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:

One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard
The Beekeeper’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)

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
Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden

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) - reviewed 10/27/19
2.     Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett (1986)
3.     The Crystal Snowstorm by Meriol Trevor (1997) - reviewed 8/26/19
4.     Set in Stone by Robert Goddard (1999) - reviewed 8/13/19
5.     Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2004) - reviewed 9/11/19
6.     Patriot Hearts by Barbara Hambry (2010) - reviewed 2/23/19
7.     The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (2010) - reviewed 12/12/19
8.     Sisters of Fortune by Jehane Wake (2010)
9.     Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013) - reviewed 8/3/19
10.  Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2013) - reviewed 12/19/19
11.  A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner (2014) - reviewed 7/27/19
12.  The Travelers by Chris Pavone (2016) - reviewed 7/11/19


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)

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.