Tag: Simon&Schuster

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

I’ve said many times before but I love a good WWII novel.  I don’t know what it is about this time period that I find so fascinating, even after studying it for years in college.  And, thanks to the DBC, I’ve actually started reading more Middle-Grade and younger YA.  I saw My Real Name is Hanna and knew I had to read it. A hot second later, Lifeboat 12 popped up on Netgalley and I requested it too.

Thank you to NetGalley, Mandel Vilar Press, and Tara Lynn Masih for My Real Name is Hanna and Netgalley, Susan Hood, and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for Lifeboat 12. I enjoyed both books and am happy to post these honest reviews.

My Real Name Is Hanna
My family told stories. We swallowed them in place of food and water. Stories kept us alive in our underground sanctuary. The world continued to carry out its crimes above us, while we sought just to remain whole below.

Hanna’s story is set in Ukraine which made me assume her town would have been subject to Soviet occupation–I know significantly less about the countries that came under the rule of the Soviet Union since Between Shades of Gray is the only novel I’ve read of this time period (though I am interested in more if you want to leave me suggestions in the comments!).  Instead, Hanna’s town, while briefly occupied by the Soviet army, spent more time under Nazi rule.  Of course, anti-Semitism wasn’t new with the Nazis–there were already anti-Semites in town whose feelings were exploited by both the Soviets and Nazis.

The book is told in three parts—The Shtetele, The Forest, and The Caves. The Shtetle sets the stage—Hanna’s family is more privileged than many, with a nice house and a father who is respected and needed for his skills by the non-Jewish families in town. When the book opens, the war has already started but is just beginning to touch Hanna and her family. Rumors begin and mysterious people show up to hide in Hanna’s barn. Hanna is just turning fourteen—that age where so much of her remains a child still, and yet she is old enough to begin to understand what is happening. Old enough to be pulled into the secrets necessary to keep her family and her people safe.

When the town is no longer a safe place, Hanna’s family flees to the woods, to an abandoned cabin. The family has to stay inside most of the time, prepared to flee at any moment. While food was scare in the town, in the forest is where the march to hunger really begins. The family must ration food and even their own energy since they cannot consume enough calories to keep them on their feet all the time. As the Nazis move in, the family and several neighbors from a nearby cabin are forced literally underground, into an extensive network of caves.

The real family this story is based on lived the last 511 days of the war in an underground cave system, with the women and children living entirely underground, never seeing sunshine or feeling even the slightest breeze. Hanna’s family is much the same, with her father or uncle venturing out very rarely to obtain whatever food they might possibly find to bring back to the starving families below ground.

Even underground, the family lives in fear of being caught and is, at one point, walled in to the cave by townspeople.  Even before this moment, many of the townspeople were not just bystanders but actively participated in the hunting down and killing–either outright or through starvation or deportation to the ghettos and camps–of their neighbors.  My Real Name is Hanna is realistic in this regard and does not hide that neighbors are turning each other in.  On the flip side, there are characters who help the family hide, at great cost and risk to themselves.  This is perhaps the aspect of the book that may be the most troubling to younger readers—while the history here is accurate and a topic worth discussion, it is something that would require discussion with parents or other adults reading the book. May we be encouraged, and encourage younger generations, to chose to be the helpers in the face of injustice, even when the cost to ourselves is high.

My Real Name is Hanna sits somewhat squarely in between Middle-Grade and YA (in my opinion). The audience for this book is probably right around middle school readers, with mature fourth to fifth graders able to handle the writing and themes, though too far into high school and the writing may feel a bit young for older readers. This is a book I recommend, particularly for those who are interested in areas like the Ukraine, which is featured less in WWII fiction than areas like France or even Poland yet suffered heavy losses—only 5% of Ukranian Jews survived, only 2% of Western Ukranian Jews with almost no families intact. It is a book with a powerful message of responsibility for our neighbors—this is a book to be discussed, not simply read.

Published: September 15, 2018 (September 18th for Kindle), available for pre-order now from Mandel Vilar Press
Author: Tara Lynn Masih (@taralynnmasih)
Date read: August 26, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Lifeboat 12
Lifeboat 12 is a middle-grade novel in verse told from the point of view of a survivor of the S.S. City of Benares, a boat carrying children being evacuated from London that was sunk by a German U-Boat in September 1940.

Lifeboat 12 is also structured in three parts—Escape, Adrift, and Rescue. Escape sets up the dangerousness of life in London during the Blitzkrieg, Ken’s feeling of being unwanted by his stepmother, and the boarding and sinking of the ship. Adrift is the story of the eight days the survivors spent at sea. And Rescue is exactly what it sounds like—it is the boy’s return home, a return from the grave for their parents had been notified they had been lost at sea. While these three sections make for a hefty book—336 pages—because the story is told in verse, this was a quick read. Hood’s poetry lends the story a spare quality—the narrator is a twelve year-old boy so there are no flowery turns of phrase here. Each of the words seemed chosen for maximum impact, so that I might have only read fifty words on a page, yet the scene was as richly set and the characters as alive as if they were right next to me. The poetry also lent a more dramatic air—with portions of the book feeling as if they were pulled straight from an adventure novel.

Ken is a charming narrator—he’s a boy’s boy, obsessed with planes and always willing to give some help to a pal. Unlike most other narrators in WWII books I’ve read, Ken’s family is poor—I feel like I’ve read novels where everyone was effected by wartime rationing and scarcity, but I’m not sure I’ve read a book where the main character was poor before the book started—where liver was once or twice a week luxury. He represented an under-represented class in WWII narrators. He also doesn’t have a perfect family life—he’s fairly convinced his stepmother can’t stand him and this plan to send him to Canada is partly just to get him out of the house since she doesn’t like him. My heart ached for him when he talked about feeling unloved—while Ken does realize she cares for him by how she reacts when he comes home, my one criticism of Lifeboat 12 is that more wasn’t done with this relationship. With so many kids coming from blended families, books with boys Ken’s age who come to realize that their stepmothers really do care feel necessary.

