Books Read in June 2021

Picture Books

We Wait for the Sun
Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Katie McCabe, Raissa Figueroa
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A moment from Dovey Johnson Roundtree’s childhood beautifully illustrated by Raissa Figueroa

The One Thing You’d Save
Linda Sue Park & Rober Sae-Heng
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A collection of poems written in Sijo—a Korean style—about a class assignment of the one thing students would save from a fire.

I often struggled to follow who was speaking.

Mornings with Monet
Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré
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Learn how Monet painted a series of paintings of the Seine in this very interesting picture book that also gives the flavor of a Monet painting.

Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!
Lorna Scobie
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An only-child rabbit gets a bevy of new siblings an must adjust. It took a turn at the end that I wasn’t expecting.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
Peter Sis
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Yet another story of the Holocaust. It’s interesting, but gets swallowed up by odd page layouts.

The Lost Package
Richard Ho & Jessica Lanan
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The kind of picture book I adore. Spare words, and tons of details to go back and find. The author’s note tells of his personal appreciation of USPS.

Hello, Rain
Maclear, Chris Turnham
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A lot of great description of rain paired with whimsical illustrations.

We Become Jaguars
Eggars, White
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A boy and his grandmother become jaguars and explore the land around them. Packed with visual delights. Also this sentence: “She laughed like great thunder and I laughed like lesser thunder and we jaguared on.”

Jump at the Sun
Alicia D. Williams and Jacqueline Alcántara
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Picture book biography of Zora Neale Hurston. Great leaping illustrations complement the text.

Middle Grade

The Sea in Winter
Christine Day
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The stakes were low, but middle grade readers who are separated from the thing they love due to injury might feel differently about this story of a girl nursing a knee injury that is keeping her from dancing. It’s also a good chronicle of taking things out on your family.

This book was at the bottom of the to-read pile for a long time because the cover was conveying that this story was set in perhaps Norway, and there would be fairies and ogres and many magical things. Imagine my surprise when I started to read and found out it was a contemporary middle grade set in Seattle and Olympic National Park.

Reem Faruqi
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In this novel in verse, a Pakistani girl comes to the US with her family and finds her new life is improved by swimming.

Pity Party
Kathleen Lane
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This book is chock full-o-fun! Quizzes, short (some very short) stories, ads. All very tongue-in-cheek and aimed at middle school kids feeling awkward.

Young Adult

Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Malinda Lo
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The core of the book, Lily’s story of finding the Telegraph Club and falling in love, is strong and rich with period details.

There’s some backstory that felt like it bogged down the narrative, which is too bad because this is otherwise a solid historical fiction.

That Summer
Sarah Dessen

This is a little clunky, pacing-wise, but does a great job at really drilling into those teenage feelings that happen when everything goes wrong and you are the cause of a large portion of it.

Some things are grounded in the 90s, when this book was written, and best left there. I winced at a description of a minor character: he was as whipped as any man can be.

The Seventh Raven
David Elliott
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Here’s the deal. For about 80% of novels in verse, I think the story would be better served if the author undid their free verse, made them into sentences, added additional sentences to make paragraphs, and then had themselves a novel.

But a small portion of novels in verse I can appreciate, like this one. Elliott uses poetic forms which gave me something to chew on as I read this story of a family of boys transformed into ravens to save their newborn sister.

What We Left Behind
Robin Talley

The fate of happy high school couples as they head off to college is well-known. Usually it’s not a happy ending for the couple. But this sad outcome does provide a lot of plot.

This happy couple also has complicating factors due to genderqueer processing. The book does a great job of exploring the many wedges that are driven between a couple as they head off to college, plus it might be handy to read for older people who are curious about these young people and their discussions of pronouns and gender exploration. It’s also from 2016, so some things might be out of date.

Note that this has a lot of one-star reviews on Goodreads written by people who have problems with how the genderqueer identity was explored.

Lies We Tell Ourselves
Robin Talley

Alternating perspectives of two girls. One is integrating a high school and one is the daughter of the publisher of the town paper who is anti-integration. I had some interesting feelings re: whose story this was to tell. It also got me thinking about some assumptions I have about people who did integrate all-white high schools.

We Are Inevitable
Gayle Forman

I like that Forman has built a YA career with a bunch of books that tell the stories of young people who have graduated high school.

And so it goes with this story of a guy who is going down with the particular sinking ship of a local bookstore run by his family.

The Lady Rogue
Jenn Bennett

Jen Bennett’s excellent skilz of romance-telling take a back seat for a story set in Romania in the 1930s and a particular cursed ring.

It was very fun to see Bennet flex her historical fiction muscles. I haven’t seen them in play since she switched over to YA. Also, I’ve visited the region, so I enjoyed the travel.

Someone Like You
Sarah Dessen

I read this after reading Dessen’s That Summer because the two books were adapted into a movie. Because of that, when I started reading this book, I was supremely confused because nothing about the two books overlapped. Once I let go of my expectations, I found a story that summed up the emotional highs and lows of one of my own high school relationships. Well done!

