Review: Before and Again

It isn’t hard to surmise a mother’s worst fear; I’m sure it’s the same the whole world over — losing a child. How does a person survive such a tragedy? With my own child nearly thirteen months old and, in truth, the center of my universe, I refuse to entertain the idea that he might someday leave this world before me. I’d imagine it’s akin to losing a limb, or one’s own sense of identity; children being so much a part of a mother’s makeup.

In Barbara Delinsky’s latest release, Before and Again (out via St. Martin’s Press, June 26), Delinsky touches on just that concept: motherhood after loss.

img_3773

Thirty-eight-year-old Maggie Reid once had everything: a successful career as a sculpture artist, a handsome and equally-successful husband, a curious and sweet daughter, and a life of luxury in her Boston community. She once had a different name, too — Mackenzie Cooper. But that was all before — before the accident that took her daughter’s life, before the Mackenzie Cooper law limiting the use of technological devices in vehicles, before the court case and divorce and fallout with her family.

It’s safe to say that Maggie Reid needed Devon, the idyllic Vermont town in which she has redrawn her life as a makeup artist at the well-known Spa and Inn. She’s changed her look (to ward off unwanted recognition after all that unsavory press time) and given up on her former clay sculptures, finding artistic release in the application of blush and liner. She’s remained single for the past five years, kept her head down as her years of probation wound down, and made a handful of “close” friends (only one of whom knows her true identity). Maggie allowed herself to make Devon her home, so it’s a complete shock to her system when one day, everything simply goes amuck.

When Maggie’s friend’s son, Chris, is charged with a felony crime and the feds show up in town, she finds herself in a predicament: how can she remain a good friend to Grace without violating the rules of her probation? Before Maggie gets the chance to resolve this problem, a guest from the past shows up, and her life — her Devon life — is instantly complicated threefold.

Before and Again, as with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and The Ones We Choose, is reaffirming my decision to sprinkle a bit more chick lit in with my regular reading. These titles go beyond romance and tackle more true-to-life issues that face women (and in some cases, men) in our modern world, and for that, I appreciated Before and Again. The book reaches beyond love and marriage and sexy scenes to draw in audiences with thought-provoking what ifs about loss and estrangement and self identity. These themes are what makes Delinsky’s newest release a gem.

Although the novel starts a bit slowly, things pick up about seventy pages in and move right along. At the onset, I did feel that the book could have benefited from some editing — there is a lot of detail, much of which I felt could have been trimmed significantly (and that’s saying something, coming from this Steinbeck-worshipper). I was quick to forgive Delinsky this indulgence, though, as the plot fleshed out and characters came to life.

My biggest complaint with the book: the convenient and contrived outcomes of many scenarios. (In truth, this may be why I am less apt to reach for women’s fiction, generally speaking. I think that many of the books that fall into this category tend to wrap up with warm fuzzies, and I’m just not generally one for convenient and/or happy endings.) More than once, I caught myself thinking that things did not fall into place that conveniently in real life, and that was a bit off-putting for me. Once I settled in and stopped trying to make the book a critical based-on-real-life publication, though, the storyline was enjoyable and I couldn’t put the book down.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. I don’t live within a few hundred miles of a beach, but if I did, you’d better believe I’d have finished this on the sand with a fruity drink within reach.

Review: Outlander

A year or two ago, one of my favorite English professors of all time took a journey to Scotland to visit the set where the Outlander television series is filmed — she was fortunate enough to have a family member involved in the show, and as an avid fan, jumped all over the opportunity. Meanwhile, she’d only hounded me to read the damn books six or seven times previously, promising I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Well, Dr. Duffy, I’m two books in and I can assure you — you weren’t wrong.

It started innocently enough: I purchased the first book in the series, Outlander, and admired it as it sat on my shelf for a year or so. One day, I happened to post a #shelfie on my bookstagram account (yo! check me out –> @littlereaderontheprairie) and two strangers from the other side of the country said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to read that book but it’s so huge, I’m intimidated!” And so began my second — and most successful — buddy-reading experience. (Read more about how to execute one of your own here.)

