October 5, 2018

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone


Dear Martin

by Nic Stone

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Length: 210 pages
Published: October 17, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can't escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it's Justyce who is under attack."

Quote:

"You can’t change how other people think and act, but you’re in full control of you. When it comes down to it, the only question that matters is this: If nothing in the world ever changes, what type of man are you gonna be?"


Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"He considers walking away again. He could call her parents, stick her keys in his pocket, and bounce. Oak Ridge is probably the safest neighborhood in Atlanta. She'd be fine for the twenty-five minutes it would take Mr. Taylor to get here.

But he can't. Despite Manny's assertion that Melo needs to 'suffer some consequences for once,' leaving her here all vulnerable doesn't seem like the right thing to do. So he picks her up and tosses her over his shoulder.

Melo responds in her usual delicate fashion: she screams and beats him on the back with her fists.

Justyce struggles to get the back door open and is lowering her into the car when he hears the WHOOOOP of a short siren and sees the blue lights. In the few seconds it takes the police car to screech to a stop behind him, Justyce settles Melo into the backseat."

My Book Review:

Published just months after Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, Nic Stone's Dear Martin enters the same vein of socially-conscious young adult literature fighting for racial equality. While The Hate U Give takes the perspective of an eye-witness account during racial injustice, Stone's Dear Martin portrays the voice of the male victim of injustice himself. This perspective is extremely important and relevant to contemporary fiction and the world, however, I confess I did not love the voice of the novel.

Justyce McAllister is a top student at a private academy bound for an Ivy League university but plagued by racism and injustice all around him. From a rougher, gang-filled neighborhood, Justyce has been able to gain a rare and phenomenal education, but he is surrounded by racism and ignorance, even from the people who he feels should know better. In an effort to learn how to cope with his situation and his feelings. Justyce begins writing a journal to Martin Luther King, Jr. (thus the Dear Martin of the title) hoping that meditating about his Civil Rights hero who preached for non-violent civil disobedience will enable him to rise up and respond how he wants to. Justyce struggles with how difficult this choice can be and ends up being confronted by the police twice, and during one of these episodes [spoiler alert] loses his best friend's life.

The concept and heart behind this story are so important to share, but I struggled with the crass and crude language which seemed misogynistic and objectifying of women while simultaneously trying to advocate for equality. Perhaps Stone was trying to embody what to her felt like an authentic male voice, but this was off-putting.

Nevertheless, the book is conversation-worthy and plays an important role in the contemporary racial justice movement happening in children's and young adult literature. I did not like it as much as The Hate U Give, and I would be selective in recommending it to audiences.



October 3, 2018

Book Review: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

 

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary Fiction, Poetry
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Length: 306 pages
Published: October 24, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?

As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually used his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator?

Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator."

Quote:

"ANOTHER THING ABOUT THE RULES

They weren't meant to be broken.
They were meant for the broken

to follow."


Excerpt:

"DON'T NOBODY

believe nothing
these days

which is why I haven't
told nobody the story
I'm about to tell you.

And the truth is,
you probably ain't
gon' believe it either
gon' think I'm lying
or I'm losing it,
but I'm telling you,

this story is true.

It happened to me.
Really.

It did."


My Book Review:

Long Way Down is written in verse form, as fifteen-year-old Will sets out with a gun to seek revenge.

The story begins with Will assuring you that what you'e about to read is true. He then tells you of his brother Shawn being murdered. As he thinks about Shawn and his family, he feels compelled to honor "the code" which is to exact revenge on those who wrong you. Getting a gun and leaving his home, Will heads out to do just that.

In the last moments before he would commit a crime he can never undo, he steps in an elevator to take the long way down. On each floor, the elevator stops and a different person joins him. These aren't regular people though; each one is a ghost, a person from his past who was killed or affected by gun violence and each has something they need to say to him to try to get him to reconsider the road before him.

This book is creative, powerful, relevant, and memorable. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the author perform this audiobook, spoken poetry narration and was once again pleased to see a YA author utilizing this genre to reach new audiences.


October 1, 2018

Book Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo


The Poet X

by Elizabeth Acevedo

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary Fiction, Poetry
Publisher: HarperTeen
Length: 368 pages
Published: March 6, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent."

Quote:

"I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn't that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark."


