fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Life’s Too Short (The Friend Zone #3) by Abby Jimenez

My wish was granted, my wish was granted! I’ve never actually wished for a book on Netgalley before, but I adore Abby Jimenez so very much that I decided to take a chance on her Life’s Too Short (Forever, 2021), the latest installment in her The Friend Zone series. I loved the first two books so very much that I wanted to sink my claws into this book as soon as possible, and to my massive surprise, the publisher granted my wish. Thanks, Forever and Netgalley. If you’ve loved Abby Jimenez’s other books in the series, get ready to fall even harder…or, if you’re looking for a new author to swoon over, Abby Jimenez is one you cannot miss. Life’s Too Short is amazing.

Vanessa Price, well-known YouTube travel vlogger, has been sidelined by the unexpected. Her addict sister has abandoned her newborn with her, and Vanessa is struggling (hey, newborns are tough!). Her bedroom wall apartment neighbor, hot workaholic Adrian, steps in to help her out one morning at 4 am, and the rest is history. The two start up a symbiotic friendship: Vanessa gets some help with the baby, Adrian finally gets to experience a life outside of work, and, despite vowing to remain just friends, the two of them inch closer to a five-alarm blaze of a relationship.

But things are complicated. Vanessa might be dying. The women in her family are cursed with a familial gene that triggers early-onset ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Both her mother and her sister died with/from it, and Vanessa’s chances are about 50% of having it, too. It’s why she became a travel vlogger, determined to see as much of the world and squeeze as much out of life as possible before dying young. Adrian doesn’t quite understand how dire things are for her, and when he does learn the truth, it’s nearly too much for him to handle. Can Adrian find a way to live life- however much is left of it- on Vanessa’s terms?

This. Was. Adorable. Despite the heavy subject matter- death and dying are always looming in the background, whether it’s the memories of Vanessa’s mother and sister, or Vanessa’s potential demise- Abby Jimenez manages to keep this a light, optimistic read. Her characters are vibrant, brimming with life and energy, bursting off the page in a manner that puts her writing on my list of insta-buy authors. Vanessa is determined, buoyant despite her circumstances, and yet not so optimistic that she seems unbelievable. Her odds of dying from ALS have forced her to define in exact terms what she wants out of life and the direct route to getting it. She doesn’t have time to beat around the bush; her directness and persistence, rather than making her brash, portray her as confident and courageous. She’s someone the reader immediately wants to spend time with- whatever time she has.

Adrian is a fabulous hero. He’s capable and confident, a little gun-shy from having been burned by his recent ex, but not so damaged that his heart isn’t open to Vanessa. But- and this is HUGE- he doesn’t pursue her, because early on, she tells him she doesn’t date, and he respects that. SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON. As if a hot lawyer who takes charge and figures out why your baby is screaming and takes over so you can go shower for the first time in days isn’t already amazing enough! Hello, I’d like to order one of those, please! He’s not without his flaws, big ones that will eventually put him and Vanessa at what initially appears to be insurmountable odds, but…love finds a way. Or at least it does in romance novels like this, and that’s more than enough for me.

I loved this. I love this series, I love this author. Abby Jimenez has a way of creating characters who, for the most part, don’t need to worry about money (because that can bog a story down, so giving characters financially lucrative careers is definitely a nice tactic for an author to get that out of the way) but who don’t seem unrealistic, and who don’t let their financial status define them. Even though her stories often deal with tough subjects (infertility, grief, death), she approaches each topic in a way that breaks it down enough to seem manageable, greeting every theme with a can-do attitude and a supportive cast of characters that make even the unfathomable seem not so bad. If I could have any author pen my life story, I’d want Abby Jimenez on the job.

Huge thanks to Forever and NetGalley for providing me with an early copy of this book. Life’s Too Short is available on April 6, 2021, and I highly suggest you check it out. While it’s part of a series, it would read just as well as a stand-alone, but really, you want to read the other books in the series as well. They’re just as fabulous.

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.

Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.

RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.

This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.

His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)

This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I’ve had The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (Salaam Reads, 2019) on my TBR list for ages, both because the premise sounded intriguing and also because Hanna Alkaf is wonderful on Twitter (you really should follow her!). It was never in at the library when I checked…and then I finally realized it wasn’t shelved under Alkaf, Hanna, but under Hanna, Alkaf. Whoops. (I’ll ask the library worker about that when I return it, because this needs to be easier to find.) Once I realized the mistake, I located the book and slipped it into my bag.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. You’re probably also familiar with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, and maybe you’ve even learned about the Armenian genocide. But what do you know about what happened in Malaysia on May 13, 1969 and the days that followed? I knew nothing, had never even heard about it (have I ever even read a book set in Malaysia before this? I honestly don’t think so), and that’s one of the reasons I knew I had to read this book.

