fiction · romance

Book Review: Rookie Move (Brooklyn Bruisers #1) by Sarina Bowen

I love hockey, though I haven’t been able to follow it at all during the pandemic (I have no desire to watch players and fans get COVID in real time, thank you very much). So when Smart Bitches, Trashy Books recommended Sarina Bowen as an author, I decided I wanted to read something of hers and started digging through what my library had to offer. And lo and behold, she had a hockey series! Onto my list went Rookie Move (Brooklyn Bruisers #1) (Berkley, 2016). It took me a while to get to it, though. Thanks to one of my New Year’s resolutions being to finally read all of the ebooks I’d been saving on my TBR, now was the time! (I adore my kindle; the ebooks just got pushed to the side in part because of worries about the library closing again and my needing to save something from my TBR in case that happened. No worries, though; I have a plan if that does go down!)

Georgia’s life is going pretty well these days. She’s the temporary head of PR for Brooklyn’s new hockey team, the Bruisers. She wasn’t quite planning on her father signing on as head coach, but they’re close, so it’s all good. She’s sharing a tiny apartment with a friend she loves. Sure, she hasn’t really dated much at all in the six years since she walked away from her high school love after having survived being raped while on a college tour, but everything else is perfectly fine. Georgia is finally feeling safe in her life.

Enter the team’s newest player, straight from the minor leagues: Leo Trevi, who just so happens to be Georgia’s high school boyfriend. Both are absolutely floored to see each other. Leo’s ready to pick back up where they left off; he never got over Georgia when she dumped him out of the blue six years ago. For Georgia, Leo’s reappearance in her life begins to dredge up old feelings she thought she’d moved past, and she’s not so sure about moving forward with him. But Leo’s patient, and Georgia’s feelings for him aren’t quite as over as she thought.

This is really a great, solid sports romance. Obviously there’s a content warning for rape; the subject comes up often (though never in any kind of detail) and is an integral part of the storyline, so if reading this would be difficult for you, it’s okay to choose another book. Be kind to yourself. Leo is gentle and patient at all times with Georgia; her moving on from him has nothing to do with his reaction to her attack, only her own misinterpretation. Georgia is strong and independent, but she’s lonely and still hurting, though she covers it well.

The romance in this novel absolutely sizzles! WHEW. I was rooting for the two of them the whole way, because they have some serious chemistry. And Sarina Bowen’s writing in the hockey game scenes is utterly top-notch. I was on the edge of my seat and could barely handle reading the tension. Who would win, who would score, the potential for serious injury, it was all perfectly paced and described. Ms. Bowen obviously knows hockey and has talent in spades for letting her love for the sport shine on each page.

This was a fun, fun, FUN book to read, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Sarina Bowen in the future.

Visit Sarina Bowen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn

A while back, I did a search through my library’s card catalog (from home. My older readers, remember when physical card catalogs existed? I have a scar on my left hand from dropping the H drawer on it. My library tattoo, if you will…) for Jewish books. There’s not a ton of fiction out there with a Jewish theme (beyond the hordes of Holocaust books, that is. Though there has been more non-Holocaust fiction lately, and I’m thankful for that!), so I was happy to stumble across Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn (Walker & Company, 1992). A historical romance with a Jewish bent? Sign me up!

Miriam’s parents want to marry her off, but she’s shocked by the pale, nerdy Torah scholar they’ve chosen for her and immediately proclaims her intentions to travel through Europe with her doctor uncle instead of marrying that guy, shocking everyone in the room and humiliating the young man. A decade later, her uncle has passed away and Miriam is stuck in France, thanks to the war between France and England. A deal struck with Jacob Rothschild to return her home teams her up with Isaac Cohen, a fellow Jew, and Felix, an antisemitic British aristocrat fallen on hard times. They’ll be smuggling some gold back into England on their long journey home, and the tension between the three- for various reasons- is enormous.

Difficulties befall the group constantly while traveling across France, and Miriam and the two men begin to work out their differences- kind of. She develops affections toward both of them, but in the end, she’ll have to make a choice- if they get home safely, that is.

