My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

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Audio book: Give Me Some Truth

by Eric Gansworth
Read by the author and Brittany LeBorgne
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content:  There is a lot of swearing, including some f-bombs, a very very awkward almost sex scene, plus some underage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

Set in 1980, this follows two members of the Tuscarora Nation in Northern New York: Carson, whose sole goal is to win the Battle of the Bands and a trip to New York City, and Maggi, whose family has just moved back to the reservation and is trying to figure out where she fits in. There are other things going on: there’s a diner off the reservation called Custer’s Last Stand that is (literally) The Worst, and Carson (and his brother) are mixed up in it. There’s an incident with making turkey in home ec class. There’s Maggi’s (and Carson’s friend Lewis’s) job at the garage. There’s selling traditional beadwork outside of Niagra Falls set against Maggi’s desire to be an artist, rather than just a traditional beadworker.  

Two things: 1) white people are HORRIBLE. And 2) I almost gave this up because of the pedophile. Maggi’s involved with a 31-year-old white guy (she’s 15!) and he was giving her presents and telling her he loved her, and pressuring her to have sex with him, and yet wanted to keep her secret from everyone (“if we don’t tell, it’s not illegal”). I was (literally) screaming at the car radio because of this. But, after talking to A and C about it, I came to realize that the pedophile was part of the larger theme which was my first point. White people (even though this was set in 1980, I’m not sure much has changed) are. the. worst. 

In the end, this was a really good exploration of the way native peoples are treated, and what life on the reservation was like. And, while I thought that Brittany was a much better reader than Eric, I still enjoyed listening to the book. Oh. And finish it. It all does come out right in the end. 

Watchmen

by Alan Moore
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is graphic violence, swearing (no f-bombs though) and nudity (and sort-of on-screen text). It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I wrote about this one ten years ago when I first read it, but I thought I’d write my thoughts that I turned in as well.

Intellectually, I know the Watchmen is a classic work of not only comic storytelling, but also a classic work of literature. However, while I can respect what Moore and Gibbons are doing, I didn’t like the experience. Partially it was the art; Gibbons’ art was completely subservient to the text, lacking very little originality. I did find the panel in issue 4, , the moment when the test chamber went off (9) and the particles dissolved Dr. Manhattan and the following few panels to be incredibly striking. But otherwise, I found the moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene art slowed down the narrative, especially through volume nine. I understand that, thematically, Moore is reflecting the world he saw when this was written in 1987 — a very sexist, homophobic (issue 11, p. 9, among others), and bleak world — and critiquing the way we use superheroes in our cultural life: None of the characters are honorable or admirable (like Superman or Captain America) or even serving the cause of justice, even if it’s in a vigilante manner (Batman). The backstories we learn (I’ll admit; I didn’t read the “excerpts” in the end; and felt like they were filer that added no substance to the actual plot line) don’t take away from the feeling that the characters are mostly individuals without any integrity in what they do. I wish he had allowed the women (all two of them) to be more than just sex objects — Sally, whose most significant characteristics were that she is aging and that the Comedian raped her (issue 2, p. 5-7), and her daughter, Laurie, whose sole purpose is to be a companion to her lovers, both Dr. Manhattan (issue 5, p. 11) and Dan Dreiberg (most of issue 7, but specifically p. 28). This is a reflection of both the mid-1980s society and popular culture, but doesn’t excuse the lack of development of these characters. Admittedly, Moore isn’t putting up hyper-masculinity as an ideal: Neither of the hyper-masculine characters of the Comedian and Ozymandias are admirable characters, while Rorschach, who would not be considered “masculine” at all — being called “queer” (issue 5, p. 27) and “runt” (issue 6, p. 8) among others — also happens to be the moral center of the series. He is the one who realizes that someone is creating a plot against “costumed adventurers” (issue 1, p. 12) to get them out of the way and in the end refuses to compromise his ideals forcing Dr. Manhattan to kill him (volume 12, p. 14). I did like the ending; while Ozymandias “gets off”, Dr. Manhattan’s prophecy that “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing EVER ends” (issue 12, p. 27) is fulfilled in the very final panel, where readers see Rorschach’s journal detailing everything delivered to the newspaper, and the final image (issue 12, p. 32) is the same as the cover of issue one and the first image the readers see (p.1). True, there is a lot to think about and discuss — is it right to kill off millions of people just to save the world? — but it was not an enjoyable reading experience. If this had been my first foray into graphic novels, it might have turned me off on the format completely. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Rebound

by Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “It was the summer when Now and Laters cost a nickel and The Fantastic Four, a buck.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!”
Others in the series: Crossover
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some drug dealing and stealing, but it’s all incidental to the plot. There’s a wee bit of romance. Crossover is in the Newbery section, and so I might put this one next to Booked in the Middle grade (grades 3-5 section) or I might move it to the YA section (grades 6-8) where it feels like it should go.

Even though this one is a pre-quel to Crossover, you really should read that one first.

