fiction · romance

Book Review: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

For the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed a book recommended by my favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club, and what a perfect time to pick up Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai (Avon, 2020), who had popped up on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books that I had *so* enjoyed. She’s smart, funny, witty, and such a joy to listen to; she tells great stories, has an amazing laugh, and I seriously live for the episodes when Sarah from Smart Bitches has her on. I read Ms. Rai’s The Right Swipe last year; I enjoyed it, though it was a little harder for me to relate to Rhiannon’s driven sense of ambition (I’m, uh, way more laid back and go-with-the-flow!). I enjoyed her writing style, though, and was eager to read more from her. And lo and behold, Girl Gone Viral was available via my library’s ebooks with NO WAIT. It felt like I’d won the lottery when I hit that check out button.

Katrina King is more than a bit of a recluse, but she’s working on it. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, and PTSD have steered her life for years, but she’s been working with a therapist and doing everything she can to take back control, and step by step, she’s making it work, adding places outside her home she can travel to. What’s not working is her mad, unrequited crush on her bodyguard, Jasvinder. He’s perfect, beautiful, everything she could ever dream of wanting in a man, and she’s like 99.7% sure he views her as just a client. Sigh. When a photo of Katrina and another customer at a cafe, complete with speculative Twitter thread, goes viral, Jasvinder takes Katrina to hide out at his family farm where she can be safe from the prying eyes of the world and from the people in her past who don’t have the best intentions.

At the farm, Jasvinder’s long-avoided family drama is front-and-center, as are his feelings for the woman he’s been protecting for years. He’s in serious, serious love, but how can he admit that without sounding like a creep? As his past elbows its way forward, his family situation needs immediate attention, and he and Katrina begin to grow closer. But it’s their mutual growth that feeds their mutual attraction…maybe going viral isn’t the worst thing that could have happened…

LOVED. THIS. SO. MUCH. I got Katrina. I could relate. She’s determined and driven like Rhiannon, but in a quieter way, and what really spoke to me was her panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which I’ve been diagnosed with. I was never as severely affected as she is, but I know the terror of being stricken with a panic attack in public, how scary and embarrassing it is. I’ve had to sit down on the floor while waiting in grocery lines (those used to be my worst places, the places most likely to cause a panic attack. Grocery stores are actually *really* common places for people to have panic attacks), which was really embarrassing at the time. I understood her needing to work to grow her list of places she could visit; I had to do the same, years ago, and there are *still* places that are hard for me to go on my own, but like Katrina, it’s something I try to work on and keep pushing myself. I don’t know that I’ve ever so fully related to a fictional character before. Alisha Rai has done a fabulous job at portraying a character with my exact same brain malfunction, and I’m impressed and grateful to see that so well-written and so expertly crafted and handled in fiction.

Jasvinder.

Jasvinder.

SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON.

He’s a former Marine who struggles with PTSD and is dealing with something straight out of the headlines today, to which he reacts in completely understandable ways. He’s honorable, not wanting to overstep his boundaries with Katrina, but adorable in the ways that he loves her in secrecy. His love for and frustration with his family work together in such a realistic fashion; Ms. Rai nails family drama and the push/pull of navigating stressful relationships with family members over sensitive topics. Jas is seriously one of the most swoonworthy romance heroes I’ve read recently in contemporary romance, and I so enjoyed his chapters.

To sum it up, I adored this book. Loved Katrina, loved Jasvinder, loved their love story, loved Jasvinder’s dedicated, loving,opinionated family, loved his attempts to make new friends with Samson from The Right Swipe, loved Katrina’s friend group with Rhiannon and Jia (is Jia next???? OMG JIA IS NEXT AND I AM DYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYING! February is when this book is supposed to hit, and I for one am willing to fast-forward EVERYTHING to get there!!!). This was a lovely, lovely distraction from the mess of the outside world, and I didn’t want the book to end. Anyone know how to jump into the world of a book and never leave???

