fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I’m trying to think back to where I learned about Love at First by Kate Clayborn (Kensington, 2021). Most likely it was mentioned on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast (which I really need to catch up on!). Most of my romance novels come from there, whether they mention the book directly, or just the author, and I decide she sounds like someone I want to read (and then prance off to my library website to see what’s available. I have a Sarina Bowen on my list coming up soon that ended up there for exactly this reason!). Anyhow, I’d been checking the library on a few past trips, but this was always checked out. Last time, it was in!

Will and Nora first meet as teenagers in a way that Will remembers for the rest of his life, for both good and tragic reasons, but they don’t meet again until they’re adults, Nora grieving the death of her grandmother, and Will, now a doctor, struggling to figure out what to do with the apartment he inherited from an uncle he only met once. Their connection is instant and nearly palpable, but things are tense: Nora’s apartment building is her family, the people in it standing in for the close-knit relatives she didn’t have beyond her deceased grandmother, and Will wants to fix up and rent out his unit as temporary lodgings. Nora and the other residents are aghast; Will can’t understand why this is such a big deal.

But as they get to know each other, each begins to soften to the other’s point of view, and the distance between them softens and the pain of the past comes to light. Nora and Will need to learn to compromise and trust- easier said than done, but they’ve got a whole building of family rooting for them.

Sweet little romance novel without a ton of drama. Nora is having a hard time moving on from her Nonna’s death, stuck in her grief and needing to keep everything in the apartment (and apartment building) just as it was, no matter how inconvenient, in order to hang on to the last vestiges of Nonna. Will, who lost both parents by 18, has nothing to hang on to, and he’s been living his life based on a sharp remark about himself that he overheard his distant uncle make the one time he met him years ago. It’s served him well in some ways, but in others, it’s made it impossible to truly live…and that’s a problem when he starts falling for Nora.

There aren’t a ton of ups and downs here; it’s not exactly the most exciting and dramatic romance novel I’ve ever read, but it’s sweet, and it made for a relaxing read in the midst of all the depressing nonfiction I’ve been plowing through lately. I did enjoy the quirky apartment residents. Ms. Clayborn really created a building full of people with distinctive personalities, without venturing into caricature territory- it reminded me a bit of all the Maeve Binchy novels I loved as a teenager. Her supporting characters are always a little off-the-wall and well-defined, and this gave me the same feeling. Despite its bizarre velvet hallway wallpaper, this is a building I would love to live in. (And can I just say, I LOVED that this was set in Chicago! It’s such a great city and there aren’t enough books set here.)

Cute read. I really liked Will as a hero. As someone who really takes other people’s criticism hard, I understood his motivation for shaping his life the way he did.

Visit Kate Clayborn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

When I finished American Royals by Katharine McGee, I immediately put its sequel, Majesty (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020) on my TBR, because I enjoyed it so much. The entire premise- what the country would look like if George Washington had been made king instead of president, and his line carried on- is so creative, and the series centers on the young adult royals who are set to take over and run the country. I was actually surprised when Majesty was available the first time I checked- it’s a bit past its original publication date, so there’s probably not a massive stampede for it, but I still felt like I got really, really lucky!

This review will contain some spoilers, so don’t read on if you’re wanting to read American Royals but haven’t gotten to it yet.

Majesty picks up where American Royals left off. The king has passed away, leaving Beatrice as America’s first queen. She’s young, she’s untested, and she’s not sure she can do the job. She’s engaged to a man she’s not sure she truly wants to marry, and the man who assisted her father his whole life is doing everything he can to make sure she feels as incompetent and powerless as possible. Sam, now the heir instead of just being the spare, still isn’t over her sister getting engaged to the guy she liked and takes up with a guy just as wild as she is from the west coast. Nina, heartbroken over her relationship with Jeff ending, falls into the arms of Ethan, his best friend, little knowing that this plot was orchestrated by Daphne, Jeff’s scheming, status-seeking ex-girlfriend.

There are a lot of suppressed emotions, social climbing, scheming, hard looks at the racism that still persist in the US (especially as an outcome of the poor decisions this country made throughout its past), and a lot of really fun and creative imaginings of what American royalty would look like. Beatrice’s grief over losing her father (and being promoted immediately into the role of America’s first queen) is palpable and may be tough to read if you’re also deep in grief, so take care with that. Her confidence grows as the novel goes on, which was lovely to see, although I really wished she had booted her father’s advisor immediately, as it was obvious what a trashbag that dude was.