It’s 1988 and Charlie Bell, the father of the characters in the Crossover, has just lost his father to a major heart attack. It’s the end of his 7th grade year and the loss — and the subsequent grief of both him and his mother — has put Charlie at odds with the world. He doesn’t want to deal with school or friends or his mother, even though he tries to put his father’s death out of his head; all he wants to do is sit and read his comic books. But then, he gets mixed up a bit with his friends older brother, and gets caught stealing (nothing major though), so his mom ships him off to DC to his grandparents (his father’s parents) for the summer.

It’s there that he learns how to deal with his dad’s death, and finds a passion for basketball that stays with him the rest of his life.

I’ve become a fan of Alexander’s in the years since his Newbery win, and this is no exception. It’s a lot geekier than his other books — there are comic poems, to reflect Charlie’s love of the comic book, and he’s not a suave as his kids turn out to be. But, it still has Alexander’s signature poetic style, and it tells the story of a kid coming to terms with his grief extremely well. I loved the 1980s references (throwback to high school!) and I thought Alexander handled the girl characters much better in this one (in fact, Charlie’s cousin, Roxie, is pretty amazing!).

An excellent read.

Tetris: The Games People Play

tetrisby Box Brown
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a history, so if you’re not into Tetris or video games, it won’t be interesting. That said, it’s not a super-high reading level, so kids as young as 10 or 11 might be interested in this. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

First, a confession. One of my roommates the winter of 1991 had a Nintendo (I’m assuming, after reading this), and Tetris was on it. I don’t know how it started (and I may have been playing it in the arcade for a while already; I don’t remember), but I became obsessed with Tetris. Obsessed. I would stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning, playing it, forgoing going out, homework, eating… Eventually, after a month or so of this, my roommates staged an intervention and banned me from playing Tetris. They may have even gotten rid of the game; I don’t remember that either. The game (and my obsession) fell by the wayside, and I haven’t really thought much about it.

That is, until this book showed up in the store and a co-worker pointed it out, saying I might be interested.

It’s the history of how Tetris came to be. A couple of software developers in the USSR thought of this game, worked to program it and sent it around the department where they worked. It became a hit with their friends, and that was the end of it. Or so they thought. But, a developer for Atari and another for Nintendo got their hands on it, and, well, Things began to happen. It’s really kind of convoluted; there was a lot of legal problems, and negotiating business with the USSR wasn’t the easiest to do. But, in the end, Nintendo ended up with the rights, and the rest is history.

Choosing a graphic format to tell this story was interesting, though I’m not sure how well it worked for  me. I kept forgetting who was who (since, after the initial introduction, I only saw their faces and couldn’t remember their names), and the black and yellow color palate got a little old after a while. But, that said, the story was a fascinating one.

Not a bad read.

Searching for John Hughes

searchingforby Jason Diamond
First sentence: “I wasn’t paying attention to the people waiting in line for cupcakes; I was just looking up at a night sky dotted with flurries of snow bravely falling onto rooftops and parked cars, their only purpose in this world was to make things more magical to those queued up for an authentic Magnolia Bakery experience, then they’d hit the roof of a car or the sidewalk and melt away.”
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Release date: November 29, 2016
Content: Lots of swearing, lots of drinking, lots of drug use. It will be in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this up because of the title and cover; while I’m not a film connoisseur, I’ve enjoyed my share of John Hughes movies, and as a kid of the 1980s, I thought this might be fun.

Well.

I didn’t finish it. I couldn’t, even though I did try.

It’s Diamond’s memoir of growing up, and while he had the worst childhood ever, that’s not what did me in. (Well, it’s partially what did me in. He didn’t make his crappy childhood compelling enough. That sounds heartless, but it’s true.) I think it’s because I wanted the book to be more about his experiences with the John Hughes movies I loved and less about his crappy childhood. Sure, he did get that in there, but it wasn’t enough to outweigh the negativity.

Or maybe it was just me; I wasn’t in the mood for a memoir about an aimless 20-something who was trying to find meaning in the movies from my childhood.

Either way, this one didn’t do it for me.

As You Wish

Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden
read by Cary Elwes (with other actors/directors/etc. reading their contributions)
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable”, though the reading level is probably that of high school. It’s in the biography and film sections of the bookstore, but I’d give it to anyone who has a interest in the movie (especially if they are big fans).

I’m late to this party, since this book came out last October. But, I’ve had my eye on it, mostly because I have loved the movie for years (and am constantly surprised how many of my regular daily sayings are actually lines from this movie) and finally got my hands on the audio book.

There’s not much to say about the content: Cary Elwes was asked at the 25th anniversary screening of the movie what he took away from the making of it. He came up with (in his words) a lame answer, and this book was born out of his desire to really detail what the experience meant to him. He got contributions from the actors who are still alive, and a book was born.

It’s not brilliant writing by any stretch of the imagination. But, it is chock-full of fun trivia (yes, I did watch the movie again, spouting out all the wonderful tidbits I’ve learned. My family was patient with me.) and delightful stories.

But, the best thing? (And the reason I’d recommend the audio over the print?) Cary Elwes is a brilliant narrator. Not just his regular voice, but he does a spot-on American accent (several, in fact), and he is just a delightful narrator to spend six hours with.

At the very least, it’ll make you smile. And that, I think, is worth it.