Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
ZJ’s dad isn’t just ZJ’s hero, he’s everyone’s hero. As a professional football player, Zachariah Johnson is the star of the team, and at home, he’s the star of the neighborhood. ZJ and all of his friends love to hang out with Zachariah until one day, ZJ’s dad stops remembering things, like his own son’s name. He also becomes angry all the time and has headaches that keep him in bed all day. ZJ’s mom says his dad is sick because he hit his head so much playing football, but it is hard for ZJ to fully understand how his favorite sport, the one that made his dad so happy, could have caused this complete personality change.
Taking place in the early 2000’s when CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was first acknowledged and researched, Before the Ever After shows the impacts of the professional football on the physical and mental health of a young black family. The story is told in verse and explores ZJ’s observations and feelings about how CTE has changed his family’s life. ZJ longs to go back to before his dad’s headaches, and creates several coping mechanisms to deal with his quasi-loss of a father. This book is heart-wrenching but beautiful as ZJ finds his new normal, relying on his friends that stick around even after his dad’s health declines.
I would recommend this book to all young readers and their parents. The book’s predominant theme is grief and coping, and may be a helpful tool for children experiencing a form of grief in their own lives. The story is filled with immeasurable love alongside the family’s hardships. Jacqueline Woodson was recently awarded the 2021 Coretta Scott King Book Award, and signed copies of Before the Ever After are currently in stock.
Special Thanks to Libro.fm for allowing me to listen to a free copy of Before the Ever After.
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Blair and Endya's favorite books read in 2020. Despite the stress of this year, we read some pretty good books along the way.
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Swimming Lessons by Lili Reinhart
Swimming Lessons, Reinhart’s first poetry collection, explores themes of heartache, depression, and belonging. Reinhart opens with an introduction explaining her inspiration to give words to feelings, in the hopes that people with similar feelings may feel less alone. Reinhart’s free verse style is unassuming. The poems are short and simple yet expressed complex emotions that are difficult to describe. The collection was quite literal and didn’t depend heavily on metaphor or imagery, making them accessible to those who may not enjoy classical styles of poetry. I was able to listen to the audio version, narrated by the author, and there was a sense of deep intimacy in the work as Reinhart smoothly transitioned from one poem to the next.The poems read as stream of consciousness journal entries, so fans of Rupi Kaur would enjoy this collection.
The poems reflect privileges that the author enjoys, thus topics regarding race and class are not present. I would recommend this collection to adult and teen readers that can handle descriptions of depression and anxiety, and are unbothered by less structured forms of poetry.
Special thanks to our friends at Libro.fm, who provided a copy of Swimming Lessons for me to listen to.
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This is My America by Kim Johnson
Seven years ago, Tracy Beaumont’s father was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Each week, Tracy writes a letter to Innocence X pleading to their appeals department to review her father’s case. With only about 200 days left until her father’s scheduled execution, Tracy, her mother, her younger sister, and her older brother are losing hope that they can save their patriarch. Then, another person in their town is murdered, and Tracy’s brother, Jamal, is accused. Jamal did not kill Angela, but he has run away from home to escape arrest and attempt to find her actual killer. With two accused murderers in the family, the entire south Texas town begins to turn away from Tracy’s family to avoid being targeted by the local white nationalist groups. With the clock ticking on both her father and brother, Tracy is determined to prove their innocence and bring justice to her family and the families of the murder victims.
This is My America depicts the effects of police brutality and corrupt prosecution practices in America. Although there are similar Young Adult books tackling racism and police brutality, This is My America distinguishes itself by focusing on the emotional, physical, and financial impact of mass incarceration on the Black family. Johnson shows how the KKK is not a piece of history long-gone, but is an organization continuing to hunt down and torture Americans of color. Johnson explores generational trauma and the danger of being complicit mainly from the perspective of Tracy’s Black family, but also touches on the generational trauma of being a raised to be a racist and the danger of being complicit in that role. These parallel stories of the white and Black family are thought provoking, without centering the white narrative. Along with the personal struggles explored throughout the book, the plot includes a mystery element as Tracy investigates who the real murderers are.
I was able to listen to this book on Libro.fm, and it is narrated by Bahni Turpin, one of my favorite narrators! Turpin brings such life to each of the characters in her narrations, and this book was no different. I would recommend this book (especially the audiobook!) to young adults and adults that can handle content including police encounters, off the page murder, off the page lynching, racism, Black trauma, hate crimes, and police shooting.
