fiction · YA

Book Review: It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

“Read a book from a genre you never read,” ordered the reading challenge from my parenting group, and my heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to reading outside my norms, but usually, if I don’t read something there’s a good reason for it. I don’t read the space opera-type sci fi because space freaks me out, as do aliens and other creepy space creatures like that (exception: I do enjoy Star Wars movies…). I don’t like westerns because…westerns. I don’t like short stories because of the 327847329473892 year-long unit we did on short stories in seventh grade, where I learned that short stories are depressing and formless and just kind of end mid-story with no conclusion (Naomi Kritzer’s Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories is the perpetual exception to this. One of the best books I’ve read and every story was enjoyable. READ THIS BOOK). Without going in and wandering the library shelves, this was a tough category for me to fill in my challenge…and then I remembered a collection of short stories on my TBR, It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019). Something I actually wanted to read AND it fit the bill for the challenge? Sign me up! Thanks, interlibrary loan!

This is a book of YA short stories by a variety of different authors well-known in the YA world- Rachel Lynn Solomon, David Levithan, Dahlia Adler, Hannah Moskowitz, and more. Each story focuses on some aspect of Jewish identity a teenager is facing or struggling with, and the teens range from ‘I’m Modern Orthodox and literally everyone I know is Jewish’ to ‘Couldn’t properly recount the story of Hanukkah to save my life.’ There are kids who are serious about observance, kids who don’t find it especially important, and kids who are trying to decide what it all means to them (basically, they’re like every other group of teens out there who are trying on different cultural and religious identities for size). There are kids who are nervously venturing into the world of dating for the first time, and kids who are traveling the world alone. Each story is different, but each is perfectly crafted.

Hannah Moskowitz’s story is stunning and perfect and an absolute gut punch and worth picking the book up for all by itself. There are stories that are funny and that contain those absolutely mortifying moments of adolescence where you pray a sinkhole opens up under your feet and swallows you whole (I seriously do not miss being a teenager, like, at ALL), and there are stories that ask hard questions about what kind of person the main character wants to be. This book is basically everything good about the best YA writing, condensed into twelve short stories, and crammed into one amazing book. (Also? Excellent queer rep in this book. Fabulous.)

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy these stories. Occasionally some background knowledge is helpful, but it’s not necessary. You only need to be a fan of YA, the search for identity, and great writing. I really enjoyed everything about this.

Visit Katherine Locke’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Life’s Too Short (The Friend Zone #3) by Abby Jimenez

My wish was granted, my wish was granted! I’ve never actually wished for a book on Netgalley before, but I adore Abby Jimenez so very much that I decided to take a chance on her Life’s Too Short (Forever, 2021), the latest installment in her The Friend Zone series. I loved the first two books so very much that I wanted to sink my claws into this book as soon as possible, and to my massive surprise, the publisher granted my wish. Thanks, Forever and Netgalley. If you’ve loved Abby Jimenez’s other books in the series, get ready to fall even harder…or, if you’re looking for a new author to swoon over, Abby Jimenez is one you cannot miss. Life’s Too Short is amazing.

Vanessa Price, well-known YouTube travel vlogger, has been sidelined by the unexpected. Her addict sister has abandoned her newborn with her, and Vanessa is struggling (hey, newborns are tough!). Her bedroom wall apartment neighbor, hot workaholic Adrian, steps in to help her out one morning at 4 am, and the rest is history. The two start up a symbiotic friendship: Vanessa gets some help with the baby, Adrian finally gets to experience a life outside of work, and, despite vowing to remain just friends, the two of them inch closer to a five-alarm blaze of a relationship.

But things are complicated. Vanessa might be dying. The women in her family are cursed with a familial gene that triggers early-onset ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Both her mother and her sister died with/from it, and Vanessa’s chances are about 50% of having it, too. It’s why she became a travel vlogger, determined to see as much of the world and squeeze as much out of life as possible before dying young. Adrian doesn’t quite understand how dire things are for her, and when he does learn the truth, it’s nearly too much for him to handle. Can Adrian find a way to live life- however much is left of it- on Vanessa’s terms?