Miss Jacobson’s Journey turned out to be a really entertaining read. Felix and other characters’ antisemitism was, obviously, unpleasant to read, but it was necessary to both further the plot and in order to be historically accurate. Historical fiction, oddly, can sometimes not age well, but despite having been published when I was twelve, this seemed just as fresh as though it were a new release. Carola Dunn’s voice reminded me distinctly of Tessa Dare, and this book was an enjoyable read the whole way through.

Miriam is a delightful character, headstrong and independent, curious about the inner workings of her religion/ethnicity that have been denied to her by dint of having been born female (it wasn’t considered proper for women to learn Torah back then and Miriam’s curiosity and Felix’s ignorance of anything Jewish make for interesting educational bits that help further the plot). Isaac is sweet and proper; Felix, while being a smarmy oaf, makes decent strides in becoming a better person. And journeying through France in the 18-teens made for a wonderful literary field trip while being stuck in the house due to freezing temps and Omicron.

Visit Carola Dunn’s website here.

fiction

Book Review: The Simplicity of Cider by Amy E. Reichert

I’ve cleared out my email recently and have been back to reading the constant onslaught of emails from places like BookRiot. This, as you can imagine, is not great for my TBR! It was in one of those emails that I learned about The Simplicity of Cider by Amy E. Reichert (Gallery Books, 2017). I don’t often pick up a book solely because of its setting, but this one intrigued me because the story is set in Door County, Wisconsin. My mother and my kids and I visited Door County a few years ago, well before the pandemic, and we had an absolutely wonderful time, so I was looking forward to taking an armchair vacation back there (you can read about our trip- lots of pictures!- over at my other blog). Unfortunately, the book fell a little flat for me.

Sanna Lund’s family has been growing apples in their orchard in Door County, Wisconsin for five generations now. It’s just her father and her; her mother skipped out when she was six, and her brother decided farm life wasn’t for him and reacts with disdain to everything about the orchard. Sanna’s new venture, creating hard cider from the heirloom trees, is her obsession, but financially, things aren’t great; the orchard isn’t pulling in nearly enough money to make ends meet.

Enter Isaac; he’s come to Door County with his young son Bass. Bass’s mother died and Isaac isn’t sure how to tell him; instead, he’s trying to give Bass one last summer of being a carefree kid. Isaac takes a job at the orchard (putting Bass to work as well), and pretty soon the sparks are flying between him and Sanna. But trouble is brewing; trees are being damaged around the orchard- purposely- and Sanna’s brother is obsessed with trying to get her to sell the land to a waterpark developer. There’s a lot more to creating cider than just sitting around waiting for apples to grow, and the orchard will be in trouble if Sanna doesn’t figure out a way to save it.

The orchard itself made this a nice setting for the book, but I didn’t find much of the story that gave it a real Door County feel, likely because 95% of the book took place at the orchard or the house on the orchard where Sanna and her father lived. Other than a few mentions of how isolated the community becomes in the winter, especially during times of heavy snow, the book could have been set in an orchard in just about any state. While the setting was pleasant, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for when I picked the book up; Sanna is an incredibly bitter character who doesn’t want much to do with the community around her, and her lack of community ties made her kind of…boring.

Isaac is a whole mess. His ex-wife was an addict who died of an overdose, and instead of telling his son, he hightails it out of the state, death certificate in hand (but without actually dealing with his ex-wife’s remains, as a phone call from his mother later makes clear), unsure of how to tell his son that Mom is dead. He’s immediately attracted to Sanna, although she’s so distant and crabby that it’s hard to understand why. I didn’t connect with their romance at all, and the mystery of who was vandalizing the orchard was solved in a kind of bizarre, out-of-the-blue manner.

This one had potential, but didn’t quite make it for me. It may be a me problem, that I didn’t quite connect with the book in the way I wanted; there’s no major issues with the writing, I just wasn’t feeling it. And that’s fine. Not every book is for every reader, and this wasn’t mine.