I knew Lifeboat 12 was based on a true story, but I didn’t realize just how closely Hood stuck to the truth until I read the Author’s Note and afterward. Ken Sparks was a real survivor and the book is based on Hood’s interviews with him as well as her extensive research on the S.S. City of Benares. The Note and afterward are necessary reading—if you pick up this gem, you can’t stop reading at the end of the novel.

Because it is so closely based on fact, I recommend Lifeboat 12 for kids (or adult middle-grade readers) who like books about historical events and adventure tales. The sinking of the S.S. City of Benares was another event I had no knowledge of—Lifeboat 12 was an enjoyable introduction to the event (if one can say learning about a devastating loss of life is in any way enjoyable). This is Hood’s first middle-grade novel after a successful career as a picture book author. I can’t wait to see where she goes next for her middle-grade-and-up readers.

Published: September 4, 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Hood (@shoodbooks21)
Date read: September 7, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

Featured Image credit: Jonas Jacobsson

Review: Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza

Review: Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza

I received a free e-version of Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for their generosity in providing a copy for me to review and, because I thoroughly enjoyed Charlotte Walsh, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Charlotte Walsh likes to win—she’s the Chief Operating Officer of a Silicon Valley technology company, mother of three under six, and best-selling author. She’s set her sights on replacing her home-state’s incumbent senator—a serial philanderer who still manages to cinch tight his Bible belt every Sunday morning, his latest half-his-age wife shining in pastels and pearls beside him. Charlotte returns to Pennsylvania with her less-than-enthused husband Max, her children, and old dog in tow. Yet, as the race heats up, the attacks turn nastier, leaving Charlotte desperately hiding one last secret and wondering whether she and her family will still be standing come election day.

Shortly after I finished Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, I came across an Instagram post that called it “The book I didn’t know I needed to read after the 2016 Election.” That quote sums up in its entirety how I felt about Charlotte Walsh (and if it was you who said that or you know who it was, please comment below so I can credit you). I remember beginning that night in November 2016 texting with a friend who planned to travel to DC with me to see the first woman president be sworn in—we had our inauguration tickets, our lodging in DC worked out. We just needed to buy our plane tickets after Hillary was declared (Thank the universe we waited to buy those tickets). And then the growing feeling of disbelief until, finally, I went to bed shortly after eleven central time feeling shell-shocked and empty. I still question how we have gotten ourselves to this point—to the point where we have a president who aligns himself with David Duke and equates protestors with literal Nazis marching in the street. I realize this shock is the shock of privilege—I knew things were bad. But I thought they were bad in pockets; I thought the arc of history was steadily trucking towards justice. Timing is everything of course—Piazza’s book wouldn’t have had nearly the resonance it did if it weren’t published now—on the even of the midterms when hopes are riding high for a blue wave. Indeed, I don’t think Piazza would have even written this book had it not been for that night in November 2016—in many ways Charlotte Walsh feels like Piazza sharing how she wrote herself out of that shock and disappointment.

Charlotte is everything I wanted her to be. She is the kind of woman who can pull off this kind of campaign—which is to say she’s already incredibly rich and powerful in her own right. She’s taking names, not excuses. As an attorney, I receive my (un)fair share of side-eye when I’m assertive or, dare I say, bossy. Charlotte is a next-level boss, and yet, because it seems like every woman who dares put a little steel in her backbone gets a side-eye (particularly here in The South), Charlotte feels relatable, even to us little-b bosses. Sexism is, unfortunately, a seemingly universal experience for those of us with two X chromosomes, and the intensity she receives doesn’t make Charlotte less relatable.

I also applaud Piazza for making Charlotte not a size two and occasionally a sweaty mess when she has to do things like wear a blazer outside in August while judging a pie-eating contest.   I read that particular scene and could practically feel my sweat glands chime in with empathy—I know what it’s like to have to wear a long-sleeved suit in a Texas court in August. You have to wring out your coat just crossing the street to get back to your car.

Charlotte’s relationship to her husband Max was a major element of the book and created much of the tension in the plot.   Charlotte didn’t marry a house-husband. This is a marriage of two alphas, with the campaign forcing the issue of who gets to be first. In any relationship built on equality, that decision should be made jointly and with equal decision-making power. It isn’t so much that you should “take turns” but rather that the person whose needs are greater in any given moment should take precedence. When all things are equal, “needs” includes choices that would further a career or fulfill a dream. And yet, that’s always easier said than done. Having been the subordinate in an unequal marriage, it chafes to be the person on the bottom. Max becomes the subordinate to Charlotte during the year and a half she runs and that causes the friction you’d imagine. As a reader, Max’s attitude made me feel for Charlotte. I understood that Max didn’t like how the new role felt –neither do we Max when its forced on us—but it was Charlotte’s time. He agreed to this trip, so he needs to keep his hands and feet inside the car at all times until it stops moving.

There is, of course, a scandal that Charlotte is hiding. The existence of the scandal felt predictable—there had to be some looming threat, something to create the climax in the campaign besides election night itself. Piazza gets a pass there from me for the predictability. You knew it was coming (but not what it was) but there wasn’t really another way to create the tension the book needed.

And holy smokes was the scandal bigger than I could have guessed. Charlotte’s inner fretting and sweating told me it was big. But…wow. And yet, here is where Piazza almost lost me. The scandal made Charlotte unlikeable. I get that it had to. It needed to be the kind of scandal that could threaten the election so it had to be the kind that would drive people away from her, make her seem unrelatable. I get it. But gosh darn it, I don’t have to like it.

