fiction · YA

Book Review: Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon

You know that feeling when your TBR is empty and you have absolutely nothing to read, so you’re just wandering around the library listlessly?

Yeah, me neither.

What really happened was this: I had a stack of like five books or so that I needed to read, but my daughter wanted to get some library books, so I took her over, telling myself, “I’m not getting anything for me! I have way to much to read already.”

And then the library had a lovely display of books that included Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Simon Pulse, 2020), whom I LOVE, and, well, it went into my bag, because I have no self-control when it comes to Jewish authors I love. And this was such an excellent moment of weakness, because I ADORED this book.

It’s the last day of high school, and Rowan Roth is ready to finally best Neil McNair once and for all by being awarded valedictorian. She and McNair have been battling it out every single minute of the last four years, each trying to outdo the other for grades, awards, status. The day isn’t starting out great, though; a fender-bender has Rowan slipping into the office late, only to face – who else? – Neil, who works there. Ugh.

The whole last day of school is strange, and when the senior class game – Howl, a Seattle-wide scavenger hunt that will award the last student standing with $5,000 – starts up that evening, Rowan quickly finds herself paired up with Neil, who…maybe isn’t quite as awful as she’s made him out to be the past four years. He’s maybe even kind of cute. And – holy shit- he’s Jewish, too???

What else has Rowan missed???

As the night goes on, Rowan and Neil grow closer, and she learns so much about him that she hadn’t known before, since her focus had been solely on competition. But things change, people change…and with everything else changing at this moment in time, maybe it’s time for Rowan and Neil’s relationship to change as well.

This is such a fun YA novel. Rowan is driven, almost single-minded, and that causes her to miss out on a lot, something she’s only really realizing on this last day of senior year. Her love of romance novels is endearing; I love the growth and openness she attributes to her admiration of the genre, because it makes her a far more interesting character than it would have otherwise. There is one scene I didn’t care for at all; Rowan goes too far and uses something she learned about Neil to lash out and hurt him the way she felt he hurt her, and…it was too far. I was honestly a little surprised Neil moved on from that as quickly as he did. I don’t know that that was a choice I would have made as an author. But really, everything else in this story is perfection; it’s a straight-up love letter to Seattle (a phrase I thought of early on, only to read it in Ms. Solomon’s afterword. *high five*), a city I’ve never been to, but which Ms. Solomon made come alive. I truly felt like I’d spent the day racing around the city with Rowan and Neil.

And Neil! What a great character. Awkward, determined, quirky, hardworking, Jewish – what’s not to love? I had a somewhat similar relationship with a guy friend in high school, though nowhere near as competitive (we were into very different things, for one). This was long before the days of texting, so I had to wonder throughout this book what our texts would have looked like, if they would’ve been as snarky as Rowan and Neil’s (likely worse; we were pretty brutal at times). I enjoyed their friendship and their blossoming romance, and the optimism for the future that this book absolutely bursts with.

Such a great read. Rachel Lynn Solomon absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one.

Visit Rachel Lynn Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility by Rajika Bhandari

I never got the chance to study abroad, but I was friends with people who had, or who were currently foreign students. The amount of courage that takes is incredible, and I’m even more in awe of the people who make the decision to study abroad in today’s political climate. I also have a friend who works with foreign students, and her job always sounds so interesting, so when I heard about America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility by Rajika Bhandari (She Writes Press, 2021), I knew I had to read it.

Rajika Bhandari grew up in a middle-class Indian family. Her parents weren’t rich, but they managed to give her an excellent education at various schools, including boarding school, around the country. When it came time to get her graduate degree, she decided to follow her fiancé to the United States, studying psychology at North Carolina State University. While she’d grown up speaking English, the language was still a barrier. Money was a constant struggle. The locals struggled to understand her foreign-ness, and the culture shock was massive. Studying abroad is a massive change of pace, and Ms. Bhandari illuminates every last difficulty in this eye-opening memoir.

The difficulties don’t end after graduation. Making the decision to return home or stay in the US is a challenge; finding an opportunity to stay is even tougher, with mounds of paperwork and years of waiting (and sometimes employers back out after realizing just how much work it is for them). This all takes a toll on Rajika’s relationship, but it helps her understand the students she later goes on to study and serve.

This is a really great memoir. I had no idea of the sacrifices most foreign students undergo, the difficulties placed in their paths, in order to receive an education in America. And staying in the US after graduation? The entire process sounds like a nightmare; I’m kind of in awe of anyone who makes it work. The US makes this process way more difficult than it needs to be.