I had a little bit of a tough time getting into this at the beginning; I don’t know if that’s because it started off slower (or because of me; that’s always a possibility!), or because it’s been a while since I read the first book in the series. I’m an impatient reader and don’t read a lot of series books solely because I don’t like waiting, especially since I don’t remember fiction as well and tend to forget the details while I wait for the next book to come out. I did feel like Nina got a little shortchanged in this book; I really liked her storyline in American Royals, but it felt like her storyline was less developed here. I did like her relationship with Ethan, however! Beatrice was as lovely as ever; Sam, her impulsive younger sister, began to come into her own in this book, which was nice to see.

Daphne, the scheming social climber determined to get her claws into Jeff, really shines. She’s an absolute villain, and I usually hate characters like her, but she’s fantastic in this book; Katharine McGee really has a knack for writing the perfect bad girl. From time to time, we see a flicker of morality float to the surface, and then Daphne stomps it back down and sharpens her claws again. The ending to her storyline is cold and depressing in many different ways, but it’s fitting with her character and her ruthless ambition. She was my favorite part of this book, which surprised me.

Majesty is a fun follow-up, and this series really made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating alternate histories. This book is the conclusion and it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series, so I’m sorry to say goodbye to such fun, well-written characters.

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…

Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?

At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.

This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much  healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?

Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).

There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.

If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.

Visit Hannah Orenstein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria

Pretty sure You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria (Avon, 2020) came to my TBR from an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast. Book-related podcasts fill up my TBR so fast, as do those end-of-the-year ‘Best Books of This/Next Year!’ lists, and this book had been on the list for a while. I did recently have to rewrite my local library TBR list- the old one had gotten too messy, full of crossed-out books that I’d finished, and the list of books from my list that are available at my branch is down to 53, which actually kind of scares me! We’re allowed to sign up at other branches in the same system and check out books there, but I haven’t done that since before the pandemic, since I didn’t want to add to their stress. Interlibrary loan is up and running, though, so that’s at least a relief!

Jasmine Lin Rodrigues, soap opera star, has just been publicly dumped and humiliated, so she’s back home in New York, licking her wounds and resolving to the be the powerful leading lady she knows she can be while preparing to head a new romantic comedy series for the hottest streaming service out there. She’s not counting on the last-minute recast of the series hero, one that changes the course of her life. Ashton, telenovela superstar, is juggling a lot right now- a son he’s kept secret from the world for eight years, an aging father and grandparents back in Puerto Rico (their restaurant is still struggling to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria), the PTSD caused from a psycho fan breaking into his home with a knife years ago. But this bilingual romantic comedy is his chance to break into the English language market and become the megastar he know he can be.

Ashton’s secrecy and standoffishness immediately affects the intimacy between his and Jasmine’s characters; it’s hard to give a performance your all when you’re holding back. But little by little, he and Jasmine begin to fall for each other, and Ashton starts to let his guard down. Old habits die hard, however, and both he and Jasmine have a lot of work to do to overcome the pain of their pasts.

Cute contemporary romance novel. I loved the setting, and now I want Carmen in Charge (the show they’re filming)- or something like it- to be real. Bilingual shows, with the option for subtitles in either language? HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE? I would watch the hell out of something like that! Someone from Netflix call Alexis Daria, because this woman has brilliant ideas! Ashton is an actor who has spent his career making a name for himself in telenovelas (which I’ve always wished my Spanish was good enough to follow); he’s trying to break out and become Hollywood’s biggest Latinx leading man, and I loved hearing his perspective on his career, where it’s been and where he wanted it to go. His relationship with his family was sweet; the dilemma his career, which supported them all, caused, in terms of maintaining his son’s privacy, was an interesting aspect of the story.

I didn’t love Jasmine quite as much. I wished the story would’ve gone deeper into her psyche, instead of just focusing on ‘middle child who wanted attention and whose family thought her career was silly and not serious.’ I definitely felt as though her issues weren’t as serious as what Ashton was struggling with (especially the PTSD and worrying over his son’s safety). Obviously breakups suck and having your face splashed across crappy tabloids isn’t fun, but I wanted a little more from her side of the story. I did love, however, that she’s starring in this bilingual rom-com series without being fully fluent in Spanish. She needed help here and there, mostly extra practice with what seemed like pronunciation and the fluidity of her delivery. This really added an interesting aspect to her character (one that I’d love to see explored in other novels as well. My husband is Belgian and my daughter has so fully resisted learning the French he spoke to her when she was young. It’s something I’m sure she’ll eventually regret- second languages are so useful- but not every child of immigrants speaks their parents’ native languages, for various reasons, and I appreciated this aspect of the story).

