Audiobook: Soil

by Camille T. Dungy
Read by the author
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Content: There is some mild swearing (I think? Maybe not?) and frank talk of racism and violence against Black people. It’s in the Creative Non-fiction section of the bookstore.

The premise of this is simple: Camille Dungy owns a house in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and she wants to make her overly-chemicalized turf lawn into something more environmentally friendly and sustainable. She writes about the process the “prairie project” as she and her husband dub it, but the book is more than that. It’s a reflection on environmental writing and the people who usually write (read: white, rich, often men) about the environment. It’s about the intersection of social and environmental justice. It’s how, as a Black woman, Dungy feels not only called to work the land but also compelled to protect it and welcome all living things.

This was such an enjoyable audiobook experience. Dungy is an excellent narrator, and I felt myself not only learning from her but having my own need to garden and see growing things affirmed. I should be better about growing things that are native here, as opposed to just planting any old thing (and seeing what grows), which is kind of what I do now. But, I loved and respected what Dungy had to say about the earth, the environment, and about social justice.


School Trip

by Jerry Craft
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Others in the series: New Kid, Class Act
Content: There are some shenanigans and awkward moments. It’s in the Middle-Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Jordan and his friends have a long-awaited school trip to Pairs. They’re all excited for different reasons; Jordan especially since he wants to see all the art with his art teacher. However, to the actions of several tech-savvy kids, the teachers assigned to the various trips get all mixed up, and the teachers going to the Paris trip know nothing. That’s a chance for Maury to shine: his mother went to school in Paris, and they visit often. He is able to show the other kids all the cool spots. As they go through the city of lights, the kids learn to navigate friendships and talk about their feelings and how they are treated. Sometimes everyone being in a new place can make it easier to talk about things you aren’t able to back home.

I really like this series. I like Craft’s art style and the way he has many different characters that all have some depth to them. I like that he’s not afraid to talk about racism or just the way kids can mistreat each other without realizing it. I do like that the kids are mostly complex characters. It’s a fun book, but also a thoughtful one. My only complaint is that Jordan’s parents decided what high school he would attend (he got into an art-specific high school) without letting him have his say. But that’s a minor thing in such a well-done graphic novel.

Highly recommended.

Amari and the Great Game

by B. B. Alston
First sentence: “I sprint down the sidewalk, flying past designer boutiques, luxury shops, and a fancy art gallery.”
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Others in the series: Amari and the Night Brothers
Content: There is some bullying by other kids (and some adults) and some intense moments. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

It’s the start of her first full summer as Junior Agent and Amari Peters is excited. Sure, her brother is still in a magically-induced coma that no one can figure out. and, sure the under-Prime Minister (or something like that) is making a stink about having magicians in the Bureau. But Amari’s going to have a great summer. That is until a time-freeze happens and it doesn’t affect her. It’s so powerful, though, that it has to be a magician’s doing, and it’s left the entire Magical council frozen. Suddenly, what was going to be a great summer turns into one full of suspicion and increasingly hostile circumstances at camp. On top of which, Amari has been challenged to a Great Game with none other than Dylan, for the Crown of the League of Magicians.

Is Amari up to all the challenges?

I love a good series, and this is quite a good series. Alston keeps up the level of action and suspense while having Amari do something that’s familiar – investigate a problem that’s leading to discrimination against magicians – while also making it new and fresh. There are some of the same faces as well as new ones, a lot of the same challenges which Amari handles better – or just differently, and some new faces mixed in as well. It’s familiar without being stale, which is nice.

And Alston knows how to spin a good tale: he keeps up the pace while still allowing Amari and her friends to become fully fleshed-out people. I haven’t liked a series this much since Percy Jackson, and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Audio book: Pet

by Akwaeke Emezi
Read by Christopher Meyer
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Content: There is a lot of mild swearing and one f-bomb, and illusions to sexual assault. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Jam lives in a world free of monsters. The citizens of the city of Lucille defeated the monsters and created a just and equitable world. But one night, Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a monstrous-looking creature, and Jam accidentally brings it through the canvas into the real world. Initially, Jam thinks the creature is a monster, but it – Pet – is out to Hunt monsters, which it says is in the home of Jam’s best friend, Redemption. Hunting monsters is not an easy task, and it is one that Jam resists at first, but eventually, they recruit Redemption’s help to find and defeat the monster.

The thing is: the monsters aren’t “monsters”. They’re people who do monstrous things. Which is what I thought at the beginning, but then an actual non-human being showed up, and I was confused: is monster literal? Is it metaphorical? Is it both? I don’t know.