This book fits squarely within the camp of popular-lit, a category in which I don’t often find myself (#UnapologeticBookSnob #ButOnlyInMyChoices #ReadWhatYOULike). Reading the synopses of some of Piazza’s other work, I have no reason to doubt they’re as strongly written as Charlotte Walsh, but they probably aren’t my cup of tea. Charlotte Walsh had that hook, though. Piazza told a story I wanted and needed to hear. It was engaging without being fluffy. It was easy to read while still being tightly-written and well edited. It’s a book I recommend for readers wanting a book that feels immediately relevant, with flawed but relatable characters. It’s a book I recommend for any woman who went to bed on that night in November 2016 feeling empty and sick. There is a way forward and it starts with you getting your butt to the polls in November. And maybe it continues with you running. If Charlotte Walsh can do it, so can you.

To confirm you are registered to vote and find your poling place, you can check here. With all of the voter suppression happening, please confirm now that you are still registered to vote—even if you voted in the last election. And then get your butt to the polls in November. <3

Let us vote in such overwhelming numbers that we show everyone who much we love our country, how much we love our people, how much we love peace, how much we love life itself. -Nelson Mandela

Published: July 24, 2018 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Jo Piazza (@jopiazzaauthor)
Date read: July 19, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

DBC February: Living with Chronic Illness

The Diverse Books Club theme for February was Living with Chronic Illness. The selections were a middle-grade novel about a boy with cystic fibrosis, Caleb and Kit, and Left Neglected, a book about a women who has it all and is doing it all until an accident leaves her with a traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the middle-grade option this month more than the adult pick, though the adult pick had the unfortunate luck of being measured against Still Alice, an earlier book the author wrote.

Caleb and Kit
I looked up to the branches of the huge trees above me. Two long, thick trunks soared straight to the sky and then curved away from each other. I had heard once about trees that do that—live side by side but bend away to share the sun. They are buddies. They could stick close, but if they do, eventually one will struggle to tower over the other, keeping the weaker, unluckier one in the shade. Instead if they’re really friends, they’ll bend apart. I wondered if it hurt, twisting away from your friend like that.

Caleb is twelve years old and he’s just about had it with being treated like a baby or like a walking, talking illness. His father’s gone, distanced himself from the day-to-day trouble of addressing and treating Caleb’s cystic fibrosis while his mother has taken the opposite tack and hovers constantly, sunscreen in one hand and a snack in the other. As if that weren’t bad enough, Caleb’s older brother’s perfection hovers like a storm cloud—not only is Patrick healthy but he gets straight As, plays the violin like a virtuoso, and is so good he choses to spend his summer fundraising for cystic fibrosis charities. Having cystic fibrosis has limited Caleb’s universe of friends somewhat, leaving him feeling left out until, one day, he meets Kit in the woods. Kit doesn’t treat him like he’s about to break, she takes his limits in stride—pushing him at times to move past them without ever commenting on them or treating them like they are limiting her or their fun. As Caleb escapes into Kit’s fairy world, forgoing the summer camp he should be at, Caleb starts to see things about Kit’s life that don’t make sense. That maybe aren’t safe.

People First
In Caleb and Kit, while Caleb’s CF is a big part of the story, it ultimately isn’t the main point. This isn’t a story about a boy with CF whose family learns to stop babying him or who learns his own limitations. The heart of the story, the unknown that drives the book forward, is Kit. As an adult reader I could quickly put two and two together and see that Kit is being alternately neglected and physically abused by her mother. This is why she’s frantic to escape in fairytale, nearly always hungry, and seems to be living for days at a time in the woods with no food or real shelter. The book is about Caleb recognizing what’s happening and what he does about it once he knows.

I loved Vrabel’s choice to structure her book this way. I work with people with disabilities (mostly intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness) and there has been a movement for many years to use people first language—a person with mental illness, a person who uses a wheelchair, and person with autism. The idea is that the disability doesn’t define you and you’re a person first. Vrabel’s structuring her book around a non-disability plot and having a character who has a disability as a main character felt like people-first writing. I loved the unassuming message this sends to the child readers the book is aimed at about kids with disabilities being kids first, kids who have their own lives and things going on, kids who are to be included albeit with some minor modifications to activities.

Caleb and Kit is a book I whole-heartedly recommend for middle-grade readers (or adults who enjoy middle-grade themselves). I can sometimes struggle with middle grade, to care what is happening next—in contrast Caleb and Kit was engaging and well written. I had no problem picking it up and wanting to keep reading. The characters are well developed and you really feel Caleb’s frustration at the ways his life has limited him. He makes some bad choices and is disobedient; however, those choices largely catch up to him with natural consequences that make the point that his choices were bad without it getting as intense as a book like Bridge to Terebithia, a book the forest scenes in Caleb and Kit called to mind. The themes and action are appropriate for younger middle-grade readers, so long as the adult is prepared to discuss the existence of child abuse (nothing graphic).

Published: September 12, 2017
Author: Beth Vrabel (@authorbethvrabel)
Date read: February 6, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Left Neglected

The first step in my recovery is to become aware of my unawareness…

Sarah Nickerson is living life at break-neck speed, working eighty-hour work weeks and mothering three children. Until suddenly the multitasking catches up to her, causing an accident that leaves Sarah with “left neglect”—a brain injury that causes her to entirely forget her left side even exists. As Sarah trains her brain to pay attention to a part of herself she’s never had to focus deliberate energy on, she is also forced to reckon with other areas of her life left long neglected, including her relationship with her mother.

