Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Front Desk (Book Review)

Title: Front Desk 
Author: Kelly Yang
Publication: Scholastic, hardcover, 2018
Genre: Children’s Book
Plot: Mia Tang has a secret.   She does not live in a house or an apartment like her fifth grade classmates.   She lives at the rundown Calivista Motel where she staffs the front desk while her parents endlessly clean the rooms and tend to the guests.   They are underpaid and abused by the owner, Mr. Yao, who knows they are immigrants with limited English skills and afraid to stand up for themselves.  Even Mr. Yao’s privileged son Jason torments Mia at Dale Elementary.   But as Mia becomes acclimated to the United States, makes friends at school and with the permanent residents of the motel, she figures out how to use fairness, determination, and the writing skills she has fought hard to acquire to achieve her goals – and maybe Jason isn’t all bad, after all.

Audience: This book is aimed at middle schoolers but will delight readers of all ages

Favorite Quotes
As I walked, I gave the butterflies in my stomach their usual pep talk – It’s going to be okay. I’ll make friends, and if I don’t, I’ll borrow books from the library.   
There’s a saying in Chinese that goes “Never forget how much rice you eat.” It’s a reminder to stay humble, to stay real.  Just because you have an important job doesn’t mean you’re better than everybody else.  You still eat rice, like the rest of us.
It was the most incredible feeling ever, knowing that something I wrote actually changed someone's life.  As my mom and dad and I cheered and congratulated Uncle Zhang, my eyes slid to the closet, where the printout of the essay contest lay.  Maybe, just maybe, I could change our lives too.
My Impressions: Mia is a memorable and inspiring heroine.   She is not perfect: she rages against what she perceives as her mother’s criticism and she is humiliated by the cheap clothes from Goodwill she has to wear, but she is endlessly resourceful.  When her teacher gives her a bad grade in English, she doesn’t give up but borrows a “nifty dictionary-thesaurus” and uses it to fine tune the letters that become a special skill.

The painful, endless work of Mia’s parents and the way they are exploited is based on the real life circumstances of author Kelly Yang and her parents, but Yang is able to offset these heartbreaking experience with incredible humor.  Some of this comes from Mia’s irrepressible take on life in American and some comes from hotel guests and the Tangs’ illicit visitors, Chinese immigrants whose stories are occasionally comical although often disturbing.   One of the best moments of the book is when Mia uses her burgeoning writing skill to help one of the immigrants retrieve his passport from a manipulative employer.
The way the Tangs interact with their motel “weeklies” and how they become a family that can celebrate or commiserate together reminded me of Carol Ryrie Brink’s The Pink Motel.  That is a much more lighthearted story in which the Mellen family inherits a motel from an uncle and go to Florida to put it in running order:
“ . . . And, whether because of the color or because Uncle Hiram was a rather unusual person, it attracted the most unusual guests." 
“What do you mean unusual?” asked Mr. Mellen, also rather nervously, for he was always suspicious of anything unusual. . .
But Kirby was pleased.  For some reason he had always liked peculiar and unusual things.  A pink motel and most unusual guests!  He thought it might be fun.
And it is fun, just as Mia’s story is, although more children will see themselves in Mia’s experience and, I hope, others will develop empathy for immigrants.

Awards: I am disappointed that Front Desk did not win a Newbery Award, which were announced today.  However, I am pleased it was awarded the Children‘s Literature Winner for the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association Award for Literature, which is based on literary and artistic merit.

Source: This book came from the Chelsea Public Library. 

Off the Blog: I read this after the Patriots’ exciting overtime win over Kansas City when I was still too excited to sleep.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2011

How could I have forgotten a year as good as 2011?  I suspect it was a good reading year but an exhausting lawyer year which must be why I never posted this list, now recreated:

Suspense
One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard
TheBeekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King (recommended by my mother and subsequently enjoyed by my book group)
Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) by Kate Atkinson (had started this unsuccessfully previously but was captivated by the audio)

Fiction
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (entertaining, and was another book group read, but Count Them One By One remains my favorite book about Mississippi - and is dedicated to me)

Historical Fiction
An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan
Nonfiction
Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden

YA
Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Picture Book
Best Rereads
Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley (sadly deceased in 2016)
Pauline by Margaret Storey

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Buried Crown (Book Review)

Title: The Buried Crown
Author: Ally Sherrick
Publication: Chicken House, paperback, 2018
Genre: Children’s Historical Fiction
Setting: World War II England
Plot: As the Germans bomb England, Charlie is fighting back as an RAF pilot, finding a billet near the base for his only remaining family, younger brother George. Mistreated by brutal Bill Jarvis, George tries to run away with his only companion, a neglected dog he names Spud. George doesn’t get far but manages to rescue and befriend a German refugee his age, Kitty, whose grandfather has taught her archeology and various ancient lore. They take him in when he has nowhere to go, and George has to overcome his unthinking prejudices against the intelligent Jewish girl, before these two plucky orphans can join forces to try to prevent a German invasion by seeking a mysterious Anglo-Saxon crown that Hitler believes will guarantee his victory. This is a well-constructed thriller with appealing protagonists and supernatural elements that will appeal to middle schoolers.

