Book Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

The Review

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

In a world full of sex comedies, could there be such a thing as a sex drama? Perhaps? Brandon Taylor’s debut novel follows Wallace, a grad student, through a weekend which will forever change his life. As a reader, I picked up the book prepared for the truncated timeline. Knowing the short period of exposition only heightened the drama.

Wallace’s father has just passed away, unknown to his grad school friends at the beginning of the novel. In fact, many things are unknown to those friends. Their grad school life is centered as much on their labs as on the lake near their university. Wallace is one of the few students of color in the department, and while many of his friend group are also gay, the forces of whiteness and straightness still find their default forces to push against Wallace’s sense of worth and work.

Without giving away major plot details, Wallace and Miller’s relationship is the taut string of the tennis racket that everything else bounces off of. I’ve never read dialogue like those between Miller and Wallace before. Read it and talk to me about the fried fish scene, and what comes before. I’m dying to have this conversation with someone.

Some literary novels have little forward momentum– this one flies. I read it in three sittings, afraid that if I stepped away too long, I would miss something.

Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

The Details

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Release: Riverhead Books, February 18, 2020

Add on Goodreads, or purchase on BookShop, Indiebound or Amazon

Thank you to NetGalley for a free advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.

Interview with Sonya Heaney

Recently I was able to get a copy of an advanced copy of The Landowner’s Secret, due out from Escape Publishing/Harper Collins. The blurb from the publisher:

“When Alice Ryan wakes to find thugs surrounding her cottage, on the hunt for her no-good brother, she escapes into the surrounding bush.

It is wealthy landowner Robert Farrer who finds her the next morning, dishevelled, injured, and utterly unwilling to share what she knows. With criminals on the loose and rumours that reckless bushrangers have returned to the area, Robert is determined to keep Alice out of danger, and insists on taking her into his home-despite the scandal it may cause. Convincing her to stay on with him for her own safety, however, is going to take some work.

What Robert doesn’t expect is his growing attraction to the forthright, unruly woman staying in his home. Before either of them can settle into their odd new situation, their home and wellbeing come under threat and they will need to trust each other to survive. But they are both keeping secrets, secrets that have the potential to ruin their burgeoning love, their livelihood … and their lives. “

Due to be released on September 12, this historical romance took me to a location and time period I knew literally nothing about. Since I’m lucky to know Sonya IRL (IDL– in digital life?), she was kind enough to answer some questions ahead of her debut about writing historical fiction, what it’s like to write sex scenes, and her path to publication.


How did you get interested in the time period? 

I was always obsessed with history. I used to be a ballet dancer, and in my first professional performance I played a Victorian era child. When I was eighteen I moved to London, and my first home was in a (possibly haunted!) building constructed in 1667. In my years there I also lived and worked in a bunch of 19th century buildings.

Writing historical books set in historical Australia (or any colonial time) means you have to consider what was happening then. European settlement in Australia began in 1788, and I didn’t want to write something set in those early days. My current series is set in the 1880s, and I am including more issues to do with racism and the consequences of colonialism in my next books.

Tell me a little about your research for this novel. What was your process like?

The series is set in a town with a fictional name, but it’s really Queanbeyan, which is just across the state border from my city, Canberra. In the past the region was infamous for its bushrangers (highwaymen). One of the reasons I changed the town’s name was because the current mayor’s wife is a well-known historian, and that terrified me!

I used names and dates and events from Queanbeyan’s real history as a basis for the books, and then bought a couple of “housewives’ guides” from the 1880s to understand what people were wearing and eating and doing at the time. Sometimes I wonder why I torture myself writing historical fiction…

Australia didn’t exist as a nation until 1901. In the 1880s we were a collection of colonies. From a colonial perspective (but definitely not an Indigenous one!) we’re a very young country.

Will there be a book two? I have to admit, I really wanted to see more of Australian wine country AND the romance continue to bloom…

There’s a second book – and hopefully a third! I’m having talks with my publisher about them now, but expect book two to be out in the first half of 2020.

