nonfiction

Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge required me to find a book set in the 1920’s. Not my favorite decade to read about, and I’m really not sure why. The fiction choices on the list weren’t really appealing to me (a lot of them were more literary fiction, and I’m not really a fan), but one book finally caught my eye: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010). Nonfiction? Awesome. History?Awesome. Poison? WHOA. This sounded like a pretty cool book, and I dove right in.

In a nutshell, before, during, and slightly after the 1920’s in America, everything was made of poison, deadly poison of every sort was widely available for pennies, people constantly poisoned themselves, often to death, and if they weren’t doing it to themselves, their friendly neighborhood poisoner (often a family member) would do it to them. Add to that a medical examiner’s office whose corruption and cronyism resembled something ripped straight out of today’s headlines, and you had a major mess on your hands, along with a disturbing amount of murderers running free.

Enter chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Together they revolutionized the study of forensic medicine and revealed what poisons of all sorts do to the human body in every stage. They designed and ran experiments that not only helped to identify killers, they helped educate the public on the effects of the many poisonous substances that surrounded them so that they could exercise better care in what they were consuming and so that they would be familiar with the process of forensic medicine when it came time to serve on a jury and convict a murderer. This was no easy task; Norris fought his entire career for the New York government to take his lab seriously and fund it appropriately, but the advances he and Gettler made changed the face of science forever.

This is a seriously fascinating book that nearly reads like a novel. Did you realize that the United States government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition? And when people died, instead of, you know, NOT poisoning the alcohol, they just shrugged and said, “Eh, they shouldn’t have drank it, then,” and upped the amount of poison in it!!! And the US went through a radium craze- NO, SERIOUSLY- where radium was in a ton of different products, including RADIUM WATER THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY DRANK. This worked out about as well as you might think. Like I said, basically everything was poison.

There are a lot of parallels between the society of this time period and today. Even though so much has changed, enough has stayed the same that chunks of this were really depressing. Like when men who worked in the plants that manufactured leaded gasoline began getting sick, going crazy, and dying, the owners of the plants blamed the men for not being able to handle the hard work (turns out it was the lead. Which they knew really early on). And most of us know the story of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials and died from radium poisoning after putting the tips of their paintbrushes in their mouths to make the brush pointy, a technique taught by their employers, who assured them that this was safe, then blamed the women when their jawbones and hipbones and femurs began crumbling. (It was all that promiscuous sex they were having, and not, you know, the fact that these women would glow in the dark when they went home.) There are a lot of stories like this in the book. It’s frightening, to be honest, because I kept wondering what’s being hidden from us today. (And I’m *not* a conspiracy theorist at all; there’s just enough disturbing historical content in here that it really freaked me out.)

There are so many interesting stories in this book, ones I didn’t know and never learned about in school. Deborah Blum has written a book that made the 1920’s come alive in a way they never have for me before. The Poisoner’s Handbook is information-dense, but it’s information everyone interested in American history or the creation of forensic medicine should know and understand. If you like true crime, this should probably be on your list as well, since it’ll give you a better understanding of what it took to get to today’s lab procedures that pin down whodunnit with chemistry.

SUPER cool book! I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Visit Deborah Blum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly Roundup: June 2020

Month Four of this pandemic in the US, can you believe it??? And things aren’t any better. They’re actually worse in a lot of places than when this first started. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

Life hasn’t changed much for us here at the Library household. We’re still living the quarantine lifestyle, not seeing friends or family except via video chat. If there’s an errand that needs to be run, one of us is in the store and out with no dawdling, no browsing, it’s just getting what we need and getting out. Masks are worn at all times when we’re in stores (fortunately, this went into effect here on May 1st and at least where I live, almost everyone is compliant. And I feel very, very grateful for this), and we sanitize our hands before removing them. We’re doing everything we can to stay safe, but all of this feels like one of those group projects in school where one or two of them members did nothing and everyone ended up with a bad grade because of it.

But really, our day-to-day life is okay. Reading with my daughter in the mornings, playing music with my son in the afternoons, walking with the family when it’s cool enough, reading in the evenings. It’s not a bad life. ๐Ÿ™‚

Let’s recap the month’s reading, shall we?

