A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

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Originally published in: 2017

What’s it about: A New Orleans-based family saga that traces the history of racial disparity from the days of Jim Crow through modern post-Katrina reality.

What made me pick it up: I saw that this got long-listed for the National Book Award in Fiction, and thought it sounded like a good compliment to Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I really enjoyed (and which actually won the award).

My favorite things: While this doesn’t dip into the supernatural they way that Sing did, it still traces similar themes that I was hoping to find. Each character experiences specific manifestations of systemic racism unique to their era but undeniably tied to those of the other generations. The lines between each are clear, with the desperation escalating in younger characters. The people missing from each character’s life have almost as much of an impact on their stories as do those who are present.

Who it’s great for:  Fans of family histories that trace multiple generations. Readers looking for writers telling complex stories of the African-American family; fans of Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Angela Flournoy.

Abby’s rating: four-shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: A teen sees his older brother shot to death on the basketball court and how he deals with his grief.

What made me pick it up: I’ve read two of Reynolds’ other books and this one was getting really good reviews.

My favorite parts: This novel is in verse, which always amazes me that as much story can be told in few words and some authors need many. The best part for me was the beautiful language the author uses — describing the sidewalk as “the pavement galaxy of bubble gum stars” and so many other great turns of phrase. I also liked the dilemma he gave his character. On the one hand he’d like to avenge his brother’s death, but on the other that would dramatically change his life. I can’t say too much about the premise without giving away the wonderful structure Reynolds used to tell his story, but it invokes the best of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a delectably ambiguous ending.

Who it’s great for: Teens, especially urban ones who may have to deal with gangs, violence, and less than stable living conditions in their daily lives. Anyone who has wondered if revenge was worth it.

Erica’s rating: five-shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon.


 

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

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Originally published in: 2017

What’s it about: The story of two friends, partners in art and life, creating animated works that bring them a sort of fame while also forcing them to confront difficult truths and traumas in their lives that other people would like to leave in the past.

What made me pick it up: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available, has gotten a lot of good press, and has a cover that makes me want to read it.

My favorite things: Whitaker treats characters suffering addictions almost without judgment in a way that is refreshingly humane. She takes the time to develop every character’s layers and the complexity of their relationships.

Who it’s great for:  Readers looking for complex relationships between characters or an exploration of identity.

Abby’s rating: four-shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Originally published in: 2016 (North American edition 2017)

What’s it about: This reads like a thought experiment gone very, very right.What would happen in a world where women developed a physical power that men couldn’t match?

What made me pick it up: I think I put this on hold because there was a blurb from Margaret Atwood on the cover. But I’m also just a sucker for speculative work that is (post)apocalyptic and/or dystopian.

My favorite things: Somehow this book is both a very heavy-handed critique of global patriarchy and an electrifying story. The novel is bookended by letters between two writers, Naomi and Neil, whose gendered interactions flip the script in a way that will entertain anyone tired of mansplaining.

Who it’s great for:  Fan’s of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Readers looking for unapologetically feminist read that doesn’t sacrifice story for politics.

Abby’s rating: four-and-a-half-shells


Find this in your local library or on Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: A sixteen-year-old girl who has extreme anxiety which leads to thought spirals that can only be controlled through compulsive, self-harming actions and how she deals with her mental illness while she continues to also be just a normal teen with crushes on boys, a best friend, and straight As in school.

What made me pick it up: John Green is a phenomenal writer who structures his stories so the blows come at you hard and fast at the end and leave you happy/sad and bawling. He just gets teens and how to write them and when I found out he had incorporated aspects of his struggle with mental health into this book I admired him all the more.

My favorite things: My favorite thing is also the thing I hated the most and what made me keep getting exasperated and putting the book down and walking away. Green writes so honestly and in such a raw way about this character’s experience of thought spirals and the compulsive behaviors they lead to which she feels will help that it was hard to read about her suffering. I needed frequent breaks because staying in the fictional situation for too long made me uncomfortable for her and sad for her and in pain for her. It is masterful, but it may be a trigger to some individuals, and it is certainly overwhelming to read if you have any amount of empathy at all. I like how he portrayed it as a struggle by a normal person who has a normal life and only ever aspires to be her authentic, balanced self able to do normal things. Most of all I was brought to tears by the honest depiction of the process of treating and managing a mental illness and the very hard-earned hope that can come from continuing to try.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who has struggled with or known someone who struggled with mental illness. Readers who need hope.

