Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn
First sentence: “The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.”
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Content: There is mild swearing, and six f-bombs. There is also some violence and kissing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d hand it to younger kids who like epic fantasies.

Bree has wanted to get out of her small North Carolina town, and has seen the Early College program and the University of North Carolina as her ticket out. However at the start of the program, she is dealing with the grief from her mother’s death in a car accident, which puts her in a very precarious emotional state. So when, at a party, she starts seeing things — supernatural things — she doesn’t know what to think. Is it real? Is it a hallucination?

Then (after a brief run-in with the dean) she is assigned a peer mentor, Nick. Who happens to be part of this super-secret (all-white) society of magical beings whose job is to protect humanity from the Demons. Bree starts on a path, where she comes to realize that there was a lot more to her mother — and to Bree, herself — than she ever knew.

The question is what will she do with the knowledge she has now?

Oh, this was so good. Seriously worth the hype it was getting. I loved the world that Deonn created, riffing off the Arthurian legend in some really fascinating ways. I was fascinated by the way race and class came into play, and how magic wasn’t limited to just this one society. I liked how Bree disrupted the narrative of this society. Plus the budding romance between her and Nick was amazing. It was some solid storytelling, weaving grief and loss with magic and romance. There have been some comparisons to Cassie Clare, but this is SO much better.

I can’t wait to read the next installment!

Punching the Air

by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
First sentence: “Umi gave birth to me”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Amal Shamal was growing up in New York City, attending a school specializing in art. He had friends. And, yes, he had a temper. But, one fateful night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up starting a fight with a white boy. A fight that ended — Amal didn’t end it — with the white boy in a coma in the hospital. And Amal ended up in prison for something he didn’t do.

It’s a quick(ish) read, but a heavy one. Based somewhat on Salaam’s experience (he was part of the Exonerated 5), this is mostly a story of how Shamal gets through the hell that is prison. He’s technically in juvenile prison, but even in there it’s a lot less hope and a lot more despair. The book is Amal fighting against the expectations of the (white) world, trying to find a space for himself and his art. Trying to find hope and a will to go on in the face of oppressive and systemic racism.

If you think that prison is a good thing, that it keeps criminals and “thugs” off the street, this is a book you need to read. It drives home that the prison system (and by extension, the justice system) is not only flawed, it’s racist and corrupt. And it’s erasing futures.

Definitely a must-read.

Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
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Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

Class Act

by Jerry Craft
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Others in the series: New Kid
Content: There is talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s the start of eighth grade at Riverdale Academy Day School, and so Jordan and Drew are no longer the new kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the school culture, especially for Drew, who is a darker-skinned Black kid than Jordan. In fact one of the things I found most interesting about this book was the way Craft leaned into racisim and colorism. Jordan is a lighter-skinned Black kid, and everyone (well, white teachers) often overlooks Jordan when talking to or about the Black kids at school.

In fact, as the book follows Drew (though we still get a good dose of Liam and Jordan as well as some of the other friends they made in New Kid), Craft highlights all the little ways that Drew is battling racism in his every day life. Especially from well-meaning white people (which caused me to reflect on the myriad of ways I may have been unintentionally racist towards Black friends).

It’s a fun book, though. I enjoyed learning more about Drew and his life, and how he struggles to figure out who he really is and what he really wants. My favorite section though was when Liam and Drew visited Jordan’s family for an afternoon. I loved seeing the interactions between the adults and the kids and just experiencing Joy.

An excellent book. (And hopefully there will be more!)

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
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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.

Audio book: The Color of Compromise

by Jemar Tisby
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is descriptions of violence done to Black people and use of the n-word. It would be in either the Sociology section or Religion section if the bookstore carried it.