This is one of those books that’s going to stick with me, especially the images of Ms. Bhandari’s first small shared apartment, learning to drive, learning to cook and struggling to afford the basics. We ask a lot of our foreign students, making it way harder than it should be merely to survive (my God, the US really seems to delight in that for just about everyone, doesn’t it?). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Visit Dr. Rajika Bhandari’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: Consumed: On Colonization, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber

I’m not a minimalist – you’d laugh if you see how overrun with stuff I am – but my mindset is definitely heading that way. I rarely buy things that take up permanent residence in my house (books being the one exception, of course, and then most of them are read and passed on). It’s because of all of the reading I’ve done over the past ten-plus years about how bad capitalism has been for the planet. We’re trashing it at an insane rate, and the fast fashion industry is a massive part of the problem. I need that constant reminder to keep up my ‘you don’t actually need that’ mindset, so that’s how Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change by Aja Barber (Brazen, 2021) ended up on my TBR. Thanks to interlibrary loan, it landed at my house a few weeks ago. It’s an intense read, with a lot of information, but despite the immediacy of its message, it’s also a fun one.

Aja Barber understands your love of fashion, because she feels it too. She loves clothes, she’s worked in the fashion industry, she gets the pull of a new outfit making you into someone new. But she’s also come to understand the environmental and human damage the industry causes: the waste, the mounds of trash produced every single second, the ooze poured into rivers, the overworked, sexually harassed garment workers, the damage caused to their lungs from inhaled fabric particles and chemicals, the low pay, the death that comes from fires and collapse of poorly-constructed buildings. If you’re into fast fashion, you’re part of the problem. Aja Barber is here to help you learn how to be part of the solution.

This is such a necessary book. I love that there have been so many excellent books in the past decade that expose the fast fashion industry for the nightmare that it is. Ms. Barber keeps the tone light, however (a few of the Goodreads reviews complain about this, but I think they’re confusing lack of editing with Ms. Barber’s style). Don’t be mistaken, however; this isn’t an easy read. There’s a LOT of information here; some of it is the story of Ms. Barber’s journey from fashion fan to fashion industry critic (and yet still a fan! We SHOULD be critical of the things we love!), but the rest is about the dangers of the industry, and the devastation. It’s something all consumers should be aware of, so we can make the most responsible choices possible every time we open our wallets.

Visit Aja Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman

I don’t remember when I learned about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman (Random House, 2021), but I do know it appealed to me right away. A few years ago, I read Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein and really enjoyed it, and that was the book that really opened up my eyes to what the economic landscape of so much of America looks like. I read it as part of a reading challenge; it’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but I’m eternally grateful that I did, and my picking up American Made stems directly from my having read hat book.

So much of the image America has of itself involves people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, getting a job that allows them to work with their hands and earn enough money to live a good life, and to feel pride in what they do. And a large part of this story involves jobs in factories, jobs that you can learn from the ground up and walk into straight from high school, then not leave until you retire at 65. But the landscape has changed. NAFTA opened up the world to trade with Mexico and China, and one by one, these factories picked up and moved overseas. They could pay their employees far less there; operating costs would be less; safety measures wouldn’t be as stringent (thus, upping production); the company wouldn’t have to deal with stupid unions and expensive health insurance. Win-win, right?

Not for the American people who were losing their jobs. The exodus of these manufacturing centers leave the towns they’re located in economically depressed; the former employees are left scrambling to survive. Often, their skills aren’t transferrable, and the only other options for employment leave their pocketbooks nearly empty long before the end of the month. Those jobs most presidents brag about creating don’t often pay a living wage.

Journalist Farah Stockman follows three people who flounder in the wake of the closing of the Rexnord manufacturing plant in Indianapolis: John, a white union head; Wally, a Black man who dreams of opening a barbecue joint; and Shannon, a white woman caring for her disabled granddaughter and schizophrenic son. The moving of the plant to Mexico disrupts their lives in every way imaginable, and the consequences stretch far and wide.

Farah Stockman covers their stories with sympathy and understanding. There are times when the people she follows aren’t entirely sympathetic, but Ms. Stockman never wavers in her work to understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and why they’re reacting and making the decisions they do. Her exploration of the reasons behind Rexnord’s move to Mexico opened my eyes to the long-term consequences of NAFTA, something I hadn’t been fully cognizant of before, and I so appreciate that new understanding. I’ll definitely be reading these stories of plant closings around the US with new eyes from now on.

American Made is an incredible look at the devastation wrought by a more expanded world trade. There are human consequences to what we think of as progress, and it’s so important to understand the whole story. What a great book.

