memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction

Book Review: Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White

I think I’ve said here about a million times that I’m not much of a thriller reader. I don’t care for that edge-of-your-seat tension, I’m not into reading about murder all that much, just…eh. But I’ll pick one up occasionally, and I grabbed Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White (Harper Paperbacks, 2019) from a used book sale two summers ago (which means the person who donated it must have bought it, read it, and passed it on fairly quickly!). I think it’s important to keep trying things I don’t necessarily love; it’s how I learned to finally enjoy olives in my 30’s!

Bailey Weggins has been assigned to write about the disappearance of Shannon Blaine, a mother of two from upstate New York who vanished while jogging. Hoping to impress her boss at the online crime magazine she’s writing for, Bailey throws herself headfirst into the case, interviewing everyone she can elbow her way in front of, but there are a lot of suspicious characters right off the bat: the slick husband (because it’s always the husband, right?), the jealous, less-pretty sister, the deacon who brushes her off constantly, the secretive best friend, a fellow reporter, the retired police chief. Bailey’s got her work cut out for her.

But not long after she begins digging, Bailey receives a phone call from someone who provides a tip that changes everything and turns the investigation from a search-and-rescue into the hunt for a serial killer. Everything is suspicious and the pieces don’t click together until it might be too late. Will Bailey make it out alive in order to report the truth?

Despite being about, you know, murder and death and other awful stuff, this was kind of a fun read. I’m TERRIBLE at figuring out who-dun-it (I’m also terrible at logic puzzles, thankyouverymuch; I would make an awful detective), so I had fun poring over the clues that Bailey dug up and trying to figure out what, if anything, they meant, and what was real and what was a red herring. I suspect everyone- I think I’ve only ever figured out the culprit in maybe two murder books!- so the constant guessing kept me on my toes through the whole book.

The setting here, Lake George in upstate New York, is pretty great. The isolated town where the story is set in the off-season gives the book a creepy feel, and I appreciated the several references to The Last of the Mohicans, which was also set in the area. The lake, while not featuring heavily in the plot, is described enough to nearly become a character of its own, which was kind of neat. The abandoned Catholic retreat center was suuuuuper creepy, straight out of every horror movie that has ever existed (and of course I was screaming, “DON’T GO DOWN THERE!!!!” as I read the parts where it appeared in the book, but after living through a pandemic and seeing all the stupid things that people do that make no sense, I wasn’t surprised that she went down there, because of course she did).

So. Fun book. It’s part of a series, though it’s fine as a standalone; I only occasionally got the feeling that I had missed out on some prior information, but none of it made a difference to the rest of the story as a whole. I don’t know that it turned me into a thriller reader, but I’ll keep picking them up now and then.

Visit Kate White’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

As soon as I read the Goodreads blurb for Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) this past summer, I. Was. In. I smashed the want-to-read button so fast, I nearly slammed a hole in my computer. The storyline, that cover…it all called to me. I knew it would be a tough read, emotionally speaking, and it was. The content warning right at the beginning- sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction- lets you know that. But what a masterpiece and a multifaceted social commentary Ms. Jackson has written.

Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, struggling to find her place in the world as one of the few non-white students at her private school in the suburbs. Her family’s financial situation has been tight ever since they moved from the city and she’s needed at home when she’s not busting her butt at school, making waves in the pool for swim team, or struggling to fit in with the other upper-class Black kids in Will and Willow, the social group her parents made her and her younger sister join.  When she gets the chance to audition for a singing competition, Enchanted jumps at it, even if it means fibbing a little to her mother, and she catches the eye of Korey Fields, world-famous singer, who immediately takes her under his wing and promises to make her famous.

What he promises and what he delivers are two very, very different things. Before long, Enchanted’s starry-eyed devotion has turned to fear, and she’s increasingly more desperate to navigate Korey’s moods and fists. She’s trapped, addicted, and being used, and unsure of how to escape when Korey’s entire world is built to ensure that he gets what he wants, whenever he wants, in order to continue making powerful people a whole lot of money. And it only gets darker from there…

While there are parallels with R. Kelly’s story, Ms. Jackson is clear to state that this isn’t about him. This is about a society we’ve created that disbelieves women, and in particular, Black women, whenever they use their voice to speak of how they’ve been harmed. This is a story about how multiple industries will turn a blind eye to abuse, pain, and crime in order to ensure that their bank accounts continue to fill. It’s a scathing story and one that I hope is read and discussed widely. Things need to change, and talking about it, shouting about it the way this book does, is how it starts.

