Audiobook: Sing Unburied Sing

by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Kevin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley
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Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, drug use, and violence. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s not often I end up reading the National Book Award winner for fiction, and to be honest, I was surprised that I did. (I started listening to it before the awards…) I picked it up because people were talking about it, because I’ve never read Jesmyn Ward before, and because I was curious.

It’s basically a slice of life portrait of Mississippi. A black woman, Leonie, takes her two children — Jojo, whose story this is, and Kayla — on a road trip from the Gulf to Parchman, where their dad is getting out of jail after serving time for drug charges. It’s a hot mess of a road trip, partially because Leonie is a drug addict, and partially because she just can’t parent, interspersed with reflections from Jojo, his grandfather (Leonie’s father), and Leonie. It’s about relationships — Leonie’s brother was killed in a race-related shooting by her boyfriend’s (and baby daddy’s) cousin — and surviving and growing up and expectations.

I enjoyed the narration; there were three different narrators, one each for Jojo (I liked him best), Leonie and a ghost who shows up halfway through, but I wonder if this was a book that would have gone down easier read than listened to. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just felt like I missed things — connections, imagery, story — and I could have taken it slower in print than in audio.

Still, a worthwhile read.

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Rise of the Jumbies

by Tracey Baptiste
First sentence: “Corinne La Mer dove through the waves.”
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Others in the series: The Jumbies (which I know I read and will swear I reviewed, but I guess I didn’t)
Content: There’s some scary parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is the second in a series of books set in the Caribbean, based loosely on the folklore there (Baptiste is from Trinidad). I’m not entirely sure what happened in the first book (it’s been two years since I read it!), but from what I gathered from this one, Corinne is half jumbie (her mother was a jumbie) and her aunt is out (and I can’t remember why) to capture the children on the island and keep them for her own. Corinne almost saves them all. This one picks up some months (maybe a year?) later, and children are going missing again. The island residents are suspicious: since Corinne is a jumbie, she must be involved somehow. So, Corinne knows she has to solve this problem. She goes to Mama D’Leau, the queen of the seas, and follows several mermaids over the ocean to Ghana in order to solve this problem. Except, it only solves half, and Corinne has to choose between her human and jumbie halves in order to bring peace to the island again.

I love Baptiste’s storytelling: she captures a place perfectly, and makes the island folklore come alive. (Perhaps it’s just me: I love folklore, so I’m already on board for this!) I love the way she updated the tales, but retained a classic air about them. Corinne is a plucky heroine, but she also has the help of her friends and her father, in order to accomplish everything she needs to. It’s really a delightful story.

Spirit Hunters

by Ellen Oh
First sentence: “‘Harper! Come quick!'”
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Content: There’s an abusive relationship, and it’s quite scary in parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I wouldn’t give it to the faint of heart.

Harper and her family have recently moved from New York City into a Washington, D. C. house. It’s nominally for her parents’ jobs, but it’s also because Harper had a couple of incidents — at school and at the mental health hospital — that were kind of sketchy. However, she can’t remember anything about the fire at school that landed her in the hospital. And now, her younger brother is acting unlike himself, and no one can quite figure out why.

(Though you can probably guess from the title!)

This was SO good! I loved the characters, even the clueless/controlling/close-minded parents, and I loved that the main character not only figured out the problem, but also solved it, with the help from her friend and her estranged grandmother. I liked the historical detail that Oh wove into the book, and I loved the suspense that she built throughout the book. An excellent ghost story.

 

You Bring the Distant Near

by Mitali Perkins
First sentence: “The swimmers have finished their races and are basking in the sun.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to describe plot-wise. It’s a slice of life, looking at three generations of women in an Indian family as they move to America and make a life here. It starts with the mother, Ranee, and her two daughters, Sonia and Tara, as they move from London to New York in the early 1970s. Each of the daughters reacts differently to coming to America, each looking for their own way to cope. Ranee isn’t as adaptable: she complains about their apartment in Flushing, she complains about her husband sending money home. Then he passes on, and Ranee is forced to adapt to this country as her daughters grow up and get married, one to an Indian, the other to a black American man.

The book then picks up when Ranee’s granddaughters, Anna and Chantal, are in high school. They are dealing with their own issues: Chantal is bi-racial and is trying to figure out her own identity. And Anna, though American, was raised in Mumbai where her mother is a Bollywood star, but has recently moved back so she could go to high school and college in America.

