Unsettled

by Reem Faruqi
First sentence: “I grab Asna’s hand, palm to palm.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a novel in verse, so even though it looks long, it goes quickly. There is some talk of bullying and dementia. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nurah is happy with her life in Pakistan: she has friends at school, she lives near her grandparents, and loves her home. But then, her father gets a job offer in Peachtree City, Georgia, and relocates the family there. Nurah finds it hard to adapt: she is out of place at school and her brother, whom she used to have a good relationship with, is increasingly distant. The one place Nurah feels at home is the rec center swim team; she’s not the best, but she feels at home in the water.

This was a very sweet and heartfelt story. I thought it worked really well as a novel in verse; it was simple without being simplistic. And Nurah’s challenges with fitting in at school, getting along with her increasingly distant brother, a grandmother with dementia, and just experiencing a new country are presented in a way to make them incredibly relatable.

It was a charming book, but one with a deeply felt heart.

Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler
First sentence: “They’ll make a god of her.”
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Others in the series: Parable of the Sower
Content: It’s rough, violence-wise and emotionally. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

This book picks up five years after Parable of the Sower: Acorn is a settled community, not large but flourishing and prosperous. Earthseed is growing as a movement and Oamina and Bankole are expecting a baby. But, in the wider world, the United States has elected a Christian American minister and facist as a president — someone who believes that all vagrants, homeless, and heathens should be “reeducated” and their children taken away and raised by Good Christian families. Once he’s elected, he backs off, but there is a movement –Jarrett’s Crusaders — that takes it upon itself (without consequences) to follow Jarrett’s philosophies. They attack Acorn, take away the children (including Olamina’s 2 month old baby) and enslave the rest of the adults. It’s a pretty horrific section, reminiscent of the Nazi Concentration camps (and made me ashamed to identify as a Christian though I understand these people were Not Really Christian.) Eventually, Olamina escapes and then spends the rest of the book looking for her child and restarting her Earthseed movement.

The most interesting thing about this book was that Olamina’s daughter, Asha Vere (which was the name her – admittedly not great — Christian adoptive parents gave her), narrated it as well. Every chapter began with an Earthseed verse and then some narrative by Asha. At first, this bothered me — Asha blamed her mother for starting Earthseed, not finding her soon enough, and for decisions she made, none of which really sat well with me; her mother did the best she could given the circumstances — but eventually, I came to understand Asha’s resentment, and her bitterness toward her mother. Butler had to create conflict — because novels are not life — and she did that brilliantly by creating a division between mother and daughter (as well as between Olamina and her brother, who embraced Jarrett’s Christian American movement). Butler is an excellent writer and a consummate storyteller, and, much like Handmaid’s Tale, is quite prophetic. She pulled from history and put together a tale that is a warning as much as it is an engrossing story. I did find myself skimming toward the end, when things settle down and Earthseed becomes moderately successfull, eventually sending ships into outer space, but really: this duology deserves the accolades it has gotten.

How the Word is Passed

by Clint Smith
First sentence: “The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a song.”
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Content: It talks about violence toward enslaved people, uses the n-word (in context) and some mild swearing. It is in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Clint Smith has written an absolutely beautiful book. It’s not an easy book to read, though the premise is simple: he visits several historical sites that are connected with the slavery in the United States, and recounts his experiences and analyzes the information presented at the sites. He talks to all sorts of people — visitors, tour guides, the people in charge of the sites — in order to get as wide a snapshot as possible.

He recounts his visits to seven sites: Monticello, Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island. Some are delving into their history of enslaving people, others not so much. Smith works to understand and critique an inform the reader not just about the history around the sites, but how their interaction and presentation of the past is affecting and informing us today. In short: in order to reckon with the present, we need to reckon with teh past.

It sounds like a difficult read, and it is at times, but Smith’s writing is so beautiful, it doesn’t feel like a chore to read this. He is a poet, and it shows: his descriptions of the places and people, his journalistic interactions, his presentation all draw the reader in and made me, at least, want to read more.

Possibly one of the more important books I’ll read, but also one of the more beautiful ones.

Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There was some swearing and references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Anvar Faris was a child in Karachi, Pakistan, but when unrest started to affect his city, his parents decided to immigrate to the US. They landed in the San Francisco area, where Anvar met the love of his life (Zuha, at least I’m hoping I spelled that right), and realized that no matter how much his mother tried, he was not going to be the kind of Muslim that she wanted him to be.

