fiction

Book Review: Majesty (American Royals #2) by Katharine McGee

When I finished American Royals by Katharine McGee, I immediately put its sequel, Majesty (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2020) on my TBR, because I enjoyed it so much. The entire premise- what the country would look like if George Washington had been made king instead of president, and his line carried on- is so creative, and the series centers on the young adult royals who are set to take over and run the country. I was actually surprised when Majesty was available the first time I checked- it’s a bit past its original publication date, so there’s probably not a massive stampede for it, but I still felt like I got really, really lucky!

This review will contain some spoilers, so don’t read on if you’re wanting to read American Royals but haven’t gotten to it yet.

Majesty picks up where American Royals left off. The king has passed away, leaving Beatrice as America’s first queen. She’s young, she’s untested, and she’s not sure she can do the job. She’s engaged to a man she’s not sure she truly wants to marry, and the man who assisted her father his whole life is doing everything he can to make sure she feels as incompetent and powerless as possible. Sam, now the heir instead of just being the spare, still isn’t over her sister getting engaged to the guy she liked and takes up with a guy just as wild as she is from the west coast. Nina, heartbroken over her relationship with Jeff ending, falls into the arms of Ethan, his best friend, little knowing that this plot was orchestrated by Daphne, Jeff’s scheming, status-seeking ex-girlfriend.

There are a lot of suppressed emotions, social climbing, scheming, hard looks at the racism that still persist in the US (especially as an outcome of the poor decisions this country made throughout its past), and a lot of really fun and creative imaginings of what American royalty would look like. Beatrice’s grief over losing her father (and being promoted immediately into the role of America’s first queen) is palpable and may be tough to read if you’re also deep in grief, so take care with that. Her confidence grows as the novel goes on, which was lovely to see, although I really wished she had booted her father’s advisor immediately, as it was obvious what a trashbag that dude was.

I had a little bit of a tough time getting into this at the beginning; I don’t know if that’s because it started off slower (or because of me; that’s always a possibility!), or because it’s been a while since I read the first book in the series. I’m an impatient reader and don’t read a lot of series books solely because I don’t like waiting, especially since I don’t remember fiction as well and tend to forget the details while I wait for the next book to come out. I did feel like Nina got a little shortchanged in this book; I really liked her storyline in American Royals, but it felt like her storyline was less developed here. I did like her relationship with Ethan, however! Beatrice was as lovely as ever; Sam, her impulsive younger sister, began to come into her own in this book, which was nice to see.

Daphne, the scheming social climber determined to get her claws into Jeff, really shines. She’s an absolute villain, and I usually hate characters like her, but she’s fantastic in this book; Katharine McGee really has a knack for writing the perfect bad girl. From time to time, we see a flicker of morality float to the surface, and then Daphne stomps it back down and sharpens her claws again. The ending to her storyline is cold and depressing in many different ways, but it’s fitting with her character and her ruthless ambition. She was my favorite part of this book, which surprised me.

Majesty is a fun follow-up, and this series really made me appreciate all the work that goes into creating alternate histories. This book is the conclusion and it doesn’t look like there will be any more in the series, so I’m sorry to say goodbye to such fun, well-written characters.

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein

The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…

Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?

At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.

This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much  healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?

Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).

There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.

If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.

Visit Hannah Orenstein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: This Side of Home by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author’s books too close together- I’m more of a space-them-out-to-make-an-author’s-works-last kind of gal- but it just so happened that not too long after I read Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, her This Side of Home (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2015) came up on my TBR and was in (still working through a bunch of ebooks), so onto my kindle it went. I spent a lovely Saturday on my backyard patio swing, chilling and swinging and enjoying this book, which has given me a lot to think about.

Maya and her twin sister Nikki are identical and have always done everything together, including sharing a best friend and making plans together for the future. But things are changing. Best friend Essence is moving 45 minutes away, thanks to her landlord selling the house she lives in. Their new neighbors are a white family Maya’s not so sure of, but Nikki becomes fast friends with Kate, and Tony…seems okay (and he’s super cute). The neighborhood is gentrifying, and although Maya’s glad it’s safer, the racial tension is hard to deal with and she’s got a lot of justified resentment about the hows and whys of it, and the feelings like all the changes in her neighborhood aren’t meant for its longtime residents.

