In the Neighborhood of True, by Susan Kaplan Carlton*****

“Shalom, y’all.”

Ruth Robb was born and raised in New York City, but following her father’s sudden death, she moves with her mother and sisters to Atlanta, where her mother’s family lives. The year is 1958. Almost immediately she is faced with a critical choice: should she quietly avoid mentioning her Jewish roots and allow her peers to make assumptions based on her grandparents’ standing in their Protestant church, or should she risk her newfound popularity with candor? My thanks go to Algonquin Books and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The family has barely begun to grieve their loss. Everything is tossed into boxes and they leave New York, soon to be embraced by Ruth’s loving grandparents. Their new home, however, is almost too good to be true:  the house is large and luxurious, with a pool; her grandparents are generous and solicitous; their deep roots in the community make for nearly instant acceptance among the girls’ peers. But Ruth’s grandmother, called “Fontaine” within the family, has plans for Ruth and her younger sister, Nattie. They are enrolled in an elite Christian school, and Ruth is sent to private lessons for a “pre-debutante.” There’s a little pink book that serves as a grooming and etiquette guide, and it is specific and proscribed.

What isn’t in the pink book is the synagogue. Fontaine immediately informs the girls that they are, after all, “Half Christian,” but their mother quickly reminds her mother that she is a convert, and the girls are Jewish, period.

The characters are so resonant and believable that I find myself reflecting on the amount of stress that the girls, Ruth in particular, are experiencing. First, they must leave all of their friends, and the culture in which they’ve been raised, behind; their father is gone forever; and now there’s this tension between their loving grandmother, who provides them with everything, and their mother. This is not a dramatic conflict; but it shimmers under the surface constantly. They are a loving family, and they’re civilized. Yet Ruth is torn. But her nearly instant popularity galvanizes her, and she decides not to decide, by skating around questions of church and religion. After awhile her evasions become deception. Her mother is a discreet but unmovable force, with a sort of Jiminy Cricket demeanor: don’t forget who you are, Ruth. When are you going to tell your friends? What do they think you are doing on the weekend? The ante is upped when Ruth falls in love with Davis, who’s a big man on campus.

Things come to a head when the local synagogue is vandalized.

Carlton’s author blurb says that she had a similar experience, although she wasn’t the teenager, she was the mom. No doubt this is responsible for some of the story’s authenticity, but much of the compelling narrative has to be chalked up to excellent writing. There’s never a stereotype, and I never felt I was being lectured. Instead I am absorbed. What the heck is Ruth going to do? And though I am unfamiliar with Atlanta, there are several times when colloquial expressions that have fallen out of use pop into the story, expressions I recall from my early childhood in the 1960s. But the author never leans on pop cultural references; rather, they drop in naturally. It’s smooth as glass.

Sexual references tend toward the general; there is sex included, but not much detail. I include this information for teachers and parents considering including it in their libraries. If in doubt, read it before you present it to the young people in your life.

Since retiring from teaching language arts to adolescents, I have generally avoided reading young adult novels. I’ve been there and done that. But there’s an exception to everything, and I am glad I was given the chance to read this one. Highly recommended.

Forget You Know Me, by Jessica Strawser***

I was invited to read and review this book; my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

The story unfolds with a Skype date between besties Liza, who lives in Chicago, and Molly, who remains in Cincinnati where both of them grew up. Molly excuses herself for a moment and leaves the laptop with the camera on; through the camera, Liza sees a masked man come into the house. The connection is cut, and Molly doesn’t respond to Liza’s frantic cell calls to see if she has been harmed. Yet when Liza and a friend drive all through the night to race to the rescue, Molly gives Liza the cold shoulder, not even inviting her in. It is almost as if Molly has told Liza to forget she even knows her.

The premise is a good one, but the title is a problem. It sets up an expectation of a thriller, which this book isn’t. Even lamer, it is based on a quote that nobody actually even says. Moving on.

As we move deeper into character, we see what each of them is dealing with. Liza is lonely and dissatisfied. A tragedy closer to her own home plays out while she is still in the car returning from Cincinnati, and she is shaken by it. Meanwhile, Molly has an autoimmune condition that creates chronic pain, and we learn that because she uses experimental pain treatments, she is deep in debt to a predatory lender. She doesn’t want to tell her husband Daniel what she has done; meanwhile, she is developing a close bond with the male neighbor whose daughter plays with hers. He is a widower, and easy to talk to. At some point, she has to choose whether to remain in her marriage or step away and try again with this other guy.

I enjoy Liza’s character. She’s sassy, smart, and hopeful; I enjoy seeing her interact with her family once she is near them again. I also like Daniel, the spouse in Molly’s troubled marriage. Molly, on the other hand, is a pill, but I am not sure the author intends her to be. We see a lot of the challenges that chronic pain presents, but do we want to? Some that experience chronic pain in their own lives may find some validation here; some of us with chronic pain issues read fiction to escape it, and we don’t necessarily need this reminder.

Ultimately, this is more of a relationship story, and what little mystery it contains—the guy in the mask—is hardly even part of it, and his identity proves to be more fizzle than pop. I suspect this story might receive more accolades of it were titled and marketed as a romance or even just straight fiction. However, Strawser has made a name for herself with psychological mysteries—which I enjoyed a good deal also—and by sticking to her brand, she may see some good sales. The question is whether her readers will still be receptive once they read it.

I hate to be the wet blanket here, because Strawser is a capable writer. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.   This book comes out February 5, and I recommend it  to Strawser’s fans, but get it free or cheap unless your pockets are deep.