Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Family Upstairs and The Family Remains

I love a good suspense book, especially when nothing else seems to be catching my attention. Lisa Jewell is always a good choice when I want something well-written and twisty.

I first read The Family Upstairs as a Book of the Month choice in 2019. I loved it back then, but once I heard there was a sequel, I knew I needed to re-read the first so I could appreciate it completely. Thankfully, my memory is pretty terrible, so while I knew I read the book and loved it, I didn't remember anything beyond the general storyline. This is actually a great quality as an avid reader because it means re-reading felt pretty darn close to reading it for the first time!

I love how Jewell creates storylines that are full of mystery, but the pacing keeps the suspense like a rollercoaster so you don't feel exhausted and ready to flip to the end. Her characters are all really vivid, which helped make the twists seem more organic. They each had distinct voices, too, which I feel like a lot of authors struggle with when they have alternating narrators.

The end was a great twist with some loose ends, but it didn't feel hokey. It felt realistic, like the way things wrap up in real life that makes you think, Ok, that's done... for now. And thankfully, Jewell felt that way, too, and wrote a sequel!

Even with the loose ends, I wasn't sure what was going to happen in The Family Remains. I think it's a great storyline, though, giving Jewell a chance to fill in some holes left by the first book without making it seem like she's retelling the same story.

I also love that she wrapped up all the loose ends and then, at the very end, tugged one loose.

Will there be another book? I don't know, but I'd read it! The story and characters now live on in my imagination, so I'd love a chance to peek into their lives again.

Have you read these books? Share your thoughts in the comments! Recommend some other suspense books, too!

Monday, January 29, 2024

A Brief Natural History of Women by Sarah Freligh

The book club I run with two friends focuses on short fiction - typically flash fiction in chapbook or novella-in-flash form. These books come from independent presses, so it's basically the opposite of the big-name children's/YA/adult books I share on this blog. However, I love shining a spotlight on good writing no matter what form it's in. And if I help other people discover flash, small presses, or specific authors, then YAY! Win-win!

Since I love this form, I like to write reviews of the books to help spread the word. This month, I reviewed A Brief Natural History of Women by Sarah Freligh.

“You Come Here Often / And often alone” but you won’t feel that way after diving into the first story in Sarah Freligh’s collection A Brief Natural History of Women. These twenty-three pieces examine women’s lives through their relationships with men, mothers, friends, children, and alcohol. You may be a singular reader but the “we” of characters addressing everyday issues like lipstick, kissing, reputation, and pregnancy welcomes and understands flawed, realistic people in ways society often overlooks.

Read the full review here.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Books featuring Characters with Disabilities

After posting the MG/YA round-up, I was sure I'd find twice that many adult books on my "Read" shelf... But I didn't. So if you have recommendations, PLEASE share! I think there are some I've read but overlooked, because two were late additions after I saw them mentioned in an article I used for research.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

I loved this book. Eleanor’s frankness had so much humor to me, and it made me think of how we talk and act in daily life and how much of it is unnecessary. I do understand much of it was supposed to be sad, but it really hit me in the right way and I enjoyed it so much. Already feeling nostalgic for it, so it will probably be one I re-read every few years.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

I read this book so often in high school, college, and up to my mid-twenties, when I also saw the movie. I haven't read it in awhile, so maybe it's time to revisit. I remember loving it because it seems so simple on the surface, but when you read it more purposely, you really get to know the characters and feel for all they've been through. I think George and Lennie have a really powerful relationship that really makes this stand out in terms of characters with disabilities.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Read this book. Seriously, you must read it. I don't want to give this book the short end of the stick when it comes to writing a review, but I don't actually think there's much that can be said about it. Or, more accurately, there's so much that can be said about it, once you encounter someone else who has read it. I think it's best to open the cover knowing as little as possible about the subject matter. Let yourself go in with no expectations and be overcome with the characters and the story. One of those books where you read it as quickly as you can, savoring the prose while needing to know what happens, though you don't actually want to reach the end.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

This was required reading in high school and I remember worrying that it would be the most boring thing I'd ever read. But I immediately loved the unique storytelling approach and was so invested in Charlie's progress. This is another I haven't read since my mid-twenties that I now want to revist and see how it holds up and if it still impacts me as being so profound.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I loved the matter of fact writing style of this book. It was a bit chick-lit, but it was interesting and, like I said, I liked the voice. I thought the ending was forced and a little hokey, more like a romantic comedy movie than a book, and it made me not interested enough to read the sequels.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