School is changing too. The new principal seems hellbent on making sure the school isn’t focused on Black history. Inclusion is great, but it doesn’t mean erasure, and Maya’s going to fight like hell to ensure that doesn’t happen. When things get serious between her and Tony, Maya’s not sure how to tell everyone about their new relationship- and not just because Tony’s dad is fluent in microaggression. Senior year is a year of changes, and Maya engages in a lot of self-examination in order to come to terms with who she is and wants to be in this new world.

This is a quick read, but it’s one that makes you think, like really think. About identity, about racial and cultural expectations, about microaggression and racism, about gentrification and the costs and benefits of it, and who it’s really for. It was really interesting to read the perspective of a narrator (especially a teenage narrator) who lived in the neighborhood both before and after gentrification, and to feel her ambivalence about what happened to the place she’s always called home. There’s a lot to be angry and frustrated and resentful about, and Maya is- her best friend was pushed out of her home because of this, and she never feels welcome in most of the white-owned businesses that have taken up residence down the street- but there end up being some good parts to it all as well, as she learns. Does the good outweigh the bad? It’s not an easy question to answer, but hopefully you’ll read deeply enough to come away with an understanding of what our responsibilities are to our fellow human beings and the work it takes to make sure everyone knows we’re truly all in this together.

Maya grows a lot throughout the novel. She comes to understand that things change, and she has to be able to give a little as she fights for what she wants and needs. She’s easy to empathize with: change is hard, especially big changes, especially when they upend the way things have been your whole life. But she has excellent role models in her life- her father, teachers, people in her neighborhood- to give her an idea of what the work looks like to create a true community and to be a responsible adult (being a teenager and learning these lessons is hard; I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything!), and her growth is truly admirable.

I live in a fairly diverse neighborhood, which I love. But it’s still majority white, and I fully admit I don’t know all that much about gentrification, so I’m very glad I read this nuanced take on it, that showed the many sides of it and what it could be like (at one part near the end, a very positive part where the neighborhood comes together after an unfortunate chaotic incident). One of the reasons I read so much is to understand the world, to understand the perspectives of people whose lives aren’t like mine, who have lived in different places and in different ways and who have different takes on issues. Seeing the gentrification of Maya’s neighborhood through her eyes clued me into an angle that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to consider on my own, simply because her life and my life are different. The best books do that, and This Side of Home showed me what a neighborhood looks like when it doesn’t quite work for everyone, and what it takes to make it work for everyone. This has given me a LOT to think about, and Ms. Watson’s book is something I’m going to be carrying with me forever.

This is an excellent, timely novel. Highly recommended.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

I’ve enjoyed Hannah Moskowitz since she first blasted onto the YA scene with Break in 2009. Her addition to It’s a Whole Spiel blew me away, and so I was thrilled that the next book on my TBR (ebook edition, since that’s what I’m focused on now) was her Sick Kids in Love (Entangled: Teen, 2019). The tagline for this book is, ‘They don’t die in this one,’ which was a relief to read (you know, having been traumatized by all the Lurlene McDaniel tragedy porn I read growing up, and then again by John Green with The Fault in Our Stars). I still stressed out while reading this excellent book, though.

Isabel is sick. She’s had rheumatoid arthritis since she was eight (not diagnosed until age nine), so she knows pain and what it’s like to live with a debilitating illness, what it’s like to have to plan your entire life around your unpredictable body, what it’s like to have no one around you really get what it’s like to live with this always hanging over you, what it’s like for an illness to just be part of who you are. She doesn’t date- for a lot of reasons- but then she meets Sasha, another chronically sick kid, and her life turns upside down. Sasha gets it. Sasha understands what it’s like to have a body he can’t trust. And dammit, he’s cute with a capital CUTE.

When she decides to let go and jump in with both feet, things are…good. There are the usual romance ups and downs: they annoy each other; they like different things; Isabel can’t make up her mind about anything; both of them have struggles with their conditions. And then the little things become big things, and things get tough. Isabel needs to learn to make decisions, to speak up for herself and maybe learn to make the necessary changes that come when you’re no longer alone and have to compromise to get along.

