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.

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.

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.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

I don’t quite remember how Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (Quill Tree Books, 2020) came to be on my reading list (or at least where I found it), but I know WHY, because it ticks so many of my boxes:  

*YA

*diverse book

*characters grappling with religious and social issues

*contemporary as heck

*amazing voice

In fact, Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and serves on the Honorary Advisory Board! How cool is that?!?!? (Thank you to the founders and members for this group, for the work you do to keep our shelves stocked with books that represent everyone! It never ceases to amaze me how much better YA now is than when I was young.). By whatever means I discovered this book, I’m glad I did; this is some fabulous YA.

Del’s been in love with Kiera since their kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz, but she’s always been attached to someone else. Now that she’s finally single, Del’s ready to swoop in and make his move, but he never expected to follow her into his church’s program for pledging purity. *record scratch* Kiera’s not thrilled with Del or his reputation (which he hasn’t exactly earned), but he’s determined to game the system with the help of Jameer, another student in the program with whom Del has made a bargain: he’ll get Jameer answers to his sex questions from the Healthy Living class at school that Jameer isn’t allowed to take, and Jameer will aid Del in his quest to finally get together with Kiera.

But things are always a little more complicated than they may seem. Del’s town has had a rash of teen pregnancies and the community is still reeling from that. His college-age sister has some mysterious new gig. His job stinks. But the friend’s he’s making at the Purity group are turning out to be solid. Del has a lot to learn: about life, about purity and sexual expectations, about what it means to be a good man and how to treat women. The Purity Pledge may not be what he expected, but getting involved leads to everything he needs to move forward in life.

Whew, this is a great book. It’s my first Lamar Giles novel, but already I can tell he’s a master of voice. Not one time during the reading of this book did I go, “Wow, this is absolutely an adult writing for teens;” Mr. Giles is right up there with Angie Thomas, nailing the voice of a Black teenager searching for answers, identity, and his place in the world. Del is a flawed but solid character, and his growth throughout the novel is admirable. He sometimes needs to be shoved there a little, but he readily absorbs the lessons he’s taught by the people who surround him, and he’s not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and to rewrite his life goals when he needs to.

The supporting characters are fabulous; they’re all distinct characters with distinct personalities and goals and character arcs (have you ever read a book where the other characters are kind of interchangeable? Absolutely none of this going on here!). There’s religious and social commentary here, stated in a way that makes sense to teenagers (who will absolutely call you on your crap if it doesn’t add up, something that Mr. Giles seems to understand well!), but never, ever in a preachy way. This isn’t a faith-based novel whatsoever, but it’s a story set in a family whose members are searching for various things, and those things are occasionally conflicting, which adds extremely readable drama.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Lamar Giles, because this was just a super solid, thought-provoking, entertaining YA that deserves to be read far and wide.

Visit Lamar Giles’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · romance · YA

Book Review: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright

I’m a sucker for royal romances. For someone who has zero interest in real-life royalty or royal families, there’s something deeply charming to me about a prince falling for a commoner (it’s probably related to my adoration of stories where a celebrity falls for a regular person- and again, I have almost no interest in actual celebrities, so…). It’s how The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright (Merit Press, 2016) made it onto my list, and I grabbed it in a last-minute dash to the library before they went back to curbside pickup only, because our Covid case numbers are so high. It’s a bummer, I’ll miss my quick dashes in to grab my items, but at least curbside pickup is still available!

Evie, a 19 year-old American college student, is off to Oxford, the alma mater of both her parents. Her English mother died when Evie was just six, leaving behind a stack of letters, one for Evie to open on each birthday, and now a series of letters which send Evie on a quest around England to discover her family’s past and her mother’s secret. Complicating things is the fact that the cute boy Evie began falling for her first week at Oxford turns out to be none other than Prince Edmund, second in line for the crown. His parents have ideas about whom he should marry, and that doesn’t necessarily include a common. It may, however, include Jax, aka Lady Jacqueline, who loves nothing more than to set Evie’s teeth on edge by draping herself all over Edmund like ill-hung wallpaper.

As Evie falls harder and harder for Edmund, the truth about her mother’s true identity comes out, and Evie is shocked to learn she must prepare herself to inherit a title, an estate, and a way of life she never expected. She’ll have to figure out who and what she wants to be, and how to maintain any kind of relationship- friendship? more?- with the prince she’s not sure can ever fully commit to her.

So.

This is an adorable story. Evie is the Heir in the title, with Edmund being the Spare; I thought that was a clever switcharound. Edmund is charming as possible, and Evie’s mother’s letters are sweet and wistful.

The problem is that the writing is barely strong enough to carry the story. There’s so much telling and very little showing, and this began to irritate me early on. Had I not enjoyed the storyline so much, I likely would have DNF’d due to this.

Evie as a character is this side of Mary Sue. She’s super gorgeous and every eligible guy in the book is of course in love with her, including Edmund’s best friend (and of course Edmund is jealous) and Theron, a character that exists solely to evoke Edmund’s jealousy, rage, and protective streak when he assaults Evie on their sole date (the incident and Theron are never mentioned again outside of that chapter). She’s brash and free with middle school-level retorts and insults (which, of course, massively impress all her Oxford friends), which made me cringe quite a bit, especially in the beginning where she goes off on a few characters who are, admittedly, being quite rude. I’m not advocating for tolerating rudeness, but I feel as though one might take a bit more caution in acting crassly during their first days in a country where one is a guest and has been heretofore unfamiliar. Evie acted almost immediately like a stereotypical American, and that irked me.

So many of the characters in this book are flat and unnuanced. Jax and her crew are Mean Girls with no redeeming qualities and no other character traits. Evie is Mary Sue-ish; she’s gorgeous and smart without ever  needing to demonstrate her intelligence; people just remark on how intelligent she is (I wondered multiple times exactly why Oxford admitted her other than as a legacy. This seems to be an issue in a lot of books set at places like Oxford, Harvard, etc; the characters’ display of intellect or, more accurately, lack thereof doesn’t exactly merit their place at a top university, and I find that irritating. Don’t just tell me how smart they are; show what makes them smart. Have them reminisce about their discovery of something interesting during a high school research internship. Let a friend or professor stumble upon their publication of a literary criticism paper from a summer program. SOMETHING other than having characters go, “You’re so smart!” or discussing how swamped with schoolwork they are). Her Oxford friends are almost interchangeable in terms of personality, and every phone call she has with her supposed best friend from back home is entirely about Evie, nothing ever about Abby.  This would have been so much more enjoyable if all the characters had been better developed.

I didn’t hate this, but I didn’t love it, either. It had a lot of potential but fell short of the mark for me.

Visit Emily Albright’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.