A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
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Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Lost for Words Bookshop

by Stephanie Butland
First sentence: “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some off-screen sex, some difficult themes, and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Loveday (pronounced love-DEE) Cardew works in a used bookshop, and would rather not deal with anyone she doesn’t have to. Archie, the owner, is okay — he’s been informally looking out for her since she walked into his office at 15 and tried to steal a book and he offered her a job instead — but everyone else? Loveday is fine on her own, thank you very much.

But then two things happen: Nathan, a magician and a poet, accidentally walks into Loveday’s life, and books from her past start appearing at the bookshop. These two things combined force Loveday to rethink her relationship to her past, as well as to others around her. And maybe — just maybe — it’s time for a change.

It’s rare for me to find an adult book I like, even rarer to find one that I find completely charming. But this one hit all my buttons: it’s basically about book-lovers, and it’s a smart love story with a depth to it. I adored Loveday and her gruffness; as her backstory unfolds, you understand why she is the way she is, and you feel for her. And I loved Archie; he was definitely a personality that takes up the room. It was populated with all sorts of characters I wanted to get to know and loved spending time with. I also liked the format; Butland titled sections “Poetry” and “History” and “Memoir” among others, and I thought it was clever and fitting in a book set in a bookshop.

In short: this one was incredibly sweet and I adored it.

Girl Mans Up

by M-E Girard
First sentence: “There are four of us dudes sitting here right now.”
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Content: There’s smoking and drinking, a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs) and talk of sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’m going to say this up front: I’m glad this book exists. I’m glad that this book is out there for the people it represents, and for people to understand those who are different. I understand the value of this book, even if I didn’t finish it.

Pen Oliveria just wants to be herself. She likes playing video games, and she likes dressing in jeans and tshirts and hanging out with guys. She’s attracted to girls, but she doesn’t want to be your stereotypical “feminine” girl. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold up with her old-world, traditional Portuguese parents, and no one at school — even her friends — seem to get this.

I bailed mostly because I wanted to punch Pen’s best friend, Colby. He’s the definition of toxic masculinity, picking up girls to hook up with them and dump them, judging them solely on their looks. He claims that loyalty is the most important thing, but he is constantly making fun of his friends and leaving them high and dry.  He tolerates Pen because she reels the girls in for Colby to bag and bang, but when she decides to be done with that — after Colby gets a girl pregnant and says it’s not his problem — he’s done with her. I literally wanted to punch him every time he opened his mouth. And Pen’s parents were no better. They are constantly upset at Pen’s older brother, Johnny, for not having a “real” job — Johnny owns his own landscaping business that is slowly gaining a good reputation — because he doesn’t want to work at the factory where their father works. And they’re constantly railing on Pen for not being feminine enough. It’s awful and toxic and a good way to ruin a relationship with your children.

Between the two of those things, I just couldn’t finish. Call it wrong time for me and the book.

 

Audio book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman
Read by Cathleen McCarron
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some disturbing material, and quite a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Eleanor Oliphant is fine. She has a job — the same job she’s had since she graduated from university — as a finance clerk in a graphic design firm. She goes to work, she comes home, gets drunk on weekends, and talks to her mom (which is not a pleasant experience) on Wednesday nights. She has food, shelter, and work. It’s not a bad life.

Then, one day, she sees a musician that she decides she wants to have a relationship with, so she starts changing herself superficially. And at pretty much the same time, she ends up talking to Raymond, an IT guy in the building, and purely by happenstance, they end up helping an older gentleman who took a bad fall outside a store. And suddenly Eleanor’s life opens up.

This was such a delightful book! It has dark undertones with emotional and physical abuse, but it wasn’t graphic, and it played a role in Eleanor’s growth arc. As a character, she was delightful to spend time with, and the other characters that Honeyman populated the book with were absolutely charming. I appreciated that Raymond and Eleanor developed a close friendship, but not a romance (though that door wasn’t completely shut). That, and the narrator was absolutely delightful! It was one of the those books that I found myself immersed in, and one I didn’t want to get out of the car when I was listening.

An excellent read.