The movie, by the way, picks parts from each book and combines them. By doing so, a lot of the feelings are lost and we’re left with a middling teen movie.

Grownup Fiction

The Ex Talk
Rachel Lynn Soloman

Well this is fun! Why are there not more romances set at public radio stations?

Shay (to be honest, not my favorite name) is stuck in a stuck-in-life-phase and new reporter Dominic rubs her the wrong way. But when she has a chance to host a local call-in show, she grabs it, even if it means partnering up with Dominic.

Books Read in May 2021

Picture Book

Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper
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A picture book that shows the before and after of Greenwood, Oklahoma, a prosperous town burnt to rubble by white mobs. Descriptions are appropriate for the age the book is aimed at.

Time for Kenny
Brian Pinkney
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A picture book with multiple short stories about Kenny and his life. I found that each story began and ended abruptly. The loose style of the artwork was great a capturing movement, but not so great with faces.

Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It)
Carrie Finison and Daniel Wiseman
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As we start to come out of quarantine, it’s good to remind yourself that some people aren’t huggers. Like Doug. Alternative are presented.

I am Not a Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament
Liz Wong
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Poor pangolin! He only wants to explain about himself, but all the other animals only want to learn about penguins. But in all the confusion, readers will learn a lot about pangolins.

Milo Imagines the World
Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson
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Milo and his sister are headed somewhere on the subway. While on the train, Milo imagines the lives of those around him.

Mel Fell
Corey R. Taylor
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Mel’s decided today’s the day to get out of the tree in this uniquely oriented book.

Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge
Ray Anthony Shepard & Keith Mallett
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You know what’s in the historical record? That Ona Judge self-emancipated from George Washington’s household.

Short sentences give a lot of information about Judge’s daily life with the Washingtons.

Middle Grade

Just Like That
Gary D. Schmidt
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An old-fashioned telling of a girl and a boy who are both dealing with loss. Set in the 1960s at a girls boarding school in New England, this book has all the feelings.

Red White and Whole
Jajani Larocca
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Meets all the novel-in-verse standards and feature an Indian American girl balancing her own wishes and her parents’ expectations.

Lisa Fipps
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A novel in verse about a middle schooler whose large body causes her a lot of trouble, especially from her mother. While body fat is omnipresent, I felt this book leaned too far in the “too much” realm.

Young Adult

The Wide Starlight
Nicole Lesperance
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Nordic fairy tales twine with present-day Eli as she searches for her missing mother. This was an interesting premise that felt a bit sloggy.

We Are the Ashes We are the Fire
Joy McCullough
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Part story of a young woman mourning the injustice dealt by the justice system after her sister was raped, part long-form poem about a medieval woman.

I confess, I skimmed the poem.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega
Crystal Maldonado
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Charlie Vega is fat. And also many other things. Maldonado illustrates day-to-day life lived in a large body (it is so hard to shave behind your knees!) and gives us a story of friendship, romance, navigating unsupportive parents, and dealing with grief.

Amber & Clay
Laura Amy Schlitz
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While I groaned at the thought of another novel in verse, Schlitz pulled me in by bringing Ancient Greece to life. Telling the story through artifacts was super interesting, and I loved the details about daily life.

The Initial Insult
Mindy McGuinnis

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a very short story. I know, because I reread it after reading this novel. I find that Poe’s story lacks detail.

This book updates the bones of the story to present day and adds many layers of detail. It was unsatisfying in different ways, though. I found some of the details (like the secret one character kept) to not be realistic, and it escalated in a way that was overly dramatic. Normally McGinnis’s drama is so very good, but not so for me this time. Plus, the panther spoke in verse. There was much too much verse in the reading lineup this month. (Which isn’t this book’s fault, but didn’t help.)

The Love Curse of Melody McIntire
Robin Talley

Despite my love of live theater and interest in things the stage crew is responsible for (sewing, building things, being persnickety about small details) I never got involved with the drama kids. They were just so obvious about their drama, and I say this as a fairly dramatic person.

So the kids in this were a bit much for me—the superstition just felt silly, and thus the credence given to it felt silly. But I was impressed that Talley balanced a huge (Les Miz size) cast of characters and the many theater details she included were interesting. Though there were multiple mentions of the sitzprobe and I never saw whatever that was happen. (I’ve looked it up, it’s apparently a rehearsal where the singers and the orchestra focus on blending together.)

I also enjoyed how the story was advanced using different devices like that middle section that was all dialog, but totally worked. Given the amount of detail in this story, I assumed the author was a drama kid from birth, but it turns out the details came from a lot of research.

Kate in Waiting
Becky Albertalli

Book two of two set during a musical production put on by a high school. (The first was The Love Curse of Melody McIntire) In this book, it’s a fall musical, which seems to be a thing that exists for plot purposes, as every high school I’ve ever encountered has spring musicals.

Anyhoo, Kate hasn’t yet made it out of the chorus, but she’s hoping that she and her friend Anderson will get some juicy roles in the production of Once Upon a Mattress.

