Dread Nation

by Justina Ireland
First sentence: ” The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.”
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Content: There’s a lot of violence and some swearing and some references to the sex trade. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) but I think it’d be good for a younger reader, if they were interested. 

It’s the 1880s, and America is still trying to overcome the zombie — they call them shamblers — infestation that began during the Civil War. Sure, the war kind of petered out, but the south is pretty much wiped out, given over to shamblers. And the east coast is partially fortified, but mostly because the government ships blacks and native peoples into schools where they get training to be, well, shambler killers. 

Our main character is Jane McKeene, a half-black girl from a plantation in Kentucky, who has attended Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. She’s set to graduate and become an Attendant, protecting some rich white woman, when she discovers the seedy underbelly of the city. Which puts her into some definite hot water. And lands her in the West, where there are no rules. Especially for someone like her. 

I loved this one. Seriously. It’s a lot of fun, first of all (and I don’t really read zombie books), and I really liked the alternative history that Ireland created. It felt like it could have been a real history, just with zombies. But, I also really liked that it wasn’t all fluff and nonsense, that there were some real issues of racism and sexism and even zealotry in there. Things that would make for a good book discussion. 

And while there will most likely be a sequel, the story did come to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is always nice. 

A really really good book. 

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Firebrand

by Aaron Barnhart
First sentence: “The boy with the long black hair pushed his way through the shouting, jostling mass of students.”
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Content: There’s some fighting and battle scenes, but the language is simple(ish) and the book itself is short. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Fifteen-year-old August Bondi and his family are Jews who are getting by in early 19th-century in Vienna, Austria. Life is good until the law comes down against them, and the Vienna Uprising occurs in in 1848. August’s parents decide that life is too dangerous for their family, and so they flee to America where they hope to have a better life. After a harrowing journey, the family ends up in St. Louis, where August’s parents find work and a community. But August is still restless and settling down doesn’t suit him. So he heads out to the Kansas territory, where he discovers the fight between those who want Kansas to be a slave state and those who don’t. It’s a cause that August can get behind: he is more than willing to fight against slavery and for the freedom of all people. So, he joins up with John Brown and his sons, fighting back against those who would have Kansas be a slave state. It’s a dangerous business, but one that August is willing to sacrifice for. From there, he settles down with a wife and then joins the Greater Cause in the Civil War.

It’s not a bad book, overall, and August’s story (he’s a real person) is a good one to tell. My only problem is that this is really three books. The first book: August’s story back in Vienna. How did he become a part of the resistance? What was it that caught his eye? What was it like being a Jew in Vienna in the early 19th century? So many questions glossed over. The second book is August’s journey to America and perhaps his joining the Browns in their fight against slavery. And the third is August’s time in the Civil War. It’s not that Barnhart can’t write (he can, actually; there were parts of this that were quite interesting), it’s just that he tried to do too much in such a small book and I feel like it would have been better served spreading it out. (And I never think that!)

But it is a good story to tell; it’s always good to hear the lesser known stories of history. (Even if they are more white male stories.) And the fact that it’s set here in Kansas is good as well. But I feel like it could have been better.

Gone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell
First sentence: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
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Content: There’s mild swearing, and a LOT of the n-word. Take it for what you will. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I first read this when I was 15 or 16. I don’t remember why I picked it up, just that I did. I don’t remember what I thought of it, but it couldn’t have been much, since I really had no desire to ever visit it again. (I think I’ve seen bits of the movie.)

We picked this one for my in-person book group, partly because no one had read it in a long time, and partly because Samantha Ellis wrote about it in How to Be a Heroine. And so I began the slog.

Because it was a slog. It’s so sexist and racist, I couldn’t stand to read it for long periods of time. It really is Old South — and there’s still a lot of the Old South in the south — and that’s just hard for me to understand. Eventually, I took to looking at it as a sociological study: why was the Old South the way it was. Why couldn’t they shake their prejudices and adapt? Why were they still stuck in the Way Things Were and that’s they way They Always Should Be?

And Scarlett… on the one hand, she’s an incredibly feminist character: a person who is willing to do what needs to be done, in the face of the Patriarchy and Public Opinion; a person who flies in the face of convention. It’s amazing how modern she is.

But she’s also mean and cruel and opportunistic. And hung up on a fantasy that she needed to move past.

Maybe, though, that’s the point? That only the cruel people are successful? I don’t know.

In the end, I didn’t like it, not just because of the content, but because it was SO LONG. Seriously: knock 700 pages off of this book and maybe it’d be a decent story.

There will at least be a lot to discuss.

The Madman of Piney Woods

by Christopher Paul Curtis
First sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”
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Content: There’s nothing, language wise. However, Curtis tackles some pretty heavy issues: slavery, of course; but also Irish immigration, abuse, racism. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I would exercise caution about giving this to sensitive children. Good for discussion, though.

It’s 1901, and Benji is a pre-teen in the all-black town of Buxton, Canada. He has a couple of younger siblings that get on his nerves, a best friend who is a good orator, and is both an aspiring newsman and someone who loves the woods. Red is a pre-teen in the nearby town of Chatham. His grandmother was an Irish immigrant, and he’s positively scared of her wrath. He spends his days in school, with his friends — one of whom has an alcoholic, abusive father — and at home dealing with his grandmother.

They’re the most unlikely of friends, but when they do meet, they hit it off.

Which comes in handy the night that the Madman of Piney Woods — a local homeless black veteran of the Civil War — is shot. It’s up to Benji and Red to make everything turn out, if not okay, then at least better than it could have ended.

Perhaps I should have taken the time, once I figured out that this was set in the same place, to reread Elijah of Buxton. Maybe I would have connected to it better. But, I think the main problem I have with this one is that the plot took a long time to show up. It’s told in alternating chapters, one Benji (who was more interesting than Red), one Red. And it took FOREVER for them to meet. (More than halfway through the book!). Once they met, the plot picked up, and I was able to finish fairly quickly. I did appreciate that Curtis was exploring ideas and themes that are tough to manage: the way humans treat other people being the primary theme. It’s an important thing to expose kids to, and to do so with a bit of a mystery story (more or less) is a good thing.

But that wasn’t enough to make me love this book, even though I really wanted to.