Black Girls Rock

by Beverly Bond (editor)
First sentence :”There is a palpable blissfulness in our magic.”
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Content: It’s marketed to adults but there’s nothing objectionable. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

Bond put together a series o short personal essays from a bunch of famous Black women: activists, politicians, actors, musicians, and artists. They each told a small slice of their own story and successes. I’m not sure what the purpose was; possibly it was hoping to inspire other Black women to become their best selves. Maybe it was a collection to highlight the diversity in black Black womanhood (which it did well) and the range of experiences and successes Black women have had.

I wanted to like the book more than I actually did. I like the idea of the book. I like that this book exists. But reading it was a bit of a chore. Some of the essays were well, not great. You could tell that many weren’t writers. And while I wanted to care about their stories, I didn’t always.

Is it an important book? Yes. Was it a good one? I’m not entirely sure.

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “The house always wins.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Content: There is talk of addiction in adults, some bullying, and a mild “relationship”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

AnthonyJoplin — Ant to his friends, but don’t call him little — comes from a family of serious Spades players. His grandfather, his father, his brother, were all really great at it, winning the local tournament (and then some). But Ant can’t seem to get in the game. He’s “weak”. Or that the way he feels, especially around his dad, his brother, and his friend. That he needs to be stronger, better. He needs to win the tournament, for starters.

He and his friend make a good team, but when his friend is unexpectedly unable to play, Ant turns to the new girl – Shirley – as a partner. Which is its own set of problems. Add to that his father is acting weird, staying up in the middle of the night playing online poker, and Ant is just confused about what he really is supposed to expect out of life.

I love that Johnson gets the middle grade audience, tackling touch subjects like addiction and masculinity without talking down to his readers. I love that he gives us characters that are interesting and complex, which makes them and their problems seem more real. I love that he sprinkles his books with humor, so they are not depressing, but rather reflect life’s ups and downs.

The only think I didn’t like about this book was the narrator: I liked the folksy aspect of it, with the slang and the way it felt like someone telling a story, but I often felt the narrator — who was a character in their own right — got in the way of the story.

But it was’t enough to turn me off of this book. Definitely another very good read!

Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
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Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

The Leak

by Kate Reed Petty and Andrea Bell
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Content: It’s got one kiss and some talk of making out. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Ruth Keller is 12 years old, and wants to be a journalist when she gets older. She runs a little newsletter, reporting on stories in her middle school and town. And then one day, she is out fishing at the town lake with her friend Jonathan, and she sees something weird: a mysterious sludge and a dead fish on the shore. Ruth sees a story — local companies must be polluting the lake – and runs with it. The problem is that she’s only 12, and adults aren’t listening to her. Well, that, and she kind of jumps to conclusions before she gets her facts right.

This is a really great little story not just about youth activism and awareness, but also about facts and truth and how stories can be affected by perspective. There were a couple of subplots that I didn’t care for — one involving Ruth’s older brother hand his girlfriend (who is a mentor to Ruth), and the other involving Ruth and Jonathan “liking” each other — but that didn’t take away from the charm and message of the main story.

A solid middle grade graphic novel.

Blackout

by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is mild swearing and three f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The basic premise is this: it’s a hot summer day in New York City, and the power goes out at 5 p.m. The six different authors then set about telling six interconnected stories about what happens — romance-wise — once the lights go off. It takes place in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with both straight and gay couples, as the night goes on.

If there is goign to be short stories, I think, I prefer them when they are interconnected. Think of this as the Black, summer version of Let it Snow. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s fun, it’s swoony. People you don’t normally think of writing romance — Angie Thomas, Nic Stone — write solid stories that fit in beautifully in-between Jackson’s longer, multi-chapter anchor story. I loved the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the stories, and thought it worked together really really well. In short: It’s a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.

Definitely pick this one up.

Rise to the Sun

by Leah Johnson
First sentence: “My best friend has always been the first person I run to when it’s time to blow up my life.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs and some talk of sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Olivia is a mess. She dates a lot, but her relationships never last. And her last one ended really, really badly. She just needs to get away, so she convinces her best friend, Imani, to drive to northern Georgia to a music festival where Imani’s favorite band is headlining. A best friend’s weekend is what they need.

Toni just graduated from high school, but ever since the sudden death of her father, she’s not sure if she wants to follow the stable path her mom has set, or follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue music. She’s at the festival to figure things out.

But when Olivia an Toni collide (almost literally), everything gets thrown up in the air as they try to figure out the sparks between them.

Much like Johnson’s first book, this one simultaneously is a joy of Black girl romance while having more difficult themes – like the death of a parent, or the expectations of parents – underneath. It’s a fun, delightful, breezy read, and one I’m definitely glad is out there Johnson writes some pretty spectacular YA books, that are much-needed in this market.

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.

The Girl from the Sea

by Molly Knox Ostertag
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Content: There is some kissing. It’s in the teen/adult graphic novel section of the bookstore, but I think younger kids who don’t mind a romance would like this one.

Morgan lives on a small island, where she has a good group of friends. However, this summer things are changing: her parents just got divorced, and Morgan has come to realize that she’s hiding a huge part of who she is: she’s gay. She figures just make it through high school, and get away from the small island town, and then she can live her Real Life.

Except the universe has different plans: Morgan meets Keltie, a strange girl with some secrets of her own. As the two girls get to know each other, things change a lot faster and a lot more than Morgan is ready for.

I have really enjoyed Ostertag’s other graphic novel series (there’s a third one I haven’t read yet) and this one is just as delightful. She captures the feelings of feeling isolated and different and wanting to feel like they fit in. She captures first love and trying to make it work with someone who is very different from you are. I adore her art and I think it works really well with the story she’s crafted.

Definitnely a real winner.

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.

Audio book: God Save the Queens

by Kathy Iandoli
Read by the author and Bahni Turpin
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Music section of the bookstore.

This is what book clubs are good for: I would have never picked this one up without it. I know very little about hip hop (as evidenced by the fact that they kept saying names and I knew very few of them) and I don’t know that I ever really cared enough about hip hop to read a musical history of the women in the business.

That said, this comprehensive history covering women and their role and place in hip hop, was interesting. Even if I couldn’t keep names straight.

Things I took away: the business (still) is not friendly to women.It just isn’t. It’s full of misogyny and promoters who feel like there’s only room for one woman hip hop artist at a time. The business started women super young — like teenager young — in the 80s and early 90s, which couldn’t have been good for their mental health. There’s this unspoken competition in hip hop that I don’t understand — why was everyone “fighting” all the time? I don’t get it. But, I do get that these women had a lot of obstacles to overcome, and that that decks are stacked against them. (For example: being someone who doesn’t really delve deeply into music, I didn’t recognize any of the women’s names until about the late 90s. I can’t say that about the men. That says something, I think.)

I enjoyed Turpins narration (Ianodli only narrated the prologue and epilogue, where she got a bit overly sentimental about the Strength of Black Women. It felt unnecessary, I think.) though it really didn’t give Turpin’s talent for doing voices and accents much to do. That said, I will listen to anything she narrates. Period.

I may have enjoyed this one more in print rather than audio, though: I kept wanting pictures and I would lose track of who was who in the audio version. That said, I didn’t dislike it, even if I probably wasn’t the target audience.