From a plot standpoint, I was amazed at how Albertalli set this up and then sent us off through a delight of things hitting just when they should. It’s also a great friendship book, and has a sweet romance.

Love is a Revolution
Renée Watson
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Nala lives with her aunt, uncle and cousin/sister/friend in Harlem. She meets Tye and stretches the truth about herself. From there, we have a great story of a relationship, friendships, and family dynamics that does a great job of exploring the boxes we put ourselves in. And the boxes that others put us in.

Books Read in April 2020

Picture Books

The Bear in my Family
Maya Tatsukawa
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Readers may wonder early on who the bear really is.

Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison
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The illustrations and rhyming storytelling is top-notch in this picture book about the Queen of Soul. But what really pushes the book to greatness is the cover hidden under the jacket.

Young Adult

Rent a Boyfriend
Gloria Cho

Cho imagines a world where young Asian-American women can rent a boyfriend to get their parents off their backs. (This is, apparently, a thing that does happen in Asian countries.)

This was a fun romance.

Let Me Hear a Rhyme
Tiffany D. Jackson

This book is a love letter to a time and place (90s Brooklyn). I had trouble with the back and forth of the narrative, but enjoyed the mystery and the antics.

The Rest of the Story
Sarah Dessen

A great summer-at-the-lake story with observations about class, family, and addiction. I sometimes felt whiplashed by Dessen’s technique of jumping forward and then looping us in, and I wished I had made a character list at the beginning. But the characters were great and they kept me reading.

The Way You Make Me Feel
Maureen Goo

Trying on and shedding personalities is one of the most interesting things about being a teenager. Due to a prank gone awry at her junior prom, Clara starts spending more time with new people and that makes apparent what her current attitude leaves out of her life.

As usual with Goo, really great characters!

Fan Art
Sarah Tregay

This book is set in Boise and I’m pretty sure the high school in this book is standing in for my high school. Aside from that very specific enjoyment, I liked that the main character was out to his parents and not out to his friends. It’s rare to see that combo.

My Calamity Jane
Hand, Ashton, Meadows

Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Frank Butler, and Wild Bill Hickock take us on an alternate history trip as they hunt garou, what we call werewolves. Full of the patented asides the Janies are famous for, this was a great trip, though I suspect Wild Bill’s actual show spent a lot of time talking about killing Indians, not garou, which dampened my enjoyment some.

Grownup Fiction

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead

Elwood’s life before, after, and during his time at the Nickel Academy is rich with detail in this engaging, heartbreaking book. The acknowledgements have links to connections with the real-life reform school the Nickel Academy is based on.

Young Nonfiction

Paper Son
Julie Leung & Chris Sasaki
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Not only the story of pioneering (and uncredited) Disney animator Tyrus Wong, but also an introduction to paper sons and daughters.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep
Allan Wolf

Wolf provides a good balance of poetry and prose as he tells the tale of the Donner Party.

Gone to the Woods
Gary Paulsen
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Paulsen’s memoir of his childhood is rich with language, vivid, joyful, and heartbreaking. Life has changed a lot since Paulsen was a boy and hopefully not as many children lose their childhoods as he did.

Grownup Nonfiction

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Jon Krakauer

Krakauer’s coverage of a “rape scandal” (which really was a lower-than-average series of rapes) is full of things to be frustrated about. New to me was David Lisak’s work on serial rapists and the role of prosecutors in charging or not charging rapists. The women’s stories—all of them—are gasp inducing and the aftermath (legally and personally) is rough. I read this book in a 24-hour period.

Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema
Lindy West

I greatly enjoyed this “objective” tour through modern cinema. Lindy West’s asides and observations brought much mirth to the household as I read.

Translation: the boyfriend heard a lot of this book as read by an up-and-coming Audible narrator: me.

Books Read in March 2021

Picture Books

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight For Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything
Annette Bay Pimentel and Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali
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Another Jennifer, changing the world. This Jennifer climbed to the top of the capital steps to advocate for passage of the ADA.

The note from Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins about how lack of access made schooling difficult added to the story.

¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat
Raúl the Third & Elaine Bay
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Little Lobo must supply food to el Toro and a bunch of other hungry wrestlers. So we get to visit a variety of food carts and a tour of a lot of different kinds of food.

A Place Inside of Me
Zetta Elliott and Noa Denmon
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As the subtitle says, this is a poem to heal the heart. Great illustrations.

Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration
Samara Cole Doyon & Kaylani Juanita
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Gorgeous prose and winning illustrations combine into a homage to all the brown colors.

We Are Little Feminists: On-the-Go
Little Feminist
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A board book about getting from here to there that shows a variety of people and body types.

Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail
Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal
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For everyone who waits with excited anticipation to see if Elijah appears.

Danbi Leads the School Parade
Anna Kim
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Kim’s illustrations are calibrated at just my level of swoopy. Delightful!

The Catman of Aleppo
Irene Latham, Karim Shamsi-Basha, and Yuko Shimizu
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When you need a bit of insight into a war and abandoned cats, you have this book to turn to.

