fiction · YA

Book Review: Who I Was With Her by Nita Tyndall

Secret time!

In high school, I had a terrible, terrible crush on this guy. It wasn’t something anyone really knew about; while we later became friends due more to circumstance than anything, I couldn’t even speak to him, couldn’t hardly look at him, my anxiety was so terrible. But hoooooooooo boy, did I like him, for years. And, because anxiety is so much fun, my brain worried about how I would cope if the unthinkable happened and he died. How would I manage my grief since no one knew how much I had liked him? How would I get through daily life carrying all that pain that no one had any reason to suspect I had? When I heard about the premise of Who I Was with Her by Nita Tyndall (HarperTeen, 2020), I gasped; someone had written my book, or a version of it! Immediately it went onto my TBR.

Who I Was with Her starts off with a moment of shock: Maggie is dead, a fact Corinne overhears from her cross country teammates, and which throws her into a full-blown nightmare, because Maggie was her girlfriend, a girlfriend no one knew she had. They’d been dating for a year, and, living in the south, Corinne hadn’t been comfortable coming out. She’d already had a lot on her plate, adjusting to living in a new place, her newly divorced parents, her alcoholic mother. Adding her community’s homophobia onto the pile felt like it was too much, so Corinne kept her bisexuality and Maggie under wraps.

But now Maggie is gone and Corinne’s grief is all-encompassing, but what do you do with grief no one knows you have? As Corinne begins to navigate life without Maggie, she gets to know Maggie’s brother and her ex-girlfriend (an ex Corinne had no idea existed), and she begins to confront some hard truths about who she is, what she wants, and what it takes to live authentically.

What a sad, heavy book, one that I’m so glad exists. Corinne is a complicated character; she has a lot going on in her life, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions, for herself or for others, but the decisions she makes are entirely understandable, given the context of what she’s been through the past few years. At times she can be selfish, but that’s what happens when your emotional needs aren’t taken into consideration by your parents; you’re forced to focus on yourself in order to survive. I dealt with some similar issues to Corinne when I was in high school and it still affects me to this day, so Corinne absolutely resonated with me.

The grief in this book is nearly tangible. Compound that with college stress, parent stress, school stress, sports stress, friend-group drama, and you have a main character who by all means should have been on the edge of a complete breakdown, but she does her best to hold it together, with not-always great outcomes. The book ends on a hopeful note; Maggie is obviously gone and never coming back, but Corinne has learned about herself, learned to advocate for herself, and has learned to be more honest, and she’s set for a better future. The pain is still there, but she has more tools to handle it, and the strong writing carries this to a bittersweet conclusion.

Who I Was with Her is a raw, honest book, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Visit Nita Tyndall’s website here.

Follow them on Twitter here.

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fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy

Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.

Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!

With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?

This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.

Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.

There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.

The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )

Visit Joanne Levy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Recommended for You by Laura Silverman

It was another of those ‘Jewish authors write Jewish YA with Jewish protagonists’ lists that introduced me to the existence of Recommended for You by Laura Silverman (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020), and who am I to pass one of those lists by? Jewish teenage heroine? Check. Set in a bookstore? Check. Cute-but-grumpy Jewish love interest? Check, check! And the story takes place during Christmas time (relevant to the story). How could this not end up on my list???

Shoshanna Greenberg is having a bit of a rough time. Her car has died (again), and her moms aren’t getting along at all. Things are tough and more than a little bit worrisome. But there’s always her job at Once Upon, a wonderful little bookstore, where Shoshanna feels at home and in control of everything. But all that’s about to change with the hiring of the new employee. Not only is Jake Kaplan grumpy and unfriendly, he’s not even a reader!!! How on earth did he get hired in the first place???

But things aren’t quite what they seem, with the moms, Shoshanna’s friends, and Jake. While Shoshanna may want to fix everything, she’s going to have to learn that some things are out of her control, and she’ll need to learn to look a little deeper in order to understand the full truth. When she overhears a conversation she’s not meant to and the future of Once Upon is uncertain, it’ll take teamwork to pull off the plan she’s thinking of.

Super cute YA with an amazing setting. Once Upon is located in a busy shopping mall during the busiest time of the year, which gives the book a certain feel of urgency, definitely adding to the stress Shoshanna’s already feeling about her life. The tension at home, her car and money troubles, and the new stress at work with the hiring of Jake Kaplan force her into a corner, and Ms. Silverman at first highlights Shoshanna’s immaturity, followed by her growth. Super solid character arc here, and I can always appreciate that.

The moms’ fighting and Shoshanna’s reaction to and panic over it is realistic, almost to the point that it’s stressful to read. Jake, annoying as first when seen only through Shoshanna’s initial limited perspective, develops into a thoughtful, insightful, and interesting character, and Shoshanna’s friend group and Once Upon employees are diverse, supportive, and fun to read.

Recommended for You is a fun, quick read with great Jewish and queer rep. And what more could readers ask for than a book set in a charming book store? *swoon*

Visit Laura Silverman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Reivew: Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

I was going through my email a few weeks ago when I came across one from the Jewish Women’s Archive. They hold a few virtual author talks every now and then, and I’ve attended quite a few, all of which have been fabulous. The email was announcing the newest round, and one of the books sounded familiar. I looked it up on Goodreads, and sure enough, it was on my TBR! I picked up Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (One World, 2020) from the library the next day and immersed myself in the world of art and disability activism.

