Audio book: Once upon a Quinceañera

by Monica Gomez-Hira
Read by Frankie Corzo
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are a number of swear words, including multiple f-bombs, teenage drinking, and one off-screen sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+ of the bookstore)

Carmen Aguliar has one goal this summer: finish an internship so she can graduate high school. Except her internship is being an assistant for a woman who runs a knock-off Disney princess-for-hire outfit. And, she just hired Carmen’s ex-boyfriend from when she was 15. Who just happens to be behind the reason Carmen’s quinceañera got canceled and she and her mami fell out with her mami’s family. What was going to already be an unbearable summer gets even worse when the “Dreams” get hired to perform at Carme’s cousin’s quince. The same cousin that Carmen and her mami haven’t talked to in three years.

It’s a silly , light romance, one you can see coming from a mile off (lovers to enemies to lovers, gotta love tropes!) but it’s got some heart and soul to it. I liked the portrayal of Cuban-Americans in Miami. Spanish was effortlessly woven through, as was an exploration of stereotypes and expectations (or lack thereof) of Latine women. I adored the narrator; she made Carmen and her friends and family come alive in a way that made me want to keep listening.

Definitely a fun late-summer read.

Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
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Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler
First sentence: “They’ll make a god of her.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Parable of the Sower
Content: It’s rough, violence-wise and emotionally. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

This book picks up five years after Parable of the Sower: Acorn is a settled community, not large but flourishing and prosperous. Earthseed is growing as a movement and Oamina and Bankole are expecting a baby. But, in the wider world, the United States has elected a Christian American minister and facist as a president — someone who believes that all vagrants, homeless, and heathens should be “reeducated” and their children taken away and raised by Good Christian families. Once he’s elected, he backs off, but there is a movement –Jarrett’s Crusaders — that takes it upon itself (without consequences) to follow Jarrett’s philosophies. They attack Acorn, take away the children (including Olamina’s 2 month old baby) and enslave the rest of the adults. It’s a pretty horrific section, reminiscent of the Nazi Concentration camps (and made me ashamed to identify as a Christian though I understand these people were Not Really Christian.) Eventually, Olamina escapes and then spends the rest of the book looking for her child and restarting her Earthseed movement.

The most interesting thing about this book was that Olamina’s daughter, Asha Vere (which was the name her – admittedly not great — Christian adoptive parents gave her), narrated it as well. Every chapter began with an Earthseed verse and then some narrative by Asha. At first, this bothered me — Asha blamed her mother for starting Earthseed, not finding her soon enough, and for decisions she made, none of which really sat well with me; her mother did the best she could given the circumstances — but eventually, I came to understand Asha’s resentment, and her bitterness toward her mother. Butler had to create conflict — because novels are not life — and she did that brilliantly by creating a division between mother and daughter (as well as between Olamina and her brother, who embraced Jarrett’s Christian American movement). Butler is an excellent writer and a consummate storyteller, and, much like Handmaid’s Tale, is quite prophetic. She pulled from history and put together a tale that is a warning as much as it is an engrossing story. I did find myself skimming toward the end, when things settle down and Earthseed becomes moderately successfull, eventually sending ships into outer space, but really: this duology deserves the accolades it has gotten.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Kiss Number 8

by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus depictions of teenage drinking and smoking. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Mandy has been best friends with Cat for forever; through all of Cat’s ups and downs, and dates, both good and bad. Though Cat hasn’t had much luck in the dating arena. Most of her kisses happened when she was younger, and most of them were really kind of lame. Though, as they are in their junior year at Catholic school, things are beginning to change. Not the least a mysterious phone call that makes her dad angry, and sets off a chain of events that reveals a deep family secret.

This was an interesting graphic novel. I don’t want to spoil everything (though the tag kind of gives things away), but it’s dealing with the LGBT community and religion, or at the very least, religious people. But the story was a bit of a mess. As were Mandy and Cat (and I felt really bad for the third wheel, Laura). I kind of get why Venable and Crenshaw were framing this story through kisses, but I’m not entirely sure it worked really well. I did enjoy it when Crenshaw’s art told more than the words, bringing more depth to the story, the way graphic novels should.

It wasn’t my favorite I’ve read, but it was an interesting story.

Audio book: Red at the Bone

by Jacqueline Woodson
Read by: Jacqueline Woodson, Bahni Turpin, Shayna Small, Peter Francis James, and Quincy Tyler Burnstine.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some on-screen sex as well as swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss to talk about this one plot-wise. It jumps back and forth through time, starting in 2001, at Melody’s “coming of age ceremony”, where she’s wearing the dress her mother, Iris, wasn’t able to wear, because she was pregnant with Melody and didn’t get a ceremony. It gives us glimpses into the inner lives of Iris and Melody, but also Iris’s parents, and Aubrey, Melody’s father. It’s an introspective novel; nothing really happens, but Woodson’s tight writing and way of observing human nature still allows us to get to know these characters and understand their motivations.

