‘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 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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‘Louisiana Lucky’ by Julie Pennell is more than a sweet lottery winners’ tale

It’s a story that’s been told before — people win the lottery and their lives change, and not necessarily for the better. But Julie Pennell’s “Louisiana Lucky” takes that story and really brings it home. She tells the story of three sisters who play the lottery for entertainment and actually win big. How the winning will affect their heretofore modest lifestyle and their relationships is the center of the story. What they learn at the end is what it really means to be lucky. (Spoiler alert: it may not be winning the lottery.)

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‘Behind the Red Door’ by Megan Collins is a fascinating mystery with dark overtones

behind the red door

How much does our brain do to protect us? What repressed memories might surface one day with the right stimuli? In “Behind the Red Door,” author Megan Collins explores how childhood events can be suppressed, altered, misremembered, and deleted. Main character Fern Douglas is happily married to a fabulous pediatrician and she enjoys her job as a school social worker. She knows how to talk to kids, how to get them to admit to abusive living situations and how to help them understand it’s not their fault that they have abusive parents.

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‘Closer to Nowhere’ by Ellen Hopkins is a beautiful story that will break your heart and then fill it with love

Prolific author Ellen Hopkins is known for her young adult books that deal with tough subjects — especially drugs and the horrendous damage they can do to families and the lives of those who are caught in their tantalizing web. With her first middle grade novel, Hopkins hits a home run.

This is a story that, like her other books, is written in verse. It’s written from a dual point of view. We meet and get to know both Hannah and Cal, cousins whose mothers are identical twins, but whose lives couldn’t be more different. When we first meet them, Cal has lived with Hannah and her parents for a little over a year. It’s been a tough year for all. Continue reading

‘Anxious People’ by Fredrik Backman is a brilliant mystery and an insightful view of the human condition

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman is about us. It’s about every person who has ever doubted themselves, worried about not being able to do something, fretted about making a mistake, or looked at others with either awe or disdain. It’s a book in which all readers will be able to find themselves – for better or worse. But it’s also a book that every reader will feel better for having read.

With “Anxious People,” Backman gives us permission to be imperfect. The second paragraph in the story tells us:

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

He goes on to say that “there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days.” To me, as a teacher back in the classroom teaching via a computer screen to children at home, this book gives me permission to accept the fact that I really don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. All of us teachers are muddling through the best we can, even though we are facing students who turn off their cameras to leave the room, to browse on their computers, to play; shy students who turn off their cameras and won’t talk, so we don’t even know if they are there, on the other side of the screen, listening and learning. We can’t do really enjoyable things like reading picture books to them or giving them a hug or just sitting on a rug and talking. We deal with having to repeat sentences when a child can’t hear us through the computer, or having to show multiple times how to access a web page or assignment. It’s frustrating and we are helpless — and after reading this story about people who try their best against all kinds of odds, I feel better. Really better.

In this story, there are many characters, but there is only one very significant bridge. It’s a bridge that plays an important part in the story because of one person who jumped from it many years ago and one person who did not. There is also an extremely inept bank robber and the bank robber’s hostages. 

We learn a lot about the hostages and two of the police officers who are trying to find the bank robber and solve the mystery of where the robber went after the hostages were released. We learn about the wife of one of the police officers, who also happens to be the mother of the other police officer. The father and son are very different, but alike in perhaps the most important sense. They both loved this woman fiercely, and they miss her every day. And Backman performs his literary magic of combining life and birth and death into a story that’s poignant and bittersweet and melancholy and beautiful — and about life.

The many other characters are all very important, and we get to know — and like — them all because Backman imbues each character, no matter how unlikable he or she might seem at first glance, with human qualities and human frailties. The story weaves around and around, from the characters to the bridge and into parts of the past that made the characters who they are as they are held hostage by the unsuccessful bank robber.

Backman shares what he believes is the most important thing in life (as I see it). We must love and cherish those who are close to us, our families and our friends. He also seems to believe that we must help others whenever possible.  And he also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that most of us go through life not knowing what we are doing, but doing the best we can. He writes, “We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.” We worry about raising our children and do it pretending that we know how to do it. That is how we get through a good part of life — by pretending that we know what we are doing. Surprisingly enough, it often works.