Audience: Fans of suspense or historical fiction, such as The Book Thief, War Horse, Number the Stars, The Telemark Mission
My Impressions: I came across this book at Topping & Company Booksellers in Ely, England on a rainy day last May, and it reminded me of the Geoffrey Trease books that first my mother and then I enjoyed growing up, featuring brave adolescents and derring-do, as well as the power of friendship. Both Kitty and George have experienced the devastating loss of their parents and neither is safe now - George is being beaten and half-starved by the abusive Jarvis and Kitty’s scholarly grandfather is threatened with detention because he is German. Neither is perfect: Kitty is a little bit of an academic show off (my kind of girl!) and although I sympathized with his situation I didn’t like George much at first as he seemed ungrateful to Kitty and her grandfather who risked a lot in hiding him.

Together, however, Kitty and George rise to the challenge of the dragon legend, using her knowledge and George’s muscle. Rather than cowering inside (which would have been my preferred option, avoiding Bill Jarvis and a frightening bird I forgot to mention), the German girl and Cockney boy show their patriotism through their determination to find the buried crown that Hitler wants and withstanding vicious Nazis determined to bring it to him.
Notice Ely Cathedral through the second floor window
Source: Purchased in England for my nephew Xavier’s 12th birthday.  Obviously, I had to read it first, right?

Off the Blog: This was one of my first reads of 2019. I had to finish it quickly while attempting a Chicken Tagine recipe for a family birthday party.

(images not mine, found online)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The 2019 TBR Challenge


Like many avid readers, I often find myself waiting eagerly for new pubs or library books to come in, despite piles of books waiting to be read at home that I already own. But the only time I tried to deal with this was during my last year of law school when I knew I would be moving back to Boston, so I tried to read only books already in my possession with the objective of reducing the quantity I’d have to pack.  It worked to some extent because once I have read a book I usually decide whether to keep it or donate it (sadly, I still had to donate hundreds in 2006 that I hadn't had time to read).   However, lately I realized I am missing out on some great books I already own as well as purchasing more books than I have space for (this only stops me when I am traveling with already heavy luggage).  Yesterday, when tidying up for a visiting puppy, I was newly aware of my (otherwise delightful) piles.  

When I read about Roof Beam Reader’s 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, where the goal is to read at least 12 books that have been on my “to be read” list for at least a year (thus published before 2018), I decided to join in:
2019 TBR Pile Challenge

1.     Avalon by Anya Seton (1965)
2.     Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett (1986)
3.     The Crystal Snowstorm by Meriol Trevor (1997)
4.     Set in Stone by Robert Goddard (1999)
5.     Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004)
6.     Patriot Hearts by Barbara Hambry (2010) - reviewed 2/23/19
7.     The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (2010)
8.     Sisters of Fortune by Jehane Wake (2010)
9.     Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
10.  Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2013)
11.  A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner (2014)
12.  The Travelers by Chris Pavone (2016) - reviewed 7/11/19

Alternates

13.  If You Go Away by Adele Parks (2015)
14.  The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease (1956)
Some of my TBR came from this windowsill pile.  Sometimes
it overbalances and comes crashing down.
For my Boston friends interested in finding a good home for their "read" books, I recommend donating to More Than Words, a youth development program that trains at risk young people to work in their two bookstores.


Girl Reading borrowed from this site: https://tinyurl.com/ycxv52lq

Sunday, January 6, 2019

More on 2018 Reading

In 2018, I read 177 books in various formats or 57,618 pages (this does not count the books you pick up to check one thing, although sometimes that leads to several chapters). Most of these were some kind of mystery or suspense (50 adult, 7 romantic suspense (adult), and 6 juvenile or YA suspense). My next most read genre was 32 Young Adult novels (including fiction, fantasy, and suspense). Next was 29 historical fiction (including 5 YA and 5 juvenile).

I listened to 20 audio books (primarily in the car on weekends or on short trips). To my surprise, I read 29 books electronically. This is not really my preference but a lot of my review copies are PDFs or ebooks these days, and occasionally I find books are available at the library only in ebook format. By adjusting the font size on my Kindle, I can read while I run (slowly) at the gym but it is a surly gadget, always with a low battery.