I never intended to write a trilogy, but halfway through writing the first one I realised I had other characters and potential plotlines I wanted to expand on, and so I rewrote parts of the first book with future stories in mind.

The wine theme wasn’t in the story at the beginning, but then I read an article about the development of the industry in Australia, and suddenly my characters were making Riesling! By the 1870s Australian wines were winning international awards in blind tasting competitions, but were then being stripped of the awards when it was discovered where they’d come from! I continue with that theme in the next books.

Sonya Heaney, author of The Landowner’s Secret

How has working with a US and Australian publisher been? Anything surprising in the world of international publishing that you can talk about? (okay if you can’t! I can delete this question).

I’m really lucky to be able to work with Australian editors, but to have my book listed alongside my favourite “superstar” authors in the US! It’s still new enough to me that I take a screenshot when I find my book in the “you might also like” section when I’ve searched for a different author. (Yes, it’s pathetic.)

For this particular, Australian-set series, I think it’s really helpful to have my editors based in Sydney. It’s also very useful to be in the same time zone as they are – at the moment, when it’s midnight in New York, it’s 2pm the next day where I live.

Are you a plotter or a pantser (or somewhere in between)?

I’m a mess. I usually think about a book for ages before I sit down and write it, so I guess I’m more of a plotter. However, I either write the book in a patchwork of scenes I later have to put together like a puzzle, or I write the first few chapters and then the last few before writing the middle. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I nearly had a breakdown with the book I’m currently working on, because at the last minute I decided to restructure the whole thing. Each change in one chapter messed up every other chapter. It was totally my decision, so I don’t even get to blame anyone at my publisher for it!

You know you’re in a mess when your editor starts emailing to check if you’re okay!

What was your path to publication like? Any words of wisdom to share?

My favorite writing advice is take your time.

By the time I was brave enough to submit a book – this book – I was fairly confident I knew what I was doing. When I sent it off I already had years of writing behind me, and had a number of finished manuscripts on my computer.

I completed a university degree in writing years ago (not an English degree, but a specific course in creative writing). I switched out of a “sensible” psychology/law degree when I finally got the courage to do what I really wanted.

Even though I had that degree I didn’t submit anything for years, mainly because I’m a coward!

By the time I did I’d been working with books, and helping other people with their books, for ages. I’d been invited to conferences (and paid!) to interview famous authors onstage. I’d won a bunch of short story and travel writing awards. I’d done everything except try and get published.

I started getting frustrated watching other people having success. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was having trouble sleeping; I was that annoyed with the fact I hadn’t even tried to get published.

I took a gamble with The Landowner’s Secret (then called Secret Land), even though I also had contemporary and suspense manuscripts ready to go.

I sent partials off to two publishers in October, went overseas for a few weeks, and – in November – came home to two requests for the full manuscript.

My first offer came in February, but it wasn’t the publisher I wanted, so I panicked and sent an email – complete with a big typo I still stress about! – off to the other publisher, asking them what I should do. I nearly fell over when they came back and told me they’d try and rush my manuscript through.

The book was first read by one of the editors, who then sent it straight to the publishing director – who I didn’t know was out of the country at the time – to read over the weekend.

I was told there’d be a decision for me on Monday, and was wished a wonderful weekend, and… how was I going to have a “wonderful weekend” when I was waiting for this massive news??

Monday was a public holiday, and so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear anything. I went out to lunch with my family, not saying a word about my book. I came home, spent a couple of hours staring at my computer screen, and was about to give up when an email came through.

The subject of the email was one word: “Offer”.

Because I’m pessimistic, I thought it was spam (as my brother said: it sounded like a Viagra ad!), and was about to delete it when the name of the person who’d sent it (that publishing director) finally registered.

As a reader, do you prefer open- or closed-door romances? How about as a writer?

Well, I knew the only way I was ever going to be able to write a sex scene was if it was a bit funny! I don’t mind books in my reading either way, and I write both ways, but I thought *this* story couldn’t be closed door.

I was VERY scared of writing scenes like that, but – worse – of having to discuss them with my editor! She actually suggested adding a bit more – ahem – action at the end, which means she’s more mature about it than I am!

