’s going to stick with me forever. The demise of the Tayap language is, from a linguistic standpoint, tragic; we lose so much knowledge, history, and culture when a language disappears, especially one not completely documented (something Mr. Kulick laments, especially the knowledge of the names and uses of the rainforest plants that the villagers knew and that he could never make heads or tails of. Solidarity, Mr. Kulick; I stink at identifying plants even as I live very close to where I grew up!). The culture in Gapun is obviously different from anything I’m familiar with, and reading about his experiences there and his struggles to fit in and understand their ways of life was absolutely an adventure. The life of a traveling linguist definitely isn’t for me, but this makes for an intriguing read. There are some scary parts; an attack on the village while Mr. Kulick is there leaves a man dying in front of him (Mr. Kulick got extremely lucky that he wasn’t harmed), and at one point, he uses his satellite phone to charter a helicopter out of the village on an emergency basis. The food he describes…doesn’t exactly sound palatable to my Western tastes, and the remote living (even the most basic medical care is hours away) and the illnesses and conditions he suffered from while there (and I’m sure the villagers suffered from as well) sounded deeply uncomfortable and debilitating. Not only did I feel a lot of sympathy for the villagers, I’m even more impressed at what it takes to do the work Don Kulick and other anthropologists like him do.

There are also some really painful parts of the book where the villagers’ attitudes towards themselves and the way they live show how racism and colonialist attitudes have penetrated their remote society so deeply. The villagers are convinced that their skin will turn white after death, and they desperately wish to live more like the examples of white folks that they’ve seen pictures of. Those parts hurt to read, and I’m so sorry for how deeply Western culture and Christianity has wounded these folks’ sense of self. It’s all so unnecessary. 

This was a really fascinating book about a way of life that has undergone a lot of change in a very short period of time, and I’m glad I got the chance to journey there via Don Kulick’s research and writing.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Eight Nights of Flirting by Hannah Reynolds

Coming up next for the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge: a book about a holiday that’s not Christmas. Super simple for me; I peeked at my TBR and there sat Eight Nights of Flirting by Hannah Reynolds (Razorbill, 2022), the follow-up novel to her The Summer of Lost Letters, which I loved. As you can probably tell from the title, Eight Nights is set during Hanukkah, so it was a perfect match!

Shira Barbanel is spending winter break and Hanukkah at her grandparents’ house on Nantucket, along with the rest of her large extended family. Her main plan is to get a boyfriend – namely, smart, studious, solid Isaac, who’s working as her grandfather’s assistant. She’s never had a boyfriend before, but Shira’s determined. Her plan is foiled from the get-go, however, when a winter storm keeps her family away the first night and forces Shira and her former crush, Tyler, together overnight. The two strike up a deal: super smooth Tyler will teach awkward Shira to flirt, and Shira will introduce Tyler to her great-uncle, in the hopes of him gaining an internship.

Tyler’s not exactly the surface-only playboy Shira thought him to be, however. His smooth exterior hides a multitude of insecurities, and as he and Shira grow closer, she realizes there’s more to him than she ever thought. At the same time, a decades-old mystery at her grandparents’ home comes to light, and Shira and Tyler will work together to discover the truth behind the mysterious contents of the box from the attic. And along the way, they just might discover how perfect they are for each other.

Hannah Reynolds is a master of creating a wonderful setting. Just as in The Summer of Lost Letters, Eight Nights is set on the island of Nantucket, and though I’ve never been, Ms. Reynolds was able to transport me there amidst the raging snowstorm, the winter winds whipping along the coastline, the charming shops and stores still open during the off-season. I’m not much of a traveler, but she *really* made me want to go there immediately.

Shira and Tyler are great characters. Shira is flighty and awkward, unable to open up to friends or commit to activities she’s not 100% perfect at. Tyler puts up a front of being nonplussed and a major flirt, but he keeps a lot hidden, something Shira realizes fairly quickly. Despite their rocky history, the two make a good team with a huge amount of chemistry, another thing that Hannah Reynolds is a master at writing.

