Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is one of my favorite authors because she imagines vibrant characters to recreate the forgotten chapters of American history. Her latest young adult novel, The Downstairs Girl tells the bittersweet story of an elderly Chinese immigrant and his adopted daughter in 1890s Atlanta. Although Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo Kuan are fictional characters, their historical context is true to life in the segregated South.

As the Author's Note explains, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigration to the USA until 1943. Immigrant laborers, who had been shipped in from China to replace the freed slaves, were thus permanently separated from their families back home. Work conditions were terrible, and those who ran away to the cities faced further isolation. Where should a person who is neither black nor white sit on a segregated trolley car, and what landlord would rent to them?

Unable to find affordable housing, Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo squat in a secret basement that used to be part of the Underground Railway. By good fortune, the oblivious Caucasian family that lives above them runs a liberal newspaper. Jo educates herself in English by eavesdropping on their conversations. When Jo learns that their newspaper might fold, she starts writing an anonymous agony aunt column to increase circulation. Jo's job as a lady's maid is helpful for etiquette tips, but she can't resist writing about hot topics like racism and women's rights. Her column is as witty as it is controversial. All of Atlanta wants to know who "Miss Sweetie" is, but Jo knows she must hide her identity or risk expulsion from the only home she knows. Although legal residents, Chinese Americans were not citizens.

With a bit of romance, snippets of Chinese culture, and a horse race, this engaging story takes the reader for a fun ride. Jo is a marvelous, kind-hearted but frank character who breathes life into history. This recently published novel has a lovely sense of place and time, enhanced by whimsical imagery:
"The cold seems to have crystallized into a freezing dust. It's as if the winter dragon were salting the earth liberally for its supper. Lucky Yip told me that season dragons can be jealous, producing weather extremes to prevent the next season's dragon from moving in."
I highly recommend The Downstairs Girl to all readers ages twelve and up. Although there are some sexual references in the story, the content is very tame for young adult fiction. The fascinating history and strong writing would crossover well to an adult audience too. This gorgeous book, with its rare cover image of a Chinese American girl in 19th century period dress, would make an excellent gift. I also enjoyed Lee's two other historical novels for teens: Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon. I hope she writes more.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian

In How to Build a Heart by Maria Padian, winning a dream home becomes a nightmare for sixteen-year-old Izzy Crawford when the sponsor needs a poster family for fundraising. This beautifully written YA novel explores the themes of economic inequity, racism, and assimilation.

As a scholarship student at a private school, Izzy has worked hard to fit in with her affluent classmates. Even her friends don't know that she lives in a mobile home, and since her complexion favors her Caucasian father, she can pass for white. Instead of learning Spanish, her mother's native tongue, Izzy takes French and speaks English at home with her little brother. Their father died a war hero, and their Puerto Rican mother has struggled to support them, often uprooting the family to follow jobs.

Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, the Crawfords finally have a chance to grow permanent roots in rural Virginia, but the new house must be paid for with sweat equity. If they are selected, Izzy and her family are required to help build their house, and local fundraising makes it difficult to hide her poverty from her rich friends and neighbors. Also Izzy's friendship with Roz, the troubled girl in the adjacent mobile home, doesn't fit this new life, and Roz's jealousy threatens Izzy's budding romance with a wealthy boy in her new neighborhood. Torn between conflicting loyalties and clashing identities, Izzy makes mistakes as she searches for the right path in life.

In How to Build a Heart, author Maria Padian drew on her own experience of growing up in an ethnically mixed family. Her Irish American father and Latina mother spoke English at home so their children would assimilate into their white suburban community. The Spanish phrases in the book are expressions Maria's mother used at home. If anything, I wish there had been more focus on Izzy's Latina heritage and less on her nearly seamless assimilation. As someone who grew up with dual religions and often struggled to fit in, I could relate to Izzy's story. Reading a book like this one will encourage more teens to have empathy for biracial and low income peers.

How to Build a Heart won't be released until January 2020, but you can preorder now. This young adult novel would be a great choice for readers ages 12-18, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is domestic violence, and a bit of underage drinking, but irresponsible behavior has consequences. Despite the tough issues, the central plot is a sweet, predictable romance, and the story leaves the reader with hope. This quiet book that slowly builds to a dramatic finale has already earned a starred review from Kirkus, and I expect it to win more awards.

Reviewer's Disclosure: At my request, Algonquin Books for Young Readers sent me a galley in exchange for an honest review. The author is a friend of mine.