And tomorrow I will go back into my classroom, sign onto my Zoom class meeting, and pretend that I know how to teach 4th grade dual language on a computer to lovely children who deserve the best education but who are only getting the best that I can provide. And I fear it’s not enough, as do most of the other teachers struggling along in this pandemic. As do many, many others who are also struggling along in this strange, anxiety-provoking time. 

And at the end of each and every day, I actually do what Backman suggests at the end of the story. He says,

“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath.

Because we made it through this day as well. There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”

Buy “Anxious People.” Read it. You will love it, and perhaps more importantly, you will feel better. You are not alone.

Did I mention that the writing is beautiful? Touching? Incredibly thoughtful?

‘Until I Find You’ by Rea Frey is a dark novel of love and loss and a mother’s determination to save her baby

“Until I Find You” by Rea Frey is a story filled with darkness and loss. There’s a lot of loss going on from main character Rebecca Gray’s point of view. In fact, one of the losses is her sight. She has a degenerative disease and can only see shadows, and she knows her sight will get worse and worse. To make matters even darker, Rebecca is a widow. Her husband died when she was newly pregnant, her mother shortly after that, and her grief at losing her husband, her mother, her sight, and the life she envisioned is quite overwhelming.

It’s fascinating to learn how Rebecca manages life with a baby. She diapers him, changes and bathes him, feeds him, and takes him for walks in Elmhurst, the suburb of Chicago where she grew up. She lives in the house she grew up in and is able to function there perfectly; she also navigates her way to the nearby park and friends’ houses. Her strength and her determination not to let her blindness hamper her become a stumbling block when she ventures out determined to not rely on anyone else. At times, we want to shake her and tell her that it’s permissible to let others help; that people who are sighted rely on others, and she certainly can, as well.

The story is told from alternating perspectives, that of Rebecca — labeled “Bec” and told in first person narrative — and that of Crystal, one of Bec’s new friends, told in third person narrative. Crystal and Bec met at a grief group and became friends. They live within a few blocks of each other in Elmhurst. Both Bec and Crystal are very unhappy. Both are widows, both have a child, and both are suffering severely. Bec is the center of the story, and her grief is compounded by all her other losses. Her life seems very dark at the start of the story. She imagines that someone has been watching her inside her home. She finds her front door unlocked when she is sure that she had locked it. She finds the baby’s playpen moved from the room she kept it in to another room. As readers, we believe her, but we also wonder if she is a completely reliable narrator. Is her emotional state causing her to imagine things?

The one bright spot is that an old boyfriend, Jake, who she believes is the love of her life, is back from out of state. He texts her and wants to meet. He knows that she is widowed, and when they meet, she realizes that she’s still in love with him. But when her baby disappears and is replaced with another infant, will he believe her? He’s a Chicago detective, so he could be the perfect person to help her find out what happened to Jackson.

Bec knows her baby. She knows what Jackson smells like, feels like. She knows every inch of him because while she can’t see him, she feels him, she touches him. She knows the patch of eczema behind one ear and the notch on his collarbone. The baby in the crib in her house is not the quiet placid Jackson who never cries.

But what do you do when no one believes you — her friends, most of whom have never really held Jackson or spent a lot of time with him, the police who were called to her home when she thought someone had been inside, and maybe even Jake. Bec knows she’s on her own, and she knows unequivocally that the baby isn’t hers — even if no one else believes her.

The story takes off at this point, and while we don’t know quite what to believe, we know that Crystal’s life, too, is far from perfect. Crystal’s narrative is vague, and there are omissions. Her ten-year-old daughter Savi is a talented cello player, and Bec, who was a symphony cellist, gives her lessons. But Savi is unhappy because she knows her mother is unhappy. While she has fun with the nanny, a young woman named Pam, we get the feeling that Pam isn’t what she appears to be, and that she’s hiding something.

The mystery of where Jackson is, how Bec will figure it out, and who her friends really are intensifies as the hours and days pass. There are many clues and many red herrings, and while we know Crystal’s story is also important because she’s the other narrator, we don’t know her role in the story.

While the beginning was a bit slow, the action and emotions really pick up once the baby is gone, and in fact, I stayed up late to finish the book and find out how it all ended. Frey has written a story that will chill readers but will make us think about living with a visual or hearing impairment. How do we remake our lives if we lose our sight? And the fact that Bec has also lost every single person in her family is perhaps the worst loss.

It’s not all dark, though. Frey provides a very satisfactory ending with a hopeful tone for Bec’s future. Light at the end is welcome, indeed.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by St. Martin’s Griffin, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘Death Rattle’ by Alex Gilly is a mystery that dives into detention centers, murder, and corruption

In “Death Rattle,” Alex Gilly takes us to Southern California. It’s not Hollywood and stars, though. It’s undocumented immigrants and a suspicious murder at a detention center that causes Nick Finn and his wife Mona, a human-rights lawyer, to investigate. When Mona gets threats, she knows she’s on the right track.

People around the investigation begin dying. When Carmen, the young woman whom Finn rescued from a sinking boat, is bitten repeatedly by a snake in a detention center and not given appropriate medical care, she dies. Mona is determined to get justice for Carmen, who was also brutally tortured by someone in the drug cartel before she escaped Mexico.

The main characters, married couple Nick and Mona, are people we like because they are real people with foibles and backstories. Their determination to do the right thing is stirring, especially when many just want to ignore the plight of the undocumented. While there are twists at the end, to many mystery readers, the twist is easy to foresee. The foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed at times, but the overall plot is thrilling, and readers will want to know exactly how it all ends up.

Although this is the second book in the series, and I didn’t read the first one, that didn’t handicap me at all. It works fine as a stand alone novel, and I would like to read future novels in this series.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Forge, for review purposes. 

‘I Found a Kitty!’ by Troy Cummings — Touching and brilliant sequel to ‘Can I Be Your Dog?’

In the adorable picture book “I Found a Kitty!” by Troy Cummings, there’s a new cat in town, and he needs a home. And Arfy, the pooch who charmed everyone in “Can I Be Your Dog?” is determined to help. The sweet kitty can’t live with Arfy and his friend who delivers the mail because she’s allergic to cats, but surely someone wants a many-talented, sweet, playful kitty for their very own?

Cleverly, before we even get to the title page, there’s a little narration by Arfy about how he found his new friend, the kitty. After the title page, as in Arfy’s own book, there are letters he writes to neighbors asking if they want a kitty of their own. Cummings brilliantly combines visuals with plays on words to make each letter that Arfy crafts match the visually revealing prospective home.

For example, the first prospective home is the residence of a music teacher. Even my four-year-old grandson recognized that the house looks like a piano with the treble clef symbol in both front windows. Even the mailbox has a musical motif. The letter introduces Scamper and shares that “He also likes to sing! I know he would make beautiful music with your students.” The response from the music teacher is negative, but also peppered with clever musical play on words — some that only an adult will get. “I was hoping for more harmony in my household. But with Scamper here, I can hardly find a single measure of rest.

With each house, Scamper gamely delivers Arfy’s letter. But each time there is something that doesn’t work out. Three babies and a cat don’t make for gentle petting, and a cat who plays with mice instead of eating them won’t help a mechanic with a rodent problem. Even the cat-loving neighbor, whose house looks like a cat, seems to appreciate inanimate cats more than the real, moving, sometimes-clumsy ones.

Finally, Scamper sends Arfy a message. He really wants a home where he can do all the things that each house offered. He wants to get cuddled, play, get brushed, sing. And yet again, Cummings’ ending brought this reviewer (and lover of my three black cats) to tears with the all-too-clever, all-too-touching twist at the end. 

As Cummings  shares on the endpaper at the end of the book, there are many ways to help homeless kittens and puppies (and grown-up dog and cats). Donate to your local rescue. Get to know them and how the money is used. Adopt a pet instead of buying one.  At the shelter, meet all the cats and dogs before you pick one to adopt. Some might be shy or scared at the shelter. A dog or cat missing a leg or even an eye will be a fabulous pet with lots of love to share. And don’t overlook the senior pets. They have years to show their gratitude to you for giving them a second chance! 

If you don’t have Arfy’s book, buy it along with “I Found a Kitty!” and your classroom or library or bookshelf will be better for it. And your children will love them. Guaranteed.

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