Visit Alisha Rai’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Book review: Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer

I’ve made it clear many times on this blog that one of my favorite kinds of books to read are memoirs about people’s experiences leaving religious groups (the more restrictive the better, but I’m open to any kind of exodus here). What makes some people leave, when others can’t imagine departing? Are there differences between the messages sent and what is received? What are the factors that aid in leaving, where is the breaking point, how do they rebuild their lives in the outside world? The psychology behind all of this fascinates me to no end, and I was so pleased to be offered a review copy of Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (Arcade, 2020). I don’t know that I’ve ever hit the ‘reply’ button in my email so quickly.

Caitlin Myer was born in the late 60’s into a Mormon family whose mother was plagued by bipolar disorder, spending much of her time closed in her bedroom and closed off from the hearts of her six children. Amidst that constant pain, Caitlin loses her best friend at age 7 to leukemia; her older cousin begins molesting her later on that same year. In a culture, both religious and secular, that pushes girls and women to focus on becoming wives and mothers to the detriment of all other accomplishments, she flounders, grappling for purchase onto any male that pays her the least bit of attention, regardless of the healthiness of that attachment. Often, the attachments cause her pain and impede her growth, and even leaving behind the restrictions of her birth religion and the chaos of her family doesn’t help. It’s only after years of struggle, painful life experience, and medical challenges that Caitlin begins to grow into the self she always knew she could be, beyond the restraints placed upon her as a child- not in a perfect manner, but with the deep wisdom that comes realizing that the only way to survive is to change the course of the story itself.

Wiving is prose that reads like poetry. Caitlin Myer has created a raw memoir, a full-on confessional in which she divulges her deepest secrets, with the effect of a mosaic, tiny bits and pieces that collectively add up to a singular whole of a woman who has suffered greatly to find her place in the world. Her early childhood, lost in a sea of siblings with parents focused solely on their own survival, led her to fill this void and seek out approval in the only arena she had been taught was acceptable, at the foot of any man who paid her the least bit of attention. “I never felt like I got enough attention,” she writes. “Maybe nobody ever does.” It’s hard to imagine how Caitlin’s parents could have done better in the circumstances in which they lived and were raised themselves, especially within the confines of her mother’s bipolar disorder and the lack of effective treatment at the time, but this does veer into the territory of cautionary tale for today’s reader.

Her condemnation of the patriarchy, both religious and otherwise, is worthy and on point. “It is simultaneously expected for a woman to arrange her life around a man’s needs, and shameful for her to do so,” she writes, a message echoed daily in opinion pieces which outline the impossible demands on all women- be feminine and sexy, but not slutty; have children, but not too many; have a job, but also be a perfect homemaker; be educated but don’t display your wisdom. “We have made a bright line between wife, whore, victim, and set each against the other, but they all grow from the same story,” she tells us, and it’s the truth. These patriarchal messages come in many forms, but they all absorb in a similar fashion, and the stories they create play out across cultures and societies in nearly identical ways. While Caitlin’s story isn’t a unique one, her telling is, skipping back and forth in time to create a raw tapestry of pain and growth, of decisions colored by the desires of others and choices made in the wake of her own hard-won sophistication.

This is not an easy read. There are obvious content warnings for molestation and sexual abuse, neglect, sexual assault, long-term illness and death. Ms. Myer’s pain is fresh and raw on every page, and it’s impossible not to grieve along with her for all that she’s suffered under the guise of becoming the perfect woman in the eyes of the societies in which she’s moved.

Wiving will take you on your own road of self-examination, of dissecting how the patriarchy and its constrictive rules have affected your life, life path, and behavior. We should all be as fortunate as Caitlin Myer to arrive at a place of such profound awareness and self-acceptance.

Thanks to Caitlin Myer and Kristen Ludwigsen of Mindbuck Media for the chance to read and review an advance copy of the book!