Outlander and its companion novels — there are 7 other titles published in the series, with the promise of another coming in 2019 — are penned by Diana Gabaldon, a scholar of various subjects. The novel is often touted as historical fiction, but it’s also apt to describe the book as romance and fantasy and science fiction and adventure. Um, hello — who wouldn’t love to read a 700+ page tome that encapsulates the best of what literature has to offer?!

I digress.

The first book introduces readers to Claire Randall, wife of Frank Randall and trained nurse living in post-WWII England. The two have been married for eight years — but only spent a fraction of that time together, thanks to the war that ripped a world apart. Once reunited after the fighting is over, the two head to Scotland (to the place they were married) to rekindle their romance (suggestive brow wiggle) on a much-delayed honeymoon. Things are going pretty swimmingly for the two until — surprise! — Claire is sucked through a time-warp and finds herself in 1743 Scotland, soon-to-be victim of all sorts of misadventure.

Full disclosure: This novel is smutty. It’s not philosophical literature, although Gabaldon does prove herself a noteworthy author, capable of deeply complex plot structures and compelling character arcs, all while maintaining a steady level of absolutely blush-inducing romance. I’m not one for the genre, personally — in fact, I think the last “romance” book I read was a middle grades novel by Lurlene McDaniel — so I was surprised to enjoy the romance portion of this novel so much. On a scale of Holy Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey, the Outlander series falls somewhere in the upper middle — as my buddy reading pal, Taylor, so aptly put it: “Ooooh, yeah girl, this book is spicy!” — without treading uncomfortably inappropriate.

While many modern housewives appear to have gone gaga for the series based on its steamy bedroom scenes (in truth, that’s only a portion of the book, y’all) and the curly-haired lad that plays Jamie on the Starz adaptation of the series, I actually enjoyed the first two books primarily for a couple of other reasons:

  • the writing is fluid, well-paced, and imaginative; and
  • characters, conflict, and setting are utterly engrossing.

Outlander isn’t chock-full of one-dimensional stock characters, and that’s like a breath of fresh air. Gabaldon writes with finesse, so it’s quite easy to envision yourself in the company of several rarely-bathed Scottish Highlanders passing ’round the flask.

That being said, I do want to point out a few gripes.

  • Gabaldon’s heroine leaves a bit to be desired, frequently. Claire is perpetually in some sort of life-and-death situation — she’s very much a damsel in distress, though wittier and more feisty — and disappointingly, Gabaldon writes Jamie to the rescue every. single. time. I hope to see more from Claire’s character as the series progresses, because honestly, I can only be so invested in weak female characters for so long.
  • Rape happens. A lotThis is one of the series’ most hotly-debated features, and a topic that I go back and forth on. In the first book alone, there are several instances in which Claire is nearly raped — and in which other main characters are molested. Some argue that Gabaldon should not use this as a plot device, and in truth, I can’t help but agree that she overdoes the topic, relying on these encounters to propel the plot where other devices might have sufficed. On the other hand, I think it would be erroneous to pretend that rape wasn’t something that happened frequently in the 1700s; and as my pals and I buddy read the first book, we discussed some especially debated scenes and came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to assess this book with solely a 21st Century-perspective. I’ve seen gripes from readers who complain that such-and-such circumstances glorify sexual and domestic abuse, and honestly, I couldn’t disagree more. (But that’s a discussion for another day . . . ) The point is, readers should be prepared for a sprinkling of graphic scenes throughout the series.
  • Certain circumstances in the novel — primarily, Claire’s relationship with Frank — lack in development, leaving readers in moral dilemmas that never quite come around fullyLook, guys, I don’t want to give too much away; but Claire’s relationship with Frank is absolutely bewildering. I had a hard time wrapping my head around their marriage and the subsequent challenges they faced.

Ultimately, there were a few things in the first book that I found lacking, but I was so wrapped up in Claire’s story, it’s taken me a few months to write this review without simply gushing. And that, in and of itself, should tell you just how fantastic Outlander really is. I’ve since read the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, and though it moves more slowly, I found myself greatly appreciative of Gabaldon’s efforts to create a complex and winding narrative, with the loose ends neatly gathered by the last page. In fact, I couldn’t wait to start the third book, but my buddies suggested we hold off for a bit, and I’m begrudgingly complying. 😉

Overall: 4.5 stars.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in a compelling, engrossing adventure series with great character and plot development and not too bothered by the doings of fictional characters, this is a great series to dive into. If you’re deep into analysis and have a proclivity for picking apart anything that might seem to be less-than-feminist in spirit, steer clear.