Safwa grew up in war-torn Baghdad, with a conservative father who was taken and tortured by the US soldiers. She fled, leaving her ailing brother to die alone, something her father could not forgive. They ended up in Afghanistan, where they meet a opportunistic young man who gets Safwa and her father passports to Mexico, and from there they come to the US, ending up in San Francsico.

This book is less about the plot — though there is some tension between Safwa and her father and the young man (whose name I don’t think I could spell, having only heard the audio) and Anvar and Zuha help, in the end. It’s much more an exploration of how people live their religion (or don’t) and the reasons behind what they do and why the do it. Safwa’s father is strict and abusive, but how much of that is his beliefs and how much of that is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US? The young man is angry and manipulative, and how much of that is his religion, or is it the circumstances of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan? Anvar is lax in his religion, but how much of that is laziness and how much of that is a serious questioning of religion His other brother is strictly faithful, but how much of that is because he believes and how much of that is putting on appearances? It’s an interesting exploration.

It’s also a good look at the variety that Islam has. I think too often, especially here in the US, we tend to paint Muslims as all one thing, when in reality (um, much like every other religion) there is a spectrum.

At any rate, the writing is good, and the narration was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked this one a lot.

On Juneteenth

by Annette Gordon-Reed
First sentence: “Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the Union, lives in the public imagination as a place of extremes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s short, and there’s nothing objectionable. It does lean toward the history/memoir. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This one ended up in my box at work (which meant someone there saw it and thought “Ah, Melissa will like this”) so I decided to give it a shot. But, before I could, Russell stole it off my TBR shelf because (I guess?) he knows Gordon-Reed’s work and was interested. His verdict? It’s a great little book of essays, though it’s really less about Juneteenth and more about how Texas is a microcosm for the US as a whole.

And he was right. In these five short essays, Gordon-Reed looks at growing up in Texas as segregation was ending, its history with slavery and the Confederacy, and, yes, what Juneteenth meant to her family growing up. It’s a quick read, but a fascinating one. It’s part memoir, part history, and interesting.

Definitely one to add to your piles.

Elatsoe

by Darcie Little Badger
First sentence: “
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Content: There are a couple instances of mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s appropriate for younger readers, if they’re not turned off by the length.

Ellie is an Apache living in an alternative Texas where there are monsters, fairy rings to travel in, and she can raise ghosts. It’s an old family gift, and they only use it to raise the ghosts of dead animals. More specifically, for Ellie, the ghost of her beloved dog, Kirby. When her cousin, Trevor, appears to her in a dream saying that he’s been murdered, Ellie takes it upon herself to go down to the town where Trevor is and try and figure out what happened. However, there are secrets in Willowbee. Ones that could put Ellie and everyone she holds dear in danger.

I really liked the premise of this one: ghosts and monsters and vampires and fairies all superimposed on the current United State, plus a murder mystery? Yes! However, this one lost me when it just couldn’t figure out who the audience is. Ellie is seventeen, but she acts like a 13 year old. It feels like a middle grade book: illustrations, short chapters, simpler language. The only reason Ellie is 17, I feel, is so she can drive. There’s no romance, the swearing is pretty mild… it’s not really the YA that YA readers have come to expect. But, it’s also not really a middle grade book, either.

I did finish it, and it was a good story with a decent ending. But, it’s not one of my favorites.

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler
First sentence: “I had my recurring dream last night.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, some frank talk about sex and rape, and some mild swearing (with one or two f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

It’s 2024 and the world has gone to hell. Climate change, drugs gone rampant, violence due to poverty and desperation, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her father, step-mother and three-half brothers in a walled and gated community that isn’t rich, but is surviving pretty well. Lauren’s biggest obstacle is her hyperempathy — a condition that allows her to feel and experience another’s pain if she sees it — which makes her extremely vulnerable. And then, as the years and book goes one, things get worse. Lauren finds herself in the open, trying to survive the growing chaos, and finds, among other things, a birth a of a new faith.

