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[personal profile] sasha_feather
This is a young-adult novel, a debut for the author, and it deservedly has a lot of great reviews.

Content notes for police violence

Starr Carter lives in a poor neighborhood called Garden Heights. She and her brothers commute 45 minutes to go to a mostly-white private school. It's Spring break and she's a a party in the Garden. She runs into an old friend, Khalil, and they catch up. A fight breaks out at the party and they leave, getting into Khalil's car. On the way home, a cop pulls them over, shoots and kills Khalil. The book is abou the aftermath of these events.

It's first-person and the strong use of voice makes this book real and visceral. Thomas deftly handles a number of difficult topics, such as Starr's complicated feelings about dating a white boy, and feeling torn between two worlds. The story is gripping, and though its long (by YA standards), its a fast read.

I hope to see this as required reading on syllabi.
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[personal profile] yatima
Content warning for child sexual abuse, incest, and a fairly graphic rape.

I was puzzled by this book until I realized it was the author's first, and that when she wrote it she was not yet the astonishing artist who created Sethe and Beloved. The Bluest Eye deals with a lot of the same themes as the later novel - the crippling legacies of the slaveholding South, the crises of Black American manhood, the extremes to which Black women are driven to make sense of their predicaments. But they are present here in larval form.

Morrison uses the text of a child's early reader as a framing device, and to throw her dark material into stark relief. I realize as I am writing this that it works equally well as an ironic nod to the fact that the author is here feeling her way into her story and her voice.

The great John Leonard gave this book a lovely, generous review.
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[personal profile] yatima
This deservedly acclaimed masterpiece is a coolly intelligent book, all the more devastating for the precision and detachment with which it describes its horrors. Frederick Douglass was probably his master's son. His white brothers and sister inherited property: Douglass was property. Between the facts of biology and basic human decency, everyone involved in the slave trade must have been in a constant state of extreme cognitive dissonance. The descriptions of the floggings and murders are terrible, but the descriptions of the psychological consequences of slavery upon both slave and master are more terrible still.

...slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately.

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

The coldest part of the book is Douglass's care to list the exact names of each perpetrator of an atrocity, and the date of the atrocity as closely as he can calculate it. He wanted his account to be unimpeachable. He succeeded. Historians have verified his facts. When speaking truth to power, bring receipts.
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[personal profile] yatima
This series grows increasingly dear to my heart. "Binti" is an Arabic word for "daughter" (as "Yatima", which I stole from Greg Egan's novel Diaspora, is an Arabic word for "orphan".) Okorafor's books stand alone as excellent stories, but they're vastly enriched by the fact that they are engaged in intense conversation with other texts. There's a book about post-colonialist literature with the fantastic title The Empire Writes Back, and that's a useful shorthand for Okorafor's larger project.

Lagoon, for example, was born from Okorafor's disgust at the treatment of Nigerians in the film District 9. It's probably my favorite first contact novel. In the same way, the Binti series takes on the particular space opera genre where humans have learning experiences among aliens: Have Space Suit Will Travel, A Wrinkle in Time, A Fire Upon the Deep. In the first book, Binti travels to Oomza University, the first of her people to do so. This book describes what's probably the definitive experience of exile: returning to your birthplace utterly changed.

“You’re too complex, Binti,” he said. “That’s why I stayed away. You’re my best friend. You are. And I miss you. But, you’re too complex. And look at you; you’re even stranger now.”

It works perfectly because it isn't a metaphor. I'm Australian and I like to joke that I grew up on a mining asteroid, but it's not really a joke. I went to graduate school in Ireland and even with a shared language and colonial history, it was like visiting another planet. Okorafor's genius is teasing out the ways in which people of Earth are alien to one another, as well as the ways in which the terrifying Other, if we can only see past the terror, may turn out to be an ally and friend. She is a vitally necessary writer and we are lucky to have her.
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[personal profile] yatima
I loved the first essay in White Girls so much that I fully became that obnoxious person monologue-ing about the book I was reading while my poor friends were just trying to drink their pinot grigio in peace. Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic at the New Yorker, and I think I was expecting an ironic, distanced New-Yorker-contributor voice like Peter Hessler's in River Town or Katherine Boo's in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, both of which I enjoyed very much. But Als writes like a man in love, about being a man in love, and that first essay especially just destroyed me.