What I Read in June 2020

  1. Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

2. Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

3. Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

4. A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

6. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

7. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (no review; more on this below)

8. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

9. All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks (review to come)

10. Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

11. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter)

12. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (review to come)

Another quiet month; it’s just how my reading is going to be until life settles down. Slow and steady. ๐Ÿ™‚

I didn’t review Say Nothing because it’s so complex. It tells the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, something I knew very little about. This book is a wallop of information. It’s incredible, but it’s a lot to digest and took me almost a week to read. If you’re wanting to understand the Troubles, this is an excellent resource. I’ll need to read much more before I have a solid grip on this piece of history, though, which is why I didn’t feel comfortable doing a full write-up.

Nine books marked off my reading challenges, though! Speaking of which…

Reading Challenge Updates

I think I’m going to go ahead and complete the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge and call it good. Doing others would be a little too much this year, what with my reading slowing down so much, but I’m pleased that I’ve made so much progress on this one.

Here’s what that challenge looks like right now:

Two notes here:

First, when I went to look for a suggestion for ‘a book with an upside-down image on the cover, one of the suggestions was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcรญa Mรกrquez. And since I read that back in February, you bet your behind I’m using that for this challenge!

Secondly, I realized that the prompt ‘A book set in the 1920s’ was cut off of my graphic (but not the paper I’m using to keep track with my reading binder), so I added that in at the bottom of the left hand ‘Advanced’ column.

Not looking too bad, eh? I’ve got four ebooks on hold from the library for this, although if a few take too long, I’ll probably end up picking something else, which is fine. I won’t be able to mark off the last box- Read a banned book during Banned Books Week- until September, but depending on how quickly my books come in, I may be able to tick off the rest of the books next month! Stay tuned…

State of the Goodreads TBR

Oof. 139 last month, 149 this month. That’s partly why I’m going to bow out of my other reading challenges. I’d like to get this down lower in order to keep it under control. A few years ago, it was up to 332 and I read almost 200 books from it and then tidied a few up out of there, and it was down in the 70’s, so once PopSugar is done, I’ll focus on reading more from my TBR. I’ve updated my library list based on my TBR, though, and twenty-eight of these books are available as ebooks from my library (with more than two pages total of books available through my library if we’re also including physical copies), so that’ll make this a little easier. ๐Ÿ™‚

Books I Acquired in June 2020

I stopped by a thrift store a few weeks ago (all masked up, of course!) to pick up some shorts for my daughter and also grabbed a copy of Given Up for Dead: American GIs in the Nazi Concentration Camp at Berga by Flint Whitlock. My daughter got a few paperbacks as well. There was one other mask-wearing person browsing the bookshelves, and we steered clear of each other!

Bookish Things I Did in June 2020

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, nothing. Just reading.

Current Podcast Love

I went back and forth between a few different things and have settled on catching up on older new episodes of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It’s like returning home to old friends. ๐Ÿ™‚

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Currently on hold.

Real Life Stuff

Sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened in the space of a month, as all the days kind of blur together! Especially now, when my kids are out of school and life is a little slower. My son sent in his application for our local community college, though we have no clue what classes will look like. My daughter is plugging along with The Magic Tree House and the Junie B. Jones series of books; she’s on #11 in The Magic Tree House and #11 in Junie B. Jones. We’re still going back and forth, each of us reading one page at a time, and I make her do some workbook pages as well to keep her learning and keep her mind occupied. It definitely helps! We also performed the dreaded chore of cleaning out her clothes on a really hot day when no one would have wanted to play outside. We ended up culling TWO huge garbage bags stuffed with clothing, and someone from Freecycle came and grabbed them off our porch that afternoon!

My son and I have been playing and singing music together in the afternoons, which has been fun. I play guitar and we sing together, and it’s been nice. He turned 18 this month, which was wild. No party, of course, but we celebrated with a key lime pie, which was delicious! I also took the old plastic coffee containers I’d been saving, spray painted them, poked some holes in the bottom, and planted flowers in there. I also filled up an old carved up tire left by the previous owner of the house with some potting soil and flowers. I’m not a flower person, but this is what happens when you’re stuck at home and can’t go anywhere! Let’s hope I don’t kill these things off.

