Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Here’s a beautiful and chewy historical novel that lives up to its slew of awards – a Cybils Young Adult Fiction finalist in addition to the four pictured on the cover.

Last Night at the
Telegraph Club
by Malinda Lo.
Read by Emily Woo Zeller.

Listening Library, 2021.

ASIN B087KWKXHL.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

In San Francisco’s Chinatown of the early 1950s, 17-year-old Lily Hu dreams of rockets even as she’s one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class.  The other girl, Kathleen Miller, is one she’s had classes with before but only starts to get to know better now, as Lily discovers that Kathleen also dreams of the sky and being a pilot.  

Amid the vivid scenes of Lily’s life – her tiny room, the girdles and bobby socks, picnics and Miss Chinatown parades – we also see her growing awareness of her own sexuality.  It starts small, as Lily is captivated by a newspaper ad for male impersonator Tommy Andrews, appearing at the Telegraph Club.  Next, she finds a paperback on the spinner at a grocery store, which fascinates her with the story of growing attraction between two women.  

But even as Lily explores this and builds a friendship with Kathleen, she’s aware that any wrong move will put her in danger of her family’s rejection and her family in danger from the government, as the Red Scare is in full swing and her father is already being investigated for his ties to China.  The story moves from its slow pace as Lily feels stuck in her life, ratcheting up as tensions build on multiple fronts.  It wasn’t an easy read for me, but one that I couldn’t pull away from. I especially appreciated how long it takes for Lily to identify what she’s feeling – it’s not a case of her knowing from the beginning exactly what’s going on. Emily Woo Zeller does a fantastic job as always, playing the many different kinds of voices perfectly.

I have of course read several books by Malinda Lo, and hadn’t really read anything about the plot before I picked this up, belatedly, after it won all the awards last year, including the National Book Award. The straight historical fiction is quite a different feel than her previous fantasies, but it’s still well worth reading.   I read it over a month ago, and find myself still coming back to thinking about it, many books later.  

I recommend all of Malinda Lo’s books – I’ve reviewed Ash and Huntress, and the visits to the forbidden dance club make this a good pairing with Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

Emily Woo Zeller has narrated many, many books, including Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon and The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, just to name a few I’ve read/listened to myself.

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Generational Trauma and Healing: Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa and A Comb of Wishes

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the best uses of fantasy is to provide an entirely new perspective on a real-life issue, a shift that is both more interesting and more illuminating than a straightforward facts-only discussion.  Here are two new middle grade fantasies that look at generational trauma through a fantasy lens, while being entertaining stories in their own right. 

Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa
by Julian Randall.

Henry Holt, 2022.

ISBN 978-1250774101.

Read ebook on Libby. 
Audiobook also available.

Pilar is a fast-talking 12-year-old Dominicana growing up in Chicago, sprinkling her English with frequent small words in Spanish.  Many things are making home feel less homey lately, though – her Papi’s death in a car accident, and her older sister Lorena going to college.  Pilar has also grown up hearing the story and sharing the sorrow of how Mami’s prima and best friend Natasha went missing in the DR decades earlier.  Though nothing has ever been found, Pilar is determined to use her camera skills to make a documentary about her cousin’s disappearance.  But this search leads her through a portal to the magical land of La Negra.  There, an ominous white prison has been imposed on the magical black sands, where the dictator of the Dominican Republic and the monster El Cuco cooperate to imprison anyone they can catch who resists, in either country. 

Right away, Pilar is surrounded by cucitos – smaller monsters – and has to decide whether or not to trust the ciguapa girl with backwards feet who offers to lead her to safety.  The plot moves as quickly as Pilar and her new maybe-friend Carmen swing through the jungle trees, trying to get to the leadership, the Mariposas, to stop the rising evil.  Meanwhile, we learn a little more about the Dominican Republic’s troubled history and a lot about generational trauma and healing along with Pilar. The fantasy setting and Pilar’s irrepressible humor and drive to hunt for the truth make the story more empowering than overwhelming.  This is another one to recommend to fans of Rick Riordan’s books.  The sequel, Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon, is due out in February 2023.