This. Was. Adorable. Despite the heavy subject matter- death and dying are always looming in the background, whether it’s the memories of Vanessa’s mother and sister, or Vanessa’s potential demise- Abby Jimenez manages to keep this a light, optimistic read. Her characters are vibrant, brimming with life and energy, bursting off the page in a manner that puts her writing on my list of insta-buy authors. Vanessa is determined, buoyant despite her circumstances, and yet not so optimistic that she seems unbelievable. Her odds of dying from ALS have forced her to define in exact terms what she wants out of life and the direct route to getting it. She doesn’t have time to beat around the bush; her directness and persistence, rather than making her brash, portray her as confident and courageous. She’s someone the reader immediately wants to spend time with- whatever time she has.

Adrian is a fabulous hero. He’s capable and confident, a little gun-shy from having been burned by his recent ex, but not so damaged that his heart isn’t open to Vanessa. But- and this is HUGE- he doesn’t pursue her, because early on, she tells him she doesn’t date, and he respects that. SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. As if a hot lawyer who takes charge and figures out why your baby is screaming and takes over so you can go shower for the first time in days isn’t already amazing enough! Hello, I’d like to order one of those, please! He’s not without his flaws, big ones that will eventually put him and Vanessa at what initially appears to be insurmountable odds, but…love finds a way. Or at least it does in romance novels like this, and that’s more than enough for me.

I loved this. I love this series, I love this author. Abby Jimenez has a way of creating characters who, for the most part, don’t need to worry about money (because that can bog a story down, so giving characters financially lucrative careers is definitely a nice tactic for an author to get that out of the way) but who don’t seem unrealistic, and who don’t let their financial status define them. Even though her stories often deal with tough subjects (infertility, grief, death), she approaches each topic in a way that breaks it down enough to seem manageable, greeting every theme with a can-do attitude and a supportive cast of characters that make even the unfathomable seem not so bad. If I could have any author pen my life story, I’d want Abby Jimenez on the job.

Huge thanks to Forever and NetGalley for providing me with an early copy of this book. Life’s Too Short is available on April 6, 2021, and I highly suggest you check it out. While it’s part of a series, it would read just as well as a stand-alone, but really, you want to read the other books in the series as well. They’re just as fabulous.

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Fix Her Up (Hot & Hammered #1) by Tessa Bailey

Time for a romance fix! I put Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey (Avon, 2019) on my TBR after listening to some of the podcast that Tessa Bailey cohosts (Read Me Romance; warning: the heat levels are pretty intense in some of the novellas they read. If you’re more of a fade-to-black romance fan, this probably isn’t for you). I was curious as to what her books were like, and this was what my library had of hers. (I did ask a librarian this past month on their virtual chat feature, and they said that it’s totally fine to request books via interlibrary loan these days; it’s just taking longer, so I feel a little better about maybe requesting a few books from other libraries now! I was holding out because pandemic, and everyone’s stressed and I didn’t want to add to any of that at the library, but now…!!!) This book ended up being kind of a mixed bag for me, honestly.

Georgie Castle is the youngest Castle sibling, a clown (literally; she performs at children’s birthday parties), and practically still a kid at 23. Her parents, her older siblings, and everyone in the town still treat her like a child, and she’s pretty fed up with it. When her brother’s best friend and retired professional baseball star Travis Ford comes home for good after too many shoulder injuries permanently bench him, Georgie is dismayed to find that Travis- the object of her fantasies for a decade now- still sees her as her brother’s pesky little sister. Not for long, though. Georgie’s all grown up and Travis is starting to take notice.

Georgie’s faith in Travis is helping him grow into the man she always knew he could become, but he can’t move forward with his career without rehabbing his bad boy image. No worries; fake-dating Georgie should prove that he’s not the playboy he once was, right? They can mess around and still maintain some boundaries. But feelings run deeper than that on both sides, and Travis needs to reckon with his past before he’s able to make any sort of commitment…

Hmm. This wasn’t a terrible book; I liked it for the most part, but didn’t love it. I’m not a huge baseball fan, so that part didn’t do anything for me (hockey, sure; I enjoy a good hockey romance, but not really baseball or football). And the best friend’s sibling trope has always kind of felt icky to me. Sure, maybe that’s an issue when you’re still in high school, but by the time you’re all legal adults, no one should have any say over whom their sibling dates or sleeps with- that’s just weird, yo.

