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.

Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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!