Best Audio: The Thief, Kill the Boy Band, The Wright Brothers

Multiple Author Reads:
5 – Nicci French, K. M. Peyton (this included rereads)
4 – Jill Shalvis (write a book about a group of friends and you may draw me in to read several)
3 – Jenny Colgan, Michael Connelly, Dean Koontz, D.E. Stevenson (this included rereads)
2 - Erin Beaty, Dorothy Gilman Butters (she dropped the Butters along the way)(such a shame we were once at a party together but I didn’t know it until after she had left), Eileen Dunlop, Rachel Grant (wildly improbable plots), Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (and imagine if you read the entire Morland Dynasty in a year), Goldy Moldavsky, Laura Ruby (I normally dislike magical realism but I found Bone Gap unusual and appealing), Douglas Schofield, Anne Stevenson, and Sarah Ward (I hope St. Martin’s will continue publishing her in the U.S.).

Other Thoughts:

It was nice to hear from the daughter of Anne Stevenson who read my review of A Relative Stranger.

Several times my sister Clare and I found ourselves reading the same book at once, which, in a way, is not surprising as our taste is similar, and if they are new and got great reviews we both saw like Our House (which we both liked) or The Hazel Wood (which I disliked). She did not like Nicci French’s crime solving psychotherapist as much as I did (admittedly, Frieda is too cold and analytical) but still read half the series.

Book I had not previously read by a childhood favorite: Dancing Girl. Thank you, Interlibrary Loan!

Book that Camilla Corcoran tried to make me read years ago which it almost made my end of year favorites: The Thief (it reminded me of Lloyd Alexander, which is a huge compliment).

Book I read without remembering I had ever read it before: Murder is Academic (it was only average but I wanted to read something set in the other Cambridge before I visited).
Romance sensation: Jasmine Guillory’s local event was sold out before I was even fully aware she was coming to Boston. This is good for the genre. I enjoyed The Wedding Date, which had a cute concept and fabulous cover, but while fun and escapist, it was repetitive and substituted sex for character development.

Series You Should Be Reading: I read the sixth Stevens & Windermere book; start with The Professionals, either on audio or book form.

Best trilogy: The Red Sparrow books by Jason Matthews were so good (although horribly violent) I even went to an author event but the third book, while just as well written, ended on a disappointing (although probably realistic) note. I was not tempted to see the movie, however. Jennifer Lawrence seemed miscast and the violence would have been unavoidable (in a book, you can turn the page!).
Funniest typoI’ll Be Your Blue Ski. I just noticed this and fixed it.

Sometimes gems like The Rose Garden, Campion Towers, and The Thief can be on your (physical) bookshelves for years but one gets distracted by library books with short due dates or review deadlines. In 2019, I plan to read more books I already own.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2018

Adult Fiction

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
Do you ever save a book by a favorite author for just the right moment?   When I bought this, I was toiling miserably at a law firm and reading in short bursts on the subway.  The Rose Garden deserved uninterrupted attention and I finally I curled up with it on a cold fall day in 2018 and was swept away to Cornwall.  It starts slower than her other books, so be patient, but that made the eventual smoldering tension all the better.   I also recommend The Winter Sea, which was one of my favorite books of 2010.  Kearsley is the closest thing to Mary Stewart I have found.
Message from Absalom by Anne Armstrong Thompson
After I finished The Rose Garden, I visited Kearsley’s website where she mentions that Message from Absalom was one of her favorites.   I immediately requested it from the library and reviewed it recently.   I recommend it to fans of romantic suspense, especially those who remember Helen MacInnes’ bestselling thrillers.

Star of the North by D.B. John
This thriller set partly in Korea was recommended by Nick Kristof.   I know we share a few favorite children’s books but had erroneously assumed he only reads serious nonfiction.  Intrigued, I sat down and read until 3 am.  Suspense, espionage, twins and a hint of romance!   I reviewed this earlier in the year and look forward to more from this author.

I was impressed by Honeyman’s ability to mix humor and pathos, while showing how transformative friendship is.  And, impressively, she didn’t conclude the book with the main characters falling into each other’s arms.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
After learning Count Rostov had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, I wondered how this plot could be sustained for a whole book!   But like a fantasy writer praised for world building, Towles creates a fascinating group of people who inhabit the hotel (as staff, guests, or passers through) and expand the Count’s world so that you forget he hasn’t been outside for years.