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving then Leaving the Patriarchy is available today, July 28, 2020.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman

One of the last tasks I had to complete for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge– until my library holds come in, that is!- was to read the first book I touch on a shelf with my eyes closed. That happened to be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (Puffin Books, 2005). I ran across this book earlier this year, pre-pandemic, at a local thrift store. It’s a late middle-grade book and the title intrigued me. I checked the book out on Goodreads before purchasing, however; I wasn’t looking for a faith-based novel (not my particular cup of tea, personally, though I’ve read a few okay ones in the past), but the reviews didn’t trend in that direction, so I coughed up a quarter and took it home (I love that thrift store so much).

Justine Silver has recently moved out of New York City and to the suburbs, where her new best friend, Mary Catherine, is Catholic. Justine’s intrigued, and so while Mary Catherine gives up chocolate for Lent, Justine decides…to give up being Jewish. Her secret practice of Catholicism, which takes place quite literally in her bedroom closet, involves confessing her sins to her teddy-bear-turned-priest, reciting the Hail Mary (just without the Jesus parts) and taking communion, which is made up of grape juice and last Passover’s matzoh. Close enough. Justine, whose family isn’t all that observant, is looking for religion she can connect with, and she’s hoping this is where she finds it.

Stress is running high in the Silver household, however. Bubbe, her grandmother, has just had a stroke. Justine’s worried she’s not going to get better. Her search for religious understanding causes even more disruption during this turbulent time, but it’s Bubbe who restores the family’s peace and helps Justine toward the path of ultimate understanding.

So. I really enjoyed this novel about a tween’s search for religious understanding. Justine is EveryKid at age eleven, quirky, awkward, nervous about all the changes in her life, and unsure of her place in this world. She’s searching for answers and meaning, and her parents haven’t done the best job of educating her in their own traditions in a way that grounds her. She sets off on a clandestine examination of her best friend’s faith, which seems mysterious and beautiful to her, testing it out in the only way she knows how, and when her secret practice is discovered, her parents aren’t happy. Justine’s grandmother intervenes the best she can, but ultimately it’s Justine who takes the reins and finds where she belongs on her own.

I’m not sure if this would have appealed to me at the age it’s meant for. It might have; I did enjoy reading explorations of religion even back then, but there are times when I felt that Kid Me might have found the story a little too esoteric for my maturity levels at that age. This is the type of book that I think would work best as a parent-child read, where you read it together and discuss afterwards. There are a lot of good topics to cover here: are we obligated to stay with the faith we’re born into, even if it doesn’t feel like home? What does it mean to try on a new faith? At what point should kids be able to make their own religious decisions? How should a family handle a child’s religious exploration, both of their own faith (if applicable) and of one that interests only the child? This should lead to some really great parent/child or family discussions, if everyone feels free to speak openly and honestly, without fear of retribution or shame.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a sweet book about a girl searching for a religious identity. I’m pleased to see that Sarah Darer Littman has written a plethora of other books; I really felt she covered a lot of the bases of a religiously questioning tween here and am looking forward to seeing if her obviously deep understanding of kids that age extends to other topics and ages. Have you read this or her other works? I’d love to hear about it! 🙂

(I feel like this review isn’t up to my normal standards; we bought a patio swing last week, and it turns out my old lady inner ears can no longer tolerate swinging for long periods of time. I’ve felt like I’ve been swinging for two days now, even though it’s been two days since I last got on the swing. Guess there’s a time limit for me! All that to say, it’s hard to come up with words when my brain and ears are making me feel slightly dizzy even when I’m sitting, so please forgive me.)

Visit Sarah Darer Littman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

The next 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt I had to fill was ‘your favorite prompt from a past PopSugar Reading Challenge.’ Okay, cool. Since this is the first time I’ve participated in the challenge, I had to go dig through previous years’ challenges, until I found prompt #18 from 2017: A book I’ve read before that never fails to make me smile. I knew that was the one, because I’d been looking for an excuse to reread one of my favorite books of all time: Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel (Onyx, 1994). I first read this book when I was sixteen, having purchased it on a solo trip to the nearest bookstore to my hometown, about a 30-minute drive away. I was eyebrow-deep in depression all through my teen years, and occasionally, on really bad days, I’d drive to the bookstore and soak up the atmosphere there while searching for a book to take my mind off the darkness and self-loathing in my brain. I stumbled upon this book, bought it, took it home, read it…then read it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s probably my number one reread of all time, and I’m not much of a rereader. This book never fails to make me smile.