Ignore the crack in my sidewalk…

That’s about it for this month! If these were normal times, the kids and I would have been gearing up to go on vacation to Virginia with my mother, but obviously that’s out for this year. It’s a bummer, but honestly, I’m more focused on keeping everyone safe and healthy, so really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a disappointment but doesn’t register much more than a blip on my radar. We’ll also be missing out on the fourth of July parade we’ve enjoyed attending for years. Ah well. Such is life during a pandemic! We’re making our own fun at home, where it’s safe. ๐Ÿ™‚

July offers more of the same, only with steamy, smoking hot weather. Our library has opened back up by appointment, which is encouraging. Ten appointments per hour, and you have one hour to browse the collection. I haven’t made an appointment yet, but I probably will soon. It’ll be strange to be back in there. Speaking of which, the best thing EVER happened:

WE’RE GETTING A NEW LIBRARY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, a few years ago, there was a referendum on our voting ballot to fund a new library or an expansion of the old, and it was voted in. Our library began talks with our park district in order to figure out how to best use the allotted land, and the park district wouldn’t budge on anything or agree to anything, and to make a very long, very frustrating story short, the library moved ahead and has decided to purchase the site of an empty supermarket about two blocks from its current location. The grocery store is old and nowhere near up to code and so it’ll be razed and a new library will be built in its location. (The library building we have now is also old, out of date, not ADA-compliant, and the HVAC system needs replacing entirely, something that wouldn’t make sense financially, considering how old and leaky the building is. It would be upwards of 83 degrees in the building even with the air conditioning running in the summer, the back wall had water and mold damage, it was just a mess and they’ve been making do for ages. Building an entirely new building and thus not having to rent an interim space while they renovate the old building will actually save them money!)

CAN YOU TELL HOW EXCITED I AM???

Seriously something to look forward to in these strange times. It’ll be a while before they get going on this, but planning is underway and I couldn’t be happier!!!

That’s it for now. Stay safe and healthy, friends. If you’re in a high Covid-19 area, take care of yourselves and others. Wear your mask (mine has fish on it!) to protect yourself and your community, wash your hands, stand for justice wherever you go, and make your own fun at home so we can get through this together and come out stronger on the other side. Love to all of you, friends. โค

fiction

Book Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Another one from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge! I needed a book with twenty or 20 in the title, and thanks to the Goodreads group for this reading challenge, I realized I’ve already read quite a few, but that Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009) was an option. I’d heard of the book before, but hadn’t made the leap, so now was the time- especially since my library had an ebook. Seriously, what would we readers have done during this time without ebooks? Best. Invention. Ever. You know, along with, like, vaccines and antibiotics and the internet in general. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Last year, Anna and Matt were just moving into new romantic territory after a lifetime of friendship when Matt died suddenly, leaving Anna alone, grieving and bewildered. Matt was going to tell his sister Frankie, Anna’s best friend, about the relationship they’d been keeping secret as they figured it out, and now Anna is left to carry the secret by herself. Frankie’s not handling this loss well at all, either, becoming someone Anna barely recognizes. When Frankie’s family decides to make a return vacation trip to their usual California getaway, Anna agrees to come along, but she’s unsure of Frankie’s plan to make this a summer where they meet twenty new boys. Anna’s still not ready to give Matt up.

In California, Frankie’s throwing herself at any available random guy, but Anna’s not really interested until she meets Sam, the first boy to make her feel anything since Matt. Grappling with the guilt over moving on, the weight of her secrets, and Frankie’s out of control behavior and new personality, Anna’s going to have to come to terms with a lot of things on this vacation and maybe risk losing her best friend in the process.

This was a sweet, pain-filled read. Anna is grieving- publicly for the friend she lost, in private for the boy she’d loved since she was ten and who had only begun to love her back. She holds up remarkably well under the guise of having to take care of Frankie, maybe even a little too well. There’s discussion of Frankie barely passing her classes, but Anna seems to have pulled through just fine. I would’ve appreciated seeing some outward sign that she wasn’t entirely okay, because my God, what a terrible loss. (I had a terrrrrrrrrrible crush on a guy all through high school. He didn’t know I was alive for years and no one knew about my crush, and my anxiety brain often told me how horrible it would be if he died and I had to do my grieving all alone, so basically 14 year-old me should have run with this storyline because there’s obviously a market for it…)

Their California beach vacation was a nice armchair trip; lots of description of spending time in the waves and in the sand, which isn’t something I’ll be doing this year. The girls’s constant sneaking out bothered me as a parent; I realize I’m not the intended audience for this, though. There was a lot of discussion of Frankie’s parents basically giving up after Matt died and letting Frankie do whatever she wanted, which I totally get that that could be a thing (I wondered, though, that whether losing Matt so unexpectedly wouldn’t have pushed them to become more protective of Frankie, especially given what caused his death. But to be fair, that would have thrown a spanner in the works of this story, so it may be indicative of a conscious choice the author made to further the story, so I’ll go with that).

