One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

one crazy summerOne Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia
Pub Date: January 26, 2010

“I couldn’t figure out why Eunice sat there with me. It was bad enough to feel stupid. I didn’t need anyone sitting with me reminding me of it.”

This was one of many lines I absolutely loved in this novel. Delphine’s voice is funny, relevant, and authentic. I could see an oldest sister acting and thinking like her—responsible beyond her years, yet still young and inexperienced. I loved reading about how Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern manage for a month with their uncaring, unmaternal mother in a new city surrounded by the Black Panther movement.

The three sisters, who live with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, have to go spend a month in Oakland with the mother they haven’t seen for almost seven years. Unfortunately, their mother is not a welcoming presence. They are basically left to their own devices to get food and stay out of their mother’s way: no trips to the beach, no Golden Gate Bridge, and no Disneyland. Instead, they spend every day at a summer camp for children to learn about and support the Black Panther Movement, get dinner takeout to eat on the floor, and avoid disrupting their mother’s peace.

I liked how real the girls were in this book, especially Delphine. She reminded me of several older sisters I have known who took responsibility for their siblings at a young age. The sisters fight, manipulate, and harass each other, but you can see the love and support underneath. I had a hard time relating to the mother, but such a woman is not completely unbelievable. The Black Panther Movement adds a great historical twist, as well. It showed a different side of the Black Panther Movement- most history books focus on the guns and violence, not reaching out to the children in the community with free breakfasts.

If you like strong, cute, authentic young characters who handle a difficult situation with stubborn resilience and humor, I would highly recommend this book.


This Side of Home, by Renée Watson

This Side of HomeThis Side of Home
by Renée Watson
Pub Date: February 3, 2015

Stories about the last year of high school hold a special place in my heart right now as I watch my oldest niece approaching graduation and making plans for college.

Maya and Nikki Younger are twins who have done everything together. All their lives they have planned their future: they will graduate from high school with amazing grades, go to college at Spelman-a historical black woman’s college, and they will marry their boyfriends they have known all their lives. But like all idealized plans, life has some detours.

First, Maya and Nikki’s best friend/neighbor is forced to move. Second, the family who moves in is white and has a daughter who quickly becomes Nikki’s best friend. Third, the family next door also has a son who is more likeable and cute than Maya is ready to admit. Fourth, the new school principal keeps butting heads with Maya as senior class president. This is not the senior year Maya planned. Instead, Maya is forced to accept other people’s choices and that she can’t always be the model black girl.

I really appreciated this novel. I wasn’t sure I would relate to the main protagonist, Maya, since she seemed so focused on her identity as a black woman, while I am white and grew up in a town that was predominantly white. Still, Renée Watson does a good job of showing this aspect of Maya’s personality while also making her relatable to a wider audience. I admired Maya’s grit, intelligence, and tenacity. She focuses on the importance of family, friendship, and acknowledging history while looking to the future. This story made me think about different cultures, and how difficult the “race” questions can be even today. One of my favorite things about reading fiction is that I’m invited to see the world through a different perspective. This perspective opened my eyes. I am glad I read this book, and highly recommend it to others.

March Book One, by John Lewis

MarchMarch Book One
by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
Pub Date: August 13, 2013

I admire the people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. So when I heard that John Lewis was going to write an autobiography of his life in a graphic novel format, I knew this was a book we needed in the library. It didn’t disappoint. The story describes what the South was like for black people, as well as showing some of the beginning events in the Civil Rights Movement. Graphic novels are such a great way to take history beyond words into something visual. I am glad John Lewis decided to tell his story, and to tell it as a graphic novel.

After reading this, I am sure that I could not have been one of the protestors. The training they went through to prepare to be violently and physically abused was rigorous. With rules like ‘do not strike back or curse if abused,’ ‘do not laugh out,’ and ‘show yourself friendly and courteous at all times,’  I could not have handled violent or tense situations for hours. It is truly remarkable what John Lewis and people like him were able to accomplish through peaceful protest. As John Lewis says, “We wanted to change America—to make it something different, something better.” They certainly did.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes to learn about history in a personal way, especially if you have never read a graphic novel. This is a great history book: it’s not dry facts and it’s fast-paced. Also, March is a great book for reluctant or struggling readers.

