Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 336
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Jacqueline Woodson and shows us her writing journey. She begins with family stories of her birth. The mix of stories is part of the magic of this book. She acknowledges that people’s memories and stories aren’t necessarily fact, but they are still their stories. There’s a complexity to the many stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves. There’s what happened, what we remember, what we wish happened, and what we reframe with or without our knowledge. Woodson’s first poem ends with a focus on story:

I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers through my veins.

Story is a ribbon running through the book as she tells the stories from family members and of how she herself breathes stories. In her author’s note she explains that this book is “my past, my people, my memories, my story.” Most readers will be tumbled into their own memories along the way.

Somewhere in my brain
each laugh, tear and lullaby
becomes memory.

I really appreciated her poem “grown folks’ stories” because it tells of something that I did as a child. When the grown folks were talking, she and her siblings would sit quietly on the stairs to listen knowing that they could hear all of the good gossip. She seemed to drink up the stories, then retell them to her siblings adding her own twists.

Later, when her brother is on stage singing and they realize that he has real talent, she thinks that maybe there is something inside all of us, “A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered.” Throughout the book, Woodson lets us see the young girl searching to find her special something. We can see her grow as a person and as writer from that very first letter J she puts on the page for her name to that moment when she finds her voice.

Along with her journey as a writer, she also shares stories that reflect the culture around her as she experiences life in the north and the south. She framed her birth with the people and events of those times including Martin Luther King Jr. planning his march on Washington, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin and Ruby Bridges. She also includes more personal stories like their shopping trips in downtown Greenville. Segregation is over there, but that doesn’t mean things are equal. In some stores or restaurants they may be followed around because they might steal or be treated poorly because of their color. However, the fabric store is an exception because the white woman there knows her grandmother.

At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.

Recommendation: Buy it now especially if you love verse novels, memoirs, or history. If you read and enjoyed How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (reviewed earlier this year), you will definitely want to get this one soon. This is a book that has sometimes been labeled young adult, but more often middle grade. I think that’s because the writing is accessible for younger readers. The ideas and content are truly ageless and will be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

— Cover image and summary via Goodreads


Review: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1

Katrin's ChorniclesTitle: Katrin’s Chronicles: The Canon of Jacqueléne Dyanne, vol. 1
Author: Valerie C. Woods
Genres: Historical, Mystery, Fantasy
Pages: 205
Publisher: BooksEndependent
Review Copy: Received review copy from publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: 13-year-old Katrin DuBois decides it’s never too soon to start an autobiography. She needs to set the record straight about the outrageous rumors concerning certain adventures that began when she was in 6th grade. That’s when her elder sister, 8th grader J. Dyanne, began exhibiting extraordinary detecting powers.

Volume 1 begins in the late summer of 1968 on the south side of Chicago, a turbulent time before cell phones, laptops and text messages became essential elements of pre-teen life. The girls manage to thrive in a world of social change with multi-generational family support, creative quick-thinking and fearless inquisitiveness. The dog days of August find them prohibited by their parents from visiting the Central Library downtown because of the riots during the Democratic Convention. However, there’s plenty of adventure in their own neighborhood as they become swept up in family mysteries, neighborhood political schemes and discovery of a surprising legacy of psychic, even supernatural, talent.

Review: Katrin’s Chronicles is an odd—but fun—little book that blends mystery and fantasy with the backdrop of 1968 Chicago and more than a dash of Sherlock Holmes. Katrin functions much as Watson did in the Sherlock Holmes stories: she is the narrator for her sister’s adventures (to set the record straight, as it were) while still being an important agent in the story.

And while Katrin is a great narrator, my major complaint with any story told in this style is that I often feel more removed from the story than I want to be. Katrin only explains what J. Dyanne picked up on and the deductions she made after events have concluded instead of in the moment, even though Katrin is telling the story three years after the fact. Katrin also has a few narrative affectations that take some getting used to and that occasionally pulled me out of the story. The book is also at an awkward crossroads between middle grade and young adult. Thirteen-year-old Katrin—with an impressive vocabulary—is telling the story of what happened when she was ten, but her teenage sister is the one spearheading the adventures. It left me more than a little confused about where I would shelve it, though I ultimately settled on the lower end of the YA spectrum.