Middle Grade

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen
Sarah Capit
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Vivy Cohen shares her initials with knuckleball pitcher VJ Capello and like him she excels at the knuckleball. Unlike him, she doesn’t play for a team.

Told via correspondence between the two VJCs we see Vivy’s first season playing for a baseball team and watch her navigate her parents’ worries about combining a neurotypical kid with a baseball team. She also has to deal with a bully on the team.

This does a great job capturing the sneaky othering of middle school and the frustrating feelings when parents take over.

The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez
Adrianna Cuevas
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This story of a boy who feels adrift due to his family’s constant moves because his father is in the army. But when he and his mother go to live with his grandmother while his father is deployed, some weird things happen.

This book had just the right amount of magical realism.

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
Donna Barba Higuera
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Let’s talk about what this book does well: it captures the sneaky mean and aggressive acts that middle schoolers carry out right under grownup noses.

I also feel for girls who love to play baseball and dream of being in the majors. Maybe their granddaughters will have a shot, but there’s no way in hell MLB is letting women in any time soon.

Now let’s talk about what had me sighing in annoyance and crowning this the worst book of my 2021 reading year so far.

I’m a square dancer and one of the things that square dancers think is the worst recruiting tool is to make middle school kids square dance. They hate it, they think it’s dumb, most of the time it’s not taught by a competent caller and so they think they’ve been square dancing, but they haven’t. (Though I loved the short square dancing unit we did in fourth grade. I wished there would have been another one in junior high school.)

Because I’m a square dancer, I can tell you that the hardest part of square dancing is having even multiples of eight. It’s rare to have everyone in the room dancing, and most of the time there are a handful of people sitting out because there weren’t enough people to make a full square.

Not in this book! Every single square dancing day there the exact nearly correct number of students were there. No one got sick, or had an orthodontist appointment or transferred to a different school, or showed up mid-unit having transferred from a different school. It was always the exact number to leave the squares one person short so Lupe had to dance alone. Every. Single. Time.

It’s not realistic. And this book was littered with unrealistic things happening just to stretch the story. “Since 1938 middle school students have learned to square dance in sixth grade.” No they haven’t. Because there weren’t middle schools in 1938. “The boys must ask the girls and once you choose your partner you can’t trade.” “We always dance to Cotten Eye’d Joe.” Given that the PE teacher had experienced her own trauma during her middle school square dancing unit, there’s no way she wouldn’t have mixed things up. Teachers run their classrooms how they see fit. There’s no square dancing overlord who dictates how things must be.

There are plenty of opportunities to make amusing conundrums from square dancing. But when it’s not grounded in any sort of reality the book isn’t funny, it’s just not very well written.

Granted, this book is written for kids, not adults, so a lot of these details will fly by the intended audience. But I think that shows a certain level of disrespect for the reader. Because you know who’s harder on books that don’t get things right than adults? Kids.

A Wish in the Dark
Christina Soontornvat
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Soontornvat builds an interesting world in this story that opens with two orphan children living in a prison. They were born there and must remain in the prison until they are thirteen.

This is an adventure with a lot of (slightly heavy handed) conundrums.

The Midwife’s Apprentice
Karen Cushman

I appreciate Cushman’s commitment to all the characters being horrible to Alyce. She’s also great at weaving in period details without devolving into lecture.

Young Adult

Yamile Saied Menez
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Camila has been sneaking around playing soccer for a team in her barrio. She’s balancing her life as a student, an athlete, and the sister of a professional footballer. She’s also the daughter of an abusive father and a mother who is trying to get by.

I loved the layers of this book, and Furia was an amazing character!

Catherine Called Birdy
Karen Cushman

This Newbery honor from the 90s is packed with everyday details about a fourteen-year-old girl living in 1200s-era England. It’s amusing and gives a full picture of her life. It’s also been optioned for a film, so read it now while you still have the chance to make your own images in your head.

We Are Not From Here
Jenny Torrest Sanchez
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A tense story of three teenagers attempting to get to the US from Guatemala where they all face death due to gangs and abusive relationships. Recommended reading for people who have strong feelings about asylum seekers.

Dancing at the Pity Party
Tyler Feder
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This graphic novel about the death of the author’s mother when she was nineteen is engaging and delightful. It’s a sad situation, and the sadness resonates, but it’s also an incredibly fun read. My favorite page was the Dos and Don’ts list of things to do when interacting with someone who has lost their mother.

One Way or Another
Kara McDowell

I was irritable through the first half of this book. This was partly because indecisive people drive me batty and partly because I was rooting for neither guy. But things shaped up once the extent of Paige’s anxiety disorder came into focus and the guys rounded out.

The Code for Love and Heartbreak
Jillian Cantor

A serviceable retelling of Emma, with a high school coding club as the setting.

While I don’t mind reading retellings of Jane Austin books, I also don’t feel the need to spend a lot of time thinking about what to say when reviewing them. We know the story.

Kiku Hughes
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Through an inventive device that handily sums up generational trauma, a modern-day Seattle teenager experiences the Japanese internment that her grandmother also experienced.

