Review of ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’, by Jeanette McCurdy
When I first heard of the title of this book, knowing nothing of Jeanette McCurdy, I wondered if it was a little clickbait-y, quite honestly.
It absolutely is not. I myself was quite happy when McCurdy’s mother passed. And this, I think, sounds pretty bad, except to those who have read this book.
As a child, McCurdy craves her abusive mother’s love and doesn’t understand why her mother is so demanding. In order to please her mother, she will do anything—including getting into acting and eventually getting two big acting jobs on Nickelodeon’s iCarly and Sam and Cat.
The only problem I have with this title is that while McCurdy’s mother definitely did the worst harm to her, the entire system of the entertainment industry is the toxic environment in which is happened. I mean, how did no one see anything about the way this child was bring emotionally abused by her mother? It really only takes a bit of digging for the book to become more an indictment of the institutions that create, use, and then throw away child stars than a “tell-all” about McCurdy’s mother.
And this is something to keep in mind when it comes to bad parenting in general. It’s easy to point the finger at a bad parent. But if the institutions of society—health and education, more specifically—and the community were healthy and vibrant, would bad parenting really exist? I feel like parents would have had, since their own childhood, the example of their own parents, of parents in the community, and of educators in various settings to guide the development of their own capacities. And if there are outliers with mental health diagnoses—such as McCurdy’s narcissistic mother—the institutions and the community would step in to support the development of that child.
After reading this book, I am left wondering what I, as a content consumer, can do about this deeply flawed child star system. I know that whatever work I am doing in my own corner of the world to build a vibrant community that would step in such a situation. How do I find out if the children in a movie or a TV show are being well treated? How can we ensure that children are not taken advantage of for the only purpose of creating entertainment?
Review of ‘The Minus-One Club’, by Kekla Magoon
When he loses his sister, Kermit is invited to join the secret Minus-One Club, in which a handful of fellow students who have also lost a close family member spend time together in the comfort of a space where no one has to pretend to be OK to make others comfortable. In the Club, every topic is allowed, except the topic of grief and loss. But in their side hangouts, Kermit and fellow club member Matt give readers the opportunity to explore the many ways grief can be dealt with, and the festering that can occur when grief is not dealt with, in whatever way deemed best by the person grieving.
There is a lot happening in this book: grief, addiction, religion, mental health (especially depression), romance, sexuality and toxic masculinity. But the thing that marked me the most is how the club initially is all about ignoring the death and the grief of their members and acting as if everything is normal. This is something needed, true, but at the same time, when taken to the extreme that it is in the club, it’s not always needed and/or not needed by everyone.
It was interesting to see the many ways that a person in grief can be supported. In one poignant scene, one club member is sobbing while the others just hang out, as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. I was at first a little uncomfortable with this scene, but as a friend of mine who is familiar with grief said, sometimes it’s just nice to be able to just express one’s grief in the presence of others doing mundane, normal things. But, again, when taken to the extreme, the grief has nowhere to go but inside, where we fester and develop sometimes very unhealthy coping mechanisms. I felt like this book was, in a way, an exploration of grief, and an opportunity for readers to either find healthy ways to deal with their grief or help those around them grieving do so in as healthy way as possible.
Review of ‘Lucky Girl’, by Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu
Loss of a husband and its effects on the mothers left behind and how is affected the mother-daughter relationship
I can’t begin to explain how much I loved this book. Soila grew up as a privileged Kenyan girl. Her widowed mother is stern and has many strict rules that Soila must follow. Although Soila understands that her mother is showing her love in the only way she knows how, it’s still very difficult. And so when she gets the opportunity to study overseas, Soila packs her bags for New York City.
Unsurprisingly, Soila finds in 1990s New York quite a different reality for a Black young woman, however financially privileged she might be. Through the friendships she makes at school with fellow Black students, she starts to understand how her own privilege is blinding her to the racism she and other Black people face.
The conversation between an African immigrant to New York and African American descendants of slaves was incredible to read. I had to reread a number of sections, as I was flying through them way too quickly to truly appreciate them. The conversations were thorough and well thought-out, and didn’t shy away from the most difficult parts. The story ebbed and flowed beautifully and even the longer and more in-depth conversations about family heritage, privilege, and racism were intricately and naturally weaved in.
Review of ‘Adult Assembly Required’, by Abbi Waxman
A sweet and charming story in which Waxman uses a very relatable main character, Laura, to explore finding your place in the world after a big trauma. Laura wants to get over this trauma, as well as get away from the expectations of her family and of a very arrogant and overbearing ex-fiancé.
There is just something delightful about every Abbi Waxman book I have read to date. She pretty immediately shot up, in my list of favorite authors, to where Jennifer Weiner is, which is pretty high up there in the “I want to write like this” level of author love.
I think it’s because, in both cases, the stories are complex but simple, just like life and relationships are. There is no fantastical setting that are more aspirational than real. There are layers and layers to every character and situation, but not in a burdensome way. And there is, throughout the entire book, a foundation of joy that translates into witty moments almost on every page.
In Adult Assembly Required, Waxman explores the budding relationship between two people who are pretty amazing but, because of the way mainstream media portrays things, they don’t think much of themselves. She doesn’t think she’s that pretty and she thinks she is messed up. He thinks he is shy and boring. But they are both pretty charming characters and I found myself wanting to shake them both for not appreciating their inherent capacities more, much like I want to do to people around me (and to myself, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
The delightful supporting cast is made of beloved characters from other books making a return here, some more than others, and it’s nice to get these little snippets of their happily ever afters. It’s very interesting to me how Waxman manages, in a way, to continue digging into these characters with very simple and sometimes very quick references to them that say a lot more than the number of words on the page would let on.
Review of ‘Begin Again’, by Emma Lord
While thankfully not everyone loses their mother at a young age, I found that Emma Lord’s Begin Again was devoid of extreme dramatics, which quite honestly, is a good thing. Every element of the story is something that I have heard about, even the on-campus pirate radio.
The scene is set for a coming of age story in which Andie Rose starts college following in the footsteps of her beloved deceased mother, trying to keep her memory alive by being as much as her as possible, only to find that while she does carry her mother with her, all she needs to be in Andie.
There are a few themes here that come together quite nicely. The transition from high school to college, an unhealthy romance, a father whose grief made him a little absent but who is trying hard to return in his daughter’s life, and trying to balance out the legacy and dreams of our parents with our own, building on them but in our own unique way. The romance takes a backseat to the coming of age story, which I really appreciates, and I found myself laughing at some of Andie’s antics.
The main question I was left with is: Why am I doing the things that I am doing? Is it out of habit? Andie found herself in a relationship because it seemed perfect, even as a pert of her felt how uneven and healthy it is. Is it because it’s expected of us? Andie finds herself pushing to be like her mother, even as part of her leans into a very Andie flavoured options. Even as an adult, I found these questions very interesting to ask myself, and I did find myself tweaking some of the things I have been stuck doing. The power of fiction to create individual change is real!
Review of ‘The Town With No Mirrors’, by Christina Collins
I feel like the opportunity created by the author to explore the very premise that she set was lost when the story ended when it did. How would a teenager who had never seen her own face do, now that she was able to live where mirrors and other reflective surfaces were no longer banned?
Having lived in the commune of Gladder Hill most of her life, Zailey has never seen her own face, be it in a reflective surface or in a picture. Most of her fellow residents don’t seem to mind; the older ones remember a time they could see their faces and they don’t seem to miss it. The younger people have never seen theirs and for the most part, don’t mind.
Except for Zailey. Her curiosity brings her to draw the faces of many of the citizens of Gladder Hill (a big no-no that could get her and her family kicked out of Gladder Hill) and try to figure out what her own looks like through her sense of touch. Without giving too much of the plot away, I would have preferred a deeper dig into the reasons why it was believed that such a commune would work. Would the lack of reflective surface truly end all body issues? Would it mean the end of ranking by looks? Would it mean the end of self-hatred caused by the endless stream of images of airbrushed and photoshopped bodies that surround us?
I still would recommend picking up this book, potentially with a book club, to discuss if such a commune could work, and how and if the members of such a commune could reintegrate into mainstream society. It would no doubt generate a lot of conversations around the concept of beauty and the burden carried by so many to achieve the impossible standards that have been set.
Review of ‘Four Found Dead’, by Natalie D. Richards
Halloween and a 3-day illness that knocked me out required some easy, scary reads, and this was one of them. Richards does know how to create suspense and make a situation quite scary, and she found a great space to set this story in (a soon-to-be defunct mall in the middle of the night!). However, I found the reasoning behind the killing spree flimsy, at best, a pretty drastic and rather unbelievable escalation from awkward confrontation to murderous, horrific killing spree.
But back to the setting. The characters are wrapping up the last work shift at a cinema that it set to close. It is attached to a mall that has been shut down for a while and where construction has been taking place. It makes for quite the setting for said murderous killing spree. And the book is a page-turner; even if we don’t quite have the time and space to make a connection with any of the characters, the setting and the pace makes for a nail-biter. A quick and easy read, more of a pleasant escape from reality than a deep dive into any character building or reflection.
Review of ‘Missing Dead Girls’, by Sara Walters
As mentioned above, Halloween and a 3-day illness that knocked me out required some easy, scary reads, and this was another one of them.
In Missing Dead Girls, Walters shares the story of three intense friendships—two who have ended and one that has recently emerged. Female friendship can be quite intense, to say the least, especially during our teen years. This book takes that intensity and further heightens it through a mix of money (and lots of it), dark pasts, and desire for revenge. It underlines, to me, the dangers of unhealthy relationships, but also of the negative role that the ego can play in some tragic stories about friendships that end up tearing a piece of your soul into shreds. I like the development of the friendship between the two main characters. Both backstories are heartbreaking, but at the end of the book, one is left wondering at how truthful the depiction of one of these stories was, from the very first word.
This is the kind of book—pretty unbelievable story that highlights from very believable, real life things—that can have the potential of helping readers understand the dynamics of toxic relationships in their own lives, as well as the role of their ego in these relationships. However I do feel like it would take a very skilled teacher or book club leader to navigate these conversations, because there is something darkly appealing about the story that, if left unchecked, could actually encourage a reader’s impulses to go in the same direction that the main characters did.
Thank you to Raincoast Books and Simon & Schuester Canada for ARCs, to Orca Book Publishers for review copies, and thank you to all the publisher who sent me electronic ARCs through Netgalley!