Twenty Boy Summer is a story of raw emotion, of secrets, of grief and the ways we deal and don’t deal with it. If you’re grieving, this might not be the right choice for you at the moment; pick it up at a time when you’re feeling strong enough to handle it. It’s a super fast read- I read it in less than a day- and I enjoyed the look into the mind of a teenage girl being asked to carry far more than she ever thought she’d need to.

Visit Sarah Ockler’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.



fiction

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I so wanted to read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, 2013) when it first came out. It was so hyped and so many of my friends were reading it. I kept seeing it everywhere, but somehow I never got around to it. And then the movie came out and that was everywhere and everyone was talking about it and I resolved to read it again so I could see the movie, and then neither of those happened! You know how it goes. But then came the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and from their prompt of a book with a pink cover, the Goodreads group suggested this book, and I went, “HEY! I can finally read that book!” And I did, blowing through it in just a tad over two days. (Sidenote: apparently books with pink covers are not my thing! My TBR has barely any pink in it whatsoever. Huh.)

Rachel Chu has no idea what she’s getting into when she agrees to spend the summer in Asia with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young. Nick’s family’s is part of a group of fabulously rich Chinese Singaporeans whose wealth exceeds that of small and many medium-sized countries. Rachel, however, has no idea about any of this, and so off she jets with Nick, nervous but expecting nothing beyond more traditional Chinese parents.

The drama begins almost immediately, with Nick’s best friend’s wedding, his mother determined to end Rachel and Nick’s relationship, and every available woman looking to become the next Mrs. Nicholas Young. Interspersed with these chapters are the stories of Nick’s friends and family members, who prove that sometimes, mo’ money really is mo’ problems. Money can’t buy happiness, but its presence makes for a fast-paced story about the upper echelons of Chinese Singapore.

On its surface, a book about filthy rich people doesn’t necessarily seem like it would be right up my alley, but when you take into account my love of getting to peek into societies and groups of people to which I would never gain access even in my wildest dreams, this book was actually a perfect fit. I’m a pretty simple person: the house I live in is modest, my clothing is almost entirely secondhand, and when it comes to food, I’m a happy beans-and-rice kind of gal. I have no desire to live the kind of lives the characters in this book are living, but seeing their fabulous displays of wealth- the food, the exorbitant amount of money dropped on couture, real estate, and extravagant interior design- was fun.

I didn’t quite love Rachel; she seemed to be lacking a bit in personality, but she did pick up at the end. I have to say I do agree with some of the reviews that point out that a lot of the characters are flat. Nick doesn’t have a ton of personality either, but for me, there’s enough drama going on that it’s enough to carry the rest of the story. It’s a bit like a soap opera in book form: lots of villains, a TON of backstabbing and plotting behind the scenes, over-the-top wealth so overwhelming that it’s almost campy at times, people are characterized as one thing and one thing only- but it’s fun to read if you’re not above that sort of thing. It’s a great escape from the chaos of the world right now. (I grew up watching Days of Our Lives with my mom, back in the days when Jensen Ackles, Dean from Supernatural, was on there, so I’m definitely not above this stuff!)

There are two more books in the series, and I don’t know when I’ll get to them, but I’d like to. I especially want to know what happens to Astrid and her marriage. I found her the most sympathetic character and am kind of invested in her storyline. Will Rachel and Nick ever get married? Will his mother get what she deserves? I neeeeeeeeeeed to know all of this! Someone come cook dinner and clean for me and parent my children so I can spend my time diving into the sequels, please. And I need to see the movie now. Hopefully soon!

Have you read the books? Seen the movie? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Kevin Kwan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

blog tour

#TheWriteReads Presents: Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D. L. Orton Blog Tour

Howdy ho, fellow readers! Your friendly first chapter reviewer here with a new book that seems fairly apt for the times, Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D.L. Orton (Rocky Mountain Press, 2015). Right from the start, this seems like a whopper of a story, and I have questions.