Ms. Jackson portrays Enchanted as someone whose home life is good but who feels just enough of a squeeze to be looking for outside validation, and that provides a perfect entrance for Korey, an R. Kelly-like character who is well aware of what to look for when it comes to his latest victim. Enchanted is a hard worker and just enough of a people-pleaser to prove to be fertile ground for exploitation. Hers is so much of a story of wrong place, wrong time; it’s hard to imagine things not going the way they did, because Korey preyed on her so expertly. I’m obviously not the target audience, but reading this as an adult was just heartbreaking and devastating. Enchanted’s raw emotions are out there on every page- adoration, adulation, confusion, pain…fear. Guilt. Terror. It’s all here, presented in a way that the reader can’t and shouldn’t look away. Ms. Jackson’s writing style is just this side of sparse, no flourishes or excessive description (perfect for me!), which provides an even sharper edge to this story. I tore through this book in less than a day and I might’ve bitten anyone who tried to take it from me. It’s that compelling.

The difference between books about child trafficking and exploitation from when I was a teenager to now are remarkable. While there are, of course, people trying to pin Enchanted’s exploitation on her, instead of the grown man who exploited her (because what’s new), the message here is that she’s the victim in this, that this is something that was done to her by someone who knew better but chose to harm her anyway, and this is such a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the books I grew up with. I’m remembering very distinctly a book called Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, which I read when I was a young teenager and which details the story of a fourteen year-old who runs away from home and is immediately picked up by a pimp and turned out on the streets a few days later. Instead of showing Steffie as a victim, she’s portrayed more as someone who makes a single terrible decision and so of course bad things happen to her. “Don’t run away from home, kids, or you’ll be turning tricks out on the street within days!” seemed to be the takeaway message, but Grown and its contradictory title (or is it?) shows just how easy it is, even for girls from regular families, to get pulled into situations by master manipulators.

Such a heart wrenching, devastating novel that I hope spreads awareness, both of the issue of child and teen exploitation, and of Tiffany D. Jackson’s massive, massive writing talent. Read this, and for God’s sake, listen to and believe Black women.

Visit Tiffany D. Jackson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

Another book from my own shelves, the last read of 2020. I don’t read a ton of thrillers, but I don’t mind them when they’re more at ‘constant low level of unease’ versus ‘people chasing each other with knives and various other weapons through scary landscapes in the dark of night.’ I don’t want to be on the edge of my seat, but I do like trying to figure out what happened (and I’m really terrible at this!). The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (Harper, 2018) seemed to fit those parameters, or at least it did at the two-summers-ago book sale where I tossed it into my paper bag with all my other literary treasures for seven bucks. Either way, that makes it a win for me!

The May Moms are a new mom group, meeting first online and then in a park near their Brooklyn residences. It’s been a year of changes for them- pregnancies, work adjustments, moves, the addition of these helpless new creatures who have upended every part of their lives- and they’re leaning on each other for support. A night out for some of them leads to an unthinkable tragedy, and when the media descends, several of the moms are left questioning exactly how things happened that night. Where is their member’s missing son? How can they all possibly cope with this? And what exactly makes a good mother these days?

I’ve been a part of an online mom group- two, in fact- since my 18-year-old son was a newborn. I understand the quick camaraderie that comes from desperately begging a group of internet strangers what this rash could possibly be or asking how you can get this kid to sleep because you’re about to lose your mind. Aimee Molloy captures the support, the gossipy cattiness, and the tentative new connections forged during this tense time of life quite well, and she’s absolute magic at painting the full picture of new motherhood- leaking breasts (and the intense worry that you’re breastfeeding incorrectly and your kid is starving to death), your body feeling nothing like the body you’ve lived in your whole life, the exhaustion that pervades everything, the constant renegotiations of other relationships in your life (including your marriage/romantic partnership)… The new mothers’ desperation and exhaustion was so blatant and real on the page that it started to make me feel a little panicky from time to time. I do NOT miss those days at all!

I had a little bit of a difficult time keeping the characters straight. The POV switches back and forth and I did have to stop and keep going, “Wait, which is this one?”, but the rest of the story holds up well enough that this didn’t throw me off too much (and to be honest, this is probably more a me thing; I will occasionally read an entire book and can recount the plot with no problem, but I’ll be entirely unable to tell you a single character’s name). The story of baby Midas’s disappearance, the fear surrounding it, the media sensationalizing it and demanding to know why these mothers were out on their own and not at home caring for their babies (because as we all know, babies will DIE DIE DIE the second their mothers step away to do anything selfish like eat or shower, and definitely if they want a few hours to themselves to be their own people and not just infant servants. Ugh), it’s all so very modern and ripped-from-the-headlines. I’d never heard of this book before (not even 50,000 Goodreads ratings), but I feel like it should have gotten more attention, because it’s basically a layman’s Law & Order episode in book form.

The Perfect Mother is gripping, but in a gentle way. It’ll keep you turning pages to find out what happened, but it’s not that uncomfortable-on-every-page kind of unease that generally keeps me away from thrillers. This was definitely worth my time.

