‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes.¬†

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated¬† under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The Gifted, the Talented, and Me’ by William Sutcliffe is a laugh-out-loud poignant story

William Sutcliffe hits the perfect notes with “The Gifted, the Talented, and Me,” about Sam, a fifteen-year-old who is not brilliant, not musical, not arty. He’s just a plain kid who enjoys soccer with his friends and likes his life the way it is. That’s all turned upside down when his father sells his company and makes millions.

Sam’s mom moves them all to a tony area of London where she enrolls Sam and his siblings in a special school for — what else — gifted and talented kids. Sam does not fit in at all. His younger sister loves that she can do her artwork and write stories, his older brother reinvents himself into a gay musician (spoiler: he’s not gay), but Sam is just Sam. He doesn’t want to reinvent himself, and he wants to play soccer. Soccer isn’t allowed at his new school because kicking is a form of violence. Really.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is Sutcliffe’s style, the writing itself. The narrative, in first person from Sam’s point of view, ranges from heartbreaking to really laugh-out-loud funny. Of course we know that no 15-year-old would really say some of the things that Sam narrates, but much of it is very realistic and very humorous.

“Even Ulf, who had never before said anything to me other than to point out what I was doing wrong, patted my arm, gave me a long, ice-blue Nordic stare, and said, ‘Nice.’

“This was as effusive as Ulf ever got about anything, and I was momentarily choked up with gratitude at this Scandinavian-style gush of unqualified praise.”

Young adult readers, especially male ones, will get a kick out of the inner dialogue that Sam has with his Optimistic Brain, his Pessimistic Brain and his Dick. Yes, he’s afraid that he’ll never get a date, and it’s even more stressful because he has a huge crush on the most popular girl in school. Those three-way conversations are very clever.

This is a story that can be universally appreciated — about feeling ordinary, trying to fit in, trying to navigate dealing with romance and changing family dynamics. It’s humorous but also real. It would be a fabulous choice for a book club book or just a classroom group read.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘Christmas at the Island Hotel’ by Jenny Colgan brings readers back to the charming, isolated island of Mure

We get to spend the holidays at the charming island of Mure thanks to “Christmas at the Island Hotel” by Jenny Colgan. Colgan writes charming stories of people who are tired of huge, crowded, impersonal cities and long to escape to somewhere where the air is clean, the sky uncluttered by tall buildings, and the view peaceful and pastoral.

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‘The Water Bears’ by Kim Baker is a middle grade tale of belonging and dealing with PTSD

In “The Water Bears” by Kim Baker, Newt Gomez lives on an almost magical island, Murphy Island, with his family. The island had been a resort with unusual animals and a carnival atmosphere, and now a school is housed in what were the resort buildings. In the middle of the island is Gertrude Lake, where a Loch Ness-type creature named Marvelo is said to live. Newt’s father says he’s seen it, but Newt doesn’t believe it exists.

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‘The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible: Birds, Behaviors, Habitats, Identification, Art Other Home Crafts’ gives you a plethora of information about birds

“The Backyard Birdwatcher’s Bible” is much more than a book about birds. In it you will find “The History of Birds,” “Practical Birdwatching & Identification,” “Understanding & Attracting Birds,” and “Bird-Friendly Gardens & Bird-Inspired Art.” It’s an all-encompassing work that is as beautiful to look at as it is useful for birding tips. The fact is that many experts wrote and edited it, including Paul Sterry, Christoper Perrins, Sonya Patel Ellis and Dominic Couzens, ornithologists, nature writers, photographers — and this precious book is the result of their collaboration.

There are four chapters, but it’s the first chapter that many will want to peruse. That’s the chapter that includes over 100 pages of species profiles with information about different birds, how to identify them, their habitats, their diets and their status. I learned that the red-bellied woodpecker that frequents my bird feeders lives throughout the eastern half of the USA. I know from experience that, as the book states, “it is an opportunistic feeder, taking a wide range of invertebrates, seeds, and nuts, also fruits (it drinks from oranges) and sap.” Mine also love suet. There are photos of both the male and female woodpecker and a map showing their range.

In the second chapter, “Birdwatching for beginners,” there is much information about the life of a bird from the hatchling to behavior. There are pages about the song of birds, territories and nests and eggs. There is information about birdwatching and how to best do it.

The third chapter is on attracting birds. The detail in the text is incredible. Want to learn about how to have a bird-friendly backyard? On page 266, there is detailed information from references to information on forage and feed pages and breeding shelters that can be found elsewhere in the book to information about flowers and shrubbery to plant in order to entice the winged visitors to stay.

And the fourth chapter is unusual for a bird bible; it’s all birds in art, historical art with birds, and modern art — it’s interesting, and the photographs, like the photos elsewhere in the book, are beautiful. From Audubon to Taiichiro Yoshida, who creates delicate metal work to create bird images, the art is inspiring.

The detailed index at the back helps find specific information, and the section with additional information is perfect for those looking for more specific information about birds and birdwatching.

This is a book you will come back to over and over for the facts. It’s a book that is so lovely, it could grace your coffee table. It would also be a terrific gift for a birdwatching friend.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Abrams, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘The Truth Hurts’ by Rebecca Reid is a psychological thriller with a Hitchcock-ian ending

“The Truth Hurts” by Rebecca Reid is an apt title. In this novel, we learn the truth in clever dribs and drabs through the third person narration from the point of view of Poppy, the nanny who gets fired for sticking up for herself. Her narration is in the present, and we also hear from Caroline, who was Poppy’s employer once upon a time. She shares what happened before.

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4 pandemic-perfect children’s nonfiction that will educate and entertain

There’s a pandemic going on. In my county, all schools are remote right now. So what do parents do when they need to work and the kids need something to do when their zoom meetings end? Give them a great book to read. Add bonus points if the book is educational.

Here are two nonfiction books for middle grade children that will entertain, educate, shock, and make them laugh. It’s inevitable. After all, the titles of two of the books have the words “poop” and “butt” in them. The other two books are excellent for parents to use, with gross science experiments and exciting sensory bins that will keep children engaged and busy. Take your pick – there’s a book here for any parent.

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