Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

by Sara Nisha Adams
read by Tara Divina, Sagar Arya, and Paul Panting

HarperAudio, 2021. 12 hours, 47 minutes.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book is about a handwritten reading list that several people find in different surprising places in Wembley, a suburb of London. And then how reading those books changes people’s lives.

The two central characters who get most of the book’s time are Aleisha, a 17-year-old who’s working at the library as a summer job, and Mukesh, an elderly Indian gentleman who lost his wife two years before. Aleisha has her own pressures as she and her older brother are trying to care for their mother, who keeps the house dark and rarely leaves her bed. Aleisha’s planning to head to university and study to be a lawyer when the summer is over.

The first time Mukesh comes to the library, he encounters Aleisha, who has no recommendations for him and is quite rude. But Aleisha feels guilty, so when she finds the Reading List, she decides to read the books and then pass them on to Mukesh. Both their lives are profoundly touched.

I love the way this book highlights how a good book can affect you so deeply. Books can give you insights into your own life and even help build relationships. Besides Mukesh and Aleisha, Mukesh also gains new ground with his granddaughter through books.

I’ve read and loved all but three of the books on the list. Here are the books:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
The Kite Runner, by Kaled Hosseini
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

The book The Time Traveler’s Wife is also featured.

The three I haven’t read are The Kite Runner, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. Now I want to go out and read those three if they’re anything as good as the others.

I did laugh that my favorite on the list – Pride and Prejudice – was the least favorite of the characters in the book. Oh well! At least it got included.

So it was all a wonderful story. I particularly loved the narrator who read Mukesh’s chapters. I felt like the character was talking with me and this kind elderly widower won my heart.

I did have some things that bothered me a lot about their portrayal of a library. Maybe things are different in the U.K., but I’m not really convinced they are.

First, a student working in the library for the summer is not called a librarian. A librarian is someone with a master’s degree in library science. Although a customer might mistakenly call such a person a librarian, the workers would not perpetuate that mistake.

Next, this poor hardly-occupied library needed library outsiders – Mukesh and Aleisha – to come up with an idea to “save” it – by having a program! A program where the community gets together. That’s all well and good and they had a very nice reason for it. But come on, is the author aware that most libraries have a full schedule of programs to engage their communities? It’s not actually a novel idea.

I did think it was interesting that while they talked about a few regulars, that particular library didn’t have any patrons experiencing homelessness. Maybe that’s not a problem in England? Of course, the library in the book was much, much less frequented than the one where I work. We get more than 800 customers on a typical day. I know there are libraries that don’t get so many, but the portrayal – in a book reminding us how reading can change lives – made me wince a little bit.

I also really wondered how the books on the list were chosen. It was interesting that there was only one children’s book – Little Women – and it’s a very old children’s book, set in 1860s America. But that of course got me thinking: If I were to make a list of my favorite books, books that had power to move people deeply and affect their lives and relationships, which books would I choose?

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Review of Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison

Lawn Boy

by Jonathan Evison

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018. 312 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book

Okay, I’ll be honest — the only reason I read this book was to find out what all the fuss was about. After another library in our system included this title in a display of banned books, a resident protested, and Fox News picked it up — and people from all over the country called our library and complained. I particularly remember a man from Arizona yelling at me and telling me that I approve of pornography.

So let me tackle the objections head-on. My first reaction after actually reading the entire book is disgust — disgust at the book banners, not at the book.

First, let me point out this is a book for adults. It is published for adults and marketed for adults. However, it features a 24-year-old protagonist who’s figuring out how to make a living and move out of his mom’s house, so it may well be of interest to juniors and seniors in high school who are thinking about their future. It won an Alex Award, which is specifically for adult books that have appeal for teens. So it is appropriate for high schools to carry it. Not middle schools, but I doubt that’s even an issue.

And I have read so many adult books that are much, much more explicit in sexual content. The difference? Most of those other books involve heterosexual relationships, and I can’t help but think it’s the same-sex relationship that bothers the book banners.

But — get this — there is absolutely no “on-screen” sex in this book. I’ll give a little bit of a spoiler that the main character finds a wonderful and affirming relationship with another man and spends the night with him. But the book pretty much fades to black and he simply wakes up in the morning next to his partner. Absolutely no description of having sex.

