“The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School” by Sonora Reyes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Seventeen-year-old Yamilet Flores prefers drawing attention for her killer eyeliner, not for being the new kid at a mostly white, very rich, Catholic school. But at least here no one knows she’s gay, and Yami intends to keep it that way. After being outed by her crush and ex-best friend, she could use the fresh start.

Goodreads


This book has a lot going on, and it starts going in ways I didn’t expect at only about a third of the way into it! Per the author’s own note, though, there are trigger warnings for racism, homophobia, and suicidal ideation.

Our main character is Yamilet, who lives with her mom and her younger brother, Cesar. Her dad, who she was very close to, was deported to Mexico when she was ten years old.

When we meet them, Yami and Cesar are about to start a new school year at a new school. Obviously, this always comes with some nervousness… but moreso for Yami, who is gay but not out. In addition to that, she feels like she is poorer than most kids at the private school, and she’s one of very few non-white kids there. Her initial goal is to just stay out of trouble, but that doesn’t last long.

On her first day, she has a class with Bo, an Asian girl who is out and pretty bold about it. This confuses Yamilet, because on one hand she wants to befriend Bo and learn more about her… but on the other, can she do that without outing herself?

So, this brings up an interesting aspect of the book. In so many ways, it’s easier for people of all ages to be “out” now than in previous decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s equally easy for everyone. Of course, the religious nature of her new school is a deterrent, as is the fact that her mom is religious and makes gay jokes. With their dad already deported, Yami and Cesar also have a healthy fear of police or authorities of an “official” variety. There are a lot of reasons these kids want to protect the various identities that they see as being different from their classmates.

I don’t want to give away too much, but a lot happens during the course of the school year. Yamilet definitely gets closer to Bo, and learns that, even though she is more confident about her sexuality, she has her own struggles with her ethnic heritage. She also, unexpectedly, makes a friend of a popular jock who starts the year with a crush on her. She learns some unexpected things about her brother, clashes with a parent, and of course ends up becoming more confident in who she is.

This was such a good book. While I don’t share all of the heroine’s identities, I did switch from public to Catholic school – and that alone was intimidating! Yami and Cesar have so many other issues on their plates, and I really sympathized with them.

This YA novel comes out today, May 17th, from Harper Collins. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward, and through Netgalley.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“The Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

Goodreads


While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!

Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.

She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.

Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.

She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).

The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.

The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).

This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.

This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.


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“Memphis” by Tara Stringfellow – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition–and the women in her family as her guides to healing–that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance.

Goodreads


TW: Physical abuse and rape of a child.

This story follows one family through three generations. We first meet Hazel in the 1930s, when she is a teenager in Memphis. Later, she has two daughters, Miriam and August. Miriam also has two daughters, Joan and Mya. The story ends in the early 2000s, when Joan is about to graduate from high school.

The story alternates between the perspectives of Hazel, Miriam, August, and Joan. It is not told chronologically. There are other characters, of course – including Hazel’s husband Myron, Miriam’s husband Jax, and August’s son Derek. The house these women leave in – which Myron built – is almost a character of its own. And the neighborhood is filled with other strong characters, mostly women.

These characters live through many trying times, both in their personal lives and on a bigger scale. We see them continue lives at home while their husbands are off at war, participate in the Civil Rights Movement and react to the assassination of Dr. King, and have a personal connection to the events of September 11th.

As mentioned at top, some of the personal events they have to overcome could be upsetting to some readers. I think this was the hardest part of the book, for me. I was rooting for these characters, but also mad at some of the things that happened.

I expect to see this book on a lot of lists – it’s ripe for being an Oprah pick. (Full disclosure, I read it in the fall of 2021, so this is totally a guess from me.) The multi-generational, non-linear storytelling alone lends it a certain epic quality. And the situations discussed – even the ones I did not enjoy – are certainly real for some people. I think it’s a bit of a hard read, but maybe that’s exactly the point.

This book comes out today, April 5, 2022. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Random House Publishing Group.


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“Survive the Dome” by Kosoko Jackson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Jamal Lawson just wanted to be a part of something. As an aspiring journalist, he packs up his camera and heads to Baltimore to document a rally protesting police brutality after another Black man is murdered.

But before it even really begins, the city implements a new safety protocol…the Dome. The Dome surrounds the city, forcing those within to subscribe to a total militarized shutdown. No one can get in, and no one can get out.

Goodreads


I was drawn to this book on NetGalley because it had a great-looking cover and title – and who doesn’t love some dystopian YA?

This one doesn’t take place in some far-off future, however. It takes place in today’s America, with much of our own history and current problems – but with one new invention that we don’t have (yet?): The Dome.

