Stella by Starlight

IMG_7565.JPG.jpeg

When Madeline over at Top Shelf Text began her online book group, Diverse Books Club, I knew her book suggestions would be good. I love how they have a monthly adult read and young adult/middle school read because it’s an easy way to introduce more diversity into my daughter’s life as well as mine. Considering the current world events, there is no better time for my daughter and I to have some more articulate discussions regarding our world views – the good, the bad, and the ugly. In what areas do we need to examine our beliefs and do better? How can we be a light in the darkness to spread love, not hate? Through narratives and character development, books offer a beautiful vehicle to more understanding and compassionate viewpoints.

Stella by Starlight is about an 11-year-old girl who lives in North Carolina during the 1930s. While the Ku Klux Klan’s presence has always been around, for the most part, their activity hasn’t been too prevalent. Late one night when Stella can’t sleep, she sees some Klansmen burning a cross near her home. Scared, Stella is quickly introduced to the ugly, hurtful, and terrorizing ways of the KKK. When she accompanies her father to town and witnesses the humiliation he is put through to register to vote, Stella determines she will also use her voice to speak truth. She practices her writing skills and self-publishes a little newspaper where she records her thoughts. (Click here to read the Goodread’s synopsis.)

Stella by Starlight was a beautiful book that I can’t wait to share with my daughter. Stella’s family and friends are role models in the way they handled themselves in the face of such disturbing behavior. They were calm, peaceful, and kind. They didn’t match hate for hate and never lashed out to the white people in the community. Yes, I understand they didn’t have that privilege because they would have been beaten and/or murdered on the spot. But as a parent, I always try to find ways to demonstrate love in the face of hate, peace in the face of chaos, and compassion in the face of bigotry. I don’t always find myself as successful as Stella’s mom and dad, but I appreciate a book that demonstrates the compassionate response when hate would be so much easier and understandable.

Books – especially middle school books – are such an excellent tool for teaching. Stella by Starlight highlights many topics that I will use to engage meaningful conversations with my daughter. A huge thank you to Madeline and her crew at Diverse Books Club for starting the conversation and providing the resources to help us all navigate towards a kinder, more compassionate, world.

Advertisements

The Glass Eye

IMG_7553.JPG

Thank you to Tin House Books for the free finished copy for review. All opinions are my own. 

“You lose somebody perfect, then. Then you come back and tell me what’s normal.”

This novel is a look at Jeannie Vanasco’s downward spiral through mental illness, spurred by the grief she experiences when her father passes away. Vanasco struggles to maintain normalcy – attending college, dating, checking in on her mother – in between hospital stays, continual adjustments to her medications, her overwhelming grief, and an obsession with her half-sister’s death (who died years before she was even born, but happens to be her namesake). (Read Goodread’s synopsis here.)

I found myself torn throughout this entire book. At times, Vanasco’s mental illness seemed very obvious, and while some people seemed to recognize it, nobody – including doctors – seemed to take it seriously enough to actually help her! Reminiscent of Imagine Me Gone, it felt like the doctors simply tried to put a bandaid on the problem instead of figuring out the underlying causes. They’d either add a medicine, up the dosage, or ignore her requests. Even when she’d directly complain about her medications, her concerns were ignored. This broke my heart for Vanasco and infuriated me at what seems like on increasingly common problem with our medical establishment. Overmedicating a person and then sending them off into the world is not helping anyone. And it makes me wonder how many people are wandering around streets buried under layers of various pill’s side effects screaming to be let back out.

Of course Vanasco’s grief is on the more extreme side of the scale, but after losing my own mama to cancer, I can attest to the whirlwind of emotions it sends you into. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, times I no longer felt like living on this Earth anymore. I felt consumed with wondering where my mama was now, if she was still with me, and if she could still hear me…all of those things (and more) made me feel, at times, as if I was losing my mind. In the book, I couldn’t figure out why, even though her boyfriend and mom could see her struggling enough to suggest she go to a doctor, nobody ever mentioned grief counseling to Vanasco? It’s like everybody pawned her off to an impersonal hospital but nobody thought to come alongside her and walk with her. And that frustrated me so much for her. I wanted to turn the hands of time backwards so I could just be there for her – someone to hold her hand, listen to her, and let her cry when she needed to. Her love for her father ran so deep and when he died, she was left alone emotionally.