And the Hanukkah celebrations! Despite it being a minor holiday, Shira’s family goes all out with decorations and food and parties and family togetherness, and it’s all so much fun. Reading about the massive family get-together and the joyful chaos that ensued made me want to be a Barbanel as well so I could join in. 

Hannah Reynolds has become a YA favorite of mine, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her in the future.

Visit Hannah Reynolds’s website here

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

I needed a book where the main character’s name is in the title for the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge. This wouldn’t have been a tough one; everywhere I go, I see books with a name in the title, so the pickings were anything but slim. Fortunately, they were also easy; right there on my TBR was Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2021). I really enjoyed her The Loves and Lies of Rukhsana Ali in 2019, so I was looking forward to reading this, and this challenge was the perfect push! 

Zara Hossain, the daughter of Pakistani immigrant parents, is having a little trouble in her Texas high school. One of the students, Tyler the jock, has been being a huge dick to her about Muslims and immigrants in general. Her parents are worried, but Zara’s well-supported by Nick and Priya, her two best friends, and Chloe, a girl from another school Zara’s interested in. She’s not about to let Tyler ruin things for her.

But as his racist attacks escalate and involve other students, Zara refuses to back down. This leads to his vandalizing her house one night, and when her father goes to confront Tyler’s father, he’s shot. Suddenly, Zara’s entire future is at stake: her father’s life, his safety and ability to stay out of prison, the entire family’s immigration status. Zara had been looking forward to applying for colleges; now she’s looking at a very possible return to a country she barely remembers. But Zara’s not backing down, not without a fight.

This is definitely a timely novel. There’s been so much in the news the past five or six years about how broken our immigration system is, and this novel is the perfect illustration of how, even when you do everything exactly right, you can still be deported immediately due to the whims of other people. Ms. Khan has created characters, a family, that lives on the edge all the time, even though they’re privileged and not struggling with issues that many other immigrant families face, such as poverty. Zara’s father is a doctor, and even that’s not enough to save them from the strain of immigration-related stress. 

I did feel that the book is a bit lacking in terms of the depths of the characters, that the message takes more of a center stage at the expense of character growth. I never truly felt like we get to know Zara outside of this immediate moment, outside of the current struggles she and her family are facing. I would’ve liked to have seen a few more shades of her personality and who she is outside of her sexuality (her bisexuality is an important part of this story) and her immigration status. She’s a strong character, both determined and dutiful, but I would’ve enjoyed getting to know her a little beyond these traits.

Immigrant teens will likely see something of their own struggles and frustrations in Zara’s, but teens who aren’t part of that world need these stories just as much. Our immigration system is in dire need of a fix; my hopes lie in this next generation and the inspiration they’ll take, not just from their own stories and those of their friends, but also from reading stories like these and understanding just how badly things need to change.  

Visit Sabina Khan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fantasy · fiction · horror

Book Review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

It’s rare for me to reread anything. I usually have such a healthy, flourishing TBR (and so little time!) that I rarely glance behind me, in a reading sense, even when there’s times I’d really, really like to. And that’s the beauty of this year’s Pop Sugar Reading Challenges. Not only has it been pushing me hard to read outside my comfort zone, it’s also allowing me to do a few rereads. First up, to mark off the prompt of a book that I read more than ten years ago, I picked up a favorite – we’re talking a MAJOR favorite – from when I was a teenager in the mid-90’s, around fifteen or sixteen years old: Rose Madder by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995). I don’t think this is one of King’s better-known books, but it had a lot to say to me as a teenager, and rereading this was a really interesting trip down memory lane.

Trigger warnings for spousal abuse, graphic miscarriage, rape, violence, racial, sexual and gender-based slurs, and murder.

