It’s 1991, and Allison is desperate to escape the attention of her domineering dad, a mean, petty mid-level magician who forces her to act as his show assistant long after she has outgrown the role. She find some relief when she discovers how to post to the local BBS (bulletin board system) by using the landline to dial in through her dad’s computer. There she meets sweet Sam, and they hatch a plan to get her out her house and away from her dad’s rages. Meanwhile, across town, Richard is the new kid in school. He used to have a tight crew back home but here, he can’t seem to catch a break. He’s become the target of a nasty local bully who’s escalated his attacks to the point of spraying Richard’s house with a BB gun in the middle of the night. Just when he thinks he’s reached his breaking point, Richard receives a mysterious note in his locker with directions on how to access a BBS called EVOL. He dials in and is introduced to Evol House, a community of outsider teens living on their own and led by tough, fearless Tina, who confronts the bully and teaches Richard “how to stay sane in this town…You listen to music. You come to Evol House. And you make shit.” How these four teens end up coming together is the satisfying conclusion of volume 1 of this affecting, minimalist graphic novel about the early days of the Internet. For those of us old enough to remember (I was a high school senior 1991) the Internet was initially a welcoming space where you could find like minded people and form community. While that still happens, as writer and critic Roxane Gay recently pointed out, much of the community spaces of Internet have been crowded out by cancel culture. Despite it’s somewhat dark title and sharp, angular art, Incredible Doom is an ultimately hopeful reminder of what the Internet was to kids and teens looking for connection, and what it could still be for those willing to wade through the cancelling, consumerism and contradiction to find the community waiting on the other side. I’m looking forward to Volume 2, and can’t wait to see what Matthew Bogart and Jesse Holden do next!
Valora Luck has always been a risk taker. She and her twin brother Jamie were trained as acrobats by their enterprising Chinese Ba, so she has no fear of heights and relishes the attention of a big crowd. Valora and Jaime were separated after the death of her British Mum and Chinese Ba–he went off to see the world as a coal shoveler on ocean liners, while she stayed back in London to be a ladies maid for the crabby old Mrs. Sloan. But when Mrs. Sloan dies unexpectedly, Valora decides to take her biggest risk yet: pose as Mrs. Sloan and use her pre-purchased tickets to board the Titanic, where she hopes to convince her brother, part of a team of Chinese men working in the ship’s boiler rooms, to ditch his job and come with her to America. Once on board, she plans to pitch her Chinese twin acrobatic act to Mr. Albert Ankeny Stewart, part owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Surely he has the power and influence to get her and Jamie into the US, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act? Valora knows that that her plan is full of holes and at any point, could go terribly wrong. But she’s willing to take that gamble since the potential payoff is so high. There’s just one factor she could never have considered: a hidden iceberg with the Titanic’s name on it. And suddenly all her big dreams come down to one thing–basic survival.
There have been many books written about the Titanic, but Stacey Lee’s inspired combination of Chinese culture, circus lore and performance, race and class issues, sibling politics and high fashion is nothing short of brilliant. Valora’s lyrical first person narration is captivating and contrary, full of daring dreams and understandable self doubt. This story starts with a bold move and ends, as you might expect, with a heroic act of bravery and love. If you’re in the mood for an adventurous summertime read, set sail with Luck of the Titanic!
In 1860 Louisiana, the plantation-owning Guilbert family has fallen on hard times, at least according to eldest son and heir Lucien. Though they still maintain their palatial home, land and slaves, Lucian’s business failures and growing debt have put the property at risk. Lucien is now dependent on Byron, his son, to make a good match and marry the respectable Eugenie Duhon, who’s hand comes with a sizable dowry. Lucien’s mother, Madame Sylvie, the aged matriarch of the ironically named Le Petit Cottage plantation, is not so worried. Years ago she buried her dead husband’s gold in a secret location in the cane fields and when the time is right, she will tell Lucien where to dig. Until then, she is more concerned with her legacy. Madame Sylvie has hired a French painter to come to Le Petit Cottage in St. James parish and paint her portrait, so that future generations of Guilberts will see her noble likeness and appreciate the many sacrifices she has made to maintain the Guilbert family reputation.