Melati has OCD in a time where there’s no word or phrase to describe her incessant need to count, usually in groups of threes, in order to protect the people she loves. She pictures the forces compelling her to count as a djinn, cackling at her distress to appease him. It started after her father died; her mother, already stressed over the loss of her husband, doesn’t know how to handle her daughter’s mysterious and shameful problems, and so Melati works hard to hide her compulsions from her.

So life is already tough for Melati, and then the world around her explodes in violence. Separated from her best friend by a group of men wielding knives and wearing sinister smiles, she has no knowledge of where her mother is, no ability to get home, and no idea if she’ll survive the bloodshed. As the bodies pile up in the streets, Melati will need to depend on the kindness of strangers and her own quick wit to not only defeat her own djinn but the evil and hatred that has suddenly pervaded her society.

Ms. Alkaf begins the book with a necessary content warning (told you she’s awesome); this is not an easy book to read for so many reasons, but I think it’s a necessary one if you have the mental space for it. There are a lot of parallels to things going on today, of the way far too many people view those different from them, and the events described in this book are devastating and worrying as a potential conclusion to those levels of hatred. Melati’s OCD is also tough to read, in that it causes her so much distress. I’ve dealt with some OCD tendencies (which were much worse when I was young), so reading her struggles made me want to scoop her up and hug her.

Her growth throughout the novel is admirable and inspiring; it’s hard-fought and incomplete, since OCD is a beast that must be continually tamed, but it’s real. And as in real-life crises, there are no full conclusions, just a sober understanding (as much as that can be possible) of what happened, along with the determination to carry on while never forgetting those who have been lost. It’s heartbreaking and should be eye-opening to any reader, imploring them to examine their biases, delve deeply into their prejudices, and pick apart the reasons why they believe the things they do. Because the outcome of hatred and prejudice is often devastation and death, and at this point in history, with far too many painful examples to illustrate the point for us, we should be better than that. Ms. Alkaf has penned a fictional account of real history that serves as a warning point; don’t let this happen to you, to your country, to anyone.

Excellent book; highly recommended. Just wait until you’re in a good mental space so you can fully process this story, because it’s heavy.

Visit Hanna Alkaf’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Another reading list treasure! And my library had it. Seriously a great thing, what with interlibrary loan still not being entirely functional. (I’ve gotten one book via interlibrary loan since it kind-of-sort-of went back to normal, but I’ve heard the librarians say that not all libraries are participating in it yet, plus book quarantine recently extended to seven days due to the fact that they’re learning that items like board books and graphic novels carry the virus longer, according to a librarian friend, and if they stack the books, apparently the virus lives on the surface longer, so I’m not going nuts with my requests.) Our Year of Maybe by Rachel Lynn Solomon (Simon Pulse, 2019) popped up on a list and sounded amazing to me, and onto the TBR it went. Fortunately, it didn’t have to spend too much time there. 😉

The story begins just before Sophie donates a kidney to her lifelong best friend Peter. Peter’s been sick all his life; Sophie, who’s been in love with him for years, knows that this sacrifice she’s making will mean a more normal life for him, and will bind the two of them together forever. It’s harder than she thought; the pain is intense and lingers long after her incision heals, but Peter’s able to return to public school for the first time in years and Sophie is thrilled that he’s actually able to live.

But life post-transplant is a little different than both of them expected. Life has always been Sophie-and-Peter; now that Peter’s healthier, the two of them have to figure out who they are on their own. Peter’s growing and changing and exploring his options, and Sophie…may have to push herself a little. Or a lot. And her feelings for Peter haven’t changed, but the fact that she gave him an entire organ has complicated things massively. Nothing ever stays the same, and this will be a year of extreme change for Sophie and Peter.

My goodness. This is a lovely, emotional, heartfelt book. Peter’s been suffering from kidney disease since he was young; an earlier transplant failed and dialysis keeps him alive. Sophie knows that donating a kidney to him will help him live a healthier life, but she also knows it’ll tie the two of them together forever, something that appeals to her deeply because of how in love with Peter she is. Peter, who once had a crush on Sophie in middle school, has figured out that he’s bisexual. The new kidney he received from Sophie is giving him a freedom he’s never known before, and he’s feeling a little guilty that he’s exploring so many new things and leaving Sophie behind. The kidney donation, while tying them together, has also complicated their friendship massively.

