Children of Virtue and Vengeance

by Tomi Adeyemi
First sentence: “I try not to think of him.”
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Others in the series: Children of Blood & Bone
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it graphic. And talk of sex but none on the page. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book picks up right after the first one in the series, so spoilers (obviously).

It’s a few weeks after ZĂ©lie brought magic back to Orisha, but things haven’t gotten any better for the magi. In fact, when magic came back, it came back not only to those who had magic, but to those who have magic ancestry. Which means, unfortunately, that the royals who have been oppressing the magi now have magic… and so they keep oppressing (and killing) the magi, especially those who have decided that the royals must go.

It’s not a happy book, this. It’s very much a second in a series — they won a battle in the first book, but it wasn’t enough to win the war. And so one side retaliates, and then the other side retaliates, and then the first side retaliates again… you get the picture. In fact, that’s what I got out of it: it’s a very long musing on what happens when people can’t let go of past hurts and work towards a mutually beneficial solution. Though maybe, sometimes, burning everything to the ground may be the best option. There’s a lot to think about.

I still really like Adeyemi’s world building, and I like the way magic is evolving and being used in new ways. I enjoy that no character is fully good or evil; the “bad guys” have motivations that make sense, and the “good guys” aren’t wholly without fault or blameless. There’s even complexity in the relationships in the book. And I find all that highly satisfying.

I do have to say that I’m quite curious where this next book is going to go. I’m definitely going along for the ride!

A Blade So Black

by L. L. McKinney
First sentence: “Alice couldn’t cry.”
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Content: There is some violence and three f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid if they were interested.

The day her father died was the first time that Alice saw a Nightmare. She didn’t know what it was, this monster snarling at her and trying to eat her, but since she could see him — and the mysterious boy, Addison Hatta, who slayed the Nightmare for her — she was recruited to become a Dreamwalker and help protect the world from the Bad Things in Wonderland.

Except it’s not as easy as it sounds. Hatta’s been poisoned, the Black Knight is on the loose, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep out of trouble with Alice’s mom (seriously: she kept sneaking out, and I was just waiting for the time that everything would got to hell because Alice’s mom locked her in her room or something like that). It doesn’t help that Alice’s friendship with her best friends is on the rocks because of all of the Wonderland stuff.

Oh this one was fun! I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, but McKinney used her source material so incredibly cleverly. With the Queens and Knights and the Vorpal Blade, and the Tweedle twins (they were Russian: Dee and Dem). It was all very, very cleverly used. And on top of that McKinny wove an incredible magic world, but gave it real world consequences. I know I snarked a bit about Alice’s mom, but McKinney thought about the consequences of Alice’s actions, and gave her mother realistic reactions. I appreciated that Alice’s mom was a viable presence throughout the book, acting as any good mom would.

It’s a good start to a series, and one that I’m actually curious to find out where it takes me.

The Good Luck Girls

by Charlotte Nicole Davis
First sentence: “It was easier, she’d been told, if you kept a tune in your head.”
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Content: There are illusions to sex and drinking, but none actual. There is also some mild swearing, It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The Good Luck Girls work at a Welcome House providing “services” to male clients. Most of them have been sold to the welcome house, because their family needs the money. Sisters Clementine and Aster — not their real names; they take on flower names when they’re sold to the house — decide to run when Clementine accidentally kills a “brag” — one of the men they service — which is not an easy feat. They end up taking three other girls with them when they get away, but they’re on the run from the law and the raveners — men who possess powers to create despair and pain — and in search of a bedtime story: Lady Ghost who is supposed to help girls like them.

It’s a long, dangerous path, and one that the girls can only make with the help of a ranger, Zee. Aster is the leader and our main character, and it’s interesting following the journey through her eyes. She doesn’t have the love arc (that belongs to other characters) or the sacrifice arc, but I do appreciate how she grows as a leader. She has difficult decisions to make, and I thought Davis did an excellent job giving Aster the complicated storyline.