Visit Amy E. Reichert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

I don’t often read the same author over and over again- not because I don’t have favorites or lack loyalty, just because there are just. so. many. authors out there that I want to read! But Renée Watson is one I’ve read a lot from recently (see here and here); I find her characters to be the perfect balance of flawed, yet aware of it and striving to do better. And the strong Black communities that appear in all of her novels are a fantastic place to spend time. Her Love Is a Revolution (Bloomsbury YA, 2021) is no different, and while it included a trope that usually makes me uncomfortable to read (thanks, anxiety!), the book is a thoughtful glimpse into the mind of a teenage girl that is still figuring out exactly who she is.

Nala’s not thrilled about her cousin Imani’s choice of birthday activity- an open mic night with her leadership group. Inspire Harlem, Nala feels, is filled with pushy do-gooders who make Nala feel like she’s not doing enough, but that’s just not her right now. But at the event, she meets Tye, the cute, idealistic new Inspire Harlem member, and suddenly, without even thinking Nala’s inventing a whole new version of herself, the vegetarian activist that she thinks Tye wants.

And he does. As she and Tye grow closer, Nala’s lies begin to rope in more of her family members and community, including her grandmother and the people at her senior living center. Nala knows she needs to come clean, but how do you admit that your entire relationship with someone is built on lies? When the truth comes out, Nala realizes she can’t love someone else without first loving herself, that knowing who she is and loving herself for it is the revolution she needs, and the only way she can move forward in all her relationships.

Such a powerful novel. The story begins with a lot of tension simmering under the surface. Nala has lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousin for years; her mother was struggling to care for her for various reasons and their relationship was strained, and while Nala gets alone well with her relatives, things have been tense with her cousin Imani, who is rarely at home these days. Nala feels deep pressure to be who her family wants her to be, but she’s not sure that that matches up with who she really is. Tye appears in her life at the perfectly wrong moment, but she’s so attracted to him that without thinking, she lies to him about who she really is, something she knows immediately is wrong, but once those lies are out there, Nala’s not sure how to stop.

The strength of Nala’s relationship with her grandmother and the residents of her senior living community was really sweet to read. She lies to Tye that she’s a volunteer coordinator there, but she’s really just visiting and spending time there out of love, and that alone was touching. And for all Nala’s disdain for Inspire Harlem, the group’s enthusiasm and dedication really got me thinking. What groups are like that where I live? How can I get involved in something like that? A group focused on creating an environmentally sound community, while creating teen leaders who will feel confident enough to take charge on a larger scale in the future? Absolutely! What an amazing idea, and I hope there are plenty of groups out there exactly like this.

I’m usually not a huge fan of books that use lying as a means of furthering the plot, but this worked well; Nala’s clearly anxious about constantly having to scramble to mold her real life around the lies that she’s told, and when she’s forced to come clean, she realizes the implications of everything and makes the right decisions about taking a step back and working on herself. She makes mistakes, but she owns them, and she’s a fabulous example of thoughtfulness and strength for teen (and adult!) readers.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen

There’s been a lot going around lately about censorship- parents getting their drawers in a twist about the books available to their kids, folks calling for book burnings (I wish I were exaggerating there). BookRiot has a great article on how to fight censorship; I’ve started virtually attending my library’s board meetings because of this, just so I can be up to date with everything that’s going on and be prepared to lend a hand if needed (because yup, this is in my area as well). It was in that BookRiot article that I learned about Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018). The article’s description of how a Christian group challenged the book piqued my curiosity and I put a hold on it at my library that day.

Jack Rothman is seventeen and the resident sex expert of his friend group. He’s queer, confident, and not afraid to be himself, whether that’s sporting a new shade of eyeliner, suggesting a one-time hook-up with another guy, or putting his very active sex life out there for everyone to read about in his new advice column for a not-school-sponsored website published by one of his best friends. He’s unapologetically himself at all times, which often makes him fodder for the school gossip mill, and which doesn’t always sit well with him, but he never lets it stop him from being who he is.

