Baby and Solo: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

Baby and Solo by Lisabeth PosthumaRoyal Oaks, Michigan, 1996: After being in and out of mental hospitals for years, seventeen-year-old Joel Teague is almost Normal. He hasn’t had any visible signs of What Was Wrong With Him since he was fifteen, he goes to therapy, and he even has a new prescription from his therapist: Get a part-time job. While Joel’s overbearing mother is wary of the advice, Joel’s father is hopeful. So is Joel, as he puts it, “Maybe all that remained between me and being Normal again was providing goods or services to my peers for minimum wage for a while. It was worth a try.”

Enter ROYO Video where Joel is soon working part-time and well on his way to becoming the “Doogie Howser of the video store corporate ladder.” In a store where every employee goes by the name of a movie character, Joel is more than ready to become Solo, short for Han Solo Star Wars—Joel’s favorite movie and a movie that’s been forbidden in his home since the Bad Thing Happened. With the new name, Joel also gets a tabula rasa (clean slate) to try making friends, working, and proving he is totally capable of being Normal.

At the store, Joel finds routine work surprisingly comforting as he gets to know his motley assortment of coworkers including sexy manager Jessica (Scarlet at the store) who claims “Scarlett O’Hara’s her favorite movie character” but lacks “the decency to spell her name with both t’s,” The Godfather—an Asian girl who “had presence in the way someone ballsy enough to call herself ‘The Godfather’ should,” and Nicole/Baby (from Dirty Dancing).

What starts as a routine job quickly becomes something more as Joel discovers the potential for real connection with his coworkers—especially Baby who is dealing with her own Something Wrong With Her while introducing Joel to the ins and outs of the video rental world and improving his film education one movie viewing at a time in Baby and Solo (2021) by Lisabeth Posthuma.

Find it on Bookshop.

As Joel becomes friendlier with Baby, he realizes that getting to know her might also involve letting her get to know him—including What Was Wrong With Him even after establishing his clean slate—a risk he isn’t sure he’s willing to take. As he notes, “It’s a lot of responsibility, knowing the entire truth about a person, and I was too busy trying to become what I might have been to get involved in What Was Wrong with someone else.”

This character-driven novel slowly unspools the intensely mutual (and notably platonic) friendship between Solo and Baby as they share their vulnerabilities and help each other through a tumultuous year including a pregnancy and continued mental health struggles. When new employee Maverick (Andres in real life) joins the ROYO video team, Joel is also forced to confront his own internalized homophobia courtesy of his mother and his family history with The Bad Thing That Happened and partially led to What Was Wrong with Joel.

Joel’s first-person narration is wry and straight to the point with careful asides hinting at his years “in and out of the psych ward” and how they impacted him (one notable example being that Joel is “hard to scandalize” now) alongside practical advice from his years of therapy that he shares with both readers and other characters processing complex emotions including grief and loss. After years of keeping people at a remove, Joel is terrified of connection, even as he craves it—a push and pull that continues throughout the story as Joel begins to understand that “if you want to experience healthy intimacy in relationships, you’re going to have to be emotionally vulnerable with someone at some point.”

As the title suggests, Joel and Baby are the central point of this story but they are far from the only worthwhile characters. The mostly white cast is fully developed and well-realized. 1990s pop culture, movie references thanks to the video store setting and an in-theater viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and day-to-day retail struggles including quirky customers, a mandatory Secret Santa exchange, and more highlight Joel’s new reality while he hints at The Bad Thing that happened and works to find closure with What Was Wrong.

Whether or not readers were around for the 1990s and the pre-streaming world of video rental, Baby and Solo is a universal and timeless story of friendship, growth, retail employment and the ups and downs of all three.

Possible Pairings: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle, Nice Try Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner

Ice: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ice by Sarah Beth DurstAs a girl, Cassie believed the story her grandmother told her. She believed that her mother was the daughter of the North Wind and a failed bargain with the Polar Bear King whisked her to the ends of the earth. For years, Cassie thought that one day she might be able to rescue her mother from the troll castle.

