A Twisted & Beautiful Folkloric Fantasy Debut: Review of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

I swear, this post did not want to be published! I have been working on this for weeks now because every time I’ve saved it as a draft as soon as I come back to it all I get are error messages so I have to start all over again! This time I’m just going to try and get it all done in one sitting, including images and links, so that I can finally post this.

The Wolf and the Woodsman
Image: Cover of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Reid provided content warnings for her book which will be included at the end of my review

First off, I wanted to thank William Morrow through NetGalley for the e-ARC of this book as well as Danielle at William Morrow for sending me a finished copy!

The Wolf and the Woodsman was everything I hoped for and more. This folkloric fantasy debut from Ava Reid follows Évike, a pagan woman who has been treated as an outcast in her village of “Wolf Girls”. Évike has not only been scorned because of the man who fathered her, but also because she’s the only girl in her village without any magic powers. When the Woodsmen come to take away yet another girl, it’s Évike who gets taken. A sacrifice for the protection of someone else in her village. As the plot unfolded and twisted itself down grim and harsh paths I read with bated breath and finished this in two sittings.

This book was whimsically dark as Reid knit together Jewish mythology and Hungarian history. I’m not Jewish though I ended up picking up on a number of references that were made throughout the book. I really enjoyed seeing how Reid tied everything together. The writing was absolutely beautiful. Rich descriptions of the world woven throughout fantastical stories and Évike’s own stinging inner dialogue. I was so immersed in the story that I didn’t want to drag myself back out until I was finished reading. I’d like to note that the body horror and gore described throughout are not for the faint of heart. The Wolf and the Woodsman is an adult novel and I would heed that warning. If you’re a person who is sensitive to graphic descriptions this might be a book that needs to be passed on. It was all pertinent to the story itself and added to the dark nature. This was a dark story and it was unexpected because I find that many fantasy stories I’ve read tend to lean towards a “happily ever after” ending. And obviously I love those too but I appreciated that this book felt so realistic in terms of characterization and life consequences of horrific events.

The grim fairytale-esque sheen that covered the surface of the story revealed thought provoking horrors once peeled back. A corrupt kingdom, filled with impoverished peasants who stood atop the backs of the pagans and the Yehuli because they believed themselves to be more worthy of an upward climb. An impending war that has caused a turning tide in the kings own men. It was fascinating and terrifying to read it all unfold because I was so invested in Évike and her survival. Over the course of the book, Évike put every ounce into protecting such fragile relationships that developed over the course of the story. As she interacted with her peers and eventually her father I couldn’t help but hope that these characters would hope for the best for Évike just as I was. For her to want to save anyone but herself was heartbreaking because even after years of being treated as less than and fighting for her survival she still revealed a caring nature in these moments.

Now, not only was Évike caring but she was powerful in her own way. The self discovery journey she went on through the course of the book proved to be beneficial in numerous ways. Her power in bringing men to their knees was hands down one of my favorite parts of this book. She intimidated a king but her enemies-to-lovers relationship with Prince Gaspar was perfection. They were never meant to be and yet as their banter and curses turned to something more I couldn’t stop reading. As I reached the end of the novel I couldn’t help but see all the beginnings that could unspool from it.

This was a standout read and will definitely be one of my favorites for the year. Hands down a 5/5 star read! Links to purchase the book for yourself will be included underneath the content warnings.

CONTENT WARNINGS (as provided by the author)
– Gore, including graphic descriptions of dismemberment, amputation, mutilation, and immolation
– Torture, including whipping
– Self-harm, including self-amputation 
– Animal death (graphic; the animals are not pets)
– Antisemitism
– Cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing
– Physical abuse by parents and parental figures
– Graphic descriptions of vomiting

If you’d like to pick up your own copy of The Wolf and the Woodsman you can find it at any of the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Indiebound (you can find a local indie to purchase through there!)

And as of writing this post, Sierra Elmore has a book box available for preorder for September. You can find that here!

And if you’d like to connect with me elsewhere:
I’m on Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Readerly: @/sideofadventure

For review inquiries, etc my email is adventuresandespresso@gmail.com.

You can follow my reviews or add me as a friend on Goodreads here.

And if you’d like to buy me a coffee, my Ko-fi is here.

I’ll talk to y’all in my next post!

Middle Grade Monday: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale
Image: Cover of Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale

The story of a deaf girl’s connection to a whale whose song can’t be heard by his species, and the journey she takes to help him.

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Lynne Kelly’s Song For A Whale was a beautiful book about a young girl’s need to belong and her determined journey to help a whale also find a place to belong. Iris is deaf. Her grandparents are deaf and she has a friend, Wendell, who is also deaf but she attends a hearing school. On top of all this, while her mom and older brother have learned sign language to easily communicate with Iris, her father has never put in the effort instead relying on her lip reading skills and other people to translate. This book centers on her discovery of a whale called Blue 55 who sings in a frequency that other whales can’t understand. Iris immediately relates to Blue 55 and she sets out on a journey to give him a song that might finally make him feel heard.

In both high school and my first round of college I took ASL classes. I spent three years learning it in high school and was actually planning on minoring in it in college. For a really long time I was interested in becoming an interpreter and while my career goals have ultimately changed since then I think that learning sign language is something that everyone should do if presented the opportunity. The Deaf community is wonderful and I’ve met a lot of great people over the years that have pulled me out of my shell from my time learning ASL. It’s an incredibly expressive language and it taught me a lot about communication so I was excited to pick up a book featuring a deaf main character! I feel like if I let myself talk about it too much I would take up the entire post but I’ll just say that while communication and school and everything surrounding that is up for individual families to decide it is incredibly important for deaf children to be able to communicate. ASL has its own structure and grammar but it is a language and it opens the world up so much more than relying on lip reading and speaking.

Song For A Whale was emotional. Iris feels misunderstood and often floats through life feeling like an outsider. At school she has to rely on an interpreter and with interactions with Deaf (uppercase D means individuals who identify with the larger Deaf community) people she feels like she’s getting left behind because she isn’t around fluent signers all the time. My heart hurt for her because she had so much passion that I wanted everyone else in her life to see that too. So when she begins to create a song for Blue 55 after learning about the whale in science class I couldn’t help but cheer her on as she began to make unlikely friends along her journey. I think that this book is a perfect one to help young readers begin to step into the shoes of those that have different abilities to their own. Being deaf does not define a person and I really enjoyed that Kelly fully made Iris her own person because that will help readers understand that too.

One of my favorite things about this book was that not only was it a story of belonging but it was also one of healing. Before the events of this story took place, Iris lost her grandfather. So on top of everything she was navigating her grief for one of the few people that fully accepted her as she was. Her grandmother was grieving the loss of her husband and life long companion and I loved seeing the support and hope she had for Iris. She stepped up for her granddaughter and ended up beginning to move with her grief as well. As they both opened up to each other and the outside world I was really proud of both characters for being so strong.

This is a very character driven book. Interspersed between a few of Iris’s chapters were some written from the perspective of Blue 55. They were moving and brought me hope that the two would be able to interact in some way before the story ended. I loved how Kelly tied the passion Iris felt for radios to this mission to create a song for a whale. It was unique and I think it added so much to the importance for everyone to be able to communicate with those around them. I also thought that it was cool to find so many educational tidbits sprinkled throughout about whales and whale song. It was well worth the read and whether you’re hearing or deaf I couldn’t recommend this book more.

If you’re interested in picking up your own copy you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (to find a local indie to shop through!)

And with that, I’m signing off for the day. I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

You can also connect with me more by following the blog or at the following:

Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Readerly: @/sideofespresso

You can add me as a friend or follow my reviews on Goodreads here.