But Jack is getting letters- secret admirer letters, it seems at first, but then they take on a creepier bent. The author of the letter claims to love Jack, but they want to change him and everything that makes him him…and that’s not okay. When the letters start threatening his mother and the emotional health of his friends, Jack knows he has to figure out who’s sending these, and fast.

It’s easy to see why more conservative parents are clutching their pearls over this book. Jack is openly gay, loves sex of all kinds, and bends gender norms in order to most fully express himself- all things that sort of people dislike. (Cry me a river, folks. How other people choose to express themselves has, quite literally, NOTHING to do with you.) To be fully honest, when I first started reading this book, I was a little surprised as well- Lev Rosen doesn’t hold back at all. There are open, frank discussions of sex of all sorts- gay, straight, group, oral, and more- and reading this with my 41-year-old-parent-of-a-7-year-old-and-a-19-year-old eyes, my first instinct was to go, “WHOA.”

And then I stopped and thought about it.

What was I doing when I was Jack’s age, after years of attending a religious school?

OH YEAH. Working in a video rental store that also had a room for adult videos.

At 17, I was listening to hallway gossip about who slept with whom at weekend parties, and what dating couples at my school did and didn’t do sexually (to be fair, this kind of stuff started when I was like 13, at my very small religious school). Between that and the titles of the adult movies I rented out to various customers (including one man who later turned out to be very religious- which I learned because I started dating his son. Awkward), there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t heard about as a teenager, the intended audience of this book. How much more is this true for today’s teens, who have grown up as digital natives, with the internet and all its various contents piped directly into their homes and sometimes bedrooms 24/7?

If anything, this book exists not only to give kids the message that it’s a good thing to be yourself, no matter what that is, but to give kids correct information. All the advice Jack gives in his column and to his friends is safe, medically sound, and ethical. He speaks a lot about consent, respect, and not doing things unless you truly want to. He’s there to empower his readers in order for them to make the best decisions for themselves, with as much information possible. Kids are going to be getting information about sexual topics- they’re coming from all angles at kids these ages: friends, movies, the internet, the media. This book is, at the very least, unbiased and accurate in its information, and that’s what teenagers deserve. Teenagers have questions about sex. In the best-case scenario, they’ll come to us as parents with these questions, but it’s no surprise if they feel they can’t (and it’s our fault for not fostering the kind of relationship with them in which they feel they can come to us with those questions). If your kids don’t come to you, where do you want them getting that information? Because, guaranteed, they’ll get it, and the source might not be accurate, putting your child at risk.

Jack is a great character. He doesn’t waver in who he is, though he is spooked into toning it down a bit when his stalker ramps up their game and gets really creepy. He’s supportive of his friends (and knows when he’s hogging the limelight and needs to allow them space to shine). He’s honest, both with himself and with the people around him, and he does his best to bridge that awkward gap that exists between teenage boys and their mothers, even though it’s tough.

My only complaint with the book is the ending felt a little anti-climactic. The identity of Jack’s stalker felt a little out-of-nowhere for me. It left me just the tiniest bit deflated, after what was a truly excellent book about a teenager who exists outside most of what’s considered the norm and is entirely comfortable with that.

If you’re reading this book as an adult, my suggestion is to put your adult eyes away and dig out your teenage eyes, the ones you used when you were full of questions about life and sex and identity. Read it with the eyes of a teenager constantly bombarded with messages about what they’re supposed to do and who they’re supposed to be, with people shaming them for who they are and what they feel. My guess is that there are a lot of kids who will feel validated by this book, who will see that having questions and feelings about sex doesn’t make them bad or disgusting or sinful, it makes them developmentally normal.

If your instinct is that this book doesn’t belong on the shelves at all, that no one’s kids should be reading it, that’s a you problem. If you don’t want YOUR kids reading it, that’s on you as a parent. BE A PARENT and monitor your kid’s reading materials- that’s your prerogative as a parent and I fully support your right to allow or not allow this book in your home. But your rights end there, and the availability of this book at local libraries has nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, don’t check it out. If you don’t want your teenager reading it, monitor what they’re bringing home from the library. But parent your own child, not everyone else’s. That’s not your job, and you’re not making the world any safer by ensuring that other teens have less information.