Ms. Solomon has masterfully woven an emotional account of a friendship that’s entangled by health problems, love, and codependency. Sophie and Peter both nearly leap off the page and you’ll be sighing with sadness and cringing as they make some painful decisions. Peter’s history of kidney disease affects every part of his life and Ms. Solomon affords him dignity while never shying away from the more difficult realities of what his life has been and may be in the future. Even with Sophie’s donor kidney, his future is far from certain, and the reality of this pervades the book (and was like a punch straight to the heart when I read it) and affects everything. Sophie has a little bit of maturing to do, but she’s spent her whole life giving in to what Peter wants, and it’s hard watching her struggle with Peter growing and not needing her as much.

Our Year of Maybe is a bit of a tearjerker for so many reasons. The intricacies of Peter and Sophie’s friendship will yank hard at your heartstrings, but it’s still an easy read that doesn’t necessarily make you work too hard (and I know focusing is an issue for a lot of people right now). It’s a story that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. I haven’t read Ms. Solomon’s other books, but I have You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone on my TBR, and I’m entirely ready to sob buckets over that one.

Visit Rachel Lynn Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

One of the things 2020 has taught me is to balance my reading better, that it’s better on both my mental health and my stamina and ability as a reader to inject plenty of lighter books among the heavier subjects. Although I’m still drowning in the all-my-books-came-in-at-once deluge, it was actually a pretty good thing that my library notified me that my copy of The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren (Gallery Books, 2020) had come in about eight weeks ahead of schedule. I needed something on the lighter side after finishing Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Carey has worked for home decor and redesign power couple Melissa and Russell Trip since she was 16; at 26, she’s given a huge amount of her time and talent to them and it’s a bit like trying to keep an angry hippo on a leash at this point. They’re *not* getting along, and with a new show and, of all things, a new book about how to have a great marriage, things are in serious trouble, especially since she and Russ’s new assistant, James, just discovered Russ balls-deep in their last show’s host. OOPS.

Now Carey and James have been thrown together in order to supervise Melly and Russ on their book tour. Carey’s not so sure about this; James isn’t exactly her cup of tea, but after being stuck with him in such a small space and with the common goal of keeping their bosses from destroying their own empire, they find themselves falling for each other. As Melly and Russ fall apart, Carey and James grow closer, but it’s a precarious kind of closeness when the stakes are *this* high…

Cute book. Carey has been with Melly and Russ since she was a teenager; they seem to have somewhat took over some parenting duties and given her opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have. Between that and the fact that she suffers from dystonia, a neuro-muscular disease (for which she needs the insurance they provide), she feels a loyalty to them that won’t allow her to envision more for herself. She’s somewhat trapped in an uncomfortable, semi-abusive relationship with her employers from which she’s not safe enough to leave, and that sums up a lot about what it’s like to be young-ish and employed in the US today, unfortunately.

James is a bit stodgy and self-important at the beginning. He’s an engineer who got shafted by his last employer shutting down due to white-collar crime (I hate that term; it’s insulting. Rich upper-class crime, let’s call it), and he needs this job to improve his now-dismal resume. He was hired on to be an engineer for Russ and Melly, but he was almost immediately shoved into the role as Russ’s assistant and it’s obvious he feels he’s too good for the role. That might have been why I didn’t get immediate warm fuzzies over him like I do about the majority of Christina Lauren heroes. He does come around to value Carey for who she is and what she’s contributed to the brand, but the whole attitude of “I’m too good/educated/classy for this job” is an instant turn-off.

Melly and Russ are a hot, hot mess. They’re a Chip-and-Joanna Gaines-like couple and Russ is absolutely over Melly’s famewhoring, claw-her-way-to-the-top-and-drag-my-husband-behind drive. He just wants to build things and drink beer and watch sports, and this causes him to make some terrible decisions. There’s no excuse for infidelity like that, even if Melly is basically the Cruella de Villa of the design world. I felt bad for him for putting up with so much for so long, but he also let Melly steamroll Carey and let some bad stuff go down for years that he knew wasn’t right (trying not to spoil anything here!), so I had plenty of issues with him too. So while they were both kind of terrible people…they’re well-written. They’re both constantly screwing up and showing their worst selves, and then they let a bit of decency peek out so you can’t entirely loathe them, just mostly.