For review inquiries, etc. you can email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

If you’d like to support the blog financially, my Ko-fi is linked here.

This Is a Bit of a Rant Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

I rarely preorder books. Recently I have started to do it more often but I still try to limit myself because I’m always nervous I may not like a book enough to own it. One Last Stop is Casey McQuiston’s, author of Red White & Royal Blue, sophomore novel. This was one of my most anticipated books of 2021 and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it so it was one of the few books that I’ve preordered for this year. When I initially read RWRB I really liked it and while my opinion on it has changed a bit I have reread it four times. So upon hearing the synopsis of OLS I was incredibly excited for a sapphic contemporary novel mixed with a unique sci-fi element. Unfortunately though I found the story to be lackluster and the main twist of the plot was poorly executed.

With that being said this is going to be a bit of a rant review. I’m going to split it into a few different sections to try and keep my thoughts together and I’ll also make a disclaimer now that there will be some spoilers. I will note the sections that contain major spoilers in case you want to skip them!

One Last Stop

Synopsis

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges and swoopy hair and soft smile, showing up in a leather jacket to save August’s day when she needed it most. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her. Maybe it’s time to start believing in some things, after all.

Things I Liked

I’ll start with the things that I liked about the book because I do think that McQuiston shows a lot of promise as an author. I did enjoy OLS enough to finish it and the main reason for that is the colorful cast of characters. The way that McQuiston crafts their side characters is something that I love, it’s one of the things that has brought me back to RWRB and would also bring me back to OLS someday too. I’ll be honest when I say that both books also featured romances between side characters that I was more invested in than the main ones at times.

Another thing that I adore about McQuiston’s books are the friendships that are formed in both. I appreciate these friendships so much because they end up giving me so many warm fuzzy feelings and have me wishing for my own group of friends I could be that close to. I think that McQuiston writes fun stories and I’m a bit unsure of whether or not I’ll be picking up more of their work in the future though I’m just waiting it out at this point.

So now onto some of the things that I didn’t like about the book…

Writing

I’m a big fan of a casual writing style! Sometimes I think it’s fun to pick up books that feel more conversational than wordy and prose filled. I don’t mind swearing in books (usually). With OLS, though, I was honestly thrown off over how much the word “fucking” was used. And I swear A LOT so I’m all for using it as emphasis and frequently do but it genuinely started to get to me the more I read. And I’m aware that this is a very tiny critique but that’s mainly why I put it first. I just think that without this aspect I would have been able to stay immersed in the story instead of taking as long as I did to read it.

Plot

***THIS SECTION WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS***

One of the main things that I think I had an issue with in terms of the plot was the pacing. I went into OLS expecting the overarching plot line of helping Jane get back to the 70’s to be woven throughout. McQuiston writes really fun side scenes and side stories within their books but I think in this story it ended up detracting from the time travel portion. I’m going to be honest, I think that this could have just as easily been written without the light sci-fi and almost everything about the story could have stayed the way it was. It was just a convenient way to make Jane be “unavailable” to August in her “real” world. This also was obviously the only way that August or her mom would have ended up getting closure about August’s uncle.

Now this smaller plot line about August’s missing uncle felt like it should have been given a bigger space within the story. I was immediately intrigued by this once it was introduced into the book and I understood why August didn’t bring it up but it took so long for it to be really mentioned or explained that it felt rushed. In part, I also felt like while the confrontation August had with her mother had spent years being built up it didn’t have the same sort of emotional response in me that I had expected. Jane wasn’t a big part of the narration outside of her small flashbacks but I really wish that McQuiston would have given her a bigger role. I would have adored to read about her time with Augie in Louisiana. And I especially would have appreciated to learn more about Jane’s past.

To speak more on the sci-fi aspect of the plot. Jane and August have a run in on the subway and it was lust at first sight. Okay, I’ll go with it probably being more insta-love but I digress. August makes it her sole purpose/goal to rescue Jane from this time trap. And again, this intrigued me from the minute McQuiston started talking about it. I was pumped! But the plot ended up being boiled down to August romanticizing what she has with Jane and acting in an almost white savior role. There was little to no development of the relationship between Jane and August and it was hard for me to understand the motivation and overall need for the sci-fi. I just felt like there was a lack of insight into why August singlehandedly had to save Jane. It went from meet-cute to 100 and I wasn’t a fan of that.

I also wanted to make a small comment on the sexual aspect of August and Jane’s relationship. I’m on the ace spectrum so I try to avoid commenting on things like this when reading because I know these scenes aren’t written for someone like me in mind. With that being said, you may be wondering, “Isn’t Jane stuck on the subway? How do they have sex if she can’t leave the subway?” They do it on the subway…… And again, this type of sex interests people, I know that, I’ve read a lot of kinky fanfiction (and some romance books) over the years however it made me so uncomfortable that I had to skip these scenes and couldn’t read them. Other people can’t consent to seeing you doing the deed in public spaces so one of the scenes in here really overstepped that boundary in my opinion. Also I’m just thinking of how gross subways are and I want to take a shower on behalf of August and Jane. Alright, I’ll wrap this up now and move on.

Characters/Setting

***THIS SECTION WILL CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS****

As I mentioned in the previous section, August ended up feeling like she was placed in a white savior role. For the most part she felt realistically flawed and I could relate to her a decent amount but when she became so focused on saving Jane that she neglected the rest of her life I got frustrated. It didn’t help that at one point August went to meet with an academic advisor because she was majorly slacking off at school and instead of having to grovel or anything like that she was informed that she was mere credits away from graduating. Like shit if only that’s how it worked for me when I neglected school.

This was a big piece of evidence as to how everything was just incredibly convenient for August. Sure, she had pitfalls here and there but overall she didn’t struggle with anything. And with the lack of development on Jane’s side of the story I was unimpressed. Again, this is why I ended up liking the side characters in this book more than the main ones.

Also, on a slightly different note but still relating to the convenience of everything for August, this whole book romanticized being a young adult as well as the entire city of New York. At the end of everything August starts to formulate an idea of using the skills learned from her mother in trying to find Augie that she would try to pursue something like people finding as a career. I understand that being in your twenties is difficult and trying to decide what you’re going to do with your future can be near impossible (speaking from personal experience and current existential dread) but all of the characters in this book just floated around seemingly without a care in the world for rent, groceries, insurance or anything related to living on your own. It romanticized everything about living in New York without really accounting for reality. I’m linking a Goodreads review from another user here that I think adds a lot more to my thoughts on this.

And finally, a line that deserved the conclusion of my post

This section will contain spoilers

This interaction occurred between Jane and August in Chapter 12. August gets on the subway and finds Jane with a split lip and a ripped shirt, when questioned Jane says:

“Some guy called me some shit I’d rather not repeat,” she finally says. “That old racist-homophobic combo. Always a winner.”

Page 292, One Last Stop

There’s more conversation during which August asks if anyone had called the cops and when Jane begins to get defensive August says:

“I know- it’s, it’s fucked up,” August tells her. She’s thinking about the fire, the things that drove Jane from city to city. “But I promise, most people aren’t like that anymore. If you could go out, you’d see.”

Page 292, One Last Stop

This interaction was almost enough to make me put the book down because it felt so insensitive. Not only was August insensitive to the very real things that Jane had experienced before she was stuck on the subway it felt biased to a white queer experience. Jane watched her friends dying of AIDS. She thought she lost her closest companion, August’s uncle, in a fire that was set in a space that gay men frequented and since we find out by the end of the book that he has died then we know that Jane truly did have reason to grieve for him. The comment was so flippant, so casual, like Jane hadn’t literally just experienced this interaction. Strides have been made for the LGBT+ community but by saying “most people aren’t like that” is a dismissal of the fact that there are people out there who will not hesitate to harm a person in the LGBT+ community.