 

Review: Bring Me Back

One of summer’s most-hyped releases hit the shelves last Tuesday, and I was fortunate enough to have received and early copy for reviewing from St. Martin’s Press. The good news: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris is a fast read. One might even call it a page-turner. The ARC came in at just 230 pages, although the finished edition is a bit longer (due to formatting, etc.). I read it in just a few hours, so I don’t feel so bad about the bad news, which is this: Bring Me Back is another run-of-the-mill thriller in a market oversaturated with relatively unoriginal concepts and one-dimensional characters.

I’ll admit that I was engrossed enough to keep reading, so it wasn’t all bad. The plot was compelling, if not a touch cliche. Writing was simplistic, but that’s pretty par for the course with thrillers these days.

Ultimately, I can trot up quite a few more dislikes than likes when making a list for Bring Me Back. The story is absolutely unoriginal in its telling: an unreliable narrator recounts circumstances that led to the disappearance of a loved one. (I don’t know about you all, but I’m SO READY for the alternating viewpoints/non-chronological timelines fad to give way to something…anything…else.) He’s damaged goods — has an anger problem, like so many murder-suspects-turned-narrators before him — and the novel starts off with his alternate telling of the past + the present. Interestingly enough, the present entails an engagement to Ellen, the sister of his previous live-in girlfriend, Layla. You know, the one who went missing twelve years previously…

Cliches abound in the writing of chapter conclusions, in what seems an attempt at suspense. Red herrings are sprinkled in here and there, enough so that I wasn’t entirely correct in my conjecture of how things would turn out; but ultimately, much of what I suspected came to fruition.

Mostly, I just found myself underwhelmed by the book in its entirety. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, I didn’t care too much for any of the characters (again — in my humble opinion, they were underdeveloped), and I felt like a majority of what happened was predictable.

Overall: 2.5 stars. This is a pretty standard thriller with some relatively predictable twists and turns and average writing. It’s a fast read, so give it a whirl–you might find more to like than I did.

Mom Badge, #32

My son is just over a year old, and over the past 370-some days, I’ve encountered a number of situations that seemed pretty gold-star-parenting worthy. When he was just a couple weeks old, I nailed the sorta-single parenting thing while my husband spent his waking hours on a combine and his not-waking hours, well, sleeping. At four months, I survived sleep training and was rewarded with a more independent sleeper. At seven months, I singlehandedly painted the little squirm’s feet and stamped a couple of canvases for his grandmas (note to readers: everyone should be naked for this process).  When he hit nine months and decided he hated baths, I found a way to get his hiney into the tub long enough to douse the bugger in suds. Hell, just last week, I taught the boy to accurately answer the question, “Henry, what’s the elephant say?”

I’d even — sort of — found a way for the tyke to cope during the four-hour car rides that constitute visits to Grandma and Papa Simon’s house on the other side of the state. Just a couple short months ago, I actually prided myself on discovering a healthy recipe for 75% scream-free roadtrips:

  • leave by 8:30 a.m.
  • hang a blanket from the window instead of a shade — instant fascination
  • keep a bucket o’ toys within reaching distance (and toss a new one back there every thirty minutes or so)
  • don’t ever stop — not even for cops (I kid, I kid . . . kinda . . . )
  • avoid talking too much (Hank gets angry when he’s tired and can hear Mom but not climb all over her)

These tricks, coupled with Henry’s recent discovery of the miraculous snack trap have made those lengthy drives a bit easier to manage, especially since we make the trip home solo most of the time.

Today, though — oh, Lordamercy, today was a game. changer.

Henry woke up crabby. He ran a high fever a couple days this week and only returned to his usual plucky self yesterday afternoon. I expected fussiness. I plopped his little rump down in the highchair at 8:00, played some nursery rhyme videos on YouTube, and shoveled some breakfast down the hatch. (We don’t normally watch videos while we eat, but did I mention he was a screechy demon this morning?)