Like many people of their time, the Guilberts believe that everything they have was earned by themselves, when in reality, it is made possible by the enslaved people that are born, work and die on their plantation. They do not recognize the humanity of enslaved people, nor would it ever occur to them to do so. People like Marie and Louise, twin sisters who serve as housemaids and are the product their mother being raped by one of Lucien’s French business associates. Like Lily, the cook who rarely speaks, and never about her beloved son Jesse who Lucien callously murdered when he believed Jesse and Byron to be too close as children. Like Thisbe, who was taken from her family in the fields when she was only six years old, given the name of Marie Antoinette’s dog and made to be Madame Sylvie’s hands and feet. She is never to speak or have a thought of her own, though the one thing Madame can’t control is her quick mind. But a reckoning is coming, in the form of a party to celebrate Madame’s finished portrait, where all will be revealed, including the location of the hidden gold and the true Guilbert family legacy that Madame Sylvie has tried desperately to ignore, despite the fact that the violent, shameful evidence of it is all around her.
Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia has penned a mesmerizing and meticulously researched anti-Gone with the Wind that never looks away from the unvarnished reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. In her illuminating author’s note, RWG explains that her story focuses on the white plantation owners rather than the enslaved people who worked their land because the fact is that racism is a white problem, not a Black one: “Take the free and enslaved Black people out of it. While they would be present in the story, I wouldn’t task them…to prove themselves extraordinary or human. Instead I would look at a family whose livelihood insisted on slavery, and the enduring legacy of racism handed down to their heirs, regardless of their connection to an Antebellum past.” Unlike anything RWG has written before (and trust me, I’ve read every one) this extraordinary historical fiction will give you a true understanding of America’s slave-holding past and how it ties into our racially divided nation today, while also being an utterly compelling and thrillingly dramatic epic that showcases the contradictory, stubborn and ultimately hopeful nature of our flawed human condition. DO NOT MISS IT!
Meryl Lee Kowalkski is lost. It’s 1968, the war is raging in Vietnam, and her best friend Holling Hoodhood just died in a freak car accident. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Now Meryl Lee can see nothing in front of her but the Blank, and it’s utter nothingness threatens to swallow her whole. And what’s making the Blankness worse is that her parents think that attending St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls for 8th grade is just the thing to get Meryl Lee back on track. Overwhelmed by rich mean girls, field hockey confusion and a small-minded teacher named Mrs. Connolly who’s out to get her, Meryl Lee just feels like giving up.
Matt Coffin is lost. It’s 1968, he’s heard about the war in Vietnam, and he tries not to think about the last time he saw his best friend Georgie alive. There was no time to say goodbye. It happened “just like that.” Matt had to run or suffer the same fate. Now Matt wanders from place to place, always on the lookout for food, shelter and work. But it’s hard to find someone willing to take you on when you don’t have a permanent address. Overwhelmed by poverty, guilt and no place to call home, Matt just feels like giving up.
Enter Dr. MacKnockater, the kindly yet steely headmistress of St. Elene’s. Her iron will and open heart will help make Meryl Lee and Matt each feel a little more found. Dr. MacKnockater takes Matt in and gives him a home, while encouraging Meryl Lee find the Resolution she needs to overcome Obstacles (namely field hockey and Mrs. Connolly). But Matt is running from a terrifying past that not even Dr. MacKnockater can save him from. While Meryl Lee struggles to overcome the Blank and Matt struggles to overcome his distrust of well, humanity, they form an unlikely bond that may just end up saving both of them.
Just Like That is Gary D. Schmidt at his absolute best. Full of quirky characters, gentle humor and sharp plot twists, this is a insta-classic to be savored and enjoyed again and again. If you’re seeking a warm historical novel to curl up with on a snow day, look no further–you’ve found your match 🙂
It is 1945, and Japan is struggling to sustain their military might in the face of advancing American troops. Taro, a young Japanese pilot, has just joined a unit of kamikaze, pilots who volunteer to fatally “body-crash” their planes into American warships. Hana, a school girl and seamstress, is a member of the Nadeshiko unit, young women who are assigned to wait on and tend to the kamikaze pilots at the local military base until the day they are assigned to take their last flights. Hana has sadly become used to seeing the doomed young men come and go, and tries not to become attached. But when Taro arrives at the barracks with his violin case, Hana finds herself smitten with the young musician and his music. Every day that bad weather keeps Taro’s plane grounded is another chance for their love to bloom. Each of them has sworn to do their duty for their families, their country and their people. Can true love flourish even in the face of certain death? This utterly compelling and richly detailed historical fiction is the inspired work of Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, one of my all time favs. While her research wowed me as librarian, it’s Smith’s beautifully imagined forbidden love story that really made me swoon. By showcasing a culture where the deepest of feelings can be conveyed by a look, a song, or a weighted silence, Smith has inadvertently crafted the perfect social distance romance for our quarantined times.
