Glory Be

by Augusta Scattergood
First sentence: “What was taking Frankie so long?
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Content: There’s some physical violence. It’s short and the chapters are short. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Glory, the youngest daughter of a Southern preacher, has grown up all her life in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She hasn’t thought much about how her cook, Emma, is black. Or why she doesn’t see any black people at the pool or library. But, it’s the summer of 1964, and things are changing. The pool closes “for repairs”, but it’s because the pool committee doesn’t want “those people” sullying the waters. They try to do the same with the library, but the librarian stands up and keeps it open. And Glory’s best friend, Frankie, is on the line because his older brother and father are leading the charge against desegregation.

This had a lot of the same feeling as The Help did: white southern people being enlightened and standing up to their racist neighbors, but not really doing much else. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, and I’m glad that white people have this kind of awaking story, but it kind of left a sour aftertaste. It was a very white book (I am surprised it was on my list for a mulitcultural children’s literature class…) and I wanted, well, more. Emma, the cook, didn’t play a huge role, and the whole book had a white savior narrative to it: Look! White people can recognize that black people are people too. Ugh.

I wanted more.

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Full Cicada Moon

by Marilyn Hilton
First sentence: “I wish we had flown to Vermont instead of riding on a bus, train, train, bus all the way from Berkeley.”
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Review copy sent to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There isn’t anything objectionable, and it’s a novel in verse so it’d be appropriate for the younger readers. Good for conversation as well. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is obsessed with space. It’s 1969, the height of the space race, and she wants to be an astronaut. The problem? She’s a girl. No one takes her desire seriously, especially in her school in Vermont. It also doesn’t help that she’s Afro-Asian, one of the only people of color in an all-white community.

As she goes through seventh grade and the beginning of eighth, Hilton gives us Mimi’s struggles and triumphs, from her attempts to get into shop class — there are some pretty strong gender norms in the late 1960s —
to her struggles to make friends. There are lots of stories about racism in the south in the 1960s. It was actually quite refreshing to be reminded that even northerners had issues with civil rights.

It’s a lovely novel in verse, as well. Hilton captured Mimi’s sense of wonder an awe at the world around her as well as her desire to go into space. It wasn’t overly detailed, something which might bother some readers but I found I didn’t mind. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, and I remember what it was like (sort-of). But, I also think it was a conscious choice on Hilton’s part to make it more accessible to those reading it. So, on the one hand, it’s historical fiction. But the other, it didn’t really feel all that much like it.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Mimi and her family, as they adjust to a new home, broaden their horizons, and have a memorable year.

The Trap

by Steven Arntson
First sentence: “The last day of summer break before the start of my seventh grade year was the first time I ever got punched in the face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s some pretty dark subject matter — kidnapping and out-of-body experiences. Plus there’s romance, but nothing too mature. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it’ll probably be of interest to the older end (and maybe into the 6th grade).

It’s the summer of 1963, right before seventh grade, and Henry Nilsson is pretty sure nothing exciting is going to happen. His dad is being laid off at the railroad and they’re having to tighten their belts at home (they even sold the TV!). Henry like-likes his twin sister’s best friend, Nikki, but has no idea what to tell him. And his best friend, Alan’s, brother bullying has increased.

Then, two things happen to change the trajectory of Henry’s summer: Alan’s brother goes missing. And they discover a book to teach them how to have an out-of-body experience, called “subtle” travel. Once they figure out how, they enter the subtle world, where things aren’t as nice as they seem. And where there’s some pretty scary things going on in them thar woods.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this one. I liked the historical detail, which was never the point of the book, but rather just background to give it some weight. I liked the friendship between Henry and the rest, including his sister. I liked that both Nikki and Alan were people of color — Nikki is Asian; Alan, Latino — but that it was never really an issue. (Well, it is, once.) I liked the mystery, the discovery of what was going on with Alan’s brother, and the realization that even though he’s often mean, he has some good in him.

What I didn’t like was the whole speculative fiction part of it. The subtle travel was weird (Seriously.) and I was never really able to suspend my disbelief enough to make it work for me. There was just too much left underdeveloped, that was just plain weird.

But, perhaps, those are adult concerns creeping into a middle grade book. It is a dark book, one that’s kind of creepy, and for those who like a slight creep factor to their book, it’s a good one. And perhaps, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Audiobook: Funny Girl

by Nick Hornby
Read by Emma Fielding
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Content: Aside from the dozen f-bombs (entirely from 2 characters), this one is relatively tame. And because it deals with a character in her early 20s, it probably will have some good teen crossover. It’s in the adult fiction section of the library.

Several things conspired to actually get me to read an adult book (shock!). One, I had just finished my previous audiobook and was looking for something new. Two, the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (which I have come to love) announced that they were doing a book group discussion of this one in March. And three, I figured I should read Nick Hornby sometime, and this seemed like a good place to start.

It’s 1964, and Barbara Parker is looking at a bleak future. Sure, she just won the Miss Blackpool title but she wants MORE out of life. She wants to be like her heroine, Lucille Ball. So she returns the title, and takes off for the big city, hoping for her break. And, after some bad scrapes and name change — she’s Sophie Straw now — it eventually comes in the form of a BBC TV sitcom, Barbara [and Jim]. She becomes famous, with all the strings that are attached to that, as well as the ups and downs.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I found this a very male-centric, sexist, chauvinistic book. Barbara/Sophie is reduced to her looks (blonde, curvy, busty), as are all of the women in the book. The men drive the action, and Sophie is just reacting to them, much of the time. It’s also incredibly homophobic, even though one of the characters — Bill, a writer on the series — is definitely gay, and another — Tony, Bill’s writing partner — is probably bisexual. This really bothered me, until I realized that Hornby was being true to the time period. The 1960s, especially the mid-1960s when it’s set, was incredibly sexist and homophobic. This proved true by the end of the book, when the characters (and Hornby) were much less annoying.