Visit Aimee Molloy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly roundup: December 2020

Fare thee well, 2020, and may the door hit you twice on the way out. Let’s cross our fingers that 2021 will be a better year than…you know…whatever that mess was. *glances nervously behind me*

December started out to be about the slowest reading and blogging month I’ve had yet. Having far too much to do resulted in so little time to read- with a bit of a reprieve at the end. Yay, winter break! Not having much reading time grates on me, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t create more time, and I can’t delegate any of the tasks I need to do, and I can’t create more quiet space for myself in the times where I’d like to read but can’t focus because it’s too loud in the house. (Even as I write this, I have 2348348932479832 things I need to get done today, including multiple errands that will take me out of the house, and the television is on across the room. Story of my life these days! At least no one is screaming.) Seriously, these vaccines cannot roll out fast enough, and I’d like to order one child-safe version so my daughter can go back to school in person for at least SOME of second grade next school year!

But if that’s my biggest complaint, I’m doing pretty great. A dear friend has had Covid and seems to have fallen into the long hauler category, and I’m worried about her, as well as her family member who isn’t doing well. So many others are struggling and suffering for so many reasons, and my frustrations pale in comparison.

Anyway. Let’s get this monthly roundup- small as it is!- started, shall we?

What I Read in December 2020

1. The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart

2. Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

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

4. What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

5. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness by Rebecca Lerner

7. The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings by Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (no review)

8. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen R. Prothero

9. Chicago History for Kids: Triumphs and Tragedies of the Windy City, Includes 21 Activities by Owen J. Hurd (no review)

10. Julie by Jean Craighead George (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

11. Meet You Under the Stars by Traci Borum

12. Looking Back: A Book of Memories by Lois Lowry (no review)

13. Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

14. The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (review to come)

I enjoyed most of what I read this month, so that’s great! The last three books came from my own shelves. Go me! Religious Literacy took me a long time to get through, solely because it was information-dense, which makes it more difficult for me to focus on (same for The Land of Truth). The Drawing Lesson made a MASSIVE difference in my drawings- I felt like it taught me so, so much, and I’ve been hearing the author in my head as I’ve been drawing with my daughter (you can see my latest drawings on my Instagram; there’s definitely been improvement!). What the Night Sings is still ringing in my head as well; it’s such a powerful, devastating, beautiful book, and I’m so glad I read it.

Now. Julie of the Wolves. Some of you probably remember this as a childhood classic. Maybe you even had to read it for school. (I never enjoyed books about nature when I was young, so I avoided it, and it never ended up on any of our lists at school.) I have a large book with all three books from the series crammed into one, and so I’m reading it to my daughter, and it hasn’t held up particularly well. My brilliant friend Sandy noted this in a better way than I ever could. Be sure to click on the review by Martha Stackhouse; she picks apart this book in an authoritative way and you shouldn’t miss that. Julie of the Wolves and the subsequent books in the series highlight the absolute necessity of the Own Voices movement, and my daughter and I are having plenty of conversations about the inaccuracies in the book and who gets to tell what stories as I read to her. She’s a huge fan of PBS’s Molly of Denali (highly recommended, especially the episode titled ‘Grandpa’s Drum.’ Get the tissues ready; I cry every time we watch this one). Huge thanks to Sandy for making me aware of the issues with these books before I started reading them to my daughter.

Reading Challenge Updates

I did manage to complete the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge earlier this year, a massive feat in this dumpster fire of a year, and I’m pretty proud of that. Here’s my final list:

Tada! I had to switch up some of the books I’d originally planned to read, simply because my access to other libraries was curtailed due to the pandemic. A bummer, but again, as far as problems go, not the worst to have. I’m just proud of being able to finish this one at all!

What’s next in terms of challenges for 2021? The only formal challenge I’ll be participating in this year is a challenge my longtime online parenting group is putting on. Twelve books, one book for every month (but they don’t have to be read in order and we can get through them at our own pace!), and the suggestions are fairly simple. I’m super excited about this! All my other reading will pingpong back and forth from my Goodreads TBR to my own shelves. I’m going to try to read one book from my own shelves for every book I read from the library, but we’ll see how that goes.

Something else I do throughout the year is keep track of where my books are set on my living room map of the world, by placing a marker on each country in which a book I read is set or about (each country gets only one peg, though I sometimes read multiple books set there). Here’s a (crummy) picture of how my map ended up this year:

I’m happy with all the books I read set in Asia and especially southern Asia; that was new for me this year. Europe is almost always featured heavily, but I definitely need to pick up the pace on South America and Africa! (I don’t necessarily try to vary the locations where my books are set; this is just how it ends up.) Who knows how things will go this year, with my reading looking different than other years due to being restricted to only one library.

State of the Goodreads TBR

From 176 last month to 187 this month! Those end-of-the-year book lists are killer!