Tiffany D. Jackson

This is the third novel I’ve read by Jackson and I love how her stories make me feel uncomfortable and angry throughout my reading experience, yet I cannot put the book down.

Enchanted’s love of singing leads her on a fraught and dangerous path.

Aside from a crackling bit of fiction, this book also has an incredible cover and a great author note.

Felix Ever After
Kacen Callender
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Callender has written a roller coaster of emotion that takes place during Felix’s summer school session.

Though Felix’s world was very different than mine, I related to his confusing feelings about love. I also appreciate his calling me out during this passage:

“He kind of reminds me of a golden retriever, with his floppy blond hair and blue eyes. The first time I saw him in acrylics class, I kind of immediately hated the guy. He’s the sort of person the world adores, just based on the way he looks, a little like the way people obsess over men like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans and Chris Pine and all the other famous Chrises, plus Ryan Gosling, claiming that they’re liberal and that they’re feminists, but not really thinking about why they’re so obsessed with white men, and why they don’t love any people of color the same way.”

Throwaway Girls
Andrea Contos

A good little adventure/suspense/thriller that was bogged down with an alternate viewpoint that confused me every single time I encountered it. There was also a switch up at the end I didn’t find successful. Overall, the book was enjoyable but flawed.

Grownup Fiction

Katharine McGee

The continuing saga of Beatrice, Nina, Samantha, and Daphne as Queen Beatrice negotiates her first months as a ruler. McGee is great at balancing so many characters and, unlike the first book, this one comes to an end, while still leaving room for a sequel.

That Daphne!

Young Nonfiction

Sharuko: Peruvian Archeologist Julio C. Tello
Monica Brown and Elisa Chavarri
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Who is studying which cultures? Peru was lucky to have Julio C. Tello, and you can learn about him in this bilingual picture book.

Grownup Nonfiction

An Architectural Guidebook to Portland
Bart King

Bart King is funny and loves architecture. I’m on board with both of these things. Take a gander at his eco-roof definition:

Any roof that you could grow salad greens on qualifies. An eco-roof insulates the building, limits water run-off, and lasts twice as long as a conventional roof. But without a caretaker and/or good drainage, an eco-roof can turn into a dead weedroof, which isn’t as impressive.

Books Read in February 2020

Young Adult

This is My Brain in Love
I.W. Gregorio
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This book gets all up in the emotions of its two protagonists. It’s also a solid love story with realistic complications. Win!

Just Patty
Jean Webster

Given that for my first 21 years, I was called Patty, I grabbed this Little Free Library find for the title. I found a delightful collection of stories about three friends attending St. Ursula’s, a progressive girls boarding school.

The book was published in 1911, and my copy was from 1911, so I got to delight in typography that has gone out of fashion (so many spaces!) and also thick paper and illustrations. I wonder if Maud Hart Lovelace was inspired by this book when she wrote her Betsy-Tacy series?

Given its age, there are surprisingly few moments to wince at. A chapter about the Irish-American family next door with oodles of children and a father that drinks too much was firmly ensconced in stereotype. And there’s another chapter where the girls dress as “gypsies” and are very mysterious. But other than that, it was teenagers being teenagers, back before they called them teenagers.

I’ll see if I can track down the other book Jean Webster wrote featuring Patty.

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come
Mildred D. Taylor
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Just as long as its title suggests, this meander of a story is not a young adult book. The main character is finished with college, for gosh sakes, and the book covers her 20s and 30s.

This is a (kinda) character-driven novel, but mostly it takes many asides so the author can explain who a historical figure is or give us details about a historical event. There was no reason for it to end when it did or to go on for as long as it did.

I gather that this continues the story of a character or characters in books I haven’t read. Perhaps it would have been a more satisfying read from that standpoint. As it was, this was a long slog.

Everything Sad is Untrue
Daniel Nayeri
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A YA book* destined to be shelved in the wrong area and never found by the readers who need it the most, Nayeri’s tale of life in America and Iran dazzles with matter-of-fact recounting.

*Just because the narrator is twelve doesn’t mean it belongs in the middle grade section! The themes are too mature for middle grade readers! This means that most kids who do find this book won’t be old enough for it, and older teenagers will pass it by.

They Went Left
Monica Hesse
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We know many stories of the people imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, but what happened after?

Zophia’s quest to find her brother sheds light on one story.

If These Wings Could Fly
Kyrie McCauley
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As a resident of a town where crows have flocked, I loved how McCauley wove the birds’ appearance with the escalating abusive situation in this novel. I found the magical realism to be less successful.

It was nice to see toxic masculinity defeated by something other than toxic masculinity.

Never Look Back
Lilliam Rivera
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Duel narrator retelling of a myth I’m not overly familiar with Great magical realism elements.

Tracy Deonn
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When a fantasy novel can capture this reluctant fantasy reader, you know it was written by a gifted author. Bree’s discovery of odd things afoot at her Early College program is just the beginning of a wild ride. I’m looking forward to a big long series about her journey.

