Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
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Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

Audio book: Me and White Supremacy

by Layla Saad
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mild swearing. It is in the Self-Help section (I think?) of the bookstore.

I am going to say this up front: I read this book wrong. It was meant to be an interactive 28-day journey with journaling and extensive deep reflection. However, that just doesn’t work (for me) in audio format. I listen in the car or doing a puzzle, and it’s just not conducive to a lot of serious reflection. So. I am going to purchase this book (when it’s reprinted; it’s on backorder now) and do the actual work.

Some thoughts though:

This book, by a Black woman, centers on how white people are privileged by the system we live in. Saad asks some tough questions, explains some tough concepts (like white privilege and white fragility), and encourages readers to do the work to become anti-racist and more inclusive. She also asks about concrete commitments we (white people!) can make in order to continue the lifelong pursuit of becoming anti-racist. It’s a challenging book to read, if only because she (very calmly and eloquently) challenges the very fabric of the society white people are used to.

And for that, it’s very much worth reading.

Tigers, Not Daughters

by Samantha Mabry
First sentence: “The window to Anna Torres’s second-story bedroom faced Hector’s house, and every night she’d undress with the curtains wide open, in full view of the street.”
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Content: There are a lot of swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There is also a lot of talk about teen sex and some teen drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The four Torres sisters live in an unhappy house. Their mother died when the youngest, Rosa, was born, and their father hasn’t been the same since. But their one attempt at running away was foiled. And a year later, the oldest sister, Ana, was dead.

The three remaining sisters have been grieving in their own way. And a year after Ana’s death they’re at a breaking point. And when Ana’s ghost shows up, it pushes the rest of the girls over the edge.

This is a little bit family drama, a little bit empowerment story, and a little bit ghost story, and Mabry makes it all work together excellently. The narrative switches between the three surviving sisters, as the story of Ana’s death, and their home life, unfolds. It’s a celebration of sisterhood — not just actually having sisters, but the act of women working together and supporting each other. And how we are stronger together than apart. It’s about grief and healing and support and the intersection of those three.

It’s an excellent story. I really ought to read more of Mabry’s book.

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

Stamped From the Beginning

by Ibram X. Kendi
First sentence: “Every historian writes in — and is impacted by — a precise historical moment.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including a few instances of the f-bomb and many of the n-word. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up after listening to Stamped, which is a remix for younger readers of this history. I didn’t know what to expigect, but what I got was a book that made me rethink my perceptions of race, race relations, and class, and rethink what I was taught in history classes.

The basic idea that Kendi sets out to demonstrate is this: racial discrimination leads to racist ideas which lead to ignorance and hate. It’s the reverse of everything I had been taught which is: ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas which lead to discrimination. It’s a lot to wrap a (racist) brain around at first, but over the course of the 500 pages, Kendi does an excellent job showing how, throughout history, racism starts with racist people being self-interested and creating racist policies. I learned a ton.

I don’t know if there are any solutions to be found in the book. Except for the conclusion that self-sacrifice (of Blacks) and uplift suasion (Black people being “more like White people”, which is a racist idea), and educational persuasion (if white people just had “all the facts” about racism they wouldn’t be racist) don’t work. It will take a concerted effort of White people and Black and Brown people to realize that it’s in the best interest of ALL people to do away with racist policies.

I don’t know what the political and economic solution for this is (except maybe tax the wealthy and refund all the social programs that have been axed over the years). But I do know that it is important for corporate media (!) and White people to stop generalizing and stereotyping Black people.

As for me, this book made me rethink ideas I’ve had in the past, rethink the way I interact with the media and politics, and perhaps made me a little more antiracist. I can only hope.

Fireborne

by Rosaria Munda
First sentence “Later, he would be known as the First Protector, and under his vision the city would transform.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 9-12) of the bookstore.

This book has been on my radar for a while. One of the teens in the teen review group I run at the bookstore loved it. And then it won the Young Adult Speculative Fiction Cybils. And I finally got around to reading it (thanks, COVID19!)

Lee is the son of one of the former rulers of Callipola, the same rulers that were overthrown in a revolution ten years ago. Lee’s kept his memories (he was only seven at the time) to himself as he grew up in an orphanage and then, later, as one of the chosen dragon riders. Annie is the daughter of Highland farm workers, who were heavily taxed and then murdered by the former rulers. She landed in the same orphanage as Lee and also became a dragon rider, and became Lee’s close friend as they grew up.

Fast forward ten years and Lee and Annie are vying for the position of Firstrider, leader of the dragon fleet and on their way to becoming Protector. Lee seems to be the obvious choice: he has talent and skill and charisma. The problem: his exiled family has shown up and wants to take their position back as Rightful Rulers of the island, and they want Lee to help. The question: will he join his family? Or will he stay true to the values of the new republic he has chosen to serve? And for Annie: can she rise to the situation she is constantly being told she’s unworthy of? And will her knowledge of who Lee is get in the way?

This really is fabulous. Incredibly well-told and captivating, I found I couldn’t put it down. Both Lee and Annie, as well as most of the minor characters, were well-developed, and had incredible arcs. Munda thought through her characters well, and I found them to be complex interesting people to spend time with. I loved the slow-burn romance, even if I could see it coming, enjoying the circuitous path Munda took to get her characters there. I loved her version of dragons; it felt more Anne McCaffrey than anything else, but it was also its own thing. Munda took her time to create a lore of her world, and I found myself wanting to know more.

It was an incredible read I can’t wait to see where Munda takes these characters and this world next.

Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

by Cho Nam-Ju, translated by Jamie Chang
First sentence: “Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 14, 2020
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is the story of one Korean woman, and how she get to the point, a year after giving birth, where she’s impersonating (but is she really?) other women. Something I didn’t know until the end: it’s told through the eyes of a psychologist/psychiatrist that Jiyoung goes to see, presumably because of her condition. She tells this psychiatrist about her life, from a childhood where she and her older sister were mostly neglected in favor of their younger brother, through school where she was often harassed by boys, to the workplace where she was often treated by men as a servant. She just decided it was her lot, and did the best she could, though there were women — including, eventually, her mother — who were telling her life could be different. Jiyoung gave up working when she had her baby, mostly because it was too hard to juggle daycare and a full-time job and her husband wasn’t terribly supportive.

This was just a portrait of one life, albeit one that had quite a few run-ins with the patriarchal system of Eastern Asia. It was a sad little book — sad that Jiyoung was never really encourage to do much of anything, sad that the lives of women still revolve around the men and boys. It’s odd too, it had footnotes (which makes more sense knowing it’s psychiatrist notes) and an odd cadence. It’s not a story I read to really connect with the characters, though much of that Jiyoung went through was relatable. But, even though we got the facts of her life, I felt like we never really got to know her. Although I appreciated the insight into contemporary Korean culture, I just felt disconnected through the book.

Oh, and the author got epidurals wrong, which is a small thing, but an annoyance all the same.

I do appreciate that this book exists, if only to highlight the sexism and misogyny in countries other than the United States. But, no, I didn’t find it enjoyable.