Best New (to Me) Series

Frieda Klein by Nicci French
Blue Monday, Tuesday’s Gone, Waiting for Wednesday, Thursday’s Child, The Day of the Dead (and three I haven’t read yet)
Frieda Klein is a psychotherapist who is surrounded by dark secrets: those of her clients as well as her own.   She gets drawn into various crimes, assists the police when needed (although they never believe her when they should), and always winds up in terrifying situations.   Don’t do what I did - read the final book in the series first!  This is not my style but I had agreed to review The Day of the Dead before I realized.  I then went back and read books 1-4 before I decided to take a break.   Maybe this will help me unlearn what I know is going to happen!

Jane Hawk by Dean Koontz
The Silent Corner, The Whispering Room, The Crooked Staircase (and two more I haven’t read yet)
When her husband inexplicably commits suicide, FBI agent Jane Hawk goes on the run to investigate his death in an effort to protect their son.   Jane is a very appealing heroine, with frankly unbelievable skills that help her outwit her enemies but they are only a step behind her.  I have never read Koontz before and was surprised to become addicted to this series!

War at Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Goodbye Piccadilly, Keep the Home Fires Burning (and three more I haven’t read yet)
Best known for her Morland Dynasty (she has finally reached the 20th century and book 35), Harrod-Eagles is a skilled historical novelist and this series will appeal to Downton Abbey fans.  It is set just prior to WWI (like so many of my favorite books) and follows an upper middle class English family and its servants as war breaks out.  I always enjoy books about the home front, and I especially like the sisters in this series.

Best Book I Wouldn’t Have Read If Not for My Book Group

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Some may say the point of a book group is to drink wine with your friends (you have a problem with that?) but it is also to read and (one hopes) enjoy and then discuss books you wouldn’t have read on your own.  Pachinko was a fascinating, multi-generational saga about a Korean family.  Their lives were so hard and so lacking in hope that I can't say I enjoyed all the misery but the story was unpredictable, compelling, and well worth reading.

Best Nonfiction

The Wright Brothers * by David McCullough
I was yearning for the days of heroes when it occurred to me to turn to David McCullough.  I hadn’t read up on Orville or Wilbur since the Childhood of Young Americans bio in the Ward School library but I had always been fascinated by the early days of aviation and I loved this biography.  What a bonus to have McCullough narrating!  It felt as if he were driving along in my car with me, and we chatted as we drove.

YA

Kill the Boy Band * by Goldy Moldavsky
Recommended by my sister Clare, this was one of the funniest books I have read (listened to) in years.  The heroine and her friends are obsessed with a band called the Ruperts, and they will do anything to be near the objects of their desire.  One hilariously bad choice after another follows, and the book is full of memorable quotes such as:
“Maybe it was obsession, but it was also happiness; an escape from the suckiness of everyday life. And when you find something that makes you happy and giddy and excited every day, us fangirls know a truth that everyone else seems to have forgotten: you hold on to that joy tenaciously, for as long as you can.” 
Campion Towers by John and Patricia Beatty
Set during the English Civil War, this young adult historical follows a spirited Massachusetts teen from Salem to her mother’s family in England where she is appalled by their adherence to the Royalist cause.   There is nothing more fun than a self-righteous teen who finds out everything she believed in was wrong and outsmarts her opponents.  I reviewed this earlier in the year.

One of Us is Lying * by Karen M. McManus
Five high school students get detention and one of them dies.   It turns out each of the survivors had a reason to wish Simon weren’t around.  Is one of them the killer?  I loved the way the author develops each character and how their friendships develop, and it was very well narrated. 
The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord
Lucy is a preacher’s kid whose mother has cancer, challenging her belief in God.  Just as she needs friends the most, her boyfriend asks to pause their relationship, and she ends up as a counselor at a summer camp for troubled youth.  There aren’t many books about religious teens that would be appealing to the general reader but this is that book and is extremely well done.

Best Reread

Flambards by K. M. Peyton, illustrated by Victor Ambrus
In the first of this four book series, orphaned Christina is forced to go live with her Uncle Russell, and his sons, Mark and Will, at their home, Flambards, in the early 1900s. Mark and his father are obsessed with horses while Will is obsessed with machinery and aviation.  These books are just as delightful now as when I first read them at 11.  Stay turned - I reread these books because there is a new entry I have not had time to review.  And if you have not read them, please avoid spoilers!
* Audio books

Is it a coincidence that several of my best reads of the year were audio books?  Did I savor them more because I enjoyed them slowly?  Or did I pick certain books to listen to that I expected to enjoy?   I haven't figured this out because I hadn't noticed it until I took a look at the year in total.