The fact I’m publishing under my real name is pretty scary.


As a reader, I can tell you the sex scenes (and the rest of the book!) ended up fantastic! Make sure to add Sonya’s book on Goodreads and consider purchasing it or requesting it for your local library.

Book Review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nahesi Coates

The Review

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehesi Coates, is a marvel, the first full-length work of fiction by the author. The novel follows Hiram Walker, a child born into slavery and the child of the master of a plantation. Hi’s incredible memory sets him apart as a child, bringing him not just to the attention of his father, but also of other elements in the community tied to the Underground Railroad. As he grows, so does his need to escape the life he was born (and forced) into. So begins Hi’s journey North, South, and into the bounds of imagination and magic as Coates re-imagines what the Railroad could be.

One interesting aspect of Coates’ novel is the interweaving narratives of the respective bonded people throughout the book. Hi becomes a conduit not just for their magic, but also for their stories. Through him, we hear testimony of dozens– fathers, sons, mothers, children, all betrayed in one way by the institution of slavery, their masters, and even, sometimes, their own family.

Coates’ novel starts on familiar ground, but diverges greatly as the novel proceeds. As always, Coates’ prose is exacting and precise, unpretentious and unapologetic. His writing of the female characters in the novel is especially well-wrought. The relationships of mother/child are some of the most heartrending themes here.

This book isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is it for the heartless. Instead, Coates weaves magic into history.

You need to read this book.

The Details

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehesi Coates,

Random House Publishing, Sept. 24, 2019

Add it on Goodreads or buy it on Indiebound or Amazon

Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Everlasting Rose

The Details:

The MUCH anticipated sequel to The Belles is on its way in 2019– and it is worth waiting for! If you’re unfamiliar with The Belles, it may be helpful to check out my review of Dhonielle Clayton’s first book in this YA Fantasy series lush with commentary on societal beauty expectations and power. Basically, the Belles have control of arcane magic to shape the bodies and manners of human beings. Without them, people fade to gray (gris). When a twisted monarch takes the throne, however, the Belle power is under attack, as are the Belles themselves.

Camille, former favorite of the Queen, is on the run with two Belle sisters and her former body guard, Remy. Together they must avoid capture and lead the resistance against the queen, which includes uniting with some unusual allies. Who can Camille trust? The answer is: almost no one.

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Lots more interesting world-building in this book, including more details about how Belles are “born” and mythology on where they came from. The idea of beauty is less of a focus here. The tagline “The Resistance is Here” on the cover really hits at the essence of this book. Corrupt power has to be met with resistance, both violent and nonviolent. The development and use of Belle magic in battle scenes is a real change here– and an interesting one.

Only downside for me was a bit too much reliance on newsprint and letters to build the plot in the first quarter of the book. When a character is “reading” so much important information rather than gathering it in a more active way, it can slow down the flow a little. Otherwise, tons of great scenes, awesome character development, and a new host of teacup pets to wish were real.

Over all, a satisfying second book, with hints that a third could be possible here? No cliffhanger, exactly, but lots of details that leave the reader eager to return to Orleans.

 

The Details:

The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton, out March 5, 2019 by Freeform

Add it to your Goodreads shelf and pre-order on Amazon or IndieBound.

 

Thank you NetGalley for an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review!

Book Review: The Gilded Wolves

The Review

I have to admit, it took me a few chapters to catch the tone and premise of The Gilded Wolves, but once it hit its stride, I was hooked.

39863498NY Times Bestselling author Roshani Chokshi’s newest fantasy novel follows a group of down-and-out teens– smart, wily outcasts, artists, and academics on the run. Thick with magic and lush worldbuilding, Chokshi takes the reader into an 1880s Paris and introduces us to powerful Houses who must safeguard historic religious artifacts known for their immense power. Which Houses can be trusted, and should one of our narrators be allowed his place of honor in the Houses again? Only time will tell.