He settled into the car just fine and we found ourselves on our merry way after a pitstop for gas. In fact, hubris hit hard about 60 minutes into the drive when Henry conked out, thumb in mouth. Like an out-of-body experience, I remember thinking, Gee, I make cute babies. Note to self: convince husband it’s time to add to the nest tonight. Wink, wink.

ELL. OH. ELL.

Forty-five minutes later, nearly halfway into the journey, we hit a stoplight. Henry woke up. I cursed my misfortune (a lot, really; look, nobody’s perfect, okay?) and waited for things to reach Threat Level Midnight. Again, I thought: Wow! He’s been awake for 20 minutes and hasn’t even cried, really. What a little blessing.

Ten minutes later, things started to escalate and it was clear he wouldn’t be falling asleep again any time soon, so I reached for my failsafe: the snack trap. As I began to reach back with the chalice of treats, I noticed he seemed to be playing with something in his seat. I arranged myself for a better look. (He’s rear-facing still, so if I want a good look, I have to push myself up from the seat a bit and twist back real quick.)

Y’all. THERE WERE BLACK THINGS ALL OVER HIS LEGS. (Forgive me, but this is where we enter a caps-are-necessary zone.)

For a hot minute, I honestly thought some sort of evil bug had somehow gotten in the car and hatched a bunch of tiny evil bug babies all over my baby. My sweet, innocent, rosy-cheeked baby.

I dry-heaved for a moment before I went back for another glimpse: I needed to assess the damage. (Would I need to call an exterminator? Was I being punk’d? Would I have to trade my kid out for a newer model?) And that’s when shit got ugly.

Henry had lots of dark spots all over his legs, it’s true. He also had spots on his hands . . . and his arms . . . and his precious little face.

And the spots weren’t black. They were brown. Greenish-brown.

And they were wet. Or sticky. Or something.

Wait a minute. I asked my reflection, Does it smell funny in here to you?

One more quick look confirmed my worst nightmare — no, wait; that’s not right. I could’ve never dreamed this up: MY KID WAS COVERED IN SHIT, GUYS. 

From this point on, I blacked out a little bit and entered a world of being that was really just full of cursing (amazingly, not aloud) and bewilderment and just this sort of blind rage that really defies all description. We were on a four-lane, divided highway with twenty miles to rest stops in either direction, and my kid was covered in poop of his own making.

And alone. Did I say that already? I was alone. In the car. With my poop-bedazzled offspring. ALONE.

At this point, I was still driving and sort of deliriously hoping he wouldn’t do the unthinkable. And then, because #MurphysLaw, he did. While I watched the road with one eye and his seatback mirror with the other, my darling boy looked at me, looked at his poop-covered fist, and brought the damn thing to his mouth.

img_3496

This. Is. SPARTA.

I had one hand on the wheel and my rump was hovering over the seat while I reached behind me with my other arm and started frantically half-shouting HENRY DON’T PUT YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR MOUTH! NO — HEN — HENRY, STOP IT! DON’T YOU DARE PUT THAT POOP IN YOUR — HENRY FREAKING CHARLES SCHAFFER!

At which point, he started wailing tremendously and I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to swerve single-handedly across fifteen more miles while simultaneously goaltending my child’s poop-mouth.

I was going to have to stop. On the side of the highway. Alone. And then? God knows what.

True to millenial form, I had the presence of mind to snap a quick photo of the little feller; although, to be quite honest, this was more of a stalling tactic at the moment. We were entering uncharted territory and I hadn’t a clue where to begin.

He screamed the entire time I wiped down his extremities, all the while finding more feces to rub all over the beloved Mama he kept yelling for so pitifully. (Hello? Right here, buddy. Maybe you can’t see me through the poop smears on my face . . . )

Somehow, I removed his onesie (on its first wear, of course) and swapped the worthless sonofabitchin’ diaper out for a clean one. Cars were zooming by and I have no idea how much they witnessed, but I hope at least a few of them were like, Gee, that poor poop-covered mommy. She deserves a massage.

img_3505

Post-bath boy. He’s obviously pretty pleased with himself.

The expunging process depleted my wipes stash (diaper and all-purpose) and rendered my travel-sized bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer worthless. Against my better judgment, I nestled the little scoundrel back into his seat (on top of a blanket, RIP) sans-clothing, snack trap in hand. Given the vast amount of poop I’d just cleaned out of the car — and the two hours remaining ahead of us — I reasoned the boy couldn’t possibly lay another egg of such extreme proportions. So I gave him snacks, because positive reinforcement. Right? Way to poop! Wanna yogurt drop?

Two hours later, by the grace of God and Henry’s obedient bowels, we were home, with nary a toot between the two of us. Into the tub he went, a twinkle in his eyes, and I could’ve sworn the little sprite winked at me when his cheeks hit the water. Still in disbelief, I tore apart the carseat and threw its washable bits in the laundry before piling two packages of wipes, one industrial-sized bottle of Germ-X, and three washcloths into the Jeep.

I’m still recovering from the trauma, but Henry’s just finished a two-hour nap and I don’t think he’s got the slightest memory of the Great Poop Problem of 2018. Meanwhile, I’m scheming up an actual line of mom-badges for those many moments we survive with at least an ounce of dignity (if not a bit of grace). Today’s badge? It definitely looks a bit like this: 💩

Review: The Vines We Planted

It’s hard to tell what I love most about the bookstagram community. The world of bookish photography featuring beautiful locales and steaming lattes (that I will never have in southwest Kansas)? The friendships forged from afar, betwixt book mavens with an affinity for chocolate and cheese? The fact that such a community exists online, where people share a love for something and positively engage with each other to share and revel in that passion?

There is just so much to love about the bookstagram universe. (If you’re on Insta, shoot me a DM & introduce yourself –> @littlereaderontheprairie!) Anyway, one such example: author engagement. A few weeks ago, debut author Joanell Serra shot me a DM and asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing a copy of her first book, The Vines We Planted. 

I always get a little nervous about reviewing books that authors have specifically sent to me (I’m acting like this happens all the time, but really, it’s only happened a few times). It seems safer receiving a book from the publisher, you know? That way there’s no personal connection or awkward feelings if the book is a bust.

Spoiler alert: The Vines We Planted is not a bust.

I received an e-copy of the book, which promptly resulted in an “Oh, damn” reaction on my end: I’m somewhat of a fervent anti-ebook activist. (Print life 4-ever!) As such, I had to read the book on my phone. My optometrist friends are probably smacking their foreheads at this point; but I did it. I read the whole thing on my 4″ screen! Which is kind of a feat in itself, as I’ve only ever finished one other book on my iPhone, having abandoned the other 4-5 I started. If I’m going to read a full book on my phone, it had better be appealing.

Fortunately, The Vines We Planted met my e-reading standards and proved itself worthwhile. The novel is set in modern-day Sonoma Valley, California, where a number of integral characters’ lives intersect via a winery + stable combination farm. Uriel, a 30-year-old ranch hand and horse trainer, is recovering from heartbreak: after an early-20s fling dissolved in the bat of an eye, he married a spirited young woman on a dare. At the start of the novel, she’d died a year or two previously in a tragic accident, leaving Uriel to wallow in a pit of bachelor-despair. Meanwhile, Amanda, 28 years old and finishing her PhD abroad, returns to the valley when she discovers her emotionally-distant father has been diagnosed with cancer. Their lives become entwined as both deal with family crises and secrets from the past that bubble and erupt from the surface.

img_3410

If I had to characterize this novel, I’d call it contemporary literature focusing on family drama with a touch of romance. There’s a strong sense of setting in the work, which I am appreciative of: for this western Kansas girl, anything that transports me from the dry, vacant plains is a welcome distraction. Characters are mostly believable — in truth, I had issues with a few of Amanda’s choices/reactions, and these minor blips took me out of the story briefly — and though there is a host of major players, their personalities and circumstances are easily distinguished from one another.

The novel had a desirable blend of familial drama and romance, making it a great summer read. It’s always hard for me to rate books like this — it was engaging, moved along at a good clip, and dabbled in topics that went deeper than the average romance novel; but it also wasn’t the type of read that kept me thinking long after I’d finished. Would I recommend this juicy story to my girlfriends? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to Serious Critics of American Literature? Um. No. And that’s absolutely okay. The Vines We Planted is a perfectly enjoyable, quick read for lazy weekends or travel days.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. If you’re looking for something dramatic and engaging, read this book. If you’re looking for something that makes a statement about our social climate or that will provoke hours of deep reflection, keep moving.

This novel was sent to me free by the author, Joanell Serra, in exchange for my honest review. The opinions and words in this review are completely my own and the receipt of this book has had no bearing on my reflections.

Smashing Cakes & Taking Names

Exactly 366 days + 19 hours ago, Henry was born via c-section and made me a mama. The first week of his life was rough — about 6 hours after birth, a nurse thought she saw seizure-like activity and he was whisked away on a helicopter at one in the morning. I wasn’t allowed to go with him — stupid surgery — and Zack couldn’t ride along on the med flight, so he had to drive the 3+ hours to Wichita by himself. The next morning, a mere 12 hours after my major surgery, I hauled my ass out of bed and made a dozen laps around the birth ward before choking down the most uninspired scrambled eggs of my life. I was determined to get back to my boys, no matter how uncomfortable my severed gut was feeling.

It was an exhausting, terrifying experience, made all the more frustrating by the fact that Henry then spent a week in NICU despite 0 tests or observations that indicated anything even remotely seizure-like (with the exception of the initial nurse). By the time we got our little guy home, I was nearing a full seven days without more than a couple of hours of sleep sprinkled in there — I wasn’t a “patient” at Wesley hospital, so I received no care or assistance while there; and let me tell you, I was hurting — and it only got worse: Zack was needed for harvest pretty much immediately following our return home.

It. Was. Awful.

I remember thinking in those first few weeks: Please, God, let us make it to five o’clock. Six o’clock. Seven o’clock. And with the setting of the sun each day, relief washed over me: we’d survived one more day. I felt terrible about it, friends: here I was, a new mother, and all I could do was beg for the resilience to survive — not enjoy, not cherish, not marvel at; but survive — another 24 hours. Henry screamed a lot that first week home. And the week after that. And the one after that. I called my mom crying on more than one occasion, certain that I wasn’t doing anything right. Zack was gone a lot, and when he was home at night, he was bone-tired with a full day’s work in the fields. I hated asking him to help with Henry throughout the night: I was terrified he’d fall asleep on the combine the next day.

Those first few weeks were some of the loneliest weeks of my life — and yet, here I am, a year later, wholeheartedly enamored with my not-so-squishy baby (erm, toddler?) boy who is clapping and standing and mimicking sounds like nobody’s business.

This whole turning-one business is pretty bittersweet. On the one hand, I get to marvel daily at the new things Henry has learned, or the cute sounds he’s making; on the other hand, he’s not my little squish anymore. And several times over the past few days, I’ve thought about the fact that I got to spend every single day with this little peanut — just the two of us! — for his entire first year, and I’m not going to get that with any of our other kids. It will never just be me + bebe again; not like it was with Henry. And man, that’s a hard pill to swallow some days. But I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last year — namely, in the words of Yul Brenner: I’m a badass mother, who won’t take no crap from nobody — and I wouldn’t give back a moment.

Motherhood is so freaking hard, you guys; but it’s also so freaking worth it.

Without further ado, here’s a celebration of Henry (and my first attempt at a legit photoshoot) (which was also the most fun thing I’ve done in basically ages) (please send me your babies so I can feed them cake and take their photos).

2018-06-05 15.02.01

And, my personal favorite:

2018-06-05 15.09.31

Man, oh man; I love this boy! Life with you is pretty sweet, Henry Charles.

3 New Releases You Won’t Want to Miss

June is upon us, and with it, a wealth of delightful new book releases. I’ve had my eye on several upcoming titles — chiefly, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, the sequel to Beartown — but I’ve also been fortunate enough to receive advance copies of a handful of distinctly different books that I rather enjoyed and want to share with everyone!