It’s a good “road trip” story, with a hint of the old west. I liked that the girls were up against the patriarchy, even if Zee was a bit overhelpful. It made sense though, since the girls didn’t have much outside experience. As fantasy is a way to explore real world issues, this brings to light the plight of girls who are sold into sex work, and the ways in which they are kept captive.

It also works as a stand-alone, which is nice. I think there’s potential for a series, but there doesn’t have to be, and I find that immensely fulfilling.

A good debut.

Once More to the Rodeo

by Calvin Hennick
First sentence: “I can’t even get us out the door right.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: December 10, 2019
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some talk of emotional and physical abuse. It will be in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Calvin Hennick is a white man who grew up in the Midwest. For him, that meant a hot mess of a family, a father that didn’t care and wasn’t there, and not looking back after he graduated college. He met his wife Belzie, who happens to be black, in New York, and they’ve made a life for themselves in Boston with their two children. As their oldest, Nile, turns five and is about to start kindergarten, Hennick gets this brilliant (maybe) idea: take Nile on a road trip, just the two of them, to Iowa to see the rodeo. On the way, maybe Hennick can teach Nile a bit about being a black man in American (though that’s probably not something Hennick, who is white, can do well) and maybe he can figure out this whole fatherhood business once and for all.

Lofty goals for a road trip, and Hennick really doesn’t achieve them. However, the joy really is in the journey in this book. Hennick weaves his experiences on the road with Nile — who really is a sweet and precocious little kid — with reflections on his situation growing up, and the lack of love and support he felt from the adults in his life. Honestly: I’m surprised Hennick didn’t end up staying in small-town Iowa, knocking some girl up at 15, and just becoming bitter. It’s a sterotype, but that’s where his life was pointing. He didn’t, though, and he is a moderately successful (and a very good) writer. He’s making life work. And if he has doubts and questions about his ability to be a good parent… well, we all do.

Still, it was enjoyable spending time with Hennick and Nile and going on a road trip from Boston to Iowa. And maybe I learned a little about being a decent parent along the way, too.

American Street

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some violence against women, some inference to sex, and drug use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Fabiola has just arrived in America from Haiti, nominally because she and her mother are finally joining her mother’s sister and family. Fab’s Aunt Jo has failing health and her mom is going to come take care of everyone. Except that the last time Fab’s mom was in America — when Fabiola was born — she overstayed her visa. So, she was flagged at customs and now is in detention, and so Fabiola has to face her aunt and cousins — whom she’s never actually met, though they’ve talked on the phone — and the new and scary America alone.

It’s not an easy transition; although Fab has been going to an English private school in Haiti, that’s not the same as a private school in Detroit. And she has to deal with the cultural differences between Haiti and America. And it doesn’t help that her cousin Donna’s boyfriend is a drug dealer, and a cop has approached Fab in order to get information.

It’s a tough book to read — I had to read in small snippets, and I was never fully immersed, but I admit this is not a book that reflects my life. That said, I think Zoboi did a remarkable job capturing the difficulties that not just immigrants face but class divisions and the things that people do just to stay afloat. The family connections that come up between friends, and the ways in which people — no, black people — who are struggling will keep an eye out for each other because there just isn’t anyone else. There’s a lot here about racism and class, and immigrants, and family. There’s a slight bit of magical realism; Fab practices Vodou, and I’m glad that Zoboi included that because it’s nothing like the representations I’ve been exposed to (yeah, in the movies). I appreciated that education.

I’ve read Zoboi’s other books, but had never read this one, and I’m glad I have now. It’s excellent.

Look Both Ways

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “This story was going to begin like all the best stories.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some tough subjects, like bullying and parents with cancer. It’s in both the YA (grades 6-8) and the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

The format of this book is really the highlight: it’s a series of ten interconnected short stories, based out of a school, and following kids as they go home after school one day. One story for either one kid or a group of kids per block.

