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The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger
This book read a lot like Sex and the City meets the elementary school set. It reminded me of the constantly moving character arcs of Dominic Dunne’s People Like Us, only starring “bright future”-obsessed moms in the elitist world of gifted kids who are driven to succeed, only their parents are at the wheel.
In the high-brow world of Crystal, Colorado, children are basically your badge of honor… if they’re gifted. Even one characters’ twin sons–albeit not thought of as overly academic by other characters in the story–are on an elite travel soccer team that competes around the country. Violin on Tuesdays, ballet on Wednesdays, “test tutoring” three times a week… you get the idea.
But when word gets out that there will be a new “gifted school” that will pull only the top one percent from the five public school districts in the area, even the deepest of marriages and friendships will be the ones tested.
While the story was compelling from a “thank god that’s not my reality” standpoint–like watching a car wreck about to unfold involving people you really despise–I got the sense that this was nothing new. I think most of society is now aware of the “upper crust” parents, the top-tier of people who have not only money to burn on private (re: no undesirables allowed) schools and a million extracurricular activities, but also the way they push their children into a future of drugs and suicide for failing to meet their arbitrary goals.
The author could not have intended this, this was the perfect book to read during a global pandemic in which many parents are concerned about their children missing out due to school closing, virtual learning, and social distancing. With every page, I couldn’t help but think, “Thank goodness my children didn’t live like this.”
Where the book does bring in some much-needed originality to a done-to-death but also very realistic plot is in the way the climax comes about. It was absolutely a surprise, and a refreshing one at that.
Euphoria by Lily King
First, I love historical fiction, even ones such as this one that are “filling in the gaps” of real people, real events, and very recent history. Euphoria is based on the story of Margaret Mead, well-known anthropologist, and two lesser well-known men in her life. I really enjoy books where we get to envision the actual conversations, settings, even attire of the people when key events took place, and this one was no different.
Unfortunately, readers will need to go into it with a lot more prior knowledge of Mead’s work and anthropology in general to appreciate the complex, clever story. Much of my later enjoyment of the book came from reading published industry reviews–something I do AFTER reading a book so that I don’t go into it with spoilers or preconceived judgments.
I had three key criticisms, though:
1. As so many works of fiction involving this topic already do, the aboriginal people that Mead/Nell were studying are secondary to the white people, white values, white culture of the main characters. It would have been nice to actually learn more about them instead of seeing them through the lens, so to speak.
2. The writing style was beautiful but chaotic. I would read entire passages, reach a pronoun, and realize the wrong person was speaking (or at least, not the person I’d thought had been speaking). The use of quotation marks wasn’t entirely conventional, but that’s my failing and not the author’s.
3. There was far too much inference/alluding for my tastes. Some readers love it, I do not. I do not like being left in the dark or lured into a scene by not realizing what has or is about to take place. The first time I remember this feeling in this book, for example, was when Nell is narrating the fact that she cannot see well because her husband has broken her glasses. It dimmed my view of him as a character, either intentionally or not.
This book is well-deserving of its advanced praise and accolades, but read it with the understanding that it is by far not a mainstream topic. It’s great to expand your horizons, though, and this book will certainly do that. The writing is superb and beautiful, and the vivid descriptions of the setting are perfect.
Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
After borrowing the ebook three times from my library and never even getting a chance to open it before it auto-returned, I actually SCHEDULED a time to get it, open it, and read it. I was NOT sorry I did! This book is delightful. At times intriguing and uplifting, at other times heart-wrenching and soul-burning, it’s a very clear portrayal of something we often don’t learn about: Reconstruction-era life for lots of people, especially marginalized communities.
Jo Kuan is equal parts brilliantly intelligent and lovably endearing. You just want her to win, she’s so well depicted. Her plotting and her opinionated nature could easily be the end of her, though she still manages to rise to the top.
The historical portrayal in this novel was gripping, too. The plight of freed slaves in the South, Chinese laborers who’d been brought in to “replace” slaves, women who were still expected to marry well even if they didn’t wish to marry at all, even the women who fought for (and against each other’s) voting rights were amazingly done.
From the book description:
By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.
While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.
REVIEW: The Governess Game: Girl Meets Duke by Tessa Dare
Full disclosure: I’m not a romance “fan” in the way that traditional devotees of the genre are. I enjoy a nice, fun, intriguing romance once in a while to simply relax. I literally read and write for a living, full-time, “oh my god you get to work in your pajamas” and everything. Basically, I don’t read anything more involved than the Hot Pocket instructions for free.