By the time I met him and longed to be his wife, SL sometimes described himself as a lesbian separatist. No man could have him.... His gifts were road maps to our love, the valley of the unconditional.

The conceit of the title is that queer Black men are like white girls in all our fucked-up-ness and yearning for the full citizenship we are never granted. Ever since my first 50books challenge in 2009, it's been an article of faith for me that Black men and white women and people of color generally and queers of all stripes and all the others have no chance unless we make common cause, in the deep sense of seeking to understand one another's inner lives. To have that conviction reflected back to me is a true gift. I am inexpressibly grateful to this book and I press it into your hands.
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[personal profile] brainwane
I read The Underground Railroad in 2016. I thought it was engaging, moving, and accessible,* and I nominated it for a Hugo Award (Best Novel).

Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviewed Underground Airlines as well as The Underground Railroad in Strange Horizons and discussed several aspects of both books. That review mentions speculative elements in Whitehead's book beyond the railroad mentioned in the title, in case you are wary of spoilers.

I have read John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and I think at least one other Whitehead book, and am trying to reflect on how Whitehead approaches and uses the railroad, because I think it's different than the way a lot of speculative fiction authors do, and has more in common with how other mimetic fiction authors tend to use speculative premises. I want to compare The Underground Railroad to Never Let Me Go, where the story doesn't concentrate on (or, sometimes, even mention) the origin story of the big plot premise, and instead the story is entirely about the lives of people living or resisting -- just for themselves, to survive or thrive -- within that system.

* I think Whitehead deliberately works to make the book accessible to people who have not previously read slave narratives, fictional or nonfiction -- I think he spells out subtext more often than he would if he assumed the reader had more of a grounding in antebellum history or the history of anti-black racism in the US.
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[personal profile] emma_in_dream
This is bit of a placeholder of a post - I read it, I liked it.

It seemed that the first couple of chapters on African-American art prior to 1900 are different in tone to the later chapters on modern art.

The beginning chapters are the kind of art history which trace forgotten and overlooked artists. My favourite is definitely Dave the Potter who threw large, obviously pretty strong pots (50 have survived). He wrote his own poetry on each jar. 'Great and Noble jar/ Hold sheep, goat, or bear, May 13 1859, Dave'.

The later chapters deal with developments since 1900, and the constant reworkings of the same debate: which is more important, broader artistic traditions or identity as an African-American?
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[personal profile] annwfyn
I adored this book. It's a young adult historical novel set during WW2 and is the story of the WASP, the female pilots who never were quite accepted by the military, and Ida Mae who is an African American girl who 'passes' as white in order to be able to fly those planes.

I really enjoyed all of it, and found Ida Mae a really easy character to identify with. I really connected with her journey and spent half my time chewing my fingernails for fear she'd be discovered. I wanted her to succeed, I wanted her to fly those planes, I wanted good things to happen to her and was terrified they wouldn't.

I also was incredibly impressed with how well it handled some difficult issues - racism, sexism, the relationship between light skinned and dark skinned - but did so without either giving the reader or the characters easy answers or solutions, or making the book feel like an 'issue' novel. In fact, it felt a lot like a traditional 'boys own adventure' in some ways. There was barely a romance option, and instead it offered cockpit banter, daring heroines risking their lives in the high skies, and some awesome depictions of same-sex friendship. It also passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

I won't say everyone will like it. There isn't much resolution at the end of the novel, mostly because there wasn't in real life and although I felt it handled the issues it tackles well, other people might not. I would, however, thoroughly recommend it, for the positive depiction of female friendship and the really empowering story of women basically doing male jobs just as well as any man without any kind of apology.
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Haven't posted in a while. Here's a series of mini-reviews with some spoilers. Also, some of the books contain potentially triggering content.