Cover of A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow.

A Comb of Wishes
by Lisa Stringfellow.

Quill Tree Books, 2022.

ISBN 978-0063043435

Read from library copy.

I say crick, you say crack.

Crick

Crack

This is a story.”

This refrain – a traditional Caribbean story opening – begins the book, as Ophidia, a  beautiful dark mermaid, is enraged to discover that her treasure box has been washed away from its hiding spot.  Meanwhile, 12-year-old human girl Kela is having a hard time enjoying her life on the Caribbean island of St. Rita, since her mother died in a car accident a few months ago.  She hasn’t gone diving with her father, can’t find the inspiration to work on her sea glass jewelry, and her best friend, Lissy, is getting frustrated that Kela still doesn’t want to spend time with her.  But on a rare trip to the beach with Lissy, Kela sneaks into a forbidden coral cave and hears a box singing to her.  It contains a beautifully carved comb. 

Before Kela can decide what to do with the comb, she’s visited by Ophidia, who offers a wish for the return of the comb – or vengeance.  Or possibly both, depending on Kela’s wish.  Kela doesn’t tell this to Lissy, but does take Lissy with her to the university library where her mother was a researcher to learn more about the comb’s  history – which involves the painful legacy of slavery on the island, one involving Kela’s own family.  There’s still some life-threatening danger, but overall, this is more slowly building tension, rooted in the pain of loss, the difficulty of rebuilding trust, and the stories of a small and close-knit island village.  Ophidia’s perspective is seen in alternating, but much shorter chapters.  The ending is bittersweet and perfect.  I look forward to reading more from Ms. Stringfellow!

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Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

I read and enjoyed The Black God’s Drums. This book, steampunk set in Cairo, sounds like everything I’d enjoy. I’d been hearing about this book since it first came out – so why did it take me so long to get to it?? 

Cover of Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark.
Read by Suehyla El-Attar.

Macmillan Audio, 2021.

ASIN B08JD2THTX.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

It’s 1912 in Cairo.  Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities has just handled a case dealing with a very cranky, very powerful djinn who definitely should not have been woken up, when she’s assigned a new young partner, Hadiya, even though everyone should know by now that she works best alone.  She’s still trying to get that sorted out when they’re called to a new case: 20 wealthy Englishmen, plus an Egyptian woman and man, have been found murdered at their club, dedicated to the legacy of the mystic Al-Jahiz.  It’s clearly supernatural, and the man’s two adult children are anxious for justice.  And immediately following that, someone calling themselves Al-Jahiz starts holding rallies all over the city, stirring up trouble.  The two problems must be connected, and Fatma is determined to get to the bottom of.  Meanwhile, her on-again, off-again lover, Siti, has appeared in her life once more – but can Fatma really trust her to stay in her life?  

I skipped most of the setting in that plot introduction, but the world-building is fantastic.  Cairo as depicted is a bustling metropolis, with people from all over the world, many different religions, and many supernatural beings – most especially djinn – mingling together.  The integration of djinn into society 50 years earlier has led to a profusion of djinn-designed buildings and technology, such as the semi-sentient mechanical building shown on the cover of the book.  The appearance of the (probably false) Al-Jahiz has led to a resurgence of opposition to followers of Egypt’s ancient gods, especially worrisome as Siti is a follower of Hathor. 

Agents Fatma and Hadiya are both Muslim and feminist, though quite different in self-expression.  Fatma prefers to wear custom-tailored English style suits and bowler hats, with the varying colorful outfits lovingly and delightfully described.  Hadiya, on the other hand, dresses more traditionally, but with a variety of modern and cheerful hijab. Not, of course, that their clothes are the most important things about them, but they do serve to illustrate the variety of characters, within the same religion as well as having people from multiple backgrounds.  Women’s voting rights and a peace conference are all part of the swirl of events happening in Cairo at the same time.  Suehyla El-Attar does a wonderful job portraying all of these characters, including giving Hadiya a bit of an American accent when speaking English. (I wish her editor had caught her pronouncing “sow” meaning “to plant” to rhyme with “cow” instead of “toe,” but this is a small issue.)  No wonder I saw it on best audiobook lists, as well as being a 2022 Hugo finalist!  