Books I Acquired in December 2020

I don’t *think* I acquired any new books this month… I never receive books as holiday gifts, solely because I read so much that no one wants to take the chance of getting me a book I’ve already read, which is pretty smart!

Bookish Things I Did in December 2020

I’ve been able to attend several webinars via Zoom that clued me in to a few books I want to read, one on continuing Holocaust education and another on the future of Judaism now that it’s been forced to make a large digital leap (more on this below!). I so appreciate these opportunities to learn different things and, of course, find more great books to read!

Current Podcast Love

I’m still slowly making my way through Judaism Unbound with Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg. That second Zoom webinar I attended featured Dan Libenson as the main presenter, and it was fantastic to see and hear him in a different format than I usually do! He even referred to a few different episodes of the podcast, which I had actually listened to, which was kind of funny, because out of the several hundred people logged into this webinar, I was one of the few who was there due to the podcast (most of the rest were attending because of their association with the organization putting the webinar on). Dan and Lex are absolutely brilliant and sometimes I have a hard time keeping up with them because they’re so incredibly intelligent, but I learn a lot from this podcast and am really enjoying it.

I’ve also started exercising regularly, and on the days I use my exercise bike in the bedroom, I’ve been listening to the Leaving Eden podcast with Gavriel Ha’Cohen and Sadie Carpenter, about Sadie’s rejection of her IFB church upbringing (similar to, but with some differences from the Duggar family’s ATI cult group). It’s funny and heartbreaking and dark and intriguing as heck, and I cannot recommend this one highly enough if you’re interested in cults and niche religious movements.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

On hold until life goes back to normal.

Real Life Stuff

What a busy month! Lots of various holiday preparation and activities around here; studying for my Judaism class (which continues to be awesome and I love it so much). Lots of cleaning and organizing around the house. Lots of cooking (latkes!) and baking (cookies!) as usual. I was able to see my parents- masked, distanced, and standing apart on the front porch- briefly. I cut my daughter’s hair from almost waist-length to shoulder-length, and it’s so cute! (Both kids are rockin’ the mom cut right now!) I’ve started exercising recently in the hopes that at least *some* of my clothing will still fit when the pandemic is over and also in the hopes that my body will stop looking like a semi-melted candle. (A girl can dream, right?) My kids are enjoying this break from school and the exhaustion that is virtual learning- and so am I. It’s hard to be constantly monitoring my daughter’s behavior AND academic performance while also trying to get my own stuff done. COME ON, VACCINES FOR KIDS!!!!!!!!!!

What’s next for 2021? WHO KNOWS??????????? It’s hard to make any predictions about anything right now. I’ve made my peace with the fact that my daughter will be at home for all of first grade; it’s the safest thing for everyone right now, but I’m cautiously hopeful that she’ll see at least some of second grade in person. My husband and son and I will be jumping at the chance to get the vaccine when it’s offered to us (whenever that is!), as will the vast majority of our close family members. I’ve already had quite a few healthcare worker friends receive theirs and I’m beyond thrilled for them!!! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how distant.

This will be a year of changes for me, in terms of conversion to Judaism (although the timeline on that depends on the pandemic, and that’s fine- pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, reigns supreme here and I’m happy to bide my time so that everything is done only when safe for everyone involved) and hopefully being able to get involved at my synagogue in-person. I’m seriously looking forward to that!

In terms of reading, I’m assuming this will be a slow year for the most part, and that’s okay. Nothing to be done about that. I’ll still set my Goodreads goal at 100 books like I do every year, and I *should* be able to meet that, but I highly doubt I’ll get anywhere near the 200-some books I read last year. I’ll consider it a massive win if I even get to 130, simply because I’m just so pressed for time. I wasn’t thrilled with a lot of my reading this year, and I realized that’s because in years when I’m happy with my reading, I skew heavily towards nonfiction, and this year I read way more fiction, solely because it’s easier for my brain to process (and that’s not a slam at people who solely read fiction. I love fiction; I just also really, really love learning new things and I like to put my brain to work! It makes up for all the rest of my life being about taking care of my kids and scrubbing the kitchen counter!).

This is a year of taking it one day at a time, I think. With so much up in the air, everything so uncertain, I’m just going to enjoy the days as they come, read and learn as much as I can, and keep on doing everything I can to keep life as even as possible for my family. I think that’s probably the most we can hope for until things settle down- and hopefully they will (although my heart is still shaken by the suicide bomber that blew up 2nd Street in Nashville. I lived in Metro Nashville for a year and moved out to the suburb we lived in for four, but I’ve walked that street many times, and it hurts to see photos of the devastation. America, what are you letting yourself become???).

I’m wishing you all a safe, healthy 2021. May your year be filled with good health, as much normalcy as we can create, and the beauty of fabulous books to carry us through the ups and downs. Be well, my friends.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Come Back to Me by Mila Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.