Erica’s rating: four-shells


Pick this up in your local library or get a copy online somewhere like Amazon (affiliate link).


 

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

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Originally published in: 2017

What’s it about:  A woman working a soul-sucking job as a programming for a robotics company is gifted a mysterious, and possibly magical, sourdough starter.

What made me pick it up: I adored Sloan’s first book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, so was delighted to see he had another one coming out. I recommend the audio.

My favorite things: I love how Sloan infuses realistic fiction with tiny fantastical elements that are wonderfully bizarre. I’m so curious where he got the idea for magical sourdough starter. Anyway, this book will have you salivating over the protagonist’s newfound passion for baking delicious bread but also scratching your head while trying to figure out the tiny mysteries. This isn’t as great of a scale as Mr. Penumbra but it is full of zany, enjoyable characters, bits of humor, and low-key high jinks.

Who it’s great for: Readers looking for a bit of magic in their reality. Fans of Sloan. Anyone looking for a tiny adventure.

Erica’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Find this book in your local library or on Amazon.


 

Patina by Jason Reynolds


Originally published: 2017

What it’s about: A young teen girl dealing with a new school and a new family situation while finding her place on a new track team.

What made me pick it up: I’ve been wanting to read something by this author for a while. When I saw this audio was available I placed a hold.

My favorite parts: As a former track runner I enjoyed the depictions of how important running is for a runner, as well as how much it is a team sport even though it seems so individualistic. Made me want to run a relay again. I also enjoyed how much this was a just a plain every day story about a regular girl and her situation and how she is dealing with it. It was incredibly authentic both in relationships and experiences.

Who it’s great for: Older chapter book readers looking for a good, but realistic, story. Those looking for proof that you can come through any situation. Runners and wannabe runners.

Erica’s rating:


Find this book on Amazon(affiliate link) or in your local library.


 

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

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Originally published: 2017

What it’s about: A teen girl who is working through the grief and guilt of losing her baby sister.

What made me pick it up: I was reading The Kite Runner when I just got really sick of what a fucking bummer it was so I went looking for a lighter book and stumbled upon this YA novel in audio on OverDrive. On double speed you’ll get through it in just a couple hours.

My favorite parts: I enjoyed the authentic depictions of various types of grieving and the discussion of and character arrivals at forgiveness. The relationships between all the teen characters were great, and very realistic. I appreciated the way it dealt with heavy themes in a hopeful way and didn’t feel like it was including horrific incidents just for show (looking at you, Kite Runner). It reminded me of Sarah Dessen novels mixed with just a smidgen of John Green.

Who it’s great for: Anyone struggling through something heavy who wants a break. Those looking for a quick, engaging read.

Erica’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells


Find this book on Amazon or in your local library.


 

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: After a horrendously neglectful and abusive childhood with their movie star mother, the three Sunshine Sisters are brought back together to deal with her impending death.

What made me pick it up: Jane Green is just the right level of fiction for me. Not terribly literary but not too fluffy either. I had previously read Summer Secrets and seen her speak and enjoyed both so I definitely keep an eye on her upcoming to her books now.

My favorite parts: Yes, there are love stories and mostly happy endings but there is real drama in this book as well. The damage of their childhood affects each sister differently, but definitely has negative consequences in their adult lives both in how they deal with their trauma but also in how they support or fail each other. I always appreciate personal transformations through adversity and all three of the sisters go through this in one way or another.

Who it’s great for: Readers looking for chick lit or romance with a little more substance. Fans of domestic fiction and family stories.

Erica’s rating: four-shells


Get this book on Amazon or at your local library.


 

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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Originally published in: 2017

What it’s about: Rishi heads to a coding camp to finally meet and get to know Dimple, the woman his parents have selected for him to marry. Dimple is trying to become a world changing app developer and can’t figure out why some weirdo at coding camp is stalking her and talking about marriage.

What made me pick it up: It was getting a lot of press and play on Twitter. The cover is very engaging.

My favorite parts: This excellent YA novel is a wildly entertaining comedy of errors. While the timeline is, of course, a little condensed I really felt the emotions were authentic. I enjoyed the communication between teens and their families and even though it was a struggle, it was honest. The story line also incorporated the pressures of Indian-American children to uphold family traditions and cultural expectations while making their own way in America.

Who it’s great for: Teens of all ages. Anyone who wants a fun, light story and quick read. Readers looking for diverse books.

Erica’s rating: four-and-a-half-shells


Get this book on Amazon (affiliate link) or at your local library.