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 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.”
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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
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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.”
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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.”
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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.

The Odds of Getting Even

by Sheila Turnage
First sentence: “Mr. Macon Johnson’s kidnapping trial snatched Tupelo Landing inside out sharp as Miss Rose snaps a pillowcase before she pins it to her wash line.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at the bookstore.
Others in the series: Three Times Lucky, The Ghost of Tupelo Landing
Content: There’s some intense situations, but nothing too scary (and only mildly life-threatening). It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mo and Dale are back again! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. (I adore Tupelo Landing and want to live there.)

Dale’s no-good daddy is on trial for kidnapping (and other charges), when he disappears from the jail on the way to the trial. If that’s not bad enough, things start happening — break-ins, vandalism, attempted murder — in Tupelo Landing, and everyone (including Mo) is blaming it on Macon. Dale’s the only one who knows his daddy well enough to think that he’s being framed. And it’s up to him (and Mo and Harm) to figure it all out.

First, I’m glad this is solidly back in realistic mystery territory. No more ghosts, thank you. Secondly: the charm of these books is much less the mystery (I kind of figured it out, though not completely) and much more the, well, charm of the characters. Mo’s delightful. Dale’s sweet. Harm even grew on me. There was much less Miss Lana and the Colonel than I would like, but the kids were so delightful that I really didn’t care.

I am completely infatuated with this series and I don’t think I’ll ever get enough.

Honor Girl

by Maggie Thrash
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Content: There’s about a half-dozen f-bombs scattered throughout the book. It’s in the teen graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s the summer of 2000, and Maggie is 15. She’s been going to the same summer camp in Kentucky — Camp Bellflower — since she was little, the same camp her mother and grandmother both went to. There was a lot of tradition in the camp, including that of Honor Girl: the one senior camper that was supposed to embody all the Tradition of the camp.

There are very few books, I think, that truly capture what a 15-year-old girl is really like, in all her angst and insecurity. And Thrash’s graphic memoir hits the nail on the head. It’s spot-on. From the drama between her and another girl over who will get their shooting D.E. (a mark of excellence) first to the rumors that fly around the camp about anyone and everyone. But, for Maggie, her summer is wrapped up in a crush she has on one of the counselors, Erin. Does she like Maggie back? Is Maggie even supposed to like one of the counselors? What does it all mean?

The answer is, ultimately and honestly, that she doesn’t know. There is no grand Coming Out moment. There are some moments when I wanted to smack those running the camp, when they discriminated against Maggie for exploring who she is. But, mostly, it was just one slice of a moment in time, when a girl fell in love and didn’t really know what to do about that. And that was something I found I could relate to.

I’m glad Thrash decided that her story needed to be told.

Walk on Earth a Stranger

by Rae Carson
First sentence: “I hear the deer before I see him, though he makes less noise than a squirrel — the gentle crunch of snow, a snapping twig, the soft whuff as he roots around for dead grass.”
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Review copy picked up at Children’s Institute and signed by the author (who I fangirled over).
Content: There’s some violence, including a few deaths, and some talk about sex (but none actual). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Leah Westfall has a talent for finding gold. Well, maybe more than a talent: she can magically sense gold out in the wilderness. But, in northern Georgia in 1849, gold is getting pretty scarce. Even so, she and her parents get by. She’s fairly content. Then, her parents are brutally murdered by a man wants to control her “talent”, so she disguises herself as a man, runs away and head for the place where gold is most plentiful: California.

That’s basically the premise, as this book is primarily concerned with Leah’s — Lee’s — journey getting to California. It’s full of action and suspense, but it’s ordinary action and suspense. Robbers, rough rivers, threats from the known and unknown. It doesn’t seem like much, but it kept me turning pages.

This book deviates from Carson’s other works in that it’s more of a historical fiction piece and less of a magical one. Sure, Lee has magical abilities. But (so far), that’s the only magic. The rest of it, from the inherent sexism and racism to the trials they face while crossing the plains is historical. Even though I like Carson’s magic, I think I enjoyed this one more because the magic was so understated. It did help Lee out, on occasion. But for the most part, she was making her own way on her own terms. Which was awesome.

The other thing is that this is the first of a projected trilogy, but I have no idea where Carson is heading. Sure, the Big Bad isn’t taken care of, but he wasn’t a real threat in this novel either. I was actually content with the way this one ended: Lee survived the journey, she got to California, she can live happily ever after. However, I will follow Carson down whatever road she wants to take, and I wouldn’t mind reading more of Lee’s story at all.

Gone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell
First sentence: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
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Content: There’s mild swearing, and a LOT of the n-word. Take it for what you will. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I first read this when I was 15 or 16. I don’t remember why I picked it up, just that I did. I don’t remember what I thought of it, but it couldn’t have been much, since I really had no desire to ever visit it again. (I think I’ve seen bits of the movie.)

We picked this one for my in-person book group, partly because no one had read it in a long time, and partly because Samantha Ellis wrote about it in How to Be a Heroine. And so I began the slog.

Because it was a slog. It’s so sexist and racist, I couldn’t stand to read it for long periods of time. It really is Old South — and there’s still a lot of the Old South in the south — and that’s just hard for me to understand. Eventually, I took to looking at it as a sociological study: why was the Old South the way it was. Why couldn’t they shake their prejudices and adapt? Why were they still stuck in the Way Things Were and that’s they way They Always Should Be?

And Scarlett… on the one hand, she’s an incredibly feminist character: a person who is willing to do what needs to be done, in the face of the Patriarchy and Public Opinion; a person who flies in the face of convention. It’s amazing how modern she is.

But she’s also mean and cruel and opportunistic. And hung up on a fantasy that she needed to move past.

Maybe, though, that’s the point? That only the cruel people are successful? I don’t know.

In the end, I didn’t like it, not just because of the content, but because it was SO LONG. Seriously: knock 700 pages off of this book and maybe it’d be a decent story.

There will at least be a lot to discuss.

Bayou Magic

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “My name is Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with the ABA Children’s Institute.
Content: It’s a pretty basic story, and aside from some French scattered through, it’s pretty basic in its vocabulary. I’d give it to anyone 2nd grade and up. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Not-quite-ten-year-old Maddy is the youngest of five sisters in New Orleans. She’s the one that is always the tag-along, never quite fitting in with her sisters. She is often teased, and the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s cooking with her mom. Then, her turn to spend the summer in Bon Temps, in the Louisiana bayou, with Grandmère comes around. At first, Maddy doesn’t know what to expect: her sisters all spent summers with Grandmère and came back with horror stories. But Maddy is different: she likes the quiet, earthy nature of Grandmère and the bayou. She wants to learn the old ways. And she finds friends and adventure there. And magic.

Rhodes simple, lyrical style was really well suited to this story. I loved the earthy feel of the book, and the connection to old stories and family roots. I loved the mix of African and French, of Creole and magic and modern. The environmental crisis aspect of it wasn’t as important as the back blurb led me to believe — it was really just tacked on at the end — but the theme of caring for and connecting to the earth was prominent and important for the story. At first, I thought that this could pass for “realistic” fiction, that maybe the mermaids Maddy saw were just dreams and imagination, but no: this is speculative. And it worked for me. I loved seeing Maddy grow and learn and develop, and yet she was still a 10-year-old girl with all the concerns and abilities of that.

I haven’t ever read Ninth Ward, but I think I need to, now. I’ve come to really love Rhodes simple style.