fiction · middle grade

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

I learned about A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion Books/HMH, 2020) a while ago, but while the premise interested me, I learned about it at a time when I wasn’t reading much middle grade, so it never ended up on my TBR. But a trip to the library last week had me walking past a display of books about food from the children’s section, and this book was on there. ‘Wait, I know that book!’ I said to myself as I passed it. ‘Guess it’s time to finally read it!’ And into my bag it went. Dual narrative middle grade. So fun!

It’s the first year of middle school for sixth graders Sara (that’s SAH-rah, not Sarah as in Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Elizabeth, and neither is having the best of times. Sara’s new to the school, having transferred from her small private Muslim school after her parents could no longer afford it; Elizabeth is struggling with friend issues after her best friend has taken up with a more popular girl. It’s Elizabeth who’s enthusiastic about joining the after-school South Asian cooking class club; Sara is only there because her mom is teaching it. Their first interactions are hostile at best, and neither walks away feeling great.

But as their time together in the club increases, Sara and Elizabeth realize they have a lot in common. Both are daughters of immigrant mothers; both are having trouble making the transition to middle school; both are desperately in need of friends. But in order to forge a new friendship, both will have to learn to listen to each other, to form a bridge over what divides them and learn to appreciate what makes each of them unique. A cultural festival and a cooking competition will force them to work together, and what they create at the end will be far more than just a new recipe.

What an enjoyable novel. I love dual narratives, and I can’t remember ever having read one from the middle grade section. Sara is downright prickly at the beginning, and this is completely understandable. She’s a Muslim student at a new school, and it’s not like this country is super understanding about non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Her mother’s accent and unfamiliar-to-everyone-else dishes make her feel like she stands out even more, and her defensiveness, even to the most basic of inquiries, is a learned skill. She’s also carrying the financial stress of her family with her, knowing her mother’s catering business is struggling and costing the family money they can’t afford. She lashes out a few times at Elizabeth, and I wanted to hug her. We don’t make life for immigrants or second gen kids easy at all here.

Elizabeth is struggling with problems of her own. Her grandmother died over the summer and her mother is grieving. Her father travels for work most of the week, leaving Elizabeth and her brothers on their own while Mom knits, listens to podcasts, and cries. Elizabeth is deeply worried her mom is going to return to England and leave the family behind, and to top it all off, her best friend is following in her racist father’s footsteps and making hideous comments about Muslims and immigrants. Cooking club and learning to make delicious food for her family helps with the stress, but she’s not having the greatest year either.

The friendship the two girls forge is fascinating. It’s not an easy one; it takes work for Sara to let down her guard and accept that Elizabeth is well-intentioned; Elizabeth has to learn that Islamophobia is a constant part of Sara’s life, and that it’s also her responsibility to speak out and defend her friend from it. (I really loved the role Sara’s friend from her private school played in this; she’s a super chill character and the voice of reason in their interactions, whereas Sara is more impulsive and fiery.)

Both girls are carrying an enormous amount of stress for their ages, an unfortunately not-uncommon experience these days, and while readers may not be personally familiar with their exact problems, I feel like most middle graders will understand what it’s like to worry about family matters you can’t control.

The authors really worked well together to create two middle school girls who are challenged in a variety of ways, and who begin not quite as adversaries, but as two distinct characters who aren’t necessarily on the same page…but who, with a little hard work and understanding, make it there, and the results are great.

What a fun, meaningful book, from an excellent writing team!

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Laura Shovan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

I’m trying to think back to where I learned about Love at First by Kate Clayborn (Kensington, 2021). Most likely it was mentioned on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast (which I really need to catch up on!). Most of my romance novels come from there, whether they mention the book directly, or just the author, and I decide she sounds like someone I want to read (and then prance off to my library website to see what’s available. I have a Sarina Bowen on my list coming up soon that ended up there for exactly this reason!). Anyhow, I’d been checking the library on a few past trips, but this was always checked out. Last time, it was in!

Will and Nora first meet as teenagers in a way that Will remembers for the rest of his life, for both good and tragic reasons, but they don’t meet again until they’re adults, Nora grieving the death of her grandmother, and Will, now a doctor, struggling to figure out what to do with the apartment he inherited from an uncle he only met once. Their connection is instant and nearly palpable, but things are tense: Nora’s apartment building is her family, the people in it standing in for the close-knit relatives she didn’t have beyond her deceased grandmother, and Will wants to fix up and rent out his unit as temporary lodgings. Nora and the other residents are aghast; Will can’t understand why this is such a big deal.

But as they get to know each other, each begins to soften to the other’s point of view, and the distance between them softens and the pain of the past comes to light. Nora and Will need to learn to compromise and trust- easier said than done, but they’ve got a whole building of family rooting for them.