Photo of Maria Padian provided by the author

More YA novels by Maria Padian:
Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress
Jersey Tomatoes are the Best
Out of Nowhere
Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza and Her Monsters is one of the most original books I've ever read. The multi-talented Francesca Zappia blends graphic panels with prose to tell her story about a young webcomic artist. Eliza Mirk leads a double life: in high school she's a social outcast, but online, she's Lady Constellation, the creator of a popular webcomic. When a charismatic fan of her Monstrous Sea series transfers to Eliza's school, the boundaries start to blur.

Only a handful of online friends know Lady Constellation's true identity, which works well for shy Eliza, who has been bullied at school by former friends. Her invisibility allows her to focus on finishing Monstrous Sea before graduation. Through selling merchandise to fans, Eliza has saved enough money to escape her small town in the Midwest for art college. Even her parents don't realize the level of her success and keep nagging her to be more physically and socially active. Eliza's comfortable anonymity is challenged when a new boy at school shares his adoration for Monstrous Sea and introduces her to other fans in the real world.

This innovative YA novel from 2017 is mostly traditional prose with excerpts from online chats and from Monstrous Sea. Like a visual journal, the narrative also included rough sketches. The twenty or so graphic pages were well integrated into the overall story.

Francesca Zappia did an excellent job of portraying the benefits as well as the risks of an online community. Despite her larger than life story, Eliza's experience felt very true and believable. The online/offline narrative and social anxiety reminded me of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, another favorite young adult novel of mine. Eliza and her Monsters would be an excellent choice for reluctant readers, for kids who feel alienated at school, and for readers of all ages who enjoy graphic novels. It got starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly, and was nominated for Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction. Why hasn't Monstrous Sea been published as a companion graphic novel? I'm looking forward to reading more books by this talented author.

Eliza and Her Monsters has given me ideas on how I'd like to present my own YA novel about an American girl in Japan trying to break into manga. As an artist and a writer, I have always enjoyed works that dissolve the line between art and literature. I wish there were more hybrid novels.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

My Aunt Diane and I have a tradition of exchanging books as holiday gifts. This year I was delighted to receive the new biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Jane Sherron De Hart. When RBG joined the Supreme Court as the second female justice, I was one of few women studying Political Science at M.I.T. In the new Millenium, M.I.T. has worked to correct its gender bias and the Supreme Court has increased female representation, however Roe v. Wade is under direct attack. Why now? The answer can be found in De Hart's biography of the person who has devoted her life to gender equality.

Ruth was born to impoverished Jewish immigrants and needed a scholarship to get to college. Even though Ruth graduated first at Columbia Law School (tying with a man), she faced double discrimination as a Jew and as a working mother. No corporate law firm would offer her a job. A judge only agreed to hire her as his clerk when a Columbia Law professor promised that a male classmate would take Ruth's place if she failed.

Ruth found a more welcoming work environment in academia and at the ACLU. To promote equality as a gender-neutral concept, Ruth often argued cases representing men in traditional female roles such as dependent widowed caregivers in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. In winning this Supreme Court case unanimously in 1975, she created legal precedent to protect women from discrimination as well. The goal of feminism is gender equality, which is no more radical than civil rights. Although Ruth was a successful lawyer, she realized that she would be more effective on the other side of the bench. Having a like-minded husband, who was willing to help with childcare and do all the cooking, allowed her to pursue her dream.

Photo via Wikipedia
In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was considered a moderate judge when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, but now she is considered a liberal. De Hart makes a convincing argument that RBG's legal views have remained consistent while the Court has shifted conservative, contrary to the more liberal population. Her biography was published before the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and the avalanche of state laws banning abortion, but the author predicted this attack on women's rights. As the Court swings, RBG remains the steady voice of reason. Her genius was in building consensus and reframing legal questions to get more progressive rulings. May she keep ruling!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life is not a fast read, unless you are my mother, who devoured my gift in under a week while recovering from back surgery. At 723 pages (150 of those are endnotes) it was too heavy to hold for long or to carry in a handbag. For months, I read a section every night before bed. Although written for the general reader, the style is more academic than commercial, but RBG's personal story humanized the text. I related to her struggles as a working mom and as a Jew, but sometimes De Hart's prose became a bit too flowery when recounting personal details as if the author was more comfortable with summarizing legal briefs. RBG is a few years older than my mother, and reading this biography brought home how much the world has changed in their lifetime and how grateful I am for their generation (my mom was at Smith College with Gloria Steinem) who fought for the rights that are now under threat once again. Read this New York Times bestseller book and be inspired to keep fighting for gender equality.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Several friends recommended The Hare with the Amber Eyes to me, given my interest in both Japanese art and Jewish history. This nonfiction paperback from 2010 reads like a mystery. When artist Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 Japanese carvings, he decided to trace these netsuke through five generations of his family's tumultuous history.

