The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

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Audiobook: Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance
Read by the author
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Content: There’s a LOT of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

J. D. Vance didn’t have the best upbringing. That’s putting it mildly. The grandson of Kentucky to Ohio transplants, people who moved to work in factories to find a better life, he grew up in a small manufacturing town in southern Ohio. His mom, one of three kids, was a drug addict who bounced between guys, and so J. D. ended up with his grandma, whom he called Mamaw. He eventually found his way out of the poverty and abuse cycles, joining the Marines, going to Ohio State and Yale Law. But, as he points out in his memoir, his story is atypical.

It’s mostly Vance’s memoir of his childhood (insane as it is) and his family. But he also ties it into the larger issue of rural poverty. It’s something I’ve thought since the year we lived in Mississippi: it’s not (just) about race, it’s about class. And if we don’t do something about the working poor — and I don’t have the answers here — things will just get worse.

J. D. doesn’t have the answers either; just a lot of first-hand observations. The most striking of which is that interventions that happen in high school often come too late. They need to sooner. (Honestly, I saw a lot of our foster daughter in this story. And he’s right: if someone had intervened when she was younger, it would have saved her a world of hurt and trauma.) But it’s also complex: the politicians and agencies don’t always know or understand or assume things about the poor.

A fascinating book. And listening to him read it (he has a slight Southern twang) was a great way to experience this book.

Highly recommended.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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 non-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.

Getie’s Leap to Greatness

gertieby Kate Beasley
First sentence: “The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 4, 2016
Content: Aside from Gertie’s tendency to say “Oh my Lord!” which drove me batty, there’s really nothing that the 3-5th grade set couldn’t handle. It will be in the Middle Grade section of the bookstore.

Gertie has a plan: she’s going to tackle 5th grade with a vengeance and going to be the Best 5th Grader in her southern Mississippi town. Maybe then her mother, who walked out on Gertie and her father years ago, will pay attention. Unfortunately, her plan is a bit thwarted by the arrival of a new girl, the daughter of a movie director and an environmentalist. Mary Sue takes the wind out of Gertie’s sails, and so what does Gertie do? Try harder. Unfortunately, that may cost Gertie not only the title of the Best 5th Grader, but her friendships as well.

It was an absolutely adorable book. Gertie is such a fun character (she reminded me of an older Clementine or Ramona), that you can’t help but fall in love with her. Sure, the plot hangs on low stakes (aside from the absent mom and the father who works on an oil rig that Mary Sue’s mother is trying to get shut down), but when you’re 10, even the low stakes seem big. It’s very much a southern story, full of southern charm and quirks. But, the real star is Gertie. She really is the heart and soul of this book, and she really makes it completely worth reading.

So much fun.

Audio book: The Last Original Wife

lastoriginalwifeby Dorothea Benton Frank
Read by: Robin Miles
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot of mild swearing and a couple of f-bombs. And some off-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Leslie Carter is the last original wife among her husband Wesley’s super successful Atlanta set. One was gone to divorce, another to death. And their husbands — Wesley’s friends — are marrying girls half their age. And Lesley has had enough. Actually, the “Barbies” are just a catalyst for what Leslie has been suspecting for a while: Wesley doesn’t really love her, he’s just still married to her because it’s easy and convenient. So, after a brawl in the club dining room between two of the new wives, Leslie up and leaves Wesley. She heads back to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina and her brother — who, because Wesley’s a homophobe, she hasn’t seen in years — and takes up with an old high school flame, and learns that by discovering her roots, she finds herself again.

