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.  

Genuine Sweet

by Faith Harkey
First sentence: “Genuine Sweet.”
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Review copy sent by the publisher.
Content: There’s a bit too much lovey-dovey stuff than I like for books this age (they kiss a bit and hold hands). Even so, it’s really a middle grade novel, so it’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’m a sucker for small town Southern books. (Unlike Ms. Yingling, who loathes them.) I love the small community feel, the quirkyness, and you throw in a bit of magical realism and I’m sold.

Genuine Sweet has all of that. She lives in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone’s business, so that means everyone knows that her daddy is a drunk. Genuine’s (pronounced gen-u-wine) grandma takes care of her, since her mother’s dead, and it turns out that a gift runs in the female side of the family: wish fetching. They don’t grant them, per se, they sing to the stars and fetch the star juice (for lack of a better word) and give it to people who need things. The one cardinal rule: they can’t grant any for themselves.

So, burdened with this knowledge, Genuine sets out to make life a little better for those in the town. But, even as she does so, things get worse at home. No money, no food, no electricity. And as word gets out about her wish fetching Genuine has more and more pressure to fill them ALL. Which takes a toll.

On the one hand, quirky Southern charm. It was very sweet and very Southern, and I liked the way the magic worked: nothing major, nothing huge, just small little helps that fit in with the mood of the book.

But, even with all the quirkyness and the Southerness and the magic, I didn’t absolutely love this book. Partially, because I thought the romance between Genuine and Travis was a bit, well, out of place in a book aimed toward the younger set. And the drunk dad was pretty unnecessary. As was the angry, bitter woman who opposed Geunine’s wish fetching. And all of that added up to make me like, but not thoroughly enjoy this one.

It was a good book, but I think it could have been so much better.