Sweet little romance novel without a ton of drama. Nora is having a hard time moving on from her Nonna’s death, stuck in her grief and needing to keep everything in the apartment (and apartment building) just as it was, no matter how inconvenient, in order to hang on to the last vestiges of Nonna. Will, who lost both parents by 18, has nothing to hang on to, and he’s been living his life based on a sharp remark about himself that he overheard his distant uncle make the one time he met him years ago. It’s served him well in some ways, but in others, it’s made it impossible to truly live…and that’s a problem when he starts falling for Nora.

There aren’t a ton of ups and downs here; it’s not exactly the most exciting and dramatic romance novel I’ve ever read, but it’s sweet, and it made for a relaxing read in the midst of all the depressing nonfiction I’ve been plowing through lately. I did enjoy the quirky apartment residents. Ms. Clayborn really created a building full of people with distinctive personalities, without venturing into caricature territory- it reminded me a bit of all the Maeve Binchy novels I loved as a teenager. Her supporting characters are always a little off-the-wall and well-defined, and this gave me the same feeling. Despite its bizarre velvet hallway wallpaper, this is a building I would love to live in. (And can I just say, I LOVED that this was set in Chicago! It’s such a great city and there aren’t enough books set here.)

Cute read. I really liked Will as a hero. As someone who really takes other people’s criticism hard, I understood his motivation for shaping his life the way he did.

Visit Kate Clayborn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · suspense

Book Review: A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Despite kidnapping being one of my worst fears, I’m still kind of drawn to fiction about it- I still remember exact lines from reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard in my early 20’s. Maybe my brain feels like if I face it in a controlled setting, it won’t be so bad, and I can figure out how to prevent my own children from experiencing this terrifying fate? Who knows. I’m pretty sure I learned about A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber (MIRA, 2019) from Susan at Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books– she’s fabulous; give her a follow if you haven’t already! It went straight to my TBR, but it’s been checked out almost continuously at my library for the past year. I got lucky with my last library order and was excited to dive into this dual-narrative suspense novel.

Anna has been raised in a fairly isolated fashion by her strict, religious widowed mother. Her life has been small; she hasn’t been allowed to do the things normal kids do thanks to her mother’s rules and overprotectiveness. A secret birthday trip to a local theme park (where she’s never been allowed to go) with her boyfriend (the pastor’s son, of course) brings back some strange feelings and images, though- a ride on a carousel, and the name Emily. Who is Emily? The man who leaves a bizarre letter in her mailbox seems to know, and Anna is positive that the images flashing before her eyes are real. When she discovers a hidden trove of items her mother tucked away long ago, she realizes something is very, very wrong, and that her entire life has likely been a lie.

Rosie’s lived her entire life under the shadow of her kidnapped older sister, a sister who was taken when Rosie was too young to remember. All she knows is parents who have struggled with the disappearance of their firstborn and the pain that infects their every move. When she realizes the trust that has funded the investigation into Emily’s kidnapping is about to dry up, she defies her mother’s wishes and begins looking into things herself. An online messageboard dedicated to crime investigation leads her down a rabbit hole of information, and soon Rosie’s turning up clues that have been long overlooked by authorities. As each girl lives out her own story on separate continents, the drama comes to a head and secrets buried for years come to light.

This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller; there are some tense moments towards the end, but I feel like suspense fits this better. Ms. Barber comes at this with a strong voice; dual narrative (which I love!) can be hard to pull off, but Anna and Rosie have distinctly different voices. Anna’s narrative is stiffer, slightly more formal, a product having been raised by her mother (whose comparison to the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie does not go unnoticed by Anna’s classmates- a comparison she doesn’t quite understand, having been so entirely sheltered). Rosie’s tone is more relaxed, lighter but with the forced maturity of a child having grown up under the canopy of family trauma. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the two girls’ divergent worlds, while still uncovering shocking information alongside of them as the story unfolds, yet never being overwhelmed by too much at once.

There are a few moments I felt pushed the boundaries of being realistic- Rosie’s discovery near the end, the one that convinced her mother of the veracity of her claims, for one- and many questions that are left unanswered, especially by what I felt was an abrupt ending with no follow-up to what was obviously a life-changing moment. How did Anna’s mother manage to do things like enroll her in school without a birth certificate? Did she forge one? How did Father Paul slip under the radar for that long? (I wasn’t buying that Mary was the first or only one he’s traumatized; in this age of the internet, someone out there had to be talking about the Lilies online.) What happened to Mason’s family after his death and what the Lilies did afterwards? Did they not care about what happened to their granddaughter? Did they condone what happened? I have a lot of questions that the book didn’t fully answer, and that left me feeling unsatisfied.