So. I wanted to like this one. And I did at first. Wesley was such a hideous character, so sexist and clueless, right from the start that it was easy to hate him and root for Leslie to leave him. But, that said, I got really tired really fast of all the descriptions of what they ate and drank (I really don’t care which wine is good with which meal) and what they wore (so she chose a red dress for the wedding of her best friend’s daughter, so what?). I got really tired of the ending — after Leslie decided to leave Wesley and they went through therapy, the book went on for another few hours. What was the point? (She needed a Happily Ever After with a Good Man). And it was so slut-shaming. I want to read the book from Cornelia’s– she’s the second wife of one of Wesley’s friends — point of view; she was so much a caricature that I couldn’t take her seriously. (And I got so very tired of Leslie’s judgement. She wasn’t perfect either.) I won’t even start on the whole Canadian-izing of the Southern accent. No Southerner says hoose for house (it’s hOWse). (The Canadian/Upper Midwest came out with out and about too…) Drove me nuts. Oh, and then there’s the math: Leslie was turning 60 and she’d been married for 30 years (it was a shotgun wedding, and her oldest was almost 30). HOWEVER, she got pregnant in college and had to drop out before she graduated. WTH? The math doesn’t add up.

The thing it did have going for it? A great sense of place. Frank knows Charleston and knows how to write about the town in a way that made me want to go. I could picture the warm, lazy summer, and the walks down the roads. I almost wanted to see it for myself. And I’ll admit that I didn’t bail on this one; I did want to see Leslie’s story all the way through, even if I did get impatient with it.

So, while it was annoying, it wasn’t awful.

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown

spiritweekshowdownby Crystal Allen
First sentence: “I’m only wearing five braids to school today.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at the bookstore.
Content: There’s a bit of mean girl-ness, and bullying, but the language is simple and the story pretty straight-forward. Give it to a strong second grade reader and up.

Fourth grader Mya Tibbs’s elementary school always has a Spirit Week competition right before the fall festival in their small Texas town. It’s always a tough competition, but this year the stakes are higher: VIP seats to the festival. Mya is sure that she and her best friend, Naomi, are going to win. Except they don’t get chosen as partners: Mya is paired with the school bully, Connie. And she won’t trade. Which makes Naomi more than mad, it means that she and Mya are no longer best friends. Period.

But as Spirit Week goes on, Mya realizes that she’s having fun with Connie, and that maybe things aren’t exactly what they seem.

This was such a charming school story.  The stakes weren’t high, but a fourth grader, they were high enough. Friendship is important, as is doing something fun and doing it well. And even though the whole pageantry of the Spirit Week felt really implausible (all the people were SO good at everything they did!), I rolled with it. I liked that Mya figured out what a real friend is like, and found out that she could stay true to her interests and herself on her own time line. It was wonderful that the main character was a person of color, as well. It’s a great early chapter book.

The Key to Extraordinary

keytoextraordinaryby Natalie Lloyd
First sentence: “It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Release date: February 23, 2016
Content: It’s short(ish) and the words aren’t too terribly difficult, but there’s kind of a little romance, so maybe it’s not for the 3rd graders? It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The women in Emma’s family have had a long history of doing Extraordinary things. They have a dream, which they call their Blue Wildflower dream, and in that dream they are Shown Their Path, the way in which they’ll be extraordinary. At almost 13, Emma’s convinced that in spite of all this, her life won’t be that special. She lives in a smallish town in Tennessee, and while she loves her Grandma Blue and the cafe she runs, where Emma’s older brother is the baker, there really isn’t much else.

Then Emma gets her wildflower dream, and it doesn’t make sense.  Then developers start sniffing around the cafe, wanting to buy it, and suddenly maybe Emma can piece together some lost history and save the cafe while filling her destiny.

I liked Snicker of Magic quite a bit, and I like Southern Quirky (as Ms. Yingling calls it), but this one didn’t work for me.  I’m not sure I can pinpoint why, though. Maybe it’s a bit of a reading slump (I tossed aside about four books partially read before I settled on this one), maybe it’s that I’m a bit under the weather. Either way, Emma and her plight didn’t sit with me. It even had a Nice Moral at the end: follow your dreams and expectations and don’t let the accomplishments of the past make you intimidated (or at least I think that’s the message), but I kind of just shrugged and said, “Meh.”

Which is too bad. I did want to like this one more.