Visit Farah Stockman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Well Matched by Jen DeLuca

I absolutely adore Jen DeLuca. I loved her Well Met, enjoyed Well Played, and have been waiting for her latest book, Well Matched (Berkley, 2021), which I finally checked out of the library this last trip. All the books in this series are set against the backdrop of a town that holds an annual Renaissance Faire, and as someone who has been known to enjoy a good Ren Faire once in a while (still didn’t feel comfortable enough to go this year, sadly), I’ve really enjoyed living in the world of Ms. DeLuca’s stories. Well Matched was absolutely no different.

In Well Matched, we hear from April, the single mother sister of Emily from Well Met. She’s spent the last eighteen years raising her daughter Caitlin on her own, ever since her ex-husband decided he didn’t want to be a dad and walked out on her. It hasn’t been easy, and April has built some serious walls around her heart in order to survive, but she’s managed, and now Caitlin is preparing to graduate high school and head off to college. Finally, April’s real life can begin! She can sell her house and get the hell out of the small town she’s been raising her daughter in.

But first, the house needs to be updated, and that’s where Mitch, the himbo gym teacher of the friend group comes in. He’s there to help her paint and repair, and in exchange, April agrees to pretend to be his girlfriend for a family get-together, so that his judgmental family can finally start to see Mitch as someone who has his life together. The family gathering turns out to be a little more complicated than April expected, though, and so do her feelings for Mitch, who is also turning out to be a little more complex than she originally thought.

When their fake relationship goes from pretend to is-this-really-happening, April’s more than a little panicked: those years of brickwork she’s constructed around her heart are making it more than a little difficult to accept that Mitch’s feelings – and hers– are real, and safe. There’ll be a little heartbreak on the way, but there’s magic at the Ren Faire…

GAWD, I loved this book. I can’t say I loved Mitch or April in the other books, but I ended up absolutely adoring both of them throughout this whole thing. April is prickly as hell, but with good reason, and I truly related to her introvertedness and desire to hide away in her house (something I’m trying to change, but this frickin’ pandemic won’t let me *grumblegrumble*).

Visit Jen DeLuca’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Girl A by Abigail Dean

I somehow missed the nightmare Turpin case when it broke, but I’ve followed it ever since I learned about it (my God. Those poor kids). So when I learned about Girl A by Abigail Dean (Viking, 2021), a novel that seemed like a fictionalized account of the Turpin story, set in Great Britain, it went onto my list. It took for-ev-er for this to actually be in at the library, however; seems as though everyone in my town is just as horrified by that story as I am.

Girl A is Alexandra, or Lex, the eldest daughter and second eldest child of the Gracie family, where eight children were discovered, chained and emaciated, living in unbelievable filth. She’s the one who escaped, who dropped from a second-story window and broke her leg in the process, but who saved her other siblings. Her father poisoned himself before the police showed up, and Mom went to prison; now, at the beginning of the story, Lex is an adult, a lawyer, traveling back to England from New York City, to deal with her mother’s death.

The story jumps back and forth in time, from what happened leading up to the dramatic rescue of the Gracie children, to how growing up in such terrible conditions affected the children as adults. Some have fared better than others; no one has made it out unscathed.

This is a hard book to describe. None of the adult Gracie children are particularly likeable; some of them are a bit frightening in their ability to manipulate. Several are just tragic. It’s hard to get a full read on Lex, since she’s so damaged and deals with that damage by drinking a lot. A revelation later on in the book had me questioning pretty much everything about her, and the murky conclusion didn’t help matters at all.

I enjoyed the storytelling of this novel, but I wish there had been more concrete conclusions, and that it had felt more solid as a whole. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Abigail Dean’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America by Ryan Busse

I had the privilege of attending a virtual presentation a few weeks ago featuring author and activist Ryan Busse, discussing the US’s massive gun violence problem and his book, Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America (PublicAffairs, 2021). I hadn’t been able to get a copy of his book before the talk, but it came in soon after and mirrored a lot of what he spoke about in his presentation. He shared slides, some of which came from testimony he’s given to Congress (like half of them care…), and all of it was shocking and terrifying, like so much in this book.

Ryan Busse grew up loving the outdoors. His father taught his brother and him to hunt and fish, but he shared with them the importance of handling guns safety, and that no gun was worth a human life. Thanks to his strong ties to hunting as a child, Ryan grew up wanting to work in the gun industry and made that happen for himself, securing a position with Kimber and helping the company grow exponentially over his time there.