I loved this. I loved this a lot. Hannah Moskowitz (who is indeed a sick kid; she has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of spinal arthritis- I’m familiar with it because it shares a lot of symptoms with my back/pelvis issues and is often misdiagnosed as what I have for years. Which makes me wonder a lot, but doctors don’t seem to want to investigate further, so whatever) is wise beyond her years and shows it all over the place yet again. Life with chronic pain is so eloquently explained in this book; if you live with chronic pain or you love someone who does and want to understand, you NEED this book. NEED. I’m going to quote a section below that made me gasp. I read it, read it again, reread it, and then copied it down, because it summed up what chronic pain is like so, so well:

You stop noticing pain, is the thing.

You notice it when it’s really bad, or when it’s different, but…on the rare occasion someone asks me what it’s like to live with RA, I don’t ever know what to say. They ask me if it’s painful, and I say yes because I know intellectually it must be, because the idea of doing some of the things that other people do without thinking fills me with dread and panic, but I always think about it mechanically. I can’t do x. I don’t want to do y. I don’t continue the thought into I can’t do that because it would hurt. I don’t want to do that because then I would be in pain.

You can’t live like that. There’s only so much you can carry quietly by yourself, so you turn an illness into a list of rules instead of a list of symptoms, and you take pills that don’t help, and you do the stretches, and you think instead of feeling. You think.

And you don’t soak in hot water and feel the tension bleed out of your joints because it’s just going to remind you that it will come right back.

This is it. This is it entirely. This is what I live with, and Hannah Moskowitz has put it into words. All hail our new leader! Long live the queen! Seriously, this put my feelings and frustrations into words far better than I can at this point (it’s been a really bad year for pain for me; I’ve been on steroids four times since the pandemic started- my doctors don’t think that’s at all a problem, apparently- my neuropathy is going wild, my gabapentin doses have increased 300% and still aren’t covering it all, the Celebrex doesn’t work at all anymore so I’ve stopped taking it…). The tests coming back normal when you’re barely able to function- when that happened to Isabel, I nearly wept, because that’s something I so understand (right along with being blown off by doctors. It’s like there’s a giant belief of, “It’s just pain, why do you care so much?” attitude in the medical community. Quality of life means nothing, and it’s so, so good to hear someone else talk about this. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ.

(Also? Two Jewish main characters, THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ. Truly. Long live the queen!)

So I loved this. It was a fun, sweet love story about two kids who get each other, but who are also still trying to get themselves, because they’re teenagers, and on a large level, it drops some serious truth bombs about life with health problems that aren’t ever going away. This book got me- as a forty-year-old woman, it got me, and I am so utterly grateful for that.

Follow Hannah Moskowitz on Twitter here.

Check out her Wikipedia page here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Another library ebook for me! Next up on my TBR was Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer and Bray, 2019). This has been on my list since I first learned about it. I always forget how great middle grade books are- my son has been out of that age range for quite a while and my daughter isn’t ready for most of those books in terms of interest (reading ability, yes; interest, ehhhhhh), so I don’t spend a ton of time in that section quite yet. But I learned about this book on a list of multicultural middle grade books, and after reading that it was about a Syrian girl who leaves her home to live in the US, onto my TBR it went. (And look at that gorgeous cover!)

Jude has lived in Syria all her life with her parents and older brother. She’s always loved American things, right along with her best friend, but when life starts getting complicated in her home country, she travels with her pregnant mother to live in Cincinnati with an uncle and his family, leaving her father and her missing brother behind. Life in America is complicated. Jude, who used to be the best at English in her school in Syria, is now struggling to understand both the language and the culture around her. No one seems to want to try to understand her. She misses her father, she’s worried about her brother and her best friend (who isn’t answering her letters), and her cousin Sarah seems to hate her.

Bit by bit, Jude pulls together a life for herself in America. Her English improves; she makes friends in her ESOL class, a Muslim friend, and a friend from her math class; she works up the courage to try out for the school play. When anti-Muslim sentiments start up in her town, it’s not what Jude had hoped for in her new life, but she responds with courage and dignity, just as she takes on the rest of her journey.

Written in verse, Other Words for Home is a look at a young girl tasked with starting over under difficult circumstances, how she rallies, and how the people around her make her new life both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of helpers, but there are plenty of people- including adults- who try to bring her down.

This is a quick read, but it’s a great one. It would make an utterly fabulous read for a mother-daughter book club (especially if you’re looking for books that touch on immigration and/or refugees, the crises in Syria, and Muslim girls. Heads up for a few mentions of menstruation, a few mentions of bombings, and several instances of anti-Muslim behavior- all of which are things that kids in this target reader age are either likely to be discussing or need to discuss with adults, but sometimes parents need a little bit of time to think and prep for how they want to approach these subjects).