I could go on for a very long time, as there is a lot to dig into here.  I’ve since discovered that there are earlier novellas and a short story – I found A Dead Djinn in Cairo, I believe the first story, on Hoopla, and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 on Libby.  A short story, “The Angel of Kahn el-Khalili” (where, alas, agent Fatma does not appear) is free to read on Tor.com.  

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2+2 Cybils Graphic Novel Finalists

I am here with more reviews of the 2021 Cybils Graphic Novel Finalists.  (I reviewed four of them earlier.) I only read two more of the teen books – I’d already read Girl from the Sea – and my life is unfortunately not in a place to deal with the heavy topics in the other four finalists just now.  I’m still posting the full graphic with all the covers – if you do have the brainspace for them, I trust the committee to have made excellent choices.  

Cranky Chicken by Katherine Battersby. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. ISBN 9781534469884 Read from library copy. 

This is an adorable beginning graphic novel, suitable for readers who loved Elephant and Piggie or Frog and Toad. Chicken is determined to be cranky.  Worm is determined to make friends with Chicken.  Can Chicken believe herself worthy of a friend?  Can Chicken and Worm figure out what makes best friends?  This is an excellent and hilarious choice to introduce young readers to graphic novels, or to get reluctant readers hooked on books.  

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Kokila, 2021. ISBN 978-0525554882. Read from library copy. 

Thirteen-year-old Mei is growing up in a logging camp in 1885, where her father is the assistant cook.  Inside the camp, all the children play with each other, regardless of ethnicity, all of them gathering to listen to Mei tell stories of the giant logger Aunti Po and her giant blue buffalo.  Discrimination is already evident, as the Chinese loggers receive lower wages and don’t receive lodging as the white workers do.  But as the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed, things get even worse.  Meanwhile, Mei must deal with the hard working conditions and her growing crush on her best friend, Bee.  And when disaster strikes, will Auntie Po really be there?  This is illustrated with beautiful watercolor, and hollow-eyed characters reminiscent of Orphan Annie.  I really enjoyed it, and wish that I could take it back in time to give to my junior high self. 

Cybils 2021 YA Graphic Novel finalists - My Last Summer with Cass, My Body in Pieces, Girl from the Sea, Across the Tracks, Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms, Nubia: Real One, and In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers.

Cheer Up!: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Fraiser.  Illustrated by Val Wise. Oni Press, 2021. ISBN 9781620109557. Read from library copy.  

High school senior Annie is fine staying home by herself, but her parents push her to do something – anything – social.  Very reluctantly, she signs up for cheerleading, along with her old friend BeBe, who’s recently transitioned.  Both teens are under a lot of pressure for different reasons, and Annie starts to realize how much BeBe is struggling behind her now-perfect makeup.  Slowly, this blossoms into a totally squee-worthy romance.  Classic pen-and-ink art makes this feel like it could be any other teen graphic novel, despite the groundbreaking content. This is another one my daughter found perfection.  

Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smyth. DC Comics, 2021. ISBN 978-1401296407. Read from library copy. 

All of her life, teenaged Nubia and her moms have moved whenever she’s accidentally used her super strength, because while Wonder Woman can be strong and seen as awesome, that’s just not the case for a super-strong Black girl.  But now that she’s in high school, when she ruffles feathers by stopping a convenience store hold-up (in front of her crush, no less!  The horror!), they all decide to stick up for Nubia instead.  There’s also gun violence, police prejudice, a racist classmate who won’t accept Nubia’s best friend’s rejection, and a visit from a superhero Nubia had no idea her parents knew.  It’s illustrated with loose, expressive pictures that do a great job of conveying the many emotions on display here.  My daughter loved this so much that she was reduced to one-word ejaculations while waving the book in the air with one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other.   

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Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand by Donna Galanti

Thanks so much to Donna Galanti for sending me the second book in this appealing not-quite-middle-grade series. 

Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. Epic!, 2022. Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

Cover of Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand  by Donna Galanti, Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand
by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Epic! 2022

ISBN 9781524871970

Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

Sam’s adventures continue in this second book.  Sam is now happy living with her uncle, and especially happy with their regular trips to Unicorn Island.  She’s good friends with Verny the wyvern and Barloc, the young unicorn she helped save in the first book.  But the happy perfection is already cracking – earthquakes on the island are leaving huge cracks in the earth, while the unicorns’ beautiful horns are shrinking.  Can Sam and her best friend Tuck figure out what’s going on in time to save the unicorns?  Can Uncle Mitch (once again very grumpy in the face of these problems) open up enough to let Tuck’s veterinarian mother help?  This book contains a misunderstood monster, a big revelation, and hope for Uncle Mitch’s long-missing wife.  

Secret Beneath the Sand has even more to attract young unicorn lovers, as the magical creatures are present from the very beginning of the book instead of appearing halfway through.  The simple vocabulary, fast action, and frequent beautiful pictures in full color keep the story moving at a pace to entice newly confident readers, with enough plot complexity and emotional resonance to keep it from talking down to them.  This series continues to be a great choice for budding fantasy readers.  

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Remixed Classics: So Many Beginnings, Clash of Steel, and Travelers Along the Way

My first experience with a remixed classic was Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, which I still regularly recommend to people.  That remix was set in the present day and published by Balzer + Bray.  These books, all from Feiwel & Friends’ Remixed Classics series, take the classics, still in their original time periods, and retell them from the point of view of people of color.  So far, all of them have been fabulous. 

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. ISBN 9781250761217. Read from library copy. 

It’s 1863 in the Roanoke Freedmen Colony in this Little Women retelling. All four of our beloved sisters and their Mammy are present, recognizable while being their own people. Meg is teaching at the colony’s under-resourced school, while sincerely looking for a life partner.  Joanna tells stories to everyone while also doing construction work, though her sisters urge her to write her words down.  Bethlehem is a brilliant seamstress, taking apart and remaking the gowns from the former plantation house nearby. And Amy is allowed the new-found privilege of being bored, dancing through her days.   

I do not know how many times I’ve read Little Women, and this retelling stays close enough to the original for the beats and the departures to be easily recognizable,  the clear difference between the impoverished middle class existence of the sisters in the original and the struggling out of true poverty, hampered by prejudice and misunderstanding even from those claiming to support them. This was both fascinating and a little distracting from the newer story.  Still, as before, I felt a deep kinship with the sisters, and it was so interesting to be introduced to their journey through an episode of history that I ought to have known about and yet never did.  

A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. ISBN 978-1250750372 .Read from library copy. 

Xiang has grown up in the countryside of southern China with her tutor Master Feng and only occasional visits from her mother, a successful salt merchant.  She loves the legends of Zheng Yi Sao, the woman who was the Head of the Dragon, the queen of the largest fleet of pirate ships ever to terrorize the seas. (The title is made up for the book, but Zheng Yi Sao was indeed real and the most successful pirate ever.)  Xiang’s mother plans a safe and boring marriage for her, but on her first day visiting her mother’s large tea house in Canton, Xiang slips out to explore the city.  There she meets an enticing sailor girl named Anh.  And when Anh steals Xiang’s one valuable possession, but brings it back when she discovers that it holds a treasure map, they both decide to drop everything to search for the treasure.  Anh’s family ship, the Huyˋên Vũ, has a small but closely-knit crew whose members speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Thai. Once on board, Xiang starts to feel more at home than she ever has and to question everything she thought she knew about who she is.  Also, did you notice that beautiful cover?