Excerpt:

"The summer is made for stoop-sitting
and since it's the last week before school starts,
Harlem is opening its eyes to September.

I scope out this block I've always called home.

Watch the old church ladies, chancletas flapping
against the pavement, their mouths letting loose a train
of island Spanish as they spread he said, she said.

Peep Papote from down the block
as he opens the fire hydrant
so the little kids have a sprinkler to run through.

Listen to honking cabs with bachata blaring
from their open windows
compete with basketballs echoing from the Little Park.

Laugh at the viejos--my father not included--
finishing their dominoes tournament with hard slaps
and yells of "Capicu!"

My Book Review:

The Poet X is a powerful coming-of-age story about an African American-Latina teenage girl struggling with her body, her faith, and her relationship with her mother. Written in free verse, the novel tells of the story of Xiomara Batista. As her body has developed, she receives negative attention and sexual harassment from the boys and men around her. Years of this behavior has hardened Xiomara's exterior as she's built up a wall protect herself and her vulnerability. The only people Xiomara feels close to are her best friend and her twin brother who's unlike her in so many ways but is also going through his own coming-of-age crisis.

At school, Xiomara meets and begins dating a boy named Aman, but Xiomara is not allowed to date and breaks her parents--particularly her mother's--rules by sneaking around. When Xiomara begins taking Communion classes at church, her questions about faith are not met with answers but with criticism. She continues to break away from her faith and her family, trusting only in her relationship and in her ability to pour out her feelings in her journal and in her school's spoken poetry club. Ultimately, Xiomara and her mother fight in a painful, dramatic scene leaving Xiomara to wonder how she can ever hope to heal the pain in her family.

In the increasingly popular vein of racial justice young adult literature, The Poet X is a strong contribution. I liked Xiomara's story and really loved that Acevedo wrote the story through poetry; I hope this exposure to slam poetry will inspire YA readers to pick up their own pens and use the genre as a form of expression.

While I enjoyed the book and found it to be a poignant story, I must note to readers that there is a lot of teenage sexual content in the story--some of it graphic--so be advised when selecting the appropriate reading audience.

The way Acevedo has both the acts of writing and participating in spoken poetry speak to Xiomara's soul was beautiful. Ultimately it is poetry that helps her save herself and her relationship with her family as they work to piece things back together and overcome their crises of faith and anger.

September 28, 2018

Book Review: Elizabeth and Mary by Jane Dunn

Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

by Jane Dunn

Genres: Biography, British History, Tudor Period, Nonfiction
Publisher: Vintage
Length: 480 pages
Published: January 25, 2005
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: I listened to the audiobook of Elizabeth and Mary during a season where I could not get enough Tudor history. If you have more Tudor nonfiction recommendations, send them my way!

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"The political and religious conflicts between Queen Elizabeth I and the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, have for centuries captured our imagination and inspired memorable dramas played out on stage, screen, and in opera. But few books have brought to life more vividly than Jane Dunn's Elizabeth and Mary the exquisite texture of two women's rivalry, spurred on by the ambitions and machinations of the forceful men who surrounded them. The drama has terrific resonance even now as women continue to struggle in their bid for executive power.

Against the backdrop of sixteenth-century England, Scotland, and France, Dunn paints portraits of a pair of protagonists whose formidable strengths were placed in relentless opposition. Protestant Elizabeth, the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn, whose legitimacy had to be vouchsafed by legal means, glowed with executive ability and a visionary energy as bright as her red hair. Mary, the Catholic successor whom England's rivals wished to see on the throne, was charming, feminine, and deeply persuasive. That two such women, queens in their own right, should have been contemporaries and neighbours sets in motion a joint biography of rare spark and page-turning power."


Excerpt (from the Preface):

"Four hundred years ago, on 24 March 1603, Elizabeth I died. She was in her seventieth year. Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take her bed at last. To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, 'My lord, the crown which I have born so long has given enough of vanity in my time.' These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. This same crown had been the focus of Mary's ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth's throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.

Elizabeth realized that her crown and all the powerful interests that surrounded it were what drew her and Mary together, and yet fatally divided them. Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy. When Mary pressed by Parliament to sign Mary's death warrant. Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone. Instead she wished that Mary and she 'were but us two milkmaids with pails upon our arms,' and she regretted, 'that there were no more dependency upon us but mine on life were only in danger and not the whole estate of [her people's] religion and well doings.' It was their royal rather than their human status that had brought these queens to such straits that one had to die.