Jude is a delight of a character, strong and determined and an excellent role model (not necessary for a character, but it’s nice when you come across one). She works hard to understand the whys of her life: why are she and her mother moving to the US; why is her father staying behind; why does her brother feel the need to fight; why are people treating her this way in America (not sure there’s really an answer for that, to be honest). She works hard at everything she does, even when it’s difficult, and she never stops trying, even when she’s pretty sure she’ll fail. A new immigrant, still learning the language, trying out for a school play? RESPECT. I didn’t even have enough courage to try out for my school plays when I’ve lived here my whole life. I would have been in utter awe of Jude when I was young. I wish I’d known girls like her. Maybe I did and didn’t even know it.

Super great read, this one. I always enjoy a good novel in verse, but the subject matter and Jude as a narrator really hit it home for me.

Visit Jasmine Warga’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Some books just sit on your TBR for ages for no particular reason; The Guest Book by Sarah Blake (Flatiron Books, 2019) was one of them. My library only had an ebook version of it, and I tend to use my kindle in fits and streaks. I’ll read a TON of kindle books, then not touch it again for another six months. (I checked out a library ebook today, thinking it was a kindle- my Libby account is supposed to only check out kindle books- but it turned out not to be, and now I’m waiting for my ancient iPad to charge so I can read it on there, sigh.) But I reorganized my paper TBR list so it’s less messy and fresh and clean, with all the books I’ve already read and crossed out taken off, and all the ebooks I had on there were reeeeeeeeeeally bothering me, so I decided to start tackling them. The Guest List was the first available book.

The Guest List tells the story of three generations of the Milton family, East Coast blue bloods who helped the US out of the Great Depression…but by what means, exactly? Kitty and Ogden Milton’s early years are marred by tragedy; this tragedy echoes into the future and has serious consequences for other people, ones that Kitty is loath to admit until she finds the perfect dumping ground for her secrets. Joan, her daughter, burdened with epilepsy, has an entire life unknowingly affected by said tragedy, and it isn’t until Evie, Kitty’s granddaughter, is a middle-aged adult that all the secrets come to light when she and her cousins are trying to figure out how to handle the family island.

Yes, family island. Ogden and Kitty had bought an island off the coast of Maine in the wake of their tragedy. This island will become a source of joy and healing, but almost immediately a source of remembering of things Kitty would rather forget, things that paint her in a way she would rather not see herself. For Joan, it will shape the course of her life; for Evelyn, it is her family, but it also reveals uncomfortable truths about what her family is and has always been, both good and bad, because people are complicated and can be multiple things at once.

This is one of those books where the setting is as much of a character as the people. Crockett’s Island becomes monolithic, looming over everyone in a variety of ways. If you’re a reader who really enjoys stories with a strong sense of place (or you’ve just always wanted to inhabit a world where people are rich enough to own their own islands), this would be a great choice for you.

Content warning for the accidental death of a child shortly into the book, and some post-World War II-era antisemitism; if you’re not up for reading these things at this time, put it away and find something that better suits your needs at this time. Be kind to yourself. Life is tough enough already.

Kitty is a complex character. She’s definitely a product of her time and class (class is a huge factor in this book), and most of the time I massively disliked her. She has a few redeeming qualities, and then she comes around and opens her mouth and ruins it all. Joan is more sympathetic, to a point, and therefore more tolerable to read. Evie is written in the modern era and has more progressive and acceptable attitudes, and I enjoyed her storyline most of all (although I did enjoy Joan’s as well; there were a few things at the end that soured it for me).

There are other characters- Reg and Len- that really made the story tolerable for me. They added a touch of reality that you just don’t get when the story solely focuses on a family that owns a freaking island, and they end up providing the key as to the hows and whys the island ownership came to be in the first place. Without them, Evelyn may never have known, and that made this all the more interesting. What this book ends up being is a deep look at the attitudes towards race and religion that shaped the past and the ways they’re still shaping the present, and it asks how we plan to move forward from that. There’s a lot going on in this book, which is, again, more literary than I usually go.

Not my favoritest (TOTALLY A WORD) of books, and it solidified my resolve to never turn into the kind of person that the original Miltons were, but it was an interesting read that asks a lot of important questions, which I love.

