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Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Annotation 2020-01-21 084252

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: Idiot Boys by Bradley Butterfield

Idiot
Four Stars

When I was a lowly English teacher, I waged an ongoing war with our school librarian. In the sweet, precious old woman’s efforts to be worldly and up-with-the-times, she steered kids towards certain books, almost to the point of maniacal focus. Nerds got Harry Potter books. Athletes got Mike Lupica. Black girls got Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Thugs got S.E. Hinton. And that was the end of it.

On the surface that might not seem so bad. At least she cared, right? But the war began the day a charming black girl came to me and asked to borrow my Harry Potter books (this was when they’d first come out, and cost about $30 apiece…I was incredibly selfish with my books back then). I asked her why she didn’t find them in the library, and she said our librarian wouldn’t let her check them out. She’d been told she needed to be reading “important” books that would shape her as a black person.

I don’t need to go into details, but after the librarian’s car suffered a mishap that I refuse to openly take credit for, the war was finally won and the students were allowed to check out any books they wanted.

So why did I bring that up? Because Idiot Boys is decidedly a “boy book.” I know, I know…there’s no such thing. Books are for everyone, regardless of gender or race or hobbies. So why would I say such a thing?

It’s not that women can’t appreciate Idiot Boys, it’s that we would read it and shake our heads sadly, all the while picturing the cast of characters with faces of actual human males that we know. We all know a lot of “idiot boys,” or at least knew them while they were still young and doing stupid stuff. At the same time, Idiot Boys might spark a trip down memory lane for more than a few of its male readers.

It’s not at all unpleasant, but I tend not to love books that leave me wondering how the author managed to get as far as he did in life based on the sheer amount of marijuana consumed before he was old enough to even drive. It is, however, one of those books about a life that caused friends of the author to tell him, “You’re gonna write a book someday, I just know it!”

And he did. Now, all content and strange antics aside, the book is very well written and is on par with those coming-of-age stories that people rally behind. It’s like Catcher in the Rye, if it hadn’t been depressing and filled with questions about where the ducks go in the winter. It has all the epic storytelling of a great road-trip novel, like Dharma Bums or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, all without taking itself too seriously or trying too hard to be one of those books, and without actually going very far.

Book Review: He Knew a Firefly by Smita Bhattacharya

Firefly
I’m a long-time fan of novels that are set in other cultures, so I was thrilled to be offered this title to review. In a similar vein as The Kite Runner and The Rose Hotel, this book instantly has the power to put you in the setting and the culture without having to provide endless backstory in order to hold your hand through it. For example, the author did a masterful job interjecting “foreign” words and phrases in her dialogue, but did not need to translate those terms for the reader; the tone of the conversation told us all we needed to know in order to understand.

While the plot itself is intriguing, what struck me was the universal application of it. This book didn’t have to take place throughout India or Paris, it could have just as easily spoken to a vast audience of readers no matter where and when it was set. The fact that the author brings her readers to these locales is simply another layer of enjoyment to the reading process.

But the most important part of this novel is the absolutely exquisite writing. It is equal parts joy and heartbreak, and at time it is even bone-chilling, but all throughout the book the writing wraps you in such a familiar sense of understanding. The most horrific details are written with such finesse that you are in the scene but still somehow safely encased in the author’s words.

As someone who reads and reviews as many books as I do, it’s easy to think you know how it will end, but that’s also not the case.

Fans of stories that take them outside their own world views and outside their ability to suspend belief will treasure this one. Check out He Knew a Firefly HERE.

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