It’s a clever premise, and one that shuns the large (a school bus fell from the sky is the underlying “What?” of this story) in favor of the small stories. It’s the story of a girl writing in a notebook, observing things and collecting data on the way home (and a side note in another story about how she is “mysterious”). It’s about the troublemakers who are always stealing loose change, and where they go after school and what they do with the money. It’s about older siblings who have died, or kids getting beat up for defending a boy-on-boy not-quite kiss. It’s simple and deep and profound and lighthearted all at once. Which is why, I think, Reynolds is one of the brilliant writers out there.

Will kids read it? I don’t know. I hope so. It would be perfect for school book groups, and for parent-children discussions. And it’s a good reminder that everything — and everyone — isn’t always what it looks like.

Audiobook: The Book of Delights

by Ross Gay
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s irreverent and sweary, including multiple f-bombs.

I was having a week where I was angry at everything. Did not matter what it was, I was just in a constant state of pissed-off-ness. I was scrolling through my audio books, and I landed on this one. “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe I need this one.”

I vaguely knew about Gay going in because he visited the store, and a lot of the staff really loved him. (A lot of the customers, too.) But I wasn’t ready for this book back in April, when it came out. I did, however, need it now.

The basic premise is that Gay, a black poet, spent a year — from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd — writing small essays on the things that delight him. Sometimes they wander into memories, sometimes into ruminations on race or the nature of Joy. Sometimes it was just him expressing delight in a simple touch, or the sharing of a flower, or conversation.

Whatever it was, it was all particularly delightful, especially as read by Gay. His reading, for me, was everything. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me look for the delights in my own life. (If you want a sample of him reading, check out his poem To the Fig Tree on the Corner of 9th and Christian.)

This book is, simply, a delight.

Audio book: Red at the Bone

by Jacqueline Woodson
Read by: Jacqueline Woodson, Bahni Turpin, Shayna Small, Peter Francis James, and Quincy Tyler Burnstine.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some on-screen sex as well as swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss to talk about this one plot-wise. It jumps back and forth through time, starting in 2001, at Melody’s “coming of age ceremony”, where she’s wearing the dress her mother, Iris, wasn’t able to wear, because she was pregnant with Melody and didn’t get a ceremony. It gives us glimpses into the inner lives of Iris and Melody, but also Iris’s parents, and Aubrey, Melody’s father. It’s an introspective novel; nothing really happens, but Woodson’s tight writing and way of observing human nature still allows us to get to know these characters and understand their motivations.

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio book, partially because Woodson’s writing is a joy to listen to, and partially because the different narrators helped keep the story straight. (I was talking to a co-worker who said she was having trouble with this one because she didn’t know which chapter was from which point of view — Woodson, unlike other writers, doesn’t do any favors by telling us at the outset who is narrating, instead making us do the work of figuring it out.) It was short, and to the point, and I liked listening to this one family’s story through the years.

Recommended, particularly in audio.

Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some arguing, but mostly it’s pretty good for the age group — 8-12 — that it’s aimed for. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amara wants one thing for her 12th birthday: to go see her father’s home and family in New York City. She’d love to go by herself, but she’ll take going with her father on a business trip. The problem? Her father hasn’t spoken to her grandfather in 12 years, since Amara was born and her grandmother passed away.

It takes a while (probably a bit longer than it should for the pacing in the book, but that’s being nitpick-y), but Amara is on her way to Harlem to see her grandfather, aunt, and cousins (whom she has only spoken to). It’s awkward, especially since her cousins are 14 and 16 and don’t really want to hang out with her. Amara has a few adventures (and mis-adventures) and learns about her own personal history as well as African American history in Harlem.

I enjoyed the book, mostly for the history as well as the class tensions between Amara — who is decidedly upper middle class — and her cousins — who are not. I liked Amara as a character, and I think Watson got the middle grade voice right, even if the pacing was slightly off.

In the end, it was a sweet story about learning the importance of where you (or your people) came from.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.