Visit Sarah Blake’s website here.

fiction

Book Review: Well Played (Well Met #2) by Jen DeLuca

I put both Well Met and Well Played (Berkley, 2020) by Jen DeLuca on my TBR at the same time, which is rare for me, especially since I hadn’t read her before (since Well Met was her debut. #writerjealousy). But I knew, knew, that any book that was set at a Ren Faire would have me scrambling to hop right back into that universe, and I was right. I just got really, really lucky that both were in at my library at the same time! NO WAITING!!!

Stacey, Emily’s fellow tavern wench from Well Met, has settled well into her role of slightly ditzy hometown girl. She had never meant to stay in Willow Creek, but after returning home to take care of her mother, post-heart attack, several years ago, she’s remained there, hooking up with Dex from the Ren Faire in the summers, working at a dental office, and wondering what to do with her stagnant life. After sending a drunken social media message to Dex one night, she’s horrified in the morning, then shocked to see that he’s written back. A thoughtful, heartfelt reply? That doesn’t sound like the manwhore she knows, but she likes it. A lot.

Their messages fly free and fast, and Stacey’s really loving getting to know this new side of a guy who previously only seemed interested in hooking up. As Emily and Simon’s wedding nears, she takes on a few more Faire responsibilities, and that’s when she realizes…the person communicating with her as Dex…isn’t Dex at all. Is it still possible to built a relationship with someone you’ve fallen in love with, when everything began as a lie?

This was cute. Still a great setting (Ren Faire!), still great characters (hello, Simon!!!). Stacey has a reputation for being a little ditzy, but she has a strong sense of duty and responsibility, evidenced by her commitment to caring for her mother long past the time when she’s actually needed. Fear of something happening to her mother and fear of change have kept her firmly rooted in Willow Creek, unable to imagine a path forward, until those messages from ‘Dex’ begin to add a little more color to the parts of her year that aren’t lived at the Faire.

Daniel, the male lead posing as his cousin Dex, is awkward and sweet, but lacking in confidence, having grown up in the shadow of his cousin’s swagger. He may have gone about his feelings for Stacey the entirely wrong way, but they were heartfelt and genuine. In real life, something like this would be a massive, massive red flag, but in fiction it works out just fine, and it made for a pleasant distraction of an afternoon.

I didn’t love this as much as I loved Well Met, but I loved Simon so much that I don’t think ti’s quite a fair comparison! And of course, after finishing this, I immediately put Well Matched, Jen DeLuca’s next book (due out in October!) which follows April and Mitch, onto my TBR. Two crossed off, one added right back on. I’m starting to figure out why my numbers seem to stay the same every month…

Anyway, Well Played is a cute follow to Well Met, and I can’t wait to read more from Ms. DeLuca. It’s extremely rare that an author is able to worm so deeply into my heart so quickly, but she’s done it and I’m here for whatever she writes.

Visit Jen DeLuca’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Well Met (Well Met #1) by Jen DeLuca

I can’t remember exactly where I first heard about Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Berkley, 2019), but it went onto my list immediately. A romance set at a Renaissance Faire? Sign. Me. Up. I’m not that far from the Bristol Renaissance Faire and have gone many times throughout my life, starting with friends as a tween. It’s a super fun (and usually ridiculously hot) day, and we always have a fabulous time. (Although, when you think about it, any kind of history cosplaying is just…an odd thing to do, isn’t it? Can you imagine people of the future cosplaying as us???) I knew this would make a fabulous setting for a romance novel, so onto my list it went.

Emily’s life was headed nowhere fast after a crappy breakup, so when her sister needed help after breaking her leg in a car accident, it was no trouble at all to drop everything and move to Willow Creek to take care of her and her teen daughter. When Emily’s niece needs an adult with her in order to volunteer for the town’s annual Renaissance Faire, she figures why not and signs on to be a tavern wench for six weeks out of the summer. The Faire is fine- better than that, actually. Men in kilts? Fun fake accents? Fancy costumes? That’s all great (okay, maybe not the corset part). Simon, the uptight dude in charge of the Faire? Not so much. He and Emily start out on the wrong foot, and everything just goes downhill from there.

But there’s a growing attraction between Simon and Emily, something they can only explore when in character, and the more they explore, the more Emily wants. Getting to know the Simon behind his pirate Faire character deeply intrigues Emily, but can Simon learn to relax and give up control in order to fully let Emily in?

