Monday, March 1, 2021

What We Don't Talk About by Charlot Kristensen

 genre: young adult contemporary graphic novel

This short graphic novel packs a punch.  An inter-racial couple decides to leave the city and finally introduce Farai, the Zimbabwean girl friend, to Adam (white boyfriend)'s parents.  Hopes are high that it will be a positive experience, but from the start, things are complicated.  Minor aggressions, assumptions and actual bigotry are on full display as Adam's parents let their racist flag fly.  While it feels a bit pedantic, it also feels very real and the complexity of what Farai has to sort through is intense and believable.  I was surprised by how it ended, in a good way, and I think this book has some really important ideas in it about the sort of issues that interracial couples might need to grapple with.  The art is actually gorgeous, very evocative and lush.  I'm glad I grabbed this from the library.

To School Through the Fields by Alice Taylor

 genre: non-fiction, memoir

To School Through the Fields evokes a time and place that don't exist anymore, at least not outside of Alice Taylor's mind.  In postwar Ireland, Alice's farm is a tranquil and rhythmic place, where the seasons dictate the daily work and where family is both companionship and fellow laborer.  The language is so lovely, the point of view reminding me much of Laura in Little House on the Prairie. We see the work of adults through the eyes of a child, the novelty and familiarity of the tasks that must be done: ploughing, reaping, planting and picking.  The community as well, familiar and quirky neighbors, that contracted map of a child where the home (and its fields) are at the center, Alice describes this world with humor and a gentle whimsicality that's a delight to read.

The book itself is really a series of vingettes with interspersed poetry - there's no overarching plot, no character development or grand point to be made, except, maybe, this: that the world is a grand and beautiful place, both in the minute details and in the lovely expanse of it.  Alice Taylor paints a picture here with words that shows us both.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

 genre: historical fantasy

Please, you must read The Bear and the Nightengale first.  This book is the second in a triology and the first book is essential for you to truly enjoy this one.

Vaysa's life in the village is over, now that she's believed to be a witch and her family cannot keep her safe.  When she takes to the road, dressed as a boy, all she knows is the wants adventure and to not be tucked away safe somewhere as a wife or nun. But life on the road is an uncontrollable thing, and after dangers both forced upon her and the at she seeks out herself, Vasya finds herself in the middle the kind of political intrigue that country girls never have to deal with.  Moscow is a world unto itself, with rules that Vasya doesn't understand - and with Morozko only ever encouraging her to leave, she's left on her own to decide what to do with what she knows.

YES!  A middle book that delivers all the things.  Plot moves quickly, new and interesting characters that add depth, new secrets and more unknowns.  Just enough romance (I mean, I could've handled a little more but there was enough).  The writing is just GOOD and I am so looking forward to the finish.  As someone who has always enjoyed what I've learned of Russian folklore, I really enjoy the little things that pop up in these books that are familiar and yet so newly imagined.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Crossover (Graphic Novel Adaptation) by Kwame Alexander

 genre: contemporary middle grade fiction

I haven't read the original novel in verse that this graphic novel is based on, but my understanding is that this is the entire text of the book, just illustration and in a more graphic-y format.  They style totally and completely forked for me.  This is a tender and tough story about twin brothers, JB and Josh who are both up and coming basketball stars on their junior high team.  Their dad was a big shot basketball player in his day who is heavily involved in Josh and JB's lives and the story takes us through some serious relationship changes as the brothers mature and start to figure things out for themselves in different ways.

It is TENDER.  It is woven with so much heart and compassion but it's also SUPER sporty and masculine at the same time - THAT is incredible writing.  Each word precise.  Each character so distinct, there is nothing left out but nothing extra either.