Kind of a Niche Author
I was explaining the plot of Left Neglected to a coworker I talk books with and was explaining the general plots of some of Genova’s other books, including Still Alice. He commented that writing fiction books that center around brain disorders is sort of a weird niche. Admittedly, this hadn’t really occurred to me—I read a lot of Lurlene McDaniel tragedy-porn as a teenager so having an author write only about people with cognitive-related disorders didn’t strike me as terribly strange. My coworker’s comment prompted me to look up Lisa Genova—interestingly, she has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. Her other books have featured characters with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Autism, Huntington’s, and (in March) ALS.

This background certainly informs her writing—the science of her books seems well researched and not gimmicky (she doesn’t go for the rare but more “exciting” complications for the sake of plot). Her writing hits a spot between being scientifically authoritative and devastatingly human. I still remember picking up Still Alice one night at 10pm thinking I’d read a few chapters and be lights out by 10:30. Come 3am, I’m awake and sobbing as I finish the last chapters. Genova’s characters in Still Alice and Left Neglected (her two that I’ve read) feel like people I know or, even, people who could be me. While I felt that part of the power of Genova’s writing is the strong sense of identification I had with her characters, I should say here that in these two books, the main characters are high achieving, Ivy-League educated white women so it was fairly easy for me to identify with them. I have no way to know this for sure, but I suspect her characters may not seem as relatable to others and I don’t want to suggest that everyone should be able to see themselves in these characters. Regardless, I do think that even if you cannot see yourself in Genova’s characters, she sets up their back stories with sufficient detail that you can see the devastation the Alzheimer’s and then the traumatic brain injury has on each of these women and their lives such that you can grieve with them for what they lost.

“Happy” Ending (only very vague spoilers)
Looking at Genova’s other work (and omitting the book with the character with autism because I have no idea how she handled that topic, having not read the book), Genova’s books are ones that can rarely end happily—Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and ALS are all progressive and fatal, robbing the person of memories and/or bodily control. These stories can end peacefully but almost certainly not with something that would be considered a “happy” ending. The finality of those diseases constrains the ending of the books.

This isn’t true for a traumatic brain injury and this may be why the ending suffered the way it did for me. You’d think that having to end a book with a terminal disease would be more limiting; however, it seemed to me that being forced to end a book happily—not in the middle, not as tragedy, but with a redemptive note—was more limiting on Genova’s writing.

I don’t disagree with the way Genova ended her book—I think she did the right thing by having an ending that demonstrated that people with TBIs can still have fulfilling and happy lives. This ending though, can be seen from a mile away. Genova sets up Sarah’s “having it all life” complete with eighty-hour work weeks and three kids –a life incompatible with a traumatic brain injury that leaves her with permanent deficits. Sarah’s life before is an almost textbook example of what it means to be a working woman—an archetype so established in her extremes that you see the injury coming because there’s no way this woman is going to be able to keep up this pace. After the injury as Sarah begins to find ways to live around her limits, here too, you see the end coming a mile away. Genova can’t end this book with Sarah being depressed and never getting off the couch again. And yet, setting up the foundation for the life Sarah will learn to find fulfilling and enough when the book ends requires some sign posts that are so obvious as to be marquees for the resolution.

Take It or Leave It
I loved Still Alice and would recommend it to anyone that is in a place where they can read about Alzheimer’s. (It’s not a book for anyone currently going through it with a loved one or someone recently diagnosed). Left Neglected keeps this same style and attention to detail. It did feel like it dragged a bit for me and I and the rest of Goodreads saw the ending coming. Those flaws aren’t deal breakers though. Left Neglected has Genova’s impeccable writing and a strong female character that I enjoyed meeting and spending some time with. It’s not a book I felt wasted my time; however, it’s not going to make my best-of list any time soon.

Published: January 4, 2011
Author: Lisa Genova (@authorlisagenova)
Date read: February 1, 2018
Rating: 3 stars

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

“There’s things you think you know that you don’t.”
“Like what?”…
“Home ain’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Richie rubs his knuckles together. “I don’t know.”…
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived…it’s a wall. It’s a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air.”
“So what?” I whisper….
“This my way to find that.”
“Find what?”
“A song. The place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song.”

Thirteen year-old Jojo wants nothing more today than to be with Pop—for Pop to see him as a man and for his mother Leonie to leave him at home where Mam has only a few days left.  Instead, he’s being dragged north with his three year-old sister to retrieve his father from the state penitentiary, with a stop along the way for his mother and her friend to retrieve the drug that pulls her farther and farther from her family. When they finally reach their destination and return home, Jojo’s father Michael isn’t the only thing the family brings back from Parchman. On the way back, Jojo begins to see the form of a boy named Richie who served time in Parchman with Pop many years ago and whose story only Pop knows the end of.

Pacing and word choice
As the book opens, Jojo is at home with his Pop, Mam, and little sister Kayla—the pacing slow, but not quite languid, the stuff of long conversations. When his mother Leonie insists the children come on the trip across the state to pick up their father in Parchman, the language stretches—the words paving the way for the long drive. There is, in fact, very little in the way of action through the entire 3/4 of the book. Instead the long stretches of road serve as the backdrop for character studies of Jojo and Leonie. As the mother and child return home, the writing becomes almost frenetic—the language shorter and choppier as the action takes over, the river of words becoming foaming rapids, pulling the reader frantically to the conclusion. This pacing adds to the atmosphere of the climax scene, leaving the reader as breathless and wrung out as Leonie and Jojo themselves. It’s not surprising to hear that Ward is a professor of creative writing as her spot-on pacing in this book is masterful.

The word choice in Sing, Unburied, Sing is also perfect for the book. The grammar—dropping articles, “sleep” for “asleep,” making plural words singular—transports the reader immediately to somewhere in the rural South without making the book difficult to read or having to rely on gimmicky written Southern accents. The descriptions place the reader in the deltas of Mississippi with the sun blazing its curtain call as it drops below the horizon. It’s descriptive without being flowery, so while there were times I went back to re-read a paragraph just for the word choice, this is not a book that will annoy or trip up readers who care less about these things.