I appreciated the underlying themes of the book, but the discombobulated way Vanasco organized her thoughts became a big distraction for me after awhile. I get that it all made sense to her, but as a reader it interrupted the flow and began to annoy me. Also, I didn’t love the repetitive nature of the writing. Again, it just became an annoying hindrance to my reading experience. Last, this book ended without giving me any sort of hope. I believe the reader is supposed to feel like Vanasco overcame her grief and got her life back on track, but I don’t. I actually worry that she is in a healthy enough mindset to function in her daily commitments.

Grief is one of the hardest things I’ve had to navigate in my life. There isn’t a moment that goes by that you’re not reminded of your loss. I am so sympathetic to the pain that Vanasco feels, and after reading this, I’m so grateful that I had such a great support network that kept me from falling into the despair she experienced. Her pain is raw and her portrayal of her experiences is honest. If the reader can get past the author’s disjointed writing style, there’s a lot to be learned about mental illness and grief.

 

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

IMG_7229.JPG

Thank you to the publisher, Flatiron Books, for a free finished book to review. All opinions are my own.

Oh, what to say about this monstrosity of a book…

When I walked down the aisle to marry my husband, all I could see in my future were rainbows and butterflies and unicorns. There was no room for storm clouds or thunder or lightening – only good and happy thoughts surrounded by pure love. I was walking towards my “happily ever after”! Years and many, many challenges later, our love has been tested over and over again. We have wondered if it would be easier to give up and go our separate ways. We have wondered if we gave up too much of ourselves in order to chase that dream of unity. We, luckily, have always been able to find our way back to each other and have never given up on each other at the same time. Our love and desire to make it work has always won out.

In The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Joan is a woman who doesn’t have the desire to settle down, get married, or have children. When Martin proposes marriage to her, she accepts but makes him promise that children will never, ever be part of their deal. He agrees but it isn’t long before Joan finds herself pregnant with their first child, Daniel. While she isn’t immediately smitten with motherhood, Joan does find an unexpected connection to Daniel; both have an incredible talent for creative writing. She finds herself favoring Daniel over her other son, Eric, who she doesn’t understand or connect with at all. Throughout the book, Joan muses about her life before she decided to get married and have children. She was a very successful author and the demands of motherhood make it difficult for her to find the time to write. She misses being immersed in her creative life and fantasizes about the days when she will no longer be so tightly bound to her familial duties. (Read the official synopsis here.)

There’s a real beauty to Joan’s honesty and rawness. She doesn’t fall head-over-heels-in-love with motherhood; it takes her awhile to warm up to the idea at all. She sacrifices her career and ambitions while her husband’s career takes off and sends him traveling all around the world to advance his medical techniques even though they agreed that her writing would always come first. The only thing that keeps her grounded is the fact that she begins writing in secret – something her husband never even realizes. The disconnect in their marriage made my heart hurt for Joan – she’s sacrificed everything while he obliviously continues on with his own life. She is under-appreciated, ignored, and taken for granted by everyone in her life.

When it all comes to a head by a betrayal I never saw coming (no, it’s not what you think!), I was actually surprised how calm, cool, and collected Joan remained. Considering she had to have been like a pressure cooker at this point, I would have lost it! I would have gone down in a blaze of glory – not quietly booking a ticket to fly halfway around the world.

I admired Joan’s resilience and quiet strength. In the end, she handled the betrayal with such grace and I loved how she redeemed her life and found peace by the end of the book. I definitely lived vicariously through her because it’s not within my character to do some of the things she did; however, I think that made me cheer for her even harder!

I did not enjoy the short stories interspersed throughout the novel and felt it would have made it stronger (and shorter!) without the distraction. Maybe I’m not smart enough to find the hidden meanings in the passages (because I’m sure they’re there), but I found I had to force myself to actually read them instead of skimming over them. I just wanted to get back to the story of Joan!

Overall, I liked the book, but it won’t be making my All-Time Favorites List. It’s just too long and, at times, whiny (#sorrynotsorry for saying it). It requires a strong commitment from the reader because it’s so character-driven and dense that most people (besides serious book lovers) wouldn’t find themselves able to slog through. I believe the reader is rewarded in the end for that commitment, I’m just not sure how many people will care to stick it out.