The prologue starts out in what seems like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where Isabel is forcing herself to buy a gun from a skeevy creeper in the parking lot of a burned-out Walmart somewhere out west in view of the Rockies. Instead of money, she’s got a backpack full of spices- pepper, dry mustard, you know the kind- and the parking lot she’s in is full of other makeshift businesses. She goes through with the purchase, not without Skeevy Creeper Gun Dude nearly murdering a stray dog and making some gross lecherous comments towards her (BECAUSE OF COURSE). The prologue ends with Isabel looking at the wasteland around her and asking herself, “Oh my God, Diego, what have we done?”

Wait- Diego? Who’s Diego??? And what on earth did they do?!?!!???

As the first chapter starts, ten months before the apocalyptic hellscape of the prologue, we meet up with an earlier version of Isabel, who is somewhere in her early 40’s. Life seems normal as she’s coming out of what seems like divorce proceedings in downtown Denver, until she twists her ankle catching her heel in a grate and is rescued by a man who seems familiar- yup, you guessed it, Diego. The two of them had a romantic relationship that ended several years ago; neither one of them seem completely over the other, but now that they’ve reconnected, Isabel reluctantly agrees to have dinner with him.

*record scratch*

How on earth did they get from business casual in downtown Denver to the apocalyptic nightmare scenario in the prologue in just ten months? (Although, looking around at the world right now…*nervous laughter*) Dystopian/apocalyptic fiction isn’t usually my thing, and I don’t think I could mentally handle it right at this moment, but I’m deeply curious as to what the heck happened. This is a strong, strong beginning, and I have a feeling that D.L. Orton had a LOT of agents requesting full manuscripts after seeing these first pages!

There’s time travel here (which I love), and romance, and this is something that’s going to stay on my kindle so I can read it further when my exhausted brain can manage it better and more fully, but this is an intriguing beginning, and if you’re into dystopian love stories (I did not know that was a genre!), this just may be the book for you. I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s reviews so I know exactly what I’ll be getting into and when I can handle more.

Plus, check out that gorgeous cover. I love the swirl of bluish light!

Thanks to Dave from #TheWriteReads and D.L. Orton for including me on this tour!

Visit D.L. Orton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads and TheWriteReadsOnTour on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Next on the list: the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge wanted me to read a book about a book club. Sounds simple, right?

HARDLY. The first book I picked, well, it turned out I’d already read it several years ago. Of course. And then every other book that looked good had a 247389247893 week wait. Okay, cool. But then nothing else looked good! HMPH. I finally settled on The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald, translated by Alice Menzies (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016). The blurb made it sound appealing, and two of my friends read and enjoyed it, so what could go wrong?

OOF.

Upon arriving in Iowa from Sweden to visit her longtime penpal Amy, Sara discovers that Amy has just died. The town of Broken Wheel is in deep grief over Amy’s passing, but they rally around Sara, putting her up in Amy’s house, making sure she has a driver to get around town (all four streets of it), and providing her with general hospitality. Sara begins to fall in love with this tiny town and opens a bookstore with Amy’s old books. The townspeople, who are not readers, are suspicious at first, but quickly, Sara worms her way into their hearts and they decide that she needs to stay there.

But how does someone on a tourist visa stay? By getting married, of course, and so they propose to her on behalf of one of the few bachelors in town. It’s a somewhat reluctant race to the altar before the local immigration official figures out their plot, with a lot of small-town drama and maybe a little falling in love on the way.

Guys…I didn’t like this one at ALL. If it hadn’t been for the reading challenge and my struggle to pick a book (and the fact that this was a library ebook, which have limited numbers of checkouts per copy), I would have quit this around 30%. It was absolutely not the book for me.

Sara is from Sweden, but not only is she entirely devoid of personality, there’s nothing that differentiates her from any other citizen of Broken Wheel. There are almost no mentions of life back home outside of her job in a now-defunct bookstore, no mentions of Swedish foods she’s missing, holiday traditions, no bits of linguistic interest (I always love seeing italicized non-English words in books with characters from different countries; there was none of that here, which was a huge bummer for me as I can read a little bit of Swedish, since it looks a lot like misspelled Norwegian). Other than her brief asides of wanting to eat traditional American food- which turned out to be a bizarre focus on macaroni and cheese (which…I mean, they have that in Sweden? See?), corn dogs, and sloppy joes (pass the heartburn medication, please)- there was absolutely nothing that marked her as someone from Sweden. The townspeople didn’t even ask her any questions about her home country. I’m not sure what the author was going for here, but they came off as lacking curiosity and uninterested in anything but themselves. Which, I mean, okay, that can definitely be true about small towns, but not to this extent.