Cassie knows better now. Yes, her mother is gone. But Cassie has her father and their work at the Arctic research station where they live. Focused on her research of the local polar bear population and her ambitions to become a scientist, Cassie doesn’t have time for anything else–especially not fairy tales.

Everything Cassie has learned about the world and her own life is irrevocably changed when a polar bear speaks to her. He tells her that the stories about her mother really is alive and trapped at the end of the world. He tells Cassie that he will rescue her mother if Cassie agrees to marry him.

When Cassie accepts the polar bear’s bargain she will embark on her own journey through unbelievable wonders and countless dangers that will bring her east of the sun and west of the moon as she chases her truest desires for her future in Ice (2009) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Find it on Bookshop.

Ice is a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” (Which itself is reminiscent of the myth of Cupid and Pysche.)

Durst blends pieces from the original fairy tale and blends them with elements from Inuit culture. Ice also expands the source material to add context for the presence of a Polar Bear King with an original mythology where the polar bear (called Bear) is a shape-shifting being called a munaqsri who harvests dying souls and distributes souls to newborns. Durst masterfully brings these varied elements together to create a story that is faithful to the source material while also being utterly unique.

Cassie is a headstrong and decidedly modern heroine. Even when she is thrust into an unfamiliar world where magic is real, Cassie learns to adapt and manipulate situations to her advantage. While her initial decision to marry Bear is a calculated one meant to bring her mother home, Cassie’s feelings evolve as she begins to imagine a previously impossible future for herself beside her new husband.

Ice thoughtfully explores issues of choice as Cassie is forced repeatedly to place a value on her own free will. When she is separated from Bear she faces numerous obstacles while constantly running up against the question of how much she is willing to sacrifice in her efforts to find and rescue him. In addition Ice includes a nuanced treatment of what it means to be part of a family as well as what it means to grow up–two things that are central to Cassie’s character development.

Ice is a clever and evocative fantasy retelling. Sure to appeal to fans of the original fairy tale as well as fantasy fans in general.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire by Kristin Cashore, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, East by Edith Pattou, The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce,  The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman

And We Stay: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

And We Stay by Jenny HubbardNo one expected senior Paul Wagoner would walk into his high school with a gun. No one thinks he planned to kill himself and never walk out. Not even his girlfriend, Emily Beam, expected to be threatened by Paul as he confronted her in their high school library.

But all of those things did happen.

Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much.

Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.

She has help along the way from her habitual liar roommate K. T. and a girl who likes to steal almost as much as she likes to paint. But it is only Emily herself who can forgive and leave her past behind in And We Stay (2014) by Jenny Hubbard.

And We Stay is Hubbard’s second novel. It was also a Printz honor title in 2015. The story is set in 1995 for reasons that are never entirely clear. Despite the obvious setting (all of Emily’s poems are dated) the novel is largely timeless.

And We Stay is a very short, very fast read. In spite of that, Hubbard’s prose is imbued with substance as this slim novel tackles weighty topics ranging from feminism to processing loss and grief.

Written in the third person, present tense this story is often very distancing. Emily Beam is at a remove from readers, however it’s easy to think she prefers it that way. Flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul, the shooting, and other key moments are interspersed throughout the main narrative of Emily’s first two months at the boarding school.

Each chapter ends with one of Emily’s poems which also further develop the story. Emily Dickinson also features heavily as a character of sorts–her poems are used throughout the story and a somewhat improbable plot thread at the end of the novel revolves around Dickinson’s family home in Amherst.

It’s rare to find books that focus so heavily and so well on girls. And We Stay is one of those books. Emily Beam is a prickly, sad, and surprisingly real heroine. Her observations throughout the story are caustic and insightful in a way heroines rarely get to be in most novels. Hubbard’s portrayal of Emily’s relationships with her new friends and her French teacher are beautifully handled and shockingly real.