 

Cicada Summer

IMG_7457.JPG

Thank you to the author, Maureen Leurck, for a free finished copy to review. All opinions are my own.

“Some people don’t believe that houses have souls, but I know they’re wrong. Every person who lives in a house leaves an imprint on it, like a ghost that won’t ever leave. The tears, laughter, and smiles are all soaked into the surfaces of a house. The wood, the tile, the paint, all absorb the energy of those who live there. The house is forever witness to the peaks and valleys of those who live there. It knows the deepest sadness and the greatest pleasures of a family, and will always keep their secrets.”

When Alex buys a house in need of some serious repair, she may have gotten more than she bargained for. One thing after another continues to go wrong and before long it seems as if she’s bought the ultimate Money Pit. But her love for the house runs deep and she can’t give up on her vision of the finished product.

As she goes through the renovation pains of the house, she is also healing the pains of divorce within herself. Her husband, Matt, and her have been divorced for five years, yet every time they see each other to exchange their daughter, Abby, there still seems to be something there. As the house blossoms into it’s original beauty, will their love also rekindle? (Read official synopsis here.)

I thought this was a great beach read – it’s engaging, quick, and makes you feel good when you’re finished. It gives the reader hope that everything always works out just exactly as it’s supposed to. It makes the reader believe in love – even in circumstances that don’t deserve a second chance.

“Things and decisions are never as simple as they appear from a distance.”

And for all of those same reasons, the book didn’t work that great for me. I’m not always a fan of stories that can be perfectly packaged up in a pretty red bow. Yes, I want to believe in the fairy tale and the happy ending. But I hardly ever find them to be that realistic. This story was just too simplistic and predictable for me. I thought the characters and their interrelationships were flat and it didn’t make me care about a single one of them. I knew early on that Alex and Matt were going to end back up together, but it wasn’t in a redemptive sort of way. Honestly, how many women are going to still be pining after their ex-husband five years after they cheated on them? And if they are, it’s just not a character I can relate to in any quality sort of way.

If you’re a fan of Nicholas Sparks (I, generally, am not), this is the perfect book for you! It’s the beautiful story that proves true love can conquer and overcome all obstacles. Some people enjoy that plot, but as I get older and continue to get to know myself better, I’m realizing that I like the conflict and growth of characters more than I like the happy ending.

How about you? Do you want books to wrap up perfectly by the end, or are you ok with messy and difficult endings?

Fierce Kingdom

I didn’t know a single thing about this book when I picked it up. I assumed (based on the title, the cover, and #bookstagram) that it was an intense story that took place in a zoo (so far so good). But I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought it was a mother and her child (wasn’t sure if it was a boy or girl) trying to hide from animals that had somehow gotten out of their cages and were wreaking havoc on the visitors (umm…nope. Way, way off!). Read the synopsis here if you don’t want to be seriously confused like I was…

I found my heart pounding and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough during the first third of the book. Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are just leaving the zoo when an active shooter situation arises. She immediately grabs Lincoln and takes off running in the opposite direction where she finds refuge for them in an exhibit that is currently empty. I couldn’t imagine the terror Joan must have felt as she had to try and keep her son calm and quiet. I instantly thought about my own children, years ago when they were that same age, and my mama heartstrings were tugged. Joan had to find the perfect balance between telling the child just enough that he understood the severity of the situation while also not telling him too much and causing him to freak out and start crying and/or screaming.

Sadly, as the story continued, it quickly began losing steam for me. I became irritated at several of the decisions Joan made and caught myself literally rolling my eyes at her. As soon as I lost that connection with Joan, the rest of the story just really didn’t matter to me anymore.

I know that I am an outlier on this one; many of my friends have loved this book! I appreciated it for the quick read that it was as that was exactly what I needed. I thought the author, Gin Phillips, did a great job of portraying the terrifying concerns a mother would have in that given situation (more so in the beginning of the book). Personally, I just thought the intensity waned quite a bit and I lost interest as it went on.

**Note: This contains serious trigger warnings. If you have anxiety of any sort when it comes to active shooter situations or with gun violence, please be aware before picking this book up!