And I don’t hear much about that. What the banners seem to object to is that the main character mentions some experimentation with another boy in fourth grade. The other kid’s idea, but it was a mutual activity, and not by any stretch of the imagination does it constitute “pedophilia,” as the caller from Arizona seemed to think. The narrator does talk about it using coarse language, and he’s a tiny bit more detailed when he talks about losing his virginity with a girl six years before the book opens, but it’s funny how the banners don’t mention that.

Yes, the book is full of profanity. It’s talking about working-class families where this is how they talk. It would feel very inauthentic if they talked like a suburban mom. Now, I personally prefer novels where characters do talk like me, a suburban mom, and don’t use profanity. But sometimes it’s good to read about lives I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about and build some empathy.

Let me, finally, talk about the story. It’s about a kid named Mike Muñoz who loves landscaping. He even has a talent for topiary. But he currently works for a company that watches his every move and makes him pick up dog droppings (not referred to so delicately), and he has enough, so he quits. But he’s already living with his mom, who works two jobs, and caring for his three-hundred-pound older brother with special needs. It’s not easy to find something new. And meanwhile, there’s a waitress he has his eye on, but how can he impress a girl without having any money?

The book follows his efforts and his stumbles. He encounters various people who seem like they’re going to help but then let him down. About halfway through the book, I told myself I was only finishing it because I wanted to know what I was defending. However, I was glad I did finish. As the book progresses, Mike does learn from his mistakes and his setbacks — even the ones that weren’t his fault. And he really grew on me.

I’ve already given away that there’s a same-sex romance — that happening is the first Mike realizes he’s gay. The portrayal of that relationship is beautifully done and it’s lovely to see Mike relating to someone who builds him up instead of exploiting him. Outside of that, Mike figures out who he is and what he wants — and yes, the book has a happy and deeply satisfying ending, and I’m so glad I didn’t stop in the middle.

I’ll admit this novel is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not the sort of book I typically recommend. But I ended up very happy I’d expanded my horizons by reading this book and gaining empathy for someone whose life is quite different from mine.

So I do recommend putting this book on hold at your local library. Chances are good you won’t find it on the shelves because with all the attention it’s been getting, the Holds list is long.

algonquin.com

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Review of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder

by Holly Jackson
read by Bailey Carr, Marisa Calin, and a full cast

Listening Library, 2020. 10 hours, 53 minutes.
Review written April 29, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Big thanks to my coworker Lisa for telling me about this series!

High school senior Pippa decides to use her Capstone Project to investigate a local murder. Everyone in town knows that when pretty and popular Andie Bell disappeared five years ago, it was her boyfriend Sal Singh who killed her. After all, he texted a confession and killed himself shortly after, his body found with her phone.

But Pip remembers Sal. He was a kind person. Could he really have done that? Doesn’t it deserve a little more investigation?

The first person she interviews is Sal’s younger brother, Ravi. He has believed Sal is innocent all this time, but no one in town will talk to him. His whole family is despised because of Andie Bell’s murder. Now Pip is trying to clear his brother’s name, and Ravi has some information that might help.

Pip finds out pretty quickly that Andie wasn’t as sweet and innocent as the stories implied after her death. And as she digs, she starts getting threats that she needs to stop. How persistent will she be? And at what cost?

With a full cast presenting the story, this audiobook is perfect for fans of murder mysteries. How much sleuthing can a high school student do? I found myself believing that Pip’s perspective as a kid at the same high school gave her insight that the police had overlooked.

Now that the mystery is solved, I’m wondering what’s left to find out in the next two volumes of the trilogy, but I’m definitely going to find out.

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Review of The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, read by Carey Mulligan

The Midnight Library

by Matt Haig
read by Carey Mulligan

Penguin Audio, 2020. 8 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written May 17, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

This audiobook was a lot of fun and kept me entertained and absorbed to the end — which is saying something because I’m not in the target audience. I don’t believe in parallel universes.

The characters in this book say that it’s science, but I’m sorry, just because a physicist came up with a theory to explain some equations, that doesn’t mean it’s science. This isn’t a theory you can verify, after all. To me, the theory that a new universe is created every time you make a decision, besides seeming wildly unlikely, takes away a lot of human agency. What does it matter what choice you make if in another universe you made a different one?

In fiction, it also takes away from the story — why should I care about this particular character if another character just like them is doing something different in another universe? Why should I care about this particular set of choices? But if your choices do make a difference — you’ve got a story.

The way parallel universes come up in The Midnight Library is that Nora Seed has some sad things happen and decides to end her life. After she attempts to do so, she finds herself in the Midnight Library. It’s a library with infinite shelves where the time is always midnight. She sees her old school librarian there, who tells Nora this is her chance to undo her regrets. Each book in the Midnight Library represents another life that Nora could have lived. Choosing a book and reading it takes Nora into another life in an alternate universe where she made a different decision somewhere along the way. If she finds a life that she likes, she can stay.

So, in this context, the alternate universes do provide a fascinating way to explore Nora’s regrets. She quickly sees that if she had done what other people wanted her to — things didn’t always turn out so wonderful. So can she find the life she actually wants?

It does work as an interesting frame, but I still have trouble with the logistics. Nora dropped into lives without the memories of the alternate-Nora from that life. A lot of good it would do to be a polar researcher if you know absolutely nothing about the topic, after all. And I kept wondering, Where did the alternate Nora go? And wouldn’t it be a shame to have fallen in love and gotten married and had a child if you couldn’t remember doing any of those things? So it didn’t seem like a fair trial of the alternate lives. And without having actually made the choices that got her there, they talked about Nora’s “root life” — as if that Nora is the real person and her alternate selves are disposable.

But if you think of this book as a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a vivid look at what would have happened if things had been different — and don’t get too bogged down in the details (as I tend to do), it is always fun to speculate how things might have turned out if you had made different choices.

This book also helped me realize that I’ve outgrown my regrets. There was a time when I wondered how life would have turned out if, for example, I hadn’t dropped out of a PhD program in mathematics. But after my divorce, that all seems like water under the bridge. My divorce was something that got me wondering if I could have done something differently to prevent it (even though it was my ex-husband’s idea). But now, twelve years after the divorce was final, my career as a librarian is blossoming — and if I hadn’t gotten divorced, I would have been content to continue to work part-time. But because I got my library degree and became a librarian, I got to serve on the Newbery committee, and just this week, I got word that I landed my dream job as Youth Materials Selector for my whole public library system. Life is good! So who needs regrets?

Still, this book, and this interesting story of Nora and many different things she might have done, is what got me thinking about how nice it is to live without regrets. So if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about the mechanics, I do recommend this book.

matthaig.com

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Review of Jo Jo Makoons, The Used-To-Be Best Friend, by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert

Jo Jo Makoons

The Used-To-Be Best Friend

by Dawn Quigley
illustrated by Tara Audibert

Heartdrum (HarperCollins), 2021. 72 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
2022 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Book

This book begins a series about Jo Jo Makoons, who is an outgoing first grade girl who lives on an Ojibwe Native American reservation. Like so many wonderful beginning chapter books, it deals with things that will appeal to other first graders, including school issues and friends. Do Jo Jo’s friends still want to be friends?

There are eight chapters and plenty of illustrations. Jo Jo teaches the reader some Native American words, and I like the way she is delighted with her family, her friends, and her community.

There’s some kid-level humor when she sneaks her cat Mimi in her backpack and Mimi hides in a model tipi. And of course a school story is going to have some friend drama — it all comes out happy in the end.

Here’s a fun scene that shows Jo Jo’s way of thinking:

I like to do math thinking about my Ojibwe community. Like last week Teacher asked us to think about a math problem: Five people want to eat a bunch of four bananas. Each person can have only one. How many people don’t get a banana?

I answered, “Everyone gets some bananas.”

Teacher shook his head no. He said that one person would not get any bananas.

“But we all share what we have,” I said. “That’s what Native people do.”

Teacher didn’t say anything after that. See? I’m good at math.

This is a fun new series for kids ready for chapter books, and I love that Jo Jo’s pride in her people and her home comes through. There’s a blurb at the back for the organization We Need Diverse Books, which has a goal “to create a world where every child can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

dawnquigley.com
moxyfox.ca
cynthialeitichsmith.com
diversebooks.org

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Review of Ain’t Burned All the Bright, by Jason Reynolds, artwork by Jason Griffin

Ain’t Burned All the Bright

by Jason Reynolds
artwork by Jason Griffin
read by Jason Reynolds and a full cast

Atheneum, 2022. 384 pages.
Audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022. 30 minutes.
Review written April 12, 2022, from a library book and eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Ain’t Burned All the Bright is an illustrated poem about a kid and his family at home during the pandemic. That doesn’t sound very exciting — but the poet is Jason Reynolds. And his long-time friend Jason Griffin did 384 pages of art to go with it.

I put a hold on the audiobook before I realized it was an illustrated poem and not a novel. And decided that both listening to the audiobook and looking at the artwork was the perfect way to experience this book.

The audiobook performs the text twice — first with Jason Reynolds reading it, then with a full cast. And then there’s a discussion between the creators at the end (which is also printed in the book). The whole thing only takes 30 minutes, so this is a quick read, but has lovely play with images and language.

Jason Reynolds said this book began thinking about oxygen masks. The way he plays with that image is surprising and lovely.

We’ve got a kid wondering why his mother doesn’t change the channel, a brother playing video games, a sister talking on her phone, and a father ill in his bedroom. And the kid has thoughts about it all.

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. But it’s Jason Reynolds’ poetry along with striking images, and I would really like to talk with a kid who reads this book to find out all the things they notice that I miss. It feels like there’s more than meets the eye here. But I do know I like it.

jasonwritesbooks.com

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Review of Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor

Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 2022. 322 pages.
Review written April 19, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

Leslie Connor is the author of The Truth According to Mason Buttle, a book that completely stole my heart from the year I was on the Newbery Committee. It did win the Schneider Family Award for portrayal of a disability, and Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? may well do the same.

Frenchie is an eleven-year-old boy who doesn’t speak. But his best friend, Aurora, knows how to watch him and find out what he’s thinking and feeling. Frenchie loves birds, the sky, and the sun. Aurora is in many ways the opposite of Frenchie, loud and talkative. But together, they have adventures. They live in the Maine woods, and enjoy seeing the wildlife and natural wonders, though Frenchie is the best at spotting birds. He’ll whistle and flap his hands when he does. Aurora likes to do things like follow the amazing piebald deer that has been lurking in the woods.

Aurora’s shaken by the news that for sixth grade, she and Frenchie will be in different classrooms. She makes some new friends in her new classroom, but Frenchie is still her best friend. And Aurora walks him to his classroom each morning.

But one morning, Aurora’s father drives them to school, and Frenchie doesn’t make it to his classroom. No one can find him in the school building anywhere. Aurora feels like she’s failed her friend.

But the entire town springs into action, and the quest to find Frenchie is on.

The story is mostly told from Aurora’s perspective, but we also get episodes from other characters who live in the town, as well as Frenchie’s perspective. When he first wanders off, following something he knows Aurora would want to see, he passes very close to other people in town, but one after another, they fail to notice him.

The characters in this book are delightful, including loud and exuberant Aurora, who’s so good at noticing what Frenchie needs, the softball coach who knows woodcraft, the couple who bakes and delivers blueberry pies, and Frenchie himself, who keeps pictures of birds in his special needlepoint purse. I also enjoyed Aurora’s toddler brother, who spotted what Frenchie was up to right from the start — if only anyone had understood him.

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Friday Night Wrestlefest, by J. F. Fox, illustrated by Micah Player

Friday Night Wrestlefest

by J. F. Fox
illustrated by Micah Player

Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 48 pages.
Review written March 31, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I met the author of this book at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center, doing a writers’ retreat. I found the book on our library shelves and was completely charmed.

The picture book shows us a Friday night tradition. After a pizza dinner, there’s a blocked off “Arena” with lots of cushions and pillows and blankets. A banner declares “FRIDAY NIGHT WRESTLEFEST” with a sign saying “Main Event: Battle to the Bedtime.”

In this corner it’s — DANGEROUS DADDOO!

He’s mad. He’s bad.
He’s DAD.

Over on the kid crew we have — THE TAG TEAM TWINS. Featuring tthe nutty-by-nature PEANUT BROTHER and the wriggly-giggly JELLYFISH

*with special guest star* . . . BIG BALD BABY!

And then the Wrestlefest begins! All the participants have homemade costumes and specially named moves appropriate to them. (Daddoo’s may involve tickling and kissing.) There’s a twist in the action coming from MAMA-RAMAAAAAA doing a Flying Mom Bomb. And it all wraps up with a surprise offensive from Big Bald Baby.

And then, like all the best picture books, the story ends with the kids tucked into bed. I like the way the bedtime routine gets wrestle move names, too, like Brush-n-Flush and Book-n-Tuck. The wrestlefest becomes a nestlefest.

It’s all got simple language, fun pictures, and big, dramatic action.

What especially made the book fun for me was hearing from the author that this Friday Night Wrestlefest was based on actual Friday nights in their home. Perhaps readers can start their own Friday night tradition!

jffox.com

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Review of Stuntboy: In the Meantime, by Jason Reynolds, drawings by Raúl the Third

Stuntboy #1

In the Meantime

by Jason Reynolds
drawings by Raúl the Third

A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), 2021. 268 pages.
Review written March 5, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Schneider Family Honor Book

Stuntboy is not quite a graphic novel, since it doesn’t use speech balloons — at least, not very many. But it does have drawings on every page and lots of variety in the way the text is presented. If a kid, like Stuntboy himself, is easily distracted, the fact that each page is different in this book should keep their interest going.

Stuntboy is Portico Reeves. He lives in a castle — well, at least in the biggest house on the block, what other people call an apartment building.

We learn early on that Portico sometimes gets the Frets.

What?
You’ve never heard of the frets?
You’re kidding, right?
The un-sit-stillables?
The worry wiggles?
The bowling ball belly bottoms?
The jumpy grumpies?
(Or the grumpy jumpies, depending on who you ask.)
The hairy scaries, or worse, the VERY hairy scaries?
No?
Maybe it’s because your mom probably calls it what Portico’s grandma calls it – “anxiety.”

Portico is a character impossible not to love. I love his bright outlook on life. He and his best friend are fans of superheroes, so they decide to be superheroes themselves. Stuntboy is a superhero who does the stunts for other heroes (like his friend Zola) so they don’t have to get hurt. Often those stunts involve bouncing off walls, and Stuntboy doesn’t mind practicing. And he’s happy to save heroes when they don’t even realize it.

But when Portico walks in on his parents having a fight and they ask him to go to Zola’s apartment “in the meantime,” he figures that’s the time in which his normally nice parents are being mean to each other. And the meantime starts happening more and more often.

And every superhero has a nemesis. Stuntboy’s is another kid in the castle, Herbert Singletary the Worst.

I’m excited this is only the beginning of this series about an extremely likable kid. This will keep young readers turning pages.

JasonWritesBooks.com
RaulTheThird.com
simonandschuster.com/kids

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Review of Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows, by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson

Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows

by Rose Lagercrantz and Eva Eriksson
translated by Julia Marshall

Gecko Press, 2019. First published in Sweden in 2018. 181 pages.
Review written July 4, 2019, from a library book

For a book from a series called My Happy Life, I wasn’t prepared for how many sad things happen. This is the seventh book about Dani, a Swedish girl in year two at school. I was able to enjoy it without having read the earlier books, though it did make me want to read them.

Dani is indeed a happy little girl, but many sad things have happened to her. Her mother is dead and at the start of this book, her father is sad and decides to take a trip to Rome to see his mother. Dani will stay with her grandparents, as she did after her mother died.

Dani gets a wonderful idea. She will go see Ella, her best friend in the whole world, the friend who moved away.

But Grandma can’t drive her because her bridge friends are coming over. And Grandpa can’t drive her because his car is in the shop. So they arrange for Dani to ride the train to Northbrook all by herself. Ella’s mother will meet her at the station.

But things do not go according to plan.

And I know this is a series, and I hope this situation will be made all better in the next book – but I thought book as a whole shows a lot of disappointments for a book named Where Dani Goes, Happy Follows.

However, it’s still true that I loved Dani and loved the matter-of-fact approach to her adventures, which is just perfect for a beginning chapter book. This book has twenty-five short chapters with lots of drawings to accompany the words, and it’s perfect for kids beginning to read chapter books.

I did love looking at life through the eyes of a young Swedish girl. I plan to go back and read the whole series. And I guess I have to concede that despite some disappointments, the title is true – at least for me.

geckopress.com

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