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 · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. Sánchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. Sánchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Eyes On Me- Rachel Harris

A YA romance that includes ballroom dancing? YES PLEASE.

While I’ve never participated in it, I have a special place in my heart for ballroom dancing, as it shows up in a pivotal scene in my current WIP (thank you to all the people who have filmed performances and instruction and uploaded these videos to YouTube!), so learning about Eyes On Me by Rachel Harris (Entangled Teen, 2019), a YA romance with ballroom dancing, had me rushing to add it to my TBR.

Lily Bailey is a lot of things- high school senior, serious student, klutzy nerd, secret tutor to jocks, a daughter grieving the death of her mother- but ‘person interested in ballroom dancing’ doesn’t make that list. After her dedication to her studies sends her stress levels high enough to hospitalize her, her father, from whom she’s been feeling alienated ever since her mother’s death, demands that she take up some sort of stress-relieving hobby and suggests her mother’s favorite, ballroom dancing. Lily, who can barely walk down a flight of stairs without ending up in a heap at the bottom, isn’t so sure about this, but reluctantly agrees, while making plans to wriggle out of it as soon as possible.

Enter Stone Torres, super hot quarterback and dancing son of the studio’s owner. When Lily’s dad offers Stone a ton of money in order to become Lily’s permanent dance partner, Stone can’t say no: the studio, his mother’s dream, is in serious trouble, and he’ll do what he has to in order to help out, even if it feels wrong. But Lily turns into more than just a responsibility to Stone; there’s something about her that tugs at his heart and sets it on fire. A showcase at the dance studio might be the key to drumming up new business and saving Stone’s mother’s dream, but how will he ever come clean to Lily about how their relationship began?

What a sweet, fun book! There wasn’t quite as much ballroom dancing as I would have liked, but Ms. Harris writes some incredible female friendships. At the start, Lily really only has her best friend Sydney, but Stone’s twin sister Angela quickly joins the group, and her health issues add emotion and depth. There’s some Mean Girl-esque action stemming from Stone’s ex-girlfriend (whom I could never totally buy into being a contender for valedictorian; with as hard as Lily worked to maintain her GPA and class ranking, I never got the same impression with the ex, whose name I can’t remember- Cameron, maybe???), but the Lily/Sydney/Angela friend group really helps keep the Nasty Perfect Ex trope from overpowering the rest of the story.

Lots of emotion going on in this book. Lily is still grieving the death of her mother. Her father, who obviously cares for her, has had a hard time being open about his grief, and the two haven’t been able to forge a connection since. Lily buries her grief by working so hard that she makes herself physically ill and suffers from panic attacks; Angela is a childhood cancer survivor; Stone struggles with reconciling his image as SuperCool Popular Football Player, which is what his football-obsessed town wants him to be, with his ability to dance and who he really wants to be; Stone’s close friend and teammate is ashamed he needs Lily to tutor him and enlists Lily to hide this secret; Stone’s parents are deeply worried about the future of the studio. There’s a lot going on here, but Ms. Harris pulls it all together seamlessly and turns it all into a charming story of two people falling in love and healing themselves while doing the Salsa.

(Shorter review than normal, but would you believe- you guessed it- I’M SICK AGAIN. My son felt crummy two days on vacation, and as we were driving home, my daughter developed the equivalent of the whitewater rapids of snotty noses. She was up all last night coughing, and she’s coughed so hard she threw up twice. I’ve got a sore throat, a cough, and a runny nose. We can’t catch a break around here. I feel like I’m playing Where’s Waldo? with our immune systems…)

What are your feelings on ballroom dancing? Have you ever participated, or do you have two left feet and run screaming at the very idea? Do you watch Dancing with the Stars? Do you dream of being able to cha-cha and samba while wearing ankle-breaking heels? I’ve never done any ballroom dancing, but I have to admit, I wish I could!

Visit Rachel Harris’s website here. (As I’m writing this post, the website isn’t coming up for me; hopefully it will in the future!)

Follow her on Twitter here.