Unless I find myself with some rare time off and a desire to just get swept away by something really fun… and boy, did this book deliver.
First, I loaded up my library loans and Kindle app with books by authors who are taking a very vocal stand on the @RomanceWriters RWA scandal. Heads should roll over what has been a lifetime of intentional racism and homophobia coupled with active attempts at shutting down diverse voices. As a non-member, my best courses of action were to RT the heck out of those who are exposing the truth and buy/borrow books by these authors.
While three of @CourtneyMilan’s are currently on my hold list from my library, I went ahead and bought Tessa Dare’s book after reading a review online (See? Reviewing REALLY HELPS! DO YOUR PART!) and peeking at the sample. It’s just so damn funny!
But then, sh!t gets real. Our FMC is (be still my beating heart) a woman in STEM and lifelong world traveler! She’s not a wilting wallflower looking for a husband, and in fact, spoiler alert she kind of doesn’t have much interest in marriage. Our love-him-hate-him dashing soon-to-be-duke? Damaged doesn’t begin to cover it. The two children who need a governess? Oh no, they’re not side characters who hide away in the nursery while the plot unfolds everywhere but with them… I WANT TO ADOPT THEM MYSELF!
If you thought you knew what a bodice ripper was by stumbling on your grandma’s old brown grocery sack of Harlequin romances while cleaning out her spare room after the funeral, you couldn’t be more wrong. THIS one is so incredibly different while still offering everything we love and enjoy about romance.
Go get it today. You will not be sorry.
Where Do You Get Your Books?
A lot of book lovers have their go-to favorite sources of great reads. Whether you buy or borrow, have a fetish for small shops or rely on your book blogger status to keep your TBR pile full, there’s no limit to the many sources of great reads.
But here are two that all readers need to pursue (or renew, or fall in love with again, etc) in 2020.
First, Smashwords. It’s a fantastic site for affordably priced ebooks, but more importantly, they do great things for both their authors and their readers. If you’re not signed up to buy books there, you’re truly missing out. (Authors, if you’re not publishing there, you’re missing a huge opportunity… they are one of the easiest and most effective ways to get your books into libraries and to sell on Apple, among other great opportunities.)
Second, those aforementioned libraries. Far too many book fans don’t know how easy it is and how widely available borrowing ebooks from their local library can be. In many instances, local libraries–through their partnership with Overdrive–have great content that you can borrow, read, sample, and return from anywhere… no visit to the library required, no fines to deal with, no stack of books in your backseat that you meant to return!
Speaking of visits to the library, here’s a sneaky act of resistance that ALL book lovers should be engaging in on a regular basis: every time you borrow an ebook from a library, it counts as a “visit!” Whether you rely on your local public library or not, there are many people who desperately need the services they provide. By borrowing an ebook, YOU are increasing library patronage and helping your library demonstrate its relevance to the community! That’s important when it comes to setting budgets, buying more content, and more.
While you’re revamping your book reading strategy, go sign up for a book challenge. Goodreads hosts one every year, Twitter has a number of hashtags for reading challenges, and there are even genre and author-specific challenges to be found online, ie, reading x-number of books written by indie authors, by authors from marginalized demographics, and more.
Whatever you do and however you do it, just read.
An Eye for an Eye by Caroline Fardig
While I’m not usually an avid reader of “intense” thrillers, there’s something wonderful about “accidental detective” stories, the tales of people who bring unique characteristics to a case. Fardig’s heroine, Ellie Matthews, is just such a person: she’s highly trained and highly skilled due to her work as a professor of forensic science, but she’s also just reluctant enough that we don’t have to sit through backstory involving their years on the force and the resulting drinking problem they’ve overcome.
Part of the fun of an accidental detective story is that they don’t have instant resources at their fingertips, not that those resources always help the police solve the case, either. But part of the fun of Fardig’s take on the grizzly murder of a young college student is that we also don’t have to sit through the usual “stay out of our case” mess that a lot of these stories rely on. (As if any detective in his right mind would walk past a seasoned forensic science teacher and refuse to speak to them, let alone pick their brains?)