I also felt like it went on too long, especially the ending. I didn’t really feel a need for the huge epilogue-y ending chapters; I felt the book could have ended when the series ended, and I wouldn’t have missed a whole lot.

That said, I did find it entertaining. I wonder if that had a lot to do with Fielding’s narration. She was a brilliant narrator, working in regional accents and speech affectations so I could get a sense not only of who was speaking but of their character. Sophie’s Blackpool accent, especially, endeared me to her in a way I don’t think would have come through on the page. And it was sometimes laugh-aloud funny. Not consistently, and not enough, but it was there.

I’m not sure I liked it enough to read another Hornby (unless there’s one that you strongly recommend?) but it wasn’t an unpleasant experience either.

The Swallow

by Charis Cotter
First sentence: “There’s no place for me,”
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Content: It’s kind of confusing and a little bit creepy, though the chapters are short and to the point. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Polly is lost in a sea of siblings and foster siblings. Her father is a pastor and feels a need to rescue lost children, much to Polly’s dismay. Rose is lost as well, but for the opposite reason: she is the only child of very busy, distant parents who don’t spend much time with her at all. Its 1963 in Toronto, when these two meet, and because they both have an interest in ghosts — well, Rose can see them, so it’s not really an interest — they embark upon a mystery when finding a gravestone with Rose’s name in the graveyard behind their houses.

If that sounds convoluted and sort of strange, it’s because this book is, well, convoluted and sort of strange. I think Cotter was going for atmospheric, but for me it just came off as creepy and weird. And unnecessary. Perhaps it was just me; this was the last of the Cybils finalists that I read, and I was worn out on fantasy by this point. But, the characters seemed wooden, the parents unnecessarily strict or absent, the story too forced for my taste.

The twist that happens didn’t work for me, either.

Which is to say, this was my least favorite. Though, it’s probably just me, and there’s some kid out there who loves twisty ghost stories with shocking reveals.

Dollbaby

by Laura Lane McNeal
First sentence: “There are times you wish you could change things, take things back, pretend they never existed.”
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Content: One of the protagonists is a teenage girl, and there’s a lot of good historical information. There’s nothing truly objectionable, so even though this is in the Adult Fiction, I wouldn’t hesitate giving it to an avid teen reader who showed some interest.

I picked this one up because a couple of people at the bookstore have been raving about it. “It’s funny,” they said, “If you liked The Help, then you’ll love this one.”

I liked The Help well enough, and I figured it’s the South, set in New Orleans, during the whole Civil Rights movement. I like quirky characters. This one will surely be a good book.

Well… Not so much. Yes, it is set in New Orleans in 1964, when our main character, Ibby (short for Liberty) is dropped off at her grandmother’s house. Her father had recently died in a freak accident, and Ibby’s mother can’t handle being a single parent. Ibby’s grandmother, Fannie, is one of those eccentric Southern ladies, who believes in being proper and feisty and doesn’t trust anyone except her help, who are pretty much like family. (But heaven forbid if her granddaughter takes up with a colored man.)

This just didn’t do anything for me. Sure, it’s got those quirky Southern characters, but that’s about it. The plot was lacking, and I didn’t connect with the characters at all. Maybe I’ve been gone from the South for too long, but I wasn’t even entertained by the quirkiness. Or horrified by the racism. Mostly, I was just… bored.

I ended up skimming the second half of the book, just to find out what happens. Books like these make me wonder if I’ve been ruined for adult books after all.

The Road Home

by Ellen Emerson White
First sentence: “On Christmas morning, Rebecca lost her moral virginity, her sense of humor – and her two best friends.”
Content: This is a book about war, and doesn’t pull any punches. There’s language (with a couple of f-bombs), talk of sex (none actual) and lots and lots of violence. It’s also more emotionally mature. It’d be in the teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore, if it were in print.

This was thrown at me by my wonderful friend Laura, without me knowing much else besides she thought it was really great.

This is the last book of a series about a family (I gathered, not having read any of the others), focusing on the daughter, Rebecca. Her long-time boyfriend was killed in Vietnam and her brother fled to Canada to avoid the draft. So she did the only logical thing: she signed up for a tour. Because it was the 1960s, and because women weren’t allowed to be on the front lines, and because Rebecca has an interest in medicine, she signed up to be a nurse. To say she didn’t know what she was getting into was an understatement. The book follows the second half of her tour in Vietnam, after a horrific event she was involved in, through to her coming home.

It’s taken me quite a while to get through this book, not because it was bad or I was disinterested — neither were true –but rather because it was so emotionally taxing. White knows how to write war. The mundane elements of being out in the field, the stress of the ER when helicopters full of wounded and dying soldiers come in. And then the PTSD of coming home. Especially in the 1960s, when there was so much anti-war sentiment at home. She captured Rebecca’s increasing despair, the difficulty she had in making it through so well, that I was drained each time I picked it up.

That’s not to say there wasn’t hopeful elements to the story: there were. Rebecca makes friends and even has a bit of a relationship But it’s not some miraculous recovery or some “ah-ha” moment. It’s very real, almost brutally so, and very honest.

I found it worth reading (once at least), and while I didn’t love it, I appreciated it. I appreciated the depiction of the soldiers and of Rebecca, and especially of her coming home. It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely worth the time.