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets Jane ThynneThe Scent of Secrets
by Jane Thynne
Pub Date: September 15, 2015

I’ve had something of a World War II obsession since I was a little kid thumbing through the American Girl catalog. Molly McIntire was one of my favorites of the dolls, and eventually I did get to own her (and as a twentysomething got to meet the author Valerie Tripp!). So ever since about the age of seven I’ve loved any book taking place during the 1940s. Home front, London Blitz, Polish resistance, Jewish survivor narratives, Anne Frank… the whole shebang. So this pick seemed an obvious choice for me — a British-German film actress with some espionage training, Clara Vine, is asked to befriend Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun and glean whatever information she can as the tension of the coming conflict tightens its hold on Paris and Berlin, the two settings of the novel. Since Eva is kept hidden from the public eye, this is no easy matter. And Clara may have to watch her own back as her past creeps up on her. And the whole thing starts with a mysterious death aboard a Nazi pleasure cruise.

(As a head’s up, this book is actually the third in the series featuring the actress Clara Vine. From what I can tell, the series is undergoing a rebranding, and the first two books in the series are not readily available at this time in the States, but I didn’t feel I was missing any major plot points. You pick up any background information pretty quickly.)

Spy stories are always fun. Especially if you have an author like Thynne who’s done plenty of research and adds in marvelous little details about how Clara utilizes her espionage training – like hiding information in the tube of her lipstick, or how she manages to ditch the man she suspects is trailing her. All the while we learn more about Clara’s day job as a film actress, and how the film industry in 1930s Germany was and had been. (Plenty of name-dropping, but not in an annoying way. Thynne doesn’t force Emil Jannings into the narrative just for the sake of having a well-known 1930s German actor show up, for instance.)

But what I particularly enjoyed about this story was learning about how the Nazi elite functioned in the late 30s. Clara enjoys some clout being an actress, and has a rapport with the wives of some of the Nazi leadership like Madga Goebbels and Emmy Göring. It’s certainly a different reading experience to see Nazis being portrayed as more human than demonic — the centers of petty gossip and extramarital affairs, not terribly mindful of the troubles being caused outside of their social circles. Having recently read a book about the concentration camps (which will be reviewed at a later date), it was kind of historical fiction whiplash. Nevertheless, I still got wrapped up in the story, and loved the tension of Clara’s mission, tactics, and personal life all mingled together.

There is some more adult material alluded to in the story, but the details are glossed over. Really, you get so engaged with the various story-lines as they come together that you’ll have trouble putting the book down for long, and you’ll be primed for the next book in the series being published in May. If you enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this is likely a novel you’ll also enjoy. If you’re like me and you’re into books on Germany around World War II, this will offer a different take on the usual points of view. And if you’re into Agent Carter and don’t mind the lack of physical altercations, this might be a pleasant read for you, too.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Octavia ButlerKindred
by Octavia E. Butler
Pub Date: June 1, 1979

This is a book that has been in my TBR pile for YEARS. To the point of embarrassment, even. I’ve been intrigued by this book since shelving it as a bookseller and my co-workers pointing out how much they loved it. This was the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, and that deserves some respect right there. I’m generally only mildly interested in sci-fi, so that’s probably what put me off reading this for so long. But while it gets classified as sci-fi because of the time traveling element in it, it’s much more a historical fiction slave narrative than anything else. And that right there is what makes this book stand out.

Dana and Kevin move into a new house in California. They’ve been married for four years, and are both writers. One day Dana, a black woman, gets dizzy and disappears from her home, and appears in early 19th century Maryland, and saves a little white boy from drowning. The little boy’s father thinks she’s going to hurt the boy, but before either can act, Dana disappears again and reappears back home with her husband. Thus, over a short period of time in 1976 California, but over the course of many years in early 19th century Maryland, Dana returns at different times when that little white boy, whose name is Rufus, finds himself in mortal danger of one kind or another. Why is she getting sent back? What is the purpose?

I will warn you – Butler wrote a very real depiction of slave life in this story. Some of the details are more gory than some people care to read about, but there was nothing gratuitous about it. Dana, with her 20th century upbringing, experiences the brunt of what it was to be a slave in the Old South. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “Butler wastes no time in demonizing what was demonic.” Butler demonstrates the twisted thinking that white slaveowners held with regards to their “property.” She depicts the punishments they unleashed. She gives voice to the slaves themselves, and what they did to merely survive. It made this book difficult to read at times, but the story drew me in so much I couldn’t help but follow Dana as she struggles to figure out her purpose in being sent in time and in her own survival.

Certainly give this book a read if you’re into time travel stories or historical fiction about early 19th century America. The story and the characters will engage you and could bring up excellent discussion questions in a book group addressing the history of slavery in this country, women’s rights, racial tension, and of course the whole “what if?” factor of “what if this happened to me?” You might even finish this book and feel the urge to get back on the family history horse and see if similar skeletons lie in your closet.