But overall, this is a strong novel about a devastated family, and two teenage girls who are beginning to question who they are and their places in the world against the backdrop of personal trauma. Anna’s mother is creepy as hell, and the way she and Anna lived fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. Despite my ambivalence about the ending, this was absolutely worth my reading time.

Visit Lizzy Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Just Visiting- Dahlia Adler

Making my way through my TBR!

Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler (Spencer Hill Contemporary, 2015) is the second book I’ve read this year by Ms. Adler, the first being Behind the Scenes (whose sequel I will get to! I haven’t forgotten it!). I enjoyed Ms. Adler’s interview on an episode of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast so much that I put two of her books on my TBR, and Just Visiting is the second. It’s been rare for me in the past to read the same author multiple times in a year- I’m more the kind of gal who likes to shake things up and make sure I read a wide variety of writers, but I enjoyed her style so much that I was thrilled to jump back in to another one of her worlds.

As best friends, Reagan and Victoria couldn’t be more different. Victoria, who is Mexican-American, lives a fairly comfortable middle-class life with her clearly-in-love college professor parents. Reagan lives in a trashy trailer park and works a full-time job to help her ne’er-do-well parents pay the bills (and even when she hands over money, it’s never certain the lights will actually stay on). Both girls have big dreams to leave their small Kansas hometown behind, but for very different reasons.

A weekend college visit gives Victoria a taste of the sorority life she’s been craving, and Reagan meets a boy who opens her eyes to the possibility of love after having her heart shredded by her controlling jerk of an ex. But choosing a college isn’t easy, especially when you’re still figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Reagan and Victoria will learn some hard lessons about being true to who they are, even if it means letting go a little.

Just Visiting is another winner from Dahlia Adler. I’m not quite as deep into the YA scene as I once was, but she’s absolutely got her fingers on the pulse of teenagers today, especially in terms of dialogue and emotions. Seventeen is a rough age, the pressures heaped on kids today are unreal, and Ms. Adler nails all of it in Victoria’s struggle to define herself and decide her future, and in Reagan’s world-weary sense of responsibility and desperation to begin living life solely on her terms.

Reagan as a character is deep, raw, and painful to read. Nearly every adult around her has failed her badly, in pretty much every way (and I’m not counting poverty; poverty isn’t necessarily a failing, just a circumstance. There are, unfortunately, far too many people who work full-time and still can’t make ends meet), leaving her drained and mature beyond her years. Her determination to better her life and leave her desolate hometown and irresponsible parents behind is admirable, but it’s her broken heart, along with her pain of being tormented by her classmates, that I think is most relatable. Though he never makes an actual appearance, her ex-boyfriend (along with his family, and Reagan’s parents) is a huge piece of crap (and there’s mention of birth control sabotage on his part here, so beware if that’s a subject that’s upsetting to you), and Reagan is so deeply wounded in so many ways that her distress is nearly tangible. Ms. Adler really does an amazing job of showing teen determination in the face of serious adversity.

Victoria is the breather we need after Reagan’s pain. Though she comes with an uncomfortable backstory of her own, her supportive family and friendship with Reagan have negated the majority of ill affects and she dreams of a future filled with parties and sororities where she’ll finally fit in with the crowd like she’s always wanted. Her entire family is serious #goals, especially her Deaf mother (with whom Victoria communicates in ASL, which I LOVE! I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with just a random Deaf character who isn’t there to show us How Deaf People Live, or How To Overcome Disability- can you tell I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, where books with characters who had a disability were Very Special Lessons? Ugh. Victoria’s mom is just a regular college professor who just happens to be Deaf, along with being super-loving and supportive. HIGH FIVE, MS. ADLER!!!), her long-distance abuela, who I don’t think ever actually shows up in person, but who Victoria references so much that I feel like I know her now too, and her brother Javi, who, though he’s off with the Peace Corps, still manages to stay involved in his little sister’s life. Victoria struggles with knowing what she wants to do and also with wanting to make everyone else happy, something that I think almost everyone can relate to. She’s all of us, with maybe better fashion sense- or maybe that last part is just me. 😉

This is a book about deep, serious friendship, about making decisions that speak to who we truly are as a person, about setting goals and working for them no matter what it takes, about what we shouldn’t have to do but sometimes still do anyway, about the power of friendship and about learning- who we are, what we need, what’s best for each of us. It’s sweet, it’s heartbreaking, and at times, if you’re a decent person and a good human being, you’ll want to kick a few of the terrible small-town side characters somewhere where it’ll count, deeply. (And far from straying towards caricature, Ms. Adler really hits the nail on the head with how awful they are. I’ve known people like that, and…yeah.)