The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark. Fiction, 368 pages. This novel was released May 8 by Gallery Books. It’s part family drama, part science lesson — and believe me when I tell you, as a very unscientific-minded individual, the science component of this book completely made the story. Paige Robson, main character and geneticist extraordinaire, is a single mother to an increasingly inquisitive 8-year-old boy named Miles. She’s always been honest with Miles: he was conceived via sperm donor. She’s also done a fantastic job of raising her son collectively with her mother and her sister’s family. However, Paige didn’t account for the boy’s desperate need to know who his biological father is — and his fury at her, for having deprived him this standard piece of the family pie. All Paige knows for certain is that her own father was a deeply disappointing figure in her own life, and she wants so much more for Miles.

When Miles makes a friend at his new school, Paige is thrilled — twofold, when she realizes his mom is fun for her to hang around, too. And while the families become closer, Paige begins to let her guard down one day at a time . . . until a few cataclysmic events coincide to turn her life upside down.

I love, love, loved the fascinating science mini-lessons sprinkled between chapters in this family drama, and that’s saying something coming from a self-proclaimed science-hater. (I hated the subject in school. It was boring. This book totally changed that outlook.) Ultimately, this is a book about relationships and how we define ourselves based on our relationships with our families — especially our parents. Overall: A solid 4/5 stars.

***

Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg. Memoir, 254 pages. This prosodic personal work was released June 5 from Harper Books. I was wowed by Sundberg’s depth of voice and her unflinching portrait of her reality: that of an abused wife who doesn’t know that she needs to (and later, how to) leave her angry, damaging husband.

I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship (or verbally abusive, for that matter). Like most other people who’ve never been abused, I’ve often mused about how a woman (or man) can stay in an abusive relationship. How can they stay tethered to someone who hits them? Screams at them? Belittles them? How can they be with someone who doesn’t respect them?

I still don’t fully comprehend such scenarios, but Sundberg’s memoir is such an honest processing of the kind of decisions that go into such relationships, I do feel like I came to an understanding of sorts about the kind of thinking — and emotional evolving — that makes it so difficult for people to leave abusive relationships.

The chronology of this book is very disjointed; an aspect that works really well in general, but can be confusing from time to time. In some ways, it reads like a conversation; as though you’re sitting in a cafe with Kelly Sundberg and she’s recounting her life experiences, jumping from one memory to the next without any care as to which event happened first or next or last — only that they happened. Ultimately, I really, really appreciated the strength of Sundberg’s voice in this work and the absolutely unapologetic story she tells. 4/5 stars.

***

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Fiction – detective story, 387 pages. Released (in the US) June 5 by Harper Books. This was my first Horowitz novel, and based on the Goodreads reviews, it isn’t his best. But I can’t tell you that, remember? — because I haven’t read any of his other works. About halfway through, I realized that Horowitz was writing himself as the main character (would’ve definitely realized this earlier if I’d been paying closer attention to the fact that the MC’s name is “Anthony” and/or if I was familiar with his bio) — which made for a bit of a trippy fiction read. Allow me to explain:

The Word is Murder is a detective novel that follows a writer — Anthony — and his retired-but-still-kinda-working detective friend, Hawthorne. The relationship is supposedly evocative of Holmes & Watson, but — gulp — I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, sooo . . . I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this recreation. Anthony’s done some writing work with Hawthorne in the past (he consults with Hawthorne when writing scenes that involve police work), but one day Hawthorne comes to Anthony with a fresh idea: he wants Anthony to write a book about him. For half of the profits.

As the two begrudgingly work alongside one another to unravel the secrets of a recent string of murders/attempted murders, Anthony narrates events with no dearth of snark — and that’s part of what makes this read so entertaining. I can’t say I loved either Anthony or Hawthorne’s characters (they were both a bit . . . prick-ish? . . . for my taste), but I did quite enjoy the murder mystery at the heart of the work. The writing was solid, if a bit self-proud at times, and I certainly intend to pick up Horowitz’s other highly-praised novel, The Magpie Murders. Overall: 3.5-4 stars.