Georgie as a heroine was…just kind of okay. Nothing special. I’m no huge fan of clowns, so her clown business kind of freaked me out (and there was a line in there about performing for bat mitzvahs, which threw me off a little; I don’t know of many thirteen year-olds who would want a clown performing at their bat mitzvah, but okay…). She made her living doing children’s birthday parties and was able to purchase an inexpensive house by doing this, but the numbers there didn’t really add up for me. How did she pay for a car? Car insurance? Health insurance? Food, electricity, heat, water, those stupid expenses like a flat tire or the refrigerator dying unexpectedly? My brain always wants to know these kinds of little things when characters have non-traditional employment (health insurance is a big worry when it comes to self-employed characters for me!), and I didn’t feel like this was covered adequately. Exactly how much can one person make when solely performing as a clown at children’s birthday parties? This really threw me out of the story.

The female friendships in this book didn’t really gel for me. Bethany, Georgie’s older sister, is bossy and irritating; Rosie, another woman who joins their group, is passive and uninteresting (the next book in the series focuses on her and her husband, which surprised me; I didn’t find her intriguing enough to want to read an entire book about her). The women form a club to band together and support one another towards achieving their goals, which was a good idea, but the execution of it felt stiff and awkward, and there were some seriously weird scenes with their brother Stephen’s wife, Kristin. I had a hard time not skipping over some of this, to be honest.

Travis was…also just kind of okay. Hometown athlete/Lothario returns after injuries force him out of the game; every woman in town wants to hop on board; he feels like a failure. Lots of family issues going on here, but the focus is mostly on his father; what happened to his mother isn’t really mentioned, and I felt left hanging by this. His dirty talk goes from steamy to wait-wtf-did-you-just-say-ew and back again. There are scenes where he and Georgie defend each other, in front of both townsfolk and Georgie’s family, that felt kind of forced and ridiculous. He wasn’t anything swoonworthy, in my book, just…okay. Cocky athlete isn’t my type unless there’s more to him, and it didn’t help that Travis was just constantly held up as the high school sports hero made good. Yawn.

Fix Her Up was, as a friend of mine said, a nice distraction, but it wasn’t anything super special, and there were times where it struggled to hold my attention. I probably won’t continue on with this series, but the writing was okay enough that I’d give Tessa Bailey another chance with a different set of characters.

Visit Tessa Bailey’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Time for something lighter! I was scrolling through Twitter the other day when I came across Jennifer Mathieu retweeting the trailer for a new Netflix movie out next month, Moxie, based on her book by the same name (and directed by and starring Amy Poehler!). My jaw dropped. The movie looked awesome- and there was a book??? I skedaddled off to the library website and immediately requested their copy of Moxie (Roaring Brook Press, 2017). I had to wait a few days to begin it- first, because I was finishing up The Lost, and then because I was plagued by an awful, hideous migraine, the kind that blurs your vision and makes you entirely sure your head is going to explode in a gelatinous shower of goo and various bodily fluids all over the living room wall. Yeah. It wasn’t great. But Moxie? Moxie is fantastic!!!!!!

Vivian Carter lives in one of those small Texas towns where football is king, the girls’ soccer team is still wearing uniforms from the 1990s, guys can get away with whatever gross behavior they want, and girls are routinely inspected by male staff in front of the entire class in order to ensure their clothing meets some nebulous, never-really-stated standard. Viv is over it, but what can she do? Two more years and she’s out of there. But going through her mother’s shoebox full of Riot Grrl stuff from when she was a teenager lights a fire under her. Maybe things don’t have to be this way. Maybe she can help change things.

Her 90s style zine, Moxie, distributed in the girls’ bathrooms before class, slowly begins to awaken the girls to the fact that things aren’t fair at their high school, to give them confidence to speak out and stand up for themselves. Before long, Moxie is something that’s even bigger than Viv- it’s everyone at the school who’s sick and tired of of the girls being treated as lesser than the football players, and being treated as less than human. But when people Viv care about start getting in trouble for things they didn’t do…that’s when the true power of Moxie shines.

This is an amazing book. Viv transforms from a rule-follower, a quiet mouse who wouldn’t dream of rocking the boat, to someone who’s not afraid to put on her big girl shoes and stomp around. The girls around her grow as well, and they learn that, despite what the boys and their school have been telling them, they don’t have to compete with each other for resources and attention. They can work together to demand the things they need, deserve, and are owed. The messages in this book- girls’ bodies are not there for decoration and they’re not to be policed, boys are responsible for their own behavior, equality is the goal and feminism is still deeply necessary- are woven in throughout an entertaining story, one that far too many teenage girls will recognize as having taken place in their own high schools’ halls.

There’s a romance in here- Viv’s newfound relationship with Seth, the new boy, is sweet and adorable and full of all the thrills of first-time love, but what’s amazing is that Viv never lets Seth off the hook for some of his less-informed comments. Seth is one of the good guys, but everyone has some blind spots, and he’s not immune to ‘not all guys’ing her. Viv takes him to task and doesn’t back down from insisting he can do better. Despite her starting off as a bit of a goody two-shoes who isn’t interested in making waves, she becomes the kind of person who stands up for what she knows is right, and she’s a character that would have given me confidence to read about as a teenager (and God knows I could have used some extra confidence…or any confidence).

What a fun, empowering story of young women working together to create a better, more productive environment. I truly hope the movie does this book justice, because Moxie is one of the best contemporary YAs I’ve read in a long time.

Visit Jennifer Mathieu’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · YA

TheWriteReads OnTour Presents Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney, Ultimate Blog Tour!!!

Back today with another amazing Ultimate Blog Tour from TheWriteReads OnTour! This time in association with Penguin Random House (many thanks to them!). I’m pretty picky about my books, but as you all know, there are certain subjects that I absolutely leap at the chance to read, and as soon as I read the blurb for Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney (Penguin, 2021), I signed up. Religion in a YA? Check. Feminism? Check. SET IN A BOARDING SCHOOL? Oh yes. Hit me, Flynn Meaney! Pour that book directly into my brain, Penguin!

And the choice to be part of this tour was an excellent one, because I was laughing out loud within about three pages. Seriously. This book is hilarious! (If you’re sensitive to language, Bad Habits has quite a colorful vocabulary! But to be fair, I heard worse in the passing periods of my public high school hallway, and I learned to swear like a sailor while in Catholic grade school, so this was a bit like reliving my childhood.)

Alex doesn’t exactly fit in at St. Mary’s Catholic Boarding School, where she was sent after her parents divorced. She’s not exactly the prim and proper, plaid-wearing Catholic girl of their dreams; her purple faux-hawk, motorcycle boots, clove cigarettes, and ability to pick out even the slightest whiff of misogyny anywhere she goes (and it’s woven in deeply at St. Mary’s) have her constantly warming seats in the office, and this time, she’s close to the end. Deciding to finish things off once and for all, Alex decides to pull something St. Mary’s won’t be able to forgive her for: staging a school production of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues.

Easier said than done. The school isn’t exactly bending over backwards to help her make this happen. Her roommate, buttoned-to-the-neck-yet-boy-obsessed Mary Kate, is mortified to even whisper the word ‘vagina.’ Her fellow students’ more conservative manners don’t make them terribly receptive to Alex’s headstrong messages. But Alex has a lot to learn beyond how to make a proper scene…

Guys, I spent SO much of this book laughing. Alex is a LOT- she’s brash, crass, irritable, stubborn, and incredibly forward. She’s no-holds-barred, which frequently gets her in trouble- not that that worries her. But beyond being foul-mouthed and ill-tempered (quite often with good reason!), Alex is smart and quick on her feet. She’s the sharp, quick-witted YA character we all wished we could be, with cultural and literary references at the ready for every retort. I’m going to age myself here, but she would have fit in well on Dawson’s Creek. While at times she was a bit much, overall, I enjoyed her edge and her ability to eventually take a hard look at herself and grow where she needed to.

