Shine

by Lauren Myracle
First sentence: “Patrick’s house was a ghost.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: This one has drug use and drinking by teenagers and a pretty graphic rape scene. It would be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore if we had it.

Cat’s former best friend, Patrick, has been found at the local convenience mart beaten and tied up to a gas pump, left for dead. The local sheriff is calling it a hate crime, since Patrick is gay, and that it was probably some out of towners who did it. He was right about the hate crime part, but Cat’s convinced it’s someone in the small, southern town of Black Creek, North Carolina. So, she sets out to find out who, which means facing her brother’s friends and her past.

Oh, this was a hard book. It’s a mystery — sort of — but more, it’s a portrayal of what poverty and toxic masculinity can do to people. It turns them to meth, makes them suspicious of each other, makes them feel like they can just take things without any sort of consequences. There’s rape in this — and that was SUCH a difficult scene to get through — and just plain hopelessness. I think Myracle gave it a happy-ish ending in order to alleviate a lot of the general bleak feel of the novel (I certainly was expecting a different ending). I did figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through, and I even figured out why, but I kept reading because I wanted to see how it all would play out. Myracle did an excellent job with Cat’s character development — she went from a hurt, scared girl into a more confident one, facing down the boy who raped her and her brother’s friends for their various “boys will be boys” infractions.

It’s just a very hard read, emotionally.

Advertisements

Audiobook: Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a LOT of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

J. D. Vance didn’t have the best upbringing. That’s putting it mildly. The grandson of Kentucky to Ohio transplants, people who moved to work in factories to find a better life, he grew up in a small manufacturing town in southern Ohio. His mom, one of three kids, was a drug addict who bounced between guys, and so J. D. ended up with his grandma, whom he called Mamaw. He eventually found his way out of the poverty and abuse cycles, joining the Marines, going to Ohio State and Yale Law. But, as he points out in his memoir, his story is atypical.

It’s mostly Vance’s memoir of his childhood (insane as it is) and his family. But he also ties it into the larger issue of rural poverty. It’s something I’ve thought since the year we lived in Mississippi: it’s not (just) about race, it’s about class. And if we don’t do something about the working poor — and I don’t have the answers here — things will just get worse.

J. D. doesn’t have the answers either; just a lot of first-hand observations. The most striking of which is that interventions that happen in high school often come too late. They need to sooner. (Honestly, I saw a lot of our foster daughter in this story. And he’s right: if someone had intervened when she was younger, it would have saved her a world of hurt and trauma.) But it’s also complex: the politicians and agencies don’t always know or understand or assume things about the poor.

A fascinating book. And listening to him read it (he has a slight Southern twang) was a great way to experience this book.

Highly recommended.

Between the World and Me

betweentheworldby Ta-Nehisi Coates
First sentence: “Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including a couple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Sociology section (I think) of the bookstore.

By now, most of you will have either heard of this or read it, I think. There’s not much to say, summary-wise; it’s a letter from Coates to his son concerning what Coates thinks about being a black man in America. It’s sort of rambling, and kind of disjointed; it feels like a series of random thoughts jotted down on a piece of paper as Coates was musing about his place in this world. Which fits, I think.

What it is, really, is damning. Especially if you, as Coates put it, think you’re white. There’s a complacency that comes with being white, with being privileged (even if you’re “just” middle class), that isn’t afforded to those who are not. And Coates, rightly, forcefully, reminds us of that. Reminds us that to be black — particularly a black male, since he’s writing from his own experience — is to bear the burdens of all our complacency. That our “freedom” isn’t free, and that it’s not the military who are paying for it. That all these shootings that are making the news aren’t new, that they have been going on for hundreds of years, and those that think they are white just throw up their hands and turn a blind eye.

One passage that really struck me:

I am ashamed I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more. This is the import of history all around us, though very few people like to think about it. Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been “I am not a racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

It’s a difficult read, because he condemns everyone and offers no answers. There’s no solutions, possibly because Coates doesn’t have any, and I found that a difficult thing to swallow. I want to know HOW I can change, what I can do to make a difference. Perhaps reading books like this is a start; it has made me aware that there are black men and women who think this way, who believe that they are lesser because we let police arrest and shoot them. Who are not given the same opportunities because they can’t afford to buy a house in the suburbs. Who are treated differently when they walk into stores just because of the color of their skin.

