Homegoing

by Yaa Gyasi
First sentence: “The night Effia Otcher was gorn into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.”
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Content: There’s non-graphic sex, a lot of swearing, violence, and general difficult situations. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

A good, powerful look at two sisters, separated at birth — one eventually sold into slavery in America, and the other remaining in Africa — and the subsequent generations. It’s a powerful look at choices (made by and for individuals) and how those can affect not only individual lives but also generations. It’s a unique way to tell a story — every chapter is a different person, progressing through the generations — and both the writing and the actual storytelling are excellent.

It’s a haunting read, but a good one.

Amina’s Voice

by Hena Khan
First sentence: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is an act of vandalism (against the mosque) that is handled really well, but might be upsetting. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amina is starting sixth grade, the one time that people associate with change. And Amina’s experiencing it. Her best friend Soonjin is becoming a U.S. citizen and is thinking about changing her name. She’s also becoming better friends with their former grade-school bully’s sidekick, Emily. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to stay with them for three months, and his stricter interpretation of Islam has Amina wondering if her love of music (both playing the piano and singing) is against God’s wishes. And then there’s the fact that she has stage fright, and there’s a Quran competition that her parents are making her enter. Will she survive all this?

Such a delightful portrait of a 12-year-old trying to figure out her place in the world. Khan got pre-teen girls, their anxieties and insecurities, and how they are struggling to find their own, well, voice. I also appreciated the religion in the book; Khan give us a slice of Islam with faithful people, loving parents (and Imam), which is completely relatable to anyone who reads it. This is one of those important books: it’s a great window into an Islamic family and community, and it’s a great mirror not just for Muslim kids but anyone who is religious. But, it’s also a great story, well told.

Very, very good.

Audiobook: Flying Lessons

flyinglessonsedited by Ellen Oh
Read by: An Ensemble of Narrators
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Content: The stories are all set in middle school, and some deal more explicitly with “older kid” problems. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’m considering moving it to the YA (grades 6-8) because I’m wondering if that’s more the audience.

I’m not a huge fan of short story collections, but when I saw the audio book of this one, I couldn’t resist. I’ve been neglecting reading books by non-whites this year (I shouldn’t be!) and I thought since diversity is the point of this collection, I’d give it a try.

And I loved it! Sure, I loved some stories more than others (The titular story, “Flying Lessons” was one of my favorites, as was “How to Transform an Everyday Hoop Court Into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Pena, and “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents” by Kwame Alexander, and “”Sol Painting, Inc.,” written and read by Meg Medina), but that’s to be expected. I loved that there were different readers for each story, which helped me tell the stories apart as well as giving them their own, distinct voice. I loved hearing the diverse stories, from the inner city, from the suburbs, from rural people to rich people to poor people to disabled people. It really did embrace the diversity that’s out there. Which is really the best thing.

Now to make sure that kids read it!

Exit West

exitwestby Mohsin Hamid
First sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
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Review copy floating around the office and got passed in my direction.
Content: There are a half dozen or so f-bombs, and some sort-of sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one has got the entire staff of the bookstore all a twitter. Seriously. They LOVED it. It’s SO good. You HAVE to read it. So, when they threw it my direction, I decided to give it a try.

It’s nominally the story of a couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in a country that’s on the brink of a civil war. It vaguely feels middle eastern, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s me projecting, or if it’s what the author intended, but it’s what I saw. Their relationship is a fitful one at the start, but as the insurgents and rebels move into their city, their relationship picks up speed. And when Saeed’s mother is killed, they decide to leave together, to find any way out.

But it’s not really about the plot or the characters with this one. No, this is about the words. And they are gorgeous. It’s a slim novel, which shows that no word is wasted. And it feels that way, too. Every word is important, every line leads somewhere else. It is something to sink oneself into, enjoying the words on the page.

I’m usually a plot and character person, so it’s different for me to give myself over to something that’s so wholly, well, not. I enjoyed this one. Hamid gave faces and stories to refugees, to people who are fleeing their home and trying to find a new place and the way that changes a person.

It makes it worth reading.

See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

Trouble Makes a Comeback

troublemakesby Stephanie Tromly
First sentence: “I don’t believe in Happily Ever After.”
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Others in the series: Trouble is a Friend of Mine
Content: There’s some drinking by other teens in the book, but it’s mostly off-screen. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Digby has been gone for six months and Zoe’s moved on. Popular friends at the school, dating a football player, living the “life”. And then, Digby shows back up. (Of course.) Still looking for his sister, he’s back in town to, well, stir up some more trouble. And, of course, he ropes Zoe into it. While the over-arching plot is trying to find out what happened to Digby’s sister nine years ago, there’s a nice little subplot involving a steroid ring on the football team. So, with two mysteries to solve (one of which they do, and the other they get closer to figuring out), Zoe and Digby are on the case again.

Much like the first book, this was a lot of fun. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud fun, but it was entertaining. I like the Zoe-Digby push and pull, and I like the way Tromly handles the situations she puts the two of them into. It’s nothing deep (though the unfolding story surrounding the sister’s disappearance is turning into a sad one), but it is entertaining.

Which is really all anyone can ask for. Right?

The Playbook

theplaybookby Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “In 1891, James Naismith invented the game of basketball with a soccer ball and two peach baskets to use as goals, he also had to create some rules; 13 of them in fact.”
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Release date: February 14, 2017
Review copy mysteriously appeared in my mail box at work.
Content: The biographical information and poems are written simply enough for a 9- or 10-year-old, but the content is interesting (and valuable) for everyone.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Alexander’s latest book: it’s sports, there’s poetry, pretty much what he’s delivered over the past few years. And yet, this was completely different. Springboarding from his own experiences with sports, Alexander has put together a guide book for, well, for succeeding in both sports and life. Divided up into four “quarters” (with a halftime) of thirteen “rules” each consisting of a short poem and a quote from an athlete (or some other notable person, many of whom are persons of color), this slim book packs a powerful punch.

In fact, the whole design of the book (if the ARC is reflective of the final package) is amazing. I loved the photography, the layout of the words on the page. And while it was inspirational — each of the sections was preceded by a short biographical sketch of an athlete — it never fell over into the maudlin. It’s perfect for sports fans, for kids, for those who are graduating and want a “guidebook” for succeeding — or at least wanting something to reflect on. It’s fun, gorgeous, and, ultimately, eloquent and inspiring.

Definitely one I’ll keep around for a while.