There are several adventure plots in this novel that made me think Six of Crows , as well as a similar need of multiple third-person narrators to tell the story well. The strongest sections, I thought, came from the points-of-view of Laila, a performer with a mysterious past, and Zofia, our STEM-loving fish-out-of-water. Love subplots add interest, but aren’t the major focus of the book (which I appreciate).

A few downsides: the ending wrapped up a bit strange, timeline-wise, but there’s a clear lead in to at least another book. Will I pick it up? Probably! Chockshi builds her universe with so many interesting mythological and pan-religious ideas that I find myself already wanting to pick up the next in the series.

Great group of heroes, fun adventure, and neat magic– what else can you want?

The Details

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

Publication info: out January 15, 2019 by Wednesday Books

Add it on Goodreads, or pre-order from Amazon or IndieBound

 

Thank you NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Audio-Crushes

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Me? Sleep? Why would I do that??

I’ve been averaging 4-5 hours of broken sleep a night for the past two weeks. I don’t know if the baby is going through a growth spurt or if I can just diagnose it as “baby wierdness” (a real and all-too-prevalent condition). No matter the reason, I have to be up with him when he’s up and audiobooks have been keeping me company.

I always roll my eyes when people say that listening to audiobooks isn’t “really reading”. Sure, my eyes aren’t tracking each word, but my brain is engaged in the same imaginative exercise– sometimes moreso since I’m half-dreaming in the middle of the night anyway. Being read to, especially by a great narrator, can make chores more bareable or these middle of the night feedings more alert.

I admit I have an audiocrush on more than a few of them. What follows are my audiobook narrator crushes, and no, Jim Dale isn’t on there (although he has my undying love for his fantastic work on Harry Potter)

Narrator Stand-Outs

First, Bahni Turpin.

https://twitter.com/rmmckenny/status/972155839451680768

Turpin narrates quite a few of the books in my Audible library, including The Hate U GiveThe Underground Railroad, and Bad Feminist. She could read my grocery list and I would toss all the money at her.

Second, Wil Wheaton

I hadn’t read, or listened to, any John Scalzi before this year, but Wheaton’s voice is the perfect companion to his quirky sci-fi texts. The Collapsing Empire got me hooked with not only Wheaton’s voice, but also the kick-ass cast of strong ladies, and I dug into his older works with Wheaton narrating the Trekkie homage of Redshirts (a perfect pairing for us The Next Generation fans).

Third, Rebecca Soler

Ms. Soler’s voice is the one that’s been keeping me company the past few weeks. Too tired for overtly “literary” works, I turned to Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles. They were honestly delightful with a wide variety of accents and pacing in her reading. Soler, obviously, enjoyed reading them as well. You can hear it in her voice, and in the interview between Soler and the author after the end of Winter, the final book in the series.

Thanks, Rebecca, for keeping me conscious.

BP-SN_350wFourthKatherine Kellgren

I bought the Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter for my kiddos, and Kellgren’s reading brings Potter’s work to life in a way that I envy (and, with a background in theater, I like to think that I’m a pretty good reader to my children). She sings tunes to Potter’s made up songs and uses voices that somehow sound both refined (because of the accent) and hilarious. My kids laugh every time– their favorite is “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.”

Fifth, Readers of Long, Long, Long Books

I like big books and I cannot lie. I like them even more when someone else reads them to me, but I can only imagine the strain and time that goes into narrating forty-hour-plus novels. A few stand-out examples:

  • Stephen Fry’s Sherlock Holmes, a 62 hour behemouth, which also includes personal commentary by Fry about some of the stories
  • Anna Karenina read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, which clocks in at 36 hours. I’m not sure I would have gotten around to reading this classic otherwise, but it touched me to my core with her sensitive reading. Gyllenhall talks about this experience here. 
  • Another book I never would have taken on was Infinite Jest, read by Sean Pratt. I would love to sit down and talk to him about the process of reading this book– the layers upon layers and the footnotes upon footnotes. I ended up buying a physical copy to pair with the audio version, mostly for footnote reference, but Pratt’s wry timing partnered well with Foster Wallace’s surrealism.