Her roommate Mary Kate is fun- boy-crazy in a sweet way, but there’s more than meets the eye there, as there is to every other character, something that Alex struggles to see in her dismissive efforts to caricaturize her classmates and school staff. Major props to Alex’s goody-goody classmate for making a killer Biblical argument at the end. Seriously, watch for this, it’s brilliant. The messages here- look deeper, understand where other people are coming from, notice what you have in common before you notice what divides you- aren’t heavy-handed, but woven into the narrative in a way that makes this book full of life lessons just a fun, funny, entertaining read. I laughed out loud so frequently while reading this that my husband was wondering what on earth I was doing upstairs.

I would’ve picked this up on my own if I hadn’t been part of the TheWriteReads Ultimate Blog Tour, but I’m glad I was so I can sing its praises early! Flynn Meaney has penned a sharp, thoughtful novel bursting with life and liveliness, and one that deserves its place on today’s YA shelves.

Huge thanks to Dave from TheWriteReads and the folks at Penguin Random House for including me in this blog tour!

Visit Flynn Meaney’s website here.

Follow Dave @ TheWriteReads on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads OnTour here.

fiction · suspense

Book Review: A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Despite kidnapping being one of my worst fears, I’m still kind of drawn to fiction about it- I still remember exact lines from reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard in my early 20’s. Maybe my brain feels like if I face it in a controlled setting, it won’t be so bad, and I can figure out how to prevent my own children from experiencing this terrifying fate? Who knows. I’m pretty sure I learned about A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber (MIRA, 2019) from Susan at Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books– she’s fabulous; give her a follow if you haven’t already! It went straight to my TBR, but it’s been checked out almost continuously at my library for the past year. I got lucky with my last library order and was excited to dive into this dual-narrative suspense novel.

Anna has been raised in a fairly isolated fashion by her strict, religious widowed mother. Her life has been small; she hasn’t been allowed to do the things normal kids do thanks to her mother’s rules and overprotectiveness. A secret birthday trip to a local theme park (where she’s never been allowed to go) with her boyfriend (the pastor’s son, of course) brings back some strange feelings and images, though- a ride on a carousel, and the name Emily. Who is Emily? The man who leaves a bizarre letter in her mailbox seems to know, and Anna is positive that the images flashing before her eyes are real. When she discovers a hidden trove of items her mother tucked away long ago, she realizes something is very, very wrong, and that her entire life has likely been a lie.

Rosie’s lived her entire life under the shadow of her kidnapped older sister, a sister who was taken when Rosie was too young to remember. All she knows is parents who have struggled with the disappearance of their firstborn and the pain that infects their every move. When she realizes the trust that has funded the investigation into Emily’s kidnapping is about to dry up, she defies her mother’s wishes and begins looking into things herself. An online messageboard dedicated to crime investigation leads her down a rabbit hole of information, and soon Rosie’s turning up clues that have been long overlooked by authorities. As each girl lives out her own story on separate continents, the drama comes to a head and secrets buried for years come to light.

This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller; there are some tense moments towards the end, but I feel like suspense fits this better. Ms. Barber comes at this with a strong voice; dual narrative (which I love!) can be hard to pull off, but Anna and Rosie have distinctly different voices. Anna’s narrative is stiffer, slightly more formal, a product having been raised by her mother (whose comparison to the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie does not go unnoticed by Anna’s classmates- a comparison she doesn’t quite understand, having been so entirely sheltered). Rosie’s tone is more relaxed, lighter but with the forced maturity of a child having grown up under the canopy of family trauma. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the two girls’ divergent worlds, while still uncovering shocking information alongside of them as the story unfolds, yet never being overwhelmed by too much at once.