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio book, partially because Woodson’s writing is a joy to listen to, and partially because the different narrators helped keep the story straight. (I was talking to a co-worker who said she was having trouble with this one because she didn’t know which chapter was from which point of view — Woodson, unlike other writers, doesn’t do any favors by telling us at the outset who is narrating, instead making us do the work of figuring it out.) It was short, and to the point, and I liked listening to this one family’s story through the years.

Recommended, particularly in audio.

The Stone Sky

by N. K. Jemisin
First sentence: “Time grows short, my love.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate
Content: There is swearing and some violence, though none of it brutal. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Well… if I didn’t want to do spoilers for the other two books, that leaves me with very little to say, here, doesn’t it?

Impressions: It’s definitely a book on the evils of colonialism, systemic racism, and oppression. No, it’s not overt, but it’s there. It’s also a book about forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, then maybe a sort of peace. It’s a book about parenting, and what children expect and/or need from their parents, which are not always the same thing. It’s a book about resilience and endurance and sacrifice. (No, I didn’t cry at the end, like a coworker suspected I might.)

It’s still a wildly beautifully written book, though I found this one had bits that pulled me out of the narrative more than the other two. And it was a satisfying conclusion. It definitely deserved all the awards it received.

And I’m going to try and read more Jemisin soon.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
First sentence: “Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some drinking and swearing, including mulitple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Sal is starting his senior year of high school, and he feels like his life isn’t making sense. He’s mom died when she was three, he never knew his biological father, and although he loves his adoptive father and his Mexican family, he still wonders about the family he never knew. His best friend, Samantha has a crap relationship with her mom, and his other friend, Fito’s, mom has drug problems. Sal’s life is pretty tame comparatively, but still. He’s trying to figure himself out.

Actually, the plot of this one is kind of incidental to the book. It’s mostly about relationships: between Sal and his father, Sal and his grandmother, and Sal and Sam. It’s about the dynamics between them all and what it means to be a part of a family. There is discussion of death and making life worthwhile, as Sal (and Sam and Fito) try to figure out how they fit into the world. Even though it wasn’t heavy on plot, it was beautifully written. Sáenz has a gift for language and I enjoy the way he wrote the characters. Sal’s dad, Vincente, is one of the best fathers I’ve read in a very long time. It was delightful spending time with these characters that I came to care about. (Yes, I cried when Mima died.)

Perhaps not the most exciting book I’ve read recently, but I did enjoy it.

Love, Hate, & Other Filters

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “Destiny sucks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some talk of sex, but none actual. There is also swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Senior Maya Aziz has one goal in life: to go to NYU (she’s been accepted!) and get a degree in filmmaking. However, her parents — even though they’re on the liberal end of the Indian Muslim scale — would rather she go close to home — University of Chicago or Northwestern — and get a degree in something practical. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to set her up with a nice Indian Muslim boy… even if they don’t want her to get married just yet.

Maya just wants to live her life the way she wants to, and she was starting to make headway (even with the super popular white football player who’s interested in her!) when there’s a hate crime in a nearby city, and suddenly her small town isn’t safe — for her — anymore. And things just escalate when her parents’ dental practice building is vandalized Now her parents are refusing to let her go anywhere, let alone to New York to go to school.

Oh this was SUCH a good debut! Ahmed tackles conflict in a religious family, not with just culture but with belief, and she tackles the differences between parents and children — Maya’s parents aren’t bad or controlling; they just feel they know what’s best — and tackles the differences between immigrants and their first-generation American children. But she also addresses racism and prejudice all while wrapped up in a very sweet love story.

She’s definitely a writer to watch.

Words on Bathroom Walls

by Julia Walton
First sentence: “My first doctor said it was unusual for the symptoms to manifest in someone so young.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Adam is a regular teen. Mostly. He has regular teen boy desires, interests… the only difference is that he’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The kind that make you see things — in Adam’s case, he sees people and hears voices. He’s on a new trial drug, though, and as part of it, he’s required to go to therapy. He doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t want to talk to the therapist, so the book is a series of diary entries where Adam describes what’s going on in his life, how he’s reacting to the drug, and answering the therapist’s questions, such as they are.

I found the format of the book to be super fascinating: it got us in Adam’s head, while not being mundane or super weird; the entries were made weekly, so Adam was able to reflect on the week. So, while he may have had episodes, the book never took the reader through the middle of them, since the entries were always written afterward. I thoroughly enjoyed being in Adam’s head; he had a super strong voice that came through, and I enjoyed his sense of humor around his mental health. It was also a case in which the parents (hooray!) were absolutely fantastic. They fought for Adam and his rights and wanted nothing but the best for him. The conflict was partially internal — Adam against his mental health — and from his peers, who just don’t understand what’s going on.

It’s a really excellent book; definitely a good look at a mental health issue that not many people know much about.