Perkins handles all this admirably; giving us a taste of Bengali culture, as well as the things immigrants do in order to fit in. One of the more interesting parts of the novel, for me, was set after 9/11, when Ranee goes through her own transformation as a reaction to the terrorist attacks. She figures out what “American” means to her. And that sentence may be what’s at the heart of this delightful novel: what does “American” mean? Perhaps it has become an individual expression for everyone, and there isn’t a “norm” anymore. (That was probably always the way it was, but we pretended otherwise.) Which is, as posited by this book, a very good thing.

An excellent read.

Pashmina

by Nidhi Chanani
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is in high school, and there is some references to sex. I’m not 100% sure if it’d put it in Middle Grade Graphic Novels, but it doesn’t feel like it fits in with the Teen Graphic Novels either. Hm.

Priyanka Das has a decent life: she and her mom live in America, and whileshe has unanswered questions about her father, or why her mother left India, she has a pretty good life. That is, until Pri’s curiosity about India gets sparked by a magical pashmina Pri finds in her mother’s suitcase. The pashmina gives Pri a glimpse of India, and she desperately wants to go. And she does, eventually. But when she gets there, it’s nothing like she expected, and yet everything she wanted.

On the one hand, this is written by an Indian, and it very much embraces the “India as amazing homeland” narrative that so often comes up in Bollywood movies. The narrative that one can find oneself in India is not a new one, and yet it still is something that resonates. It works here, primarily because it’s not a white person co-opting that (says the white person), but because Pri’s does actually need to go to India to see what it was her mother left behind. I liked that part of the story. The magical pashmina, though, didn’t do much for me. It does have a good reason to be there — it specifically helps women take charge of their lives — but it felt, well, forced. That, and Pri felt younger than she was in the book, which was a slight disconnect.

Even with those (slight) criticisms, it was a good story about family, and about how learning about your family’s past helps accept and understand your present. It was also nice to “visit” India for a bit.

A good debut novel.

The First Rule of Punk

by Celia C. Pérez
First sentence: “Dad says punk rock only comes in one volume: loud.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some lying (by omission) and some middle school drama. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, though 6th-7th graders might like it too.

Mariá Luisa (call her Malú please) is NOT happy about moving to Chicago. She wants to stay where she is, in her own school, splitting her time between her house and her father’s record store. But, her mom got a job in Chicago teaching Mexican literature, so they’re moving. And so she has to start over. Which is additionally hard because she’s in a school with a large Mexican American population, and Malú is struggling to find her own identity, especially with her mother always harping on Malú’s love of punk music.

But, she slowly finds her crowd in this new school, and maybe even some friends, although she makes some enemies as well (inevitable). Maybe she can find a balance in this new place.

I loved this one! Malú is a seriously great character, and I loved how Pérez wove in Mexican culture and history through the work. I loved the inclusion of punk music (and lifestyle) and actually really liked the conflict between Malú and her mom (it’s SO hard to let kids be themselves and not what we want them to be). I loved the zines in the book, and Malú’s slow acceptance of her new school and neighborhood. It was just an excellent story all around.

Solo

by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There’s some drug use and drinking, mostly by adults. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th/8th grader who is interested.

Blade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, whose career has been in a steady decline for most of Blade’s life. Drugs, alcohol, and Blade’s mom’s death all contributed to the decline, and Blade has lost patience with his father. Especially when he shows up, mostly naked, at Blade’s graduation. It also doesn’t help that his girlfriend’s father has forbidden her to see him. So, when a long-kept family secret comes out and Blade ends up half way across the world, he is given a chance to figure out his own life and maybe figure out his relationship with his family.

On the one hand, this was a super privileged book, with its Hollywood sensibilities with parties and drugs (mostly on the part of Blade’s dad) and Misratis and paparazzi. And when Blade gets to Ghana, there’s a LOT of “things are solved through the simple people” going on, which didn’t really sit that well with me. (Maybe it’s me?)

That said, Alexander and Hess’s poetry is lovely, and I loved how they incorporated music. There’s a line, near the end of the book about how, in spite of everything, music is something that binds us and brings us together, and that resonated so very much with me. Rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, classical… music is universal and helps heal, and Alexander and Hess captured that perfectly. Which, in spite of the little complaints I had, really made this book, well, sing.