It does make me feel hopeless, in a way. But, on the other hand, I’ve read this and I’ve been made aware. Maybe that’s a start.

Red Queen

by Victoria Aveyard
First sentence: “I hate First Friday.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy brought back from the ABA Winter Institute for me by a co-worker.
Content: There’s a lot — a LOT — of violence, some of it gruesome. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, and I’m going to leave it there, but I wouldn’t be adverse to giving it to a kid who could stomach Maze Runner or The Hunger Games.

This one is getting All the Buzz (at least in the bookselling circles). It’s got a great cover (seriously), and it’s another one of those vaguely apocalyptic books and so I think publishers are expecting it to do Great Things. I don’t know if that raised my expectations — it is a debut novel, so I don’t know how high they could have been — but this fell flat for me.

Mare Barrow is a Red. Which means, in this world (it was never clear if it’s Earth or a different world entirely), that she’s considered low. Base. A slave. Because her blood bleeds red. See, in this world, the people who have all the power are the ones whose blood is Silver (perhaps because they were aliens that invaded the planet hundreds of years ago? It was never clear.) and because they have powers that give them an advantage over those low Reds. Mare figures she’s going to spend her short life stealing to get by until she gets conscripted into the war that’s been going on for a hundred years, in which she will die.

And then her life changes: she meets Cal, a Silver, who gets her a job in the palace, and then during the Queenstrial (in which Silvers from the noble houses compete to become the prince’s bride), she discovers (quite by accident) that she has powers, like a Silver.

All this sets in motion political intrigue, betrayal, and a lot of fighting that will ultimately be Mare’s downfall. Maybe.

The plot doesn’t sound half bad: there’s a bit of a forced love triangle, and a twist at the end that wasn’t entirely unexpected. But the thing that kept pulling me out of the book was two simple words: smirk and sneer. EVERYONE smirked. EVERYONE sneered. And after the first 15 times, I noticed every time someone did. Then after the next 30, I lost patience with the book and skipped to the end. I did go back and fill in the middle, just to see how we got to the end, but I ended up loathing the book for two simple words. I couldn’t get past it. That’s just lazy writing and lazy editing (and the book would have been 20 pages shorter if they were all deleted). Sure, there were some interesting ideas about class and race and bias, but I couldn’t rise above the writing level to appreciate them.

Definitely for someone less picky than me.

Audiobook: Funny Girl

by Nick Hornby
Read by Emma Fielding
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Aside from the dozen f-bombs (entirely from 2 characters), this one is relatively tame. And because it deals with a character in her early 20s, it probably will have some good teen crossover. It’s in the adult fiction section of the library.

Several things conspired to actually get me to read an adult book (shock!). One, I had just finished my previous audiobook and was looking for something new. Two, the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (which I have come to love) announced that they were doing a book group discussion of this one in March. And three, I figured I should read Nick Hornby sometime, and this seemed like a good place to start.

It’s 1964, and Barbara Parker is looking at a bleak future. Sure, she just won the Miss Blackpool title but she wants MORE out of life. She wants to be like her heroine, Lucille Ball. So she returns the title, and takes off for the big city, hoping for her break. And, after some bad scrapes and name change — she’s Sophie Straw now — it eventually comes in the form of a BBC TV sitcom, Barbara [and Jim]. She becomes famous, with all the strings that are attached to that, as well as the ups and downs.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I found this a very male-centric, sexist, chauvinistic book. Barbara/Sophie is reduced to her looks (blonde, curvy, busty), as are all of the women in the book. The men drive the action, and Sophie is just reacting to them, much of the time. It’s also incredibly homophobic, even though one of the characters — Bill, a writer on the series — is definitely gay, and another — Tony, Bill’s writing partner — is probably bisexual. This really bothered me, until I realized that Hornby was being true to the time period. The 1960s, especially the mid-1960s when it’s set, was incredibly sexist and homophobic. This proved true by the end of the book, when the characters (and Hornby) were much less annoying.