I commend Lev Rosen for the bravery it took to write this book and put it out there, knowing the kind of stir it would cause. Thank you for being the voice teenagers need and answering the questions a lot of them have nowhere else to ask.

Visit Lev AC Rosen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma

When someone mentioned Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words (Chai Masala Club #1) by Annika Sharma (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2021) on Twitter a few weeks ago, I immediately added it to my TBR (this is why I can’t get my TBR down any further, y’all!). I love books with characters who come from different cultures or sub-cultures than I do, and the premise of a series centered around a friend group whose members are all different versions of Indian (two are Indian American, one is British Indian, and another was born and raised in India but lives in America now) intrigued me. Seriously great Indian rep right there. There was a lot to enjoy here, but the story itself fell a little flat for me.

Kiran grew up in a small village in India, the daughter of parents who sacrificed her whole life so that she could be educated and successful. Her older sister Kirti was disowned after her wedding to a man from a lower caste; her village didn’t approve, and thus to avoid the shame it would bring on the family and the lessening of Kiran’s chances in life, the family banished her. Kiran has since become a successful engineer in New York City, but she’s weighted down by her responsibilities and her parents’ expectations.

Enter Nash, a blond psychologist who just moved to the city from- of course- Nashville. He’s Kiran’s new neighbor with family drama of his own, and as they strike up a friendship, Kiran feels like she might be falling in love for the first time. Which is big time not good, since Nash is white and American- definitely not on her parents’ approval list. Her friends are there for her when she struggles with her options, and there for her when her parents cast her away as well. It’s only when an emergency happens thousands of miles away that everyone learns the power of family, forgiveness, and love.

I loved the premise of this, the closeness of the friend group, and their diversity of experience (both in terms of work experience and life experience; so many different and beautiful connections to India); their support for Kiran and each other; their constant text messages; and the fact that there’s a GUY in this friend group! (I’m super curious as to what Akash’s love story will look like.) Kiran’s sense of duty to her parents, especially in the light of what happened with her older sister, is admirable; her struggle with that sense of duty is realistic and relatable. I did want her and Nash to work out as a couple, since she obviously loved him, and I was pulling for them.

Nash is…a little on the bland side, to be honest. For having a doctorate in psychology, he seemed deeply unaware of how to handle cultural differences and unable to fully grasp most situations from Kiran’s point of view. For someone so highly educated, I would have expected him to start delving deeply into some cultural studies and making an effort to understand what made Kiran the woman she is, where she came from and what life was and is like there, but nope, nothing. He just…fumbled here and there. Not exactly my ideal hero. And really, he has no excuse. Nashville, for its being a blue dot in a red (RED RED RED) sea, is a deeply multicultural city. I lived on the outskirts for five years and was constantly in Nashville proper, where my husband worked. There are multiple synagogues; a large Muslim population; a Somali community; and among many, many others, an Indian community. There are many excellent Indian restaurants in Nashville (two of my favorites were within walking distance of Vanderbilt, where Nash graduated from (and where my husband worked, so I’m intimately familiar with the area. He 100% would have known about them; they’re both really popular. I often say those two restaurants are the only thing I miss about living there). If Nash was as oblivious as he seemed, it wasn’t because he lived in Nashville and attended Vanderbilt University; he would’ve had to work pretty hard to avoid the cultural mosaic around him.

It felt to me as though the story went from cutesy-first-butterflies scene to Nash and Kiran admitting their feelings and ending up immediately in bed (all fade-to-black; zero open door scenes) very quickly; I never got a good sense of why they liked each other and had a hard time feeling much chemistry at all between the two. This may be because I didn’t feel like I connected with the writing style well, but I also felt that the writing itself lacked sparkle. Too much telling and not enough showing for me.

This was just okay; I had hoped for a little bit more, to be honest.