Sixteen years before Elizabeth's own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four. From that one act of regicide, a queen killing a fellow queen, a mythology of justification, romance, accusation and blame has been spun that retains its force to the present day. Of all the monarchs of these islands it is Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots who most stir the imagination. They divided powerful opinion in their lifetimes and were the focus of passionate debate in the centuries the followed their deaths. Murderess, 'whore,' daughter of the devil were epithets flung at both queens by their detractors, while their supporters claimed Elizabeth as hero and saviour, Mary as martyr and saint. It was the relationship between them that heightened these extremes of partisan feeling. Even in death, through history and myth, they continued locked together and complex rivalry, somehow embodying the ancestral character and mutual suspicion of their respective kingdoms."


My Book Review:

I read this book to help fill in some of the questions I still had after reading G. J. Meyer's The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty (a 4.5 or 5 star book). Elizabeth and Mary were two killer queens who never met in person, were cousins, kept in frequent contact via letters, and yet whose fate (and death) depended upon each other. As historical figures, they do not get much more fascinating.

While the book felt long and slow at times, it definitely provided a more detailed biography about each of these women. I still have so many questions, but now my understanding and questions help me see them as subjective, complicated, real women and not the flat prototypes they are often cast as within history books.

Elizabeth's life and choices not to marry nor to have children make more sense as you learn about her relationship with her mother (the doomed Anne Bolelyn), her stepmothers (King Henry VIII's later, successive wives), her infamous father, her stepfather, her court favorite (Dudley), her cousins, and most importantly, her relationship with the British crown itself. It is not difficult to see why she cherished her independence and valued her claim to power after witnessing her father's reign and flippant attitudes towards women and marriage. That she was responsible for more deaths than those ordered by her cousin, "Bloody" Mary, was surprising but fit within the upper hand she maintained as she wielded power over both her country and her rival, Mary Queen of Scots.

It is fascinating to consider that these two women never met but kept in contact, that Mary repeatedly sought to further establish their relationship (if for her own reasons), and that Elizabeth ultimately felt it was right to go forward with the orders to execute her Mary. The book excels at enriching audience's understanding of Mary: though she is painted as a saint and martyr, she certainly had her own degree of problems including marrying the man who murdered her second husband, a choice that would ultimately lead to her eventual downfall.

The book was greatly informative and I highly recommend it alongside Meyer's more broad-sweeping look at the Tudor monarchy as a whole.


September 26, 2018

Book Review: To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel

 

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel

by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel

Genres: Graphic Novel, Biography, Memoir, Children's Literature, Middle-Grade 
Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books 
Length: 64 pages 
Published: October 1, 2006 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Dancers are young when they first dream of dance. Siena was six -- and her dreams kept skipping and leaping, circling and spinning, from airy runs along a beach near her home in Puerto Rico, to dance class in Boston, to her debut performance on stage with the New York City Ballet.

To Dance tells and shows the fullness of her dreams and her rhapsodic life they led to. Part family history, part backstage drama, here is an original, firsthand book about a young dancer's beginnings -- and beyond."

Quote:

"Big, empty spaces always made me dance. A long hallway or a parking lot just begged for dance...like it wanted to be filled...and I wanted to put dance in it. A big, empty space was always an invitation."

My Book Review:

To Dance is a middle-grade level graphic memoir that tells the story of how Siena Cherson Siegel became a ballerina. Born in Puerto Rico, Siegel was drawn to dance when she saw a performance of The Nutcracker. She loved dancing and was able to begin taking lessons. When her parents separate and she moves with her mother to New York, amid her family troubles Siegel continues to dance and is eventually able to study at the School of American Ballet.

Siegel's story could be really inspirational to young girls and boys dreaming of a life in the ballet, but the writing in this book is fairly incomplete. Though the illustrations help depict Siegel's childhood, the story lacks the depth of Siegel's life story: audiences don't get the full account, major details are missing, and the conclusion (she stops dancing but then start up again a couple years later) is tacked on without further explanation. This all made the ending a bit unsatisfying.

The book is marketed to children grades six to eight, but some readers might be left confused and wondering about what remains unsaid.



UP