Publisher: Wednesday Books Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age Pages: 448 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.
In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.
However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.
It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.
Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.
Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.
Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light by Apryl Stott
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Genre: Children’s Literature Pages: 40 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
This year has been exceptionally stressful. I’m not going to sugarcoat it—life has just hit every single person with a thick, hard, brick. However, in the “season of giving,” no book could be more suited to bring some light in the darkness than Apryl Stott’s Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light. This children’s book is a perfect holiday gift or family read both because of its winter-esque imagery, but also its message. As opposed to telling the stories of typical holiday novels and children’s books, this picture book takes the reader on the journey of a young girl named Coco and her best animal friend, Bear (who is also a bear). Coco and Bear go around the woods attempting to share gifts with the other forest friends to show how kind and loving Bear is, despite his grizzly appearance. However, when this doesn’t work, Coco and Bear discover that kindness and light isn’t about tangible gifts, but continuous selfless actions for others.
I remember reading Christmas stories when I was a kid at school, or seeing The Grinch and A Christmas Carol on T.V. However, I didn’t really appreciate the value of such stories because they were continuously played. However, this Christmas I wanted to revisit my childhood and longed for a story that would bring light in the darkest of years and emphasize one thing everyone needs in life—kindness.
For adults, this book may be simplistic—however, if you look deeper than the short script and thin pages, you’ll find characteristic artwork, a heartwarming plot, and an inspiring message. The truth is books like Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light are not just for children because it conveys a strong message in simple language; one that is too-often forgotten. Coco and Bear could not have been more different, but they were connected by their inherent friendship. That love is what ultimately allows the other forest animals to see Bear better: it wasn’t elaborate gifts or active promotion of how good Bear was, but their actions that demonstrated Bear’s character. I appreciated this message, not only because of the tense and stressful climate of the past year, but especially because it is the holiday season. It is not about what we physically give others, but how we show respect and kindness to our family, our peers, our neighbors, and most of all to strangers.
I’m not going to tell you how this book ends, but I will note that perhaps this holiday season we can all bring light and kindness to our friends, family, strangers, and most importantly ourselves. And remember this season and as we approach the new year—“When life gets dark as winter’s night, share some kindness, bring some light.”
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Genre: Fiction Pages: 320 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
This novel follows three generations of an American-Jewish family in 1934 Atlantic City. Florence, the youngest daughter, is intent on swimming the English Channel but tragically drowns while training. Her mother, Esther, decides to hide her death to help protect her other daughter’s dangerous pregnancy. Their situation is complicated even further when Joseph, the father, helps a young Jewish woman emigrate from Germany for seemingly no reason.
The web of secrets ultimately untangles, in the process both harming and freeing members of the family. Florence Adler Swims Forever provides a nuanced account of a family broken on many levels trying to endure, despite the racism, the effects of the Great Depression and the looming threat of Nazi Germany.
There is no one who loves family secrets and dysfunction more than I do, and this book definitely delivers! It takes a softer approach than these types of books normally do, though. It was wonderfully intimate and heart-breaking, since we got to hear how Florence’s death impacted each member of the family. It was also very well written and was so enthralling that it kept me up well after 2:00 a.m. to finish it. Their lives are messy and the way their stories tangle together kept me wanting more.
It was fascinating to read about how the American-Jewish were reacting to Nazi Germany, as well. Normally, historical fiction set during WWII takes place in Europe, much closer to the action. Reading about the Nazi’s rise to power from a distance both minimizes the threat as well as making it more relatable to the audience, since that is how those of us today learn about the Holocaust. In a world still facing many of the same issues, seeing how such a large threat can seem somewhat small from far away—as well as the true scale of the threat from the perspective of a German Jewish woman—helps contextualize the issue and can help us better understand similar issues that still affect us.
My only critique is that I wish we had gotten to hear more from some of the characters’ perspectives, because the point of view switched so frequently. Thus, some of the storylines were not as complete as they could have been. The storyline that left me wanting more was how Esther and Joseph’s tense relationship unraveled and came back together.
Overall, though, this book is definitely worth the read and I recommend this book to lovers of fiction and family secrets. It will keep you reading until the last page!
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.