A fun read with a great setting.

Visit Alexis Daria’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author’s books too close together- I’m more of a space-them-out-to-make-an-author’s-works-last kind of gal- but it just so happened that not too long after I read Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, her This Side of Home (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015) came up on my TBR and was in (still working through a bunch of ebooks), so onto my kindle it went. I spent a lovely Saturday on my backyard patio swing, chilling and swinging and enjoying this book, which has given me a lot to think about.

Maya and her twin sister Nikki are identical and have always done everything together, including sharing a best friend and making plans together for the future. But things are changing. Best friend Essence is moving 45 minutes away, thanks to her landlord selling the house she lives in. Their new neighbors are a white family Maya’s not so sure of, but Nikki becomes fast friends with Kate, and Tony…seems okay (and he’s super cute). The neighborhood is gentrifying, and although Maya’s glad it’s safer, the racial tension is hard to deal with and she’s got a lot of justified resentment about the hows and whys of it, and the feelings like all the changes in her neighborhood aren’t meant for its longtime residents.

School is changing too. The new principal seems hellbent on making sure the school isn’t focused on Black history. Inclusion is great, but it doesn’t mean erasure, and Maya’s going to fight like hell to ensure that doesn’t happen. When things get serious between her and Tony, Maya’s not sure how to tell everyone about their new relationship- and not just because Tony’s dad is fluent in microaggression. Senior year is a year of changes, and Maya engages in a lot of self-examination in order to come to terms with who she is and wants to be in this new world.

This is a quick read, but it’s one that makes you think, like really think. About identity, about racial and cultural expectations, about microaggression and racism, about gentrification and the costs and benefits of it, and who it’s really for. It was really interesting to read the perspective of a narrator (especially a teenage narrator) who lived in the neighborhood both before and after gentrification, and to feel her ambivalence about what happened to the place she’s always called home. There’s a lot to be angry and frustrated and resentful about, and Maya is- her best friend was pushed out of her home because of this, and she never feels welcome in most of the white-owned businesses that have taken up residence down the street- but there end up being some good parts to it all as well, as she learns. Does the good outweigh the bad? It’s not an easy question to answer, but hopefully you’ll read deeply enough to come away with an understanding of what our responsibilities are to our fellow human beings and the work it takes to make sure everyone knows we’re truly all in this together.

Maya grows a lot throughout the novel. She comes to understand that things change, and she has to be able to give a little as she fights for what she wants and needs. She’s easy to empathize with: change is hard, especially big changes, especially when they upend the way things have been your whole life. But she has excellent role models in her life- her father, teachers, people in her neighborhood- to give her an idea of what the work looks like to create a true community and to be a responsible adult (being a teenager and learning these lessons is hard; I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything!), and her growth is truly admirable.

I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood, which I love. But it’s still majority white, and I fully admit I don’t know all that much about gentrification, so I’m very glad I read this nuanced take on it, that showed the many sides of it and what it could be like (at one part near the end, a very positive part where the neighborhood comes together after an unfortunate chaotic incident). One of the reasons I read so much is to understand the world, to understand the perspectives of people whose lives aren’t like mine, who have lived in different places and in different ways and who have different takes on issues. Seeing the gentrification of Maya’s neighborhood through her eyes clued me into an angle that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to consider on my own, simply because her life and my life are different. The best books do that, and This Side of Home showed me what a neighborhood looks like when it doesn’t quite work for everyone, and what it takes to make it work for everyone. This has given me a LOT to think about, and Ms. Watson’s book is something I’m going to be carrying with me forever.

This is an excellent, timely novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

I’ve enjoyed Hannah Moskowitz since she first blasted onto the YA scene with Break in 2009. Her addition to It’s a Whole Spiel blew me away, and so I was thrilled that the next book on my TBR (ebook edition, since that’s what I’m focused on now) was her Sick Kids in Love (Entangled: Teen, 2019). The tagline for this book is, ‘They don’t die in this one,’ which was a relief to read (you know, having been traumatized by all the Lurlene McDaniel tragedy porn I read growing up, and then again by John Green with The Fault in Our Stars). I still stressed out while reading this excellent book, though.