The townspeople were completely unrealistic, almost caricatures instead of real people. It seemed as though Ms. Bivald was aiming for folksy and instead landed on ‘limited facsimile of what she thinks small-town people are like.’ Every person is one thing and one thing only. The bar owner is gay. His boyfriend is handsome. The diner owner is tough. The church lady is bossy. These are their sole personality traits and no one in this town is any more complex, with the sole exception of George, the former town drunk who’s grieving the loss of his daughter (who isn’t dead; his ex-wife just left) and who, somehow, in 2016, had never heard of Facebook.

Almost every situation in this book was bafflingly unrealistic. There are only 658 people in the town of Broken Wheel (I’ve lived in a town just a tad bigger than this, with about 900 people, so I know what it’s actually like), and somehow that renders every last person there completely thrown by…someone who reads? The town collectively drops what they’re doing to- and I swear I’m not making this up- stare at Sara through her shop window while she reads for five hours and thirty-seven minutes. WHAT??? I’m sorry, I know we as readers all want to believe we’re special and fascinating and nothing could possibly be more interesting than us, but no. Nope. This would never, ever happen. They even stand out there watching her as it gets dark. This is at about the point I would have put the book down if I hadn’t needed it.

There’s also a scene in which Sara walks to Tom’s house. Tom is the man the townspeople have chosen to marry her, you know, without telling him (again, entirely unrealistic in a multitude of ways; they actually visit a lawyer to ask how she can stay in the US, without even asking her if she wants to stay). At this point, Tom and Sara had one single dinner together. When she realizes he’s not there, she just walks into his house, looks around at all his stuff, and then decides to take a nap on his couch. And when she wakes up, he’s there asleep on the couch with her. What on earth??? Was this supposed to be charming? Because I was entirely creeped out by all of it.

SO. To wrap things up, this absolutely wasn’t the book for me at all. I didn’t find it plausible from any angle, and that rendered the entire story unenjoyable for me. It’s not often that I’m actually glad to be finished with a book, but I breathed a massive sigh of relief last night when I turned the last page.

I’m not quite sure what made this a book about a book club; I’m going to assume that whoever added that to the list of choices counted Sara and Amy’s correspondence (Amy’s letters to Sara are interspersed between chapters) as their own two-person book club. That part was charming; their friendship and mutual love of books were both delightful, or at least Amy’s part of it was. Sara’s letters aren’t shown, but maybe she displayed more personality in those than she did in her daily life. I certainly hope so, because otherwise I’m not sure why Amy considered her to be such a wonderful friend.

Have you read this? Did you enjoy it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, because this didn’t work for me at all.

Visit Katarina Bivald’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fantasy · fiction · YA

#TheWriteReads Presents: Promises Forged (Venators #2) by Devri Walls Blog Tour!

Aloha and welcome to the latest stop on #TheWriteReads’ superawesome blog tour for Promises Forged (Venators #2) by Devri Walls (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2019). If you remember, I was also a stop on the tour for Magic Unleashed (Venators #1) back in March, which at this point is the equivalent of seventy billion years ago, so feel free to click on my first review to give your brain a refresher. I’m here today with a first chapter review, and Devri Walls still has it going on in the sequel to her story of college students whisked away to a land where everything supernatural is real and they have powers they never expected.

When we rejoin our friends, we meet up with Zio, who is connected with her dragon Maegon via her magical amulet. Much to Zio’s delight, Maegon is about to wipe out the Venators. The addition of Beltran, a skilled shifter whom Zio has wanted to control for ages, turned her hunt for them into more of a battle, but now they’re almost in her pocket. Unexpectedly, Maegon is wounded, allowing the Venators to escape. Zio’s rage flares before she manages to control herself and then reshape her plans.