I remember reading an Octavia Butler ages and ages ago, or at least trying it. I wasn’t successful. I’m not sure which one it was, but it just didn’t connect with it. But this one? Maybe it was the time — it begins basically in our present — and my awareness of our current political situation, but this felt not just like fiction, but, well, prophecy. It’s less about the characters, though I did care about them and what happened to them, and more about the way the characters interact with the world. It’s a survivalist tale, it’s a dystopian — though it’s in the early stages of being a dystopian — it’s a book about trusting each other and yet not making oneself vulnerable. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, harsh, brutal, and very very hard to put down. I went out and picked up the sequel because I need to now how this story ends.

I’m so very glad I read it.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

by Janae Marks
First sentence: “The day I turned twelve, I was certain it’d be my favorite birthday yet, but then I got the letter.”
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Content: It talks about wrongful imprisonment, but in a very age-sensitive way. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, but would probably be good up through 6th or 7th grade.

Zoe is just a normal twelve-year-old: she likes hanging out with her friends, she lvoes baking, and she just wants to enjoy the summer (even though she’s currently fighting with her former best friend and neighbor, Trevor). Then, on her birthday, she finds a letter from her biological dad, Marcus, whom she’s never met, because he was arrested and convicted of murder before she was born.

Curious, she opens the letter, and then decides — against her mom’s will — to write him back. They start a relationship of sorts and when Zoe asks why he’s in prison, Marcus says he is innocent and was convicted wrongly. That sets Zoe off on a hunt to prove to herself — and her mother, and possibly the world — that Marcus is who he says he is. Along the way, she gets an internship at a bakery and learns a bit about that world, and makes up with Trevor.

It’s a very sweet little book, this (no pun meant with the baking, though I do wish there was a recipe for the Fruit Loop cereal cupcakes in the back) story of a girl getting to know her biological dad. Marks finds a balance with the parents — Zoe isn’t trying to replace her stepdad, whom she calls “dad” — but she does want to know this person who, up until this point, was just a sperm donor. I liked that Marks brought out that the prison system is not always about justice: Marcus had a bad lawyer, yes, but Zoe’s mother was also convinced that because the system found Marcus guilty that must have meant he was. We’re all so conditioned to believe that, and I appreciate that Marks explained that it’s not true in a way a younger kid could understand. I liked that Zoe had a good support system of adults around her, but that she also gets in trouble when she does things that, well, a kid would get in trouble for.

It was a very charming book, and one that is dealing with heavy subjects — like wrongful imprisonment — but not in a heavy-handed way. I truly enjoyed it!

Audio book: Firekeeper’s Daughter

by Angeline Boulley
Read by Isabella Star LaBlanc
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and a rape scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Daunis Fontaine has not quite fit in growing up. She lives in Sault St Marie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and being half white and half Ojibwe has made it so that she never quite fit in either community. She wants a fresh start at the University of Michigan, but it doesn’t happen once her uncle dies suddenly. And then Daunis is drawn into an FBI investigation over the spread of meth in the region. It gets more complicated when she falls for the new guy, Jamie, and things keep getting more and more involved with the investigation.

I highly highly recommend this one on audio. I don’t know how it would play out in print; I suspect that I would have tripped over the Anishinaabe words that Boulley peppers throughout the book. Speaking of which: I appreciated Boulley’s inclusion of Native customs and practices but in a way that felt like they were important to Daunis, but not crucial to the outcome of the story. I loved LaBlanc’s narration, and the way she brought the characters to life. (The only complaint I had about the audio book is that they pronounced pasty wrong. It’s PAH-sty not PAY-sty. Any self-respecting Michigander knows that.) No, it’s not the fast-paced thriller the publisher is marketing it as, but it is an immersive story about a young woman who is trying to figure out how she can fit in, grieve, honor her traditions, and find her own path.

In short: I found it remarkable.

Black Buck

by Mateo Askaripour
First sentence: “The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Darren is an aimless 22-year-old who has been working his way up the ranks at Starbucks instead of college and a more traditional route. Then one day he does a hard sales pitch on a regular customer and finds himself working for Sumwun, a tech startup. It’s an all-white, elite work environment (Darren is neither of those things) and Darren finds himself being subject to some pretty intense and racist stuff.

And honestly? That’s as far as I made it. I should have known it wouldn’t agree with me when it was being billed as satire. It’s skewering white business practices, and I get it, but satire and I don’t get along. We just don’t. I’ve tried books that are supposed to be funny pokes at things, and I just don’t “get” it. This is why I say this one isn’t for me, and I abandoned it halfway through. Life is too short to read books you just don’t like, even if they’re for book club.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It just wasn’t for me.