I didn’t love this the way I’ve loved some other Christina Lauren books- again, I think James’s initial snobbery ruined that for me a bit- but it was a nice read that helped break up some tougher books. I saw that Christina Lauren’s next book is a Christmas-themed one, and honestly, I’m kind of ehhhhhhhh about that. I’ll still end up reading it at some point, I’m sure, but Christmas books don’t really call to me that much. If you’ve read an ARC of it and loved it, though, I’d love to hear about it!

Visit Christina Lauren’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

Follow Christina.

Follow Lauren.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez

I am currently suffering from the wonderful problem of having all my books come in at once, and that problem began with the arrival of my library ebook copy of The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez (Forever, 2019). This book hadn’t been on my radar prior to this spring/summer, but as soon as I heard about it on an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, I hit the want-to-read button and requested it from the library. There was a months-long wait; no problem, I thought, I have no problem virtually standing in line.

And then, of course, everything comes in months before, all at the same time. I’m not complaining…

Kristen is long distance dating a military man who’s due to get out in a matter of weeks and who will be moving in with her, but instead of being excited, she’s hardcore freaking out. How is he going to fit into her life? How will Tyler deal with her constant heavy, painful periods that have pushed her to having a hysterectomy soon? He’s not even the type of guy who feels comfortable making a run for tampons… Kristen’s not feeling great about their future, and then she meets Josh.

Josh is the station’s newest firefighter, best friend to Kristen’s best friend’s fiancé (got that?). After their meet-cute fender bender, sparks fly between them and Josh is in, but Kristen, determined to be faithful to Tyler, keeps him at arms’ length…especially after he talks about wanting a ton of kids. That’s not something she’ll ever be able to give anyone, and thus there’s not even the slimmest chance, even if she were single. Which she isn’t.

But things keep heating up between them, and when the universe yanks away the final barrier, Kristen finds herself in Josh’s arms. It’s everything she could have dreamed of, but how could she be so selfish as to deprive Josh of what he wants most in this world? When tragedy strikes, they’ll have to figure out where each of them stand, and how to move forward in a world where everything has changed.

Wow, are reviews ever mixed on this one! While I enjoyed the book, I totally understand why.

Kristen. She’s bold, brash, in-your-face, doesn’t take crap from anyone…except her overbearing, dragon-lady of a mother. She’s been managing a long-distance relationship with Tyler the Marine for the past two years. She runs her own business designing clothing and items like stairs and doghouses for small dogs. She’s always there for her best friend Sloan, and at 26, fibroids and extremely heavy, painful periods that last for weeks on end are pushing her to a partial hysterectomy. She won’t be able to have kids, something that doesn’t seem to bother her too much until she meets Josh, Sloan’s fiancé’s best friend. The attraction between Kristen and Josh is strong from the beginning, but when he starts talking about wanting a whole passel of biological kids, Kristen knows there’s no hope there, not even if she were single.

Kristen’s inability to talk to Josh about her upcoming hysterectomy is the key problem in this story. If she had been open and honest from the beginning and laid out the facts- I’m having surgery in a few months to remove my uterus- it would have spared everyone a lot of drama. Instead, she choses to avoid that conversation entirely. I see a lot in writing circles on Twitter and in books on writing that if the problems in your book can be solved by a single conversation, your plot isn’t strong enough, but I think Ms. Jimenez’s writing in this story is strong enough and her characters are complex enough that they’re able to carry the book despite this.

Infertility is a huge theme in this book- Kristen’s acceptance of and struggle with it (because both can be true at the same time). It seems like a lot of readers didn’t enjoy the ending; I’m on the fence about it. I understand why the author wrote it the way she did, it’s not entirely unheard of and I know a handful of people who have experienced something similar, but it can also be a giant slap in the face to people in Kristen’s shoes. If you’re struggling with infertility, have struggled in the past, or love someone going through these struggles, this may not be the book for you.

Josh as a hero is pretty great. He unknowingly puts his foot in his mouth about wanting biological kids, pushing Kristen to clam up about her upcoming surgery, but he’s swoon-worthy as a love interest, always looking out for Kristen and taking care of her and anticipating her needs. It’s Kristen’s upbringing at the hands of her demon mother that has rendered her unable to believe that she’s worthy of such care that forces her down the road of problem-avoidance, a detail that I think deserved a little more attention throughout the story, but Josh handles this admirably.

However, I didn’t care for how often Josh veers into ‘she’s not like other girls’ territory with Kristen; he never outright says it, but it comes dangerously close and that made me uneasy. I had thought romance was past that by now, but apparently not?

