fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites

I hesitated for a really long time before putting The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Thwaites (Henry Holt, 2017) on my TBR. Books about the Holocaust are increasingly difficult for me to read; reading isn’t exactly easy right now anyway; and reading a difficult subject right now? Oof. But this was on my list, it was in at the library, and I decided to finally take the plunge. This book is historical fiction based on a real-life story, and these stories deserve to be told and read.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is told by multiple narrators, but its main focus is Dita Kraus, a young teenager who survived the ghetto of Theresienstadt, only to be sent to Auschwitz and, later on, Bergen-Belsen. In Auschwitz, she worked to protect and distribute the eight illegal books prisoners had managed to smuggle in, handing them out to teachers in the family camp’s secret school, repairing them when necessary, getting lost in the pages of several of the books as an escape from the brutal conditions around her.

Surviving each day is a miracle in and of itself, and Dita and her fellow prisoners struggle against impossible odds, watching their friends, family, and neighbors disappear in clouds of ash that flutter down upon the survivors like a devastating snow. The books keep the children learning, they give Dita a sense of purpose and a reason to go on, as the world descends further and further into madness. Fear, hunger, and devastation rule, but Dita carries on, her courage and determination a stark reminder of what it takes to retain our humanity even as the forces of evil remain desperate to choke it out of us.

What a devastating, heartbreaking book. There’s triumph as well, but at such terrible cost. It pained me to read this, to read how casually human life was treated, how easily it was thrown away, especially in light of everything going on in the world today. We’re still ready to throw people away, just in different ways (…mostly…). There’s a scene where, after a selection, ash rains down on the survivors, who recognize that their friends and family who were murdered by the Nazi soldiers will remain forever in Auschwitz, and…It’s a hard read. This whole book is a hard read.

But it’s necessary, and this is a book I recommend picking up when you’re able to handle it. We’re losing Holocaust survivors every day, and soon there won’t be any first-generation survivors left to tell their stories. Even fictional stories that recount the manmade horrors and suffering are important.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is a story of devastation and courage, and it will gut you if you let it- and you should. Only by reading these stories and understanding the devastation of hatred will we be able to recognize its presence in our own times and fight to end it.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

I usually remember where the books on my TBR come from, but as for Pointe by Brandy Colbert (Penguin, 2014), I’m not entirely sure. A fellow blogger? A recommendation on Twitter? A book list? I really don’t know, but that’s okay! I’m glad it ended up on there.

Theo may look like her struggles with anorexia have gotten better, but in this case, looks are definitely deceiving. They were better, and then the news broke: Donovan has been found. Donovan, Theo’s childhood best friend, was abducted four years ago, leaving Theo and everyone in their community traumatized and afraid. What’s worse: when his abductor is identified, Theo realizes she knows him- it’s Chris, the man who was her boyfriend, the one who told her he was 18 to her (at the time) 13, the one who is actually in his 30’s.

No one knew about Theo’s relationship with Chris except for Donovan, and he’s not talking. Theo’s alone with her secret and she’s not sure what to do: continue to keep the secret and maybe her life will remain unchanged and she’ll make that summer ballet intensive with no issues, or tell the truth, change everyone’s idea of who she is, and maybe have to let her dreams of professional dance go? The more she struggles with this dilemma, the more she fights to control her body, the one thing she can control, until Theo’s forced to make a decision, the only one she truly can.

Theo is the kind of character who’s so deeply wounded, yet who tries so hard to hide it, that I just wanted to scoop her up and hug her and cry through the whole book. She’s carrying so much pain, from being victimized by Chris (and she doesn’t yet realize that she’s been victimized), to the guilt she feels over Donovan’s disappearance, to the many secrets she’s kept for so long. Dancing helps dull the pain, but it comes out in the many poor decisions she makes- there’s some drinking and drug use here (not a lot, but enough that it was stressing me out worrying about the effects on her health and her dance career), the choice she makes to begin restricting her food intake again, and the relationship she strikes up with Hosea, the drug-dealing bad boy musician, who has a girlfriend whom he refuses to break up with. Ms. Colbert has created a marvelously complex character in Theo, one who remains sympathetic and deserving of the reader’s care even as she spirals under the weight of her stress.