Krissa and Danny French are siblings growing up on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Their surroundings are both beautiful and desolate; theirs is a community whose economy depends solely on the mines. Their father, injured in a mining accident and who can now only pull light duty, is angry, sullen and violent towards Danny. Their mother is high-strung, full of criticism and only sees what she wants to see. Danny is viewed by his parents as the bad child, Krissa the good. It’s only when Krissa sees, for the first time, evidence of her father’s abuse on Danny’s skin that she begins to understand that her family is different from everyone else’s. And it’s on this occasion that things change between her and Danny.

Danny opens up to her about his plans, his goals, to leave the Range. He wants to get far away and he plans to go in style by getting into an Ivy League college. Unfortunately, his grades aren’t stellar and he needs to learn Krissa’s study habits to improve. With her help, he’s able to get himself into Princeton, but not before he convinces her to follow in his footsteps and get off the Range as well. Krissa’s not as certain as he is, but she knows she wants to see at least a little more of what’s out there. One of Danny’s tickets out is music- he’s a talented singer, a great guitar player, and his participation in choir (as difficult as it can sometimes be for a rebel like him) helps win him recommendations that lead to his college acceptance, and ultimately, change his life and Krissa’s.

At Princeton, Danny meets Quinn Hunter, the privileged son of self-involved parents. Quinn is as different from Danny as possible- he’s blond, polished, WASP-y, raised in a world of tennis lessons, sailing, and house servants. The two get off to a rough start, but Danny’s intrigued enough by Quinn to take a chance, and the two begin a friendship and a musical partnership that will take the world by storm. Danny writes the music, Quinn writes the lyrics, and together they form the band Dodd Hall (named after their Princeton dorm). In the spring, Danny’s sister comes out to visit, and with a single look, Quinn is not only smitten, he’s deeply, head-over-heels in love. And Krissa feels the same way- it’s because of Quinn that she decides to come east for school at all.

The book goes back and forth between the 70’s, during the heyday of Dodd Hall, their rise to fame and their fiery end, and the 90’s, when Krissa and Quinn haven’t spoken in 15 years and she’s divorced from someone else and has four boys, and she and Danny only speak once a month. As you inch forward with Dodd Hall’s story, you learn piece by piece what happened to them and how it affects Krissa, Quinn and Danny’s lives now. You read about the love story of Krissa and Quinn, the twisted triangle between Danny, Quinn and Krissa, and what happens when too much weight is placed on one side of that triangle. You learn how fame affects even the smallest aspects of a person’s life and how easily it can destroy everything, how fragile trust is, and how easily it can go up in smoke when manipulation enters the picture. Throughout the book are “excerpts” from “articles” in Playboy, Rolling Stone, and books on rock ‘n’ roll that really add that extra punch of realism to the story.

This is a story rich with emotion and description. At times, the writing gets a little flowery with the metaphors, but they still work well within the story to show the depth of the beauty of Krissa and Quinn’s love- before it all fell apart, of course; their breakup, if it can even be called that, was absolutely devastating to me when I first read it. I might’ve actually cried, and I know it at least made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t until reading this as an adult that I fully understood exactly why Krissa did what she did and how trapped she must’ve felt. Struggling to find my identity after the birth of my daughter helped me relate to Krissa’s desperation for an identity outside the confines of Dodd Hall. The music, the fame, the love, the search for self, it all comes together to make such a wonderful, perfect book.