There’s a small Twilight callout that had me chuckling.

Young Nonfiction

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom.
Carole Boston Weatherford & Michele Wood
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Poetry and pictures bio of the enslaved man who mailed himself to freedom.

How We Got to the Moon
John Rocco
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Having lived in the long, long shadow of the baby boomers for more than four decades, I felt I had absorbed more than enough about the moon landing. But then: this book.

John Rocco looks at the cornucopia of problems the US needed to solve to get to the moon and he lays out a solution for each problem. His big picture viewpoint highlights many people behind the scenes including the seamstresses who made the parachutes that deployed after the astronauts reentered earth’s atmosphere.

Rocco uses illustrations rather than photographs, and I thought this was a brilliant decision. The illustrations convey the many small details about the bits and bobs of the infrastructure that was part of the US Space Program. Highly recommended.

The Cat I Never Named
Anna Sabic-el-Rayes with Laura L. Sullivan
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Like most of the rest of the world, I didn’t pay much attention to the war happening in what we used to call the former Yugoslavia. Even though I knew two people from the area. So it is a gift to have Anna’s story of her time in the Bosnian town of Bihać during the war.

The horrors of the war are not glossed over, but they aren’t so explicit that a reader will check out. The humanity of everyone involved is shown again and again.

Catherine’s War
Julia Billet & Claire Fowel
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A graphic novel about one of the many Jewish children hidden in plain sight in Vichy France.

Itzak: A Boy Who Loved the Violin
Tracy Newman & Abigail Halpin
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Picture book that caused me to wonder if this is the only picture book I’ve seen depicting a child with polio.

I liked the colors.

More Cookbook Winnowing

Welcome, blurry photo. I did not factor blurry photos into my middle age experience.

More cookbook winnowing! The Enchanted Broccoli Forest Cookbook might have been the first cookbook I ever bought. And the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book was instrumental in teaching me how to make a loaf of whole wheat break.

As with the other pile, I’ve grabbed my favorites. Now it’s time to send the cookbooks off to Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood.

An Author Teenage Me Loved

Jude Deveraux was one of the romance novelists I cut my teeth on in the 80s. I suspect I haven’t read this book (it was published in 2002) but I enjoyed how finding this book in a Little Free Library reminded me of that time in my life.

Also, I looked up Deveraux on Wikipedia and discovered that her eight-year-old son was killed in 2005 and that a psychic stole all her money. That’s not a happy ending for a romance writer.

Books read in October 2020

Picture Books

Pete Oswald
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I’m so-so on hiking, but Pete Oswald’s drawings of a parent and child hiking compel me to find some landscapes for a day in the woods.

Middle Grade

When Stars are Scattered
Omar Mohamed & Victoria Jamieson
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Spend years in a refugee camp with Omar and his brother.

This story completely drives home life as a refugee and includes a wonderful author’s note at the end.

A Gathering of Days
Joan W. Bos

As a Newbery and National Book Award winner in 1980, I was surprised to find I hadn’t read this as a child as I enjoyed diary formats and “olden days” material.

I loved the detail in this book and that the old-timey people were full of humor.

Trowbridge Road
Marcella Pixley
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On the one hand, the writing in this is gorgeous. On the other hand, the drama is turned up so high I found myself sighing when it was time to read. There’s a lot of crying in this book. Like crying done by the characters. They cry all the time. It makes sense for what’s going on, but after a point it felt like a crutch. Plus there’s child abuse, plus mental illness, plus ramifications of a fatal illness.

Young Adult

Smash It
Francina Simone

Liv is not the outgoing one in her trio of friends. When she decides to change things up she makes a list. That list leads to many new experiences for Liv.

I loved how this book explored fluctuations in friendship and navigating crushes and milestone experiences. Liv was a great character and she for sure goes on a journey.

Stay Gold
Tobley McSmith
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Ninety percent of this book was a solid story of Pony’s life at a new high school and Georgia’s questioning her cheerleader lifestyle/image.

The last 10% is a poorly written conclusion to the story. It begins at an After-School-Special level and goes downhill from there. Hopefully, future novels from McSmith will be stellar throughout.

King and the Dragonflies
Kacen Callender
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Set in swampy, steamy, Louisiana, King and the Dragonflies is King’s story of a time of mourning and transition. He’s coming to terms with his older brother’s sudden death while also negotiating friendships and parent expectations.

Another Brooklyn
Jacqueline Woodson

The dedication: “For Bushwick (1970–1990) In memory.” And this is a great example of Woodson’s economy with language. We know that the place that was during that time is gone, but that we are going to get to experience it.

Woodson’s novel about four friends in Brooklyn is a picture of a neighborhood and a time. As usual with Woodson, the language is beautiful.

Dragon Hoops
Gene Luen Yang
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Like Gene Luen Yang at the start of this book, I don’t care about basketball. Unlike Gene Luen Yang, by the time the book ended I still didn’t care about basketball. I really enjoyed the bits of basketball history (Invented by a Canadian! First woman to dunk!) but I found the notes more interesting than the story itself.