She’s got a fantastic group of friends- Sarah-Kate and Phil are absolute dreams. Even as they disagree with Theo’s choices, they still support and love her. Ruthie, Theo’s main competition at dance class, pulls out a Hail Mary moment that plants the seed that ends up saving Theo, and she comes close to tying for my favorite character of the whole book. Hosea…ehhhhhh, not so much. He had wayyyyyyyyyyy too many red flags right from the beginning for me, and I was so sad for Theo that she fell so hard for him when he was obviously so undeserving of her.

 There are obvious content warnings here for sexual content including rape, drug and underage alcohol use, and disordered eating. Hold off on this one if reading it right now is too much for you; we’re all doing the best we can, but sometimes certain subjects are just too difficult at that point in time, and that’s okay.

Pointe is a heavy story of pain and loss, but it’s also one of strength, of bending but not breaking. It’s a story that will hit you right in the heart.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

A book list alerted me to the existence of Like No Other by Una LaMarche (Razorbill, 2014). Seriously, book lists: I love them so much, and they’re so hard on my TBR! But as I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read this one. It’s always such a joy discovering a book that’s right up your literary alley!

Devorah is a Hasidic Jewish teen from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Jaxon is a Black teen who lives just down the block, but their paths have never crossed- not until today, when Devorah’s sister is giving birth (prematurely!) in the hospital in the middle of a Category 3 hurricane. Her parents are upstate and unable to be there; her sister’s husband is unable to be with her due to religious rules, so Devorah’s the support person. When she goes to look for her brother-in-law but instead gets trapped in the powerless elevator, she meets Jaxon. Despite Devorah’s religious community’s strict rules on never being alone with someone of the opposite sex, Jaxon immediately puts her at ease, and after they’re freed, she can’t stop thinking about him, and he can’t stop thinking about her.

They’re not allowed to be together- Devorah’s not even supposed to be speaking to him, and dating is strictly forbidden- but Devorah and Jaxon forge an attempt at a relationship, while Devorah begins questioning why everything is so forbidden to her, why college isn’t allowed, why her parents are planning to arrange her marriage to a complete stranger in two years.  Two kids, both pillars of their community, suddenly realize the need for more, and they’re out to find it despite what the very different worlds around them are saying.

Like No Other has as much tension bursting off of every page as any thriller out there. Devorah and Jaxon have to sneak to be together, and the fear of being caught is real. Devorah could be ostracized from her entire community; even beyond that, her siblings might be denied marriages because of the stain Devorah’s behavior leaves on the whole family if she’s caught. The stakes for Jaxon aren’t quite as high, but he’s still risking all the hard work he’s put into school the past few years; if his grades tank enough, he might be saying farewell to the chance at a scholarship. Ms. LaMarche’s portrayal of two kids willing to risk it all to be together is full of tension and the flutters of first-time love.

At times, I did feel as though Devorah acted out of character; her reversal from being a goody two-shoes into someone willing to risk her family’s standing in the community felt just a tiny bit far-fetched. I would’ve liked to have seen her question a little bit more before suddenly turning into someone ready to throw everything away and assuming her parents would be willing to have a rational discussion when she returned home. But other than that, this felt real and true-to-character. Jaxon’s rash decisions felt a little more understandable, as he’d been living in that world his whole life, whereas Devorah’s life had been smaller, more constrained, and she had never once stepped off the path before. They’re both good kids in every sense of the word, but I would have liked to see Jaxon learn a little more about Devorah’s community on his own, instead of just assuming her parents would eventually come around, something that only Devorah knew was impossible.

Content warning for physical assault and the racism that is unfortunately pervasive in parts of the Hasidic community. There’s some history here that the book glosses over: the Crown Heights riots took place in the early 90’s, though I’m not sure how many teens who live outside of this area are aware of what happened.

Like No Other is a tension-filled story of the highs and lows of first love, with the added fear of losing everything if that love is discovered. It’s a wonderful, edge-of-your-seat story, and I enjoyed every page.

Follow Una LaMarche on Twitter here.

romance

Book Review: Lighting the Flames by Sarah Wendell

I’ve mentioned about a zillion times that I’m a big fan of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, even though it balloons my TBR up like nobody’s business (what, like that’s a bad thing???). I’ve read the two other books by its creators and current host- Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (read in the days before this blog; Goodreads link here) and Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell. So you know I had to read the romance novel Sarah Wendell penned herself, titled Lighting the Flames (Smart Bitches Trashy Books, LLC, 2014). Winter! Camp! Hanukkah! Romance! So many cozy good things going on here.  

Genevieve and Jeremy have been camp friends forever, but last year, he left early, with little explanation, and only after kissing her. Now they’re back together for a special winter camp, hoping to pull together a last-ditch effort to save Camp Meira from financial ruin and figure out what’s going on between them.

Color wars and snowfall, chilly temperatures and arts and crafts- not exactly the typical camp experience, but as Gen, Jeremy, and the campers light the Hanukkah candles each night, it’s obvious how special of a place this is. And little by little, Gen and Jeremy open up to one another, growing closer and closer until they can no longer deny what’s between them. Can they make it last outside the confines of Camp Meira, into their adult lives in the real world?

This is a sweet romance novella. There were times when I thought the writing could be stronger, but where Sarah Wendell really succeeds is in setting the scene. Camp Meira in the wintertime leaps off the page. It’s snowy, it’s cold, it’s icy, and the heaters are constantly breaking, but it’s gorgeous and cozy as hell. I’m *not* a fan of cold or being outdoors in the winter (shivering hurts my back and exacerbates my chronic pain), but she makes winter camp sound fun.

Gen is hurting from the recent deaths of her parents; Jeremy is settling into life working with his dad at the family business, a Jewish funeral home. He’s the one who sat with her parents after they passed (there are a few places in this story where some knowledge of Jewish traditions might be helpful, but it’s not necessary). They have some painful discussions on this topic, so if you’re grieving, this may be a good book to wait on until you’re further along in the healing process. Ms. Wendell handles this delicate situation with grace and ease, and it’s sweet to see Gen and Jer forge a new, more mature connection as they bond over Gen’s loss and Jeremy’s adult handling of their deaths.

Lighting the Flames is sweet and will put you smack-dab in the freezing winter cold and snow of Camp Meira. I’m not sure I love the cold and snow any more than I did before, but I enjoyed the coziness of reading about two people falling in love amidst the freezing temperatures.

Visit Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Follow her on Twitter: Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

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 · YA

Book Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Ooh, time travel. And YA. I like both of these, so that’s how Passenger by Alexandra Bracken (Disney-Hyperion, 2016) ended up on my TBR. It’s a series, and while I’m not normally much of a series reader, I figured I’d give it a try.

Passenger tells the dual-narrative story of Etta, an up-and-coming violinist who is thrown back in time to meet Nicholas, a sailor whose skin color has been at the mercy of the cruel, manipulative Ironwood family for far too long. The Ironwoods want nothing more than to control everything, and it’s through Etta that they’ll make this happen- or else her mother will die. Offered a taste of freedom but touched by the desire to keep Etta safe, Nicholas tears off after her through time, and together the two of them seek out the astrolabe hidden by Etta’s traveler mother.

It’s no easy task for a multitude of reasons, including the evil Thorns, the difficulties of time traveling without standing out, and the never-ending prejudice that crops up in every. single. society. Their journey will bring them closer together, but that only makes the danger that much scarier…

I liked but didn’t love this. The characters are fine (Nicholas is particularly enjoyable), the settings are fascinating (various countries at various points throughout history), the villains are utterly dastardly… I think the storyline was just too complicated for me to fully enjoy right now, combined with the fact that I tend to prefer first-person narratives rather than third-person. I realize this may put me in the minority of readers; my library book club has stated that they prefer third-person narration, which surprised me, because I’m so very much a first-person narration fan. (I blame my childhood obsession with The Baby-Sitters Club series. First person narration forever!) Third person keeps everything at such a distance, I feel, whereas first person feels more real and immediate.