In 1727, a group of men and boys set out on a fowling mission from the island of Hirta, which is part of the St. Kilda archipelago. Every summer, males from the village are rowed out and dropped off on a nearby “stac” or small uninhabited rocky island, to catch, kill and preserve enough seabirds to sustain the village through the winter. They were supposed to stay there for only a few weeks. But as the weeks turn into months and no boat comes, they can only assume the worst–that the world has ended and somehow they have been left behind. It is up to Quilliam, a level headed boy of middling years, to comfort the younger children with stories and challenge the adults to act against mad “Minister” Cane, who has deemed himself priest, judge and jury over everyone. Cane also happens to own the only tinderbox , and exploits his power ruthlessly. But even in the darkness, there is humor and hope as the boys make a raft, give each other honorific titles, and share what supplies they have left. Who will survive the coming winter and dwindling food supply? And what has happened to their village? Has the world really ended? The reason why no one comes to rescue the fowling crew until nine months later is actually sadder and more devastating than any writer could ever make up. In this lyrical and enlightening novel based on true events, McCaughrean, a 2008 Printz winner and 2020 Printz finalist for THIS book, seems to be channeling all our fear and anxiety about being separated, while giving us unforgettable characters who maintain their hope, no matter what. As we all hunker down and and settle into online learning and social distancing, you will either want to read books that reflect and help you cope with our new reality, or enable you to escape it altogether. This title definitely falls under the first category, so read it for inspiration on how other folks coped with unprecedented situations, and keep washing those hands!
We’ve all heard the story of Joan of Arc: French teen girl hears voice of God telling her to save France from the English, chops off hair, learns to wield a sword and ride a horse, fights in a bunch of battles, gets captured by the enemy, and is burned alive as a heretic. But in The Language of Fire, Hemphill, master of the verse novel (Your Own, Sylvia, Wicked Girls) has unmasked the mythical martyr and revealed the stubborn, scared girl who challenged the religious patriarchy and led a skeptical country out of war.
In 1425, Joan, or Jehanne as she called herself, was only thirteen when she claimed to hear God command her to deliver France from English oppression. France and England had been fighting for almost a hundred years over the succession of the French crown, and now Jehanne believed she was being summoned by God to help put the rightful French king on the throne. There was only one problem. Who was going to follow an illiterate peasant girl with no knowledge or experience into battle? With utter sincerity and innocent piety, Jehanne slowly convinces powerful knights and land owning dukes that she is telling the truth. Impossibly, she manages to build an army large enough to challenge the occupying English troops and inspire the true French heir to come out of hiding.
Using spare free verse, Hemphill illustrates Jehanne’s short, intense life, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows imaginable. The greatest impression I was left with at the end of this book was how much the men who ruled Jehanne’s world were afraid of her. Afraid of a poor, young girl who might know more than they did, who was more favored by God than they were. And because she dared to question their authority–not for herself, but for the God she believed in–she lost her life. A detailed author’s note describes what Hemphill condensed or changed from the historical record, a chronology of the Hundred Years’ War, and a list of further reading.
Jo Kuan, aspiring milliner and essayist, has been called a lot of things in her seventeen years, most of them insulting. But as a Chinese American woman living in 1890’s Georgia, she’s forced to swallow her pride and not be a “saucebox” if she hopes to survive in Atlanta’s ruthless and segregated society. “Chinese people can’t afford to be sauceboxes, especially Chinese people who are trying to live undetected.” However, one label that she would happily accept is that of “writer.” So when the opportunity to author an anonymous advice column in the local paper presents itself, she dives straight in, writing caustically funny commentary that holds up an unflattering mirror to the white faces of Atlanta’s elite, causing chaos of the most unmannerly kind. As she tries to keep a lid on her secret identity, she’s also juggling her day job as a lady’s maid to a spoiled, vain debutante while attempting to keep a roof over her head and that of Old Gin, a poor but proud horse trainer and her adopted Chinese grandfather. It all comes to a head when Jo simultaneously uncovers the origin of her birth, has her identity unmasked by an unexpected ally, and falls in love. Can she keep all the threads of her complicated life securely knotted, or will they slip away like the velvet ties on her favorite hat? This utterly original historical fiction by Stacey Lee is an absolute delight, from its crackling humor and unusual setting, to Jo’s headstrong character and the slowly unraveling mystery of her genesis. Jo bravely and realistically challenges the restrictive norms of her time period, including women’s suffrage and the deplorable treatment of people of color in the post Reconstruction south. Jo Kuan reads like a diverse, divine incarnation of Jo March, and today’s teens couldn’t hope for a more audacious, assertive and all around awesome hero than the salient Ms. Kuan. Hats off to Stacey Lee, The Downstairs Girl is downright ingenious! Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you August 2019.
Prim Adele Joubert and brash Lottie Diamond could not be more different. Adele is green-eyed and rule -abiding. Lottie is blue-eyed and law-breaking. Adele tries to work within the system of their British boarding school, desperate to be friends with the “right” kind of girls, while Lottie gave up caring what people thought of her long ago. But despite their differences, they are both mixed race girls trying to survive in the strict, 1965 class system of the British protectorate of Swaziland. “We are one people divided into three separate groups: white people, mixed race people, and native Swazis. Each group has their own social clubs and schools, their own traditions and rules.” When Adele is dumped by her frenemies and forced to room with Lottie, she is shocked to discover how smart and funny she is, and ashamed of how she used to talk about her behind her back. The girls connect by reading aloud a precious copy of Jane Eyre to each other, finding comfort in the similarities between Jane’s situation and theirs–all of them trapped in a system of patriarchy and oppression that will not allow them to realize their full potential. But what’s more important is what Adele discovers the day Lottie takes her outside the school walls to visit a Swazi village. There she uncovers a secret about her mother’s past that causes her to question everything she’s ever believed about herself, her people and her country. The South African landscape is gorgeously realized in descriptive swaths of color and light. Malla Nunn’s vivid and atmospheric writing thoroughly incorporates timeless themes of family, friendship, class warfare and abuse of power into a ripping good story. Fans of historical fiction, boarding school books, and female solidarity will swoon over this summer read that takes you far way, while also bringing you home.
David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches, absolutely gutted me when it came out in 2009. Now he has published an equally wrenching graphic novel of small-town, 1950’s boyhood that utterly destroys, in the most cinematic and moving way possible, any nostalgic, rose-colored views of that turbulent time. Russell’s mom dumps his dad for another man, so Russell and his uncommunicative, alcoholic father leave Ohio for California, where his father hopes to bunk with his rich sister until he can get back on his feet. But Aunt June isn’t interested in her male relatives invading her clean, quiet mid-century modern home, and sends them packing pretty quick. After finally finding and renting a room from a kind Chinese couple, Russell’s father finds work at the local prison. Russell starts school and falls in with Kurt and Willie, brutal, bullying teens who smoke, drink and ogle waitresses at the town diner. As he slowly becomes accustomed to his new life, Russell finds himself confronted with a wide array of conflicting male role models. Should he be more like his drunk dad and Kurt: loud, rude and arrogant? Or is he more like like Mr. Mah, his gentle landlord who practices tai chi in the backyard or Warren, the quiet neighbor boy who lives with his grandma and loves all animals? Over the course of one long, savage summer, Russell finds himself mentally and physically tested by all these different versions of manhood as he tries to discover which one fits him best. Small’s evocative panels, full of frowning, sneering faces, dead pets and interior shots of dim, empty rooms grimly foreshadow Russell’s long, tragic journey to self acceptance. Deeply sad, but never despairing, Small’s work luminously captures the dark side of adolescence in a way that still manages to be forgiving. Coming to a library or bookstore near you September 2018.
This luscious collection of short stories that chronicles the dramatic, sometimes abbreviated lives of the famous medieval English king’s doomed brides is a delicious feast of sex, gossip and politics. Authored by some of the most celebrated of YA hist. fic writers, each Queen tells her story in turn (1. Catherine of Aragon=Candace Fleming 2. Anne Boleyn=Stephanie Hemphill 3. Jane Seymour=Lisa Ann Sandell 4. Anna of Cleves=Jennifer Donnelly 5. Catherine Howard=Linda Sue Park 6. Kateryn Parr=Deborah Hopkinson) followed by a short, often arrogant or peevish epitaph penned by Henry himself, as imagined by M.T. Anderson. While the whole royal assemblage is universally strong, the two standouts for me were Donnelly’s smart, blunt Anna of Cleves and Park’s saucy, sexy Catherine Howard. (This probably had as much to do with their exceptional characterizations as it did with the fact that I knew the least about these two cursed queens going in.) Each fascinating story will inform today’s young feminists about medieval Europe’s strict patriarchal society that forced women to scheme, flatter, manipulate and flat-out lie their way into having a say in their own lives. By turns naughty, bawdy and downright tragic, there’s not a story here that won’t capture the imagination or fire up the blood of any curious reader who turns the pages. And the most satisfying part of all? That despite all his cruel, violent machinations to secure a male heir, Henry’s throne still ends up passing to one of the most successful rulers of all time–his brilliant daughter Elizabeth I. Because this book is bound to lead you to many more about Henry and his wives, this is a perfect rabbit hole of a novel to throw yourself down this summer!
Three generations of Indian and Indian American women laugh, cry, break up and make up in this past-to-present story of mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins. Tara and Sonia Das begin life as dutiful Indian daughters, but soon veer off onto nontraditional paths after arriving in New York with their parents in 1973. Beautiful, insular Tara wants to pursue an acting career, while her younger sister Sonia becomes a feminist firebrand. When a personal tragedy transforms their lives forever, both girls find themselves at odds with their conventional mother, Ranee, who is confused and even offended by some of their life choices. Fast forward to the near present. When Tara’s daughter Anna joins forces with Sonia’s daughter Chantal at their exclusive Manhattan private school to create a safe space for modest girls, their mothers’ and grandmothers’ DNA shines through, proving that one can be a strong Indian woman AND a proud American at the same time. There’s also loads of romance, travel, cultural misunderstandings and identity epiphanies that any reader will be able to relate to. Mitali Perkins‘ emotionally resonant work could not be more relevant as our divided nation argues endlessly about tangled policies that will decide the uncertain future of our innovators, poets and Dreamers. Read it, and feel the distance close.
Now that THAT’S out of the way, let’s talk turkey, my equally obsessed Diviner fan peeps! The voluminous third volume of Libba Bray’s 1920’s fantasy/horror epic pulls together the disparate threads of the first two books while setting the stage for a sumptuous conclusion. Here, our intrepid Diviners begin formal training to sharpen their spooky skills for a showdown with the King of Crows (aka the man in the stovepipe hat) who finally introduces himself and reveals that he is mostly responsible for letting all those murderous ghosts into New York City. (I say mostly because, well, it’s complicated. You’ll see.)
Drawing strength from finally coming together, the united Diviners force Uncle Will and Sister Walker to reveal what they know about the mysterious Project Buffalo and the role of the US government, and… are immediately sorry they did. Because in this instance, knowing the truth not only doesn’t set them free but just might get them killed. And individually, they are wrestling with personal demons that are every bit as scary as the supernatural baddies they do battle with. Evie, Sam and Jericho are trapped in an impossible love triangle, Theta’s ugly past comes home to haunt her (and how!), Mabel is forced to decide between peaceful activism or rebellious violence, Memphis has his trust broken by two of the most important people in his life, Ling struggles with her sexuality and Henry hides a broken heart beneath his carefree swagger. Meanwhile, the Shadow Men are knocking off anyone and everyone who knows anything about Project Buffalo, Blind Bill is NOT who he seems, someone dear dies and someone we THOUGHT was dead may actually be alive. In addition, there are roller coaster romances, sexy encounters, ghosts with teeth and secret assassins with piano wire. And of course, Bray also manages to make some timely, thought provoking parallels between the 1920’s and the emotionally fraught, oppressive, deceptive time we’re living in now. I mean, come on. It really doesn’t get any bigger, better or more badass than this. Get all caught up and then grab this latest volume toot sweet!
In a small village in Norway in 1883, Hanne and her three siblings live a hardscrabble life. Their hopeless father drinks away what little money he makes from butchering, and their mother left long ago. There is no time for school, play or friendships. It is up to Hanne, and her brothers Steig and Knut, to keep the family farm afloat and care for their frail youngest sister Sissel. All of this would be difficult enough, but Hanne’s family also carries the burden of being Nytteson, descendants of ancient Vikings who are each blessed (or damned) with a special power. Knut is a stout Oar-Breaker, a strongman who can lift and carry many times his own weight. Steig is a Storm-Rend who can control the temperature and winds. And Hanne is a Berserker, a fearless warrior whose senses and physical strength become so heightened when anyone in her family is threatened that she can effortlessly kill grown men with her bare hands. And that is exactly what happens when a group of angry village men come to collect on her father’s gambling debt. Horrified at what she has done, Hanne flees and books passage to America with her brothers and sister in hopes of finding a distant Berserker cousin who may be able to train her to tame her deadly gift. On their way out West, they meet Owen Bennett, a kind young cowboy who offers to be their wilderness guide, and things finally begin to look up for the cursed family. But what they don’t know is that they are being pursued by the law in both countries, and by a mysterious scholar who holds the key to both their prosperity and their DOOM. Folks, I don’t mean to overstate my love here, but this shockingly original book is a full-on UNICORN. This singularly unique reading experience combines super-cool settings, real history and and jaw-dropping action sequences in a way that that is as rare as a pearl in an oyster and just as perfect. I have really enjoyed the author’s other books, but this is some next-level stuff. Darn you, Emmy Laybourne! You have spoiled the rest of my summer reading stack! You’ll be able to take this one-of-a-kind read for a spin yourself when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.
Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)
ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.