Our main character is Jamal, a gay black teen in Annapolis. He drives to Baltimore, where there are some BLM protests going on. The governor of Maryland has been wanting to test the new Dome invention, and the protests offer the perfect opportunity. Now, Jamal is trapped inside. Not only can the citizens not get in or out, but neither can any electronic information – cell calls and texts, emails, etc.

In addition to the Dome, there is one other new technology that the government/police unveil during their Dome experiment: the police have powerful suits of armor that are all linked. The officers wearing the suits are basically super-soldiers. The only caveat is that the suits are pretty bulky, which makes them a little sluggish.

Jamal falls in with Marco, a wannabe hacker with contacts in Nemesis (analogous to the real world’s Anonymous). Marco is a pretty good hacker himself, with high ideals of changing the world, but he hasn’t been accepted into Nemesis because of his criminal record.

They also team up with Catherine, who is just a little older than them. She just got out of basic training, so her military background is useful. At first, she is cagey about herself – how does anyone know who they can trust in this situation? – but eventually we learn that Catherine is fighting to find her parents, who have been taken by the government.

The action here is non-stop, which makes this book move fast. Each chapter picks up right where the last stops, with virtually no down time. The entire story takes place over just a couple days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that Jamal seems too idealistic at times. He often puts himself in harm’s way to save anyone he comes across, including random people he sees on the streets. He’s precious, but almost too precocious to be a survivor in this harsh environment.

The views on police and government in the story are BLEAK. I’m not even saying they’re out of place, mind you, but they obviously come from a very frustrated place. We see leaders as the villains in most dystopian stories, though – think “The Hunger Games” – so it is really only striking in that these leaders are supposed to represent the ones we have in our present times.

This was a fast-paced read that has a lot of social commentary about the times we live in. It comes out today, March 29th, and I was able to read it ahead of time through NetGalley.


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“Campfire Confessions” by Kristine Ochu – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Annie, Sondra, and Jo were the best of childhood friends—but they haven’t seen each other in far too long. To the outside world, their lives are perfect. But appearances can be deceiving…

Goodreads


The story idea here is that three women reconnect on a canoeing trip. They were childhood friends, but two of them have moved away from the small Midwestern town where they grew up. All three are facing big life problems – depression, divorce, overwhelm, recovery from addiction, a sexless marriage, etc.

The first third of the book introduces us to the characters – Annie, Jo, and Sondra – and all the aforementioned issues (and then some). In 100 pages or so, we see multiple sex scenes (plus one with a vibrator), an overdose, and an attempt at blackmail. This all seemed a little too “soap opera-y” for my personal tastes, but I realized that it was just set-up.

The next section of the book has Jo and Sondra returning to their hometown to see Annie. They reconnect with family and old friends, and hatch a plot with Annie’s four sons.

Eventually, they get out onto the river, with two canoes, a tent, and some basic provisions. This part is where the action really picked up. But it also got to be a little too much at times. All three women end up hurt and/or sick before this excursion is out, and many of their encounters were dramatic.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here, in that the book kind of honors multiple spiritualities. For example, Annie is a preacher’s wife, and so the Christian perspective is represented. But Jo’s husband’s family – who live in the area, and interact with our characters a few times – are Indigenous. Especially out in nature, the women talk a lot of spirit animals and the like, so this perspective is also prevalent.

While I enjoyed that the book included multiple perspectives like this, all of them seemed a little too “in your face” at times. For example, when Annie falls and breaks her arm, she passes out and sees Jesus. They have a conversation, and she writes a song about it – while unconscious – that she remembers and sings after she wakes up. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it was a little over the top for my personal tastes.

This was a decent book – I didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it, either. And it moved at a good pace, especially in the final two-thirds.

This book comes out today, March 8th, 2022. I was given an advanced copy from the author through the Books Forward program.


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“The Paradox Hotel” by Rob Hart – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For someone with January Cole’s background, running security at a fancy hotel shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Except the Paradox is no ordinary hotel. Here, the ultra-wealthy guests are costumed for a dozen different time periods, all anxiously waiting to catch their “flights” to the past. And proximity to the timeport makes for an interesting stay. The clocks run backwards on occasion—and, rumor has it, ghosts stroll the halls.

A locked-room murder mystery set at a hotel for time travelers—in which a detective must solve an impossible crime even as her own sanity crumbles.

Goodreads


One of my (many) book email lists mentioned that the publisher of this one, Random House, was auto-approving all requests for it on NetGalley. Even though I had some other things on the docket, I thought I was due for some sci-fi – admittedly one of my favorite genres. So, on a lark, I added it to my list.