That said, I did like this. Josh and Kristen are fun together, and their chemistry is off the charts. There’s a major content warning for sudden death, though; if you’re struggling with grief, wait until you’re feeling stronger and ready to read about this topic before picking up this book. These chapters felt like a punch to the gut for me, so I can only imagine how much they would affect someone whose pain is fresh and raw. Take care of yourself.

I enjoyed The Friend Zone enough that I already have its follow-up, The Happy Ever After Playlist, on hold at the library. And that’ll probably come in in about ten seconds…

Visit Abby Jimenez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.

fiction

Book review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

On rare occasions, books from my TBR match up with books from my reading challenges, and then we celebrate!!! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads wasn’t hard to fill, but I used this category as an excuse to read Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (Avon, 2019). I adore Ms. Hibbert on Twitter, so I added this book to my list before it came out- meaning, this was a TBR book I actually got to before it had lingered on the list until it was old enough to drive! (Speaking of which, I need to go in and clean up my list again. Haven’t done that in a year or so, so it’s definitely time, just to make sure I still really want to read everything that’s on it.)

Chloe Brown needs a life. Ever since her diagnosis of fibromyalgia years ago, Chloe’s let her life dwindle down to work, her sisters and family, managing her pain, and little else. First on the list, move to her own place: check, and unfortunately, it’s one with a majorly hot super, one Red Morgan, whom Chloe was not prepared for and for whom she can’t control her attraction. But maybe, just maybe, he can help her complete at least some of the tasks on her list…

Red Morgan was expecting Chloe Brown to be more of a snob, but he’s actually starting to enjoy her surprisingly witty personality right along with her gorgeous face. He’s out here working as a super to get his life back in order after his last relationship tanked badly and left him scrambling for a sense of self. Red and Chloe are two very different people from different sides of the tracks, but they’ve got enough in common to make a go of it, and enough sparks to start a five-alarm fire. If only they can get past themselves and the ghosts of their pasts…

I had a hard time getting into this one, something I fully blame on the state of my brain at the time I was reading this, because the book itself is a delight. Red is just a little bit bad boy (tattoos, motorcycle, comes from a lower class than Chloe, something that is occasionally a point of contention between them but never as much as it was between Red and his last girlfriend), but he’s also got heart and a killer talent as an artist. He’s a study in contradictions and the unexpected, and he’s also just so GOOD. He notices even Chloe’s tiniest grimaces of pain and reacts accordingly (uh, JEALOUS HERE. SUPER, SUPER JEALOUS); he cooks for her, helps her when she needs it (and lets her manage if she can or wants to), he takes care of her. Talia Hibbert has really created a fabulous hero in Red Morgan.

Chloe Brown has retreated from the world, something I could definitely identify with. My back (which is my catch-all term for where my pain is; it starts about mid-spine and goes down, affects my entire pelvis but mainly on the right side, and goes down both legs to my feet but again, mainly on the right) can go from perfectly fine to rendering me almost entirely unable to walk in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to plan for things- who wants to schedule something you might have to cancel? How can you make long-term career plans if you’re not sure your body will cooperate? The pain is bad enough some days that I have a difficult time focusing; I liken it to trying to watch something on the TV when you also have the radio blasting at full volume. In that aspect, Chloe and her life were familiar to me. When she realizes there’s a problem, that her life has gotten so small as to be ridiculous, she takes charge and creates a list of all the things she would like to do in order to throw herself back into living, something I admire deeply. I had a similar plan this past year to engage with the world more (which is probably why this whole pandemic started! Sorry ’bout that…)- I’ll get back to all of that one day…

It’s a nice change to see chronic pain represented in a romance, although I constantly wondered throughout this book how it would have played if the characters were American instead of British. Insurance would have been a huge stressor for Chloe (and the stress may have exacerbated her condition); she would have worried about how to pay for all her medical appointments and prescriptions and may have worried about her increasing medical debt; it’s possible that Red may have factored in his ability to support her and pay for her medical care into his decision to begin or continue a relationship with her (in the US, people on disability, which often includes being on Medicaid, lose their disability and medical care if they get married, which forces many of them to remain unmarried against their desires). In a country where medical care for a chronic problem means money, money, money, this story may have looked different, and it made me sad to consider this while reading what was, in the right setting, a love story and not a tale of financial stress. Amazing how easily something meant to be fun takes on different dimensions when you change the setting.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a sweet love story between two people who, on the surface, don’t seem to fit, but who work together quite well once they get over themselves. The second book in the series, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, comes out on June 23, 2020!

