Audio book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You

by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Read by Jason Reynolds
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is frank talk of slavery and rape and they use the n-word a couple of times. It will be in the Middle Grade History section of the bookstore.

The publishers — and Reynolds himself — are calling this a “remix” of the National Book Award- winning Stamped, by Kendi, and a brilliant remix it is. Reynolds takes the ideas in Kendi’s book — which is a look at racism from the first recorded instance in the 14th century to the present day — and distills them down so that kids == it’s aimed at the 10 and up crowd — can easily grasp the ideas and the history.

And Reynolds makes it fun. It’s a “not history history book”, one where Reynolds talks about IDEAS and how they fit into the grander scope of history. It’s incredibly engaging to listen to (and read!) — Reynolds is a fabulous narrator — and it made me look at history in a new light. It’s an important book — I’ve checked the original out from the library because I’m interested in what Kendi’s research — especially in this day and age. It’s incredibly helpful as a white person to understand that racism is systemic and built into the framework of our society. And maybe by understanding that, we can all become a bit more aware.

Excellent and highly recommended.

Audio book: Becoming

by Michelle Obama
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is your basic memoir: the life of Michelle Robinson Obama, from growing up in the South Side of Chicago to going to college at Princeton and law school at Harvard, to how she met and married Barak Obama, her challenges and successes as a professional woman with two children, and then dealing with a husband who wanted to become (and then became!) president and all the challenges and success with being the first lady of the United States.

First off: yes, it does live up to the hype, especially on audio. Obama is a delightful narrator, and listening to her tell her insightful, funny, interesting story is a treat (whether or not you agree with her husband’s politics, I think). She is a delightful, smart, good human being and I’m glad she chose to tell her story. I do hope it does what I think she hopes it does, and inspires young girls and young women to get involved.

Mostly what it made me do, in the end, was desperately miss having someone in the White House (whether or not you agree with their politics) who took the idea of governing seriously, who did their best to be ethical and honest, and who actually was Presidential. You could argue that Barak Obama wasn’t a great president, but what you can’t say is that he didn’t take the role seriously. Same for Michelle: she took the idea of being First Lady seriously, harnessing her influence for something good, and I miss that terribly.

At any rate, this was an excellent book.

Black Brother, Black Brother

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “I wish I were invisible.”
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Release date: March 3, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s pretty simply told, and easy enough (and appropriate) for younger readers to understand. It will be in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Dante is the black brother in his family. His dad is white, his older brother Trey presents as white, but Donte and his mom present as black. Which wasn’t a problem until the family moved to a (mostly white) suburb of Boston and the boys started attending a (mostly white) prep school.

I’ll stop here and say this book is all about racism. Explicit racism from some of the students at the school — the story’s antagonist and school bully, Alan — but also the implicit racism in the system: Donte, because he is black, is the one who is always in trouble, who the teachers and the headmaster blame for things that go wrong. But it goes broader than that: Rhodes tackles the prison system — Donte is arrested for something he didn’t do at school, and the only reason he gets off is because he doesn’t present as stereo-typically black (and having a white father helped, too). And the overall racism inherent in sports.

It’s a simple book, but that makes sense, considering who its intended audience is. And Rhodes is a remarkable writer, able to simplify without dumbing down for her audience. It’s a good story, and one worth reading.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo
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Content: There are some situations with bullying. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

If you can’t tell from the title, this is a modern adaptation of Alcott’s Little Women. It’s a blended family: Meg’s dad married Jo’s mom and they had Beth and Amy together. That doesn’t stop the sisters from being incredibly close. Their dad is deployed in the Middle East and their mom is working hard to make ends meet. As we follow the March sisters over the course of a year — from one Christmas to the next — anyone familiar with the original will catch all the highlights: there’s Laurie and his grandfather across the street. There’s crotchety old Aunt Cath that Jo works for. There’s Brooks that has a relationship with Meg, as well as Meg’s aspirations to be part of the rich social set. Beth shy and quiet and Amy loud and obnoxious. t

There are differences from the original, but mostly because it’s modernized. Meg and Jo are making decisions that diverge from the original, reflecting today’s society, but I felt Terciere and Indigo stayed true to the spirit of the original work.

I did feel like this one fell short a bit, but mostly because I felt it wasn’t really it’s own thing. It’s an excellent adaption of Little Women, but I’m not sure it’s much else.

That said, I really enjoyed reading it.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
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Content: It’s long. And there is some action violence. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong is the son and grandson of boxers, but that’s not what he wants to be. No, he’s a bit of a nerd, and would rather spend his time with his best friend Eddie collecting stories. Except his best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan couldn’t save him.

After losing his first boxing match, Tristan is sent to his grandparents in Alabama to try and work though is feelings about Eddie’s death. And that’s where, unfortunately, Tristan falls through a hole and into the world of MidPass and Alke, where gods and folk heroes are battling iron machines and the Maafa for control of their world. What can a 13-year-old do to help? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

This was such a fun book! I enjoyed Tristan’s adventures and the way Mbalia wove both African and African American myths and folk tales into the story. I loved how Tristan came into his own as the book went along, and he was able to face his grief as well as figuring out how to get through his fear (it was nice to have a hero who was terrified but manged to work through it!). I loved how everyone that Tristan met worked together, and how the solutions weren’t about fighting and winning, but more about cooperation. I also liked that Mbalia addressed slavery as part of the whole mythos but it was never a book that was solely about the slave experience.

Definitely highly recommended!

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