Visit Annika Sharma’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Ah, Twitter. Land of intense debate, mocking quips, up-to-the-moment news, adorable animal pictures, and far, far more book recommendations than I have time for. It was just a few weeks ago- September 11th, to be exact- when I learned of the existence of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (Quill Tree Books, 2021). It was a fitting date for the book to be shared and to go onto my TBR, since the story deals with the anniversary of 9/11 and Muslim families. My library had a copy in the New Books section of the middle grade books, and, desperately needing some fiction (I feel like I’ve read so little fiction this past year!), I grabbed it on my last library trip. My library is excellent about promoting diverse books; we live in a really amazing diverse community, but honestly, diversifying their collection should be a goal of every library out there. When we learn about each other, we understand what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes, and that makes the world a better place.

Yusuf Azeem is a new middle schooler in the small town of Frey, Texas, nervous for this school year, but excited about the prospect of finally being able to participate in a well-known robotics competition for his school’s team. But tensions are high among his family and his Muslim community as a whole, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, something Yusuf, who was born well after 2001, doesn’t fully understand until his uncle gives him his journal from 2001, when he was a boy. As he reads his uncle’s entries, Yusuf learns about the Islamophobia his community experienced, the hatred they felt, his uncle’s best friend who turned against him. Yusuf better begins to understand the strain everyone around him is feeling.

Things aren’t great in Frey. While Yusuf works diligently with his robotics team, nasty notes appear in his locker, a local group purporting to be patriots begins to threaten the Muslim community’s new mosque, his father’s store is vandalized, and Yusuf is repeatedly bullied by a fellow student (and he’s not the only victim). Saadia Faruqi has penned a novel that will have readers understanding the effects of hatred and fear on families, communities, and friendships.

This book has a more positive ending than a lot of real-life stories. Ms. Faruqi stated she wanted to show what life could be like when a community steps up and does the right thing, and I think that’s not only an excellent message, but that this book provides an excellent blueprint for what it looks like to do the right thing, from Yusuf’s gentle parents, the pastor who doesn’t back down, the friend who realizes he was wrong, the principle who steps in to change school policy. There are a lot of examples of missteps in this book, but there are far, far more examples of characters who recognize their errors and who work hard to make things right. And that’s how things should be.

Yusuf is a well-developed character. He’s a diligent student with varied interests, and his affection for his much younger sister is really sweet to read. His friend group is diverse, with distinct characteristics (one boy who’s more religious than Yusuf, another who is dead-set on assimilation, a girl who’s initially miffed at her role in the robotics club but who totally rocks it, a relative of the school’s and town’s biggest bully who changes throughout the story), and his religious community is complex, varied, and interesting. I enjoyed the scenes set in Sunday school (Islamic teaching classes for kids that happen on Sunday; my synagogue also has Sunday school for kids! Just religious school on Sunday), and Yusuf’s relating the lessons he learned there to the events happening in his daily life.

The Islamophobia is painful to read, no doubt. Yusuf’s family and friends suffer (and suffered in the past) due to people’s fear and misunderstanding about their religion and culture. Even the microaggressions, such as Yusuf’s teacher calling him up in front of the class to explain an Islamophobic incident in school, as though he were the authority on all things Muslim simply because he’s Muslim himself, show his distress well (teachers and other folks, don’t do this to your students!). If this were a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to read about other people’s pain in order to fully understand it, but I hope that this book makes clear how harmful it is to disregard the feelings of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the pain it causes them when we stand on the sidelines instead of coming to their aid.

Homeschoolers, this is an excellent teaching tool if you’re doing a unit on September 11th, and it would make an AMAZING parent-child read together or book club selection. (DO NOT put your Muslim members on the spot, though! If anything, ask them privately if they’d like to share anything about their experiences, but don’t expect them to put their pain on display as a teaching tool. PLEASE.) Heads up for several mentions of COVID, including mention of a family death in the year prior; COVID is over during the telling of this story, so I’m guessing either the references were added in afterwards, or the book was finished in the days when we expected this would be a much shorter-lived experience.

Wonderful, wonderful book that I can’t recommend highly enough, both for the middle grade to early YA set, and for adults as well.

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’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

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.