Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.

Book Review: Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant

I had a few DNFs this week, but was reminded of this gem when I recommended it to someone and don’t regret revisiting it.

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Richard Grant is an English ex-pat who has been living in the United States for a number of years. While living in a small New York apartment, Richard took a trip with a friend of his to Mississippi. On a whim, he buys an old plantation house and moves into it with his girlfriend. And thus is the start of hilarity and truth.

Neither Richard nor his girlfriend are familiar with Mississippi, much less the Delta–not named for a geographical delta, but actually an alluvial plain. He is now a resident of Pluto, a town named for the mythological lord of the Underworld. And after stories for critters in the walls, battling bugs, and his initial feelings of complete isolation it doesn’t take much to figure out why.

He meets many interesting people along the way and starts to unravel the mystery of why the Delta is so different not just from the rest of the Mississippi, but the rest of the country. It is its own beast, something that fascinates Grant enough that he becomes enamored of his new home. A self-proclaimed nomad, he puts down roots.

But his transition is not without difficulty, and he relays stories as only an outsider can. Making friends with a Blues legend, an eccentric millionaire, a Hollywood celebrity, a local hunter, a cookbook queen, and many more, Grant doesn’t shy away from his observations about the racial tensions of the area or the major structural problems of the small towns throughout the region.

Despite its lingering problems, Grant declares that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America.

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I was born in the Mississippi Delta. The pictures across the top of my blog all come from places and events near my hometown. My entire family, including my step-family, originates from the same area. And this book brilliantly captures what makes the Delta so utterly unique.

The book barely scratches the surface on a lot of issues, both because it would take thousands of pages to delve deeply and the friendships with locals that help make the book what it is were still developing while he wrote it. But as I read it, I laughed until I cried. And on a couple of occasions, I just cried.

I moved out of the Delta when I was still in elementary school, but returned to visit family frequently throughout my childhood and young adult life. I can say with honesty, that it’s hard to recognize how weird of a place it is until you step outside of it. And seeing it through an outsider’s eyes is always both hilarious and humbling.

That’s the essence of this book. It’s a true account of this man’s experience as he tries to figure out how we, the people of the Delta, came to be the way we are. He talks about how his revelations affect his view of Mississippi in general and the Delta in particular. And let me assure you, the Delta is indeed a space all its own. I noticed in college at Mississippi State that most kids say things like “I’m from the coast,” or “I’m from Jackson,” with the same voice inflection that most people would say “I brushed my teeth this morning.” It’s just a fact. But when people say “I’m from the Delta,” it’s different. It’s a story. And Richard Grant wrote his book based on his attempts to figure out that story.

I didn’t read this book alone. My sisters and my stepmother read it and we would text each other back and forth about things we read. Mostly we were laughing at what the author thought was so utterly strange that was completely familiar to us. So if you want a pretty spot-on account of what makes the Delta tick, this is a great resource.

 

ARC Review: Unanchored by Stephanie Eding

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in advance of its publication date in exchange for an honest review. It debuts next week.

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Cecily Hastings is a Welsh slave to the man her own parents sold her off to in exchange for food. She doesn’t remember what it’s like to be free, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t crave it. She fears only two things in her pursuit of freedom, the beatings her master hands out at will and the Blood Pirate, the man who burned her village and killed her mistress years ago.

When her master gets drunk and swindled at the gambling tables, Cecily ends up being the payment. She is finally away from her master, but she’s not free. She’s been sold to none other than the Blood Pirate himself. Her worst fear has been realized.

But something doesn’t add up. The pirate who holds her captive treats her better than her master ever did. And she sees him freeing other slaves from around the British Isles as well. How could the man who burned her village and killed her mistress in cold blood be the man who buys her hair ribbons and protects her from harm?

When the British Royal Navy hot on their tails, Cecily has to make a choice. She can go with the soldiers and let them escort her back to her old master and let the fearsome pirate hang for his crimes, or she can grasp the only kind of freedom life has ever offered her and become the thing she hates most–a pirate.

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This book reads as a young YA, in my opinion, but I thought it was fun and adorable. The underlying message of things not always being what they seem is felt over and over again. Sometimes bad guys look like good guys. Sometimes freedom doesn’t look like what you think it will.

It does romanticize piracy a bit, but it does so to make a point and has some fun with it in the process. The biggest drawback to the story is a general lack of diversity. All the characters more or less look the same and most of them blend into the background a little too easily. If you’re going to argue with me about Finnish and Welsh pirates being pretty monochromatic during the general era in question, I’m going to redirect you to the blog Writing with Color that had already addressed the subject (spoiler alert: Europe wasn’t ever actually lily white). 

On the plus side, the book has a clean romance arc and so is great for those teens (or any other age) who want an escapist tale without graphic sex scenes. The main character is a teenager, but her general naivete can sometimes make her seem younger, especially for a girl who has spent most of her life as a slave. In some cases she talks like she has seen things, in others, she seems oblivious. But I think this might suit some younger readers, especially those just crossing over to the YA market from MG, who want to read an older teen protagonist, but aren’t ready for some of the heavier scenes that often entails.

There are references to God and prayer in the book. It is sporadic, and I don’t think it is done in such a way as to be offensive to non-Christians. However, as a Christian myself, I admit that I may have a skewed view of that, since I like the way it was handled.

In the end, I would absolutely recommend this to a tween or younger teen reader (or anyone else who likes fiction for that age market) who likes pirate books and innocent romantic arcs. To be honest, I’d probably read it again myself as a beach read over vacation if my TBR pile didn’t mock me daily. Your mileage may vary.

Book Review: The One Unspoken by Sarah Bryant

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Sidonie Verdier was born in pre-Civil War Louisiana in the middle of a hurricane to a dying mother. Her father long gone to gamble his family fortune away, she was alone in the world before her life began. Her mother’s newly freed slave takes Sidonie in after she sees the tell-tale signs that Sidonie has the sight–she can see spirits.

The freewoman rears Sidonie on the abandoned plantation until her father returns home seventeen years later, determined to marry her off to the highest bidder. In the meantime, though, Sidonie falls in love with Gabriel, the son of the freedman next door.

Their relationship is illegal and could easily get both of them killed, but the ghost of Sidonie’s mother is on their side. When Sidonie’s father finds the perfect suitor and engages his daughter to the man without her consent she realizes that if she wants to be with Gabriel they have to run away to Europe. If they don’t run now, she’ll be married and he’ll be stuck running his father’s plantation–or worse.

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I picked up this book because it is set in the south. I’m a southern girl and like to see how other people see the places that I’ve grown up knowing. The period setting of the book prepared me for some of what I read, but not all of it.

In short, sensitivity readers are important. Sidonie is reared by the former slave Adelis, who gives up her freedom to take care of the little white girl that she grows to love like a daughter. Adelis teaches Sidonie all about how to handle spirits, about zombies, and about voodoo. Sidonie even practices a ritual at one point. And until her father makes her, she wears her hair in braids and dresses like the slaves around her.

Just because the author acknowledges the inherent unfairness and desperation of the institution of slavery does not mean she can’t be guilty of cultural appropriation and romanticization. Adelis’ immediate maternal attachment to Sidonie even after she hated her mother to the core, Adelis and Gabriel’s mother are both voodoo practitioners originating from Haiti, Sidonie is welcomed without hesitation when she wanders into a slave celebration in a poor part of New Orleans and allowed to take center stage with the musicians, and Sidonie’s machinations–with Adelis’ help–is responsible for several of her father’s slaves being free in a twisted sort of white savior tale.

It’s not just problematic racially. Her gay piano teacher who lost his lover to cholera and the moment the ghost is “laid” (literally in the same instant) he moves on to the only other gay character in the book for a relationship. She even describes the light from his dead lover fading into his new boyfriend to try to explain why he falls for him so quickly and out of the blue. His grief over his deceased partner is gone in an instant because now there is another gay man in his life. Poof. Boom. Instant chemistry because they’re both gay. That’s it.

I don’t like to write bad reviews, but I feel like this story is problematic from the start. I found myself skimming over it just to get to the end and find out how deep the issues ran.

The author doesn’t seem to be malicious, or even aware, when it comes to the issues I’ve named. I don’t think it was purposeful. In fact, I get the impression she was trying to show a different side of the period society than most stories offer, but her execution of that desire went awry.

Perhaps I’m wrong about my interpretation of it. It’s possible. In any case, I can’t help but think that if you want to read about slave culture and voodoo that there are better sources out there.

 

ARC Review: Girlish by Lara Lillibridge

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in advance of its publication date in exchange for an honest review. It debuts April 3rd and is available for pre-order.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. Reading is my escape and I like to stay on the fiction side of the aisle the majority of the time. However, every now and then something will catch my eye that has me putting down the make-believe in exchange for the real. Truth, after all, is sometimes stranger–and often funnier–than fiction.

I wasn’t sure about this particular book at first. On the surface, it didn’t look like I could relate to it. I didn’t grow up with lesbian parents. I’m younger than the author and our childhood references differ. I’m not from New York. We have seemingly nothing in common. However, a friend of mine suggested I read it because she couldn’t put it down.

So I decided to request it through NetGalley. I have an account there and have gotten a few ARCs (advanced reader copies) of books that are coming out soon so I can provide honest reviews to be available for potential readers by the date of publication. Seriously, after getting the copy of the book, I have no contact with the person sending it. There is zero pressure for me to love a book or to lie about loving it.

By the middle of the next day, I received my ebook copy of Girlish. The author is a name I have seen on Twitter and we were both interviewed for the Winterviews series on K.J. Harrowick’s site, though I have not ever actually met her. Still, I felt the slightest trepidation as I opened her life story. What if I hated it? How would I ever tell this poor woman that I couldn’t even finish her book?

For the record, that’s not a problem. She is so raw and real that I laughed, I cried, I cringed. The author tells the story in third person to give herself a bit of distance from it. I don’t blame her for a minute. I said before that from the outside looking in, I have nothing in common with this author, but as I read through her life story, I found myself nodding along with her feelings. Her struggles. Her heartbreak.

There were chapters that I could not stop reading, much to the detriment of my sleep schedule. There were chapters that I had to put down because I could not handle them and needed some distance myself (Be prepared for this, there are a few scenes that could be triggering). The book is an emotional rollercoaster. She doesn’t leave anything out. Even the ugly, hard stuff. She is so open about her experiences that you feel connected to her from the beginning.

It is a beautiful and also heart-wrenching account of a real person’s life. To me, it is proof that we are all more than the labels life hands us. Lara Lillibridge is labeled the daughter of lesbian parents, but that’s not all of who and what she is. Yes, it had some bearing on her experience, but it was not the sum and whole. Her parents are lesbians, yes, but there is more to each of them than that identifier.

And she is honest about the times in her life when she went through phases of being anti-lesbian because of what she went through. She admits the problematic thoughts she had at the time and that it took a few months, or sometimes years, to see things in a different light. She was, after all, a child trying to sort out who she was in life.

It is both painful and hilarious, but most of all it’s honest. She’s not perfect. Her parents weren’t perfect. Her childhood was messed up, but that seems to have less to do with her parents being lesbians than it does with the other factors in her life.

I would recommend this book to others with the caveat that there are some moments that can be triggering. I don’t want to set anyone off here, so if you need more information, head over the Contact Me page and send me a message. Otherwise, you can pre-order Girlish today or you can wait until April 3rd when it officially hits the market.

 

Book Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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Hazel lives in Fairfold, a small town at the edge of the forest that the Folk call home. Nobody remembers how the horned boy in the glass coffin came to be in the middle of the forest, but he slumbered through the decades, his handsome face never changing. Until Hazel woke him up.

Now strange and dangerous things are happening around Fairfold–more so than normal. Townspeople are being attacked by a tree monster that renders them unconscious with no way to awaken them, the high school is under attack from an unseen force, and the King of the Folk reveals that Hazel is in it all up to her eyeballs. He gives her a deadline to turn over his son, the horned prince, or all of Fairfold will face the consequences. The problem is the horned prince is a nice guy, and his father doesn’t want to welcome him home with open arms, he wants to kill him. And since Hazel’s brother is in love with him, it’s more than a little problematic.

Hazel has to find a way to hide the prince, defeat the king, and save her fellow townsmen before time runs out. With the help of the prince, her brother, and her brother’s best friend–who happens to be a changeling and Hazel’s lifelong crush, Hazel refuses to admit defeat. After all, she’s one of the best knights the Folk have ever known.

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I don’t read a ton of YA. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against it. On the contrary, I will gladly read a compelling story regardless of the age category. It just so happens that I tend to read more adult-targeted books. This one, though, caught my eye.

It twists some old tropes into something that is both familiar and surprising. The characters are all distinctive and unforgettable. The voice is compelling. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this, but the blurb sounded interesting so I download a sample from Amazon. In the first few pages, I knew I had to see where it was going. The plot was barely off the ground, but the voice reeled me in.

There are some things about the story I was less than thrilled with. Any time there is a scene that breaks down to “I know I kissed your sibling, but it’s really you I’m into” or “I’m with you because your sibling won’t look at me twice” I tend to tap out. There are two such points in this story. However, this is a YA story. A high school setting. And since I witnessed this particular storyline play out more than once in my own high school (back when dirt was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth), I can’t argue that it isn’t realistic.

Overall the story was good, the voice was compelling and I don’t regret diving into it. I’m writing this review more than a week after I finished the story, so I’ve come down from the story high and am less attached to it now. That’s my fault. However, it had a flawed but still kick butt heroine, a beautiful male asleep in the glass coffin instead of a princess, and changeling who would have had me drawing hearts in a notebook during homeroom, so if you like fantasy, ya, or would like to read a story that doesn’t pretend the lgbtq+ community doesn’t exist in small towns in the middle of nowhere this could be what you’re looking for.

Book Review: Courting Cate by Leslie Gould

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When Pete Traeger moves to Paradise Township in Lancaster County he meets the lovely Miller sisters, Cate and Betsy. Though each sister is pretty, Betsy is sought after by most of the bachelors in the county, where Cate’s fiery temper and preference for books over people keeps most of them at bay. Their father has decreed that Betsy cannot start courting until after her elder sister is married. So when Pete seems drawn to Cate’s sharp wit, the other bachelors are quick to convince him to start courting Cate. But Cate knows what the local male population thinks of her, and she becomes immediately suspicious. It’ll take more than sweet words and romantic buggy rides to win Cate Miller’s heart, but Pete might just be the man to do it.

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I read a lot of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The kind where the main characters get into bloody battles and empirical political machinations rule the day. Some of my favorite secondary characters often end up dead or horribly injured. It can leave me with a book hangover. I’m sure you know the kind. When a book has ravaged your emotions so much in the best and worst ways that you have trouble recovering.

It is then that I love to deploy the palate cleanser. A nice story. Where bad things might happen, but nobody dies and the ending is almost guaranteed to give you the warm fuzzies. It helps balance me out.

I also love a good Shakespearean tale. So Courting Cate by Leslie Gould was right up my alley. It is an Amish Romance take on Taming of the Shrew. Even better, it is the start of a series, all based in the same Amish community, of Shakespearean retellings.

If you are not into clean reads and retellings, this will not be the book or the series for you. There are no curse words, sexually explicit scenes, or instances of bloodshed–at least not the dangerous kind.

The biggest drawback to the story, however, is a lack of representation. If you are hoping there might be POC in this Amish community or the neighboring Englisher (non-Amish) community, you’re going to be disappointed. I have found this true with the vast majority of Amish fiction, though, so I was less than surprised.

Overall the story was cute and I enjoyed the take on the old tale. It was just what I needed to wash away the emotional turmoil of the last book. It was also a quick read, one night rocking a sick child will cover it. I can verify that.