This book is the history of chattel slavery in the United States, but as seen through the lens of Christianity. So, on the one hand: there wasn’t much new for me to learn about slavery that I hadn’t already learned from Stamped from the Beginning. But the part about Christianity was fascinating. See, white Christians have always bee complicit in slavery, in Jim Crow laws, in racism. There’s no way around it. If we consider the United States a Christian nation, if there were God-fearing people who owned slaves; who owned people; who discriminated against Blacks; who, say, in the example of my own church, refused to give them equal standing as white men and women; then, Christians have always been complicit in the oppression of Black people.

And that’s a hard realization. It’s so easy to think of the oppressors as “other”, but as Tisby points out, even if Christians were not actively acting as slave-owners or KKK members (and some were) the Silence of the church as a whole (and many, many members) gave tacit approval to the systemic oppression. By not speaking out against it, by not working to fight against it, they were, by default, for it.

Although Tisby gives suggestions on how to fix the problem of Christianity’s complicit behavior in anti-Black racism, I’m not sure what I can do systemically. I do know I am working on the racism – both implicit and explicit — in my life, working to enlarge my circle and my point of view. And to remember that we are all God’s children, even if the system doesn’t behave like we are.

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera
First sentence: “There was always train traffic ahead of us and that Saturday was no different.”
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Review copy provided by publisher.
Content: There are a ton of f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and pot use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

So, while doing some Googling and looking when I finished this, I discovered that it was published four years ago by a small press, but picked up by Dial Press and re-published last year. Which explains 1) how I got an ARC from our Penguin rep and 2) why I missed it the first time around.

Because this a a spectacular piece of feminist LGBT writing.

The premise is this: Juliet has grown up in the Bronx, but gone away to a liberal arts college in Baltimore. Once there, she began discovering her sexuality, and read “Raging Flower” a seminal feminist book by Harlowe Brisbane. On a whim, Juliet decides to write Harlowe and ask if she needs an intern, which Harlowe readily agrees to. So, Juliet takes off across the country to Portland, hoping to be inspired and discover out more about herself.

What she discovers is that Harlowe doesn’t have all the answers, but the experiences — both good and bad — are immensely worth having.

The book was not kind to Portland; the people there were VERY hippie. So much hippie. And maybe that’s the way Portland really is, but I kind of felt like it was overkill. That said, I think Rivera did an amazing job exploring the space between adoring someone and being hurt by them and questioning their motivations. I also loved Juliet’s exploration of her sexuality and her relationship with her mother. But mostly I adored her cousin Ava.

It’s a good feminist book, encouraging girls (and women) to stand up and question not just patriarchy but their own individual responses. It was also a good exploration of intersectionality, and how if we don’t welcome everyone to the table, there’s not a lot of good that can be done. It’s all about taking ownership, and I can get behind that.

And it wasn’t a bad story either.

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.

Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
First sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some on-screen sex, including a rape scene, as well as swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s hard to know where to start on the plot of this one. It’s basically the story of two Nigerians — Ifemelu and Obinze — who met in high school and fell in love, and their distinct paths. They attended college together, but in a political uprising in Nigeria, their education got interrupted. Ifemelu — whose aunt had moved to America years before — got into a college in the US and went there. Obinze was denied a visa to the US and so ended up as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Most of the book is about their experiences — told in flashback, mostly — as immigrants in Western countries.

That part of the book was fascinating, though I found Ifemelu’s story more interesting. Obinze only spent a few years in the UK, working underground, trying to become legal, before he was caught and deported back to Nigeria, where he actually ended up becoming very wealthy. Ifemelu spent a long time in the US — 15 years — and had a myriad of experiences from the terrible to the banal to the good. She ended up writing a blog about being a non-American Black in the US and about race relations. All of which I found a fascinating perspective. Ifemelu had some interesting observations about race in the US and the role immigrants — especially Black immigrants — play in the discussion about race.

In the end, though, this is a story about relationships, how they work and change over time. Not just romantic ones, though it is that, but all interpersonal relationships. There is an ebb and flow to relationships, people who come in and go out of our lives, and I think Adichie captured that quite eloquently. In fact, Adichie is a gorgeous writer, balancing beautiful words with characterization and enough plot to keep me turning pages.

Recommended.