The Ephrussis were once influential bankers and art patrons, like the Rothchilds, but after two world wars, little remained of their vast collections beyond the netsuke. De Waal travelled from his home in England to Paris, to Vienna, to Japan and to Odessa, collecting photos and documents, and interviewing survivors. Like a detective, he pieced together the clues to learn about his collection, the collectors, and how the Nazis nearly obliterated his Jewish family. Old photos illustrate his narrative, taking us back in history. His book was well written and very original.

While reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I had the opportunity to visit the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which has netsuke on display. The tiny figurines were designed as toggles for purses hanging off traditional Japanese garments since kimonos didn't have pockets. Carved of wood or ivory, the netsuke are small enough to hold in hand but are exquisitely detailed. Their often grotesque humor reminded me of gargoyles. The netsuke were invented in the 17th century and were popular until 1868, when Japan was opened to the West. I loved the story of how the Ephrussi collection returned to Japan, and how these small artifacts survived so much history. I wish the museum would let visitors hold their netsuke in hand.

While in California visiting my son at UC Berkeley, I took the train 15 hours south to meet Barrie Summy in San Diego. Although we've been crit partners for years, this was our first time meeting in real life. We talked enough for all that missed time. It was so much fun! I'm so grateful to Barrie for hosting this wonderful book review club for more than a decade and for connecting all of us through our shared passion for books and blogging. Thanks, Barrie!

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

Popham Beach in Phippsburg, Maine

Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper is a lyrical ode to family and to small towns. Although this 2018 novel takes place in Canada, the coastal town, the quirky characters, their economic hardships, and the bitter cold reminded me of Maine. It was the perfect winter read.

The narrative alternates between fisherman Aidin and net-maker Martha as teens falling in love, and decades later when they have kids of their own and the fish have mysteriously disappeared. Their 11-year-old son, Finn, hopes to entice the fish back, but his big sister wants to escape their dying town. Meanwhile Aidan and Martha struggle to support their family as neighbors abandon their homes and close local shops. Although all four family members share the narration, young Finn's voice was the most engaging. The story is based on true events in the late 20th century, but it's told like an old folktale.

Our Homesick Songs is a quiet book that will warm your heart. The multi-generation characters would appeal to readers of all ages. You could read it aloud by the fire or listen to the audiobook on a long car ride. I enjoyed hearing the folk songs and regional accents in the audiobook but now wish I owned a hard copy to reference the gorgeous prose. I bought the book for my mother's birthday, and she loved it too. The 326 page hardcover makes a good gift.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018) is a feminist remix of John le Carré with a touch of P.G. Wodehouse. In 1940, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong is recruited to spy on Nazi sympathizers in London. Her cohorts try to take advantage of her naivety, but clever Juliet has an agenda of her own. A decade later Juliet is working for the BBC on children's radio programming when her murky past catches up with her. The narrative flips back and forth between the two time periods, building tension.

I read Transcription whilst visiting family in England over the holidays, and it was the perfect travel book. On the train I listened to the audiobook so I could watch the matched view and then switched to the hardcover on the plane home. The page-turner plot made the journey fly. Period details grounded the story in history without slowing the pace.

Kate Atkinson is very good at portraying the subtle nuances of social class differences and how that shapes character and motives. The focus on female spies in the British homefront felt fresh and true to the gender-limits of that time. This novel wasn't as original as Life After Life, Atkinson's time-bending masterpiece, but it was so much fun to read.

I enjoyed Atkinson's descriptions of radio programming as much as the espionage. My British husband, who is writing an academic book on the BBC, found those scenes well portrayed. Who knew there was a revolving door between MI5 and the BBC?

Transcription would appeal to readers of all ages. Juliet's witty narration laced with sarcasm often made me laugh. Given the age of the protagonist, the story would cross over well to teen readers. It reminded me of my favorite historical young adult novel, Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity, but even though Transcription was written for adults, it was not as dark.

I would strongly recommend Transcription (and Code Name Verity) to anyone who enjoys unreliable narrators, historical fiction, or British spy novels. I love the cover art on the American edition too. The photo is of my nephew and my daughter after thrift shopping in the medieval town of Wallingford. They reminded me of characters from the book.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy