Reviews of the Week with Alyson Gerber, Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo, Melissa Ostrom, and More!

Every weekday we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

A young student learning to live with an ADHD diagnosis; the multi-throated narration of a fresh take on the “drunken sailor” story; a tale of finding your voice and using it to help others; a timely depiction of a young woman’s experience with PTSD. Gripping and layered human stories are this week’s focus here at Booklist—and we’ve collected them for the Reviews of the Day, February 19–February 22, below.

Tuesday, February 19

 Focused, by Alyson Gerber

Seventh-grader Clea struggles to finish homework on time, has trouble concentrating in school, and is often forgetful, disorganized, and blurts out things without thinking. Best friend Red is supportive, but he doesn’t really understand her challenges, and classmates make fun of her because they think she’s not smart. Clea loves chess and knows that if she continues to fail assignments, she won’t be allowed on the school’s team. Luckily, her teachers notice she’s struggling and suggest Clea get tested for ADHD. She’s soon diagnosed, but even with medication, things don’t just automatically improve. After she blurts out a secret Red didn’t want revealed, he refuses to speak to her. Sanam, Clea’s dyslexic chess teammate, offers helpful advice, and with time, Clea’s family comes to understand what she’s going through.

 

Wednesday, February 20

McGlue, by Ottessa Moshfegh, Read by Chris Ciulla

It’s 1851, and McGlue has taken the role of “drunken sailor” to heart, and to seemingly untapped depths. He has a nasty gash on his head and the sinking feeling that his jailors, who claim he has killed his best friend with a knife to the heart, don’t know the whole story. But does he himself know what happened the night Johnson died? As he suffers withdrawal and deprivation in a ship’s hold and later in a jail cell, he struggles to recall Johnson, his kindness, and the connection the two men had that ultimately led to the current situation. Ciulla’s McGlue is brash, confused, crude, and clearly pained in a tortured and moaning Boston Southie-adjacent accent. This messy drawl allows for a stark contrast to the polished and poised upper-crust characters who visit McGlue—both in his cell and in his dreams—and speak in posh, period-appropriate British accents. Ciulla flips between characters with whip-quick acuity that’s nearly jarring as it reminds the listener that it’s not McGlue himself telling the story.

 

Thursday, February 21

Ruby in the Sky, by Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

A quiet girl finds her voice and stands up for what is right in this beautiful debut. After the death of her father, Ruby and her mother move from place to place, finally ending up in frigid Vermont. Ruby plans to stay invisible until she can convince her mom to move back to Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t happen; instead, her mom reports the bad behavior of a powerful man (and friend of the mayor) and finds herself on trial for assault. Ahmad, a Syrian refugee in Ruby’s class, keeps being stubbornly nice to her. And Ruby befriends a reclusive old woman named Abigail, who is the subject of ugly town gossip. As powerful men intimidate potential witnesses in her mom’s case and seek to push out “vagrants” like Abigail, Ruby must do what she has always feared: speak up. Ferruolo’s debut has a quietly magical feel, aided by passages describing Ruby’s fascination with the moon.

 

Friday, February 22

Unleaving, by Melissa Ostrom

Ostrom’s sensitive treatment of a timely subject is a welcome addition to novels about rape and its aftermath. Nineteen-year-old Maggie leaves her college after she was gang-raped at a party, reported the crime, and was ostracized for naming popular athletes as her attackers. Her caring mother takes Maggie to the isolated country home of her sculptor aunt (her mother’s somewhat estranged twin) to recover. Maggie deals with classic PTSD symptoms: flashbacks, panic and anxiety attacks, and insomnia. Then she receives an email from Jane, a student at her college, who has also survived a rape. Maggie finally decides to answer Jane’s email—and then Jane withdraws. Ostrom’s character development is noteworthy: from the on-target depictions of overly helpful bookstore clerks to the tension between Maggie’s mother and aunt, the novel is full of people we recognize and care about.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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