In the dungeon, tied to a chair and unsure of what happened (and exactly how much he had to drink last night) is Ryker, Rune’s ne’er-do-well frat-boy brother. The glowing tattoos on his arms begin to clue him in that this might be more than a frathouse prank or a lesson his sister’s trying to teach him about the evils of partying too much. The entrance of three short, squatty, very non-human creatures brings him back to some bad experiences of his childhood, and he vomits before his anger overtakes him. Escape isn’t difficult, and even when his only weapons against goblins armed with swords and axes are pieces of his broken chair, he’s still aware that those goblins…are scared of him. Hmm. As Zio marches in and explains that he’s awoken in a new dimension where everything supernatural is real, Ryker learns that his sister is there too, along with Grey, his archenemy, but as Zio tells it, they’re working for the evil side. And no, Ryker cannot be taken to them.

YIKES!

Devri Walls’ storytelling style is consistent here, and as much as fantasy isn’t usually my genre of choice, it felt almost like greeting an old friend- albeit one covered in glowing tattoos and cackling evilly alongside a pet dragon- to come back to this series again. The almost immediate mention of Beltran, the trickster-like shapeshifter, piqued my curiosity, as he was my favorite character from Magic Unleashed. Leading with the villainous Zio? NICE. And following that with a scene from Ryker’s point of view? SO well done, as we learned so very little about Ryker in the first story. The info we were privy to came from Rune and Grey, so his point of view here will fill in some gaps for the reader. Is he really as big of a jerk as he seemed? Will he ever learn to appreciate Grey? Are his powers as a Venator as strong as his sister’s? Will accepting that everything supernatural is indeed real finally force him to stop partying so much to cope with his creepy childhood memories?

For fans of the first Venators book, Promises Forged seems to carry on in the same vein, with all the strength of Magic Unleashed‘s worldbuilding. Fantasy isn’t my usual literary home, but Devri Walls definitely has a gift for creating a fascinatingly scary yet intriguing world (that I never want to visit thankyouverymuch!) full of magical and monstrous creatures (none of which I really want to meet!), and her first chapter had me right back in that spooky, drippy dungeon with Ryker annihilating that wooden chair. If you need an escape to a world that maybe makes a little more sense than ours right now, Devri Wall’s Eon in Magic Unleashed and Promises Forged are pretty good choices.

Thanks to TheWriteReads and Devri Walls for including me on this fabulous blog tour!!!

Visit Devri Walls’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow The_WriteReads on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

With interlibrary loan not being available (and it won’t be for the foreseeable future *sob*), it was getting time to make changes to my reading challenge picks. I’m so grateful to Goodreads for making groups available where readers can discuss challenges and identify different picks for different prompts- makes things a LOT easier for me! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge has a prompt for a book by a trans or nonbinary author, and after a little searching and checking my library’s ebook database, I settled on Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird (Tiller Press, 2019). I love memoirs, I love nonfiction, and I love learning and especially learning about how to be a better ally, so this was a perfect choice.

Jackson Bird was assigned female at birth, but it became clear early on that this was a label that didn’t fit him well. Living in a very conservative area didn’t lend well to giving him the terms for what he was feeling, and he grew up in the days before ‘transgender’ was a common term. With the exception of an episode of Oprah and a heavily stereotyped Adam Sandler movie, Jackson’s education on all things transgender was as limited as anyone else’s of that time period, something that caused him considerable distress, as things do when you feel that alone.

Forcing himself to conform to female gender norms only compounded his gender dysphoria, and after the internet worked its magic and introduced him to more information on the topic, Jackson began the long, slow process of physically transitioning to the gender he’d been all along, finding love and support from his family and friend group along the way. Though not without difficulties, his journey made him realize he needed to help others along the way as well, something he’s forged into a successful career via YouTube, TEDTalks, and other well-known media outlets.

This is a GREAT book. If you’re transgender or questioning your gender and are interested in learning more and need to feel like you’re not alone, this is the book you need. If someone in your life has come out as trans and you want to learn more and understand how to be a better friend and ally, you need this book. If you keep hearing about transgender people and trans rights on the news but those headlines and malicious, hurtful jokes by family members constitute the entirety of your knowledge on the topic, this book is your primer. Go pick up a copy now.

Interspersed with chapters of his own story of coming out and transitioning, Mr. Bird includes educational sections that define terms and their proper uses and provide more in-depth knowledge on both issues that affect the transgender community (ie, how to purchase and use binders, how to prepare for top surgery, how to navigate employment as you transition) and how their friends and family can be better allies and work to make the world better and safer for their trans loved ones.