That’s not saying that I wasn’t intriged by this one. Myers was a fabulous narrator, and he kept me engaged in the story when I was confused about what was going on. I loved the representation: Jam is trans and Black, and the matter-of-fact-ness of Jam’s personhood was refreshing.

And in the end, the book is probably more about complacency than anything else: Lucille thought that they had defeated the monsters, which meant there were not going to be any more monsters, ever. This turned out to be untrue, so maybe we just have to keep fighting the monsters even if it’s hard and we don’t want to?

Anyway, that’s what I got out of it.

Audio book: The Black Flamingo

by Dean Atta
Read by the author
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Content: There is some swearing, talk of gay sex, and (older) teen drinking and drug use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Michael has spent his life feeling different from everyone else. A mixed-race kid (half-Black, half-Greek-Cypriate) in a mostly white London neighborhood, and as a boy who likes more traditionally “girly” things. He tries to find a place for himself in a religious school, with a female best friend, and in the drama department, though some of his crushes on boys don’t go over well (he gets the “you’re going to hell” speech more than once). But it’s not until he gets to university, and finds the Drag club, that he truly begins to Find Himself.

I read this as part of Trans Awareness Readathon week, mostly because I thought there would be more about gender fluidity and drag. There wasn’t. However, there was a lot about identity in general, both as a Black man in a majority white society and as a gay man in a conservative school. It was good – though listening to it on audio means I missed out on the novel as verse aspect. And because it was read by the author (who did well with it), I mistakenly thought it was a memoir for a while (there are some striking similarities between Michael the character and Atta the author). Even with all of that, it was a short, good listen, and I’m glad I got to experience Michael and his story.

Amari and the Night Brothers

by B. B. Alston
First sentence: “I’m sitting in the principal’s office.”
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Content: There are some scary moments, mostly with monsters, and instances of bullying. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amari’s older brother (and hero), Quinton, has been missing for six months. He had graduated from high school, he had a job – or so he said – and then he just… disappeared. And it’s been affecting Amari’s school life, mostly because she just knows he’s not dead like everyone else assumes. And so when Quinton appears to her in a Wakeful Dream with a nomination to go to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs summer camp, she figures it’s the best way she has to find out what Really Happened. 

Once there, though, Amari discovers that she is a magician; one with a percentage of magic so high that it’s almost impossible. This brings attention to her, and not always the good kind. Additionally, she is trying out to be a Junior Agent in the Department of Supernatural investigations, which is where her brother worked before his disappearance, and she’s met with all sorts of pushback for wanting to be one of the Elite. And, to top it all off, the evil magician Moreau (yes, like in the Island of Dr…) has a nefarious plan to destroy the Bureau and have magicians take over, and wants Amari to join him. 

I think the marketing material is “Artemis Fowl” meets “Men in Black” but I think it’s more along the Percy Jackson lines. A girl, who doesn’t know her worth, finds a secret camp of people with similar powers, and comes into her own fighting a battle by the end of the book? Comparisons aside, this is a LOT of fun. I liked Amari, felt her struggles were real, glad she found some good friends along the way, and there was a satisfying ending as well as leaving things open for the next book in the series (which I immediately put on hold at the library). I think Alston is one of those writers who, like Riordan, has the potential to capture a whole generation (or two) of children’s imaginations. 

I can’t wait to read the next one!

Audiobook: The Sum of Us

by Heather McGhee
Read by the author
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Content: It deals with some tough issues, and there is some swearing. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

Heather McGhee, a lawyer, former president of Demos, and someone who specializes in how the American economy works tackles how the idea of a “zero-sum game” between Black and white people is a losing proposition, and not just for people of color. For everyone. She looks at the economy, the housing market, environmental regulations, education, among other areas, and breaks down how racism is at the root of, well, pretty much everything, and how that is costing everyone. It’s especailly relevant for a white person to read: to be shown how white people, especially poor white people, will vote against their interests because the Powers That Be have convinced them that, well, at least they’re not Black (or Latinx, or an immigrant, or…)

I do have to admit up front that I’m not sure I got all her arguments and data, because I listened to the book and sometimes my attention wanders. And I was somewhat unsatisfied that there really wasn’t any clear solutions laid out, except for just “get out of your comfort zone, work with people not like you, and do better”. Which, in reality, is probably not a bad solution. There is a sense of urgency, though: things aren’t just going to get better on their own. If we want things to improve (and maybe we don’t because we’re white, and well-off, and maybe They should just Work Harder?), then we need to get involved. Start local. 

McGhee was a good narrator, and I think this is one of those books that i will think about for a long time. 


by Amina Luqman-Dawson
First sentence: “Sanzi had broken yet another rule, but she didn’t care.”
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Content: There is violence against human beings – beatings and whippings, talk of removing fingers, and violence in the wild. It is in the Middle Grade section of the bookstore.