Character study
Sing, Unburied, Sing is character-driven rather than plot-driven. The book opens with Jojo, imitating his Pop, trying to show he can be a man, even as the killing of a goat turns his stomach. Over the following days, Jojo will become a man in the blink of an eye—a blink that Leonie misses.

Alternating with Jojo’s chapters are those of Leonie’s. Jojo’s perception of his mother is limited—as the child of a drug addict, he has been let down or left out so often it is hard for him to see any good left in his mother. Her chapters serve to humanize her, to bring the reader to empathize with her, to hope with her when she tries, to feel her disappointment when she fails. It is a testament to Ward’s writing that she can make the reader love even this flawed woman, dying by her own choices, particularly given that in interviews she expresses her own distaste for Leonie as a mother.

Less prominent initially as he is left behind on the journey, Pop is a character the reader comes to love. He is the solid, the constant, the care left in Jojo’s life. He is the reason that when Jojo becomes a man, he will become like Pop rather than his own father Michael. And yet, as the reader discovers, even this quiet, solid man is deeply flawed, haunted by choices and a mercy he chose to administer many years before.

Finally, there is death. Death literally lurks in Sing, Unburied, Sing, appearing as Leonie’s murdered brother Given who appears to her only when she is high; as Richie, a boy inmate when Pop was in Parchman himself; as a bird with scales; as Mam wasting as cancer snacks on what’s left of her.

Black death
In many ways, it is not merely death that lurks in the corner of each page, but specifically Black death. There are many ways throughout U.S. history that white people have not typically had to die—we have not been lynched, we have not been cut into tiny pieces while still alive, pulled from our beds to face false accusations, had our medical needs neglected until it is too late when our cancer is finally found. It is not just death, but Black deaths that creep silently closer in Sing, Unburied, Sing until they are the forefront, as heavy in the trees as grackles on a line. Like the cancer invading Mam’s body, you know death is lurking, you see it in the pages but you do not realize the magnitude. While you were looking at one particular manifestation, the others were coming up silently.

While many of the manifestations of death in the book are quite obvious—Mam’s cancer having nearly eaten through her, gone-too-soon Given, the ghost-bird-child Richie—Leonie’s character in many ways is a walking death. Leonie, child of Mam and Pop and mother-too-soon of Jojo and Kayla, was introduced to drugs by her longtime boyfriend Michael. She struggles, she fights, but by the time the reader meets her, her universe of available choices is hamstrung by her drug addiction. I am not suggesting that Leonie bears no responsibility for her own choices, but there is poignancy is seeing Leonie’s life becoming walking death after having been introduced to drugs by her white boyfriend. That it is black lives who are often disproportionately impacted by white choices.

What is Mercy?
With the rising specter of death comes the question of mercy. What does it mean to be merciful in the face of death? What is the difference between getting to choose the mercy of death versus having it thrust upon you? When mercy comes, does it comes differently for lives well lived versus those barely started?

And what of the mercy-bringer? If you were being merciful, is there still guilt? And how much? Are you more guilty if you weren’t asked to be merciful and less if you were? Does that actually matter?

None of these questions were answered, leaving an unsettled aftertaste when the reader finishes. Of a meal that filled, that mostly satisfied, but of a flavor you’re trying to grasp even as it fades.

In Sum
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a book that sits lightly or that passes as you turn the page of your next book. Ward raises questions that remain unanswered, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions of death and mercy, life and guilt. For readers who prefer more plot-driven books, Sing, Unburied, Sing may not be the best book. This is also not a book for someone who dislikes ambiguity.

For readers of literary fiction who love a character study, who are looking to read more from authors of color, who are willing to be unsettled and still love a book, I highly recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know I’ll be pushing Salvage the Bones up my reading list after having read this offering of Ward’s.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster) Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Date read: August 29, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

Review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Nostalgia is my favorite emotion. It’s like, you think you know how to deal with the passage of time, but nostalgia will prove you wrong. You’ll press your face into an old sweatshirt, or you’ll look at a familiar shade of paint on a front door, and you’ll be reminded of all the time that got away from you. If you could live it all again, you’d take a long moment to look around, to examine knees against knees. Nostalgia puts you in this dangerous re-creation something you can never have again. It’s ruthless, and for the most part, inaccurate.


On February 15, the town of Broomsville, Colorado awakes to find that fifteen year-old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered. As the small town swirls with grief and gossip, we follow three characters—Cameron, a neighbor who loved her and may have also stalked her; Jade, a classmate who hated her for being everything she couldn’t be; and Russ, a police officer torn between his duty to serve and his duty to protect, especially to protect Cameron. As more is slowly revealed, the book begs the questions—Who are you when no one’s watching? And can you ever really know someone if you’re only ever watching from the outside?

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that Girl in Snow was a YA book. A few chapters in, I realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, the title is a nod to the way works of art are named, as we see Lucinda, left for dead on a snowy playground, through the eyes of two classmates/neighbors and a police officer involved in the investigation.

From the first sentences on, the readers knows the central point around which the rest of the book turns is the murder of a fifteen year-old girl, but no one knows who murdered her. Ok, so this book must be a thriller/murder-mystery—indeed, a quick check of Amazon has the book categorized as “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” and then in the sub-genres of “mystery, thriller, and suspense” within each.

Except, even this genre didn’t fit neatly, or at least, does not follow the typical structure of a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in my book. The bulk of the book follows three characters and the choices they (and others) make when they think no one is watching. Far more time is spent on character development than dropping clues, such that when the killer is identified, the resolution is swift, almost an afterthought to the other sub-stories being told about Cameron, Jade, and Russ. (Which, in the interest of #nospoilers is not say that it isn’t one of them, but simply that the focus of the book isn’t on who did it as much as how these three characters are coping with the murder and the role they have in the event and the resulting investigation).

The highlight of Kukafka’s first novel is Cameron. It’s never directly stated, but his mannerisms seemed to indicate pretty strongly to me that he is on the spectrum—making collections, storing images, intensely focused, but socially withdrawn. Cameron is obsessed with watching—he prowls the neighborhood at night, watching the inhabitants, especially watching Lucinda. Though they have had almost no actual interaction, Cameron loves the Lucinda he watches. When Lucinda’s body is found, he is immediately a suspect—though he has been careful, he’s less clever than he thinks and people know he’s been watching Lucinda. Even Cameron wonders if it might be him, as the night of her death is missing from Cameron’s memory.

Protecting Cameron the best he can is Russ, a police officer who was Cameron’s father’s partner for years on the force before Cameron’s father was forced to leave in shame. Russ, more than the other main characters, has let what others see of him define who he actually is—with the result that he’s walking around half-alive, still consumed with his missing partner and his promise to keep his son safe.

Finally, we have Jade. I loved Kukafka’s little details with Jade—I may have cheered out loud at the reference to her listening to Box Car Racer and Dashboard Confessional (the book is set so that they are teenagers in the late 90s’/early 2000s’ when I was). Jade is that kid in school who doesn’t seem to have friends but also don’t seem to want them. It’s easier to reject someone before they reject you. She’s prickly and unattractive. And yet, like Cameron, she steals her way into your heart.

The last thing you want is for any of these three to have been involved in Lucinda’s death. Yet Jade hated her, Cameron stalked her, and Russ has hidden evidence to protect someone in Cameron’s family before.

These characters are what made Girl in Snow stand out from the typical murder mystery from me. I usually spend my entire time reading, trying to pick up clues. I can usually figure out the murderer and, often, the motive at least a few chapters before the big reveal. I didn’t find myself doing that with Girl in Snow. Kukafka made me care, desperately, more about who I hoped didn’t commit the murder than about who did. I didn’t spend my time looking for lots of clues, rather I waited for Cameron to work his way through his memory, hoping that when it came back it wouldn’t be him. I won’t say more and spoil the book, but turning this typical view of the mystery on its head was one of Kukafka’s better choices, as the book was richer than your typical mass market paperback murder mystery, though diehard mystery/thriller fans may find the ending rather abrupt with very few clues leading you as to both who the murderer was and why.

In some ways, by choosing the three characters she did, Kukafka chose the three anti-heroes. None of the three of them are likeable. Even the other significant minor characters—Ivan, Ines, and Cynthia—wouldn’t have been terribly likeable had their narrative been added. But then again, the more you find out about someone you’ve been watching, in many ways, the more unlikeable they become. Just as Cameron never got a full glimpse of Lucinda in his hours of watching her, perhaps love is coming to know someone, to find them unlikeable, and choosing them anyway.

I struggled more with rating this book than with others. As I noted, since it didn’t read like a typical mystery/thriller to me, it didn’t seem fair to judge it against others in that category I’ve enjoyed or think are well done. It was almost more of a straight literary fiction novel that happened to be set around a murder. With that in mind, I gave this book 3 ¾ stars—it’s well-written, tightly-edited, and Kukafka can turn a beautiful phrase, though it didn’t have the pop of something like This is How It Always Is or even Almost Sisters. It wasn’t as stand out as other lit-fics I’ve recently read, so that knocked it down a bit.

However, this was by no means a book that’s finding itself on my running list of “Books I should have abandoned” (looking at you Hillbilly Elegy). I was engaged, I enjoyed the story, and I thought Kukafka did well by her characters. I loved her gentleness with Cameron in particular. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I can get a little heart-eyes over flowery prose—this book isn’t flowery. The prose is well done without being over the top. So while I didn’t love the prose as much as I did in something like The Heart or Exit West, I know those books also drive some readers a little nuts. If that’s you, you’ll do fine with Girl in Snow—it’s beautiful but not showy. If you generally enjoy non-standard murder mysteries and highly character-driven books, I suspect you’ll find Girl in Snow worth your time.

Published: August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Danya Kukafka (@danyakukafka)
Date read: August 15, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo


Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”

She would say these things to herself because she liked the moment when she suddenly became uncertain that those things she was saying were in fact true, liked the way it made her feel unmoored, the hole of doubt that opened inside her, and the wind the blew through that hole….And she liked equally—not more and not less, because it was just the same sensation backward—the moment she became re-certain that those things were true—this is me, this is really me—when the hole closed, and the anchor caught, and she could smell the eggs her father was scrambling downstairs.

On a September day punctuated only by an Algebra test, a broken pencil, and not enough time to finish graphing the asymptotes, eighth-grader Meredith suddenly finds herself on the floor of a local restaurant as a robbery becomes a kidnapping and Meredith is the one left behind.  The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of what happens next for Meredith and her family as they come to terms with Meredith’s being left behind while still having to move forward.

I remember the first time I watched Gilmore Girls, I identified, unquestioningly, with Rory. Many years later, re-watching it before the recent revival, I realized at some point I was far closer in age to Lorelai in the series, and, while I remembered feeling the way Rory did at times, Lorelai’s story lines were suddenly more relevant.

In some ways, my experience with The Fall of Lisa Bellow was similar—I felt the ache of middle school injustice and cliques and could remember how it felt to be where Meredith is (awful…it mostly felt awful), but I identified as strongly with her mother Claire as I did Meredith. I’m in the sweet spot of being able to see myself in both major characters.