This was soooooooooooooooooo cute. The Faire setting was just as wonderful as I thought it would be. Emily is getting to know her older sister for the first time in her life and is really enjoying that. She appreciates feeling needed again after her ex dumped her after she quit college to work two jobs to put him through law school, and she’s enjoying the small town she’s ended up in. She might not know exactly what she wants for her future, but Emily is a comfortable character; she’s not struggling with multiple aspects of herself, and she’s content to take the future slow, one day at a time. I really enjoyed her.

Simon. Simon. Swoooooooooooooon. Despite the major stick up his ass and his grief over his brother, I loved Simon. Like, LURVED him. Uptight English teacher who grows out his hair and beard each year to become a pirate captain in leather pants? YOW. A few times, I wanted to tell him to take a chill pill, but overall, he was one of the most swoonworthy male leads I’ve read in a while. He’s going to be hard to get over.

I’m not a big series reader, but I do enjoy these books by the same authors, set in the same worlds, with characters that carry over into the next novel (but that can absolutely be read as stand-alone novels), so I followed this up immediately with Well Played, Ms. DeLuca’s next novel. Because more Ren Faire! I can’t go to the actual Faire this year, but honestly, this was absolutely the next best deal. I’m in kind of a ridiculous amount of pain writing this, so I feel like I’m not doing it justice. This is a super fun novel that will absolutely transport you from wherever you’re reading this into the dusty lanes of a small-town Ren Faire, and into the throes and push/pull of a new relationship that’s both sweet and steamy. If you like well-written romance, hot pirates in leather pants, and Renaissance Faires, Jen DeLuca needs to be on your TBR.

Visit Jen DeLuca’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I occasionally just dig through what my library has to offer (both online and in person, though not often in person these days. Still trying to be careful until my daughter can be vaccinated…), and that’s how I discovered The Book of V by Anna Solomon (Henry Holt & Company, 2020). A story that combines the narratives of a woman struggling with the demands of motherhood in modern-day New York, a Rhode Island senator’s wife in the 70’s, and the biblical Queen Esther? That sounded interesting. On my last library trip, this was the first time this book had been in when I checked the shelves, so into my bag it went.

The Book of V is a multiple-narrative novel that braids together the stories of a group of women, wrapping itself fully around the story of Queen Esther, who, as the story goes, took a major chance to save the Jewish people, her people. But maybe that’s not exactly how the story went. And what happened to Vashti, the beautiful woman who was queen before her?

Lily is a woman in her mid-40’s, struggling with two young daughters and her lack of identity after leaving her career to stay at home and focus on them. Her husband works long hours, there’s never *quite* enough money for them to feel totally comfortable, and Lily never feels as though she fits in with the other moms. Her attempts to connect with a local group of moms as she learns to sew Purim costumes for the girls is thwarted by her mother’s sudden illness, and all of this stress combines to her losing focus and heading into dangerous emotional territory.

Esther is a beautiful young Jewish girl offered up as a sacrifice to the king. No one truly knows where his wife went; Esther only knows she doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want to have the chance to marry him, only wants to go back to her people, who are being persecuted by the villagers. The restrictions on her life mirror those placed on Vivian, a senator’s wife, whose marriage isn’t quite the picture-perfect match it looks like from the outside.

The Book of V tells the tale of how women’s lives continue to be defined by others’ expectations and demands, the struggle to live freely (at least emotionally, if not physically) and the difficulties of maintaining an identity of our own choosing.

This isn’t a straight retelling of the story of Esther; liberties have been taken and changes have been made, so if you’re looking for something more akin to The Red Tent, you’ll be disappointed. The Book of V skews far more literary than I usually read, and in that aspect, it wasn’t really the book for me. It’s very obviously a strong and well-written novel, but I’m just not a fan in general of literary fiction; the style always seems so detached to me. I prefer my fiction to be more emotionally available, with a little more humor and everyday life sprinkled in. Literary fiction always seems to include constant talk about affairs and immediately sizing every single side character up in terms of their sexual prowess. Is this a thing people do in real life? Do women go to the store and immediately start thinking about what the produce guy stocking the onions or the dude fixing the lights would be like in bed? Is everyone having an affair but me? *squints* I just have a really hard time relating to this particular style, and my inability to connect here is completely on me and has nothing to do with this particular book.