Visit Talia Hibbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Not If I See You First- Eric Lindstrom

My favorite part of reading is getting to live in another person’s head for a while, to experience life from their perspective and see how it differs from my own. It’s fun to meet characters who are just like me, but I prefer it when they’re different from me in some major way and I can see the world anew. That’s definitely something I found in Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom (Poppy, 2015), which I found as a suggestion for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a character with a vision impairment or enhancement (a nod to 20/20 vision, something I definitely do NOT have).

Sixteen year-old Parker Grant’s life probably isn’t what she pictured it would be when she was little. Blinded completely at the age of seven in a car accident that killed her mother, her aunt, uncle, and cousins have now moved into her house after her father’s death via accidental overdose. She’s strong, though. Hasn’t cried yet, and she won’t. Her friend group helps to support her, and running- by herself, in the very early morning!- keeps her sane.

To throw more complications in the mix, her ex-boyfriend Scott, who is an ex for a MAJOR reason, is back in her life, though she’s doing a good job at replacing him with Jason, the nice guy from the shoe store who sold her her latest pair of running shoes. Parker can try all she wants, but she can’t outrun her past or the drama of her present for too long…

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. Parker is…blunt, and that’s putting it kindly. Her personality comes off as brash and inconsiderate, and while I kept reminding myself that this was a teenager who had only recently lost her last surviving parent, it seemed as though this had been part of her personality her entire life and wasn’t a new quirk caused by grieving and trauma. I don’t mind a character with a sharp, snarky personality (such as Julia in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; I felt Erika Sánchez created in Julia a character whose struggles with depression and anxiety played out well in her sharp mouth and shortness with other characters), but Parker’s constant irritability and lack of tact as her sole personality trait grew tiresome to read. While I would expect a teenager who has experienced so much loss in her life to be belligerent and sharp-tongued, we’re rarely given a chance to see any other side of Parker, even in her own thoughts. A little more vulnerability would have gone a long way for me.

That said, I did feel that Parker’s blindness was covered well, and it almost became a character itself but without being a Major Issue. Her blindness just IS, it’s not something to overcome or struggle with, and that was something I definitely appreciated. Her independence (and occasional struggle for it) is strongly featured and was a pleasure to read. A friend once related a conversation she had with a parent of a blind child, and the parent had said the general rule she lived by was that if she expected something of a seeing child that age, she would expect it of a blind child as well. Thus, if she expected her seeing six year-old to scrape off her dinner plate in the trash and rinse it off in the sink, she would expect the same of her blind six year-old. I kept this in mind as I read and was pleased to see that play out, both in all the things Parker can do, the things she *does* require help with, and the nervousness with which her aunt handles her. Her aunt, who probably never expected to be raising her blind niece, doesn’t seem to have done any research or consulted with any experts on how to be her niece’s advocate and ally, and is a character who will get your hackles up in Parker’s defense. Her same-age cousin, however, doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s almost a relief at how normal (though full of tension!) her interactions with Parker are. Her regular friendgroup, however, is perfection.

The two love interests had me scratching my head a bit. Scott, Parker’s ex, doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond his affection for Parker and his desire to help her. Remembering that their major connection occurred when the two of them were in eighth grade puzzled me a bit- I know, I’m an adult reading YA, but even when I was younger, I had the wherewithal to realize that relationships that happen when you’re 13 aren’t exactly the pinnacle of what lifelong romance should be, and so Scott’s dedication as a 13 year-old boyfriend and the way he’s maintained these feelings all these years seemed…a little farfetched. Jason, the shoe store employee, starts out strong, and then fizzles out pretty hard. I wasn’t terribly impressed by either of them, to be honest.

So while I liked this book, or at least parts of it, I didn’t love it as a whole, though I did love the chance to inhabit the world of a blind YA character. One of my favorite books as a child was The Seeing Summer by Jeannette Eyerly, about two girls, one of whom is blind, become friends and then manage to escape a dangerous kidnapping. It’s a middle grade novel, first published in 1981, but my reread ten or so years ago revealed that it had held up decently over time. Other books I’ve read that have featured blind characters or focused on blindness itself include Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings (YA fiction), Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto (nonfiction), and For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind by Rosemary Mahoney (nonfiction). If you’ve got any recommendations here, especially by blind authors, I’d love to hear them! (I know that author Kody Keplinger is legally blind; she’s a fabulous author and a great person in general!)

Visit Eric Lindstrom’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.