For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

I did feel like Ms. Bracken handles the never-ending racism Nicholas experiences very well, and in a delicate way. She never shies away from it and she makes it a point to drive home how exhausting it is to live with this every day of one’s life. Etta, who is white and has been fairly sheltered throughout her life, occasionally forgets this is an issue and is brought back to the harsh realization in real-time. It’s a little annoying but unfortunately realistic, I think.

If you enjoy time travel and can handle more complicated plot lines right now, this might be the book for you. For me, it was a good story, but the intricacies were a little too much right now.

Visit Alexandra Bracken’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

Don’t we all go through book lists to make ourselves feel better? 30 New Books You Can’t Miss This Year! 10 YAs That Will Make You Cry! 23 Books That Will Murder You In Your Sleep If You Don’t Read Them Immediately!!!!! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) And I think a lot of us have been doing more adding to our TBRs than reading, whether that’s because we can’t focus as well right now (yes) or we just don’t have as much time to read at the moment (also yes). Browsing through one of those book lists was how I learned about Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019). The brief description said that the book was set during the Second World War and told a fictionalized tale of the Shanghai Jews, and my brain went, “…the what now???” This was something entirely new to me, and I had to know more.

Lilia and her family, circus performers, are set to flee the persecution of 1940 Warsaw when their plans go awry and Lilia’s mother gets separated from the rest of the family. Knowing that their lives are on the line, Lilia and her father and sister must continue their journey to China, hoping Mama will continue on behind them as they sail to Shanghai in search of a place they can live in safety. Shanghai is under Japanese occupation, but the Jewish community that has fled there is grateful for any place that will take them in. Existence there is bleak and difficult: jobs are almost non-existent, food is scarcer than that, hunger is a constant companion, and fears about the future and worry over whatever happened to Mama never end.

But there are small joys to be found amidst the heartbreak and fear. Lilia’s friendship with Wei, the Chinese boy employed to clean her school, is a bright spot in the darkness, and the connection she makes in a desperate search to make money for her family ends up resulting in an unexpected miracle. Lilia’s broken-up family is far from home, struggling to survive with every breath, but their story isn’t to be missed.

Y’all. This story is bleak. The poverty Lilia’s family suffers is enormous, to the point where you’ll feel something like survivor’s guilt if you eat while reading this. The conditions they live in are foul and oppressive, and they’re uncomfortable to read. It’s important to bear witness to this kind of historical pain, though, so don’t skip this one. Put it off for later if you need to, when reading may be easier, but put it on your TBR, because Lilia’s story is based on real Jews who fled to China during the brutality of Hitler’s regime. It’s a remarkable history I’d never known anything about, and I’m glad I know more now. It’s just not an easy read.

Lilia’s relationship with her little sister Naomi is sweet. Naomi is young but already highly delayed at the start of the story; the trauma the family endures doesn’t help, but Lilia’s care of her never wavers. And Lilia’s friendship and slight crush on Wei are adorable. There are plenty of tense moments in the story, however, including multiple deaths for a variety of reasons, and allusions to sexual assault. There’s also a deeply heavy scene near the end of the book that broke my heart as a mother, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. It’s a painful, complex story, but one that deserves to be heard.

I’m learning better to balance out my reading this year, so I had to follow this one up with a lighter romance novel, but it’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re into historical fiction. It’s YA but don’t let that stop you if that’s a genre you don’t normally read- Lilia’s problems are very much adult in nature, and Ms. DeWoskin’s masterful writing makes this a powerful, emotional story for readers of any age.

Visit Rachel DeWoskin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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

Book Review: No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Holy timely read, blogger friends!

I have no idea how this book ended up on my TBR list or where it came from; usually I have some sort of idea, whether I found it through someone else’s blog, a book list, a reading group suggestion, etc., but I have zero clue where No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert (WaterBrook, 2018) came from. But that’s okay. It’s an emotionally complex book that gets right to the heart of so many of the struggles we’re seeing play out before our eyes right now.