I also felt like it went on too long, especially the ending. I didn’t really feel a need for the huge epilogue-y ending chapters; I felt the book could have ended when the series ended, and I wouldn’t have missed a whole lot.

That said, I did find it entertaining. I wonder if that had a lot to do with Fielding’s narration. She was a brilliant narrator, working in regional accents and speech affectations so I could get a sense not only of who was speaking but of their character. Sophie’s Blackpool accent, especially, endeared me to her in a way I don’t think would have come through on the page. And it was sometimes laugh-aloud funny. Not consistently, and not enough, but it was there.

I’m not sure I liked it enough to read another Hornby (unless there’s one that you strongly recommend?) but it wasn’t an unpleasant experience either.

The Summer Prince

by Alaya Dawn Johnson
First sentence: “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: I was initially thinking that this would be good for those who like Uglies; there’s about the same amount of swearing. But the reason it’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) is because there’s a lot of allusions to sex, including a couple (tasteful) sex scenes.

June Costa is the best artist in Palmeres Três. Or so she thinks; she just hasn’t had a chance to prove it yet. And in this, a moon year in which her futuristic, matriarchal society chooses a one-year Summer King to “rule”, she will have that chance. It starts innocently: her best friend, Gil, falls in love with the summer king, Enki. And she does, too, though she tells herself that it’s mostly about the art. And what art June and Enki create. Ever more elaborate, they end up sparking a revolution of sorts between the technophiles and the isolationists; the government, made up of women they call “Aunties”, has placed strict regulations on what kind of tech can be in the city.

It was this tech element that reminded me so much of Uglies. But, I think Johnson was pointing out the value of art and the power of love, even in a futuristic (and while not dystopian, certainly not perfect) society. It’s a very thought-provoking novel, one that winds and unfurls instead of proceeding in a linear fashion. And it was this winding that kept me most interested. Johnson chose to build her futuristic Brazilian society in bits and chunks throughout the entire book, dropping hints and clues about what happened to get the world to this point along the way. And the society she built was equally as fascinating, with all its machinations and political scheming.

But, ultimately, it was June and Enki and Gil (and June’s competition/friend, Bebel) that kept me reading in the end. I cared about what happened to them, how this year played out for the summer king and his newfound friends. I found myself moved by the ending, and thinking about the book long after I turned the last page.

The Inventor’s Secret

by Andrea Cremer
First sentence: “Every heartbeat brought the boy closer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a couple of intense romantic moments, and the characters talk of “wanting” each other, but no actual physical contact takes place other than kissing. There is talk of an affair a character’s dad had, and there is quite a bit of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) but I wouldn’t blink at giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

It was the cover that caught my eye. The steampunk dragonfly with the explosion in the background promised really cool things. And since I hadn’t read any Cremer before (she of the Wolf series), I wasn’t really expecting anything.

So, I was more than blown away when I was pulled into an alternate history where the American Revolution failed, Boston converted to a maximum security prison, and the “traitors” were hanged for their crimes against the crown. And they were the lucky ones. In the years since the failed revolution, the Empire has just become stronger and more stratified. The elite live in the Floating City, New York City, in levels rising up into the sky. The lower you are, the worse off. There’s still a rebellion, out in the woods outside of the city, where the adults are trying to topple the Empire. And the children? They’re in the Catacombs, underground, safe from harm until they turn 18 and go to join the rebellion.

The Catacombs is all Charlotte remembers. She and her older brother, Ash, have been there since they were 5 and 7, respectively. And now, at nearly 18, Ash is in charge. This is where the plot gets a bit tricky to describe. Too much, and it sounds silly. And maybe it is.  I do know there was more romance than I was expecting, and it was a bit hackneyed and overwrought as well. But I loved the world. I loved the combination of history and mythology and technology. I loved how the class issues were at the forefront. I loved the imagination that Cremer put into the book, the cool little things — like mice bombs, or Pocky the gun — she littered everywhere.

No, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it IS fun. And that’s exactly what I needed right now.