Isabel is sick. She’s had rheumatoid arthritis since she was eight (not diagnosed until age nine), so she knows pain and what it’s like to live with a debilitating illness, what it’s like to have to plan your entire life around your unpredictable body, what it’s like to have no one around you really get what it’s like to live with this always hanging over you, what it’s like for an illness to just be part of who you are. She doesn’t date- for a lot of reasons- but then she meets Sasha, another chronically sick kid, and her life turns upside down. Sasha gets it. Sasha understands what it’s like to have a body he can’t trust. And dammit, he’s cute with a capital CUTE.

When she decides to let go and jump in with both feet, things are…good. There are the usual romance ups and downs: they annoy each other; they like different things; Isabel can’t make up her mind about anything; both of them have struggles with their conditions. And then the little things become big things, and things get tough. Isabel needs to learn to make decisions, to speak up for herself and maybe learn to make the necessary changes that come when you’re no longer alone and have to compromise to get along.

I loved this. I loved this a lot. Hannah Moskowitz (who is indeed a sick kid; she has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of spinal arthritis- I’m familiar with it because it shares a lot of symptoms with my back/pelvis issues and is often misdiagnosed as what I have for years. Which makes me wonder a lot, but doctors don’t seem to want to investigate further, so whatever) is wise beyond her years and shows it all over the place yet again. Life with chronic pain is so eloquently explained in this book; if you live with chronic pain or you love someone who does and want to understand, you NEED this book. NEED. I’m going to quote a section below that made me gasp. I read it, read it again, reread it, and then copied it down, because it summed up what chronic pain is like so, so well:

You stop noticing pain, is the thing.

You notice it when it’s really bad, or when it’s different, but…on the rare occasion someone asks me what it’s like to live with RA, I don’t ever know what to say. They ask me if it’s painful, and I say yes because I know intellectually it must be, because the idea of doing some of the things that other people do without thinking fills me with dread and panic, but I always think about it mechanically. I can’t do x. I don’t want to do y. I don’t continue the thought into I can’t do that because it would hurt. I don’t want to do that because then I would be in pain.

You can’t live like that. There’s only so much you can carry quietly by yourself, so you turn an illness into a list of rules instead of a list of symptoms, and you take pills that don’t help, and you do the stretches, and you think instead of feeling. You think.

And you don’t soak in hot water and feel the tension bleed out of your joints because it’s just going to remind you that it will come right back.

This is it. This is it entirely. This is what I live with, and Hannah Moskowitz has put it into words. All hail our new leader! Long live the queen! Seriously, this put my feelings and frustrations into words far better than I can at this point (it’s been a really bad year for pain for me; I’ve been on steroids four times since the pandemic started- my doctors don’t think that’s at all a problem, apparently- my neuropathy is going wild, my gabapentin doses have increased 300% and still aren’t covering it all, the Celebrex doesn’t work at all anymore so I’ve stopped taking it…). The tests coming back normal when you’re barely able to function- when that happened to Isabel, I nearly wept, because that’s something I so understand (right along with being blown off by doctors. It’s like there’s a giant belief of, “It’s just pain, why do you care so much?” attitude in the medical community. Quality of life means nothing, and it’s so, so good to hear someone else talk about this. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ.

(Also? Two Jewish main characters, THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ. Truly. Long live the queen!)

So I loved this. It was a fun, sweet love story about two kids who get each other, but who are also still trying to get themselves, because they’re teenagers, and on a large level, it drops some serious truth bombs about life with health problems that aren’t ever going away. This book got me- as a forty-year-old woman, it got me, and I am so utterly grateful for that.

Follow Hannah Moskowitz on Twitter here.

Check out her Wikipedia page here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Another library ebook for me! Next up on my TBR was Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer and Bray, 2019). This has been on my list since I first learned about it. I always forget how great middle grade books are- my son has been out of that age range for quite a while and my daughter isn’t ready for most of those books in terms of interest (reading ability, yes; interest, ehhhhhh), so I don’t spend a ton of time in that section quite yet. But I learned about this book on a list of multicultural middle grade books, and after reading that it was about a Syrian girl who leaves her home to live in the US, onto my TBR it went. (And look at that gorgeous cover!)