In Meredith, I remember the feeling of not fitting in—not entirely sure what it was about me that made me different, just knowing that I wasn’t popular or, frankly, well-liked. Like Meredith, I missed the memo about the Titanic iceberg that is middle school and spent the rest of the time feeling like I was catching up. And yet, there is a point where we see Meredith from her mother’s eyes, talking about the mean girls with her friends. And in that moment, Meredith is one the nice-girls-become-mean in the tearing down of other girls. I see this so much in myself in hindsight. I was one of the nice girls but I was not nice. I was not kind. In seeing this in Meredith, I see this in eighth grade me. It made me feel gentler toward Meredith, knowing we shared this flaw that neither of us could or would see until we were adults, removed from thirteen by enough distance to see the landscape behind.

In the alternating chapters with Meredith’s mother, I could see parts of Claire’s parenting that felt true to me. I’m not a parent but I could see where many of the mistakes she made could easily be my mistakes in the future. The earliest glimpse of Claire’s parenting comes as she examines a patient who made fun of her first-grade son, calling him a “porker.” As an adult, Claire has power, but as a dentist, Claire welds more power than she should—and in a moment of decision deliberately inflicts just a bit of pain on her son’s bully. There’s something shockingly human in the description of this incident. Though the book is written in third person it reads like a confession, but a confession from someone who isn’t sure she’s sorry. She knows she should be, but that’s as close to remorse as she’s been able to come in the ten years since.

For Claire, the problems are now too big for dental retribution. Six months before the book opens, her son Evan catches a line drive foul ball in the eye, destroying his sight and his dreams for a baseball career. Now, with Meredith, not taken but gone somewhere Claire can’t understand, Claire has to fully accept that can’t protect her children and there isn’t always a physical monster she can bring to tears with her sterile tools.

Though there is nothing on paper that should make me identify particularly well with either of these characters, the highlight of The Fall of Lisa Bellow for me was Meredith and Claire, as well as the minor characters of the father Mark and son Evan—in their struggle through grief and loss and almost-loss and guilt for the grief—they make choices that can’t make sense because none of those emotions set the foundation for rational thinking. And yet, I can see the nonsensical choices they each made and see, exactly, how I too would wind up in a stranger’s bathtub, drunk on my own front lawn, unexpectedly in a seat at the popular kid’s table for a fleeting moment.  It is a strength of Perabo’s that though I had little to nothing outwardly in common with her characters, I identified with them so deeply as I read.

I read a book several years ago about “ambiguous loss,” a phrase made mainstream by Pauline Boss. Ambiguous losses aren’t solid, they’re like a family whose loved one has Alzheimer’s—there’s a death with a living body still walking around, so how do they mourn this non-loss? It’s a loss of expectation in some ways, but deeper than that.  It’s not a loss you can see; it’s not something that prompt the neighbors to pull out the casserole dishes and fill your freezer. Though what Meredith experienced isn’t truly an ambiguous loss—Lisa is gone and Meredith is not—the way Meredith processed what happened—that she is still here reminded me in some ways of ambiguous loss. We all grieve experiences differently, even if what would seem to be the expected emotion isn’t grief. It is in the processing of her experience and the loss of Lisa that Meredith begins to literally see Lisa, to imagine what is happening to her. How Meredith comes to terms with her own trauma, the “lesser” trauma of that day, is simultaneously completely irrational and completely identifiable. Through the ordeal and later, she fixates on a problem she ran out of time to solve in math class—she latches onto the rational problem with a finite solution that she can still solve.

For Claire, the immediate thought is that Meredith is still here—what does she or her family have to grieve? And yet, there is the almost-grief, the difference of eeny-meeny-miney-mo landing on your daughter rather than the other one in the restaurant.

After Lisa is taken within the first few chapters of the book, the rest is how Meredith comes to term with Lisa—a classmate who wasn’t a friend but, in that short moment, was as they both lay on the floor of the Deli Barn. How Claire mourns the loss of her daughter’s innocence while simultaneously struggling with the idea that she, as the parent who didn’t lose a child, shouldn’t be mourning at all.

Because I can’t not-comment on the writing
The Fall of Lisa Bellow stuck with me more than most books I’ve read recently—the larger themes had more poignancy than the other books I’ve read this summer. In this way, while the little details were the high point of the other books, here they were the matting surrounding the larger work—the work was better for the professional matting and framing job, but the work stood on its own.

The themes carried you, swimming in almost-grief and almost-guilt masquerading down the halls of eighth grade, while the word choice and details were the individual steps that got you from one end of the hall to the other. The writing didn’t smother the theme, it wasn’t over the top but it wasn’t so simplistic that it detracted. There were paragraphs to re-read for the way the characters made you feel and others to re-read for the word choice. The Fall of Lisa Bellow was balanced in a way most books rarely are.

Recommended for….
This is a book that drew some strong reactions in the MMD book club—some of us loved it, but I think we may have been in the slight minority. The action happens in the left over parts with the left behind people. It doesn’t move quickly and some of the choices the characters make just aren’t rational—if you’re not in a place where you’re also inhabiting those characters with Perabo, then I can see how those choices, those words, that character’s tone would drive you to pull out your eyelashes waiting for something to happen. Despite the kidnapping plot, this is not a mystery/thriller. The focus is never on the girl who was taken but the girl who was left.

With that said, I loved this book and devoured it in days. If you enjoy well written, traditional literary fiction and character-driven books, The Fall of Lisa Bellow was a highlight of my summer reading and I highly recommend it. This is another book I’ll be acquiring my own copy of for my shelves to lend and re-read in the future.