That said, I really enjoyed the world Valerie C. Woods created. The world was all the better for the historical grounding, especially since the story needed a solid anchor once all of the psychic/supernatural elements started popping up. I do wish that the story had explained more about what rules/limitations the supernatural had, but I suppose that’s something that will be explored in more depth in later volumes. As it is, the hunches/dreams both J. Dyanne and Katrin get serve to point them in the correct direction as they go about solving various mysteries, but the girls generally still have to find the actual evidence they need. On occasion, the supernatural help sometimes makes the mystery seem too easy.

I enjoyed Katrin’s sprawling family, particularly in how so much has been hinted at but not explained, like how Katrin’s mother chose not to pursue her own supernatural talents. There are stories—many of them—skulking about in the background that make the world richer and, I anticipate, are seeds for the future installments of the series.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you like Sherlock Holmes-esque mysteries. The historical setting and supernatural elements are integral and appealing parts of the story. Katrin is a fun narrator, but the emotional distance with the three-year gap between recording the adventures and actually experiencing them may leave some readers cold.


New Releases

This is a great week with four new releases.

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Amulet Books

Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea . . . until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Summer of Yesterday by Gaby Triana
Simon Pulse

Summer officially sucks. Thanks to a stupid seizure she had a few months earlier, Haley’s stuck going on vacation with her dad and his new family to Disney’s Fort Wilderness instead of enjoying the last session of summer camp back home with her friends. Fort Wilderness holds lots of childhood memories for her father, but surely nothing for Haley. But then a new seizure triggers something she’s never before experienced—time travel—and she ends up in River Country, the campground’s long-abandoned water park, during its heyday.

The year? 1982.

And there—with its amusing fashion, “oldies” music, and primitive technology—she runs into familiar faces: teenage Dad and Mom before they’d even met. Somehow, Haley must find her way back to the twenty-first century before her present-day parents anguish over her disappearance, a difficult feat now that she’s met Jason, one of the park’s summer residents and employees, who takes the strangely dressed stowaway under his wing.

Seizures aside, Haley’s used to controlling her life, and she has no idea how to deal with this dilemma. How can she be falling for a boy whose future she can’t share?

Drift FC

Drift by M.K. Hutchins
Tu Books

Tenjat lives on the shores of Hell, an ocean filled with ravenous naga monsters. His island, a massive Turtle, is slowed by the people living on its back. Only those poor enough to need children to support themselves in old age condescend to the shame of marriage. Tenjat is poor as poor gets, but he has a plan.

In the center of the island rises a giant Tree, where the Handlers—those who defend and rule the island—live. Against his sister’s wishes, Tenjat joins the Handlers. He couldn’t have picked a more dangerous time. The Turtle is nearing a coral reef where it desperately needs to feed, but the naga will swarm just before they reach it. Even novices like Tenjat are needed for the battle.

Can Tenjat discover his sister’s secrets in time? Will the possibility of love derail all his plans for a richer, marriage-free life? Long-held secrets will at last be revealed in this breathtaking debut from M. K. Hutchins.

Rebellion FC Rebellion (Tankborn #3) by Karen Sandler
Tu Books

In the wake of a devastating bomb blast, severely injured Kayla has been brought to the headquarters of the organization that planted the bomb-and many others like it in GEN food warehouses and homes. Her biological mother tells her that Devak is dead and that Kayla must join her in the terrorist group, which is ramping up for something big. Now Kayla must pretend that she embraces this new role in an underground compound full of paranoia as she plots a way to escape and save her friends. Meanwhile, Devak has emerged from his healing in a gen-tank, only to be told that Kayla is dead and his family has fallen from grace. Can he overcome his grief at the loss of his power to see the clues that point to Kayla being alive? As Kayla and Devak overcome the multiple obstacles put between them while trying to free GENs without further bloodshed, the Tankborn trilogy rushes to a thrilling conclusion!  — cover images and summaries via Goodreads


As always, if you know of any titles we’ve missed or that are coming soon, please let us know.