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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Intelligent, beautiful, talented Noemi adores her glamorous life in 1950s Mexico City, but misses her cousin, Catalina, who was quickly and scandalously married a few months ago. After Catalina’s marriage, she moved to the countryside to live in her new husband’s family home, High Place, and Noemi hasn’t heard from her since. When Noemi’s father receives a letter from a seemingly psychotic Catalina, he sends Noemi for a visit to check in on Catalina’s health. Although High Place and its residents appear unwelcoming and odd, Noemi is happy to be able to visit Catalina and try to understand why Catalina wanted to marry this mysterious husband. What begins as a simple visit quickly turns into a nightmare for Noemi and all the residents of High Place. Who can Noemi trust? What has made Catalina so ill? And can Noemi and Catalina escape High Place alive?
Although Mexican Gothic begins in an unassuming Gothic way, with a psychotic cousin and a haunted house, the book slowly turns until you are completely snatched from reality and cannot put the book down. Until the end, I couldn’t figure out which of the creepy characters were trustworthy or even which scenes were reality. The atmosphere and setting of this book were remarkably vibrant; I could picture High Place and each of its residents in full disgusting detail. While the book may begin slowly, and some readers may be tempted to put it down after the first 50 pages, this one was worth sticking it out for me and many others.
This is definitely a horror novel, and some readers may need content warnings for sexual assault, suicide, domestic abuse, incest, hallucinations, murder and gore, cannibalism, eugenics, death of a parent and other family members, miscarriages, and racism. It is difficult to provide a full review of this book without delving into spoilers, but it is certainly more than just a haunted house. Readers of fast-paced action-filled horror and readers of beautiful yet devastating prose will find something to enjoy in this story. Despite the plethora of content warnings, I would recommend this book to young adults as well as adults that enjoy horror.
P.S. Mexican Gothic will be adapted into a mini-series by Hulu. Special thanks to our friends at Libro.fm, who provided a copy of Mexican Gothic for me to listen to.
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Luster by Raven Leilani
Edie is a 23-year-old artist living in New York and working a day-job at a publishing company. While struggling to figure out her place in this world and how to co-exist with others, she slips into a romantic relationship with a married digital archivist, Eric, from New Jersey. Eric’s wife, a medical examiner named Rebecca, has consented to an open marriage with certain rules, all of which Edie seems to break. After being fired, Edie finds herself unintentionally living with Eric, Rebecca, and their teenaged daughter, Akila. The remainder of the story examines this phase in Edie’s struggle to build and maintain relationships with those around her and develop her artistic talent.
Although Edie makes questionable choices and seems to have difficulty understanding her sexuality, she unapologetically takes ownership of her body (to the extent she can) and attempts to find pleasure in using her body to make others uncomfortable. Edie is messy, intelligent, complicated, beautiful, disruptive, emotional, and real. Knowing that Edie has an affair with an older white man and knowing that Edie becomes a role model to the white couple’s Black daughter, I was concerned about a potential stereotypical representation of a young Black woman. However, Leilani does not put Edie into any of the stereotypical neatly packaged boxes that perpetuate racism and bore readers. At moments that could arguably be stereotypical, Leilani’s choice to utilize a stream-of-consciousness narration style allows for a deeper exploration of these ideas through Edie’s perspective. Leilani portrays each grotesque and beautiful moment that makes up this phase of Edie’s life with authenticity and without judgment. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the focus not only on the relationship between Edie and Eric, but also between Edie and Rebecca, and between Edie and Akila. However, at its heart, this book is about Edie’s relationship with herself.
The tone of the book involves dark humor, sadness, and loneliness with small moments of joyful escape. The writing style follows Edie’s mental associations and emotions through her memories and her ponderings on the meanings of the events in her life. Edie’s thoughts are matter-of-fact yet poetic. This debut novel is a work of art. It isn’t a story you read; it’s a story you experience. I would especially recommend this book to fans of Alice Walker, as it reminded me of You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down. Although I would recommend this novel to all contemporary fiction fans, readers may want to be aware of trigger warnings for racism, police brutality, gun violence, physical abuse, abortion, miscarriage, and drug addiction.
Special thanks to our friends at Libro.fm, who provided a copy of Luster for me to listen to.
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