A book I've been wanting to read for a long time. Working with adults with disabilities, I love the chance to get inside their heads and see how they function best. This book has a nice little mystery and some drama, and it was very well done. I loved that we got to see how Christopher works best when relating to math and patterns; he's very systematic. A great book I'd recommend and read again.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Ok, let me start with my rave review of the book in general. I read it in my 20s even though I saw the movie several times as a kid because my dad loved it. Therefore I loved it. But when I read the book, it was like a totally different world. Lee has this style of writing that is so Southern, but so...not. I can't describe how she makes you feel like you're in the South without depending on the dialect. You can feel the slow pace and the dusty roads, you can hear the neighbors gossiping on the porch and lowering their voices to whispers as you walk by. She accomplishes all this and more without employing an excessive amount of y'alls, ya hears, ain'ts, and other Southern phrases that are often overused to try and set the scene.

And the characters, wow. I fell head over heels for Atticus. So smart and reserved, a good father, an honest man. Jem is a really realistic pre-teen boy, if I remember my brother at that age. Scout is the typical tomboy, trying to hold on to her brother as long as she can, if I remember me at that age. Scout reminds me of Ramona Quimby, and for a long time I wanted to be each of them. Good role models.

I think it also says something about the characters and the writing (as much as the power of the story itself) that I could read it and still feel the punch in certain scenes, still cry in certain scenes, still get my hopes up, even though I already knew what was going to happen. This is a novel where the fun is in reading it, not knowing it. It's timeless.

Anyway, I always thought of Boo Radley as something as a loner, but these articles made me see him in a different light:

The Single Feather by Ruth F. Hunt

Rachel is a thirty year old woman who uses a wheelchair, and after escaping from a heavily-guarded home, she lives independently in a new town in England. To try and get her old life back, she joins a local art group and makes friends with some of the locals. The story is really compelling, and I was very drawn in to find out what happened in Rachel’s past as her disability was caused by an accident, and she doesn’t reveal much about the home she escaped from. The ebook I read had a lot of punctuation errors, especially with quotation marks, which occasionally took me out of the story, but overall it’s a great book.

Share your recommendations in the comments! Because of course I already posted the MG/YA round-up before realizing I had books reviewed on Goodreads but not my blog, so I didn't include them. You can see all the books I've shelved as involving disabilites on my profile. They include fiction, nonfiction, and all audience age levels.

I used to work in a learning center for adults with disabilities, and when I left to study library science, I held library programs for them, which you can read about here. You can also check out all posts with a disabilities tag.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Disabilities in Middle Grade and YA Fiction: A Reading Round-Up

Tuesday I reviewed The Maid and The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose and said I'd share some more books I've read that have characters with disabilities. I started writing a long list so I decided to break it down - today's list includes middle grade and YA books. (Links go to a review post on my blog if there is one. Otherwise, they go to Goodreads.)

This list is NOT exhaustive! Please leave comments if you have other books for me to check out because I'd love to read more!

Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

Books are often seen as a respite from everyday life and road trip books can be an even greater escape. They let you travel without having to go through airport security or get stuck in a strange city’s traffic. Darren Groth’s Are You Seeing Me? takes readers from an Australian airport to several stops in Canada and the United States, journeying alongside nineteen-year-old Justine and her twin brother, Perry.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ada was born with a clubfoot, and her mother is ashamed of it. Because of that, Ada has never been out of the house, never learned anything, even though she is... or at least THINKS she is, 10 years old. Her little brother Jamie, on the other hand, is their mother’s favorite, and can play outside and attend school. As the war gets closer to London, plans are made for Jamie to be sent to the country to stay safe. Ada sneaks away with Jamie, and they get on a train with the other children from London. People who live in the country will take in children until World War II is over, but what if no one wants Ada and Jamie? This was a very engrossing book, and I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction. The ending of this book is one of the most satisfying I’ve read in a long time, with a perfect last line. Highly recommended!

10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac

Maeve deals with extreme anxiety, and it doesn't help that her mom is traveling to Haiti and sending Maeve to live with her father for six months. Her father who is a recovering alcoholic, and whose wife is seven months pregnant and planning a home birth - Maeve can't even begin to list all of the possible problems with that situation! Maeve's life seems to be spiraling out of control little by little, getting derailed by things that might not necessarily throw anyone else off track. 

Lila and Hadley by Kody Keplinger

This is a great book about family struggles, coming out of your shell, and includes realistic portrayal of disabilities you don’t often see addressed in fiction. It’s an #ownvoices book, and you need to read it. When Lila, a hard-to-reach dog begins interacting with Hadley, she lets herself be convinced to foster and train the dog for the summer. She seems a lot of similarities between herself and the stubborn dog, but agrees to make an effort of Lila does. That includes acknowledging her declining vision and taking mobility classes, as well as putting herself out there to make friends.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten.

Adam has OCD to the extent that he goes to group therapy. The other teens in the group have trouble opening up and coping, so they all have superhero alteregos to use during the sessions. When Robyn joins the group, Adam is smitten. He’s determined to get better for her, to stop lying, to stop his compulsions, and to start doing the work assigned in therapy. His mother, however, has her own issues that keep Adam’s anxiety high. I’ve never known much about OCD so it was enlightening to read about teens suffering from it, and the different things they do, as well as the different ways to cope. This book was incredibly suspenseful, with Adam's anxiety rising throughout the story, coupled with the mystery of what his mother is going through.

We Could Be Heroes by Margaret Finnegan

Hank hates the book his teacher is reading to the class. It's really emotional and sad and Hank can't handle it. So he steals the book and sets it on fire in the boys' bathroom. He gets in trouble, of course, but also captures the attention of his classmate, Maisie. Maisie sees strength in Hank, and sees that he's willing to stand up for what he believes in. So she introduces him to Booler, the sweet pit bull next door who is always tied to a tree. Maisie wants Hank to help her free Booler, and as he gets swept up in her plan, Hank learns a lot about himself and friendship.

My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee.

Zinny is used to her home life being pretty wild since she has three siblings, but when her older brother, Gabriel, is in a car accident, things at home completely change. Gabriel is admitted to a hospital to get his bipolar disorder under control, and Zinny feels horrible that she told an adult about Gabriel's strange behaviors. But now her parents don't want Zinny to tell anyone about Gabriel, so Zinny doesn't know what to talk to her friends about. They keep talking about boys they have crushes on, but Zinny isn't interested in that. She loves science, so she starts spending her lunch period in the science lab with Ms. Molina, her favorite teacher. Zinny starts using science as her outlet, to help her stay as calm as she possibly can, considering both her family life AND social life are in shambles. Zinny just wants Gabriel to come home, for her parents to understand, and to make it into the summer science camp her teacher nominates her for; but all of that seems like too big of a miracle.

El Deafo by Cece Bell.

A graphic memoir by Cece Bell. In really cute, bright illustrations, she tells the story of how she had to get hearing aids at a young age, and how she coped with being different from everyone else. I love graphic memoirs and Bell has a great style.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork.

Marcelo is a teenage boy with Asperger’s syndrome. He attends a private school for students with disabilities, and has earned a summer job there, working with the therapy ponies. His dad is a lawyer who doesn’t understand Marcelo’s mind, and seems embarrassed by his son’s “impairment”. He wants Marcelo to attend the public high school for his senior year, so he makes Marcelo a wager: if Marcelo works in his father’s law firm for the summer, he can decide to stay at his private school, or move on to the more challenging public high school. Marcelo really wanted to work with the ponies because that’s his dream job, but he agrees to his father’s stipulations and tackles a summer in “the real world.” I liked that this book was unsentimental, yet still managed to be poignant and emotional in a few select scenes. Overall, I got a dark, somewhat sad feeling from the book, but it wasn’t depressing. It was very compelling to keep reading, even though there wasn’t a lot of suspense or action.

Girls like Us by Gail Giles.

An amazing and emotional story about two teen girls with disabilities who graduate from high school and become roommates. They live with an old lady on the condition that they help her around the house. This book is so real and honest, and so moving. It was so good that I already want to re-read it; I think it'll stay on my list of all-time favorites.

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper.

Everyone who raves about R.J. Palacio's Wonder should read this book. Melody has cerebral palsy, which means she can't walk, can't even move her limbs much at all, and can't speak. But her limitations are purely physical. Melody has enjoyed reading and learning since she was read to as a baby, and now, at eleven, she is very intelligent. She knows the definitions of countless words, and knows a lot of trivia - she just can't prove it to anyone. The communication board her parents made is very limited, so Melody has to try and communicate through blinks, nods, and the occasional tantrum. When she starts fifth grade, her special class starts attending inclusion classes, which opens Melody's world up and leads to new opportunities. You'd think a book about a fifth grader would be low stakes, but there was some excellent suspense in this story! Melody was so well-written that I wanted to be her friend. I work with adults with disabilities, and this book really opened my eyes to what the individuals with CP are going through every day. It's an amazing book for everyone to read, and I'm going to be recommending it to everyone I meet.

Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum.

Another book with characters who have disabilities. The story is told from different points of view of teens living in the institution, as well as employees who work there. It's an interesting story, but due to the institutional setting, it's especially effective as a way to bring about change.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Wonder is one of those books I heard so much about - people loved it, the beautifully simplistic cover was posted everywhere around the Internet, libraries, bookstores. I knew I wanted to read it, even though I didn't actually know what it was about. So I started with the first page and was absolutely drawn in. August Pullman got a bad mix of genes from his parents, which resulted in a cleft jaw, ears that weren't fully formed, drooping eyes, and more. He had been homeschooled by his mother, but once he turned ten, she thought it was time for him to start "real" school. The book deals with Auggie's fifth grade year, all the lessons he and his family learns, and all the people he encounters. Auggie is the main narrator, but many chapters are narrated by his old sister, Via, her boyfriend, and August's friends at school. I thought the book was great because it was so interesting, and after a time, you forgot what August looked like, just as those who knew him did, until someone new came into the scene with their reactions. It seemed very honest in the way it addressed how the public in general reacts to people who are different from them. Honest without a hint of judgement, just acknowledging that most people initially react to such a thing, then hitting home the point that all the world needs is kindness. Or, to be more specific, a little more kindness than is necessary. I especially loved August's sense of humor about himself, and Mr. Browne's monthly precepts - it makes me want to be an English teacher, just to use his idea!

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Maid + The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose

The Maid and The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose are nice spins on cozy mysteries. Molly lives in a small apartment and loves to keep it clean. She also loves that aspect of her job and is satisfied with it, even though many people might not enjoy that type of work.

There's very little drama in Molly's life - or at least, what's there, like grieving her grandmother and crushing on a coworker, isn't dealt with in an emotional way as it might be in a more literary novel. The only drama is the murders that happen in the Regency Grand Hotel, where she works.

Of course, Molly is the one investigating both murders. That's the hallmark of a cozy mystery, along with other key characteristics that make this genre stand out.

Ironically, for me, the mysteries in these books weren't that compelling. In both reviews, I mention they were fairly slow reads for me. 

For The Maid, my review stated: "I like the premise of this book but it was really slow going. The ending, conversely, seemed rushed. Overall the story was great but I wish the pacing was more consistent."

For The Mystery Guest, I wrote: "Both this and its prequel, The Maid, read slow for me, but were enjoyable stories overall. Almost cozy mysteries since Molly seems so content with her job and space in life. As a ghostwriter by profession, the case in this one did interest me more. I’d definitely read more from the author."

Clearly, something about Molly's life kept me coming back. I like how cozy mysteries can feel like no-strings-attached reads. While I love getting attached to fictional characters, crying with them, and thinking of them long after I finish the book, sometimes it's nice to just... not have that level of attachment. So that's what made me read both of these books and what will push me to read more from this author/in this series.

What I liked most was how Molly was neurodivergent, most likely on the autism spectrum, but it was never explicitly stated. I like that the books aren't defined by having an autistic narrator. Plus, not knowing Molly's diagnosis, if she has one, feels more true to life.

If you like the niche of Molly being neurodivergent or the mysteries set in a hotel, you might like other cozy mysteries with diverse niches.

On the note of neurodivergence/autism/disabilities, I'll compile links and reviews to other books I've read that feature people with disabilities. Many are middle-grade and YA because my MLIS capstone project was collection development for a disabilities department. But there are adult novels out there, too, so I'll share a list Thursday.

Until then, please share your thoughts on The Maid and The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose in the comments!

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Goodreads History

Yesterday was a completely lazy day, but this morning my kid and I officially set our Goodreads goals. In doing so, I remembered that they show your whole history on the sidebar. I thought it would be interesting to share here!

My goal history

My kid's goal history