Highly recommended for all young teens but especially ones who love sports and who might have a hard time being motivated to pick up a book.  I chose to read this because my own basketball player son checked out the original from the library over and over again when he was in middle school and now I get why.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Yellow Wife by Sadequa Johnson

genre: historical fiction

Pheby Brown was born a slave on a Virginia plantation, daughter of a strong woman who was determined to find a way for Pheby to go North and be educated someday.  When Pheby's world shatters though, she finds herself sold into a Richmond household and at the mercy of The Jailer.  While her world shrinks around her, her dreams of freedom never disappear and Pheby finds her own kind of strength as she claws out a life for herself in a world where she is only as safe as the Jailer allows her to be.

This is a gut-wrenching story of survival and the strength of women.  It is about the family you choose and the bonds that tie you to the people you love.  It is about the things we find we are willing to suffer when the safety of those we love is in question. This story dug into the twisted relationships between white men and their slave women, how there could be love and lust and absolute hatred at the same time.  It's a hard idea to let your brain try to wrap itself around - but this really well written story forces you to, forces you to imagine the pain of these women whose bodies were not their own and the way that their pain spurred them into incredible action and compassion for others.   I felt Pheby's fear, her exhaustion, her aching desire for things out of her reach.  While there are many painful scenes, I still highly recommend this story, maybe it's only fault is that I wanted a little more at the end, but I finished this story with so much respect for the women like Pheby and everyone one else who suffered under the horror of slavery.

content: non-graphic but sexual scenes (both consensual and not), violence

Friday, February 19, 2021

The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon (audiobook)

 genre: fantasy

There is an island called Saylok in a foreign sea that has been blessed by the Gods and that island's people have been protected by the Keeper -  those who preserve the ancient runes that help the Keepers connect with the Gods divine power.   Upon this island live a brother and a sister whose choices of who to love and upon whom they will exact their vengeance will change everything for Saylok.  There are curses and extraordinary friendships, secrets kept and destinies to fulfill.  There is a kind of blood magic that the runes can call up and change the physical world in the ways of Diety blessing their mortal offspring.  There is trust and there is betrayal, and at its heart is one girl and one boy and the people that love them.

I really knew nothing about this book going into it, which I'm sure made it more interesting, not having any idea which way things would go!  This is a Norse story, a historical fantasy that does a good job of blending early human history life with a kind of magical sheen, the Gods are direct ancestors and puppeteers, without being characters themselves in the play.  I found myself really caring about the characters, I always felt interested in where the plot was taking me and although I did guess one or two things, I didn't see all of it and the couple few times when I felt there were plot holes or I didn't quite understand what went down, I easily moved on from it.  I'm glad I finally listened to this one, the narrator was very good.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

 genre: contemporary YA

When Kit and Hugo Godden arrive at the beach for the summer, their presence is going to disrupt the languid and breezy air of previous holidays.  Between the beach house, the guest house and the shop in town, the only other setting in this novel is the ocean and while handsome and unfamiliar teenage boys bring out the sort of headiness that makes teen girls swoon, they also can stir the pot in ways that can affect an entire family.

I am of two minds about this novel.  It is short and beautifully written - the language is lovely and piercing.  The story didn't play out how I'd imagined and the plot itself was interesting.  However, we never even learn the name or age of the narrator, noting about her life before the beach or what life is like at home in London.  I felt like I read the whole book through a window that was dirty with sea water, I just never felt CONNECTED the way I wanted to.  Teen readers may feel differently, the feelings of angst and yearning and confusion are expertly examined.  For me, though, this was a postcard, a snapshot, without a lot of context and so I felt a little like an outsider looking in. 

content warning: a few swears and talk of sex

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

genre: historical fantasy

In the Rus' world that Vasya is born into, spirits protect their domains, winter's cold is a thing to truly fear and a woman's place is at home or in a convent. But Vasya is a free spirit who not only can see the demons who work to keep her family safe, but she can interact with the fantastical world in a way that sets her apart from the other village girls.  When a newcomer arrives to town with his own brand of religion, Vasya's world will be upended and a new kind of evil will be unearthed and she may be the only person who can see the danger for what it truly is.

This book was exactly what my wintery life needed right now.  It is dark and chilling, a fantasy story in medieval Russia that has a strong young woman at its heart and enemies who are hard to put your finger on.  I loved the richly imagined setting, the way the whole world seemed to have its own spirit and I particularly loved Vasya's tenacity -  I even liked the creepiness of the tale.  The evil here is nightmarish sometimes but Vasya is the kind of character that I was rooting for from the first pages.  Reminiscent of Orson Scott Card's Enchantment, the Slavic vibe of this historical fantasy hit the spot for me.  Looking forward to more.

Friday, February 12, 2021

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

 genre: non-fiction

If Walls Could Talk is a look at the history of the home through a contemporary lens, an informal and conversational look at what life in the home was like in Britain throughout the centuries.  The book is divided into the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen, with different sections through.  The chapters are often short and while full of really interesting information, there is no footnoting throughout the book, so if you're with stickler in your nonfiction (like myself0 it is hard to feel comfortable believing that everything you are reading is completely true.  There are many citations, though, and an extensive bibliography, so it's not that I think she's making it all up, it's just best to know what you're getting.  It's more like a guidebook to the home/running of the home over time as opposed to a strictly factual work of nonfiction - which really is fine with me.  It's a very readable book, designed for the layperson to appreciate how our homes have arrived at the state they are in and the strange and sometimes crazy ways that our ancestors managed their lives and spaces.

I wanted it to be over sooner than it was and the way the photos in the middle of the book were arranged drove me nuts but I really did find myself enjoying the time I spent reading it so that just feels like a three star book.  Worth my time but not a standout.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (audiobook)

 genre: memoir, non-fiction

From the beginning of Sarah Broom's story, we know that The Yellow House does not survive Katrina in a habitable way.  So we also know that this is going to be a story of before and after - the life that Sarah's large family lives in New Orleans before "The Water" and how they and The Yellow House put themselves back together (or not) afterwards.

New Orleans is as much the heart of this story as The Yellow House.  Sarah's journey takes her from New Orleans out into the world and back again, over and over, as she tries to figure out her place in her family and in the world she was born into.  Her family's history, their purchase and love of the yellow shotgun house on the short end of Wilson, the way her many siblings both stay and scatter - the stories Sarah is told and the things she figures out for herself, all of this is an attempt to put the pieces together after The Water.  It is also the story of New Orleans, of course, a place that is so wrapped up on our nature's imagination that its reality (and the people who live there) is often playing second fiddle to what we WANT New Orleans to be.

I listened to the excellent Bahni Turpin narrate this audiobook and it's very well done.  It was a quick listen for me, I was engaged in Sarah's story from the start, even if I had a little trouble keeping people straight for a while.  The writing is lovely and her ideas struck me, time and again - her thoughtfulness and introspection made me care about her and her family.  For me, a person who has visited New Orleans as a tourist twice and truly loved it, this book did the really important job of giving me an insiders look of what it is to be Black and living "off the map" - not in the French Quarter, not in the Garden District "downtown," but in New Orleans just the same, loving this city and depending on it for physical care and safety and a sense of community.

Also, I love house stories, neighborhood stories and place stories.  So many times as Sarah was talking to me about where she was, I was on google maps. looking it up.  I've looked at the streets where she grew up and played, and I appreciated the photographs that are in the paperback as well.  The parts of this book where Sarah was teaching me about New Orleans history, I was all in, I found it fascinating how grand decisions made in boardrooms somewhere can affect the life and livelihood of citizens and I loved to learn about the New Orleans of long ago. Sometimes, when her story was super far afield from The Yellow House and its environs, I felt adrift, maybe that was intentional but I was less interested in those parts of her life, as important as they were to her journey.   When she was digging into her family's displacement, that's when I felt most engaged in her story.

While not perfect, I think that Sarah's book is an important piece of work and an excellent blend of memoir and history, set in a specific, beloved place.

content warning: language

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