There are a few moments I felt pushed the boundaries of being realistic- Rosie’s discovery near the end, the one that convinced her mother of the veracity of her claims, for one- and many questions that are left unanswered, especially by what I felt was an abrupt ending with no follow-up to what was obviously a life-changing moment. How did Anna’s mother manage to do things like enroll her in school without a birth certificate? Did she forge one? How did Father Paul slip under the radar for that long? (I wasn’t buying that Mary was the first or only one he’s traumatized; in this age of the internet, someone out there had to be talking about the Lilies online.) What happened to Mason’s family after his death and what the Lilies did afterwards? Did they not care about what happened to their granddaughter? Did they condone what happened? I have a lot of questions that the book didn’t fully answer, and that left me feeling unsatisfied.

But overall, this is a strong novel about a devastated family, and two teenage girls who are beginning to question who they are and their places in the world against the backdrop of personal trauma. Anna’s mother is creepy as hell, and the way she and Anna lived fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. Despite my ambivalence about the ending, this was absolutely worth my reading time.

Visit Lizzy Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon

Whew! After my last read, I needed something lighter. I love nonfiction, but I know I need to balance the heavier topics with books that are more on the fun side of the spectrum. I enjoy a good contemporary romance and I kept hearing great things about The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon (Forever, 2020), so that’s how it ended up on my TBR. It was always checked out at the library, though, so I had to wait until it was my lucky day and it was on the shelf. This book made me happy for a lot of different reasons: Black author, Black heroine, mixed hero (Black and Korean), lots of successful Black women in tech and science, a great setting, and a secret that must be kept but that might change everything. All of this worked so well for me!

Things seem to be going well for Samiah as she prepares for a date, until her sister clues her in that the guy she’s dating is currently going viral on Twitter- for being a horrible date for someone else in a restaurant down the street! When she arrives at the restaurant to clue Craig’s date in, she also meets the third woman he’s dating, and the video of their confrontation goes viral. Not exactly Samiah’s idea of success. She’s a hardworking, talented computer science geek whom her company can’t live without; this won’t damage her career, but it doesn’t exactly help it, either. After getting together with Taylor and London, Craig’s other dates, the three swear off men for six months in order to work on themselves. Samiah is all in and throws herself into working on an app she’s been developing for years. And then she meets the new guy at work…

Daniel has just started at the same company where Samiah works, a tech geek himself, but his employment there isn’t exactly what it seems. No one knows he’s working undercover for a government agency in order to uncover money laundering. He’s there to do his job and move on, but gorgeous, intelligent Samiah is making it difficult for him to remember his duties. Their flirtation and subsequent blossoming relationship leaves him exhilarated and guilty- he can’t be honest with her about who he really is, and it’s eating him up inside. When the investigation comes to a head, Daniel will need to make a difficult decision that may ruin everything he and Samiah have. Will he choose duty…or love?

Usually I’m not a fan of books where dishonesty is a key factor in the plot, but this worked really well as a plot point because it was realistic. Daniel’s secrecy surrounding his job made for absolutely necessary deception, and Ms. Rochon handled this in the most delicate way possible. Never once did I feel that any part of this story wasn’t working or wouldn’t happen like this in real life. That’s a huge plus for me.

Samiah is wonderful. She’s intelligent and hardworking, and she knows that she didn’t get there on her own and works hard to give back. But she’s not perfect, either; she doubts herself and is unsure of the next steps to take with developing her app. (As someone who has projects on the back burner that she’s currently shying away from for similar reasons, I understood this well!) She recognizes the value in pushing herself, however, both in work and in her personal life- her newfound friendship with Taylor and London was supportive and lovely, and something I hope to emulate when life gets back to normal.

Daniel is definitely a swoonworthy hero, handsome, respectful, dedicated to both Samiah and his job, and with a sense of duty that is both wonderful and complicates things to the max (which makes for excellent tension!).

The Boyfriend Project is a fun, lively contemporary romance with an excellent balance of romantic tension and stress coming from outside sources. Its cast of realistic characters- ones you’d want to spend time with in real life- makes for an entirely engaging read, and I’m looking forward to meeting them again in future books in this series by Ms. Rochon!

Visit Farrah Rochon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.

Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.

RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.

This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.

His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)

This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.