Black is the Body

by Emily Bernard
First sentence: “This book was conceived in a hospital.”
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Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. Also, an entire chapter is devoted to teaching and talking about the n-word. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This has been on my radar for a while; everyone — well, all my coworkers — said it was a really good exploration of one person’s experience as a Black woman moving through White spaces.

And it was that. Bernard grew up in Nashville, but went to college at Yale, and teaches in Vermont, so she is often the only (or one of the only) Black people in a space. In this series of essays, she explores what that means. She talks about an act of violence she experienced, the adoption of her daughters, her relationship with her White husband, and tells the stories of her mother and grandmother’s lives.

It’s an interesting book, one that is very personal to Bernarnd’s own experience. She doesn’t pretend to have answers, but does ask a lot of questions about how White people treat and react to Blacks. It was worth a read if only to think about how I am reacting to others.

That, and it’s a series of personal stories, which I always enjoy. So while this was not my favorite book about race, it was a good book. Because everyone’s perspective is worth hearing.

The Murmur of Bees

by Sofia Segovia
Translated by Simon Bruni
First sentence: “That early morning in October, the baby’s wails mingled with the cool wind that blew through the trees, with the birdsong, and with the night’s insects saying their farewell.”
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Content: There is some violence, but none on-screen, and some mild swearing. (There may have been one or two f-bombs, but honestly? I’m not remembering any.)

This is a sweeping family saga, set in Linares, Mexico, and following the Morales family over the course of many decades. It’s not exactly linear, though it nominally follows the life of Simonopio, an abandoned baby that was found covered in bees, and how his life affected that of the Morales family. It’s told through reminiscences by the youngest of the Morales children, Francisco, as he heads back to Linares after many many years away.

It has a loose plot, but mostly it’s just small stories connected together to tell the tale of a family and a time — the late 19th century and early 20th — in their history.

And all of this makes it sound less than it was. Segovia’s writing is gorgeous, and even the magical realism elements — Simonopio talks to his bees, and has an uncanny ability to sense and predict things — added to the overall sense of wonder this book created. Maybe because it was nominally told as a series of flashbacks, with Francisco interrupting to explain and comment upon his family that it all worked together seamlessly.

It truly was a delight to read, and I’m glad I did.

Stand Up, Yumi Chung!

by Jessica Kim
First sentence: “I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are some awkward moments and second-hand embarrassment. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Yumi Chung is the youngest of two daughters of Korean immigrants. Her parents run a Korean barbecue restaurant in LA, and they expect Yumi — like her older sister, Yuri — to be excellent. The problem is that Yumi wants to be a stand-up comedian, which is something her parents neither understand or respect. Instead, they send her to hagwon — a Korean summer tutoring program — that will help her get a scholarship to the best private school in LA. Yumi is miserable until she discovers a new comedy club is running a summer camp for kids, and the person teaching it is Yumi’s favorite YouTube comedian! She ends up going — pretending to be Kay Nakamura (which gives some interesting, if subtle, insight into how white people lump all East Asians together) — until things all fall apart, including her parent’s restaurant being on the verge of closing. Can Yumi fix the mess she’s made for herself?

Oh, this was so very delightful. It addressed so many things — from not living up to your older sibling’s achievements, to finding your own space int the world, to owning your mistakes — without ever being heavy-handed. Yumi was a totally believable character with completely understandable parents. The conflict came from not just the immigrant to first-generation divide, but their honest desires that their kids wouldn’t have to slave away in a restaurant to make their living. I liked how Kim never made the parents out to be villains, and how Yumi (and Yuri) was able to figure out how to balance her parents’ wishes with her desire to follow her own path.

And excellent middle grade book.

Audiobook: Wandering in Strange Lands

by Morgan Jerkins
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Release date: August 4, 2020
Content: There is some swearing including a few f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It will be in the biography section of the bookstore.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer, but she’s also the daughter of a New Jersey woman and a North Carolina man. The central question she grapples with in this book is this: how has moving away from her families’ roots in the South (after slavery, but mostly during the Great Migration) affected their connection to the land, to their communities, and to each other? She explores this question by visiting South Carolina and talking with and trying to understand the histories of the Gullah people there. She heads to Louisiana to talk to Creole, and to Oklahoma to explore connections between African American freed slaves and the Cherokee nation. And she finally heads to Los Angeles. Through all this, she unearths her family history and stories, as much as she can, and that it was White Supremacy and Institutional Racism that was the driving force for much of what her ancestors experienced.

A friend once told me that you can talk statistics and data at people, but it’s the stories that really matter. And this book brings that home. Yes, I knew there was (and is) Institutional Racism and white people were (and are) discriminatory and prejudiced against black people to the point that they want to push them out. But, hearing Jerkins’ stories gets that point home in a way data just doesn’t do. It also reminded me of the importance of knowing where you’re from and knowing your family’s stories. (I have been very bad about passing this on to my children.)

It’s an interesting story, and Jerkins is an interesting narrator to guide the story along its path. I’m glad I read it.

Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott
First sentence: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
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Content: It is very long and old-fashioned (well, it was written in the 1860s). It’s in the fiction section as well as the middle grade classics section.

I have had an affection for this book for a long time. Maybe since youth? I’m not sure, but I think my youth affections were more for Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery than Louisa May Alcott. I know, as a mother, I have tried to be like Marmee: supportive and loving, but letting my girls be their own individual selves, giving advice and comfort as needed.

So, I haven’t read this for at least 25 years; I think the last time I cracked open the book was soon after the 1994 movie came out. And, well, now I remember why. See, I think I have a fondness for the story, and for the movies (I really enjoyed the new Greta Gerwig one!). But the book, I find, well, dull and long-winded and more than a bit preachy. I tell myself it’s because it’s 150 years old, but I don’t feel the same way about Jane Austen and those are more than 200 years old! There are moments of sweetness and sass (which is why the movies can distill the story so well), but the book is overlong, and full of passages that I ended up skipping.