Fardig’s novel is fun for the reasons I mentioned above, but only fell microscopically short for me for two reasons: first, there was a lot of narration that I felt kept me from getting really pulled into the story, and second (inexplicably, since there was so much narration!) I also never really felt like I knew the characters the way readers of book one in this series did. I was often lost for just a split second, and had to remind myself that I have not read the first Ellie Matthews novel.
I strongly recommend this book, but also highly encourage readers to start with book one!
REVIEW: Dead to Them by Smita Bhattacharya
I personally cannot stomach violent horror films, programs, or books. It’s not that I don’t want to love them, but much like falling off the high dive or taking that first massive plunge on the roller coaster, I don’t enjoy the feeling of watching through my fingers to see what will happen next. Depictions of violent demises are also just not for me, no matter how relevant or well-written they are.
I was pleasantly surprised by Bhattacharya’s psychological thriller, Dead To Them, because I got to enjoy the twists and turns without the bloodshed. This book was one non-stop trip through the interwoven lives of a woman who’s gone missing, and every single character could have had a reason for taking part in her disappearance, even as they had every reason to love her and worry about her.
But it begs the question: if so many people are this worried about Moira, WHO was the one who did her in?
This is a stellar example of a book that lets you think you know who did it, only to find out a chapter later that this character was the LAST person who would ever harm her. Or was he/she? What are we capable of when our comfortable, prosperous, solidly reputed lives are at stake?
The fact that this book happens to be set in India is incidental, although the author does a great job of bringing the readers into the culture and dynamics at play. Small references to “maybe she was raped and killed” as though this is a commonplace threat for women, as well as “I’ll call you a cab, it should be safe” serve as a poignant undercurrent of what life is really like for the very NON-fictional women in India, especially the ones who go missing.
Dead To Them is available now on Amazon.
REVIEW: Pride Must Be a Place by Kevin Craig
As the young people say, “Oh, all the feels…” (Wait, do the young people still say that?) This book was incredible. Besides the stellar writing and spot on, distinctive voices–which honestly, I have a right to expect from an author–the depth with which Craig paints this whole story is incredible.
Tackling one of the most iconic concepts in sexuality (namely, being open about your preferences or choosing to keep your sexuality to yourself out of a sense of self-preservation), Craig handles the topic in an engaging but still unheavy way. It’s astounding that someone can write about something as terrifying as living a lie to protect oneself with the finesse that the author uses.
Anyone with even a shred of compassion for their fellow human beings can identify with the struggles Ezra, Alex, Nettie, and even Will face. This book paints the picture that not all circumstances are black and white, and not all prejudices are what we might believe. As a veteran secondary school teacher with a soft spot for those who face unique battles, it warms my heart to know that I can point readers to this book.
To find out more, click here.
REVIEW: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
This was a hard book to read, only because I absolutely adore all-things Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m no scholar of her life and story, but that’s only because I devoured the books (both as a child and again as an adult). I did watch the biography that was made of her life a few years ago, and it hurt to see some of the truths behind her pleasant, insightful adventure stories.
This book rips the veil and exposes the truth, one that perhaps Wilder herself never meant to share. However, it’s important in 2018 that we know and understand what was really at work in life the of a frontier-girl and her family.
This is admittedly a different age. When Wilder’s works were first published, the frontier was romanticized and the displacement of an entire race of people–and the subsets of their different tribes–really wasn’t given much thought. Now we know what horrors were inflicted and the role that whites and their government played in their demise. To see the frontier life as anything other than the rape of a culture and the destruction of an entire people–even if it’s seen through the eyes of an innocent child–is a disservice to both society and history.
Reading this important work was for me much like reading Harper Lee’s original work. Go Set a Watchman was the book that her editors and publisher thought shouldn’t have been published, and I’ve yet to finish it since I’m such a die-hard fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the same way, reading Prairie Fires will tell you much of the story that you never wanted to know, the real truth behind Pa and Ma and their happy trek across uncharted territory.
But it’s important to know the truth. The book was filled with insight and a deeper understanding of both Wilder and her family, as well as a better knowledge of life in that era. The “glossed over” tales like almost starving to death in the winter and being attacked by a host woman with cabin fever make more sense now than they did in her books; discovering that she never wanted to be a teacher but made that sacrifice because it was ripped away from her sister made me love Wilder even more.
This book only adds another layer to the story, but it’s not for the romantic or the faint of heart. This book is only for those readers who truly want to know what the frontier really held for some members of our society.