From the Human Rights Campaign Foundation I’m linking their “Dismantling a Culture of Violence” report. I found it to be a highly informative and heartbreaking read about how anti-transgender stigma has created a culture of violence. I also want to highlight the fact that BIPOC who are in the LGBT+ community are disproportionately targeted. Last year there were 44 trans or gender nonconforming people who were murdered in the US. Half of this number were women of color, a majority Black. This year alone there have been 28 murders of trans or gender nonconforming individuals, almost all of these being BIPOC. On top of this there are numerous states that have introduced or passed anti-LGBT legislature.

I also wanted to add to this that Jane is Chinese. With the current abhorrent racism towards Asians in America this is another reason this scene left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was upsetting to see how August dismissed Jane’s trauma and romanticized the world they lived in.

I felt like it was important to include this section of the post because privileged one off comments like the one August made, the one McQuiston included in the book, only add to the struggles that marginalized people face. It’s important to acknowledge that the white queer experience isn’t universal. And August barely internalized that. After reading this section in OLS I almost put the book down because it frustrated me so much but I wanted to write this post so I ended up finishing it. Before I sign off I just wanted to leave y’all with some suggestions of action steps you can take based off of the things I wrote earlier in this section.

If you live in the United States, I encourage you to contact your representatives about anti-LGBT legislation. I was really nervous about doing this at first but there are a lot of handy scripts out there for both emails and phone calls. Now whenever I see something I want to make a statement on I fire off an email. Google is really helpful for finding your reps and all that jazz but if you want any help feel free to reach out (you can email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com).

Educate other people in your lives. Seriously, this one can be a lot easier than you might think. I understand if you’re not in a place where you are able or safe enough to educate those around you but if you are just talking about issues and how they hurt people can be a big influence. I used to rant about political stuff constantly to my former coworker and on more than one occasion she told me that I had taught her a lot.

Lastly, I know that there are plenty of big name organizations that you can donate to but I wanted to emphasize the importance and benefit of mutual aid. There are so many people that need financial help. People who need to get out of unsafe living situations, trans individuals who need help affording to transition, the list is endless. When I’m on Twitter and have a bit of extra money I try to find people who are asking for help. It may not seem like a lot if you only have a few dollars to spare but it could mean everything to that person seeking help. If you or someone you know has a need for financial help feel free to reach out if you’re comfortable letting me add the information to this post and I will!

With that, I’m going to sign off for the day. I’m really disappointed that this ended up not being the book I was hoping it would be but I’ve got a list of sapphic contemporary books to pick up next so on to the next one! If you’d like to connect with me elsewhere you can find me:

On Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

On Readerly: @/sideofadventure

My email for review inquiries, etc is adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

You can add me on Goodreads or follow my reviews here.

And my Ko-fi in case you’re interested in financially supporting the blog.

Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag 2021 + Some Blog Goals

Hey y’all! I’m back today with a tag, it’s July so technically still the middle of the year so here’s the Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag. And then at the end of the post I’m going to throw in some blog goals I have for the rest of the year too!

Best book you’ve read so far?

The Wolf and the Woodsman
Image: Cover of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

Seriously this book was absolutely amazing. If you haven’t read it yet or added it to you TBR you should. I have a post coming for it soon but I do have a review of it on Goodreads right now. It’s twisted and dark but beautifully written and knits together Jewish folklore and Hungarian history to create a standout fantasy novel. And it’s Reid’s debut!

Best sequel you’ve read so far?

Girl Gone Viral (Modern Love, #2)
Image: Cover of Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral

Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral (and First Comes Like gets an honorable mention).

The Right Swipe was one of my favorite books of 2019 then after going through a reading slump that lasted for the majority of 2020 I was surprised to find I had two Alisha Rai books to read! The Modern Love series makes my heart melt and I adore the characters in them. Girl Gone Viral was such a cute read, I loved it!

New release you haven’t read yet, but want to

Oh gosh… Y’all should see the stack of books that I have on my dresser.

Take Me Home Tonight
Image: Cover of Take Me Home Tonight by Morgan Matson

I’m going to have to go with Take Me Home Tonight by Morgan Matson. Morgan Matson is one of my auto-buy authors. Has been ever since I picked up Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour years ago. So when I got my hands on Take Me Home Tonight I had the (not so) smart idea to reread all of her books out so far and then make a post with mini reviews for all of them. I haven’t gotten around to it yet which is the main reason I haven’t read this one but I always seem to pick up contemporary books in the summer so hopefully I’ll get around to it soon!

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

A Lesson in Vengeance
Image: Cover of A Lesson In Vengeance by Victoria Lee

Without looking at Goodreads or anything like that the one book that came to mind was A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee. Honestly I get pumped for a lot of books that I can’t wait to read but then end up reading them long after they’ve been released because I never pay close enough attention to release days. Seriously I see people posting on Twitter about book birthdays and I’m always going “Wait, that’s out today??? Since when???” A Lesson in Vengeance may or may not be the one book I know the release month for! (It’s August lol).

Biggest disappointment

One Last Stop
Image: Cover of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Sigh… It’s One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. My post for this will be out soon! I’ll link it here once I get it published. It has taken me a lot longer to finish the post because of some extra research I needed to do for it but I have a pretty long post about why this was disappointing. Long story short I felt like the pacing of the plot was weird and I had issues with some of the characterization. I also have a more concise review on Goodreads for this right now though if you don’t want to wait for the blog post.

Biggest surprise

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky, #1)
Image: Cover of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

So I decided to pick this as my answer because of the absolute mind boggling ending this had. It wasn’t surprising like I went into it expecting not to enjoy it or anything like that but the twisting of everything at the end absolutely blew my mind and I’m so upset I have to wait for the second book!!! I read through this in a day and by the time I got to the end I whispered “No” (it was like 2 in the morning) because I needed to know what happened to the characters.

Also!! This book is out in paperback now and it’s one of Barnes & Noble’s July Monthly Picks which means it’s part of their buy 1 get 1 50% deal! And the e-book is currently on sale too in case you’re interested in picking up a hard copy or an e copy!

Favorite new author (debut or new to you)

Emily Henry! I read People We Meet On Vacation a few weeks ago and I’m devouring Beach Read right now. She only has the two books out currently but I’m really looking forward to picking up anything else she publishes.

Newest fictional crush & Newest Favorite Character

I decided to combine these two because I’ll be real here… I don’t think I have an answer for either of these. I haven’t read a ton of new books this year and while I connected to and enjoyed reading about a lot of the characters I just don’t have strong enough feelings about any of them. Onto the next one…

Book that made you cry

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted
Image: Cover of Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad

Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad

Memoirs are almost guaranteed to make me cry and this was no exception. I have a whole post on this book and I’m really glad that I was able to read it. It was a beautifully written book about grieving a future that is no longer there because life has sent you down a different path. There was so much honesty and healing and I highly recommend picking this up if you have ever experienced trauma of any kind. Suleika battled cancer but I found a lot of parallels with her story and my own in regards to mental health.

Book that made you happy

Song for a Whale
Image: Cover of Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Oh this book warmed my heart so much. I adored it and while I did also cry while reading it I was so happy by the time I finished reading. The main character, Iris, is so sweet and smart and her journey to finding a connection to a whale named Blue 55 was everything I hoped it would be. (Spoiler, this is going to be my next Middle Grade Monday post!)

Most beautiful book you’ve bought or received so far this year

The Nature of Witches
Image: Cover of The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin

If I still had a Bookstagram The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin would be all over my page. I am very behind in terms of writing posts for the blog but I plan on doing some sort of photoshoot with this book outside for the review post I eventually make!

But seriously just look at the cover under the dust jacket of this. I’m in love!

What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

I’m going to go with the simplest answer. Try and read more ARCs and also just whatever books I feel like reading before the end of the year 🙂

Now that the tag questions are all done I figured I’d wrap this up with some blog goals for the remainder of the year. And since I am oh so consistent /s with my blogging I do want to preface with I have no idea if any of these goals will end up working out for me but we’ll see!

I know that I had previously mentioned that I would be going back to school. I’ve been working full time for the last 2.5 years so I knew that I would have to leave my job and to my surprise I ended up being without a job about 3 weeks sooner than originally planned. Which basically just means i have more free time on my hands than expected before classes start in August.

So some goals I have for the rest of the year with my blog include:

  1. Getting to 250 followers (I’m at 223 right now!). It would also be nice to increase my follower count on Twitter but that’s less important.
  2. Post twice a week, doesn’t matter the content but just getting two posts out a week, not even going to stick to a schedule
  3. Revamp my categories and possibly the look of my blog. Depending on how things go, I’d really like to find someone to help me revamp the appearance of my blog. I’ve redone it a couple times on my own but it’s all been pretty basic. I also really need to rewrite my About page and add some other info. I spent some time setting some older blog posts to private that I didn’t think were well written anymore and it made me realize I could definitely focus some energy on fixing up the entire thing.
  4. In possibly revamping things I also would like to work on making my blog as accessible as possible. I’m going to look into ways to go about that in the coming weeks but if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them!

I think that about sums up what I’m hoping to accomplish this year. So if you haven’t done this tag yet, I tag you! Otherwise feel free to answer any of these questions in the comments if you’re interested in doing so!

If you want to find me elsewhere:

Im on Twitter @/nihilistcactus

I’m on Readerly: @/sideofadventure

You can add me on Goodreads (or follow my reviews) here.

You can email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com for review inquiries, etc.

And if you’re interested in supporting the blog financially my ko-fi is here.

A Memoir For a Quarter Life Crisis: Reviewing Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad

I’m always thankful for books that manage to find their way to me at the perfect time. I’ve been an avid reader since I first learned and the universe never seems to fail me when I need a story to find its way to me. At 24, I’ve spent most of my life shifting between crisis mode and terrifying periods of time where things feel okay which obviously means that everything is about to fall apart. Right now I’m battling with another terrifying period of time because I’m taking major steps forward but am waiting for the little bad things to take over my life once more.

Living with and learning to cope with the effects of trauma is overwhelming. It takes a lot of work and oftentimes it can make you feel completely hopeless. When your life gets turned upside down and you spend your entire existence simply finding a way to survive to see another day by the time you’re back to a point where you could even attempt to find “normalcy” it may feel impossible. Between Two Kingdoms is a heart wrenching look into this exact type of journey.

At 22, Suleika Jaouad’s world turned upside down after being diagnosed with leukemia. Over the years she used her writing to cope with her battle with cancer as well as her battle to find a way to understand where her life had taken her when she went into remission and no longer has to spend all of her time focusing on survival. The memoir that she crafted about her journey was not only beautifully written but also heartbreakingly honest and relatable. Though our experiences with trauma are quite different I felt like Suleika had pulled things from my own thoughts and journals as she relayed her own.

Suleika has a powerful voice and it was clear to me that she poured her emotions into the pages of Between Two Kingdoms. Trauma is a beast and reading about how she fell apart and slowly began putting herself back together was incredibly relatable. The inspiration for the title comes from how the world seemed to be split between the kingdom of the “sick” and the kingdom of the “well”. Despite ending up in remission, Suleika struggled with making her way back to the kingdom of the well which is what ultimately sent her on her road trip to try and heal.

She was marooned between these two kingdoms because she was grieving both the life she would never live as well as the people she lost along the way. While it was heartbreaking to see her become aware of how her illness effected everyone in her life I appreciated the self awareness throughout the latter portion of the book. When we are suffering it’s hard to understand that our illnesses be they physical or mental have consequences. Personally I’m still trying to cope with how my struggles over the years have changed every aspect of my life.

Overall I couldn’t recommend this memoir more. Through a heartbreakingly honest portrayal of healing Suleika gave readers a message of hope. We currently exist in a world where too many people have experienced trauma, grief, and illness. Especially now as we all still navigate what has happened with COVID I think this book could be a benefit to many. Now more than ever it’s important to realize that we are not suffering alone. Our lives have changed and if you’re still in a period of just making sure you survive another day know I’m proud of you for fighting.

If you’re interested in picking up your own copy of Between Two Kingdoms you can find it at the following:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // Or find a local indie shop at IndieBound

Other places you can find me:

Twitter: nihilisticactus

Readerly: sideofadventure

Add me on Goodreads here

Email for review requests: adventuresandespresso@gmail.com

Grammar, Cosmic Coincidences, and a Different Kind of Hope: Reading Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

To start this post, we need to go back to 8th grade. Middle school. An absolute hellscape of memories some good, a lot bad. One day my best friend at the time started making jokes about a blog post that her language arts teacher had shared with her class for a grammar lesson. I find it really funny looking back now because while I still struggle with grammar and writing it doesn’t compare in the slightest to how atrocious some of my mistakes were back in the day.

The blog post in question was the Alot post from Hyperbole and a Half (laughing at the fact that I had to circumvent autocorrect to even type a lot incorrectly!) This post was (and probably still is) a perfect way to teach a grammar lesson to middle schoolers. It was an instant classic and many of my classmates joked about it for years to come. I’m actually pretty sure we referenced this all the way up to our senior year. Since I wasn’t in the same language arts class as my best friend, I decided to look up the blog when I got home. I think I read every published post that night. It became a favorite of mine and I realize now how deeply Hyperbole and a Half influenced my life.

I’m not sure I remember what my first blog was and I can’t even remember what site I published it on but I know that I was inspired by Hyperbole and a Half to start my own. I know that I posted a lot of angsty poetry on it and am honestly kind of glad I don’t have access to that content, my journals from that time are content enough. This blog was created in 2015 when I was really into lifestyle influencers. I wasn’t able to make YouTube videos so I decided to blog instead. The Tumblr account that I used religiously just wasn’t cutting it for what I wanted to use it for. I kind of fell into a zone of wanting to monetize blogging after seeing other people my age do it and it all went from there. Over the years I’ve realized that I’m not great at blogging, sometimes I consider starting a podcast simply because I have so many big ideas that don’t seem like they’d fit into one blog post. It’s interesting how content evolves over time and what we can choose to do with our platforms.

When Allie’s posts started becoming less frequent I would still check in on her blog. It was a little haven on the internet for me and I was always so grateful for how open she was about her mental health struggles. The blog was the perfect balance of humorous and real. Even when she “disappeared” from the internet I would always wonder how she was doing, couldn’t help but reminisce every time I typed the words “a lot”. Hyperbole and a Half was central to a period of my adolescence and I think I’ll always feel connected to that blog.

In the past few years, I’ve struggled with the idea of a “purpose” and have sunk deeper and deeper into this pit where all I can think about is the meaningless of life. It’s a big change from 19 year old me who cried about taking a Philosophy of Person class because I had to think about mortality. Now I think about it constantly.

I was at a crossroads when this article popped up on my newsfeed. I dropped everything I was doing and read it. By the time I had scrolled to the end I was crying. I ordered Solutions and Other Problems immediately.

Image: Cover of Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

The night that my preorder came in the mail I stayed up too late reading it. I cried a lot but I also laughed… A lot. It might have been one of the most cathartic reading experiences I have ever had. Solutions and Other Problems was raw and real and it was everything I needed in that moment.

It was comforting to read from the perspective of someone who has the same mindset on existence as I do. Too often I get existential and people try to be hopeful. And don’t get me wrong, there are moments when I appreciate it but most of the time, I don’t want to be hopeful. I don’t want motivating stories because it feels like pity. Sometimes it even feels judgmental and I can’t bring myself to think the way that these well meaning individuals want me to think.

Allie took the words out of my brain and wrote them out. She made me feel okay about the way I see the world. I don’t think that everything happens for a reason and I honestly curse the universe quite a bit for having had to endure so many of the things I’ve had to endure. Sometimes I feel trapped because other people tell me that I need to live for me but in the end, I don’t want to do anything because I don’t get the point. The more that I think about the title, “Solutions and Other Problems” I can’t help but love it more and more. Trying to find the solution to life is probably the biggest problem I’ll ever have.

This book is probably going to have divided opinions not only because of how long it took to be published, but also because of the content within. It felt like a pivot point for Brosh and was similar to how it felt like her blog content shifted after her first depression post. I gave this book five stars and am already ready to reread it but I could see that some people might find the overall message to be too negative or something along those lines.

I’m a pessimist at heart but this book gave me a small seed of hope. It reminded me that there are still things worth sticking around for. Just knowing I was here long enough to read more content from Allie made me proud for a moment. It’s the same thing I felt when I realized I got to see more Taylor Swift albums get released. It’s a different kind of hope but it’s worth being here for.

I know this wasn’t much of an actual review but I’ll link my official Goodreads review here once I finally write it. I just wanted to share the cosmic coincidence of finding hope in content that I’ve held close for 10 years now. I’m going to sign off now and I’ll talk to you in my next post.

You can get your own copy of Solutions and Other Problems from the following:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (where you can find your local indie to shop from)

You can also find me in these places:

Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

You can add me or follow my reviews on Goodreads here.

Readerly: @/sideofadventure

If you’re interested in supporting the blog my Ko-fi is here.

Middle Grade Monday: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

I’m really excited about today’s post because I’m finally back with another Middle Grade Monday installment!

One of the main reasons I wanted to create a specific post series focused on middle grade books was because I hoped to find more books that I could share with my younger brothers. Unfortunately for me, my brothers aren’t huge readers (yet) but fortunately for you all I have loved reading middle grade books and I need somewhere to share my thoughts on them! These may not be weekly posts but I’m hoping to get one up as often as I can.

So as I’ve been seeking out new middle grade books for my brothers and myself I’ve talked to my mom quite a bit about what kind of content she wants me to look for. During one conversation I mentioned rereading a book that I had read in elementary school and finding problematic language in it. My mom said that when reading with my brothers, finding something like that in a book is an opportunity to teach them why it may not be appropriate. In the same vein, when a book contains a tough topic that also allows for educational moments while reading.

When I was in elementary school I gravitated more towards historical fiction and fantasy books. While these remain my favorite genres today I’ve also enjoyed picking up realistic fiction middle grades. There are so many unique stories and my TBR keeps getting longer and longer. I do also want to note that my Middle Grade Monday posts will contain some spoilers on the books I discuss because I want adults who may be looking for reviews to know what they may see before passing the book on to kids!

Now with that out of the way, let’s get into the book discussion! One book I had been hoping to read for a while now was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. My library has a pretty extensive e-book selection and when I saw they had a copy available I immediately checked it out. This book is a semi autobiographical story that touches on numerous big topics but is filled with determination and optimism and I adored it.

Image Description: Cover of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Front Desk takes place in the early 90’s but the relevance of the topics within was powerful. Yang touches on immigration, racism, police brutality/prejudice, bullying, employee mistreatment, and poverty. I’ll also note that there is a description of physical assault during a robbery and then a hospital visit. As I previously mentioned, Front Desk is semi autobiographical. At the end of the book she included an author’s note in which she spoke about how she helped her parents run various motels after they moved to the United States. Her family helped numerous Chinese immigrants during a time when economic hardship allowed for gross exploitation. Yang states that by sharing their stories in Front Desk she hopes these “immigrants’ struggles and sacrifices will not be forgotten. They will not be forgotten.”

So as the synopsis says, this story follows a girl named Mia. She has so much determination and compassion and it was really interesting seeing the ideas she came up with to try and help others. I haven’t read the other books in this series yet but I can only imagine what Mia might get into in those. Her interest in writing leads to using letters in order to help those around her. This reminded me of when I was in elementary school and made more than one petition for the pettiest things now looking back. Kids should know that they always have a voice, they can have opinions, and they can help.

Now does Mia also get into situations that weren’t really great? Yes. Like at one point she was trying to help solve where a stolen car went because the main suspect was a black woman and Mia wanted to prove her innocence. In doing so, she goes to a man’s house to see about the car and almost gets into a dangerous situation with her friend. That part was kind of stressful and also a great lesson not to go into stranger’s houses.

Using the letters, Mia helps countless others but also gains confidence in herself. Even with her growing confidence though, she struggles with what her mother wants from her. Mia loves writing but continually gets discouraged because her mom wants her to focus on math. This ends up leading to a really emotional scene where Mia finally learns that her mom wants to be able to help her but if English is Mia’s passion then she knows she can’t help her daughter. It was a really powerful realization showing how much Mia’s mom cared for her daughter. Mia’s mom was embarrassed that she struggled with her English and she was discouraged with her family’s misfortune in the United States and I was really glad to see how much this family cared for one another.

In the end, they also gained something of a found family with the immigrants who passed through as well as the “weeklies” from the motel. The friends that Mia made helped her learn so much about the world around her and while some of the realizations she made, especially those about racism, were tough to read they were important things that kids do need to learn about. Mia was so bright and it was heartwarming to see how she worked through the discouraging moments throughout the story. I think that Front Desk is a great book for showing kids not only that they have a voice that they can use to help others but also that it’s important to learn how certain situations may affect people differently. I highly recommend this book and look forward to picking up the next book in the series when I can!

Before I sign off I also wanted to say that I loved reading the About the Author section to realize what writing has done for Yang as it was beginning to do for Mia. Yang actually went to college at the age of thirteen and graduated from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law. Though she was one of the youngest women to graduate from Harvard Law, Yang decided to pursue writing instead. This lead to her founding The Kelly Yang Project which is “a leading writing and debating program for children in Asia and the United States.” I thought it was amazing that she created this and I hope the kids who have gotten involved find their voices through writing.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of Front Desk you can find it in these places:

Barnes & Noble // Bookshop // IndieBound (which you can use to find an indie store near you!)

Other places you can find me:

Twitter: @/nihilisticactus

Add me on Goodreads here.

Readerly: @/sideofadventure

If you’re interested in supporting the blog, my Ko-Fi is here.

You can also email me at adventuresandespresso@gmail.com for review inquiries, etc.

Thanks so much for reading and I’ll talk to you in my next post!

Writing About Real People: A Discussion About Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Do you ever finish a book and wonder, “Why did I want to read this again?”

That’s how I felt after reading Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld. I think that the main influence behind wanting to read it was my childhood reading taste. See, when I was younger every time my mom would take my sister and I to the library I would check out stacks of books like the Dear America ones which, in short, are fictional journals from historical figures. I think it also stemmed from my love of American Girl books and I still love reading this style of first person historical story. So when I first saw a post about Rodham on Twitter I was intrigued and ended up requesting it from NetGalley. It took me a while to get to reading it and I ended up finishing it right before the election this past November so while I’m not sure how my feelings may have differed had I read it when I was first approved but I will say it was definitely a Choice.

Letting those reading this post now that it will contain spoilers.

Rodham is a fictionalized memoir type novel about an alternative timeline in which Hillary Rodham Clinton had not married Bill. It was a fascinating read albeit very long and tedious. Overall I could say I enjoyed the story but it did take me a while to actually finish reading it because I would set it aside to read or do other things. It never quite caught my attention enough to want to finish in one go. The book read like a self written memoir told from the perspective of a future Hillary looking back on her life and path to the presidency since in this alternative timeline Hillary won the 2016 election. That being said, there were enough aspects of the story that made me feel unsure about the ethics of a book like this so I decided not to rate it outside of my NetGalley account.

I do enjoy stories that follow alternate historical timelines so I was intrigued by the concept of Rodham but was almost immediately put off by the very sexual nature of this novel. It is an adult literary fiction novel so I’m not knocking it for that reason alone but for the fact that I found this sexual and relationship focus to detract heavily from the story overall. I was honestly hoping for a hard hitting story about female success and the struggle to break the glass ceiling but what I got instead was a heavy reflection on relationships and a surface level look at women in politics with a lackluster ending.

The way that Rodham was written ended up leaving me heavily questioning the ethics behind writing about living people. The writing was quite graphic in regards to the sexual nature of the relationship between Hillary and Bill and if it read more like a novel and less like a fictionalized memoir I may have been able to let this slide more than I already was. As I’ve reflected on these parts of the story more, I almost want to compare it to fanfiction. Like the author was pandering towards people who may find Bill Clinton attractive. I’m not sure I was meant to be part of the target audience. In the end I really couldn’t imagine Hillary writing so freely about her sex life, especially not graphically in a memoir. There were a lot of scenes in this book that made me highly uncomfortable and I had to make myself pretend that the characters were not real people because I couldn’t handle it if I thought of the real life Clintons.

Rodham had so much potential to go in depth about the experiences of a single woman in politics. It could have focused on sexism and personal growth as Hillary pursued higher offices. There were a few moments where we saw glimpses of this but most of her journey was glossed over instead to focus on how Bill Clinton continued to be a part of her life even after their breakup. His influence on the story heavily detracted from the quality. I also found myself at times wondering why the story seemed to almost depend upon Hillary eventually finding a partner. Did I understand aspects of why this was? I mean, yeah. And with that, fuck the patriarchy, but at the same time this left many of the political themes at surface level while relationships continually got explored more.

There were a number of heavier topics that were briefly mentioned, such as racism and Anita Hill’s story but these were ultimately brushed over in order to fill more pages with romance and relationship issues. Then the ending not only felt rushed but was also incredibly painful to read. It gave an influential and, dare I say it, positive voice to our most recent former president. I found it a very questionable choice especially considering this book was published in 2020 and while I will say my emotional response may have been heightened because I read it right before the election I do think this book was written in poor taste.

While working on this post I read an article from Vox which I’m linking here because I highly recommend checking it out after reading this post. The article added a lot of insight to the timeline within Rodham along with a lot of interesting commentary. The quote below was one passage that really stood out to me:

This book is enchanted that by the idea of tweaking one thing in the recent past, you can fundamentally alter the present. You can save brilliant, ambitious Hillary Rodham from her marriage to Bill Clinton; you can unleash all that frustrated potential on the world and then sit back and watch what happens next. And that idea is, especially to those who appreciate Hillary Clinton’s fierce and undeniable ambition as an attractive quality in and of itself, a heady one. But because Rodham is so narrowly focused on Hillary herself, it is never able to examine all of the other possibilities for the world it’s created.

Constance Grady, Fact-checking the alternate history and politics of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham

2016 and beyond have been tumultuous and the alternative timeline within Rodham felt like it was a surface level way to right some wrongs and play into fantasies about a real life person. I began to question whether there was a way to write stories about real people who are still living and the main example I thought of was the Netflix show The Crown. I actually marathoned all released episodes around the same time I read Rodham. I’m aware of the fact that members of the Royal Family have spoken against the show but I thought that it did a good job of fictionalizing historical events. The creators of the show have also made it clear that they are only going to follow the events up to *year*. This choice allows the family members who are currently heavily in the public eye to avoid having to endure this show “fantasizing” about the things they are going through in present day. I spent a lot of time while watching the show Googling the events and the people portrayed and I enjoyed reading about the differences between the show and real life.

Now, is The Crown perfect? No, I still think it’s a bit odd to portray real people who are still living. At the same time I had to consider how many other pieces of media portray real people and real events. The Royal Family is somewhat elusive and they do a lot to cover things up and overall the show didn’t seem wildly speculative nor did it stray too far off from what is already public knowledge. Sure actual dialogue and everything taking place behind closed doors had to be fabricated but considering Prince Harry doesn’t mind it, I think I’ll side with him.

Now in terms of the alternative timeline/world I thought a lot about Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. RWRB takes place in an alternative timeline in which a woman won the 2016 election but instead of playing with real people McQuiston created a new cast of characters to take the place of both the First and Royal families. Reading this book always feels cathartic and overall I enjoy it immensely each time I reread it. It separates itself enough from the real world that it doesn’t feel distasteful but the author themselves has noted that this was a bit of escapism and optimism from the political turmoil, paraphrasing from an answer they provided in the linked interview. I think this is where RWRB really differs from Rodham in that it was escapism in an entirely different world. I’ve read reviews of RWRB where people didn’t like the book because of the escapist nature of a different 2016/2020 election cycle but it’s also not a story for everyone.

When I’ve read and reread RWRB I focus more on the characters than the underlying political plot though I don’t really have an issue with those either. The criticisms people have with this narrative feel like they land more on their own non-enjoyment over the choices made by the author. Now in Rodham, there were portions of the plot that featured a now former president. I genuinely couldn’t understand the motivation behind the choice to feature this person in the story and because he ended up endorsing Hillary which ultimately lead to her getting elected it took everything in me to control my rage. Sittenfeld actively gave a positive voice to a person who absolutely does not deserve one. Considering the book came out in 2020 I will say I understand that she could not have predicted the horrors that our country has experienced but that is absolutely no excuse as to why this person was included in Rodham.

In an interview with Refinery29, Sittenfeld said that there will be a “big wave of Tr*mp-influenced novels” coming our way and all I have to say in response to that is, why did yours have to be one of them? If you are so fascinated by the life of Hillary Clinton write about her. But the choice to give this person a positive voice in a novel published in 2020 was absolutely disappointing and I don’t care if you wanted to try and be accurate about who might have been in her social circle or whatever your excuse might be this was the final nail in the coffin for my utter regret behind ever picking up Rodham.

Overall, I think that fictionalized media about real people is something that is a case by case opinion by those that pick it up. Some may enjoy it, some may not. Same with alternative timelines that might lean towards escapism. In the end I just don’t think that Rodham was done well. The story was fine but it wasn’t anything amazing and it made me uncomfortable for numerous reasons. If you’ve read Rodham what did you think of it? I only mentioned one other example of a piece of media created about people who are still alive but if you’ve got other examples let me know what they are and what you thought of them!

You can also find me on Twitter @/nihilisticactus or add me on Goodreads here. If you’d like to support the blog my ko-fi is here.

I’ll talk to you all in my next post!

Group by Christie Tate is a Messy Misrepresentation of Group Therapy

ARC of Group by Christie Tate was provided by NetGalley and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis:

The refreshingly original debut memoir of a guarded, over-achieving, self-lacerating young lawyer who reluctantly agrees to get psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers—her psychotherapy group—and in turn finds human connection, and herself.

Christie Tate had just been named the top student in her law school class and finally had her eating disorder under control. Why then was she driving through Chicago fantasizing about her own death? Why was she envisioning putting an end to the isolation and sadness that still plagued her in spite of her achievements?

Enter Dr. Rosen, a therapist who calmly assures her that if she joins one of his psychotherapy groups, he can transform her life. All she has to do is show up and be honest. About everything—her eating habits, childhood, sexual history, etc. Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: “You don’t need a cure, you need a witness.

So begins her entry into the strange, terrifying, and ultimately life-changing world of group therapy. Christie is initially put off by Dr. Rosen’s outlandish directives, but as her defenses break down and she comes to trust Dr. Rosen and to depend on the sessions and the prescribed nightly phone calls with various group members, she begins to understand what it means to connect.

Group is a deliciously addictive read, and with Christie as our guide—skeptical of her own capacity for connection and intimacy, but hopeful in spite of herself—we are given a front row seat to the daring, exhilarating, painful, and hilarious journey that is group therapy—an under-explored process that breaks you down, and then reassembles you so that all the pieces finally fit.

Please note that I will be discussing this book in detail with specific examples as well as providing trigger warnings below. I do not recommend reading this book at all but if you’re interested in not being spoiled now is the time to click off the post!

Trigger Warnings: Suicidal ideation, self harm, eating disorders, infidelity, discussion of death of a baby, discussion of death by drowning

I want to preface my review by saying that this book represents the author’s own experiences in regards to mental health and therapy and this is all valid. I’m glad that she was able to get the help that she needed to in order to live a fulfilling life. However, the experiences within this book feel misrepresentative of the typical process of group therapy and there were many instances of unethical practices. I will also say that I am not a therapist nor am I licensed in any way to facilitate group therapy but I have spent my fair share in therapy. Over the years I’ve been in individual therapy, group therapy, inpatient programs, and outpatient programs and while each of these has been wildly different in terms of treatment if I had ever set foot into a setting like the one created by Tate’s therapist Dr. Rosen I would have never gone back after the first meeting.

When I first requested Group for review I was looking forward to reading about another person’s experiences with group therapy. I was interested in seeing how it differed from my own experiences because I don’t know anyone in my personal life who has ever attended group therapy. Since I have also spent most of my life struggling with my mental health I also always enjoy when other people speak candidly about their mental health. I thinks it’s important that people continue to be open about mental health because the stigmas surrounding it run deep.

So Group started off fine, I wasn’t immediately hooked but I had enough intrigue to continue on. The writing itself was difficult at times to keep me entertained and I feel like it could have benefitted from a slightly more casual style. As I read on the more I wanted to put the book down and never pick it up again. I was appalled by what Tate chose to share and was even more appalled with how Dr. Rosen conducted the groups that Tate attended. The amount of red flags left me worrying about the impact that this book could have on people who are hoping for a miracle for their mental health. It made me nervous that someone may end up seeking out unhealthy therapy in order to try and “fix” themselves. A bit that stood out to me at the end of the book was when Tate described herself as a “lifer” amongst Dr. Rosen’s patients. This ended up being the final straw that had me wracking my brain wondering how anyone was getting real help from these groups.

Now you may be wondering why I had such a strong reaction to someone being in therapy for a lifetime and honestly if I hadn’t read this book I would be wondering the same thing! The short of it all is that I felt like Dr. Rosen created a codependency in some of his group members and it seems like Tate would be unable to function without them. And before I go on I want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with spending a lifetime in therapy. I mean, the further into my own time in therapy I’ve realized that a balance between individual therapy and medication is the best way to care for my emotional well being. When it comes to each group therapy program I’ve been a part of, the goal is to “graduate”. Some have a set amount of time I’ll attend and the others have had more of a general estimate. I’m aware that this may be different from programs elsewhere and also differs from things like AA but I’ve generally found that group therapy is used as a means to learn skills and talk with peers in order to foster healthy relationships and reactions in the wider world. I also know that many people will attend individual therapy for specific things that they are dealing with in their lives and work through these issues with their therapist in order to move forward. Therapy is supposed to help you learn how to function on your own, not become so reliant on a group of people that you can’t make decisions without them.

Initially I really thought that Tate would be discussing her eating disorder in depth and how she uncovered underlying trauma and then learned how to cope and move on in her life. The biggest struggles she had seemed to relate back to her binge eating disorder (her own description, as far as I know she was never formally diagnosed with anything). It took me until I was about 60% of the way through the book when I finally accepted that this was not the case. This entire book was essentially a “woe is me” tale of a privileged woman who just wanted a relationship. Can therapy help you learn how to have healthy, long lasting relationships? For sure! But being in a relationship is not and will never be a magical fix. The fact that Tate’s only goal for therapy was to end up in a relationship felt very weird to me and that Dr. Rosen accepted this as her goal was even more odd. He essentially guaranteed he could get her into a relationship instead of doing something like redirecting her thought process and suggesting goals that would lead her towards having healthy and long lasting relationships.

When it came to the therapy itself, Dr. Rosen seemed to be creating groups that are antithetical to everything I’ve experienced in group therapy. One of his major viewpoints is that “secrets are toxic” which is why this book was filled with personal and intimate details of each of Tate’s fellow group members as well as herself and Dr. Rosen. This also included detailed sexual encounters including some that Tate had with other group members. I felt beyond uncomfortable because even though Tate changed people’s names it all felt like an invasion of privacy. The first time I attended a group therapy program I was really nervous about opening up to the other members. In the end though I was so thankful that I had a group of peers that I could speak candidly to without having to worry about people in my personal life finding out what I was saying. And in listening to the other group members I found myself appreciating that they too trusted us enough to open up. By not speaking about what goes on in group to other people it’s not keeping secrets and it’s not toxic. It helps people build trust and interact with others who may have been through similar events. It’s a different experience than individual therapy in that it allows you to discuss mental health and other life stressors without potentially burdening or worrying people in your personal life. Holding this idea that secrets are “toxic” is really odd to me and the over sharing in the book cemented that in my opinion some secrets are just fine not to share with the world.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable while reading Group were the “prescriptions” that Dr. Rosen would give to group members. Many of these were highly inappropriate such as telling Tate to stay in an unhealthy relationship or telling her boyfriend at the time (also a group member) to perform oral sex on her. Instead of allowing group members to get advice or figure things out on their own, Rosen seemingly manipulated people to do things that may or may not lead to their desired therapy goal. This motivation of his was never explained which really rubbed me the wrong way because so many things that Rosen did were things that therapists should never do. At one point, Tate physically harmed herself during a group session and Rosen simply sat there and let it happen. Afterwards, he put some ointment on her wound and that was the end of that.

So not only did the overall group therapy experience that Tate had make me uncomfortable but I genuinely couldn’t figure out what the message of this book was supposed to be. Tate had numerous reasons to attend therapy and once again I’m glad that she was able to find the help she needed but she seemed completely naive to the benefits of therapy outside of her own experiences. She didn’t seem to learn anything from her time in group other than this magic resolution of her “happily ever after” relationship. Over the course of her book, Tate mentioned three things numerous times: the fact that she was first in her class at law school, her job at a prestigious law firm, and exactly how much she spent each month on therapy. Now mental health doesn’t discriminate and no matter what your life circumstances are you could experience mental health issues. The issue that I took with these three facts was that Tate never acknowledged the privilege that she had that even allowed her to get the health care that she needed. I won’t get into how incredibly expensive the group sessions cost her each month but she was lucky to be able to go at all. She grew up in a two parent household, she was well educated, and there were just so many advantages that she had and I’m disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of that whatsoever. There are far too many people who will never be provided with the mental health care that they so desperately need and I found myself feeling no sympathy over the fact that the chief complaint Tate held over the entire course of this book was that she was unhappily single.