If you enjoy literary fiction however, especially multiple narratives, you may want to check this book out. The Book of V is definitely well-written and thought-provoking, asking deep questions about feminism, identity, and women’s roles and places in society, both in the past and in modern day.

Visit Anna Solomon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

I’ve read Sharon M. Draper before. Both Copper Sun and Fire from the Rock were on my reading list when my son was younger and I enjoyed them both. But several people from my parenting group had raved about her Out of My Mind (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010), and the premise sounded fascinating to me, so I knew I had to read it. Onto my list it went…and there it sat. Seriously, I propose we add like five extra weeks per month where we all just sit around and read. Maybe then I could actually make a dent in this TBR…

Melody is wildly intelligent. She remembers everything- literally everything- that has ever happened to her, and she remembers everything she reads and hears. But no one knows this, because Melody is eleven years old and has never spoken a word. She has a form of cerebral palsy that has made her body almost entirely uncooperative and makes her dependent on her parents and other caretakers for nearly everything. Her parents know she’s smart, as does Mrs. V, her neighbor and babysitter who has dedicated herself to educationally challenging Melody. Her teachers and classmates, however, have no idea, and continually dismiss Melody as barely functional.

Everything changes, however, when Melody receives a Medi-Talker, a device that, for the first time, allows her to have a voice. She can make requests, answer questions (in a much quicker manner than spelling out single words on the board on her tray), make jokes, tell her parents out loud that she loves them. Finally, people at school begins to realize there’s more to Melody than what they expected. But it’s not quite perfect- even girls who act like her friend can’t fully commit to treating her like a regular girl in front of the Mean Girls at school. And teachers- TEACHERS!- are just as bad as some of those Mean Girls. When Melody makes the Whiz Kids Quiz Team, she begins to think that maybe she’s finally got an in on normal life, but as it turns out, despite her importance to the team, even the smartest kids in school and their teacher aren’t fully ready to accept her as a regular kid. A near-tragedy puts things into perspective, and Melody, voiceless no longer, has no problem telling everyone exactly how she feels.

I really enjoyed this. Ms. Draper, who has a family member with cerebral palsy, doesn’t shy away from the difficult reality of severe disability- both from the person who has the condition and from that person’s caretakers. The heavy lifting, the bathroom duty, the drooling because bodies don’t cooperate (as I sit here with my back spasming and my bones burning, I tip my metaphorical hat in sympathy. Bodies are stupid), it’s not an easy life, but Ms. Draper goes above and beyond to show the wonders of such a life as well. So much to learn. So much to experience. Heartfelt connections to be made with the people who are willing to take the time.

There are scenes with Melody’s history teacher, who runs the Whiz Kids team, that will have you seething. I saw some serious red while reading his scenes and was whisked back to my senior year Algebra II class, where a fellow student was bullying a friend with CP, just constantly running his mouth at my friend in a way that the teacher 100% heard him. She didn’t care. She occasionally said things to my friend that I, at 17, knew were unprofessional. I was really shy and quiet in high school and was the kind of kid who wouldn’t say boo to a fly, but after this kid, who was a football player (which was a BIG DEAL in my town *eyeroll*) had ran his mouth for long enough, I slammed my book down and yelled, “Oh my God, just leave him alone!” The football player’s eyes flew open. He turned around back into his seat and never said a single word to my friend in that class ever again. The teacher didn’t say anything then, either.

My point in sharing this story is not to make myself out to look good- I really should have said something earlier; these days, I would, but I’m also a lot older, more mature, and have lost 99% of my chill, so come at me, bro- but to point out that teachers like Melody’s exist. They’re out there. They can be nasty and straight-up let more powerful students bully the less powerful. Remind your kids that this is unacceptable. Believe your kids if they come home telling you that this is happening. Let your kids know that you’ll support them and stand behind them if they stand up and let everyone know that that kind of behavior isn’t okay. Teach them to use their voices for those who can’t.

This is a triumphant read, in the end. Melody is proud of who she is, of what she’s accomplished despite so many people not believing in her- she has enough people who DO, and that’s enough. But it’s also a great message. Be a believer, be one of the people who make life better for Melody and everyone else out there. We’re all struggling in some sort of way, but uplifting each other makes so much of a difference.

Such a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed this. And there’s a SEQUEL coming in November 2021 entitled Out of My Heart. The year is looking up! 😊

Visit Sharon M. Draper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.