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958. Her mother, a former researcher, recognizes her infant daughter’s spina bifida immediately. At this point in history, infants with disabilities like these aren’t expected to survive. Most are institutionalized, but Riva’s mother is sure she can care for her daughter’s complex medical needs. Riva becomes among the first of her generation with spina bifida to live to adulthood.

That doesn’t mean her life is easy. Everyone around her, including her family, defines her by her disability and by their own standards for her, constantly telling her that she’ll never have a romantic partner (she’s given a hysterectomy at age 15, ostensibly due to cysts, but disabled people were routinely sterilized at this point in history), she’ll never live alone, she’ll never hold down a real job. But she forges ahead anyway, living out her life as an artist, a queer person, whose disability affords a unique perspective of the world. Riva Lehrer’s art is displayed throughout the pages, offering the reader a journey through her career and the empowering way she views her friends and colleagues with disabilities.

This is a fabulous memoir (and it’s so beautifully Jewish!). Riva has lived a complex, fascinating life, and I wish I could sit down with her and hear more stories. She’s been through so many surgeries and medical procedures, and her success has obviously been hard-won; how could it not be in such an ableist society?

There are so many gems scattered throughout this book that provide such insight into what Ms. Lehrer’s life has been like, and what the world was like and how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t…) for those with disabilities. From the stories of her earliest days growing up in a hospital, to the way her parents and her teachers spoke to and about her, the dawning realization of her queerness and what that meant for her life, the casual mention of her countertop coming up to her mid-chest (the world really isn’t built for those whose bodies differ from the standard issue), her writing paints a very clear picture of a woman who has definitely struggled, but who has forged ahead despite not only the obstacles her health has presented, but those placed in front of her by both society and the people who loved her.

I really enjoyed this and was sad that it ended. Fascinating fact: I figured out about halfway through this book that Ms. Lehrer works (at least sometimes) in the same (very large!) building my husband does. I love when my reading life and real life collides. : )

Visit Riva Lehrer’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.

nonfiction

Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

A while back, there was an epic Twitter thread on all of (or at least, a LOT of) the books by South Asian authors coming out in 2020, and hoooooooooooooo boy, did a lot of books get added to my TBR that day! One of those books included The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, 2020). This book has it all: South Asian characters. LGBT rep. Strong sister relationship. Drama with the parents. Set in…Ireland??? NEAT! It’s been a while since I read fiction set there. Anyway, I finally got to it on my TBR and enjoyed the long days of reading it on my backyard swing (while sweating half to death, of course, because it’s super gross out here right now).

Nishat has come out to her parents, with less-than-stellar results. While there’s no screaming, no threatening, no plans to send her away, they’re cool, chilly, unable to understand why she can’t just change everything about who she is. Unexpectedly, Flávia, a friend she hasn’t seen since early grade school, shows back up in her life, and suddenly, Nishat’s in love. Only there’s a slight problem: Flávia turns out to be the cousin of Nishat’s archenemy at school. Ugh. No worries, though. Nishat’s not even sure if Flávia likes her that way, although signs are pointing to yes…

A business class project has the students forming their own businesses and competing over whose is more successful. Nishat decides, as a nod to her culture, to begin doing henna (painting henna designs on hands). She’s horrified to learn that Flávia, who is not Bengali (she’s Brazilian and Irish), has planned to do the same. Holy cultural appropriation, folks! Sabotage. Theft. Underhandedness. Destruction. Things get a little out of control in this competition, and Nishat isn’t always the person she wants to be. Nishat and her classmates have a lot to learn about and from each other, and maybe Mom and Dad will learn a few things as well.

There’s a lot going on in this story- Nishat’s relationship with her sister Priti, the pressure of exams at school, trying to maintain a relationship with a grandparent over Skype, race-based bullying, fighting with a friend group, a strained relationship with parents over cultural issues, cultural appropriation- but somehow, it all works. Nishat is a typical teenager who doesn’t always make the best choices; she’s impulsive under pressure, a little selfish at times, and occasionally leaps to conclusions. But she’s also dedicated and optimistic, and all of this makes her a well-rounded character.

Her relationship with younger sister Priti, who is sometimes the more mature of the two, is the kind that will make you wish you had a younger sister (if you don’t. I do not). Priti stands by her side no matter what, is always there to support her and offer up whatever Nishat needs, and calls her on her selfish behavior when the situation warrants it. Priti is very much the voice of reason here, and I loved her.

The bullying is painful to read. There are obvious content warnings here for racism and homophobia, and one for a forced outing, which can be upsetting (kudos to Ms. Jaigirdar, who has this warning written into the opening pages. I love that these kinds of heads-ups are becoming the norm). When you’re able to handle these topics, this is a kaleidoscope of a novel, with all the issues moving and sliding around each other to become one colorful design that fits together perfectly.

Super fun YA with great multi-dimensional characters in an interesting setting. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Jaigirdar.

Visit Adiba Jaigirdar’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron

“What’s your pronoun?”

She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.

Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.

English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)

While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).

Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.

Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:

‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.

Fascinating! I never knew that!

Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊

Visit Dennis Baron’s blog here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.