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.

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Unbound

unboundby Ann E. Berg
First sentence: “When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some tough subjects dealt with here, but there’s nothing graphic. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: I’m uncomfortable with this book. Not because of the subject matter (though I do have to admit that I’m tired of Civil War slave narratives. Not because they’re not important, but because it seems to be the only African American story publishers want to tell.) but because it’s a white woman telling the story. I’m not going to say she shouldn’t be telling this story, but rather because I think this story would have been better served being told by a person of color.

That’s not to say it was a bad story; it was okay, as far as slave narratives go. Berg was trying to tell the story of a community of runaway slaves in North Carolina who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp (where native peoples had settled for thousands of years), living there in order to be free from slavery. But that’s not really the story she ended up telling. It was more of the disgruntled slave who couldn’t keep their place and so they had to leave narrative. Which is fine, but not exactly the narrative of the people in the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It does tell a story at a level that children can understand. It does have┬ánon-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.

Mark of the Thief

by Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: “In Rome, nothing mattered more than the gods, and nothing mattered less than its slaves.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s violence, since it’s set in ancient Rome, but it’s not graphic. It’s basically on the level of the Percy Jackson books, so I put it in the middle grade (grades 3-5, though it probably skews to the upper end of that) section of the bookstore.

Nicholas Calva is a slave in the mines, digging up stones and jewels for the wealthy of Ancient Rome. This is not something he chose to do; his family was captured in one of Rome’s many invasions of other, smaller countries. Or sRomething he wants to do: he would much rather be a free man. But, because his mother was sold away, and because he needs to watch after his sister, Livia, he sticks around and is (mostly) obedient. Then, one day, his master sends him down to find and fetch Julias Ceasar’s bulla, a medallion that he carried with him that was supposedly given to him by Venus. Nic finds it, of course, and fights the griffin guarding it, and is endowed with magical powers.

Which gets him in to all sorts of trouble.

See, the current emperor is weak, and there’s a war brewing between the Praetors and the general of the army, and Nic seems to be caught in the middle. The question is, will he even survive long enough to pick a side?

I loved this one. Seriously. Nielsen knows how to create a world, and I was happy to immerse myself in an ancient Rome that had magic. (And pretty cool magic, at that.) Nic, much like Sage, is a impulsive character, one is more than willing to go out on a limb to do what he thinks he should, which makes him a lot of fun to read about. I enjoyed getting to know Aurelia — his friend/pseudo romantic interest — and thought she was a great foil for Nic impulsiveness. My only regret was that Livia was more an idea than a character; I never really felt the connection that Nic did for her, and was never really upset when her life was dangled before Nic as motivation.

But there are some nice twisty moments, especially at the end, and it’s a solid first book in a series.

Sugar

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “Everybody likes sugar.”
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Bought and signed by the author at KidLitCon 2014
Content: This one would be appropriate (and probably okay, difficulty-wise) for kids third grade and up. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

It’s 1871, and slavery is supposed to be over. However, for ten-year-old Sugar, on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, it doesn’t feel like it. Sure, the former slaves are free to go if they can, but they’re paid so little that it’s almost impossible for them to leave. And then the plantation owner, Mr. Wills, decides that he needs more workers, so he hires some Chinese to come and supplement the former slaves.

For Sugar, her life revolves around sneaking out to play with Billy, the owner’s son, and trying not to get under Mrs. Beale’s feet. And planting and cutting sugar cane. Once the Chinese arrive, however, Sugar’s world is expanded: one of them speaks English and she befriends them. In fact, she is the bridge that gets the whole working community to work together rather in competition. There’s a passage about halfway through that pretty much sums up what I think Rhodes was getting at in this book:

“How come I ca’t decide who I can see? How come I can’t decide my friends?”
“We don’t trust these men, Sugar.”
“I like Chinamen. Reverend, don’t you preach ‘Treat folks like you want to be treated’?”
“Well, now,” says Reverend, not looking at me, twiddling his thumbs.
“Sugar,” says Mister Beale, “folks get along best with folks like them. Always been that way.”
“Seems cowardly.”

Of course, things aren’t easy for Sugar and her friends: it is 1871 in the South, and white people — especially the former Overseer — are reluctant to change and adapt. There is some tragedy in this book, but it is a middle grade book, after all, and the tragedy is kept simple and appropriate.

It’s the overall message of friendship and inclusion that made this slim historical fiction book worth reading.