And can we talk about the end? The whole book spent championing girls and women and their lives, and Jo decides to open a school for BOYS? It just didn’t sit well with me, but maybe that’s because I’m reading it with 21st century eyes.

So, yes to the story (and the movies). But it may be another 25 years before I read the book again.

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

by Stephanie Burgis
First sentence: “Once upon a time in a beautiful dirty, exciting city full of people and chocolate and possiblities, there was a girl so fearless and so daring that…”
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Others in the series: The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s some tense moments. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So Silke has managed to help make peace with the dragons, and she and Adventurine are happily helping make chocolate. Except, Silke still wants more: she misses her parents who disappeared with the Elves six years ago. She wishes she had a better home than on the riverbank with her brother. She just wants… MORE. So when the Crown Princess asks her to be a spy during the “diplomatic” visit from the Elves, Silke jumps at the chance: If she succeeds, not only will she get to live permanently at the palace, she might find out where her parents are.

But, it’s not all roses and chocolate (well, there is some of that). It’s hard fitting into court culture, especially for someone who needs to move as much as Silke, and it looks like the Elves may be able to trick their way into and out of just about everything. And maybe, just maybe, Silke’s talents like in something other than spying.

This is still a super sweet (but not cloying!), super fun middle grade series. I adore the characters — there was probably not enough Adventurine here, but I’m curious about Sofia, the younger sister princess, because she was whip-smart and intriguing. I did want to shake Silke sometimes, but overall, I enjoyed where the book went.

The other nice thing about this series is that it doesn’t rely on the previous one. Sure, the events of Dragon played into this, but it really was its own stand-alone story, and it came to a very satisfying conclusion.

I definitely will be picking up the next one. Eventually.

Twenty-One Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks
First sentence: “Ways to keep Jill from getting pregnant”
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Release date: November 19, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

10 Reasons you should read this book
1. It’s told in lists. Seriously
2. And yet, there’s a plot with character development.
3. Which is really quite brilliant, if you think about it
4. It’s about a not-quite 40-something man stressing about his life.
5. Which sounds boring, but really isn’t because of the lists.
6. They range from “books of the month” — Dan, the main character owns a bookstore — to “Songs you would think have great lyrics but don’t”.
7. It’s charming and sweet and funny but isn’t all happiness and roses.
8. And about being honest with your spouse and how having friends is important.
9. And maybe a little bit about forgiveness.
10. But really, it’s that it’s told through lists that makes it so incredibly unique and worth spending your time on.

I loved it.

10 Blind Dates

by Ashely Elston
First sentence: “Are you sure you won’t come with us?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is kissing and some inference to sex (but none actual). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sophie’s parents are off to take care of her older sister as she’s bedridden with pregnancy issues, which means Sophie gets the run of the house over Christmas break. She’s supposed to be in Shreveport with her grandparents (and huge Sicilian family), but what she really wants to do is hang out with her boyfriend, Griffin. That is, until she overhears him saying he wants to break up with her.

So, she takes off for Shreveport, and once there her Nonna hatches a plan: 10 blind dates, each set up by a different member of the family, in between December 21st and 31st. Sophie may not find her perfect man, but it will at least take her mind off of Griffin, right?

This book is, at turns, super hilarious (oh my goodness, some of these dates!) and super sweet (okay, so the boy next door, Wes, holds a lot of appeal). But what I loved best about it was that Elston caught the huge family dynamic super well. They were loud and somewhat oppressive, but super supportive of Sophie and just a really great family overall. I loved the way the cousins and aunts and uncles all bounced off each other, had fun with each other, and humiliated and loved each other in turn. It was sweet and wonderful and made a very very cute YA romance that much better.

A great Christmas romance. Or anytime romance.

The Bookwanderers

by Anna James
First sentence: “
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Content: It’s not long and it doesn’t have a lot of hard words, though it does seem to lean in to bookish kids, even if one of the characters has a hard time reading because he’s dyslexic. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Tilly has grown up in her grandparents’ bookstore, Pages & Co. (a quick real-life interjection here: they have a bakery and a store, but no evidence of customers? How are they paying the bills? I know, I know, it’s a kids’ book…) surrounded by books. She is an avid reader, partially because you can’t grow up in a bookstore and not be and partially because it’s a connection to her mother, who disappeared when Tilly was little.

And now that she’s 11, something unusual has started happening: characters are coming out of books. And she’s been pulled into them, not just metaphorically, but literally. It turns out that her grandparents and mother are part of this group called Bookwanderers, people who can literally travel between the pages of a book. And now, Tilly and her friend Oskar find they can travel in books too, which means, maybe that’s where Tilly’s mother went? And maybe they can find her.

On the one hand, this is super charming. I was charmed by the presentation, by the idea of taking something metaphorical (getting lost in a book) and making it literal. I liked Tilly and her willingness to take chances, even though she had a good support system with her parents. I liked that it wrapped the story up, but also left a thread open for more books in the series.

But. I’m not sure how much kids are going to like it. (Which makes me sad.) Because of copyright issues, James can only use the classics, which makes sense, but I’m sure that kids would much rather read about falling into books they love, and not Alice in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, and A Little Princess. It makes sense why she used the classics, but it is a drawback, and one I’m not sure many readers could get past. Which means it’s more for adults who love reading and have a fond memory of reading as a kid, and that’s kind of sad.

Even so, I was happy I read it!

Some Places More than Others

by Renee Watson
First sentence: “‘New York City is no place or a little girl,’ Mom says.”
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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.