Jude has lived in Syria all her life with her parents and older brother. She’s always loved American things, right along with her best friend, but when life starts getting complicated in her home country, she travels with her pregnant mother to live in Cincinnati with an uncle and his family, leaving her father and her missing brother behind. Life in America is complicated. Jude, who used to be the best at English in her school in Syria, is now struggling to understand both the language and the culture around her. No one seems to want to try to understand her. She misses her father, she’s worried about her brother and her best friend (who isn’t answering her letters), and her cousin Sarah seems to hate her.

Bit by bit, Jude pulls together a life for herself in America. Her English improves; she makes friends in her ESOL class, a Muslim friend, and a friend from her math class; she works up the courage to try out for the school play. When anti-Muslim sentiments start up in her town, it’s not what Jude had hoped for in her new life, but she responds with courage and dignity, just as she takes on the rest of her journey.

Written in verse, Other Words for Home is a look at a young girl tasked with starting over under difficult circumstances, how she rallies, and how the people around her make her new life both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of helpers, but there are plenty of people- including adults- who try to bring her down.

This is a quick read, but it’s a great one. It would make an utterly fabulous read for a mother-daughter book club (especially if you’re looking for books that touch on immigration and/or refugees, the crises in Syria, and Muslim girls. Heads up for a few mentions of menstruation, a few mentions of bombings, and several instances of anti-Muslim behavior- all of which are things that kids in this target reader age are either likely to be discussing or need to discuss with adults, but sometimes parents need a little bit of time to think and prep for how they want to approach these subjects).

Jude is a delight of a character, strong and determined and an excellent role model (not necessary for a character, but it’s nice when you come across one). She works hard to understand the whys of her life: why are she and her mother moving to the US; why is her father staying behind; why does her brother feel the need to fight; why are people treating her this way in America (not sure there’s really an answer for that, to be honest). She works hard at everything she does, even when it’s difficult, and she never stops trying, even when she’s pretty sure she’ll fail. A new immigrant, still learning the language, trying out for a school play? RESPECT. I didn’t even have enough courage to try out for my school plays when I’ve lived here my whole life. I would have been in utter awe of Jude when I was young. I wish I’d known girls like her. Maybe I did and didn’t even know it.

Super great read, this one. I always enjoy a good novel in verse, but the subject matter and Jude as a narrator really hit it home for me.

Visit Jasmine Warga’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Some books just sit on your TBR for ages for no particular reason; The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (Flatiron Books, 2019) was one of them. My library only had an ebook version of it, and I tend to use my kindle in fits and streaks. I’ll read a TON of kindle books, then not touch it again for another six months. (I checked out a library ebook today, thinking it was a kindle- my Libby account is supposed to only check out kindle books- but it turned out not to be, and now I’m waiting for my ancient iPad to charge so I can read it on there, sigh.) But I reorganized my paper TBR list so it’s less messy and fresh and clean, with all the books I’ve already read and crossed out taken off, and all the ebooks I had on there were reeeeeeeeeeally bothering me, so I decided to start tackling them. The Guest List was the first available book.

The Guest List tells the story of three generations of the Milton family, East Coast blue bloods who helped the US out of the Great Depression…but by what means, exactly? Kitty and Ogden Milton’s early years are marred by tragedy; this tragedy echoes into the future and has serious consequences for other people, ones that Kitty is loath to admit until she finds the perfect dumping ground for her secrets. Joan, her daughter, burdened with epilepsy, has an entire life unknowingly affected by said tragedy, and it isn’t until Evie, Kitty’s granddaughter, is a middle-aged adult that all the secrets come to light when she and her cousins are trying to figure out how to handle the family island.

Yes, family island. Ogden and Kitty had bought an island off the coast of Maine in the wake of their tragedy. This island will become a source of joy and healing, but almost immediately a source of remembering of things Kitty would rather forget, things that paint her in a way she would rather not see herself. For Joan, it will shape the course of her life; for Evelyn, it is her family, but it also reveals uncomfortable truths about what her family is and has always been, both good and bad, because people are complicated and can be multiple things at once.

This is one of those books where the setting is as much of a character as the people. Crockett’s Island becomes monolithic, looming over everyone in a variety of ways. If you’re a reader who really enjoys stories with a strong sense of place (or you’ve just always wanted to inhabit a world where people are rich enough to own their own islands), this would be a great choice for you.