Rose Madder opens on a scene of horrific violence: Rose McClendon is miscarrying a much-longed-for baby after yet another terrible beating at the hands of her husband, Norman, a police officer. Flash forward nine years later, nothing has changed, and a glimpse of a single spot of blood on her side of the bed wakes her up long enough to understand the consequences of staying married to such a man. Rosie flees, taking a bus to an unnamed Midwestern city, and begins a new life at Daughters and Sisters, a women’s shelter for women leaving abusive situations. 

Starting over from nothing isn’t easy, but Rosie’s new friends, a job changing sheets at a hotel, and a rented room are enough, and soon, a new job offer and the attention of a new and gentle man named Bill Steiner turn her life into more than she could ever have dreamed. A mysterious painting of a ruined temple and a blond woman, purchased from Bill’s pawn shop, begin speaking to Rosie, and not a moment too soon: Norman’s desperate search for his wife, to make her pay for abandoning him, is bringing him closer and closer, and threatening everything Rosie’s built. 

What I remember appealing to me so much as a teenager were the emotions of this book: the fear Rosie felt, the horror that was Norman (who is actually even worse than I remembered), the newfound wonder of a life rebuilt and the first blossoming of love after so much pain and terror. Back at fifteen, I thought Bill Steiner was just the swooniest character out there; as an adult, I see that he didn’t have quite as big of a role in this story as I thought I remembered. This is Rosie’s story, and Norman’s: the narrative is split between the two, with the main narration going to Rosie, and Norman’s barely sane voice chiming in every now and then.

Good hell, can Stephen King write an abusive husband. Norman is one of the scariest characters I’ve ever read, one of the most dangerous. His scenes scared me more as an adult than I ever remember being scared as a teen. Another thing that really struck me is how much more difficult Rosie’s escape would’ve been today. She arrived at the shelter and her stay was fairly brief, thanks to being able to rent a room which she could afford on wages earned under the table as a hotel maid (there was also talk of supporting herself waitressing or possibly running a cash register somewhere; there were training sessions on this at the shelter, mentioned briefly). And Rosie had no children to support. How much more difficult, or even impossible, is it for Rosies today to flee such terrible situations and maintain any kind of life? Can women with zero work history, no skills, and a child or several, even manage at all? Thinking about this just depressed me further while reading this book.

It was really interesting, though, to see how much this book has affected my own writing. There were a lot of lines here and there that I remembered, and a few scenes that I hadn’t even remembered but that influenced a few things I’ve written (mostly an unpublished novel about a young woman rebuilding her life after leaving an abusive relationship. Yeah. This book had that much of affect on me!). A few times, I’d turn a page, read a line or a paragraph, and would be immediately thrown back into my teenage bedroom. If nothing else, finding my way back to this book has really reminded me of the magic of rereading.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending back then, and I’m still not now, though I understand it much better. No spoilers, but I do think it works a lot better reading it as an adult. If you’ve read this book, I’m curious as to your take on the ending, or on anything about this book. It’ll always be one of my favorites, both because of my history with it, and because of the strong emotions King has managed to make come alive throughout.

Visit Stephen King’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

I needed a book with Girl in the title for the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge, and since none of the books from my TBR fit, I went searching. It didn’t take long before I came across The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (Scribner, 2014), and that was an easy choice. I love Anita Diamant. I love her fiction, I love her nonfiction, I’m a huge fan. So much so that I was almost frightened to start this book, because what if I didn’t like it? Cautiously, I opened the cover, turned a few pages to the first chapter, started reading…and hilariously, I was hooked within the first two paragraphs. Unsurprisingly, I ended up loving this book.

Told in the style of an interview with her granddaughter, The Boston Girl tells the story of the life of Addie Baum, a Jewish woman whose life spanned the course of the 20th century. Her parents are poor and don’t quite understand this new country that they’ve fled to; her sisters are distant, and forming relationships with them in such a volatile household is nearly impossible. But Addie scrapes together a life for herself, using the many resources around her, like the Settlement House and its courses and support groups, to turn herself into a real Boston Girl.

