There There

by Tommy Orange
First sentence: “There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.”
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Content: There is violence, a rape (though I think it was just talked about) and a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

This book, in a series of short chapters, each focusing on a different character, depicts what life is like for the Native Peoples’ population in Oakland, California. It’s contemporary, but there’s also a bit of historical fiction for context, and it culminates in a huge powwow in Oakland. The overall plot is that there are some kids who, because they need the money and because it’s an easy target, decide to rob the powwow of the cash prize. But, mostly, it’s just a picture of what life is like for the remnants of the tribes that have settled in Oakland.

Most of the Native Peoples fiction I’ve read (admittedly: not a lot) has been centered on the reservation, and I think Orange wanted to remind people (read: white readers) that Native Peoples exist elsewhere too. That, and I think he felt his story — that of the Urban Native — hasn’t been told. There was a lot of inner conflict between feeling “not Indian enough” and feeling lost without a tribe or traditions to fall back on. Orange is exploring what it means to be “Indian”, and the perception (possibly foisted upon them by white culture) that you’re only “Indian” if you’re on the reservation or dressed up in traditional clothes.

I hesitate to say I “liked” this. The more accurate word would be “challenged”. I feel for the characters; their lives are not easy and the systemic racism and oppression of them isn’t helping. I appreciate Orange for exploring all the stereotypes of Native culture, and for giving readers a fuller picture of what Native life — both urban and on the reservation — is like It’s very much a “white people are terrible” book; but it’s an honest sentiment, and one that I think is important. And it’s always good to get an own-voices view of things.

So, while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did find it worthwhile to read.

Audio book: The Bookshop of Yesterdays

by Amy Meyerson
Read by Ann Marie Gideon
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mention of sex, and swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

Miranda Brooks is happy with her life. She has a good job teaching history to 8th graders in Philadelphia. She has a good boyfriend she just moved in with. She doesn’t want to shake things up.

Then she gets a package in the mail — a copy of the Tempest, her estranged uncle’s favorite play — and a note that said uncle has just passed away. Suddenly, she’s off on a plane to LA, the land of her youth, to follow the clues her uncle laid out, to find out the mystery of her past, and how her once-beloved uncle was pushed out of her life.

In addition, Miranda is left sole ownership of the bookstore, Prospero Books, that she has fond memories of when she was a little girl. Through the quest her uncle set, and through the regulars at the bookshop, Miranda slowly finds meaning in what she assumed was a pretty good life.

Oh I enjoyed this one! The narrator was perfect, the story sufficiently bookish, with a side of mystery and romance. It hit all my happy buttons. Not sure it’s high literature, but it was definitely fun.

The Library Book

by Susan Orlean
First sentence: “Even in Los Angeles, where there is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a few disturbing moments. It’s in the History section of the bookstore.

In the spring of 1986, in between the Challenger explosion and the Chernobyl disaster, the Central Library in Los Angeles caught fire. It was a huge fire, burning for hours and destroying hundreds of thousands of books. It’s something that people in LA remember, but outside of LA? Who knew? So Orlean, who is a masterful non-fiction writer, tackled the story. It’s not just an investigation into the fire — they suspected someone and arrested him, but they never had enough evidence to charge him, and then he later died from AIDS — but a history of the LA library system and an exploration of what the LA library is now.

It’s probably no surprise, but I loved this one. It’s incredibly well-written and utterly fascinating. I think part of me was hoping that she’d “solve” the arson — though she did have a chapter talking about arson crimes, and how investigating them has changed in the last 30 years, and speculated that maybe the LA fire wasn’t arson — but, really, I was just along for the wonderful ride.

And do pick up a real copy of this book. The package is absolutely beautiful. It’s a reminder why books — and libraries! — are important.

Audiobook: Finding Yvonne

by Brandy Colbert
Read by Maya Barton
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, pot smoking by an adult, some teenage drinking and off-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Yvonne is a senior at an LA prep school, and has been putting her heart and soul into her violin playing ever since her mother left when Yvonne was seven. Now, though, she’s at loose ends: her violin teacher dropped her because she wasn’t “good” enough, and she feels like she has lost her passion for playing. But, without playing, who is she?

On top of that, Yvonne hardly sees her father, a successful chef. And she’s wanting to take the next step with Warren, who’s hesitant because of their age difference and because he works for her father. And so, when Yvonne meets a street musician, she explores a relationship there, mostly to see if it can help her figure things out.

I liked this one, but mostly because I think the narrator was really good. She kept me engaged in the story, and helped propel the narrative — which is super complicated, but then again, so are many senior kids’ lives — forward. I liked that Yvonne was a musician and a cook, and that she was looking for connection anywhere. It’s not the best book I’ve read, but it wasn’t terrible either.

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
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Content:  It’s simple without being simplistic, and deals with some tougher themes like bullying and divorce. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

Even though I was the perfect age when this came out (I was 11 in 1983), somehow I missed it. Maybe I didn’t pick it up because by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie and trying to read War in Peace, and this would have seemed too simplistic for me. (Also, maybe the boy on the cover turned me off? I don’t know.) But, having read it now (for the first time!), I’m sorry I missed out on it.

It’s the story of a boy, Leigh Botts, who writes to his favorite author, and over the course of the book, figures out a bit about himself. His parents are divorced; his dad’s a trucker and his mom works at a catering company. He doesn’t see much of his dad at all, and because he’s in a new school, he’s finding it difficult to make friends. And so he turns to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author, writing him letters. Eventually, those letters become a journal, and eventually that journal helps Leigh figure out things. At least a little bit.

This is the sort of book I needed when I was 11. We had just moved and I was starting a brand-new school in sixth grade, one where everyone had grown up together and I was most definitely the outsider, so I could completely empathize with Leigh. No, my parents weren’t divorced, but I understood his loneliness and his desire to be accepted and loved. I loved that there was a teacher who was good to Leigh, but didn’t play the “inspiring teacher” role. Leigh did figure things out by himself, with just a bit of guidance by the author and his teacher and his mom.  It was delightfully different from the other Cleary books I read this summer, more weighty and less, well, simplistic. It ended hopefully but not happily, and it gave me things to think about. And I think it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal it won.

Excellent.

Alex, Approximately

by Jenn Bennett
First sentence: “He could be anyone of these people.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of drug use (by a minor character), some teenage drinking, and some non-graphic sex. There is also some mild swearing and two f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Bailey has just moved to California to live with her dad, and it just happens to be in the same northern California surfing town as her on-line BFF (and crush), Alex. He’s everything she thinks she wants: they share the same taste in movies, they love to banter… the only thing is that she doesn’t know who he is.

And then she meets Porter Roth. He’s everything Alex is not: annoying, irritating, and a surfer. And Bailey’s stuck working with him at her new summer job. But then, she finds herself falling for him and starts to wonder whether or not she needs Alex after all.

That kind of sounds lame, doesn’t it? But, truthfully, it’s the perfect mix of retro, sassy repartee, and romance (with a few steamy bits). There’s California surf culture (though it felt more southern than northern, but that’s nit-picky), there’s a bad egg of a former best friend to keep things exciting. There’s a friendship story as well as a boyfriend story and it’s summery and just perfect. And yeah, the “big” reveal at the end is pretty obvious (you can figure it out a mile away), but you know what? I didn’t care.

It hit the spot.