6. Un-Nappily in Love by Trisha R. Thomas
7. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
8. Tracks by Louise Erdrich
9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
10. Umbrella by Taro Yashima
11. Little Joy by Ruowen Wang
12. Why War is Never a Good Idea by Alice Walker
13. Erika-san by Allen Say
14. Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani
15. What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
16. The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
17. In the Company of Ogres by A. Lee Martinez
18. Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
19. Divine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez
20. Monster by A. Lee  Martinez
21. Certainty by Madeleine Thien
22. So Long Been Dreaming edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
23. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
24. Too Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez
25. A Nameless Witch by A. Lee Martinez
26. A Person of Interest by Susan Choi
27. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead

Mention (not counted)
Josias, Hold the Book by Jennifer Riesmeyer Elvgren (white); illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (person of colour)

Read more... )
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Angelou continues to astound in The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume in her series of six autobiographies. Skipping forward eagerly in time, Heart is set over the course of roughly five years and picks up a few years after its predecessor Singin' and Swingin' and Getting' Merry Like Christmas.

As with the other books in the series there is only the loosest sense of a plot. However what gives the novel coherence is Angelou's observations on motherhood and her continual struggle to take care of her son, Guy, even as he develops into a strong, independent young man. Angelou notes that in the world at large she, as a black woman in the sixties, has little authority and worries that her son will absorb that message and gradually lose respect for her. As part of her effort to reclaim some authority she finds herself becoming involved in the civil rights movement, working for Martin Luther King jr's organization, the SCLC, and marrying a South African freedom fighter who is enamoured of her passion for activism and yet wants to turn her into a subservient wife. 

While this book finds Angelou mostly abandoning the theatrical world for the political one, there is still no end to the charming anecdotes of stars and other notable personalities that Angelou encountered throughout her life. Billie Holiday, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Martin Luther King jr are a few names mentioned, along with Pulitzer prize winner John Oliver Killens who is the first to encourage Angelou to write. With Killens as her mentor, Angelou joined the now legendary Harlem Writers Guild and in The Heart of a Woman records her first weak attempts at writing and her joy at her first publication in a no-name journal in Cuba. At last, four volumes in, we are able to witness Angelou's first steps on a road that will take her to literary stardom. 
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Goodness, it's been a while since I posted here. I just started doing my next 50 books challenge, after a bit of a hiatus, and in so doing discovered a bunch of books I never wrote up from last time, and am slowly trying to plough through them.

I thought I'd start with two books which I think I didn't review because I'm not even sure I finished them.

'Bite Marks - A Vampire Testament' by Terrance Taylor

I think I floundered with this book purely because I couldn't quite deal with the vampire baby bad guy. I wanted to get into it. I liked loads of the characters. In fact, I think I liked all of the characters. I found Adam, the bad guy, really quite compelling and I thought Perenelle in particular really rocked. I kept getting into the book, really buying it, and then the weird creepy baby vampire would show up again and for some reason that just really really jarred with me. I don't know why - I think it is mostly that I found it hard to take the baby seriously, and I couldn't visualize it without making it cartoonish which was a shame as the rest of the novel felt really grounded.

I suspect this is purely a mental block for me and so I want to recommend it, for anyone who can read about creepy baby vampires without feeling the need to giggle.

'Atomik Aztex' by Sesshu Foster

I totally acknowledge that I failed with this book because I couldn't handle the use of language. Sesshu Foster rips up our normal reading patterns, re-arranges the language, makes us actually look again at words, at spellings...and totally broke up my ability to lose myself in this book. As a note, I, for some weird reason, am very very bad at handling odd spellings. I think it's a side effect of being mildly dyslexic - I read by the shape of words, and not by the letters. I read a chunk of this aloud to myself, and slowly plodded through the rest of it.

I gave up, after a while, mostly frustrated with myself. I think it is a really good, really interesting book. It was just a little too challenging for me in the place I was in at that place, and I think required a bit more intelligent commitment than I felt able to give, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't really work for someone else.
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Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is a compulsively good read. Like Angelou's previous two biographies it's not very long, but the enthusiasm with which Angelou relates her experiences makes it seem even shorter. While her other biographies deal with childhood and her early steps towards independence, Angelou emerges here as a full-fledged adult become more confident with herself and the world around her.

The book covers two major themes, the first being Angelou's beginnings in show business. After her first marriage fails (the courtship, marriage and its dissolution are covered in a brisk few pages) Angelou takes a job as a dancer in a strip club. Her dances catch the attention of some white night club singers who help her begin a career as a nightclub singer which becomes a launching pad for her career as an actress and dancer. At last the Marguerite Johnson of the two previous memoirs transforms into Maya Angelou. A role in the renowned opera Porgy and Bess opens the world up to Angelou literally as well as metaphorically as the opera's tour allows her to visit Europe and parts of North Africa.

Wound inseparably into the narrative is Angelou's observations about what it is like to operate as a strong-minded independent black woman in America in the fifties. Segregation meant that her previous experiences with white people had been infrequent and hostile, but as she begins to travel in different circles her experiences with white people become more frequent and complex. Her family reacts badly when she marries a white man. Her white friends still have the power to unexpectedly wound her with a thoughtless comment and Angelou feels that power imbalance keenly. Her tour across Europe is also incredibly revealing to Angelou as she and the members of her company are often the first black people that people have seen in real life. The questions and stares give way to both painful moments and beautiful ones all of which Angelou recollects with grace and good humour.
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Title: My Year of Meats
Author: Ruth L. Ozeki
Number of Pages: 366 pages
My Rating: 2/5

Jacket Summary: Jane Takagi-Little, by trade a documentary filmmaker, by nature a truth seeker, is "racially half", Japanese and American, and, as she tells us, "neither here nor there..." Jane is sharp-edged, desperate for a job, and determined not to fall in love again.

Akiko Ueno, a young Japanese housewife, lives with her husband in a bleack high-rise apartment complext in a suburb of Tokyo. At night she lies awake, silently turning the pages of The Pillow Book, marveling at Sei Shounagon's deft, sure prose. Akiko is so thin her bones hurt, and her husband, an ad agency salaryman who wants her to get pregnant, is insisting that she put some meat on them--literally.

Ruth L. Ozeki's exuberant, shocking, mesmerizing novel opens with two women on opposite sides of the globe, whose lives cannot be further apart. But when Jane get a job, coordinating a television series whose mission is to bring the American heartland, and American meat, into the homes of Japan, she makes some wrenching discoveries--about love, meat, honor, and a hormone called DES. When Jane and Akiko's lives converge, what is revealed taps the deepest concerns of our time--how the past informs the present and how we live and love in this "blessed, ever-shrinking world".

Review: That summary sounds pretty horrible, and let me tell you, the book is not any better. If I had read that summary, I would not have read the book. But I read a review somewhere (I poked around at places I thought it might be and can't find anything anywhere, so I really don't know) that made it sound interesting, so I picked it up based on the review (and jacked summaries often sound horrid compared to the actual book). But really, the summary accurately reflects what the book is like.

There were plenty of things that bugged me (the angelic girl in a wheelchair who makes everyone a better person just by existing, and the multiple times hormones in meat cause men to get higher voices (estrogen: it doesn't work that way!) are two that come to mind), but the two biggest problems I had were the way Japan and Japanese people were consistently exotified and stereotyped and the way the book actually turned out to be about how every women just really wants a baby and needs children to be happy. Blargh.

Title: The Intuitionist
Author: Colson Whitehead
Number of Pages: 255 pages
My Rating: 3.5/5

Jacket Summary: It is a time of calamity in a major metrolpolitan city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female evelator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and, it just so happens, has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae's watch, chaos ensues. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton, and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.