Growing up as the impoverished daughter of immigrant parents. World War I and its devastation. Unexpected pregnancy in a dangerous time. A prescient retelling of the terror of the Spanish flu pandemic. Life, death, love, struggle, and triumph. It’s all here in this book, where Addie Baum blossoms from a naïve young girl to a woman surrounded by love, family, friends, and the incredible life she’s built for herself. 

This book is fabulous historical fiction that covers so many topics that are still relevant today. I think I held my breath through all of the pages that were set during the Spanish flu pandemic; that part was particularly well-written and far too familiar, so much so that I flipped back to the copyright page and was a little surprised to find this was published in 2014. Of course it’s part of Addie’s timeline, but I think that part of the story has taken on far more meaning since the book’s initial publication date. 

There are some fraught moments, moments of death, sexual assault and harassment, a soldier’s PTSD, and what we recognize today as emotional abuse by a parent. But there’s also joy, of friendship, of carving out a career path, of falling in love for the first time. This is truly a well-crafted story that spans a century of incredible change, and Ms. Diamant manages to cover just enough history without bogging down the reader with tiny details or the more complicated parts of history. This is character-driven with a heavy influence by the outside events of history, and I truly loved it. 

Visit Anita Diamant’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

The 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge directed me to read a book with a forbidden romance, so I browsed through some lists and came up with A Pho Love Story by Loan Le (Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021), a YA novel about two teenagers from families who own competing Vietnamese restaurants. Super cute cover. I thought I was in for a sweet, relaxing YA love story and settled in.

Not so much. 

(My apologies for not being able to do the diacritics in Vietnamese words; I’m not familiar with the language, nor am I confident I would get them correct even if I were to copy and paste from a character map. Accuracy is important, especially in terms of names, and not being able to do this really bothers me, so please accept my apologies.)

Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai are two Vietnamese teenagers from families who own competing restaurants across the street from each other. From their early childhood, their parents haven’t allowed them to have any contact, and the families have done nothing but speak badly about each other. Though the two attend school together, they know little about each other. Linh is an accomplished artist, struggling to make her parents understand what painting means to her; Bao is content to go through life not really drawn in by anything and is uncertain what his future will hold. Both teens struggle with the reality of living with parents burdened by their refugee pasts, loss and pain and secrets a part of their families’ everyday lives.

When Linh’s best friend recruits both her and Bao to write and illustrate restaurant reviews for the school newspaper, the two get to know each other in a way that has never been allowed before, but they must keep their newfound friendship and attraction hidden from their families. Digging into the past brings long-buried secrets to light, but maybe Bao and Linh can change things for good…


Up until about two-thirds of the way through this, I was struggling. Something felt…off. Not right. Slow. A little draggy. Heavy. Which isn’t necessarily unexpected, as these teenagers are first generation Americans of refugee parents. There are going to be some tough topics here. But after thinking about it a little bit, I realized that the cover had led me to expect something of a different story.

The cover is WAY more lighthearted-looking than this story is. There are deaths mentioned; neither family left Viet Nam intact, and they carry their pain and scars with them. Their struggles to build a successful life in the US continue on into the present day; running a restaurant is tough even for people who don’t struggle with PTSD and are native English speakers, so it’s doubly tough for folks who come here with trauma and have to rebuild everything, and are at constant risk of financial failure and their entire lives falling apart again. Linh and Bao live with the pressure of this every day, and Linh has the added stress of knowing her parents don’t approve of her passion and talent for art, which she has to do behind their backs. 

This is not at all a lighthearted love story. This is a story of two teenagers living in not just the shadows of but under the strain of their parents’ trauma. They’re trying to build their lives in the dual cultures they’re raised in, but the strain and pressure are incredible and intense, and the stress of this is evident on every page.

