What Fresh Hell is This? (CBR13 #23)

What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You

What Fresh Hell is This? Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You came to my attention following emmalita’s positive review of it earlier this month. The title alone intrigued me, what fresh hell is this is something I say in my day-to-day life, so an author that chose to use it as their title would very likely be an author I’d want to read. That the book was about perimenopause was (almost) secondary.

I’m probably not in perimenopause yet (based on the evidence I’m most likely in my Late Reproductive phase where things start to go a little haywire from what they’ve been the past couple decades), so why would this book be something that I would want to read? The answer is simple: it’s coming for me. I’m a person with a utero-ovarian system which means this is an inevitability. Also, like everyone else, I’m living in a reality where the patriarchy has pathologized natural occurrences in the body systems of people with uteruses (or otherwise experiencing menopause). Information is quite literally power in situation surrounding our health, and as I experience some of the things that are hallmarks of perimenopause its time to get informed.

And what a fun time it was getting informed. What Fresh Hell is This? is health-forward, feminist, empathetic and practical guide that offers straightforward descriptions of what is happening in our bodies and how it effects our minds and lives. Sex educator Heather Corinna (they/them) gives practical, clear information that also includes affected populations who have long been left out of the discussion, those with disabilities, queer, transgender, nonbinary and other gender-diverse people, the working class and other marginalized folks. The inclusivity of this book goes to the length of including an appendix written by Joanne Mason about menopause as experienced by people who were born with testicular systems.

The whole book isn’t for me right now, but it will be for me eventually. There was an incredible amount of useful information, and just good level setting provided that reminded me to do what I can for myself to make this transition easier as it comes (or at least less confusing and scary). If nothing else Corinna’s ten points for managing stress are worth the time investment, but the book has so much more to offer.

I received this as an advance reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

For those interested, the top 10 for managing stress:

  1. Take on fewer things
  2. Deal with your tough stuff, especially any trauma and its impacts.
  3. Give less of a fuck.
  4. Insist other people manage themselves.
  5. Take out the trash. (Whatever the garbage in your life is, try and find a way to get it out of your life, head, or heart.)
  6. Move, rest, and pursue positive social interactions, even if they’re tiny.
  7. Do things you like that help you relax your body and your mind.
  8. Breathe.
  9. Whatever it is, take a break from it.
  10. Close the stress cycle.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown (CBR13 #22)

Take a Hint, Dani Brown (The Brown Sisters, #2)

When I finished Get a Life, Chloe Brown earlier this month I immediately requested Take a Hint, Dani Brown from the library – the reading experience had been that good. When I finished Take a Hint this week, I did the same thing for Act Your Age, Eve Brown and it is currently waiting for me at my local library branch. Talia Hibbert has written some of my favorite reading experiences of the year thus far in this series and I imagine I will be revisiting this story in future.

Hibbert is writing diversely representative characters, simply because these types of characters deserve to be seen. In Take a Hint features Danika Brown and Zafir Ansari and they possess some of the very diversity that makes me felt seen, and Hibbert handles it all deftly (CW: general anxiety disorder, on page panic attack, past death of close family members). These characters have deep interior lives and Hibbert handles their emotions beautifully, while not being afraid to be funny.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown delivers what I think Lau was after in The Professor Next Door which I read back to back with this one. Both share a female protagonist who has serious emotional baggage surrounding romantic relationship failures that have led them to eschew romantic partnerships in exchange for hook-ups and friends with benefits arrangements as well as male protagonists who willing go along with that scenario, even if it isn’t exactly what they have in mind as they are the first to fall romantically. What Tibbert excels at (not that Lau is a slouch in this department) is creating such human characters that the reading experience is rich and deeply satisfying.

Because what we get is two very lovable and complicated protagonists with satisfying characters arcs, even though not much happens in this book, the big plot points are all emotional.  When the novel starts Dani asks the universe for the perfect friend-with-benefits—someone who knows the score and knows their way around the bedroom. What Dani gets is Zaf, the security guard in her university’s building whom she has been developing a friendship with over the past few months (my heart swooned at Dani bringing Zaf coffee each morning and Zaf having protein bars at the ready for her since she’s not great about stopping to eat). When Zaf rescues Dani during a drill gone wrong in a highly dramatic way it makes its way to social media and goes viral, with the adorable if slightly inaccurate #DrRugBae. With his niece’s push Zaf proposes to Dani that they lean into these 15 minutes of fame because its having excellent returns for his sports charity which works with boys on being in touch with their emotions and working against toxic masculinity in sports. Dani agrees to faking a relationship with Zaf, easily done as they are already friends, but realizes quickly that she also wants to have an arrangement that includes orgasms as well.

I wasn’t expecting this book to remind me of another I read last year, Sajni Patel’s  The Trouble with Hating You which also features a difficult woman. In some ways it’s a persona Dani has built over trauma, in other ways its honestly who she is. She’s strong and forceful and successful and it all took work and determination to make happen. Dani doesn’t see herself as loveable, in fact has been certain of that fact since her failed earlier relationships and in turn built walls around her emotional self. It becomes the linchpin of the final act, that Dani must realize that Zaf’s love for her can be real, as can hers for him. I like difficult women, I like books that deal with realistic representations of what being a modern woman often looks like, and I love romantic heroes who love these difficult women with those attributes, not in spite of them.

Hibbert writes about living with emotions. I loved Dani, but I may have loved Zaf more. The fact that Hibbert weaves in that Zaf reads romance novels in order to help cope with his anxiety as well as just the fact that he enjoys the guaranteed happy ending? Just so lovely. Hibbert even put together a list of Zaf’s recommendations for an interview written in his voice. Why isn’t this book a movie already? The powers that be are sleeping on getting Hibbert’s books turned into awesome R rated rom coms.

The Professor Next Door (CBR13 #21)

I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The Professor Next Door published June 8, 2021.

The Professor Next Door (Cider Bar Sisters, #3)

Jackie Lau’s next book in her Cider Bar Sisters series is The Professor Next Door and it tells the story of Nicole Louie-Edwards and David Cho, the titular professor next door. A decade after getting out of a rough relationship Nicole has herself settled into her career and life with friends and family, building a life around the version of herself she believes she wants. She has sworn off dating, instead enjoying the nightlife and bringing men back to her apartment, but she’s gotten tired of the chase. Nicole’s new neighbor David isn’t really her type (she thinks), but after they get stuck in an elevator together on her birthday, a friendship with the kind geology professor develops.

David brings Nicole a cake for her birthday and from there they create a routine of Friday night dinners alternating at each other’s apartments. One night David confesses that he can hear her Nicole having sex through the walls when she brings guys back to her apartment, but that he leaves the room because he isn’t a creep. Nicole notices that it’s clear he’d like to, and they embark on a friends-with-benefits arrangement.  Nicole is amazed what hides behind David’s mild, slightly stern, exterior. As the weeks progress David becomes a bigger part of her life and while he sees a future for them, she’s convinced she’d lose her identity in a relationship, like she did ten years ago.

Lau has a way of writing books that feel like sitting down with a quick snack and a cup of tea, while also making them steamy. I’m all for it. Lau is also building out her universe, The Professor Next Door takes place in the same Baldwin Street neighborhood from The Ultimate Pi Day Party and the bakery Happy as Pie makes an appearance as one of David’s go to dessert locations.

I do love an opposites attract trope, see my current obsession with Roy Kent and Keeley Jones from Ted Lasso) and there is a bit of that here. David is a relationship type, having been previously married, and Nicole does not see the value for herself. She’s got a big personality, he’s more reserved in most things.  But they are compatible in the important ways and find the same things to be of value (kindness, respect, removing toxic people from their lives). I was invested in them and waiting for Nicole to get out of her own way. Because I do have two small complaints – the first being that the hurdles to the relationship were imbalanced. The second is mostly a me problem, I haven’t read the first two books in the series yet and I did feel the gap in reading The Professor Next Door that I didn’t when I read the novella Her Pretend Christmas Date last year. The underlying friendships of the Cider Bar Sisters are important to understanding the interior life of Nicole and that may be why I had a tough time really settling into her character. But the relationships that Lau writes around her characters are great, and Nicole’s grandmother was a standout.

Young at Heart #CannonBookClub Picks (CBR13 #18-20)

I read these books all together for our Young at Heart book club so it only feels right to review them all together. Our goal for book club was to find book selections that reminded us of childhood in order to (hopefully) inspire a bit of lighthearted nostalgia. For the most part, these books succeeded on that metric for me.

Ghost Squad: Ortega, Claribel A.: 9781338280128: Amazon.com: Books

Ghost Squad – 4 stars

Up first is Claribel Ortega’s Ghost Squad. I often have trouble sinking into Middle Grades books – it is where I most clearly feel the “this book is not written for me” gap between childrens/YA and Adult literature. But, by and large, I was able to sink into the reading of Ghost Squad and enjoy the story of Lucely Luna, her best friend Syd, and their adventures with more than one type of ghost. From Goodreads: Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late.

Ortega weaves her Dominican culture into the story, giving us a taste of nimitas/cocuyo and the other things that go bump in the Caribbean night. I enjoyed the heck out of that, but the part that stuck with me the most – and what I’ve been sharing with others about this book – is just how girl-centric this story is. The story is a fun adventure that also tackles some big themes like loss, belonging, and family The way that Lucely’s ghost family functions in the story, and how her dad is on the outside looking in to those relationships, forms an incredibly strong base from which Ortega builds Lucely’s independence, her friendship with Syd, and the world saving they get up to.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing - Wikipedia

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing – 3 stars

I’ll be honest, this book is where the expectations monster came and got me. My memory from childhood is loving this book. Spoiler: I did not love it as an adult.

The book focuses on 9-year-old Peter Hatcher’s frustration with the horrendous behavior demonstrated by his annoying nearly 3-year-old brother, “Fudge”, who frequently goes unpunished. Peter becomes frustrated with Fudge for several things, particularly his insistence on disturbing Peter’s pet turtle, Dribble. Add into that Fudge’s nonstop temper tantrums, a finicky phase of abstaining from eating altogether, and their parents continuous doting on Fudge and Peter has had enough.

As an eldest sibling I felt for Peter and the struggles he had with his feelings surrounding his little brother Fudge. Thankfully my own younger siblings were never anywhere near Fudge levels of destructive, and no pets died at their hands. There is a constant undercurrent of stress in the book, and while my younger self probably just felt propulsive tension but adult me was stuck a bit in the mire.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Adams, Douglas: 9780345391803:  Amazon.com: Books

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 4 stars

Seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway (which itself becomes redundant almost immediately), Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher from Betelgeuse 7 working on the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ford has spent the last fifteen years on Earth posing as an out-of-work actor and become best friends with Arthur, who is already having a terrible day as his house is being demolished for a highway. Once they are off-planet their adventure only grows as they become looped up with a series of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox: the two-headed, three-armed president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot. All this while traveling through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”).

Douglas Adams is playing with the reader, layering in ideas and notions that are meant to make you think while simultaneously going for the laugh. The book is performing on several levels at the same time. I read this one as an adult for the first time 6 years ago. While I do think that it really isn’t meant for the younger audience, it does fit into a great spot in the YA world while still being for adults as well. There’s a certain universality to the story where there’s something for you no matter where you are in your own life, but the humor might be lost on someone who isn’t old enough when they first encounter it.

The book does have its problems all these years out, there’s definitely a subset of readers who find themselves exhausted by Arthur’s shtick of just not doing for himself and he is often the weakest part of the story.

(Trust) Falling for You (CBR13 #17)

(Trust) Falling For You

What an enjoyable snack of a book this was. I was reminded a few days ago that I had bought (Trust) Falling for You as a birthday gift to myself back in February and I snuck it into my weekend reading line up. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it is a novella, I hadn’t realized, but a 120-page story was just the right size for my mood. Charish Reid specializes in writing stories featuring people of color in higher education and their love stories. I really enjoyed Hearts on Hold last year and (Trust) Falling for You shares much of what I liked in that one, while being just a touch more lighthearted.

This book tells the story of Yolanda Watson is the “fun professor” from the English Department and her nemesis in the History Department, Samuel Morris. Morris beat her out for a grant as well as chairs the boring committee she sits on. These two opposites find themselves thrown together for a week of close proximity as the various Humanities Departments of Franklin University spend a week away at a university team-building retreat to the woods of Wisconsin. There’s a lodging mix-up, and the pair are forced to share the same cabin for six nights. As Team-Building Buddies, they will take part together in all the embarrassing bonding games the Dean throws at them. In order to succeed they’ll have to learn to meet in the middle, and that’s before accounting for the sexual tension that gets harder to ignore.

I laughed a lot while reading this one. Forced Fun is my least favorite type of work activity, and these team building exercises were often the stuff of my nightmares, but they were for the characters as well and Reid populated her story with personalities that rang true for academic settings as well the kind of people you would expect to be friends with her leads (well, in Samuel’s case the kinds of people most likely to warm up to him once he relaxes). Their banter was crucial to the strength of the story and served well as a counterpoint to the more intimate moments between Yolanda and Samuel when they begin to allow the other one in. The characters take time to reflect and make changes, and left me with just enough loose endings to keep the story in my mind without feeling unsatisfied.  

Defiant Brides (CBR13 #16)

Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married

It should be said that this is a review of a DNF, I read enough to know what wasn’t working for me but with the due date at the library’s arrival I had to give it back and I don’t miss it. Proceed with that knowledge, because I’m probably going on a little bit of a rant here.

Here we go: I am so freaking tired of women’s stories being told through the lens of the men in their lives as the predominant view. SO. TIRED. This book purports to be the story of two women and the radical men they married. Fine. Then it needs to be at least even handed between the genders, if not tipped to the women because the title is literally Defiant Brides. That is not what happened here. Listen, I’m a fan of Henry Knox, you know? Who doesn’t appreciate a bookseller who uses his shipping and organizational prowess to turn the tides of the war? But if I wanted a book about Henry Knox (or, I guess Benedict Arnold) I would have picked up a biography about him. I did not do that.

And you know why I don’t read biographies of military officers from any war? I CAN’T STAND THE MINUTIA OF WAR. I’m a history major, I did my time. I respect the hell out of the people who serve, but the history of battles and campaigns bores me to tears. I dared to dream I was safe with this one, as the subtitle says revolutionary era. The time surrounding the war! I can totally dig on the social history surrounding times of conflict. THIS BOOK IS HIP DEEP IN THE EARLY CAMPAIGNS OF THE WAR WITHIN TWENTY-FIVE PAGES. Friends, that was not what I signed up for.

And one more thing before I get off my soapbox and go about forgetting I ever wasted time on this book: I was promised previously unpublished writings of these women. I suppose Stuart works them into her narrative, but fuck if I could tell.

Skip it.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown (CBR13 #15)

I loved Get a Life, Chloe Brown. I swooned, I laughed, I commiserated. Hibbert delivered on all fronts.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown (The Brown Sisters, #1)

This is my first Talia Hibbert book (I’ve followed her on Twitter for quiet awhile and enjoy her greatly there), and it lives up to the hype. In broad strokes, it’s a relatively slow burn romance that slips right past enemies to lovers tropes and instead lands in the “you annoy me but once I actually get to know you I’m enamored of you” zone which isn’t nearly as fun to say.

In interviews Hibbert explains why she is writing diversely representative characters, and its simply that these type of characters deserve to be seen. I appreciate the hell out of that. Our romantic leads in Get a Life, Chloe Brown are the titular Chloe and her building’s superintendent, Red Morgan. The book opens with Chloe having a (hysterical) near death experience and not liking what her mind comes up with as her eulogy should she have in fact died. With that universal kick in the rump Chloe decides to get a life, and develops a seven step plan to do so. Chloe doesn’t have a life at the beginning of the book due to a series of choices and experiences related to her fibromyalgia. She has in many ways closed herself off from the larger world, using her family’s wealth and their emotional support to live a productive life, but not necessarily have a life. Step one is to move out, which brings her into direct contact with Red, building superintendent.

Red is himself at a crossroads. His friend set him up with the superintendent job two years ago as a place to land and regroup following a toxic relationship and its destruction of his life as he knew it, but in the meantime he hasn’t so much regrouped as turned inward, refusing to let people see the art he is still compelled to make. As the book unfolds we learn more about Red’s trauma and how his empathetic nature allow him to see Chloe as is, and see his ability to fill the gaps for her when he can, and to allow her to do the same for him.

This story builds steadily over time – the characters (and the reader) get to know each other, get to live in the reality of their lives. Hibbert has written a pair of good people who drop their facades and let the other in. The final act break up and get back together is focused on coping mechanisms that have turned rancid, and the getting past them, which is just so spot on to the story Hibbert is after here. Seriously, this was a great reading experience and I immediately requested the next book, Take a Hint, Dani Brown from my library.

A Better Man (CBR13 #14)

A Better Man (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #15)

It has long been my habit to try to read each Inspector Gamache book in the month or season it is set, and by happy coincidence A Better Man, the fifteenth book in the series, is set in April. Delayed spring, occasional flooding, and a final snowstorm are all hallmarks of April in my neck of the woods, so I felt right at home with Gamache and the residents of Three Pines.

Structurally we are with Gamache and company for one single case, with stunningly few ties to larger stories in the universe while simultaneously being linked intricately to the books which precede it. In this insular story that plays out over only a few days, Gamache makes his return as head of the homicide department, a job he will temporarily share with Jean-Guy Beauvoir. There are floodwaters rising across Quebec. In the middle of Gamache’s return and the planning for the oncoming natural disaster, a woman’s father approaches a friend for help in finding her.

The search for Vivienne Godin becomes Gamache’s first case back as he is the only senior agent unassigned, and through the course of the book we’re with Gamache as he leads his small team through the search, in preparation for floodwaters, and in surviving the onslaught of negative social media. We trace the case from beginning to end, through moments of success to discovery of great mistakes, and everything in between.

Penny sets out to tell a story focused on Gamache’s parenthood. The missing woman is an only daughter similar in age to Gamache’s Annie. Jean-Guy is leaving the professional and personal nest as he and Annie go through final preparations for their move to Paris and Isabel Lacoste is making her return to the Sûreté following her injuries in Glass Houses. The writing hangs on the profound empathy Gamache displays both for the father of Vivienne Godin, but also for his successors and proteges. That part of the writing does work for me, there are over a dozen books preceding this one which have built a strong, deep knowledge of Gamache. But, there were things that just didn’t work for me – the social media posts that open the chapters for one. Another lacking is in the historical elements of Quebecois culture that Penny usually weaves into her storytelling to provide depth of meaning.

The Gamache books, at their best, are about life and the choices that we make, and what happens to good people when such a harrowing event comes into their lives. A Better Man gets there, but not in the great way I’ve come to expect (it also doesn’t help that I guessed the baddie well before the reveal of how and who and it took the dramatic tension right out of the reading).

In the Country We Love (CBR13 #13)

In the Country We Love: My Family Divided

I put this book on my to read list back in May of 2016, shortly after its publication. I don’t remember now what spurred me to do so, but at the end of the day its always the same basic reason – there was a story here that I wanted to know more about. In the Country We Love is Guerrero’s story of growing up the daughter of undocumented immigrants, and the course of her life following their deportments. It’s a big, important story.

You might recognize Diane Guerrero from her television work on Orange is the New Black or Jane the Virgin, but what is less known about Guerrero is that at the age of fourteen her parents were arrested and deported while she was at school. Born in the United States, Guerrero was able to remain in the country but to do so she and her family depended on the kindness and support of family friends who housed her and cared for her as she fell through the cracks (probably for the best) of the system. The book traces her life both to that point and from it. We are given a look at her parents’ lives in Colombia and the U.S., at her academic and personal struggles and triumphs.

In the pages of In the Country We Love we are given Guerrero’s story, but what it seems to be after is shining light onto the over 11 million undocumented immigrants, many with citizen children, living in the US, whose lives here are just as uncertain as Guerrero’s once was. The book was written with Michelle Burford, and as a memoir aimed at is YA audience it is does a fine job of taking one individual story and showing how it applies on a larger scale (which aligns with Guerrero’s work with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, as well as with Mi Familia Vota, an organization that promotes civic involvement. She has been named an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization by the White House). It is also told in the sort of bite sized pieces that I assume the authors thought their audience would prefer, or simply the ones that Guerrero was willing to share. However, the telling was uneven, the tone constantly shifting, and by the end I found myself speed reading and skimming.