Review: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

angel Title: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery
Author: M. Evelina Galang
Genre: Contemporary and Historical
Pages: 347
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Angel has just lost her father, and her mother’s grief means she might as well be gone too. She’s got a sister and a grandmother to look out for, and a burgeoning consciousness of the unfairness in the world—in her family, her community, and her country.

Set against the backdrop of the 1986 Philippine People Power Revolution, the struggles of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII in the early 1990s, and a cold winter’s season in the city of Chicago, is the story of a daughter coming of age, coming to forgiveness, and learning to move past the chaos of grief to survive. — cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: Within just a few pages I suspected that this was a book that would challenge me and make me work – make me think. Prior to reading this book I had very little knowledge about the history of the Philippines and the novel covers a lot of historical territory. The bigger issue initially though was language. The majority of the text is in English, but Galang’s characters code switch between English and Tagalog and there are no italics to be found. Yes, the meaning was often clear through context, but it was challenging to read with that bit of uncertainty. Looking to the back of the book, I found that there was no glossary, but there was a rather thorough explanation for that choice “In Context (Or,  Why There is No Glossary).” I’ve read articles about authors using or not using italics and including or omitting glossaries and she makes a very strong case for writing in this style. The reader who doesn’t know Tagalog may choose to use the Internet and find the definitions or just fall into the story and go with the flow. I really wanted to know what all of the words meant, but a conversation between Angel and her father convinced me to skip the definitions. He was explaining about how to listen to the blues, “The trick, Angel, is not to think. Just feel it.”

There is plenty to feel in this story. Angel and her family are dealing with the unexpected loss of her father. In the aftermath, her mother pulls away from the family and adds one more loss. The book moves on to other issues though as Angel becomes increasingly involved with politics. She protests the corruption in the government in an effort to overturn the presidency. This section of the book was a little harder for me to follow. I wasn’t always certain what exactly was being protested and why, but even so, Galang’s story pulled me along. Angel, her sister Lila and her grandmother also visit elderly comfort women. These are women who were taken by Japanese soldiers during WWII and were used as sex slaves. The amazing strength of the women in this book and the stories of the comfort women blazed through any confusion I may have had on my first read through.

The beginning of the story centers on Angel’s immediate family and those closest to her. The second portion expands out into the larger community and the final section pulls back in again to a more intimate view of Angel’s inner conflicts. It’s in the final portion that the book felt the most like a young adult novel. In spite of the teen main character, it felt more like an adult novel in the beginning. I still can’t place my finger on why that was true for me, but maybe it was that there was so much that was unfamiliar in that part of the book. Also, when Angel was in the Philippines, she was attending a private Catholic school for girls and that was only part-time. Most of her time was taken up with work, family duties, and politics. She was dealing with adult situations as she stood in for her absent mother. The final section takes place in Chicago with her mother and around high school and her new friends. There was revolution in her political acts in the Philippines, but there almost seems to be more revolution here as she settles into her new situation in the U.S. and certainly in her interactions with her mother.

This is a story of self-discovery, family, hope and healing. There is a lot of pain and heartbreak within these pages, but there is also strength and beauty. Galang’s writing is lyrical and rich – something to savor.

Recommendation: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery was on the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project List and I am not surprised. This is a book not to be missed. Get it soon. It may require a little extra effort for a reader without the background knowledge or Tagalog language skills, but any effort is totally worth it. Angel and the women in her life will be with me for a long time to come.


Mini-Review: Diamonds and Deceit (At Somerton #2)

diamonds and deceit

Title:  Diamonds and Deceit (At Somerton #2)
Author:  Leila Rasheed
Genres: historical fiction, romance
Pages: 420
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Review Copy: the library
Availability: January 7th 2014

Summary: One house, two worlds…book two in our sumptuous and enticing YA series about the servants and gentry at Somerton Court.

London is a whirl of balls and teas, alliances and rivalries. Rose has never felt more out of place. With the Season in full swing, she can’t help but still feel a servant dressed up in diamonds and silk. Then Rose meets Alexander Ross, a young Scottish duke… Ada should be happy. She is engaged to a handsome man who shares her political passions and has promised to support her education. So why does she feel hollow inside? Meanwhile, at Somerton, Sebastian is out of his mind with worry for his former valet Oliver, who refuses to plead innocent to the murder charges against him–for a death caused by Sebastian himself…

The colorful cast of the At Somerton series returns in this enthralling sequel about class and fortune, trust and betrayal, love and revenge. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Diamonds and Deceit is centered on the revolving cast of characters both upstairs (the aristocracy) and downstairs (the servants) in Somerton court — the Averleys, Templetons and so on. At first glance, it’s a typical regency romance style story with English gentry swanning about in the middle of the London season, indulging in social intrigue. (Think Polonius behind the arras trying to get the hot gossip on Hamlet — except without any of the stabbing and ghostly fathers.)

But then, as you read further, you find out that Diamonds and Deceit is not a story that exists in a vacuum. Diamonds and Deceit is told from the point-of-view of both the upper class ladies and the lower class servants. POC make an appearance in the form of Ada’s true love Ravi, and the nursemaid Priya. And Sebastian is in cheesy true love with his valet — well, a lot of people are, to be fair. Even a feminist fighting for suffrage plays a role. And it’s not quite the same time period as a regency romance — people have cars and Queen Alexandra’s on the throne.

It’s a long read, but well worth it if you’re a Downton-Abbey-regency-romance kind of person

Recommendation: Get it soon.


Review: Caminar


Title: Caminar
Author: Skila Brown
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: Historical
Format: Poetry
Pages: 208 pages
Availability: On Shelves Now
Review Copy: Hard Copy from Publisher

Summary: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck:Communist. Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

Review: It’s probably not news to you, but April was poetry month. Being a teacher, that means I have been reading a large amount of poetry lately. I also posted a list of novels in verse last month which got me wondering why they appeal to me so much. I’ve heard many readers ask why books are in that format and make comments about how they sometimes don’t even seem like poetry or that they think readers may not understand novels in verse. I am not sure why they work or don’t work for other people, but I have an idea of why they work for me. When I read a novel in verse like Caminar, all of the white space focuses my attention even more closely on the words – especially when they are as powerful as those written by Skila Brown. In addition, the variety of cadences and frequent pauses allow for a lot more thinking on my part. There are many, many breaks in the writing that make time for this reader’s responses. In Caminar the pauses felt natural even though I am certain they are very deliberate.

The topic of the Guatemalan civil war is grim, and Skila Brown has given the conflict a face. Carlos is a young boy who plays soccer and carries marbles in his pockets, though he is yearning to be a man. He is still willing to obey his mother, but is beginning to question that. He wonders if following her orders is keeping him from becoming a man. In the midst of his questioning, the soldiers and rebels step into his life and his world is shattered. At this point, I will just go ahead and admit that I did not make it through the book without tears. The dedication hints at what is to come, “In memory of the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. May they always be remembered.”

Brown weaves the story through many individual poems. She plays with the arrangement of words on the page and most are visually very distinct from each other. Some of the poems are concrete showing the shape of what they describe. A few bounce back and forth between two columns and could even benefit from being read aloud by two people. One is read down the page and then is inverted to be read again providing a different perspective. I really enjoyed experiencing the variety of forms and even though the shapes changed greatly, the voice remained consistent and clear.

Carlos is young, but is being forced to grow up quickly. Caminar is a coming of age novel which shifts it into the young adult category a little though it is often labeled as a middle grade book. I think it is on the borderline. Brown tackles the topic of war in a way that is accessible and appropriate for younger children, yet is complex enough to work with older readers too.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the concept of the nahuales or animal spirit protectors. I loved the poems that dealt with that. Early on, Carlos scoffs a bit at the idea, but his beliefs shift over time. It led me to remember the book How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle as it also features the idea of animals as protectors. I think that the two books have many similarities. In both, a group of people are being targeted and a young boy must face fears in an attempt to help loved ones. They would likely be good books to read together.

Recommendation: Buy it now particularly if poetry appeals to you. If you typically avoid novels in verse, I would still say grab this one. I was unfamiliar with this history and truly appreciated the story. Above all though, poetry is about word choice and placement and Skila Brown chose well.


Interview with Skila Brown