Published: March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Perabo
Date read: June 12, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


…Ritu auntie only waved her off, as if she thought Dimple were being demure—who on earth went to college with anything but the aspiration of landing a marriageable partner? Dimple thought of Insomnia Con., of Jenny Lindt, of SFSU, of Stanford. Of all the things she’d jeopardize if she called Ritu auntie a backward, anti-feminist blight on democratic society…

Dimple just needs to get out of the house, with her mother constantly foisting eyeliner and dreams of the IIH (Ideal Indian Husband) on her, to InsomniaCon., a six week coding conference where the winning final project gets to work with Dimple’s idol, Jenny Lindt, to develop and market an app. Rishi is also going to Insomnia Con…to meet Dimple, the girl their parents have arranged to be his wife (a fact about which Dimple is completely unaware). As the novel comes to a head, Dimple has to choose between following her passion for coding and web development and a growing passion for Rishi….or does she?

Representation matters and Sandhya Menon knocks it out of the park with When Dimple Met Rishi. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a connoisseur of YA books, I can’t easily name any others with two Indian-American characters who feature prominently. (There probably are some but I think we can agree not enough given their statistical representation in the population.) I loved that Dimple defies old stereotypes of the demure Indian girl. Dimple wants nothing to do with boys, clothes, or makeup. She lives, eats, and breathes web coding and app development and damned if anything or anyone is going to stand in her way. I love that Dimple’s passion is technology and coding and love that Menon created an idol/mentor for her in Jenny Lindt (a fictional, successful app developer). Silicon Valley does horribly by women—more needs to be written (fiction and non-fiction) about women kicking ass and taking names in this field.

Menon goes further and generally defies stereotypes of the conservative Indian community, without minimizing or losing the power of the family. Dimple is a feminist and damn proud of it. Dimple isn’t strident but she also isn’t going to take your bullshit.   Even Rishi—who wants nothing more than to marry Dimple and live the happy life he has seen in his parents is a feminist and supports Dimple without constraining her. I wanted to stand on my couch and cheer. Yes. More female and male feminist role models in YA books. (Or in books period). I. Am. Here. For. It.

Dimple + Rishi
I loved this book for its portrayal of a teenager being comfortable enough in who she is and what she loves to refuse to play the stupid games. Makeup is fine if you’re Celia, her roommate, but it’s not Dimple’s thing and that’s totally ok. And not only is that ok, but you can have friends and even a boyfriend who loves that about you and still finds you beautiful. You don’t have to change to be happy or to get the guy—in fact, changing those things will typically only break your heart (a la Dimple’s roommate, Celia). We need more of this message in YA books, please.

Dimple’s character development and choices over the course of the book feel real. She thought she couldn’t have a relationship—she had to pick and choose. As a result she does some stupid things—she isn’t perfect. We’re all rooting for her, largely because she’s relatable (even if you aren’t, even a little bit, a techie).

In may ways it is Rishi, the male protagonist, who became the stereotypical “girl” character of the book—having to give up things he loves and his dreams in order to please others. He’s made himself (mostly) comfortable with these choices, even coming to accept them as his own. While I am not Indian-American, I was briefly married to one who voiced things very similar to what Rishi said here. When he went to college he would have loved to study other subjects, but had to study business because as the first-born son of Indian immigrants, he was expected to support the family and could not waste time on things like art or history.  This rang true in my limited experience and was a flip of the usual scenario.

The pace of the relationship—from Dimple meeting/hating Rishi to head-over-heels in three weeks felt a little silly and far-fetched….and then I remembered (cringingly) the pace of high school relationships. The timing is probably about right. My absolute favorite chapter was Dimple and Rishi’s first date at a book café where you eat while browsing and reading. That chapter could serve as a primer for the date planner on how to plan an excellent date, even for an adult. (Though in retrospect, this might not be the best first date for me unless you want to be talking to the top of my head while I read all night.)

Speaking of the relationship, this book does have a fair amount of sex for a YA book. The intended audience skews towards older teenagers though the main “limit” here wouldn’t be a hard age-line (in my opinion) but rather whether or not the teen reader understands sex and is beginning to understand when one should and shouldn’t have it. I’m not sure I’ve ever said this about a YA book (or any book) but—I appreciated the way Menon used sex in this book. There are characters who love each other, who think the decision through, and have sex because it is the right choice for them. Menon goes into enough detail in this scene for you to know what’s happening and that it’s a good thing for these two characters. It does get a tad steamy but I didn’t feel like it pushed over into being gratuitous, even for a YA audience. This scene is contrasted with another character who is having sex with someone she’s trying to impress and who doesn’t love her. By having both, Menon not only sets up a contrast and highlights the goodness and badness of these choices but also provides opportunity for good dialogue about these choices and when one knows sex is or isn’t right. I thought Menon handled these scenes deftly and delicately—they’re some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in a YA book.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sizeable book, slightly on the longer end for both YA and a general contemporary fiction work. With that said, toward the end I felt like the narrative rushed. I appreciate that the overall length of the book was right—much longer and it would have needed some editing. At the same time, Insomnia Con is supposed to be a six-week conference and the entire last three weeks essentially pass in one sentence. I’m not sure ultimately that this was a bad thing or should be changed—I don’t know what before this point Menon should or could have cut to make room for the last three weeks in the narrative—so maybe this choice was fine. It was momentarily jarring in the sense that I re-read the sentence to make sure three weeks had just passed, shrugged, and moved on to find out what happened to Dimple and Rishi.

While I thought the book was incredibly well done, it is still a YA book. If YA isn’t your thing, this likely isn’t going to be the book for you. It has the shine of a YA book where things are a little too glossy and characters compare their feelings to bubbles at least once. If you love, or even just like, YA then this book is a recent stand out and definitely worth your time.

Published May 30, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Sandhya Menon (@sandhyamenonbooks)
Date read: July 5, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars