Review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

by Taylor Jenkins Reid
read by Alma Cuervo, Julia Whelan, and Robin Miles

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017. 12 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written August 19, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

I heard about this book on Book Tok and thought I’d give it a try. I’m not completely sure why, because I’ve never been a fan of celebrity tell-alls, and this is essentially a fictional celebrity tell-all, telling the life of a glamorous Hollywood icon, the most beautiful woman in the world.

But once I started, the book pulled me in quickly. Instead of starting with the glamorous Evelyn Hugo, the book begins with Monique, a struggling biracial writer who works for an upscale magazine. Her new husband recently decided to move to the west coast, and she didn’t go with him, because this magazine is her chance and she needs to be in New York. So she’s thinking about her empty apartment and short failed marriage.

But then her magazine tells her to go interview the now-reclusive Evelyn Hugo for a feature article. When she tries to figure out why, it turns out that Evelyn Hugo requested her specifically. And when she begins the interviews, she learns that Evelyn doesn’t actually want to do a feature article. She wants to give her story to Monique to publish in a book after Evelyn’s death — but she won’t give Monique any idea if she has a reason to anticipate that will happen soon. The book will be worth millions, but meanwhile, what does Monique tell her employers?

And as we hear Evelyn’s life story, we get more and more pulled in. Despite the seven husbands, she’s no King Henry VIII. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Evelyn is bisexual and the love of her life was a woman. But in Hollywood beginning in the 40s and 50s, that wasn’t something she could let people know and still have a career.

The book does have some raunchy moments. But mostly, you’re pulled into the life of the “most beautiful woman in the world” and come to understand her choices, even the questionable ones. In the middle of the book, I wondered why I’d been pulled into a fake celebrity tell-all, but by the end, I felt like something deeper and more important was going on. Monique gains perspective from hearing Evelyn’s story, and the reader will, too.

Oh, and if you start out by liking celebrity tell-alls, you should enjoy this book all the more!

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Review of The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl

by Stacey Lee
read by Emily Woo Zeller

Tantor Media, 2019. 11 hours, 32 minutes.
Review written September 5, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

Set in 1890 Atlanta, 17-year-old Jo Kuan gets fired from the hat shop where she’d been perfecting her skills, in favor of a white assistant. The man who’s taken care of her all her life in the absence of her parents gets her a job as a lady’s maid back at the stately home of the family where he works as a groom.

Jo and her caregiver, Old Jin, live in an underground space remaining from the days when escaped slaves went through Atlanta, very careful to hide their presence. Jo indulges herself listening to the conversation of the family in the print shop over her bedroom. When they need something to boost circulation in their newspaper, she submits an advice column, written by Miss Sweetie, giving modern views in a clever way. Her column helps newspaper circulation turn around, but she knows she has to be anonymous because Atlanta society would be shocked if they knew they were listening to a Chinese girl.

Meanwhile, Jo uncovers a clue about the identity of her parents, but she has to deal with an unsavory character to find out more. And the unkind young lady Jo works for has secrets of her own. It all builds up toward Race Day, the social event of the year in Atlanta. Old Jin is keeping secrets of his own. Jo worries that he’s arranging a marriage for her, and she’s not ready to give up her freedom.

I enjoyed this eaudiobook, not sure at first I wouldn’t be sorry to start such a long one – but I finished well before the book was due, interested in the characters and their predicaments. I thought there were a lot of coincidences and things that worked out far too well to be believable, but it did make a fun story, and I was happy with the good outcomes. I especially enjoyed the clever letters from Miss Sweetie that started each chapter. Also, Jo’s voice in telling the story was pleasant, using apt metaphors that gave you the feeling of the time and place.

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Review of Displacement, by Kiku Hughes

Displacement

by Kiku Hughes

First Second, 2020. 284 pages.
Review written September 2, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Displacement is a graphic novel telling about a teenage girl who gets suddenly displaced – sent back in time – to her grandmother’s past. The first two times it doesn’t last long, but then she gets displaced for months and sent with others to the incarceration camps of Japanese Americans.

This is a look at those camps through modern eyes. Kiku is bothered that she’s a visitor from the future, but she didn’t really know what happened. Because those who were incarcerated were shamed about it, they didn’t talk much about it, even with their own children. Kiku’s grandmother died before she was born, and not much of her story made its way to Kiku.

Like They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, this book emphasizes the importance of not letting this happen again. Incarcerating people for the color of their skin is a grave injustice, and this book helps you see through the eyes of the humans treated that way.

A powerful story, skillfully told.

firstsecondbooks.com

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Review of Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis

Queen of the Sea

by Dylan Meconis

Walker Books (Candlewick), 2019. 394 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 20, 2019, from a library book

Queen of the Sea is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Margaret, a girl who grows up on an island off the coast of Albion, who doesn’t know who her parents were. The only other people on the island are nuns of the Elysian order, sworn to help sailors and their families.

When Margaret prays for a friend her age, a noble lady comes to the island with her son. They are in exile after their family defied the king. Margaret and this boy grow up together, become friends – for a time. But the next new resident of the island is the deposed queen of Albion, and Margaret gets drawn into political plottings. She’s only an orphan girl, but can her actions on a distant island affect the throne?

The story is not actually based on truth, though it seems so close to royal intrigue of Elizabethan times that I wondered if it was. I like the way the author uses a different style of art for tales told by the nuns. This is a gripping but also heart-warming story with beautiful art. And after last year being on the Newbery committee, I can’t help but think that here’s a graphic novel that will be a solid contender. The story itself is solid enough, and the illustrations definitely don’t detract. Because it’s a graphic novel, this can be read quickly, but it’s a tale with some weight.

Royal intrigue, mysterious origins, an isolated island setting, and rich historical details are all to be found in this lovely graphic novel.

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Review of Beverly, Right Here, by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly, Right Here

by Kate DiCamillo
read by Jorjeana Marie

Listening Library (Penguin Random House), 2019. 4 hours on 4 compact discs.
Review written February 12, 2020, from a library audiobook

Beverly, Right Here is the third book featuring one of the three friends introduced in the book Raymie Nightingale, this one featuring Beverly Tapinski, still in Florida in the 70s.

I was happy to spend time with Beverly, and I love the quirky characters of Kate DiCamillo’s world, especially Ayola, the old lady Beverly befriends.

However, I thought this book was sad and depressing. It begins as Beverly runs away, or as she puts it, leaves. Her dog Buddy has died, and her mother doesn’t care where she is. This book takes place a few years after the others, and Beverly is now fourteen years old. Her plan is to leave for good.

It’s sad to me that Beverly really doesn’t have compelling reasons to go back. But it seemed wildly unrealistic that the first place she walks into, she finds a job willing to not ask questions and pay her under the table. What’s more, she finds a place to live near that job.

I’m happy for Beverly things go so well, and it does make a wonderful story. But I sure do hope that kids reading it don’t think running away would go so well for them.

I did enjoy this audiobook and especially the friends Beverly made. But it made me sad for Beverly, and I was glad it was short. (It’s getting close to a young adult novel, since Beverly needs a job and a place to live. But it’s more the length of a children’s novel, and that fits better with the other two books.)

katedicamillo.com
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Review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
read by Lin Manuel Miranda

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 7 hours and 29 minutes.
Review written February 12, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2013 Pura Belpré Author Award Winner
2013 Stonewall Book Award Winner
2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner
2013 Printz Honor Book

I got to hear Benjamin Alire Sáenz give his Printz Honor acceptance speech in 2013, and that speech made me very much want to read this book. I finally got around to it after a sequel came out in 2021 – and the same day I finished listening to this, I began listening to the sequel. I am so glad to finally read this marvelous book.

It’s a friendship story about two Mexican American boys. They meet at the start of summer before their sophomore year of high school at different high schools in El Paso, Texas, and have a laugh over their similar names. Ari is the narrator of the book, a boy who spends a lot of time in his own head – which makes him a good narrator. Dante is an open-hearted boy full of philosophical questions and free with his emotions – the sort of boy who’d try to rescue a bird with a broken wing in the middle of the street.

But when Dante does that on a rainy day and a car comes around the bend, without thinking, Ari runs and pushes Dante out of the way – at the risk of his own life. There are some other crises in the book, and lots of thinking about life and what things mean. Ari has a brother twelve years older who is in prison, and his family never talks about that brother.

I knew from the Printz acceptance speech that this is also a book about coming out as gay and figuring out who you are. But that takes up most of the book, so I won’t say a lot about that – except it is heart-wrenching and feels true. The book is set in the late 1980s, and they’re up against harsh attitudes in the world around them, many of which are internalized.

Something I love about this book are the two sets of parents, both of whom are wonderfully drawn and love their sons with all their hearts. It’s refreshing to read a book about teens with loving and supportive parents. Ari’s dad is dealing with post-traumatic stress from his time in Viet Nam, but that makes him human and real, not irreparably scarred.

In fact, that’s what’s so wonderful about this book – all the characters feel true. Nobody’s perfect, and they’ve got flaws consistent with their strengths. I found myself wanting to hug these two boys.

And it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda! He didn’t do a tremendous job distinguishing between the voices of the different characters, though I find I’m picking up on subtle differences a little more by the time I’ve started the second book. But in spite of that tiny quibble, I could listen to Lin Manuel Miranda read anything. When it’s a wonderful book he’s reading, it simply added to my love. Of the book!

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Review of I Must Betray You, by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel Books, 2022. 319 pages.
Review written March 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This is another book that’s sobering to read during the war in Ukraine. I wish this was ancient history, but I remember well when it happened.

I Must Betray You is set in Romania in 1989, during the last days of the Ceausescu regime — but seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu doesn’t know they are the last days. All Cristi has ever known is his family’s bleak apartment, waiting in lines for goods, having to speak softly for fear of being overheard, pictures of the Ceausescus overlooking everything, and knowing that anyone might be an informer.

But when Cristian is called into the principal’s office, he hadn’t been prepared that now he needs to be an informer. His mother cleans the house of an American diplomat. Cristian is to accompany her and befriend the diplomat’s teenage son and report back. The reward? One he can’t give up – medicine for his grandfather, who is dying of leukemia. But the leverage is that the agent who interviews him knows about a dollar bill he got from an American from selling a stamp. That is illegal, and they threaten prosecution — unless Cristian does what they want.

But once he starts as an informer, he doesn’t know who he can trust. And then, when the girl he’s had his eye on for ages actually shares a Coke with him — State Security finds out, and she accuses him of being an informer.

And that’s only the beginning. Through associating with the Americans to spy on them, Cristian finds out about protests in other Eastern European countries. Maybe Romania doesn’t have to be this way?

Several awful things happen in this book. The fight for freedom in Romania wasn’t easy. But this book tells the story from the perspective of a young person trapped by the regime, but who dares to dream of a better life.

I also appreciated the Epilogue, which showed that overthrowing the Ceausescu regime didn’t instantly resolve all problems. There are also historical photos at the back, taken in Romania in the 1980s.

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Review of Once Upon a Wardrobe, by Patti Callahan

Once Upon a Wardrobe

by Patti Callahan

Harper Muse, 2021. 292 pages.
Review written March 28, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com

I ordered a copy of this book because of how much I loved the author’s other novel involving C. S. Lewis, Becoming Mrs. Lewis.

In this book, we’ve got a 17-year-old Oxford mathematics student in 1950 named Megs who is devoted to her younger brother George, who is frail and dying.

George reads The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and it opens his life and his imagination. He asks Megs where it all came from — and Megs decides to find out from C. S. Lewis himself.

Surprisingly, Jack Lewis and his brother Warnie are sympathetic to Megs’ story of her brother and welcome her into their home. But they don’t really answer the question. Instead, Jack begins telling Megs stories from his life, stories that help understand the creation of Narnia.