Review: So, on the jacket, it's called "sidesplittingly funny", and I don't know if I totally missed the humor or the person writing the cover copy just read it completely differently to me (or didn't read it at all), because I don't know what they're talking about. Anyway, it was definitely interesting, even if I couldn't totally get into the whole "in this universe elevators are the biggest thing ever" premise. I liked the intrigue, though was a little disappointed with the ending. I see a lot of people in reviews raving over Whitehead's prose, but I found his style really off-putting. It seems like it might be one of those love it or hate it things. Still, I'm interested in reading more by him.
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2.30 Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006)

I've been doing a lot of reading about Hurricane Katrina recently. I was inspired by the second Spike Lee documentary to revisit this issue - because it was a genuine puzzle to me. I could not believe that the response to a disaster could be so incompetent in the first world.

I made a donation to the American Red Cross and as I did so I remember being astounded that I was sending disaster relief to the richest and most powerful country in the world because they just could not get their act together to help their own citizens.

So I've read several books and they list a whole lot of factors. The National Guard was depleted because of Iraq; Bush was focussed on terrorism and had subsumed FEMA into the Homeland Security Department; FEMA was headed by an incompetent who reported to a moron; the White House had poor relations with Louisiana because it was held by a Democrat; Mayor Nagin didn't use his buses before the storm and after it they were flooded; FEMA kept telling active lies about sending buses so no one else organised any; FEMA would not let people in to help. But the elephant in the room is, of course, why these factors were allowed to sway the relief efforts.

Apparently FEMA had very competently organised relief the year before in Florida (in an area where there were Republican voters to woo). But the entire rescue effort in New Orleans was stunningly bad, bad beyond belief.

Dyson just goes all out and says yes, this difference is because the people who were stuck in New Orleans were, largely, poor and black. Some of his information is just astonishing - such as the fact that people leaving the fancy hotels were allowed to jump the queue for the buses. That is to say, people wealthy enough to stay at nice hotels, people who had gone through the hurricane without wading through fetid storm water and who had had access to food and water for the days of waiting for help, those are the folks who were put at the head of the queue to get the buses out of town.

It is a relief to find someone willing to put an overarching narrative together rather than getting bogged in the details of when Heckofajob Brownie sent this email or that, and how many New Orleans school buses were working. His overarching story is that people got treated badly because they were mostly poor and mostly black.

That's certainly how it appeared to my outsider's eyes. Though, again from my uninformed outsider's perspective, the American belief in limited Government seemed to make things work. The evacuation order given for New Orleans basically said ' Get out if you can; if you can't abandon all hope because we're doing bugger all for you'.

Dyson quotes the head of the 9/11 fund who said that a similar fund need not be set up for those displaced by Katrina. The interviewer asked if 'the underlying philosophy here.. [is] that I'm responsible for my own life and if something bad happens, too bad.' He affirmed his - 'It's the United States after all. Our heritage is limited government. The government is not a guarantor of life's misfortunes.'

I guess I find this concept of citizenship odd. I imagine the State's role is to protect its citizens but this isn't an argument that Dyson spends a lot of time on. (I guess this is a fish doesn't see the water thing, where Dyson also accepts this heritage of hands off Government and rugged individualism.)

In short, this is the least factually informative of the books I've read on Hurricane Katrina, but it is the most emotionally satisfying as it does argue an overall story rather than a collection of snippets about what happened.
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[personal profile] zeborah
(A lightly-edited dump of my Goodreads reviews.)

Suckerpunch by Hernandez, David
Hooked me in at the start but the way events followed each other more realistically than determined by a story shape didn't quite work for me. (There was a story shape, it was just more in the gaps between the events.

Dawn (Xenogenesis, #1) by Butler, Octavia E.
So many consent issues... Very good: it's got the claustrophobia, the every-exit-is-a-deadend feel, that I'd normally associate with horror, but manages to retain an optimism about it. The aliens are convincinly alien, and the frustration of their refusal to listen is steadfast without becoming unbelievable.

Straight - A novel in the Irish-Maori tradition by O'Leary, Michael
Straight is the second book in the trilogy; I came to it without having read the first, but felt it stood alone well enough that I had no trouble following the plot. Unfortunately that plot -- the protagonist discovering his father may have been a Nazi, then getting blackmailed and kidnapped by Nazis -- was way too melodramatic for me to take seriously. The prose (especially the dialogue) clunked badly for me, too. I did like the motif of dreamland vs reality vs realism though: that played out well.

My Name Is Number 4 by Ye, Ting-xing
Most disasters bring people and communities together; it seems as if the Cultural Revolution was designed to tear them apart. But this book shows that the struggle to survive and to keep relationships alive is always worth making. --Excuse shallow triteness; reading this book in the aftermath of earthquake I have deeper thoughts on disasters and communities but verbalising is harder especially for fear of simplifying. It was a good book anyway.

People-faces, The by Cherrington, Lisa
This is mostly Nikki's story, of how she's affected by her brother's mental illness and her journey in understanding it - caught between Māori and Pākehā models of understanding - and her journey alongside that of getting to know herself and her strengths. Her grandmother tells her that the dolphin Tepuhi is her guardian, but her grandmother is demonstrably not infallible and with the repeated point that Joshua is of the sea while Nikki is of the land, I think the book bears out that the real/more effective guardian for her is the pīwaiwaka.

Her brother's story is told in the gaps between, and completes the book.

Despite the focus on Nikki and Joshua, we get to see various other points of view, showing the further impact on the rest of their family and their motivations. Some of the point of view shifts are a bit clunky, for example when we get a single scene from the Pākehā doctor's point of view, or just a couple from Nikki's boyfriend.

But this is well-told; the author (of Ngāti Hine) is a clinical psychologist and has worked in Māori mental health services, and the emotions of the story ring very true to me.

Cereus Blooms at Night: A Novel by Mootoo, Shani
This was a fantastic read but at times a very hard one; serious trigger warnings for child abuse (verbal, physical, sexual).

It begins as a beautifully sweet story about racial and sexual and gender identity; about family separations made by force or by choice, and about forbidden liaisons both healthy and unhealthy. Set in the country of Lantanacamara, colonised by the Shivering Northern Wetlands -- more an open code than fantasy countries -- the story focuses on three generations of locals, straight and gay, cis and trans, more and less inculturated by Wetlandish education. The narrator begins by disclaiming any significant role in the story; instantly I want to know more about him, and (though he was right that this is more Mala's story) I was not disappointed.

The main story, switching among its several timelines, grows darker and winds tighter with perfect pacing. Revelations are neither too delayed nor too forced. And as it heads towards the catastrophe we've foreseen, through horror worse than we could have imagined at the start, so it brings us towards its equally inevitable -- and no less satisfying -- eucatastrophe.
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46. Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer

Big Ma said Cecile lived on the street. The park bench was her bed. She lived in a hole in the wall.

You can't say stuff like that to a kid asking about her mother when it's snowing outside or pouring down raining. You can't say, "Your mother lives on the street, in a hole in the wall, sleeping on park benches next to winos."
It is 1968. Three black girls fly from New York to Oakland to get acquainted with their mother, Cecile Johnson. Told in 11-year-old Delphine's wry voice, which never strains credulity, this deft book paints a vivid picture of Oakland and San Francisco at a moment of upheaval whose reverberations are still being felt around here, and elsewhere.

One Crazy Summer is the rare and brilliant Young Adult novel in which - without violating the constraints of the genre - every character is given his or her due. Everyone came from somewhere, everyone needs and wants something; everyone is capable of surprising depths and shallows. People change in plausible ways. Even the poetry woven into the story is convincing, and good; when does that EVER happen?

Slight as it is (I snorfled it down in a few hours) this book is as weighty as its themes, without ever losing its sense of humor. Very, very highly recommended.


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