Content warning for the accidental death of a child shortly into the book, and some post-World War II-era antisemitism; if you’re not up for reading these things at this time, put it away and find something that better suits your needs at this time. Be kind to yourself. Life is tough enough already.

Kitty is a complex character. She’s definitely a product of her time and class (class is a huge factor in this book), and most of the time I massively disliked her. She has a few redeeming qualities, and then she comes around and opens her mouth and ruins it all. Joan is more sympathetic, to a point, and therefore more tolerable to read. Evie is written in the modern era and has more progressive and acceptable attitudes, and I enjoyed her storyline most of all (although I did enjoy Joan’s as well; there were a few things at the end that soured it for me).

There are other characters- Reg and Len- that really made the story tolerable for me. They added a touch of reality that you just don’t get when the story solely focuses on a family that owns a freaking island, and they end up providing the key as to the hows and whys the island ownership came to be in the first place. Without them, Evelyn may never have known, and that made this all the more interesting. What this book ends up being is a deep look at the attitudes towards race and religion that shaped the past and the ways they’re still shaping the present, and it asks how we plan to move forward from that. There’s a lot going on in this book, which is, again, more literary than I usually go.

Not my favoritest (TOTALLY A WORD) of books, and it solidified my resolve to never turn into the kind of person that the original Miltons were, but it was an interesting read that asks a lot of important questions, which I love.

Visit Sarah Blake’s website here.

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Book Review: Well Played (Well Met #2) by Jen DeLuca

I put both Well Met and Well Played (Berkley, 2020) by Jen DeLuca on my TBR at the same time, which is rare for me, especially since I hadn’t read her before (since Well Met was her debut. #writerjealousy). But I knew, knew, that any book that was set at a Ren Faire would have me scrambling to hop right back into that universe, and I was right. I just got really, really lucky that both were in at my library at the same time! NO WAITING!!!

Stacey, Emily’s fellow tavern wench from Well Met, has settled well into her role of slightly ditzy hometown girl. She had never meant to stay in Willow Creek, but after returning home to take care of her mother, post-heart attack, several years ago, she’s remained there, hooking up with Dex from the Ren Faire in the summers, working at a dental office, and wondering what to do with her stagnant life. After sending a drunken social media message to Dex one night, she’s horrified in the morning, then shocked to see that he’s written back. A thoughtful, heartfelt reply? That doesn’t sound like the manwhore she knows, but she likes it. A lot.

Their messages fly free and fast, and Stacey’s really loving getting to know this new side of a guy who previously only seemed interested in hooking up. As Emily and Simon’s wedding nears, she takes on a few more Faire responsibilities, and that’s when she realizes…the person communicating with her as Dex…isn’t Dex at all. Is it still possible to built a relationship with someone you’ve fallen in love with, when everything began as a lie?

This was cute. Still a great setting (Ren Faire!), still great characters (hello, Simon!!!). Stacey has a reputation for being a little ditzy, but she has a strong sense of duty and responsibility, evidenced by her commitment to caring for her mother long past the time when she’s actually needed. Fear of something happening to her mother and fear of change have kept her firmly rooted in Willow Creek, unable to imagine a path forward, until those messages from ‘Dex’ begin to add a little more color to the parts of her year that aren’t lived at the Faire.

Daniel, the male lead posing as his cousin Dex, is awkward and sweet, but lacking in confidence, having grown up in the shadow of his cousin’s swagger. He may have gone about his feelings for Stacey the entirely wrong way, but they were heartfelt and genuine. In real life, something like this would be a massive, massive red flag, but in fiction it works out just fine, and it made for a pleasant distraction of an afternoon.

I didn’t love this as much as I loved Well Met, but I loved Simon so much that I don’t think ti’s quite a fair comparison! And of course, after finishing this, I immediately put Well Matched, Jen DeLuca’s next book (due out in October!) which follows April and Mitch, onto my TBR. Two crossed off, one added right back on. I’m starting to figure out why my numbers seem to stay the same every month…

Anyway, Well Played is a cute follow to Well Met, and I can’t wait to read more from Ms. DeLuca. It’s extremely rare that an author is able to worm so deeply into my heart so quickly, but she’s done it and I’m here for whatever she writes.

Visit Jen DeLuca’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.