Finally, Authors who Read Their Works Really, Really Well

And that’s not all authors, unfortunately. A few in my collection who do, however:

  • Arnold Lobel reads his collection of tales about best friends in Frog and Toad Audio Collection. Lobel’s recordings have stood the passage of time since he has been dead for many years, and his easy pace and diction, plus emphasis on the fun, make him an ideal reader to children.
  • Unlike her collection Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay chooses to narrate Hunger herself– and it was the most stirring thing I listened to last year. Even if you don’t love audiobooks, you need to check it out.
  • As you would expect with a comedian, Trevor Noah is the best possible reader for his memoir Born a Crime. The funny parts actually made me laugh out loud, and the horrifying parts were devestating. I try not to judge people’s reading habits because books are great in all forms, but I feel like you miss half of the experience if you don’t hear him read it.

There are many more, of course, (like Alice Walker’s warm reading of The Color Purple that will leave you breathless).

Maybe you don’t like being read to any more. Maybe you haven’t tried it lately… but maybe you should. There are so many fabulous recordings out there to keep you awake, teach you something new, and make you laugh or ugly cry(oh lord, George Newbern’s reading of A Man Called Ove did me in).

What’s the best audiobook you’ve ever heard? I have three credits on Audible burning a hold in my digital pocket.

Book Review: Illegal

The Review:

Illegal is a graphic novel by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, with a primary audience of 35963837children (probably ages ten and up), and this is the kind of book that every child should have access to.

Colfer and Donkin trace the fictional path of Ebo, a young Ghanian boy, as he makes his way to Europe in search of his siblings Kwame and Sisi. Ebo encounters sickness and peril on his journey, all written by Colfer (of Artemis Fowl fame) and Donkin (DC comics work) and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. The illustrations are beautifully colored, with lots of wide shots to give readers an idea of what kinds of places Ebo travels through.

illegal screenshot 2Colfer starts the book with an epigraph from Elie Wiesel’s “no human being is illegal” quote. What this graphic novel does, even more than a traditional novel would, is let a young (or not-so-young) reader place themselves in the shoes of an immigrant attempting to find refuge. In this particular story, the person is a young Ghanain boy seeking Italy’s shores, but the wider message is applicable to all people searching for safety.

In short, beautiful illustrations of a fictional, but realistic, story. Highly recommended.

The Details

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin (Sourcebooks Jabberwockey)

Publication Date: August 8, 2018

Add it to Goodreads or puchase on IndieBound or Amazon

 

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

The Review:

This novel is the heartwarming story of a mother-daughter bond unlike any other…

Just kidding. I originally requested this book because of the blurb in the PW announcement which compared it to THE BAD SEED:

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While I’m a bit of wimp when it comes to horror and thriller as a genre, “bad children” stories have always been a bit of an interest. The original BAD SEED showed a young girl who terrorized classmates, killing one with a pair of tap shoes, all the while cuddling up to Daddy during bedtime stories. Only the mother suspected her bad behavior, which eventually drove her mad. BABY TEETH lives up to the comparison, but luckily takes its own path at this kind of story.

Stage’s debut follows Suzette, mother to seven year old Hanna, as she struggles with the increasingly more disturbing behavior. Hanna shows one face to her mother and one to her father, and her choice to not speak makes education and home life very difficult– meaning that Suzette is homeschooling Hanna as the novel opens and experiencing some troubling moments as her daughter not only begins to talk to her, but also talks about being possessed by a 17th century French witch.

I won’t spoil anything here, but Stage builds the suspense well in this book, stacking complications on top of each other like Jenga blocks. I stayed up late more than one evening trying to get through a difficult section. You can almost feel the unsteady sanity of the household start to topple. One really interesting aspect of this book is the physical health of Suzette, whose history with Crohn’s is a major component of her character (as well as making up some of background with her own mother.)

The alternating perspectives of Hanna and Suzette can be jarring, but they are necessary. I found myself actually cringing while reading some of Hanna’s sections, but Stage doesn’t let the reader look away and keeps the voices separate enough to suspend disbelief.

If you’re looking for a creepy read, make sure you add it to your to-read stack.

The Details

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage, St. Martin’s Press out July 17, 2018

Add it to your Goodreads  or preorder on Amazon, B&N, or IndieBound

 

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest review

Review: So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo

The Review:

Part memoir and part handbook, Ijeoma Oluo’s new book is not just about talking: it’s about action. Oluo addresses two distinct audiences: people of color and white people who hope to engage in dialogue about race. She makes it clear early on that her book is not some magic cure for white supremacy, but is instead a tool to open doors. Using chapter titles which focus in on key terms in the discussion about race in America (like tone-policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and intersectionality), she creates an easy to engage with collection of short essays.

Each chapter balances some amount of personal experience with tips for both of her communities. For instance, in her chapter about about natural hair, she not only discusses stories where her personal space was invaded, she explains ways for white people to support black beauty without feeling the need to touch it. Every chapter reinforces the experiences of communities of color facing daily microaggressions while also giving questions to consider for how to improve dialogue.

I read Oluo’s book in less than twenty-four hours. Her direct prose will not apologize and doesn’t want your apologies either (at least if they are just empty words). The chapters are brief enough for a single sitting, or for later reference, but long enough to reflect fully on the topic at hand.

Readers hoping for hand-holding or reassurances that their good intentions are enough should look elsewhere. This book is for today. It recognizes that we all fail, that we are often blind to our privilege, and it suggests a path forward in the final chapter in real and tangible ways that move beyond performative allyship.

Pick up Oluo’s book if you’re looking for ways to steer conversation inside or outside of your racial community, engaging on the internet or in person.

The Details:

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Release date: January 16, 2018 from Seal Press

Add it on Goodreads, or find it on Amazon or Indiebound

Thank you NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for my honest review.

Southern-Set Book Pairings to Try

It’s funny how books end up accidentally being in conversation with one another, just because you happened to pick them at the right time. Those accidental connections and conversations between texts are some of my favorite things about reading, so I have a few suggestions for book pairings if you’re stuck in a reading rut.

The American South has never been a particular interest of mine. I’ve taken classes about Southern lit, but not being from the South myself meant a certain amount of distance or extra context needed. For some reason, though, I keep picking up great Southern-set books this year that I can’t stop recommending. In an ideal world, I would adore seeing these authors in conversation with each other on an actual panel, but life rarely works like that. If you have further suggestions for either category, let me know in the comments!

Modern Southern Art and Trauma Narratives

I reviewed Nick White’s debut earlier this year, and I just finished Whitaker’s novel last week. I couldn’t put either down easily. White’s book is as points disturbing and thrilling, unraveling the narrator’s past at a “homosexual rehabilitation” camp. Whitaker’s book follows two women as they archive their childhoods in animation and the ways their relationship sustains and complicates their lives.  Both texts tackle film, memory, and trauma in the American South in really interesting ways and an AWP panel with these authors would be worth the plane ticket anywhere, in my opinion. Let me know if this becomes a thing, because these two authors have some very interesting ideas about creativity and the way art twists the past.

Too-Real Civil War-Themed Dystopias

In Ben Winters’s novel, slavery continues to exist in four of the US states. One young black man works as a bounty hunter to recover a slave called Jackdaw and gets sucked into an abolitionist ring called Underground Airlines. I won’t ruin the plot further, but this book is a dystopian thriller, which seems to be Winters’ sweet spot.

Omar El Akkad’s book, on the other hand, while dystopian, shifts more toward the literary than the commerical, and is one of the most sober books I’ve read this year. El Akkad was a journalist for years, covering stories from the Arab Spring to Guantanamo Bay, elements which clearly appear in this book. American War is set during and after a second Civil War.  Readers trace the history of a girl, Sarat, and her transformation from civilian to warrior. What her cause becomes remains the question up until the end of the novel.

These books are incredibly different in tone, but what they hold in common is a a kernel of unrest and brokenness that speaks to why dystopian novels are so powerful. I can’t guarantee that if you loved one, you will love the other. I will say that they both get at the heart of personal choice in the face of a national crisis.

 

I would love more book suggestions for either category! Post below if you’ve got them!