While the romance was cute, it didn’t quite have enough intensity or chemistry for me, but that wasn’t my real issue. The book is billed as a romantic comedy, which led me to expect something very different. I think it works well more as a drama, but intergenerational family trauma, financial pressure, and heavy familial expectations don’t mesh well with my idea of comedy. What this book does well is show what life is like for kids of refugees who are working almost beyond capacity in order to rebuild their lives from nothing. It shows their stress, their fatigue, their sorrows, their confusion, their struggles to meet their families’ expectations while still being true to themselves. It’s difficult growing up in a country and culture that your parents don’t fully understand, and that’s something I think this book portrays exceptionally well.

If you pick up A Pho Love Story, don’t go in expecting a lighthearted love story. Read it to understand a little more about Vietnamese refugee culture, and what family life of Vietnamese refugees might look like. Don’t let the cover or the description as a romantic comedy fool you; this book is a lot heavier than it looks, but I think it’ll speak to kids who recognize themselves in Bao and Linh and the weight of the expectations placed upon them.

Visit Loan Le’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin

The 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge directed me to read a book from a celebrity book club list, and I was like a deer in the headlights for a moment. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher at all, and honestly, the only time I hear about celebrity book clubs are when other people bring them up, so I had to go digging. I’ve read some of Oprah’s selections in the past, and I’ve heard people talking about Reese Witherspoon’s book club, but that’s still really all I know. The lists I looked at, nothing really jumped out at me, until… I spotted The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). This was an Oprah selection, and I immediately knew that this was something I had to read. This is one of the most incredible, painful books I’ve ever read about the American “justice” system.

Anthony Ray Hinton was a Black man in Alabama who signed in at work in a warehouse, plenty of people around him. That mattered nothing to the police, who accused him of three murders (one of which was committed during this time Mr. Hinton was at work, the others just tacked on because they were similar), and a jury, who convicted him. Failed over and over again by his court-appointed lawyer and the experts who weren’t as expert as they should’ve been, Ray, as he’s known, is sentenced to death by electric chair. 

Appeal after appeal falls through, and at first, Ray’s anger nearly eats him alive. But then he begins to apply the life lessons his beloved mother taught him to living in such terrible isolation on Death Row, and this change in attitude helps him survive. And then his case was taken up by Bryan Stevenson, of Just Mercy, himself…

Despite Mr. Stevenson, whom I’m convinced has been sent here to do God’s work on earth, finding experts (actual ones, three of them!) to prove that the gun the police pulled out of Ray’s mother’s house couldn’t possibly have been used in the murders Ray was convicted of, it still takes twelve years for Ray to be set free. In all, he spends nearly THIRTY YEARS waiting to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, listening to his friends make their final walk down the hallway to be murdered by the guards in charge of the men’s everyday lives, smelling their burning flesh wafting on the air for hours after they’re put to death. If that doesn’t enrage you, I’m not sure what will.

This is an absolutely incredible, deeply enraging book. What the state of Alabama did to Mr. Hinton, how it destroyed his life and his family, with what seems like zero remorse, disgusts me to the very depths of my soul. That this is how poor Black men are treated in this country, even when their innocence is able to be proven, PROVEN, is utterly horrifying. Mr. Hinton’s experiences are shocking, but they’re not uncommon: one in every ten people sentenced to death in the United States is innocent. 

I’ll say that again.

One-tenth of the people murdered by the United States government are innocent of the crimes they were accused of.

That is a shocking statistic. If I weren’t already vehemently opposed to the death penalty before reading this, I would definitely be now. The fact that the state of Alabama stole thirty years of Mr. Hinton’s life without so much as an, “Oops, my bad,” and only doubled down, desperate to murder him even when stronger evidence from more qualified experts was presented that he couldn’t possibly have committed these murders, fills me with such rage that I desperately wish I were intelligent enough to become a lawyer and join Bryan Stevenson’s team. They deserve all the help they can get to do the noble work of saving lives from government-sanctioned murder.

This is an utterly incredible book, and I don’t think there was a single page I read that I didn’t want to scream or rage-vomit. I read books to learn about the world, to experience it through other people’s eyes, to feel. This book checks all three categories in spades. Five stars, and I truly hope Mr. Hinton is able to live a calm, quiet life of peace in the wake of such trauma.

Read more about Anthony Ray Hinton’s case at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Visit Lara Love Hardin’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days by K.M. Jackson

I needed a book about or set in Hollywood for the 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge, so in digging through my TBR, I found How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days by K.M. Jackson (Forever, 2021), a book that I’ve wanted to get to ever since it first came out. I love a good romance, even better if it involves a celebrity, and I do enjoy books about people’s obsessions, because they’re so relatable (I even find other people talking about their obsessions online – even when I don’t share them – charming! I love enthusiasm). Through no fault of its own, the book wasn’t quite the book for me, but it definitely has its charm.

Bethany Lu Carlisle is an artist who just can’t seem to settle down. She’s over 40 now and though her art is at least successful enough to support her (along with help from her wealthy family), she’s still flitting from thing to thing, spending a lot of time obsessing over her favorite actor, Keanu Reeves. Learning he’s about to be married is her record-scratch moment: what is she doing with her life? She should stop him, shouldn’t she, and maybe convince him to marry her?

With her lifelong best friend Truman, Lu goes on a series of adventures designed to put her in Keanu’s path, but somehow always missing the mark. Along the way, she and True have some parts of their relationship that they’ve been avoiding discussing for years to iron out, including their shared grief over the death of Lu’s brother long ago. With a string of celebrity cameos, How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days will bring together two soulmates – just not the ones you might expect.

I’m not sure exactly what didn’t work for me here. Despite her flaws, I liked Lu. She’s funny, dedicated to her art, aware of where she could be doing better in life, and goal-oriented, and I enjoyed her Keanu obsession. I liked True (despite his being an economist, haha). He’s so dedicated to Lu, setting up her Keanu search and helping her with every step. I liked the setting, I liked the plot, I loved the celebrity cameos (meeting Captain America in a bathroom, meeting Lisa Bonet and Jason Momoa at a New Mexican campground, etc). But for whatever reason, reading this just felt more like a chore than it did a fun experience. I don’t know if I didn’t connect well with the writing style – there’s nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t reach out and grab me – or what, but this wasn’t the book for me.

I’m forever grateful to Anne Bogel of the What Should I Read Next? podcast, who taught me that not every book is for every reader, that we’re not going to form strong connections to every book, and that’s fine. The relief I felt upon learning this, upon hearing her put this out into the world, was enough to make me weep when I first heard it years ago. It doesn’t mean the book is bad or that you’re a lesser person for not enjoying it, it just means that wasn’t the book for you. And that’s fine. And this wasn’t the book for me, and that’s fine, too. Live and learn. : )

Visit K.M. Jackson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

I don’t always review the books I read out loud to my daughter, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. I needed a book with a rabbit on the cover, and one of the suggestions for that was The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall (Yearling, 2005). The Penderwick books are all over homeschooling blogs and book lists. I’d never read any of them before and missed them with my older child when we were homeschooling, so when I realized this was a Pop Sugar Reading Challenge option, I went, “Okay, let’s try this.” And it took me a bit, but I ended up falling in love with this book.

It’s summer vacation, and after a change in plans, the four Penderwick sisters – Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty – are off with their father to a cottage on the Arundel estate. What’s supposed to be a relaxing time ends up chock-full of unexpected adventures. Jeffrey Tifton, the son of the owner, fits right in with the girls, despite his awful, snooty mother who’s determined to send him to military boarding school in order to turn him into her military father. Teenage gardener Cagney is just dreamy enough for twelve-year-old Rosalind to develop her first crush. Four-year-old Batty, well-meaning but prone to chaos, sets everyone off on wild goose chases multiple times, and Skye and Jane have goals and adventures of their own. It’s a summer to be remembered for all the Penderwick sisters, and Arundel is the perfect setting for them.

I can’t quite place my finger on why it took me a bit to get into this, but even up to about two-thirds of the way through, I was like, “Ehhhhh, it’s fine, it’s just not for me.” And then, suddenly, it clicked, and the full charm of the book hit me in the face like a two-by-four. I really enjoyed this; Ms. Birdsall has made all of the sisters unique in personality, but they still all work well together. The setting is idyllic; the estate is large and full of wonderful nature and places to explore (and get into trouble! There’s LOTS of trouble in this book, which makes it so much fun). Jeffrey fits right in with the sisters, and they involve themselves in the standoff with his awful mother immediately, which I loved. 

How much did I love this book? We’ve since finished the second and are a third of the way into the third book of the series! I deeply enjoyed Ms. Birdsall’s illustration of the complexities of sister relationships and growing up, and my daughter loved this as well. I’m looking forward to reading all her other Penderwick books and seeing how the sisters grow. 

Visit Jeanne Birdsall’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult by Michelle Dowd

Browsing through NetGalley a while back, I found a book that basically had my name on it in flashing neon signs. It combined multiple interests of mine, and though it took a while, I was finally approved, and I was thrilled. Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult by Michelle Dowd (Algonquin Books, 2023) called my name from the moment I read the title, and I was correct: this book was a deeply engaging read, mining into a childhood filled with chaos, dystopian theology, and a love of nature that has remained with its author through her escape from the cult that created her.

Michelle Dowd was raised in California in her grandfather’s group known as The Field (which still exists today, but, under different leadership, is drastically different from the group in which Ms. Dowd grew up). The end of the world was nigh; group members would need to learn how to survive in the coming apocalypse, so Michelle, who received only three years of education at a public school, learned early on how to live off of what the earth could provide. Pine nuts, roots, berries, leaves, needles, bark, Michelle learned how to use them all. This education was the only form of affection her mother gave her; The Field taught that any kind of affection was wrong and unnecessary, and thus Michelle grows up starved for love, attention, food, and education, though her obvious intelligence is never in question.

An autoimmune disorder hospitalizes Michelle for months at a time; The Field states it’s because she’s an unfaithful Jezebel, her father never visits, and her mother blames her, with helpful statements such as, “Why are you doing this to me?” Throughout all of the chaos of her childhood – the physical and sexual abuse, the educational neglect, the lack of affection, the malnutrition, the illness, the anorexia and self-harm, the poverty, the persistent terror of eschatological theology preached by all the adults in her life – nature is her one constant, and it carries Michelle through to her eventual escape into the world she’d been made to fear her entire life.

Forager is a beautifully written memoir, and turning such suffering and fear into beauty is no easy task. It’s Educated-meets-I Want to Be Left Behind, and it’s utterly stunning in not just the depths of depravity in which Ms. Dowd was raised, but the constant unfolding knowledge of how far she had to climb to escape, a process not fully detailed (dare I hope for a second memoir from Ms. Dowd?), but one alluded to have taken years. Deconstruction and rebuilding is a difficult process and one that must’ve been especially challenging for a person raised in The Field. This book left me stunned, grateful for Ms. Dowd’s survival, and deeply concerned for other members – current and former – of this group.  

Interspersed between the chapters are field notes on different plants that provide a little insight into the knowledge of the nature around her that Ms. Dowd absorbed as a child. The pictures she paints of the plants and trees that helped her survive and the way she describes the comfort she finds in nature and her ability to navigate it temper the intense descriptions of abuse, neglect, and apathy she grew up with. Like most memoirs that deal with heavy abuse, Forager can be tough to read at times, but ultimately, it’s well-balanced and will leave readers in awe of the strength it takes to survive a childhood like this one. 

Huge thanks to NetGalley, Algonquin Books, and Michelle Dowd for allowing me to read and review an early copy. Forager is available for purchase March 7, 2023. 

Visit Michelle Dowd’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.