But Ryan’s goals for the company and where the NRA was steering the firearms industry as a whole began to diverge along the way. Whereas Ryan stood by the values of safety and nature conservation he’d grown up with, the radicalization and violence fetishization the industry pushed, along with its commitment to toxic masculinity and profits above human lives, alienated and horrified him. For years, he fought back from the inside, until the damage was too much for one man to even begin to control.

This is quite a damning look at the firearms industry as a whole and how the NRA has poisoned it along with American politics, and has fanned the flames of xenophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, and violence as a whole, all under the guise of making money. “Who benefits from this?” is an important question to ask when you’re consuming social media of politicians and reporters who are doing their best to drum up fear; the answer is very often the firearms industry, as more and more Americans purchase more and more guns and weapons. It’s a disturbing, sickening industry with no morals or integrity, and it makes me ashamed that we as a country let this happen.

I’m not a gun person; I have no interest in them (I’ve been shooting multiple times in my life and I’m actually a pretty good shot, but it’s not a hobby I’m interested in pursuing), and I can’t say this book did anything to make me more interested in guns as a whole, despite Ryan’s obvious respectful fascination (I did appreciate his devotion to conservation and protecting the lands he obviously cherishes, however!). If you’re not into guns, you should definitely know there’s a lot of information in here about them. I can’t say I’m any better informed about makes and models, but I am walking away with a much better look at how dark the gun industry has become in the US, and how they’re a massive part of the problem, if not the majority of how and why we’re where we are today in the US. It’s shameful, but I’m glad to have this understanding now. I wish everyone understood this.

If you’re looking to shed more light on why the US is such a horrific mess, and you want to know how we got here, with mass shootings every ten seconds and no one doing anything about it, look no further. Gunfight by Ryan Busse will explain it all.

Visit Ryan Busse’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · thriller

Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

I have a love-hate relationship with missing child stories. On one hand, they’re incredibly hard to read. How do you even survive any of that? On the other hand, it’s like a bruise I can’t stop poking at (I blame growing up with Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train blaring on MTV, the pictures of missing children and teenagers running on a loop on the screen every few hours during my early teen years). The Nowhere Child by Christian White (Affirm Press, 2018) ended up on my list as soon as I learned about it; a missing child, a multi-continental story, a weird religious group…yup, I was in.

A strange man shows up in Kim Leamy’s Australian town one day, making claims that she’s not who she thinks she is: she’s actually Sammy Went, who went missing from a small Kentucky town almost thirty years ago. At first, Kim finds his story ridiculous (her late mother, a kidnapper? Hardly)…but then things start to add up, and her stepfather very obviously knows more than he’s saying. When the man reveals himself to be Kim’s biological brother, she knows she needs to figure this all out, so it’s off to America to learn the truth.

The Went family already had deep cracks by the time Sammy was born; father Jack had tried to bury his attraction to men, but that wasn’t working out so well; mother Molly’s fierce devotion to the snake-handling church Jack grew up in and has since abandoned is dividing everyone in the family and pushing Jack even further away. When two-year-old Sammy goes missing, long-hidden secrets come to light, but it’ll take decades before the truth really comes out.

This is a really solid thriller, one that involves a dangerous cult whose devotion to remaining ‘other’ costs lives. Complicating everything are Jack’s sexuality in a time and place that refuses to understand it and thus his need to keep it hidden, teenager Emma’s difficulty with her parents, and, in the current-day sections of the narrative, Kim’s piece-by-piece uncovering of the reality of who she is and how small-town secrets conspired to keep the truth of Sammy’s disappearance under wraps for so long.

The book goes back and forth in time, switching from third person narration by various characters, to first person narration by Kim. This keeps the story moving, but it also serves well to keep the reader on edge, guessing about what really happened, who was really involved, and why. I’m usually pretty bad at figuring out whodunit, but I had this one kinda pegged early on, though the why of it all wasn’t fully fleshed out in my mind until the full explanation appeared in the book. I enjoyed following the characters on their journeys. There are some surprises here, but all in all, this was a good, solid, enjoyable read.

Visit Christian White’s website here.

fiction

Book Review: God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney

I can’t remember where I learned about God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney (William Morrow, 2021), but the premise intrigued me immediately. I’m fascinated by religion, and even fiction with religious twists or drama is enough to pull me in. Usually I swing more towards cults or cult-like settings, but I’m not picky; I’ll take average, everyday religious drama!

Abigail and Caroline are daughters of a famous megachurch pastor, Luke Nolan, who rose to fame years ago after a sermon on purity went viral. Now, Abigail is getting married, Caroline is about to head off to college, and it’s come to light that Luke has been having an affair for over a year. This is major news, bound to affect everyone affiliated with The Hope, Luke’s church, and Abigail and Caroline are directly in the path of the fallout.