Mr. Bird’s story is one of bravery- not without its bumps in the road and its moments of self-doubt, but what story lacks those? His dedication and conviction, both to living his truth and to educating others, is admirable; I wish I had even a sliver of his courage. It seems as though he’s been extraordinarily fortunate in that his family and friends supported him and stuck by his side throughout, though it’s not difficult to tell why; Sorted is written in a style that makes his outgoing personality and friendliness apparent. You’ll be wishing you could hang out with him within a few chapters.

Sorted is a fast read- with as engaging as it is, how could it not be???- but it’s one that will stick with you and will have you speaking up the next time you hear someone making a crack about trans people. Jackson Bird is one of those people you’ll be sticking up for, and he and every other trans person out there deserve it. Don’t leave this one off your list; you’ll come away enlightened, educated, and determined to be better for trans people in every aspect of your life.

Visit Jackson Bird’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Check him out on YouTube here.

nonfiction · television

Book Review: Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp

I’ve spoken here many times before about my love for Mister Rogers, but Sesame Street and its history are also pet subjects of mine. I love reading about how the show grew from nothing but a flash of an idea into the cultural institution that it has become. I love hearing the actors’ stories, how the songs came about, how the puppets were created and the sets decorated, and how it changed the lives of everyone who was not only involved with it but who watched it from the comfort of their living rooms. I needed a book with a bird on the cover for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and as I searched the Goodreads’ groups lists of books that fit this prompt, I was delighted to find that Sunny Days: Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and the Children’s Television Revolution by David Kamp (Simon Schuster, 2020) fit the bill AND was on my TBR AND my library had the ebook! (I had to wait a few days for it, but that’s okay.)

David Kamp has written a beautiful book that covers the glory days of early children’s television, from its first anemic offerings, to the slightly better Captain Kangaroo, to the powerhouses that were Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, Zoom, Free to Be…You and Me, and a few others that ran on more local channels. In a vibrant, upbeat manner, he chronicles how the shows came about, from conception to either today (in the case of Sesame Street) or completion, how the teams worked together (so many of the shows’ creators either didn’t have children or weren’t particularly interested in children or children’s programming, which I find fascinating, but which probably contributed heavily to these shows’ never talking down to kids), and how the political climate at the time was ripe for the creation of educational television for kids, something that would be extremely unlikely to happen today.

This is an utterly joyful read. While my parents assure me I watched The Electric Company, I have no memories of the show; I do, however, have a brain full of memories of early 80’s Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (including a song I’d forgotten about but that came right back to me when the book mentioned it: I in the Sky. Such a great song), and reading interviews with the actors, musicians, and creators that grew these shows from the ground up fascinated me to no end. There’s so much planning and hard work that went into these shows, and it doesn’t seem like anyone working on them got rich, but to be part of such cultural monoliths must have made all of it worth it.

It’s never overt, but Mr. Kamp illustrates over and over again how such innovative children’s programming would never be possible in today’s political climate, and that’s something that hurt my heart as I read. Too many people have dismissed the need for the government to get involved in helping to create quality educational programming, especially for the preschool set, in our hyper-individualistic society, dismissing the idea that we are a society and we can’t fully function unless all of us are able to participate. And when there’s a skill gap starting in kindergarten that only grows wider over time, we’re effectively kneecapping a large portion of society (and then blaming those people instead of working out solutions to solve this problem). Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood sought to be solutions, and in a time when most people were on board with the government helping to fund that, they achieved it. In an age when I’ve heard multiple politicians (local and national) support closing public schools entirely (“Parents should be entirely responsible for fully educating their children! Don’t have them if you can’t teach them entirely at home!” was something I heard often when we lived in the south), that this ever even happened at all seems almost magical.

Such a lovely book of a time when people worked together to achieve a common goal. Would that we could return to such an age.

If you’re interested in Sesame Street and early PBS programming, other books that might catch your fancy (which I’ve read and can vouch for!) are as follows:

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs by David Borgenicht et al

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life On the Street by Louise Gikow

If it’s Mister Rogers you’re interested in, check out these books:

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long

Do you have any great memories of PBS programming from your childhood?

Visit David Kamp’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.