The Roanoke Girls

Before I even begin a review, I want to say that this book is surrounded in controversy because of the main theme of the story. There are severe triggers for some people, so please be aware of those before reading this book! Even if the topic isn’t a trigger for you personally, please know that it may still invoke some extremely uncomfortable reactions. (Read the official synopsis here.)

It’s honestly pretty tough to give a good review of this book without spoilers. Basically, the Roanoke girls come from a complicated – disturbing – past that finally catches up to them. When Allegra goes missing, Lane returns to the haunted house she fled from so many years ago and confronts the truth once and for all.

“You can’t outrun what’s inside of you. You can only acknowledge it, work around it, try and turn it into something better. I may not know exactly where I’m headed, but this time I’m choosing my own destiny.”

I understand why so many people are upset with the content of the story, but it didn’t deter me from wanting to read it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but by the time I fully understood what was going on, I was already hooked. I had to know what happened! The author, Amy Engel, doesn’t sensationalize the misconduct; instead, she offers it as an explanation for the behavior of the Roanoke family members.

“Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.”

The story is dark and twisted. While it is somewhat predictable, I found I couldn’t put this page turner down and read it just one sitting. As the familial patterns revealed themselves, I wanted Allegra and Lane to escape the horrendous lives they knew in rural Kansas and reinvent new lives for themselves. I found that I was rooting for these final two girls in hopes that the cycle would finally be broken and that they would finally know what true love and happiness means. While my wish was halfway granted, the journey to find out what happened with Allegra provided Lane the final push she needed to do better for herself and her life. I was filled with hope for her as the book came to a close.

 

A Saint for All Occasions

IMG_7378.JPG

As my children approach their teenage years, I’ve often wondered how they will view their childhoods once they’ve grown up; specifically, when they begin their own journeys through parenthood. As a mother, my intention is to make the best decisions I can with the information I’ve got in the moment. I, like all mothers, want the very best for my children – new experiences to open new possibilities, happy days filled with fond memories, and the knowledge that they had unconditional love every single day of their lives. Do we look like that picture-perfect, happy family every day? No. Do I lose my cool and yell at them? Yes, sometimes. But I strive to do my best every day, whether or not they know (or understand) my motives and intentions.

In the book, Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, Nora’s mother died when she was young, leaving her feeling like she was responsible for raising her younger sister, Theresa. Because of her early role as ‘mother’, Nora was often the mature and responsible one while Theresa was much more carefree and wild. When Nora’s fiance sent for her from America, she and Theresa journeyed across the ocean to begin their new lives in Boston. (Read the full synopsis here.) What follows begins a long, and complicated, family drama that captured my heart.

As a mother – shoot, as a human being – there are so many layers and depths to us as individuals that no one else could possibly know. We bury secrets – good and bad – deep in our souls and only visit them when triggered. But there are choices made based on experiences that may have happened long ago, yet remain buried deep within ourselves, continuing to drive our decisions. As a mother, how do these past experiences drive our parenting choices? When taken out of context, do those choices look silly, controlling, or ridiculous? Yet when understood from all points, do they suddenly make perfect sense?

This story made me wonder what kind of things my children would question about my parenting choices, yet if given the full context, they’d suddenly see with a new perspective. As a rule, I’m very open and honest with my children, but I’m sure there are many things that make me ‘me’ without my conscious thought. Things that happened over the course of my life that have rooted themselves to my personality and influence the choices I make, not only as an adult, but as a person as well. There isn’t some giant secret I’m hiding like Nora and Theresa, but it still made me wonder how much you truly ever know someone. I believe it’s impossible to know every single detail that makes a person whole, yet I’m fascinated with the intricacies of those defining details.

The writing of Saints for All Occasions was beautiful and I found so many passages that I’d have to stop and read again – then underline – then re-read again. A few that made me wipe a tear from my eye. When I finished the book, I just sat on the couch, clutching it to my chest, and thought about all the complicated layers that make up a life. The story is a gorgeous depiction of life – marriage, motherhood, family, sacrifice, and grief. It was a book I couldn’t put down, yet I also found that I made myself intentionally slow down while reading it so I could savor every single detail.