In this month’s Between the Bookends, Sophie and Scott read a wide mix of books from fantasy to contemporary, romance to non-fiction. We hope you find something to enjoy.
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The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson
For a few years when I was a teenager, I lived in Luton, a down-at-the-heel town on the outskirts of London that has been in decline ever since the car manufacturing industry shifted to foreign shores. You can think of it as the Detroit of the UK. The Good Turn by Sharna Jackson is the first time I’ve ever encountered a book set there.
Eleven-year-old Josephine has her sights set on the future. She always has a new idea in her head (often to the chagrin of her classmates as these frequently involve them ending up with extra homework) and she has already started collecting prospectuses for various universities and planning what extracurricular activities will look good for her applications. The one part of her future she is not looking forward to is the impending birth of her new baby brother. After reading about her namesake—Josephine Holloway, founder of the first Girl Scout troop for Black girls—Jo decides she will found her own community group for young people because simply joining an existing Scout group isn’t enough of a challenge. She names her group The Copseys after her street and drags in her BFF Wesley and new friend Margot to be the founding members, immediately creating badges and talking about uniforms and more.
When she sees lights on in the abandoned factory near her house, Jo wants to investigate and The Copseys quickly discover that people appear to be living in the derelict building. The kids want to help, but by blundering in and not understanding the history of their local area, will they inadvertently make things worse?
The Good Turn is a wonderful middle-grade story that tackles gentrification, the realities of living in depressed neighborhoods, unions, worker’s rights, immigration, and more. As an adult reader, I found the main character to be a little annoying and I do suspect even readers in the target audience may agree with me. Instead, I found myself drawn to Wesley, who is raising his multiple siblings and running his household while his mother is sick following his father leaving the family. Wesley has limited free time and isn’t inclined to simply go along with Jo’s more ridiculous and time-consuming ideas, although he still tries to remain supportive.
The core of the book introduces the Windrush scandal (a British immigration scandal) to young readers in a way that makes it easy to understand while centering the voices of those most impacted by the events. Yes, the whole thing is a little outlandish—I wouldn’t exactly be encouraging ‘tweens to befriend people living in abandoned factories and going to visit them behind their parents’ backs—but as this is a book, it’s all okay. I also appreciated that, while positive, the ending didn’t tie everything up with a typical middle-grade “and they all lived happily ever after” conclusion, choosing instead to keep things that bit more realistic.
Read The Good Turn: Amazon, Bookshop
Stuck With You by Ali Hazelwood
Civil engineer Sadie has found herself stuck in a lift on a Friday night. Even worse, the lift is minuscule and she is trapped inside it with Erik—the very same Erik whose number is still programmed into her phone under the name “Corporate Thor” and who very recently broke her heart to smithereens barely 24 hours after their croissant-based meet cute. As time ticks by agonizingly slowly, Sadie is forced to talk to Erik and begins to realize that perhaps things didn’t play out quite how she believed, and just maybe, Erik isn’t quite the cold-hearted nemesis she thought he was.
Stuck with You is technically book two of The STEMinist Novellas, a trio of short stories that don’t need to be read in order and that each focus on one of three friends—Sadie, Mara, and Hannah. Each of the books really is short (this one clocks in at a mere 127 pages, or 3 hours and 22 minutes on the audiobook version that I listened to) which means you don’t get much time to really connect with the characters but does mean that you get straight into the story.
Unfortunately, I found that this one wasn’t really for me. The book ended up being far steamier than I had anticipated from the cover, causing me to repeatedly hit the skip-forward-30-seconds button on my phone because I didn’t want to listen to those scenes being read out loud. I also found that it got surprisingly repetitive for such a short book with seemingly endless descriptions of Erik’s forearms, height, and other physical attributes. I did very much enjoy the funnier elements of the story and the nerdy parts as well, but these felt a little lost in the constant ogling.
I’m yet to decide if I’ll read the other two books in this series—the concept of a NASA scientist-related romance is intriguing but I believe all three are equally steamy and ogle-filled which I find off-putting—but if I do you’ll be sure to know!
Read Stuck With You: Amazon
The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman
I was born in 1986 which means that the 1990s were the decade in which my founding memories are almost all situated. The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman examines that decade and its profound impact as the time period when the world made the incredible change of switching from analog to digital.
In The Nineties, Klosterman covers every aspect of life. He discusses politics and sport, music and television, movies and technology, remarking on how almost everything that happened impacted the future—but not perhaps in the ways we imagine. In the ’90s, we saw the beginnings of the conspiracy culture that would begin with Fox Mulder’s now-innocent accusations to “Trust No One” and lead us to a world where a pizza restaurant was raided because an internet message board convinced people that a child trafficking ring led by a top politician was concealed in a non-existent basement. We see how albums now considered iconic and era-defining such as Nirvana’s Nevermind didn’t actually have as much impact at the time as we now believe they did—Garth Brooks was in fact the biggest selling artist of the ’90s, and Nirvana didn’t even make the top 10. Meanwhile, in the world of sports, Michael Jordan was surprising everybody by suddenly becoming a baseball player in a story that could only have happened in this strangest of decades.
It’s worth noting that The Nineties is an entirely U.S.-centered book. While other events are of course touched upon, the vast majority of everything covered here is from a U.S. point of view, from the popular TV shows to the stores. Reading it as a Brit, much of what was discussed was also relevant to me, the UK and U.S. after all share largely the same pop culture, but many of the stories about sport or narrower-reaching politics were unfamiliar.
The biggest takeaway I had from The Nineties was how unimaginably different the era was from today in a cultural and social context. Klosterman points out how, partly thanks to the lack of social media, people’s differences didn’t seem as divisive, local stories were more likely to stay local, and the majority of people felt no need to have an opinion on everything nor share that opinion with the world and abuse those who disagreed. A telling example was the newspaper headlines of the major U.S. cities on September 10th, 2011 which show “manifold realities, a multiverse of disconnected experiences all happening less than five hours apart” including stories about the Bush missile defense system, possible indications of an impending recession, and federal aid to the farming industry. It’s a world away from today where every story is national and every person is pressured to have their own take on it.
The Nineties is going to be one of those books I’ll keep going back to, and it’s one I’d recommend to anyone who didn’t live through that decade as well because it makes for a fascinating and hugely readable history lesson.
Read The Nineties: Amazon, Bookshop
Seekers of the Fox by Kevin Sands
For me, one of the new book series highlights of 2021 was Children of the Fox by Kevin Sands, the first release in the Thieves of Shadow series. In my review, I described it as “a joyous adventure romp with lots of action, humor and banter, twists and turns.” That story ended on a cliffhanger and left me eager for the follow-up novel.
Seekers of the Fox is the second book in the series and immediately picks up where Children of the Fox left off as our heroes must deal with the aftermath of their actions, and with time running out quickly for one of their number. They have no option but to make a choice out of desperation which leads them to make a life or death bargain. The consequences of that lead the children on a quest to find a pair of swords with extraordinary powers: the Dragon’s Teeth.
The story is once again told by Callan, a 14-year-old con artist and de-facto leader of the group, who feels sharp responsibility for his band of child thieves and the decisions he has had to take to keep them safe. At the same time, he must manage the overwhelming desires of the Eye, a sentient and sinister magical artifact that they were hired to steal from a sorcerer in the first book and that is now in Callan’s possession.
Through the course of the novel, we get additional backstories for several of the children as well as some revelations which may change how the reader previously thought about one or two. All the kids are engaging in their own way and show character development since we first met them in the previous book. There is growing respect, trust, and affection between the individuals although not everyone is as willing to show their true colors just yet.
Once again the story moves along at a good pace as Callan and his team must uncover clues and solve mysteries to find where the Dragon’s Teeth swords have been hidden for hundreds of years while making deals with unsavory and unscrupulous characters, and undertaking perilous journeys on land and underwater. Callan and his band must use all their cunning and intelligence to outsmart adults, creatures, magical artifacts, and more along the way.
Kevin Sands has written another exciting and page-turning magical fantasy book for middle graders full of wit and humor whilst also giving a heightened sense of danger in this book so you don’t always get the reassuring sense that every character will make it safely to the end. With the autumn nights drawing in, Seekers of the Fox is a highly recommended adventure tale for all ages to sit down under a blanket and lamplight to while away the hours.
Read Seekers of the Fox (Thieves of Shadow Book Two): Amazon
Read Children of the Fox (Thieves of Shadow Book One): Amazon
GeekMom received copies of these titles for review purposes.