Although the pacing was slow and a little strange (with a jarring plot thread late in the story), somehow it all works. The plot develops organically and the included poetry feels seamless. And We Stay is a lovely, thoughtful blend of poetry, feminism and fiction about a girl finding her voice.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales,  Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis

How to Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

howtoloveBefore everything went to hell, Reena Montero had loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she could remember. Watching Sawyer and wanting him from afar in their small Florida town came as natural as breathing. Sawyer always seemed so distant, so unattainable until one day he suddenly isn’t. After circling each other for years, Reena and Sawyer are finally together for a torrid, messy moment before it all falls apart. Sawyer blows out of town without a word and Reena is left behind. Pregnant.

Almost three years later and Reena has finally made sense of what a life without Sawyer should look like. Her dreams of college are long behind her but most days her daughter Hannah more than makes up for that. Then, quick as he left, Sawyer is back and supposedly a changed man. Reena has her doubts. As these two circle once again all of the ugly parts of their past are brought to light but in the midst of all the painful memories there are some beautiful ones too.

It’s taken Reena years to get over Sawyer LeGrande and make a new life for herself. With so many other changes is it possible to leave all of that past behind for a new future with Sawyer in it in How to Love (2013) by Katie Cotugno?

How to Love is Cotugno’s first novel. Chapters alternate between Reena’s “before” as she and Sawyer first get together (told in past tense) and her “after” with Sawyer coming back into town and finding Reena and daughter Hannah. Although the book ostensibly contains two stories (one YA and one more Emerging Adult  since Reena is a mother now) Cotugno expertly blends the two plots together to create one larger narrative that spans years.

This book is extremely well-written. Cotugno is a prize-winning writer and her skill here shines through every page. Reena is a dimensional, realistic narrator. Even with her flaws and extremely poor decisions, Reena is mostly a heroine readers will want to like and want to succeed. Cotugno’s descriptions of Reena’s Florida landscape are evocative and vibrant.

Outside of the lovely writing, How to Love is a book riddled with barely developed secondary characters, a poorly paced plot and a tragically unsympathetic love interest.

Cotugno does a good job conveying the difficulties and stigma Reena faces as a teen mother and also shows the complexities of Reena’s family life. However, many aspects of Reena’s story are presented in a one-sided way. It is never quite explained how this responsible girl winds up pregnant except for her to say that she had thought she and Sawyer were “careful.” The possibility of abortion is explained away with Reena’s religious family but the idea of adoption is never once discussed even in passing.

There is also a strange correlation throughout the story between Reena standing up for herself only to have to face dire consequences (in one instance her father, who has a bad heart, has a heart attack after Reena yells at him). By the end of the story, Reena gains a bit of agency and is able to move past her role as a teen mother to try and make a better life for herself and her daughter. The problem is that all of this agency comes from finding out that Sawyer came looking for Reena before he left town years ago. Reena’s relationship with her best friend is also handled strangely. Allie shifts from an obstacle, coming between Sawyer and Reena’s flirty budding relationship, to a plot device as she becomes part of an inciting incident that brings Reena and Sawyer together.

A lot of how you feel about this book will depend on how you feel about Reena and Sawyer and their supposed epic love that looks a lot like standard lust. Basically Sawyer is a train wreck. He brings out the absolute worst in Reena at every turn before the pregnancy and leaves an impressive wreckage of mistakes in his wake. He is a user in every sense of the word and even Reena knows at the peak of her infatuation that it is only a matter of time before Sawyer implodes.

How to Love is marketed as a story of one couple falling in love twice. The problem is that Sawyer getting even a first chance with Reena makes no sense much less him getting a second one. The fact that Reena is continuously drawn to Sawyer after seeing him at his worst again and again exhibits the worst kind of self-destructive behavior.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, City Love by Susane Colasanti, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols, Golden by Jessi Kirby, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff