Kwame Alexander and Solo

Though the title is Solo, this book was not created in isolation. Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess worked together to craft the poetry. In addition, Randy Preston added his musical talent in the creation of the songs that are included in the text. The songs may also be heard on the audio version of the book.

Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess during the Q & A session.

Last month, Alexander, Hess, and Preston shared about their creative journey and also read and sang portions of the book at a launch party in Chicago. When asked about how they worked on the poetry together, Alexander described a somewhat messy process. At times they alternated scenes, but not always. If Alexander was having trouble with a metaphor, Hess might help. Of course, Alexander added, “All the good poems in the book, I wrote.” Hess nodded and responded, “True.” One truth is there is no easy way to tease out who provided which words. When reading the poems, the authors voices are indistinguishable. The text appears seamless.

Randy Preston laughs as Kwame Alexander shares both the poetry in Solo and some of his own humorous family stories.

Music is a huge part of this book. Hess and Alexander they knew they wanted to include a lot of songs that defined their generation. Hess is a Guns N’ Roses and Metallica fan while Alexander’s taste runs more towards 80’s classic soft rock. They were able to weave music references throughout the book, but they wanted original music too. Preston played a part in creating that music. One evening in Milwaukee, Preston and Alexander were together and started brainstorming music. That night they worked on music to accompany some of Alexander’s previous books and over time they moved on to pieces for Solo.

When talking to Randy after the presentation, we discussed the power of having music tied to literature. Some readers may be drawn into books by the music even when they aren’t typically thrilled about reading. Randy noted that, “music is an equalizer.” He’s excited about the opportunities to go beyond traditional pages of books. With the audiobook, Solo goes well beyond the written word. The audiobook is narrated by Alexander and is accompanied by the original music. I’ve read and enjoyed the ARC, but after hearing an excerpt of the audiobook, I believe the audio will be an experience not to be missed.

Music is a key part of Solo. I asked Kwame how music has shaped his life. “It’s been a soundtrack through every stage of life. Music can make people feel better about themselves. I want people to feel better – that’s why I write.”

In addition to music, Solo is a book that explores what it means to be a family. Alexander shared that family is the most important thing in life.”It’s what we rely on and they encourage us. Family is something to be treasured, honored, and respected.”

Solo will be available on July 25th. My full review of the book may be found here.

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Review: Solo

Title: Solo
Authors: Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess
Publisher: Blink
Genre: Contemporary, Poetry
Availability: July 25, 2017
Review copy: ARC & digital audio sample via publisher

Summary: From award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander, with Mary Rand Hess, comes Solo, a YA novel written in poetic verse. Solo tells the story of seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison, whose life is bombarded with scathing tabloids and a father struggling with just about every addiction under the sun—including a desperate desire to make a comeback. Haunted by memories of his mother and his family’s ruin, Blade’s only hope is in the forbidden love of his girlfriend. But when he discovers a deeply protected family secret, Blade sets out on a journey across the globe that will change everything he thought to be true. With his signature intricacy, intimacy, and poetic style, Kwame Alexander explores what it means to finally come home.

Review: 
Our lips are in the process
of becoming

one
in her hammock,

like two blue jays nesting.
Feeding each other

kisses of wonder.
I’m sure, she answers.

Blade Morrison is completely captivated by his girlfriend Chapel. At the beginning, this book seems like a story of first love. There’s a lot more going on here though. I don’t want to spoil things, but know that this relationship will have a rocky road. Chapels parents aren’t excited about Blade and the Morrison family. Blade’s father has lived on the wild side too long for them to be comfortable with their daughter spending time around him. Blade himself is starting to lose interest in spending time with his family. His father has disappointed him too many times and the scars are mounting up rapidly. Aside from this, there is a family secret that blows Blade’s mind and lands him in Ghana. This is all a lot to deal with in one book, but Alexander and Hess manage it well.

The use of verse helps keep the text to the point. There aren’t tons of wasted words taking up space on the page. The poetry also allows for the rhapsodizing Blade does about his girl. The musical aspect is also a good fit for verse as lyrics are interspersed throughout the book. Music and poetry are a natural fit. There are music references scattered all through the book. I can imagine many readers will find themselves tracking down the songs online as they read to have a soundtrack to the story. I know I did. The publisher also provided a digital audio sample. The audio is likely to end up more popular than the text. Kwame Alexander is the narrator and Randy Preston plays the accompanying original music. The audio is a more complete experience and I am definitely looking forward to hearing it.

For readers who enjoyed Alexander’s The Crossover and Booked, this will be a good follow-up though it has a slightly different style. Once again, there are some weighty topics, but humor is present here and there – enough to take the edge off once in a while.

Recommendation: Get is soon especially if you enjoyed Alexander’s previous verse novels. Alexander and Hess along with Preston have created a solid book that deals with romantic love, love of self, and family love. Solo had me singing, laughing, crying, shaking my head and appreciating my own family.

Extras:

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Muslim Voices #2

In January, Sajidah K. Ali and others started to tweet using the hashtag #MuslimShelfSpace. NBC has a good article about the beginnings of #MuslimShelfSpace if you want to know the backstory. The goal was to encourage people to share titles by Muslim authors. It was wonderful to see the many great titles people were posting. It quickly became clear that many people had few books by Muslim authors and the hashtag helped those gaps become visible. I experienced that and wrote about it here.

#MuslimShelfSpace is still in use on Twitter and now there is another activity generating additional titles. Two bloggers, Nad @scorpioreads and Zoya @AnInkyRead, have been hosting the #RamadanReadathon this month. Their introduction may be found here. The readathon is nearing the end, but the resources will remain and are very helpful if you are inclined to increase your #MuslimShelfSpace.

Pictured above are some books written by Muslim authors I’ve been enjoying this year and in the past. Do you have other titles to recommend? If so, please share them in the comments.

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New Releases

This is a release week I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Want and Saints and Misfits have been on my To Be Read list for ages it seems. As always, if you know of any titles we’ve missed, please let us know. Thank you!

Want by Cindy Pon
Simon Pulse

Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight knit Muslim community think of her then?

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder
Philomel Books

It’s 1999 in Bolivia and Francisco’s life consists of school, soccer, and trying to find space for himself in his family’s cramped yet boisterous home. But when his father is arrested on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority, Francisco’s mother abandons hope and her family. Francisco and his sister are left with no choice: They must move into the prison with their father. There, they find a world unlike anything they’ve ever known, where everything—a door, a mattress, protection from other inmates—has its price.

Prison life is dirty, dire, and dehumanizing. With their lives upended, Francisco faces an impossible decision: Break up the family and take his sister to their grandparents in the Andean highlands, fleeing the city and the future that was just within his grasp, or remain together in the increasingly dangerous prison. Pulled between two equally undesirable options, Francisco must confront everything he once believed about the world around him and his place within it.

In this heart-wrenching novel inspired by real events, Melanie Crowder sheds light on a little-known era of modern South American history—where injustice still darkens the minds and hearts of people alike—and proves that hope can be found, even in the most desperate places. — Cover images and summaries via Goodreads

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Review: The Radius of Us

Title: The Radius of Us
Author: Marie Marquardt
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 295
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Library

Summary: Ninety seconds can change a life — not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself.

Ninety seconds can change a life — not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores-Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person — the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid.

Ninety seconds can change a life — so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs?

Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

Review: The Radius of Us is a love story. It is also a story of how relationships and connection can bring healing. A painful and frightening attack has changed Gretchen and she doesn’t believe she will ever be the same again. Phoenix has been through even more trauma than Gretchen, and his life is in limbo. The two of them manage to move forward in spite of their fears and concerns though.

What I liked about the book was the way the characters were dealing with trauma in different ways. Gretchen’s family has access to a wide variety of resources. One of the most powerful moments in her healing though is when Phoenix doesn’t try to tell her to move past it, but asks her what her panic attacks are like. In that moment, he is giving her permission to be in that space. He’s not pointing out how she should be able to think her way through this or just get past it. He listens and acknowledges where she is in her journey. Phoenix also has a little brother who is dealing with his own trauma. Art is one way he is finding healing and expressing himself though he is bottling up many of his feelings. An aspect of the emotional piece that didn’t sit as well with me was how often Gretchen described herself as crazy and certifiable. It’s not really countered either.

Phoenix’s own journey, both physically and mentally, has been a rough one. There are many things about El Salvador that he loves, but he and his family were in extreme danger. Their trip through Mexico was also incredibly traumatic. Readers get a picture of how complicated and dangerous such a trip can be and how immigration is not a simple issue. On a side note, it was also interesting to hear about the vacationing volunteers who would go to El Salvador to help, but didn’t know how to do things.

This is a book that celebrates and honors human connection and the resiliency of people.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy contemporary romances. This is a beautiful story of love and hope.

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