Dying to Meet You

by Kate Klise, Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise
First sentence: “By turning this page and the pages that follow, you hereby release the compilers of this correspondence from all liability related to thoughts, ruminations, hallucinations, and dreams (good or bad) of or pertaining to ghosts, friendly or otherwise.”
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Content: So, this is a weird one: the narrator’s an older man and there’s a bit of a love story, but the skill level is beginning chapter plus it’s full of illustrations. My professor has this as a middle school-level book, and the vocabulary level is a bit high, but I’d be tempted to put it in the Beginning Chapter books (Grades 1-3) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: the best part of this book is the names. Celebrated children’s author I.B. Grumply is looking for a house to rent so he can finish the latest book in his best-selling series. He rents 43 Old Cemetary Road, which is, unfortunately, haunted by the ghost of a librarian and unpublished writer, Olive C. Spence. It also comes with a kid,  Seymour Hope, whose parents (awful as they are) have up and left him. The basic plot is this: I. B. Grumply wants peace and quiet, doesn’t believe there’s a ghost, and rages at Seymour until his convinces Grumply that the ghost is real (and cooks a mean dinner) and then they set about purchasing the house so they can all live happily ever after.

So, this was one of the books in the mystery unit for school, and I have to disagree: there is NO mystery here. It’s a ghost story, plain and simple. And it works as a ghost story. I liked the humor — the names are the best — but otherwise, this one was entirely forgettable.

Ask the Passengers

by A. S. King
First sentence: “Every airplane, no matter how far it is up there, I send love to it.”
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Content: There’s almost sex, references to pot smoking (by an adult), and a number of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) at the bookstore.

Astrid Jones’ parents moved her from New York City to Union Valley, a wealthy small town somewhere in Pennsylvania (or Ohio; I never quite figured it out) when she was 10. In the seven years since, Astrid has felt like an outsider, and so, as her family slowly dissolves — her father off smoking his pot, her mother to her job, her sister to being popular — Astrid spends her time surviving, trying to figure out if she’s gay, and sending her love to the airplanes that fly above.

Of course there’s more to the story than that: Astrid has a girlfriend she’s keeping secret from everyone, she and her friends get busted for being underage at a gay bar, she explores the philosophy of Socrates, and she and her family try to (maybe) figure out how to be a family.

The thing that struck me most — and this is just because of who I am and my personal experiences — is that King nailed the feeling of being on the outside. Especially when you’re on the outside in a small, conservative, wealthy town. Where everyone knew each other from the time they were little and then you move in and they never really — even if you do have a couple of friends — accept you for who you are because you don’t fit their idea of “acceptable”. There was  LOT in here about appearances and labels and fitting in and caring what other people think of you, and that’s what resonated. I think, especially since this was published seven years ago, that our ideas of LGBT and labels about sexuality have changed (mine have,  at least) and so the fact that Astrid felt that she needed to come out as definitely gay was a bit off-putting: everyone around her pushed her to label herself, whereas I think now we might be more open to her saying “I’m in love with a girl” and not making her label herself as “gay” because of that. But maybe I’m wrong.

At any rate, this gave me a lot to think about. I loved it.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

by Jack Gantos
First sentence: “At school they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad, depending on my mood and what teacher has ended up with me.”
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Content: It’s short, and it’s got short chapters, so probably good for reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Joey Pigza has problems sitting still and focusing. It’s just the way he’s “wired”: he has an excess of energy and he just can’t focus. Unfortunately, that tends to get him in trouble, especially in school. That is, until one day when he accidentally hurts another student with scissors. Then he’s sent to a “special ed” (ugh) school in order to figure out how to behave better. Which not only involves getting Joey the right medication, but als teaching him how to focus so he can learn.

Honestly? I wanted to smack the adults in the book. I guess my parenting style is “let them be who they are” which I suppose doesn’t always translate well into strict social situations, but HONESTLY. I know Joey has ADHD, and couldn’t focus, and it was a medical condition that was interfering with his learning, but I wanted to shake every single adult that told him to sit still and be “normal”. NORMAL? Really?

But Joey, I felt so bad for him. His mother abandoned him (but came back), his grandmother was abusive, his teachers were impatient with him… he just needed some time, some caring, and some attention to help him focus. Okay, so maybe there’s a lot of class issues in this one as well: they were lower class — his mom worked at a salon — and so she didn’t have the time to sit at home and interact with him in ways that he needed. And his diet of candy and fast food also is a class thing. Maybe I’m reading too much into this one, but there’s a lot to unpack about class there, I think. And bad adulting. And about kids with ADHD.

All this from a lower-end middle grade book. Go figure.