Young Nonfiction

Lifting as We Climb
Evette Dionne
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An easy-to-digest history of the work Black women did to get the vote. There are many examples of how they kept working even as they were being thwarted by white women. (And all men.)

This is Your Brain on Stereotypes
Tanay Lloyd Kyi & Drew Shannon
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An excellent intro into science and unconscious bias with illustrations that strike the right balance of serious and fun. The use of the phrase “write a test” rather than “take a test” on page 42 had me checking the author bios to discover that this is a Canadian book. I think that phrasing will confuse children from the USA, but other than that potential wrinkle, this was a great book.

Grownup Nonfiction

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions
Johann Hari

Thanks to Goodreads, I get to keep an eye on my friend Jan’s reading habits, even though she moved away years ago. This was a recent read by her that caught my eye and I’m glad I found my way to it.

Johann Hari experienced depression throughout his life and treated it for years with antidepressants. After 13 years, he started looking into the conventional wisdom that brain chemistry is the cause of depression. Turns out, not so much.

Hari outlines nine lost connections and seven ways to reconnect that might help people grappling with depression or the blues.

Grownup Fiction

The Lager Queen of Minnesota
J. Ryan Stradal

Not the LARGER Queen of Minnesota, as I kept reading the title, but LAGER. As in beer. Edith is an amazing character and I loved this series of interlocking stories about Edith, her sister, and her granddaughter.

If we were a country of Ediths, we’d all be better for it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V.E. Schwab

Yeesh. This book went on for much too long. I mean sure, Addie has been alive for 300+ years, but the pacing is such that we seem to be experiencing each year. When I finally sloshed to the end, I found an unsatisfying conclusion. And thanks to the e-reader, I know that’s eight hours of my life I won’t get back.

Ghost Wall
Sarah Moss

I found this novel to be unpleasant because of the subject matter, but do appreciate the author’s use of words in an economical way. Abusive fathers can be a third rail for me, but the language in this book managed to overcome.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Anna North

This manages to be a book I liked quite a bit while also intensely disliking the title character. Possibly it was the interview format that hooked me. At any rate, I loved how real these characters felt and it was great to get a glimpse of a memorable time in their lives.

Books Read in September 2020

Picture Books

Baloney and Friends
Greg Pizzoli
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Three short tales for young readers about Baloney and friends. Plus three comics, plus instructions of how to draw Baloney and his friends.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks
Suzanne Slade

A picture book about Gwendolyn Brooks’ early life and her career as a poet. The words and illustrations combine to convey how her neighborhood shaped her poetry. I read this on a tiny screen, and lost some detail, alas.

Up on Bob
Mary Sullivan

Bob, a dachshund has a job. It’s hard work, but he’s happy to do it.

I laughed and laughed, as will anyone with pets who like to arrange their surroundings just so.

Middle Grade

Brave Like That
Lindsay Stoddard
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Let’s deal with the not-great first. There was a glaring date typo (In 1789 there were no banks to rob in Northfield Minnesota as the town was founded in 1855) plus everything in town was within walking distance. I’ve lived in a town smaller than Northfield and while things were close by, not everything was that close.

But one of the weirdest thing about this story was the reaction to the woman who joined the fire station. One of the firefighters could not wrap his head around the thought of a woman fire fighter so much so that I wondered if this book was set in the 1970s. It was not. While I understand that there is probably still pushback to women serving as firefighters, in 2020 the idea that there are women firefighters is not a foreign one.

Aside from those things, I really liked this novel. It’s great at depicting the churning emotions on tap when a child doesn’t love the thing a parent loves. There was a ton of nuanced and complicated emotion in this novel.

Fighting Words
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
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Amazing main character alert! Della is plainspoken and funny and will pull you right into her story of life in the foster care system Which so far is better than life before foster care.

I loved her foster mother who embodied that matter-of-fact caretaking vibe. There were also some really great post-trauma sequences.

Young Adult

Not Your #Lovestory
Sonia Hartel

Great setup. An aspiring YouTuber who deconstructs romantic comedies finds herself unwittingly cast onto a viral social media romance that didn’t happen. Solid stakes and great depiction of life lived on the edge of poverty.

Up to this Pointe
Jennifer Longo

What do ballet and Antarctica have in common? In this case, the two have Harper in common. She’s one of three teenagers picked to spend the winter in Antarctica after her ballet career—the one thing she’s been working towards for years—never gets off the ground.

Alternating timelines tell the tale of now and then.

This is My America
Kim Johnson
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Amazing, and a great example of why we need diverse books. The whole time I was reading I wondering how many amazing stories we’d missed all that time because of #publishingsowhite. (It still is, but books like these are finally starting to be published regularly.)

This is a mystery, a chronicle of the family of an innocent man on death row, plus it deals with police brutality and knowing your rights. There’s also a love triangle and a crackerjack plot!

Mike Curato
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Flamer is a graphic novel about summer camp that is full of adolescent boy things in a way that drives home how hard it is to be an adolescent boy. The color scheme captures that camp and campfire feel.

