Most of Jenny Colgan’s novels have a few things in common: feisty, determined women who need a change of scenery, a business in need of help, fabulous out-of-the way locations in UK or Scotland or the islands north of UK, and men who aren’t typical romance heroes. “Sweetshop of Dreams: A Novel in Recipes” doesn’t disappoint.Continue reading
Parents often passionately and truthfully declare that they would give their lives for their children. We’d sacrifice our lives and exchange them gladly to make sure that our children survive. In “While Paris Slept” by Ruth Druart, during the French occupation of Paris, a woman on her way to a concentration camp gives her newborn infant to a stranger, hoping against hope that the act will save the life of her son. Sometimes such decisions lead to unintended consequences.Continue reading
“Yellow Wife” takes us into America’s dark past, where we meet Pheby Delores Brown, a woman of valor. A woman who loved deeply and fiercely. A woman who was a slave yet managed to keep her dignity. But no matter Pheby’s relatively privileged upbringing in the plantation house where she grew up, being taught to read and play the piano by her master’s sister who was also her aunt; in the end, there was no one left to protect her. Pheby reverted to being nothing more than a possession, a belonging, to be sold at the whim of her owner.
Want a story that will grab you from the first sentence and hold your attention to the last? “Hold Back the Tide” by Melinda Salisbury is just such a read. It begins, “Here are the rules of living with a murderer.” And the suspense grows and grows as we keep reading, desperate to find out how the hero, our feisty, brave, selfless, and intelligent main character, fights to prevail against a life in which the cards all seem to be dealt against her.Continue reading
“The Stills” by Jess Montgomery continues the story of Sheriff Lily Ross, whom we first meet in “The Widows” and again in its sequel, “The Hollows.” Lily’s husband was the sheriff in Bronwyn County, Ohio, and after his murder, Lily is offered the opportunity to finish his term. She not only does that, she runs again for sheriff and is elected.Continue reading
In this novel of prewar Germany, “The Berlin Girl” by Mandy Robotham brings us right into the close-knit world of the journalists who staff tiny offices in capitals around the world in times of strife. Through the eyes of George Young, born Georgina Young and also known as Georgie Young, we enter the cosmopolitan, complex, and perilous environment of Berlin as the Nazis became more ruthless and less concerned with world approbation.
One of the things that makes John Hart’s novels, including his newest, “The Unwilling,” so compelling is his ability to create complex characters whose actions and courage linger with us long after we’ve finished reading the story. Jason French is one such character, and his inability to reconnect with his family after serving almost three years as a soldier in the Vietnam War is what we first learn about him. We learn much more about not only Jason, but his younger brother Gibby, and their parents. What we learn and how Hart shares the relationships and the emotions is what makes this an unforgettable story.Continue reading
Children’s author Alan Gratz is known and revered for his historical fiction middle grade novels like his newest, “Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11.” As he has done in other novels including the award-winning “Refugee,” Gratz presents readers with two main characters from different backgrounds and different perspectives who share the story in alternating narratives. In “Ground Zero,” we meet Brandon Chavez from New York and Reshmina from Afghanistan.Continue reading
“The Historians” by Cecilia Ekbäck presents readers with a historical thriller that also encompasses the history of racial prejudice and eugenics that permeated Scandinavia even before Hitler’s rise to power. The story begins in April, 1943, when Laura Dahlgren receives a phone call that her best friend from college has disappeared. Before the actual beginning of the story, Ekbäck provides short passages about events from January, February, and March of that year. Two of those are about mysterious events that seem unrelated to the main story, but give a hint of what is to come.Continue reading
‘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.
Paul D. Marks is a multiple award-winning author whose latest novel, “The Blues Don’t Care,” is a striking illustration of the talent that has brought him those awards. It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series of “Bobby Saxon Novels” — mysteries with not only the requisite twists, turns, surprises, and reveals, but also a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws — greed, corruption, fear of the “other,” and, especially, racism.
Gordon Korman’s books are among the most popular novels for middle grade readers. Kids love them. His “Swindle” series is addictive, and his stand alone novels like “Restart” and “Slacker” are thoughtful and humorous at the same time. “War Stories,” his newest middle grade novel, is thoughtful, but necessarily less humorous; it delves into a much more serious topic — war.