It was very clear to me that this book was a memoir and a singular experience. However, with a title like Group and no pointed disclaimers of this being a memoir I worry that it could potentially lead people to seek out or stick with unhealthy therapy because it worked for Tate. I mean in the end Tate “fixed” her problems by achieving her goal of getting into a permanent relationship. I was so annoyed that there was next to no discussion of the larger arc of Tate’s mental health even though I feel like this should have been the main focus. Instead, Group focused heavily on Tate’s romantic relationships while she also happened to be attending this group therapy that largely didn’t seem like it was helping her. On more than one occasion she threw violent fits during sessions and then *poof* onto the next part. There seemed to be an utter lack of self awareness and instead of therapy helping Tate develop this she just relied on her group members and Dr. Rosen to fix everything for her.

Group was such a disappointment and the only reason I’m glad I read it is so that I can prevent other people from reading it. And as I’m wrapping up writing this I realized I never even touched on the problematic language used throughout the book. Since I did read an ARC and I won’t be seeking out a finished copy I can’t confirm whether or not any of it was changed before publication but if you’re writing about mental health don’t do shit like describe someone neatly making their bed as “borderline OCD”. It’s beyond disappointing that there are still people who aren’t actively working to erase problematic phrases and language from their day to day speech. And with that I think that’s everything I had to say about Group.

Oh, and as a little side note since this doesn’t technically have to do with that book. I found this out when I was perusing other reviews on Goodreads. Tate is none other than the mommy blogger who refused to remove content that involved her daughter after her daughter explicitly asked her not to include her in content anymore. I remember reading the articles when this situation originally occurred and it made me so sad for her daughter.

I’m going to sign off here before I start thinking of other things to rant about. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you in my next post.

Oh Look, Another Dual Timeline Historical Fiction Book: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner Review

Portions of this review do contain spoilers but there will be warnings ahead of those sections if you want to skip them.

Despite how the title might make it sound, I’m a sucker for dual timeline historical fiction books. I enjoy the mystery and intrigue that revolves around the story that plays out in the past because of something another character has found in the present. They’re usually quick reads and I’ll probably continue to pick them up even with the issues that I do tend to have with them.

I find when it comes to these dual timeline books that the main character in the present day timeline is used to give some sort of conclusion to the character(s) from the past. The present day character tends to use this investigation into the past as some sort of distraction from events that are taking place in their own life. I don’t necessarily mind this but at times it can be jarring to be thrown from one perspective to another, especially because it also involves a time jump. When it comes to historical fiction I usually prefer books that take place entirely in the past without needing to time jump in order to learn the fate of the characters.

I wrote a review back in 2019 about the book A Fire Sparkling by Julianne Maclean which is written in a similar way and has more of my thoughts on books like this. Now let’s jump into the review for The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

First off, this cover is GORGEOUS which was a big reason as to why I picked it up. Definitely an impulse buy but the synopsis was intriguing too.

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

Besides the murder aspect of this I would also like to add trigger warnings for miscarriage, suicide, sexual assault, vomiting, and blood.

The Lost Apothecary, while containing darker themes, was a light read so as expected I flew through it. Another reason to this was the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the present day chapters that followed Caroline so I kept reading in order to get back to the chapters that followed Eliza and Nella in the past. I’m not a fan of plot lines that center around infidelity and while I understood why the author chose this to be part of Caroline’s story I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like Caroline was an awkward character in the way she was written and I don’t think she was as dynamic as Eliza and Nella were. Though I will admit that I didn’t particularly find any of them to be truly dynamic or unique characters. Nella had such a fascinating backstory and yet she was given a hardened personality that seemed to leave her unable to share her inner thoughts with even herself. I also found myself wanting so much more from Eliza because while I loved her determination she would go back and forth between being so obviously “young” to all of a sudden behaving in a way that contradicted this.

Just a heads up there will be spoilers in this next paragraph so if you’d like to continue with my spoiler free thoughts feel free to skip it!

The more I thought about Eliza the more I wondered how the story may have been written if she was aged up slightly, even just to 15 (she is 12 when the book begins). An aspect of this book was that Eliza gets her first period after her employer’s husband is poisoned and subsequently dies. She thinks that she has been possessed by his ghost and this is why she’s bleeding. It takes a majority of the book before she ever gets an explanation and while it broke my heart to see how scared she was I also felt that this was an odd plot line considering she otherwise acted so much older than she was. It didn’t even seem like just a difference of the times, Eliza was just oddly written. It was as if she needed to be a heroic character who could still be naive and romanticize the world since Nella was such a pessimist.

Despite not loving the present day chapters, the past chapters were really intriguing and I think the fact that the author is a historian played into the enjoyment that I felt when reading those portions of the book. At the end there is a section from the author about the historical aspects of the story. She gave context to some of the choices she made and I really enjoyed this! Whenever I read a historical fiction I tend to enjoy it even more when authors include resources or context because it allows people who are passionate about history to have a starting place to look into the real world inspiration for the book.

In terms of the plot, again I was intrigued from the moment I read the synopsis. However this was a shorter book and I thought that the balance of events was off. Both storylines took forever to develop to some sort of climax and then the ending felt rushed. It was as if the author had been planning on writing a book that was longer but had to fit it into a specific page count and instead of editing the beginning portion, she just cut chunks out of the ending in order to get to the conclusion in time. And as I had mentioned at the beginning of this post the ending of Nella and Eliza’s story completely hinged on what Caroline could discover in her own quest. I don’t want to completely talk down on this because I do find enjoyment out of reading books like this but it often just feels like a way to avoid writing a book that entirely takes place in the past.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for Caroline’s storyline so if you want to continue a spoiler free review skip to the next section!

As I’d mentioned earlier when discussing Caroline as a character I thought she was awkwardly written and I didn’t really enjoy her story. It focused heavily on infidelity and wanting children as well as regrets over life choices. I feel bad for talking down about these types of stories because I know that there’s an audience for them but it’s just not for me. And the more I think about the way her storyline ended the more I realize how weird the timing was. Her husband ingests an essential oil and ends up in the ICU during which time Caroline is accused of trying to murder him because her notes about Nella were discovered. The entire situation felt poorly handled by all parties and in the end Caroline’s husband who was just in the ICU is casually just going to hop on an international flight and leave. SIR???? IS THAT ACTUALLY A GOOD IDEA??? By the end of this whole ordeal Caroline also reveals that she is going to grad school in order to begin to live for herself again. I was just really confused by the timing because as someone who is also going back to school (granted not abroad and I’m just going to be finishing my undergrad) everything seemed so definite and in the end it was. It just felt like no matter what decision Caroline made she wasn’t going to fail in order to give her some sort of happy ending.

Alrighty, now that I’m done with that mini rant I will say that I did overall enjoy The Lost Apothecary. If you’re looking for a quick dual timeline historical fiction book I would definitely recommend giving this a go. However, if you’re not a fan of historical books that do have a larger focus on the life drama of characters instead of the actual historical context and events I would probably pass this book. This is Sarah Penner’s debut novel and I have to say that despite the issues that I did have with her work I will most likely pick up any future books she writes because I’d love to see what else she might come up with.

If you’re interested in picking up The Lost Apothecary you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Indie Bound (for local indie stores) // Bookshop // Target

And with that, I hope you all have a great day and I’ll talk to you in my next post.