Jen is a newly adoptive mother and she’s struggling. Her (adopted) seven year-old daughter, who has only recently come home from Liberia, is, unsurprisingly, having trouble adjusting to life in a new country with a white family, and Jen, who has wanted nothing more than to be a mother her entire life, is shocked to find that the bonding process isn’t instantaneous. Camille’s picture-perfect life is unraveling at the seams: her oldest daughter barely speaks to her, something’s up with her husband, and the uproar over a primarily Black school sending its students to her children’s mostly white school isn’t painting her in the greatest of lights thanks to her own bad behavior. Anaya has just gotten a job as the new second grade teacher at said white school, but her teenage brother’s transfer to the high school and the stress of being Black in a sea of white faces who don’t necessarily understand her and who don’t want to try is testing her faith and strength.

Tensions are sky-high throughout the year as the town grapples with issues that shouldn’t even be issues and old attitudes are brought to light and found- by most people, but not all- deeply unflattering. The novel comes to a head at the annual 5K, where everyone will be forced to come together in a tragedy that could have easily been avoided.

WHEW. This book is an emotional powerhouse. Katie Ganshert perfectly nails so many of the complex emotions that go into making flawed characters. Camille’s racism isn’t necessarily outwardly malicious, but by refusing to listen and avoiding deep self-examination, she becomes a perfect Karen, concerned only with what affects her and her family. Anaya is determined but wounded and exhausted, states that become more and more clear as to why- not just for outward reasons- as her story unfolds. And Jen. Ohhhhhh, I understood Jen so well, and Ms. Ganshert has illustrated in her something that isn’t talked about enough.

Jen pictured motherhood as lots of snuggles and cuddles and an instant bond with her daughter, despite understanding that it would be work raising a child who had spent her earliest years surrounded by loss and trauma. Her reality was struggling to bond with a child who didn’t quite feel like hers, even though she wanted her to, so badly. I get that. Though my daughter is mine biologically, it took much, much longer for me to feel that deep soul-bond with her, much longer than I was expecting, and it made parenting her difficult in the early days of her life (and we weren’t even dealing with trauma and loss and all the many things adoptive parents know to expect! Although my massive sleep deprivation, to the point where I was hallucinating, didn’t help…). The parenting manuals don’t discuss this enough; they talk of bonding as immediate or as happening soon after birth; they don’t discuss what happens or what parents are supposed to do when it takes longer than that, which leaves parents like Jen and me (during the time that was happening to me), feeling lost and scared and resentful. I applaud Katie Ganshert for bringing this delicate issue to light and giving parents like me a chance to see ourselves and see that we’re not terrible people, that this is just part of what parenting can look like.

Camille’s growth throughout the novel is commendable; her growth stems from the tragedies and challenges her family faces throughout the year (and other near-misses), and her eventual learning to look outward and apply what she learns inward. Will readers see themselves in her? I hope so, because there are far too many people out there who need to.

Anaya is strength and conviction and determination; her family- her mother in particular- is so well-crafted. There’s a speech her mother gives her near the end of the book on forgiveness that had me rereading the paragraph several times; do not miss this. It’s perfection.

Content warnings exist for racism, both blatant and the kind that’s more inconspicuous but just as harmful, death of a parent, and allusions to what likely constitutes rape (where a drunken character is taken advantage of by one that didn’t seem drunk or as drunk). All the characters in the book seem to be practicing Christians (to some degree), and while their faith is discussed and put into practice (and some have labelled this novel as Christian fiction), it never comes across as the author having an agenda, only as something by which those characters live and base their morals on. Ms. Ganshert isn’t proselytizing or advertising here, only describing her characters’ commitment to or failure to live up to certain ideals, something which I appreciated.

This is a wonderful, timely book, one that I’m glad I read, and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author who not only has her finger on the pulse of America, but who is able to translate her observations into a deeply-felt novel that will tug at your heart and hopefully have you examining your attitudes towards a number of important issues.

Visit Katie Ganshert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.