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.

Superman Smashes the Klan

by Gene Leun Yang and Gurihiru
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Content: There is some violence and use of slurs against Asian people. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

It’s 1946, and Roberta and Tommy Lee are moving from their home in Chinatown to a different part of Metropolis. They’re anxious about making new friends, and their father has started a new job which comes with new responsibilities. They begin to make friends, and Tommy earns a spot on a baseball team. But things don’t go smoothly: the (white) neighbors aren’t happy and soon the local Klan (of the Fiery Cross) are working to terrorize the Lees.

Which is where Superman comes in. The story of the Lees confrontations with the Klan are interwoven with Superman trying to figure out who he fully is. He is fast and strong, but he’s not really come into all of his powers (as we currently know them) yet. It’s a fabulous dual narrative as the Chinese immigrant Lee family deals with figuring out how to fit in and be themselves ans Superman (the alien immigrant!) figures out the same.

I picked this one up entirely because it won the Cybils Young Adult Graphic Novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Between the story by Yang and the art by Gurihiru, there is not only a fun and interesting story, but an incredibly relevant one. And a good reminder: Superman is a hero for everyone, not just white people. And that we’re all in this world together, so we should figure out how to make it work together. It’s an incredibly hopeful book as well as showing the evils of racism and extreme hatred. Definitely highly recommended.

The Cooking Gene

by Michael W. Twitty
First sentence: “The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”
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Content: There are a few swear words, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Cooking reference section of the bookstore.

This is essentially two things in one: Twitty’s personal memoir and his professional cooking journey. One part of that — his cooking journey — I found incredibly fascinating. Twitty has dedicated his career and life to recreating and understanding the food and cooking methods that the enslaved people used when they were brought to this country. I think that’s fascinating and valuable, and I found those portions of the book to be interesting. The other part — his personal memoir — was rooted too much in DNA testing and DNA connections to his ancestors as he tried to figure “himself” out. I enjoyed the parts where he was talking about his youth and growing up, but I didn’t connect so much with his musings about ancestors. I get that it’s important to him — especially with his work — but I just didn’t connect with it.

Part of that was the circular method that Twitty used to tell is story. It seemed to start in the middle and wrap around itself and while parts were fascinating, the whole was just a bit outside of my reach.

In short: I really wanted to like this a whole lot more than I ever actually did.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Content: There is tasteful on-screen sex and use of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It is the middle of the 19th century, and Libertie is a free Black girl being rasied by a single mother who has the audacity to become a doctor. And who wants only the best for Libertie. Which is to say, she expects Libertie to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor as well. The weight of that is so much for Libertie, that before her mother can find out that she flunked out of college, she marries and runs off with a man — her mother’s assistant — to Haiti. Only to find that the freedom she was hoping for isn’t there.

It’s less about the plot, though, than it is about Libertie and her relationship with her mother. There is very much a push-and-pull there; with Libertie wanting love and unconditional acceptance, and her mother showing her love with the expectation of excellence. It’s set in a world where there is slavery, racism, and colorism but that only brushes up against the plot. It’s mostly about expectations: those that are placed upon us by others — parents, spouses, society at large — and the ones we place on ourselves.

Greenidge is a very talented writer, and I think Libertie is a character that will stay with me for a while. I’m not sure I thought the ending was realistic, but I appreciated it. It was a good read and I’m glad I read it.

When You Trap a Tiger

by Tae Keller
First sentence: “I can turn invisible.”
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Content: There are a few heavy subjects, like a loss of a parent. It would be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore if it hadn’t won the Newbery. As such, it’s in the Newbery section of the bookstore.

Lily has always been the quiet one in her family. It’s her older sister, Sam, that is loud and opinionated and always in trouble with their mom. But when their halmoni (their grandma) gets sick and the sisters and their mom move in with her to help, things change. Lily is convinced — by a magical tiger — that her halmoni stole something from the tigers god and if Lily just gave it back, her halmoni would get better.

