Book Review: Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

Title: Watch Over Me
Author: Nina LaCour
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nina LaCour delivers another emotional knockout with Watch Over Me, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the Printz Award-winning We Are Okay.

Mila is used to being alone. Maybe that’s why she said yes to the opportunity: living in this remote place, among the flowers and the fog and the crash of waves far below.

But she hadn’t known about the ghosts.

Newly graduated from high school, Mila has aged out of the foster care system. So when she’s offered a job and a place to stay at a farm on an isolated part of the Northern California Coast, she immediately accepts. Maybe she will finally find a new home, a real home. The farm is a refuge, but also haunted by the past traumas its young residents have come to escape. And Mila’s own terrible memories are starting to rise to the surface.

Watch Over Me is another stunner from Printz Award-Winning author Nina LaCour, whose empathetic, lyrical prose is at the heart of this modern ghost story of resilience and rebirth. 

This book was not what I was expecting. It’s so much more.

Watch Over Me is a gorgeously written story of survival, found families, and coming to peace with one’s past. It’s a story of suffering and recovery, of facing one’s fears and choosing a way forward.

Mila, at age eighteen, has finished high school, and after living with kind foster parents who are eager to start over with a new baby to care for, she needs a place to put down roots at the start of her life as a young adult. She’s thrilled to be offered a place at The Farm, a refuge run by a warm couple named Terry and Julia, who take in abandoned and hopeless children and give them a safe place to grow.

Mila will be one of three interns, young adults who teach school for the younger children and who work as part of the farm’s collective, cooking, cleaning, and taking the farm’s flowers and produce to the weekly farmers market. Meanwhile, she’ll be living in a small no-frills cabin heated by a wood-burning stove, sharing meals with the family in the big house, and participating in the simple, isolated life that the group enjoys, far from the nearest town.

Though she tries to fit in, Mila is constantly worried about her place. She has secrets from her past, and while she tries to reassure herself that she is good, she’s fearful that the family will turn her away if they know the truth about what she’s done. Still, she bonds quickly with Lee, the 9-year-old boy who she’ll be teaching. She recognizes that he’s been hurt in his past, and by sharing some of her own pain, she hopes to help him open up and start to be less afraid.

And one more thing: There are ghosts. Each night, shimmering ghostly children play on the fields of the farm, visible to all the farm’s residents. No one seems particularly freaked out by them — they’re just part of what makes the place unique.

As Mila settles in, memories of her past creep back in, slowly at first, then threatening to overwhelm her. The story of what she’s been through is horrible, and it quickly becomes clear that this is a girl who no one protected, and who was endangered by the person who should have put Mila’s safety first.

I won’t explain how the ghosts fit into the story, but the more I read, the more captivated I was by the farm, its people, and how Mila’s past comes to haunt her present. I loved the characters and the relationships, but most of all loved Mila, with her doubts and uncertainties and fears — but also because of her big heart and capacity for love, and how badly she needs a place to belong.

Watch Over Me is unsettling and beautiful, and I’m pretty sure I’ll want to go back to it and read it all over again, just to let it all sink in. Highly recommended.

The beautiful inside front page

Book Review: Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

Title: Real Men Knit
Author: Kwana Jackson
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.

Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.

Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.

A book about men knitting? Yes, please!

In Real Men Knit, the Strong brothers are all super attractive, muscular, successful men… and they knit. These four adult brothers were all adopted as children by Mama Joy, who rescued them from the foster system and turned them into a family. Mama Joy ran a small Harlem knitting shop that was more than just a play to buy yarn — Strong Knits was a community home away from home, a place to gather, interact, and improve lives.

But when Mama Joy dies, her sons are devastated, and the fate of the shop is up in the air. Perhaps as devastated as the Strong brothers is Kerry, the neighborhood girl who grew up in Mama Joy’s shadow, always present and helping out, and devoted completely to Mama Joy (while totally crushing on Jesse). Now an adult with a degree in art therapy, Kerry works at the community center with neighborhood kids, but agrees to stay on at the shop to help Jesse reinvigorate it and make sure it has a future.

I love any scene where the brothers casually knit. It’s such an “in your face” to stereotypes about male and female hobbies. There’s nothing gender-specific about knitting! And I really enjoyed the brothers’ complicated relationships, their resentments, their sibling squabbles, and their clear and abiding love and respect for Mama Joy.

I also really appreciated reading about the positive change a single dedicated woman can make. Mama Joy used her yarn store as a jumping off point for changing lives, and it’s beautiful to see how many different people were affected by her influence and contribution, in so many different ways.

In fact, it’s only the romance parts of this story that left me feeling a little blah. I really liked all the characters and thought the premise was unique and original, but Jesse and Kerry as a couple didn’t really seem all that special to me. I mean, they were fine, but I wasn’t actually cheering for them or particularly invested in whether they got an HEA.

That said, I did feel invested in the overall story, and wished that it had continued long enough to see how everything turned out with the shop! Of course, there are four Strong brothers, all single, and only one featured in a relationship in this book… might there be more Strong Knits stories still to come? One per brother, perhaps? Because I’d definitely read those!

With gratitude to Reading Tonic, whose review was the first I’d heard of this sweet and satisfying book. If you’re looking for a summer beach read with romance, heart, and a diverse set of characters, Real Men Knit would be a great choice.