‘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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‘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?

‘The Night Swim’ by Megan Goldin is a gripping story with a universal theme

nightswim

 

In “The Night Swim,” Megan Goldin explores the male domination that exists to this day in rural America. Especially the male dominance that white, wealthy men feel endowed with, along with the usual arrogance that comes from those who feel entitled. They feel entitled to special treatment from the authorities, special treatment from shops, special treatment from their friends who may not be as entitled as they are, and special treatment from girls who, in their view, really have no right to say no to their advances.

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‘Musical Chairs’ by Amy Poeppel is a charming tale of ambition, family expectations, and love

musical chairs

For those who want their fiction to start with a huge hook — a first sentence that grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go — “Musical Chairs” by Amy Poeppel is not the book for you. Rather, this charming story begins like a lovely overture, with an introduction that gets you used to the rhythm and feeling of the piece, and slowly, you become entranced and rapt in the characters and plot of this beautifully composed novel.

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‘Brave Like That’ by Lindsey Stoddard is an ultra-significant read for middle grade kids

brave like that

Sometimes a powerful and emotionally rich book like “Brave Like That” by Lindsey Stoddard comes along that I wish everyone would read. A thoughtful book that could change the world – really. And in this book, the lessons Cyrus, the main character, learns are ones that he recognizes could change the world.

“Brave Like That” is a difficult book to review. There’s so much packed into this treasure of a story that it’s difficult to include all the messages and themes. Cyrus is the son of a firefighter, and his Dad was a star football player in their small town. Since he’s been a little kid, everyone thought he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps. Cyrus was adopted by his dad after being left at the fire station when he was an infant. On the night of his eleventh birthday, celebrated at the fire station, a stray dog shows up, and Cyrus is convinced that fate expects him to keep the dog, just as his father kept him. But Cyrus’s father has other ideas.

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‘How to Save a Life’ by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

how to save

How far would you go to save the life of your true love? In “How to Save a Life,” co-authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke explore this concept in a touching novel that has more than a few “Groundhog Day” movie references. It also has a wonderfully imperfect first person narrator who either lunches or talks to his mother daily, wears his shirts buttoned up one button too many, and looks both ways before crossing the street — always. Dom is just not the adventurous type, and he wonders if that’s what made him fall in love with Mia a decade ago.

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“Muzzled”: Another Rosenfelt/Carpenter ‘Killer’ novel

muzzled

“Muzzled” is the twenty-first entry in David Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter Mystery” series, and it seems quite clear that Rosenfelt’s many fans hope it’s the first of at least twenty more. The protagonist in the series, Andy Carpenter, is one of the most charmingly devilish characters in the world of legal mystery novels. And he’s also one of the funniest. Andy might be viewed as the Don Rickles of defense attorneys; he’s a genius of insult humor. But unlike Rickles, Andy’s main target is himself. With his hilarious self-deprecating comments, he willingly exposes himself as a coward, a meanie, and a downright jerk. Yet he’s also a most lovable character. Even as he bravely places himself in dangerous, even life-threatening situations, he admits that he’s scared to death while, for example, shakily clutching a loaded pistol while dealing with a murderous villain, as he does in “Muzzled.”

As usual, the unfolding of the novel’s plot begins with Andy’s big heart and sense of justice forcing him to take on the case of a man wrongly accused of murder. In this case, that man is one Alex Vogel, who has suspiciously escaped unscathed from a boat that has exploded, killing two of his business partners. Their company has been working on the development of a mysterious drug which is soon to be introduced to the world via a stock market IPO. Everybody but Andy believes Vogel, a munitions expert, has blown up the boat with the express intent of murdering his two partners — though nobody knows exactly why this respectable (and dog-loving!) man would commit such a dastardly act. So Andy decides he must defend Alex, thereby getting himself inextricably involved with shady characters, the Russian Mafia, and assorted other villains.

“Muzzled” boasts all the uniquely humorous characters and characteristics of the entire series: the wonderfully wacky and weirdly eccentric members of his investigative team and staff, the frustrated cops, lawyers, and judges who have to cope with Andy’s antics and insults, and villains who are sly, smart, and arrogant but who, in the end, can never quite match the hero’s off-the-wall brilliance.

If you’ve never read one of Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter Mysteries, start with “Muzzled,” and treat yourself to an enjoyable, laugh-inducing — and, by the way, suspenseful — good time. And if you’ve already read earlier entries in the series, rest assured that you’ll find this one every bit as involving, gripping, and entertaining as the first twenty.

This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.

‘Aurora Burning’ is Book 2 in the ‘Aurora Cycle’ series by YA authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

aurora burning

No one writes better YA sci-fi than Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Kaufman wrote the thrilling “The Unearthed” duology with Meagan Spooner and Kristoff wrote the very unique and dystopian “The Lifelike Trilogy.”

They wowed fans with the first book in this trilogy, and in “Aurora Burning,” the sequel to “Aurora Rising,” Kaufman and Kristoff take the story to new heights. They also leave readers on a cliffhanger that’s higher and more deadly than most cliffhanger endings. So if you hate cliffhangers, you might want to wait for the third book to come out and read them one right after another. Although maybe it’s better to be like the characters in this futuristic adventure and jump right in.

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