It also brought back memories of the racist chorus of Boom Chick a Boom we used to say (sing?) at Girl Scouts in elementary school. I’m glad that that one didn’t resurface. We totally did the Valley Girl one, though. I’m glad to see it’s still around.

The Beauty that Remains
Ashley Woodfolk

This was an ambitious first book. Three main characters, each mourning the death of a friend, sister or ex-boyfriend. All three characters have friends who are tangentially connected, and it was a lot of people to keep track of.

If you are up for the challenge, there’s great stuff about loss and also music.

All Our Worst Ideas
Vickey Skinner

This would have been a serviceable YA romance, except for the lack of attention to a legion of details. As they piled up, my annoyance increased.

A record shop in Kansas City that is open until 11pm on weeknights and does enough business to employ three people all the way until closing? A rear ending that causes the driver to break his arm, but only does a little damage to the bumper? A character who never attended homecoming, even though she had a boyfriend during at least one homecoming? Just how big is this stockroom and why is there so much to do back there that it can fill a full shift? Someone can get a zero on a test and still make valedictorian?

Not to mention that one of the characters is a total asshat whose activities never seem to be fully reckoned with.

This was a shoddy effort that left me feeling angry.

Today Tonight Tomorrow
Rachel Lynn Solomon
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This was the second book in a row where the main character MUST be the valedictorian.

I liked this treasure hunt/adventure story, and enjoyed that it was pro romance novel. It was predictable from the first page and I also found the acrimony of the two leads to be off putting for the first part of the book. That part was a bit of a slog.

But this is a very fun Seattle book and would pair nicely with I am Princess X by Cherie Priest.

(A fun thing! I couldn’t remember the Princess X book title, so I googled “ya book seattle comics mystery missing friend” and the book was the second search result! I love when the search engines work!)

Blood Moon
Lucy Cuthew

2020, the year when books about menstruation really started flowing through the publishing pipeline.

This novel in verse covers a friendship hitting a rocky point plus that thing that half the population experiences, but is not often talked about. There’s also internet harassment!

While the bones of the story were good, the book’s resolution mirrored exactly an episode of Glee and I wonder if the author subconsciously absorbed that plot point, or if it was one of the things that springs forth from the culture.

We Regret to Inform You
Ariel Kaplan

Mischa has worked hard for four years and her mother has sacrificed a lot to send her to a fancy private school. Now it’s time for all of that to pay off as the college acceptances roll in. But they don’t.

When she’s rejected from every school she applied to, including the safety school where the average student’s SAT score is half of hers, Mischa is bereft, which turns to anger, which turns to asking questions.

I love Kaplan’s books. Her characters are so immediate!

Grendel’s Guide to Love
Ariel Kaplan

Tommy lives in a quiet neighborhood full of retired old ladies who pay him to mow their lawns. It’s summer and all is fine until loud parties start up next door.

Among other things I liked about this book was the depiction of an abusive sibling relationship (I can think of only one other YA book that depicts this not-uncommon situation) and the organic way the parents were absent.

This is also somehow related to the Beowulf story, but I haven’t read enough of the classics to have caught that connection.

More Than Just a Pretty Face
Syed M. Masood
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What a delightful character! Danyal is fully conscious of who he is (pretty, loves to cook, good guy) and who he isn’t (smart, diligent student). This was a funny book, that also had me thinking differently about arranged marriages.

It’s worth the price of admission just for Danyal’s conversation with the library employee.

How to Save a Life
Sara Zarr

Jill is trying to get through life after her father’s sudden death. Things get harder when her mother invites Mandy, a pregnant teenager, to live with them so she can adopt Mandy’s baby after it is born.

There are a lot of feelings in this book, expressed in that great Sara Zarr way. Also, I could not for the life of me figure out how the story was going to end. This made for a singular experience.

Of note. This was in the to-read pile for a few library borrowing cycles. This meant that for many weeks I caught a glimpse of it which queued up The Fray’s song “How to Save a Life.” I’m not opposed to that song, but it was nice when the book returned to the library, thus ending the auto play in my brain.

Grownup Fiction

Ooona Out of Order
Margarita Montimore

I love books that play with time, so this one was a winner. It was fun to jump between years of Oona’s life. It was so enjoyable that at one point I felt sad I wouldn’t be able to read all of Oona’s years.

I also appreciated the realistic depiction of a character’s body changing over time. Most of us do not stay the same weight year after year, decade after decade.

Young Nonfiction

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots
Michael Rex
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Solid intro into the concept of facts and opinions, with very engaging robots explaining the difference.

Title-wise I didn’t feel like the “vs.” attached to “Robots” in the title is accurate. The robots were used to show the difference between facts and opinions. They weren’t in opposition to either facts or opinions.

Grownup Nonfiction

Love Money Money Loves You
Sarah McCrum

Incredibly woo woo book about how to talk about and interact with money. It’s one of those books where my attitude is, why not? Can’t hurt.