Just Visiting is just a great example of the YA genre. I’m still riding the Dahlia Adler Fan Train after finishing it. 🙂

Visit Dahlia Adler’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · time travel

TheWriteReads On Tour Presents: A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

I fully blame my mother’s stash of time travel romances (so popular in the 80’s and early 90’s!) for my love of a good time travel story, and when I heard about TheWriteReads‘ latest blog tour book, A Different Time by Michael K. Hill (Tangent Press, 2019), the young teenager in me that used to sneak books from the downstairs coat closet leaped up and begged to join in, and who am I to say no when a story deals with communicating with the past???

Keith Nolan has been a little more than down on his luck for a very long time. His parents both died young, leaving him alone, fending for himself in this big lonely modern-day world. His job pays the bills, but it’s not exactly fulfilling, and his social life consists of a single guy friend with whom he eats takeout food and plays video games. No girls to speak of, Keith’s a little too shy and awkward for that. One of the few things in life that does bring him joy is spending his weekends combing flea markets for the comic books that will complete the collection of Uncanny X-Men his father left him. But when he finally manages to complete his collection, Keith is stunned by the realization that he never planned for what to do with his life beyond that. Enter Lindsey…

Or, not exactly. Lindsey, an artist and a dreamer, is trying to figure out her post-high school life in 1989. Her impatient mother isn’t willing to let her take her time, and her skeezy stepfather isn’t making Lindsey’s home situation any easier. Desperate for someone, anyone, to talk to, Lindsey pulls out an old camcorder and begins to record a video journal in the hopes of talking out her problems and getting her life in order.

The discovery of an old VHS-C tape at a flea market has Keith running for the VCR and an adapter tape, because merely touching the tape sends tingles running up his arm. And as the tape plays and Keith watches Lindsey, somehow, some way, the two realize they can communicate with each other. It doesn’t make sense to either of them, but Keith knows this is something special, something life-changing…if only he can track down Lindsey’s other tapes. But how? And will he be too late?

While it’s not traditional time travel, it’s still close enough to make my time travel-lovin’ heart squeal with joy. Keith is a sympathetic character from the start. In the beginning, we see him as a young boy, surrounded by the love of his parents on a birthday trip to New York where he’s saved from being run down in the street by the woman who turns out to be his favorite children’s book author, and the next thing we know, he’s a new adult, still aching over the loss of his parents who died on his fourteenth birthday. It’s easy to ache along with him and root for him as he searches (in some vividly disgusting situations!) for Lindsey’s other videotapes.

Lindsey is just as sympathetic. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce and subsequent move from Hawaii to California, Lindsey is so many of us in the years after high school, unsure of which way to go and which path to take. Her mother has, for all purposes, abandoned her emotionally in favor of focusing on her new and extremely skeezy husband (there’s a content warning here for an attempted assault, along with what skews toward emotional abuse from her mother, so please beware if you’re sensitive to these subjects), and Lindsey’s sadness and confusion make her a character you’ll desperately want to find a happily ever after.

What Keith and Lindsey discover together through the tapes is close to instalove, but it’s magical and spellbinding and otherworldly. Some of the best descriptions of the entire book come when Keith is desperately tearing through flea market dumpsters in a frenzied search for Lindsey’s other tapes. Do NOT eat while you’re reading this section; the phrase “garbage juice” alone should tell you enough of a reason why, and I was applauding Mr. Hill’s ability to create a scene I could practically smell from my comfortable reading place in my (better-scented!) home. It was entirely grotesque, incredibly entertaining to read, and it ended up being my favorite part of the book because of how easily I was transported right into those dumpsters alongside Keith.

This had a completely different ending than I expected it would, which pleased me quite a bit; I love when I think I have everything figured out, but it turns out that I was wrong and the ending is actually far more interesting than the one I was expected. The concept of being able to communicate with someone in the past has intrigued me for years, I even adored it in my childhood- if you’re familiar with the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, that book involved both time travel and communicating with the person with whom Charlotte switched places via letters strategically hidden in a bedpost- but the concept of being able to speak to someone through old VHS tapes was a new (and deeply intriguing!) one to me, and A Different Time has now got me wondering what time travel books will look like in the future when characters travel to and communicate with people of this era. Youtube videos? Files on old jump drives? There are so many possibilities here!

What a fun and ultimately charming book Mr. Hill has written. I’m so happy I got the chance to be a part of this blog tour, and if you’re a fan of books with elements of time travel and a little bit of the supernatural, A Different Time is worth YOUR time.

Thanks for stopping by on this blog tour- huge thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Michael K. Hill for allowing me to take part- and I hope you’ll check out some of the other stops!

Visit Michael K. Hill’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.