I tried multiple times as a child, but never made it past the first chapter of Treasure Island, so I don’t really know how closely this plotline follows that of the original.  I do know that this was a wonderfully bold adventure with a restrained, slow-burn romance and a focus on found family and self-discovery.  

Travelers along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi. Feiwel & Friends, 2022. ISBN 9781250771278. Read from library copy. 

Robin Hood has long been a favorite of mine – I read both the Howard Pyle and the Robin McKinley versions many times, and have gone on to love many other retellings as well, including Kekla Magoon’s Robyn Hoodlum series.  

This version is set in 1192, immediately following the fall of Akko/Acre during the third Crusade. Rahma al Hud had followed her sister Zeena to war.  Rahma is only moderately religious, but she loves her sister and certainly would like to see the foreigners destroy her country sent back home.  But as the story opens, the situation in Akko has gotten so bad that Rahma and Zeena are sent away to keep them safe, as the Faranji don’t respect women soldiers.  

They can’t quite agree on whether they’re headed to Jerusalem or home, but it will take a lot of cunning to make it through the lines of enemy-held territories.  They keep picking up more people along the way, from the Sky Worshiper Teni to Jewish alchemist Viva and even the false queen of Jerusalem’s prized horse, and running into the boy Rahma can’t forget from her childhood.  We also get short narratives from each of the three major political figures involved – Queen Isabella, Yusuf or Salah-a-Din, and Richard the Lion-Hearted.  But all of these figures seem to care more about their own victory than about the people whose lives are affected by their struggles.  Will Rahma al-Hud and her band be able to save the peace of the land?  While I loved all of these books, this is one I’m seriously considering adding to my permanent library.  

A fourth Remixed Classic, What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix by Tasha Suri, is due out in May, and there are more scheduled for 2023.  I’m looking forward to them!

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Good Neighbors by Stephanie Burgis

I’m always excited when there’s a new Stephanie Burgis book! If you are in need of some clever and comforting writing, this is an excellent choice.

Good Neighbors
by Stephanie Burgis

Five Fathoms Press, 2022

ASIN B09BS2JS1J

Review copy received from the author, forgetting that I had already pre-ordered it.  Disclosure: I sponsor Stephanie on Patreon.

Mia and her father have been hiding in a quiet town ever since their metal workshop in their old town was burnt down – though Mia prefers not to dwell on the details.  She’s just hoping that if they keep their heads down and she keeps the flower boxes filled, their new neighbors won’t notice that her metalworking is unnaturally magical.  

But the cozy house was affordable because it’s undesirably close to a necromancer’s castle.  And when undead minions start falling apart on Mia’s lawn, she can’t help but repair the poor creatures – after all, it’s not their fault they were put together badly.  And that naturally leads to social invitations from the necromancer, the indecently handsome Leander – because what necromancer’s heart isn’t warmed when someone takes the time to repair the minions he rescued from another necromancer?  And as she gets to know him, she learns that behind his cool surface is a man who’s made a life for himself after a traumatic childhood. 

This is, as promised on the cover, a cozy-spooky romance, one that I’ve already re-read since reading it for the first time in January. It was originally published as four short stories, which is apparent in the jumps in time and the little summaries of the previous sections woven into the beginnings of each, but which didn’t detract from the overall charm of the story.

But hidden behind the banter and duels with over-the-top evil necromancers are some deeper thoughts about the importance of being accepted and accepting yourself for who you are, whether your talents are considered normal or “unnatural.” And what starts as a clear mission for Mia to open up about who she is turns into a larger movement for other magical people to find a community where they can be celebrated instead of hidden or persecuted.  I was also very pleased to see that both of side romances were same-sex, even as one was sweet, subtle and slow-burn, the other tempestuous.  The sweet romance builds into a heartwarming and affirming ending, a story I expect to reread many more times.  

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3 More Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Finalists

Onwards with my reading of this year’s middle grade fiction finalists! To recap, I had already read Flight of the Puffin before the list was released, and read and reviewed Violets are Blue, Many Points of Me, and Finding Junie Kim back in February. I have so much respect for Cybils Round 2 judges – it’s hard enough narrowing a long list down to seven finalists, but I don’t know how I could ever pick one best book among so many different but great choices! (In case you missed the news, Linked by Gordon Korman was this year’s winner in this category.)

Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas. Amulet Books, 2021. ISBN 9781419751028 Read from library copy. 
This story alternates between two boys at a Nova Scotia junior high.  Red-haired Brian struggles with what he calls Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome, which makes it hard for him to talk or make friends, even on the basketball team, and makes him a target for bullying.  When his father, who’s made a living growing not-quite-yet legal substances, runs away from the police, his family falls apart.  Soon, he and his little brother are on their own, trying to figure out what to do and whether to listen to their father’s friend Hank or a sympathetic police officer.  

Meanwhile, Jamaican-Canadian Ezra, on the same basketball team, has a much more stable home life but has been struggling with losing the close relationship with his former best friend.  That former best friend is picking up the openly homophobic attitude of the boy he’s now hanging out with – especially painful since Ezra is considering coming out.  Ezra just might have feelings for Brian – but will they be able to open up to each other?  Ezra’s many interests, including playing guitar and making playlists in addition to basketball, round out the story and keep it from being as bleak as it could easily have been.  This was a great balance of tension and sweetness, with a coming out story that was neither unhappy nor overly rosy.  

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0823447053. Read from library copy. 
Inspired by the Pevensy children’s evacuation from London during World War II in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this historical fiction novel imagines life for three children similarly evacuated to the countryside.  The Pearce children – William, Edmund and Anna – have a secret mission as well.  Their uncaring grandmother, with whom they had been living, has died just before the start of the book, leaving them without any living relations.  Their solicitor hopes that they’ll be able to find a nice family to take them in while they’re being evacuated.  But this is much harder than they hoped, especially as no one really wants to take in three children together, and the siblings refuse to be separated.  Will they be able to stick together through bullying and poverty?  The only person who understands them and their love of reading is the librarian, Mrs. Müller, but both the town and the London evacuee coordinators dislike the children spending time with her for differing reasons.  

I won’t try to introduce you to the children and their different traits here, to save you the joy of discovering them yourself.  They have distinct personalities that feel realistic, all of them and the story filled with the charm of classic children’s books like Ballet Shoes. Despite the children being without a home or family, this felt like perfect comfort reading for these difficult times, a book which I happily passed on to my mother, who also enjoyed it.  

Linked by Gordon Korman. Scholastic, 2021. ISBN 9781338629118 . Read from library copy. 
The voices of three main characters and a couple of occasional extras link together to tell the story of Linked.  Michael Amoroso, art club president and the only Dominican kid in Chokecherry, Colorado, has had to bike back to his middle school late to retrieve his forgotten phone, when he sees a giant swastika painted on a large blank wall.  Lincoln “Link” Rowley is an inveterate prankster, not at all deterred by his father’s ambitious plans both for him and for the future of Chokecherry. His most recent prank is putting fertilizer in the new paleontology office that’s taking over everything since a small dinosaur bone was discovered.  Dana Levinson is one of the so-called “egglets”, the daughter of two of the paleontologists who’s trying to fit into her new middle school despite the double whammy of the disdain being called “egglet” demonstrates and being the only Jewish girl in Chokecherry.  This last feels even harder as more and more swastikas appear around the school, leading the teachers to start a tolerance unit that only makes things worse.  And as Michael comes up with the idea to make a paper chain 6 million links long, to demonstrate the scope of the Holocaust, Link makes a discovery about his own heritage that puts everything that’s been happening in a new light.  

With kids of different backgrounds and perspectives, the horrors and the thoughtfulness well-balanced with humor and middle school ennui, this story is classroom gold, excellent for class assignments or read-alouds, in addition to choice reading.

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Ripped Away by Shirley Vernick

I mentioned earlier that I had several great books that authors or publishers had asked me to review yet to share with you, and I’m so happy to share one of them with you today. This combination of true crime, time travel, and historical fiction is sure to keep you turning the pages!

Ripped Away
by Shirley Vernick

Regal House, 2022

ISBN 978-1646032037

Read through Edelweiss, at the author’s request.  

Young teen Abe Pearlman has never been able to work up the courage to talk to his crush, Mitzy Singer. He’s feeling especially dejected one afternoon when he wanders into a fortune-teller’s shop.  He doesn’t have high expectations – but somehow finds himself sent back in time to London in the time of Jack the Ripper.  He’s still a Jewish kid, now named Asher, but at that time, that means he has a job he’s supposed to know how to do (much of the information lurking in his subconscious, fortunately) and a single mother he has to help support.  But this disorientation is soon a minor issue, as he quickly discovers that bit about Jack the Ripper – and that the police and the public are convinced that the Ripper must be a Jew, turning the Jewish community in general and people that Abe knows in particular into targets.  

He also finds that Mitzy has also been sent back in time.  She’s living in the apartment just above his – but in the life she’s taken over, she’s blind, and even more desperate to get back home than he is.  With no real idea how they ended up where they are, or who the real Jack the Ripper is, solving these dual mysteries is a tall order indeed.  On the plus side, Abe and Mitzy now have no option but to work closely together, getting to know each other in the process.  

This book worked very well – having the adventure be a time travel kept the situation from feeling too grim, while having the kids dropped into existing lives made for a much easier introduction into the other timeline than it would have been if they’d had to make places for themselves.  Both Abe and Mitzy were able to make real differences – Mitzy more with ideas, since she didn’t leave the apartment on her own.  I hadn’t known of the anti-Semitic connection with Jack the Ripper at all, and it’s a good thing to be reminded of in these times of sadly increased violence.  The adventure, though, is good enough to attract kids on its own.  

For another take on this book, here’s Ms. Yingling’s review.

This perspective is sorely lacking in historical fiction in particular. Laurel Snyder’s Seven Stories Up also has time travel, I think from a Jewish perspective (I know the author is herself Jewish), though the story is much slower-paced and gentler than Ripped Away. Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep is also set in 19th century London and includes violence and some Jewish elements. I have read more teen books in which characters travel back in time to witness injustice, like Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight. Readers, am I missing more of this in middle grade books?

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2021 in Review – the Books

We’re already almost a quarter of the way through 2022, and before time gets any farther away from me, I’m putting out this list of my favorites from the past year.

In 2021, I read 29 new-to-me books that I rated 9, plus 8 older favorites revisited. I also rated 104 books as an 8 – still excellent, and some of them I wonder in retrospect why I didn’t rate them higher. But in order to keep things manageable both for me and for you, dear reader, I’m limiting myself to the shorter lists to share with you here. And perhaps I can use this as a guide to what books to try to go back and write reviews of. I’m not holding my breath, though, the way things have been going.

Here is my standard disclaimer about rating books:

“I have never liked doing a public scale rating of books – the librarian in me would rather describe what’s in the book and let you decide if it sounds good for you. But I do give books number ratings on my own private spreadsheet. I shamelessly borrowed the Book Smugglers’ 10-point rating system for this, where 0 is “I want my time and my money back”, 5 is “meh” and so on. For my purposes, 7 is a book I enjoyed, 8 is one I loved and 9 is one I really, really loved. 10 only gets given out retrospectively to books I find myself re-reading and thinking about a lot – a true personal classic.”

Middle Grade

Teen

  • Burn by Patrick Ness
  • Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag
  • Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
  • Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater
  • You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
  • Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

Adult

Rereads

If you’ve made it through to the end of this long list and still want more, you may enjoy my end-of-year lists from previous years: 2020 , 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014.

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