Homer is an enslaved boy at a plantation in the south. When we first meet him and his sister, Ada, they are running for their freedom. They’re supposed to be with their mother, but Homer insisted that they go back for his friend, Anna. Which meant that their mother, Rose, was caught. Homer and Ada kept running and found their way into the swamp. From there, they met some formemrly enslaved Black people as well as free Black people in their free community, deep within the swamp: Freewater.

This is less the story of Homer and Ada’s escape – that really only takes a chapter or two – and more of them learning to live free. Homer is obsessed with going back for his mom and works toward being able to do that. Ada is just a 7-year-old getting underfoot. They meet other children: Billy, who is a formerly enslaved person like them, and Sanzi and Juna who were born free in Freewater. Sanzi wants nothing except to be like Suleman – a tracker and explorer. Juna is a homebody and from all accounts, her mother’s “favorite”. We follow them as they experience life in Freewater.

I hate to say it, but I felt like this book was more Important than, well, Good. It is important: these stories of slavery need to be told. While people need to be shown as what they were: often cruel, but sometimes some of them were kind (if misguided). The struggles of Black people need to be told, and their joys and successes – like building a whole community in a swamp! – need to be written down. (The book is based on a real place, which is quite remarkable.)

But I wasn’t engaged. I slogged through until the very end, when it got exciting, as the children (and a couple of adults) raided the plantation wedding (wreaking havoc) during a wedding to rescue Homer’s mother. Luqman-Dawson captured the tension of doing that and made the stakes relatively high.

It was just a chore getting to that point. So, while I see the Importance and Value of this book and am glad it’s out there for people to read, it will not be my favorite.

Audiobook: Blood Debts

by Terry J Benton-Walker
Read by Bahni Turpin, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Torian Brackett & Zeno Robinson
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Release date: April 4, 2023
Content: There is a lot of violence, a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and an on-screen sex scene. It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The basic plot? Clem and Chris Trudeau are practitioners of Generational magic – a branch of magic along with Light and Moon and Necromancy. But their family hasn’t had the best history with it. Their grandmother was the leader of the Gen magic council but was framed for murder and killed by an angry mom. Their father was killed after something went wrong with a spell Chris cast. And their mother was slowly dying until they found the cause: a hex doll. Chris and Clem are determined (in spite of adults telling them to stay out of it) to figure out why their family has had such a run of bad luck with magic and fix it.

Truth be told, it’s a LOT more than just that. This book has everything. Family drama? Check. Solving multiple murders? Check. Stupid white people with grudges and guns? Check. Authorities refusing to help because the Trudeaus are black? Check. Zombies? Check. (Seriously.) Wonderfully sweet gay love? Check. Complicated gay love? Check. This book has EVERYTHING. It’s so much.

That’s not to say it was bad. It wasn’t. The audio is especially good – the narrators pulled me in and kept me coming back for more, even as I wanted to cringe and pull away because it’s a LOT. But, I really liked the magic system Benton-Walker dreamed up, and I liked the way he wove the challenges and triumphs of Black people into the book. There’s surprisingly a lot to talk about. (There’s just a LOT. Period.)

In the end, I think it was good? I’m still reeling from the end, and I want to know if there’s another, so at the very least, it hooked me.

Figure it Out, Henri Weldon

by Tanita S. Davis
First sentence: “Fluorescent lights really, really sounded like bees, Henrietta decided, shifting in her seat.”
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Disclaimer: Tanita and I are both on the Cybils board, but I purchased the book.
Content: There’s some mild bullying. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Henrietta – Henri for short – Weldon feels like she has a lot to figure out. She’s in 7th grade, but she’s just transferred to a public school, so the family could afford for her mother to get her Ph.D. It’s an adjustment, to say the least. On top of that, Henri and her older sister, Kat, are always arguing, though Henri feels like it’s always Kat picking on and nagging her. Kat has, especially, told Henri she is not to be friends with the Morgans – a group of foster kids living in the same home. Except the Morgans are nice to Henri. And then there’s math, which Henri just doesn’t get. As things start piling up, and she feels less and less like she has support at home, Henri wonders: Will she ever figure things out?

This was such a charming book. The sibling rivalry felt realistic, even though I felt bad for Henri – she was really trying her best, and her family just kept piling on. Families do that, though. And I can see how the youngest child would especially feel that. I liked the way Tanita depicted Henri’s learning disability; there are a lot of books out there on dyslexia and other reading disorders, but not much about dyscalculia, and I appreciated learning how Henri dealt with it. But, mostly it was a book about a girl trying to figure things out, which feels very 7th-grade. And I really really liked it.