Taking refuge at the ranch they inherited from their deceased grandmother, the sisters grow close for the first time as they spend their days trying to understand what happened, how they got here, what exactly growing up with Luke Nolan as a father has done to both of them. More secrets are revealed, and Caroline’s desperation increases as the summer nears an end and Abigail’s wedding inches closer.

I really wanted to love this book, and it was okay. Luke Nolan obviously has some major skeletons in the closet, and both he and his wife, Abigail and Caroline’s mother, were extremely well-written and true to character, easily recognizable if you have even the slightest bit of knowledge or interest in what American evangelical megachurches have looked like over the past twenty or thirty years. Luke is the narcissistic pastor determined to remain in the limelight; his wife, ever-adoring, keeps a smile plastered on her face at all times, despite what it costs her.

Abigail is the quintessential eldest daughter, solid, hard-working, always keeping up appearances like she’s learned from her mother. Caroline, the younger, more forgotten child, has space to wonder, to question, to doubt, and to forge her own path; no one is as dependent on her as they are on Abigail, which is both good and hurtful.

The characters were all well-developed; the plot, or lack thereof at times, was where the book lost me a bit. Drama would build up, and then…nothing. Not much of anything would happen. Any kind of action was sacrificed on the altar of Caroline’s (the narrator’s) inner turmoil (which is likely true to real life, but in fiction, I expect a little more action, you know?). I kept waiting for more things to happen to advance the plot forward, for the realizations the daughters came to to move things along, but it never really happened, and at least one of the daughters is arguably worse off at the end than at the beginning. Not much at all changes, and that just kind of left me feeling flat and uninspired at the end. I didn’t fully dislike this one; I just felt as though it lacked any real purpose at its conclusion. Interesting, yes, but it didn’t follow through enough on its initial promise of drama for me.

Visit Kelsey McKinney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah

Abortion has been in the news lately for obvious reasons, and I wasn’t sure if I had the spoons to read a book about it; it’s not always easy to engage with a subject that’s so important but which is also under assault at the moment. After volunteering with a local organization to pack comfort care bags for our local Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, however, I was ready to pick up You’re the Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion by Dr. Meera Shah (Chicago Review Press, 2020).  

Dr. Shah is a doctor who provides abortion care to patients who seek it out. Because being able to decide when to become a parent is an important part of bodily autonomy, planning one’s future, and in some cases, remaining alive, she is passionate about her work and seeks to help others understand the importance of what she does. Each chapter focuses on one person who, for varying reasons, chose to end a pregnancy; Dr. Shah includes the important medical knowledge necessary to fully understand each situation, and the difficulties that our national climate surrounding abortion adds to what is already often a tense and heartbreaking decision.

The reasons behind the abortion in each chapter are various and complex; from abusive relationships (who wants to be tied forever to a man who has hurt you multiple times???), to a doomed pregnancy where the baby will live maybe minutes after being born (if it survives that long without killing the parent carrying it), to pregnancies that occurred at the worst possible time, to a pregnancy that would render life next to impossible for the entire rest of the family (“Here, person already struggling to pay the rent for you and your three kids! Here’s another new baby; now you can also add $1200+ per month in daycare fees! I’m sure you can handle that!”), there are so, so many reasons why these women choose abortion, and Dr. Shah is respectful of them all, without judgment. Throughout each chapter, she illustrates and emphasizes the importance of being able to examine one’s life and come to the conclusion that becoming a parent (often becoming a parent again) at this moment cannot happen, and how important it is that this procedure remain legal.

So many heartbreaking decisions in this book. Often, the pregnancies were desperately wanted; nature, however, had other ideas about how the fetus would develop, and the parents were faced with the awful knowledge that there was no chance of them ending up with a child even if the pregnancy were continued. At other times, the parents simply realized that bringing a child into their lives was the worst possible thing they could do at the moment. Being allowed to make that decision allowed them to go on to have the lives they wanted – lives that often included, eventually, having more children.

If you’ve never read a book about abortion and are curious as to what could possibly lead a woman to make the choice to have one, this would be an excellent place to start. I’ve noticed that doctors tend to fall into two camps: either they’re terrible writers, or they’re great. Dr. Shah is one of the great ones; her style is engaging and never wanders into stiffy, stodgy medical writing. Her respect for the people she treats is obvious in her gentle handling of the stories in this book, and it’s obvious her patients are lucky to be served by her.