This is such a lovely little book. A testament to the power of stories and passing those stories on. And not just book stories, but the stories of family, of Home (whether it be spiritual or ancestral). There are no stories that shouldn’t be told; even the sad ones have merit. It’s also a sweet book about family connection, surviving loss, and being strong and brave and what that means. Plus, it’s incredibly well-written and feels just perfect; not a single word or scene that’s out of place.

Definitely earned that Newbery it won. Excellent.

Audio book: Eat a Peach

by David Chang and Gabe Ulla
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of suicide and mental illness. There is also lots of swearing, including many f-bombs. It’s in the Cooking/Food Reference section of the bookstore, but would also work in Creative Non-Fiction or Biography.

Chang starts his memoir stating that he’s too young to write a memoir, that this all feels too pretentious. And yes, in a way he’s right: he’s only 43, and his life — well his work life — has been a mix of luck and obsessively hard work. That said, since the only thin I know about him is Ugly Delicious from Netflix (which I really enjoyed), I was fascinated to learn all about Momofuku and the path that Chang took to where he is today.

It’s not an easy path. Chang had an okay suburban childhood, but not an especially happy one. And while he went to college, it wasn’t an especially good experience. It was when we worked in Japan (for a year? I think?) that he finally got an idea of what he wanted to do: he wanted to bring excellent food to the masses, and recreate the experience of Japanese noodle bars. And thus, Momofuku was born.

I really appreciate what Chang is doing: pushing the boundaries of food, mixing cultures and inspirations to come up with something wholly new. I really would love to eat at one of the restaurants, just to see what he and his team have created. I also appreciated that he was super candid about his mental health. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and was frank about the ups and downs and the medications. He’s his own harshest critic and is adamant that failure is an important part of growth. If one doesn’t fall down, then one can’t grow. And I get that.

And as a narrator, he wasn’t bad. He kept me pulled up to the table (metaphorically) to listen to his stories. I just wish I could have had a plate or two of his excellent food as I did.

Deacon King Kong

by James McBride
First sentence: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”
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Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is almost incidental: Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin (who also gets called Deacon King Kong for the amount of hooch he drinks) shot (but did not kill) a local drug dealer, who used to be a kid that played on a baseball team Sportcoat coached and umpired in the projects in Brooklyn. And, because of this, Things Happen. What the Things are doesn’t really matter: this is a novel that is propelled by the characters. And there’s a whole mess of characters. So many that when I tried to listen to this on audio, I got lost with who was who. But, reading it helped keep some of them straight. It’s a whole neighborhood full of characters, their wants and needs and desires and connections to each other. And McBride truly captured a moment in time, and a place, as the people of this Brooklyn neighborhood lived their lives and tried to keep things together as much as they could.

I didn’t absolutely love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. It’s funny at times, and always interesting, if you like charioteer-driven novels.

Concrete Rose

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There swearing, including f-bombs, some tasteful sex, and talk of drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Maverick Carter is just trying to live his life. He’s got a girlfriend he adores, and friends — including a cousin, Dre — that have his back. But then, his life is upended: a girl he had a one-night stand with (the condom broke) got him to take a DNA test to see if her baby was his. And sure enough, it was. Then she dumped the baby in Maverick’s lap and left (she was suffering from postpartum depression, so I get it). Which meant, all of a sudden, Maverick has to take stock of his life. Does he want to be involved in the King Lords and sell drugs, even though the money is good? How can he help his mom out (especially since dad’s been in prison since Maverick was eight). And then after a tragedy happens where Dre is killed, how can Maverick just go on?

In this prequel to The Hate U Give (you don’t have to have read that one first), Tbomas explores what it’s like to be a Black man in the inner-city in the late 1990s/early 2000s. When really all anyone expected of Maverick was for him to be a part of a gang, and to get a couple of girls pregnant. It’s all about Maverick finding it within himself to not be a stereotype, to not fall into the life his father lived, to be something — and someone — different. And, because Thomas is a gifted writer, she is able to bring life to this world and this character without making it seem preachy or trite. It really is an excellent story, and one that makes you feel for Maverick and his struggles and situations.

Thomas’s not just an important writer doing important work, though. She’s an excellent writer telling good stories. And that’s what really matters.