I never quite understood Danny when I was younger, and he’s still not my favorite. I was more like good-girl rule-follower Krissa. The book often talks about how working with your hands is soothing for the soul, and I smiled as I re-read that; it’s something I’ve incorporated into my life as an adult, but I hadn’t remembered that it came from this book (particularly the scene where Krissa’s making pierogies…which is also something I make by hand, and which I learned *could* be made by hand by reading this book. Don’t @ me, I never actually tried them until I was at least 18 and that was at college, and they definitely weren’t homemade then!). And Quinn… He was as close to a perfect romance novel hero as my sixteen year-old heart could have imagined. Rereading this helped me to realize how much Kathleen Gilles Seidel has influenced my own writing. This reread was a pure joy for me.

I own a paperback copy purchased from a used bookstore years ago, as my original copy was unfortunately lost; its pages are yellowing and the ink is a bit faded, but I will treasure it forever. Physically, the book has been out of print for years, but if you’re lucky enough to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited (I do not), you can read this book there, or pay a mere $1.99 to read it. (Many thanks to my friend Sandy for pointing this out! It gives me SO much joy knowing that people can still continue to experience the magic of this book.)

It’s been almost twenty-four years since I first read Till the Stars Fall, but the story hasn’t lost its shine for me. If you’ve read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. Or, alternately, do you have a book like this, one that you keep coming back to over and over again, that never loses its luster? What makes that book so special for you?

Visit Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s website here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge was (cue ominous music) a western. I’ve never really been a fan of that particular genre; ranching and horses and cows don’t interest me in the slightest. I had been planning on reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, but then I realized it was over 900 pages and noped out of that. Don’t get me wrong, I love big books, but my pandemic-exhausted brain seriously cannot right now. (I’ll put that one on the back burner for later, because everyone I’ve ever heard speak about that book has raved about it, so I’ll get to it at some point.) Fortunately for me, my library’s version of the Libby app had a section of all the western ebooks they own, including a whole lot of romances, which I hadn’t even thought to consider. Sure, let’s do that. After scrolling for a bit, trying to find one that both interested me AND wasn’t checked out (apparently herding cattle in Texas is a majorly popular fantasy?), I finally basically gave up and chose Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2013).

Laura’s sister has gotten herself into gambling trouble- AGAIN- so after asking a wealthy cousin to help with a loan to pay off her debts, Laura’s taken a job at billionaire Colton Nelson’s ranch in order to pay back the money she owes. Poor Colton’s had women throwing themselves at him since he won the lottery a few years ago, so his employees (including Laura’s cousin) come up with a plan: have Laura and Colton pretend that they’re dating so that Colton is finally left in peace. Laura’s not thrilled with this, but her cousin sweetens the deal by allowing her to talk to her sister in gambling addiction rehab, so she begrudgingly agrees.

They pull the scam off, presenting themselves to the tonwsfolk as a couple head over heels in love…maybe a little too well, since it’s not long before they’re sucking face for real. Laura’s not sure what she really wants, other than her independence; Colton doesn’t need a woman, but he’s sure enjoying this one. Throw in a handful of quirky ranch employees and family members, including a mercurial 16 year-old, and everyone has an idea of what Laura and Colton should be. But their relationship is something they’ll have to figure out themselves…

Ehhhhhhhhh. Didn’t love this one. It was readable, I’ll say that. I didn’t buy the chemistry between them at all, especially in the beginning, since it was based on things like, “OMG, we both enjoy the same obscure flavor of Sno-Cone!” …really? That’s what you want to build your relationship on? I didn’t see each character as that much of a catch, either. Laura’s personality is based on being a hard worker and also bailing her sister out at every turn (and her trust issues); Colton…also had trust issues, but didn’t seem to have all that much of a personality beyond that.

And then there was a scene when Colton was dressed in “cutoff denim shorts, boots, and the shirt he’d worked in that day, unbuttoned.” Uh…I don’t think that’s quite the super hot look the author thinks it is; all I could think of after reading that was, “This guy is definitely auditioning for The Village People.” (My own father used to mow the lawn in cutoff jean shorts in the late 80’s. It was…a look.)