When Megs goes home and tells these stories to George, they always begin with “Once upon a wardrobe, not very far away…”

I enjoyed this book, but I’m afraid the framing didn’t quite work for me. Probably because we’re told Megs was a maths student who loved mathematics because of its order and logic. She wants everything to make sense, to have exact answers.

Trouble is, I was a math major myself, and I know many mathematicians. I don’t know a single one who feels that way about stories or a single one who’d have the cognitive problems Megs had with it. On the contrary, several of my college classmates especially loved The Chronicles of Narnia. I would say that math students are more inclined to love metaphor, not less.

So I wasn’t quite pulled into the book as much as I’d like to be — but I still enjoyed the stories from the life of C. S. Lewis and the book in general. It’s always wonderful to think about Narnia and where such powerful magical stories come from.

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Review of Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik, read by Simon Vance

Crucible of Gold

by Naomi Novik
read by Simon Vance

Recorded Books, 2012. 10 hours.
Review written May 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook

This is the seventh book in the Chronicles of the dragon Temeraire and his human, Captain Laurence of His Majesty’s Air Corps. By now, Naomi Novik has stopped trying to explain the world and drops you right in. She doesn’t make much effort to explain what went before – and this series is better read in order, to follow the developments. As for me, it had been a long time since I listened to Book Six, but there were enough reminders that I could follow what was going on and enjoy the familiar characters, dragon and human. (Simon Vance is good at being consistent, giving each character a distinctive voice.)

This book opens with Temeraire and Laurence in Australia, but they are given an offer to be reinstated to the Air Corps in order to help with a situation in Brazil. However, their voyage is met with disaster, and it takes the whole book before they get to Brazil.

Beginning with a sinking ship and continuing when they are picked up by a French vessel, they face one problem after another. I did enjoy that old friends and enemies show up at different times in the book.

Something I like about this series is how Temeraire and Laurence end up visiting all the continents and we learn how the dragons of that continent developed in this alternate world. All while Temeraire and his companion dragons are commenting and interacting. In this book they meet the Incans and their dragons and want to make an alliance before Napoleon can do so, no matter what it may take. I do like the back story of these dragons, who slaughtered Pizarro after he dared to kill a dragon’s human. Unfortunately, though, the human population has been decimated by plague, so dragons there are always looking for more humans. Add to that the dragons from Africa trying to recover the people stolen into slavery, and you’ve got a world that is diverging further and further from what happened in our world’s history.

Another novel of Temeraire! If you haven’t yet begun this saga, start with His Majesty’s Dragon, and you’re in for many hours of entertainment. It looks like I still have three more books to read before I’m done.

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Review of The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros

The City Beautiful

by Aden Polydoros

Inkyard Press, 2021. 462 pages.
Review written February 1, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Sidney Taylor Award Winner, Young Adults
2021 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The City Beautiful is set in 1893 Chicago, during the World’s Fair. Alter Rosen works in a print shop, scraping and saving to bring his mother and sisters to America from Romania, still haunted by the death of his father during their voyage to America.

Then Alter’s best friend Yacov is found dead. Alter hadn’t even been able to admit to himself that he was in love with Yacov. He’s convinced this is connected to the disappearances of other Jewish boys in the neighborhood, but the police scoff at the idea.

And then when Alter is trying to tend Yacov’s body, he gets possessed by Yacov’s dybbuk. He is haunted by Yacov’s memories and a compulsion to find the man who killed Yacov — and his family back in Russia. It’s clear that if Alter doesn’t fulfill this mission soon enough, the dybbuk will take over, and they will both die.

So we’ve got a mystery with some twists and turns. Along the way, we learn about the horrible hatred that followed the Jewish people across the ocean. And a young gay teen trying to come to terms with his emotions. And a young man trying to survive in America and make a home for his family.

The author helps you understand the world of 1893 Chicago and what kids and immigrants were up against, simply trying to survive. One of Alter’s friends works for an anarchist newspaper, and we’ve got background about that movement as well.

This is an atmospheric historical mystery with heart.

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