It was slow-going at first. Like with many books in this genre, it took a while for me to familiarize myself with the world that exists in The Paradox Hotel. But once I got going, I read huge chunks at a time, often needing to keep turning more pages!

The story takes place in our near-ish future, in the northern United States (seemingly upstate New York), in a time when time travel is a common vacation activity. The Paradox Hotel sits near Einstein, which is the machine/portal used for time travel. People who use time travel for recreation are often the ultra-rich, so that’s who the hotel mostly caters to.

Einstein, for obvious (don’t eff up the timeline) reasons, is controlled by the government. But, being in debt, they’re currently looking to privatize it. There are four billionaire-types coming to the hotel to bid for it, and a snowstorm raging outside. All the makings of a classic locked room scenario.

January Cole used to work at Einstein, as a sort of “time cop” who jumped into the timestream to stop people from doing crazy things (like killing Hitler, the usual). People who time travel too much, though, become “unstuck,” and start having episodes where they see things that happened in the past – or in the future. Having reached level one of being unstuck, Cole was reassigned to be the head of security at the nearby Parodox.

So, as the guests arrive, Cole is put on the spot to make sure things are all up to their high security standards. But there’s a dead body that only she can see – leading her to believe the murder hasn’t happened yet? – and problems with the internal security camera footage, in which large portions of data seem to have been erased.

The story, like so many involving time travel, gets twisty and weird. And sometimes philosophical. There is a lot of action, small incidents that add up to bigger issues, clues left along the way, and three dinosaurs on the loose inside the hotel. And all the while, Cole’s mental state is deteriorating, leading us to wonder how much of any of it is even real.

But aside from the actual story, the atmosphere of the hotel plays an important part in this book. There’s an element of “we’re all in this together” that seems relevant to the times we live in – the lower class hotel staff often being pushed around by their wealthy customers inspires them to stick up for one another on multiple occasions. The staff like to think of themselves as an extended family, and they are certainly a motley crew.

The colorful characters are part of the charm, I’d say. But I also did like the story, even though it was complicated at times. If you’re the type of person who could get through “Inception,” for example, I think you’d enjoy this story. If movies or books similar to that give you a headache, this one might not be for you.

This twisty sci-fi action adventure comes out today, February 22nd, 2022.


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“Wildcat: A Novel” by Amelia Morris – Review

By: Angie Haddock



New mother, aspiring writer, and former shopgirl Leanne has lost her way. As she struggles with both her grief and the haze of new motherhood, it also becomes clear that her best friend, the default queen of East Side Los Angeles, Regina Mark, might not actually be a friend at all.

-Goodreads


This is another book about a stay-at-home mom living near L.A. – so it was a little funny that I read it back-to-back with Adult Conversation. But the similarities pretty much end there.

This story follows Leanne, a new mom in her early thirties. She also has a book coming out, a lot of well-to-do friends in L.A., and some family baggage from back home in Pennsylvania. In fact, her dad died a week before she had her baby, and she couldn’t fly back for the funeral.

The book’s real drama comes from Leanne’s friends, though, and especially one named Regina. Leanne starts to realize how Regina’s world is so “curated,” every friend and party specifically picked to look good on social media, and/or to get her some publicity for her line of home goods.

Social media plays a big role in this book. I felt like this was a part of it I couldn’t really connect with – I’m on social media, but certainly don’t define my life by how many followers I have. Maybe it’s a generational thing? (Although I’m only a handful of years older than the main characters.) Even though this aspect of the drama didn’t ring true for me, I don’t doubt that it will for some people.

The idea that we compare ourselves to our friends – or maybe seek out friends who make us look good, or can introduce us to certain people we want to connect with – is pretty universal, though. (Even if some of us don’t live all of that out on Instagram alone.)

The initial rift between Leanne and Regina opens when Leanne realizes Regina is not vaccinating her baby. The story takes place pre-COVID, and uses a local measles outbreak to illustrate their stances on this topic. But of course, it’s coming out during COVID, so this aspect of the story could be seen as a “hot-button issue.” Not to say the book is overly political- but I feel like any reader who has strong feelings on that should know ahead of time that this issue plays a strong role in the book.

This book comes out on February 22nd. I won a copy from the publisher, Flatiron Books, in a Goodreads Giveaway.


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“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


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“Small Changes” by Alicia Witt – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Alicia Witt isn’t here to dole out lists of dos and don’ts. But she is here to share her own journey to forming better habits and show the ways that adopting the small changes philosophy has allowed her to find balance, eat better, and feel better physically and emotionally.

Goodreads


Many years ago, I wrote for a blog about independent music. During that time, I interviewed Alicia Witt, who is both an actress and a musician. She was coming to Nashville to play a show at the time – but now, she lives here.