Follow that up with the fact that there’s ZERO CONDOM USAGE in this book. HOW ARE ROMANCE AUTHORS STILL DOING THIS IN 2020? Well, okay, I looked at the copyright when I read this and it was published in 2013- so still, NO EXCUSES! Consent is sexy. Protection is sexy. If you can write, you can find a way to make keeping your partner safe hot, because otherwise, all I’m thinking when I read scenes like that is, “Someone is definitely getting that strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.” That, and, “And somehow they’re still going to be soooooooooooooooooooo shocked when she turns up pregnant.” Neither of which happened in the happy-flower-kittyland of this book, but reality? Yeah, no one likes the consequences of unprotected sex. Romance authors, wrap those fictional penises up, please.

And one more nitpicky point of contention. If your first sex post-coital pillow talk includes the phrase, “We worked up an appetite, didn’t we?”, I don’t know there’s a woman in the world that’s going to find this endearing.

As far as romances go, I found this lukewarm at best. Someone must like it; Carolyn Brown has written what looks like zillions of books, so these kinds of things must work for some readers, but I’m not one of them. If you’ve read any of her other books and enjoyed them, I’d love to hear about it. I don’t want to turn away from an author after not enjoying one book (unless the book was hella problematic, and then I’ll absolutely flee). The writing here was usually okay, but the story and the characters were what didn’t work for me. If you have a Carolyn Brown book that worked for you, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Carolyn Brown’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt

Another prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge directed me to choose a book with more than 20 letters in its title. No problem! I went straight to my Goodreads TBR for this one, poked around, counted letters in a few different titles, and came up with The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt (Wendy Lamb Books, 2010), which clocks in at 22 letters. Success, and one more book down from both this challenge and my TBR. I love when that happens.

Levi Katznelson’s brother is coming back from the Marines. It was a shock to his entire family when Boaz signed up; everyone had been expecting him to choose one of the many colleges that had been after him, but Boaz has always had a mind of his own. His three years of service have changed him, however, and it’s evident upon his return that something is deeply wrong. Boaz retreats to his room, sleeps, uses the computer, and does little else. Levi’s bewildered; what happened to Boaz over there? Why is he like this now?

When Boaz disappears after claiming to leave to hike the Appalachian Trail, Levi knows something is up, and with the aid of his best friends, he joins Boaz on his mystery trip. He’s bound and determined to understand this stranger who has replaced his brother, but how will he manage this when Boaz can barely even look at him, much less speak?

Oof. What a heavy, important book. Dana Reinhardt has captured the hurt and confusion of a younger brother who doesn’t quite understand what his older brother is going through, and whose parents feel powerless to intervene. What do you do when the brother you always admired comes back a different person, one who is clearly suffering, but whom you can’t even get a single word out of? Boaz has been deeply affected by the things he’s done and seen during his time in the Middle East, but since the military deemed him healthy enough to successfully re-enter civilian life, his parents feel as though he just needs time. Levi, less optimistic than his parents, isn’t so sure.

My favorite character out of the whole book had to be Dov, Levi and Boaz’s cantankerous yet loving Israeli grandfather. He pulls no punches but cares deeply for his grandsons, and he adds a bit of levity and gruff, warm fuzziness to the story. Levi’s a bit of an EveryTeen, conflicted about the war, not quite sure he understands the purpose of it, unable to decide if he’s pro- or anti-war, but concerned for how much it has obviously affected his brother. He’s always been a little bit in Boaz’s shadow, and having Boaz retreat from life, leaving Levi alone, is new territory for him. In The Things a Brother Knows, Levi’s forced to grow up quickly and learn a few things about the realities of war and its affects that he never thought he’d need to know.

Sad book with a hopeful ending, but it’d be excellent reading for teens with a sibling or a parent in the military, or for teens considering the military as a career or life path. I’m in favor of people understanding all the potential outcomes of what they’re getting into (and I say this as someone who was a military wife for six years). Boaz came back physically unharmed, but emotionally, that was a different story, and Ms. Reinhardt adroitly illustrates that war isn’t just about the injuries you can see, and that it doesn’t just affect those who serve.

Visit Dana Reinhardt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.

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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. 😉

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.



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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.