So of course I was interested to see that Witt was putting out her first book! The full title is “Small Changes: The Easy, No-Rules Way to Include More Plant-Based Foods, Peace, and Positivity in Your Life,” – which is a lot.

There are only a handful of chapters here, but they are each pretty substantial. In the first one, she recounts her history and career. That part was fun, honestly, even though I knew parts of it already. She also gets into her philosophy of making small changes over time.

As the full title implies, Witt is vegan – or, as she admits, mostly vegan. But she comes back often to the idea that if you do have a thing that you love, or can’t give up – don’t live in constant guilt over it. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. I like this part of her philosophy.

This book has a lot about food in it, but it also touches on other subjects including exercise, beauty products, having pets, journaling, and just going with the flow in general.

While I do like her approach from a mental standpoint, there are some things that didn’t sit right with me. For example, she repeatedly recommends gluten-free alternatives – but really, no one needs to be gluten-free unless they have an allergy. (I get the feeling that, for Witt, it’s more about cutting the carbs in general than the actual gluten in them.) She also advocates giving your pets “human grade” pet food. If you are into getting high-end pet food because your dog or cat likes it, go for it. But human-grade has always felt like one of those marketing/labeling ploys to me. (Here’s a brief piece on it.)

There are a bevy of recipes in the back, and gorgeous pictures of the finished products. (I feel like there is a zero percent chance my attempts would come out looking like these – but if you love ogling food pictures, these are worthy!)

This book comes out today from Harper Horizon, and I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley. Also, as part of the book launch, Witt will be doing a virtual panel at the Southern Festival of Books later this week.


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“Love in Any Language” by Evelyn Kohl LaTorre – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Love across cultures is tested when Antonio, a penniless university student, and Evelyn, a strong-willed Peace Corps volunteer, succumb to their attraction to one another at the end of her two-year commitment in Peru and Evelyn gets pregnant. Deeply in love, the twenty-three-year-olds marry in Cusco—and decide to begin their married life in Northern California.

Goodreads


From reading the synopsis, I thought I would love this book. I did like this book, and it’s interesting for several reasons. But I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I was struggling to put my finger on why, when the book itself answered my question for me in its last pages. And the reason was, admittedly, a little selfish. More on that later.

Obviously, the book is told from Evelyn’s perspective. She was born in Montana, as 1 of 6 kids in a blue collar, Roman Catholic family. Her parents moved to California as their kids got older, because they wanted them to have easier access to institutions of higher learning.

Right away we can see that, while Evelyn was raised in a pretty traditional manner, she and her family embrace a few more modern values. Not only did she expect to get a college education, but she also had her eyes on traveling internationally, and joined the Peace Corps. Not bad for a young woman in the early 1960s.

And this brings me to one of the key things I liked about this book: Evelyn was pretty ahead of her time in a lot of things. She was often juggling work and kids, and was sometimes even the breadwinner of the house. She continuously pursued higher degrees, additional certifications, more challenging jobs, and opportunities to travel – with or without her husband! She comes across as a strong woman – especially mentally.

Another interesting aspect is seeing how her work – and various things that intersect with it – evolved over the years. She started out in social work, and added psychology to the mix. She spent most of her career working within various school systems. She started out administering tests to determine students’ ability levels, and was later in charge of innovating ways to accommodate students who had different abilities. This book spans the 60s – 90s, mostly, and during that time we see new laws introduced that protect differently-abled students, and ensure their access to a public education. We also see the advent of computers, the introduction of the Meyers-Briggs personality test, and other concepts that affect Evelyn’s work.

While I found these aspects – and the international travels – fascinating, I still had a kind of “meh” feeling about some of the story. In thinking about it, I felt like every time she encountered a problem, it was solved within a page. I felt like the book lacked real conflict, basically. I’ve seen other reviewers applaud her “straightforward” writing style, so I thought maybe it was just that – she didn’t oversell or dwell on the issues. That made them feel a bit like non-issues to me, but I just kept rolling with it.

In the last pages, Evelyn puts out a thought that I hadn’t considered while in the midst of the story – but it definitely hit a chord with me, and I think it’s part of why I had trouble sympathizing with her “quick solutions.” Since the copy I read was an advanced copy, I won’t quote it directly. But the idea is that she benefited from many social nets that aren’t as easily available today – from low-cost childcare and subsidized housing to flexible work schedules and bosses that often gave her freedom to pursue what opportunities she wanted to.

Dr. Evelyn LaTorre accomplished a lot – and continues to do so, as this isn’t her first book! She was also helped by her family, and the many opportunities that were available to an educated woman at the time. If you have any interests in education or social work, I would definitely recommend her story.

“Love in Any Language” comes out today, September 28th. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward.


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