A handful of reviews, including Questlove and novel in verse

The Cartographer’s Secret by Tea Cooper. 5/5
This is a great novel, full of well-developed characters, a rich setting, and a compelling plot. Letitia is mourning the death of her brother. Undertaking what she thinks will be a simple errand, Letitia sets off in her new Tin Lizzie across rough roads and bush trails to find her great-aunt. What she finds is a woman devastated by the disappearance of her sister many years before. Intrigued and feeling–for the first time in a long while–at home with her newfound relatives and her friends, Letitia dives into the mystery herself, revealing family secrets and stories. I loved the determined and smart women of this book, their independence and competence. I can’t wait to read more by Cooper.

Surviving American History by Max Howard. 5/5
This is a terrific book about a young woman who, by utter chance, the whims of her mother, isn’t present at school the day her history class is targeted by a student with a gun: he kills most of her fellow students. Gabi struggles with survivor’s guilt and being the new kid, and it’s only when she meets another outsider student, Lennon, does she begin to deal with her trauma. But parents and teachers are wary of this friendship, not understanding their own children and students. I really enjoyed following Gabi’s journey in this book–she felt very real and complex, and the approach–a blend of poetry and prose–is an ideal way to tell this story.

Mother/land by Ananda Lima. 5/5
Go read this book, right now. This is a sensual, intense, brilliant poetic account of Lima’s move to and life in America, with frequent homages to poet Nathaniel Mackey and the musician Caetano Veloso. The text moves lyrically between English and Portuguese and never loses a beat. Lima writes about nationality and motherhood, what borders mean and how she raises her son in America. I could–and will–read this repeatedly, and can’t wait to teach it and share it with other readers.

Music Is History by Questlove. 5/5
I loved this trippy, detailed, passionate book about Questlove’s journey through music and major world events. Every chapter offers fresh commentary on songs and artists and producers, noting connections I’d never known about and making a lot of songs make so much more sense. I’d happily put music students of any genre in a classroom with Questlove and let him teach how music is history and how music history is an enormous ever-changing web of singers and songwriters and arrangers and experts in every single genre all contributing to sounds that transmit meaning.

Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding. 4/5
I really enjoyed this gothic novel about how manipulation–of things, of people–can save, and how it can doom. Agnes is an excellent anti-hero, and I found myself rooting for her as she climbs her way through the wealthy family that employs her. An archivist, she learns–and the audience learns–the power that documents have, even when they appear trivial on first glance. Agnes’s secret lover, Lady Helen, is a bit of a caricature at times, but her scheming too is fascinating to see, even as it leads to ruin. I also appreciated the structure of the book, which moves through time without losing steam, and which doesn’t conform to a typical intro-conflict-resolution template.

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall. 3/5
This is a novel about motherhood in all of its forms, and how important it is for women to control whether and when they become mothers. Each character rejects and chooses motherhood in different ways, with different support systems, and with very different approaches. Whittall does a great job of revealing each woman’s reasons for abortion, and how they got their abortions, emphasizing the need for safe and legal abortion on demand. This would be a great selection for book clubs and for parent-child reading.

Behind the Veil by E. J. Dawson. 4/5
Letitia, a psychic, is drawn into the hunt for a supernatural killer who possesses men and uses them to rape and kill girls. Herself traumatized by her own history and her powers, the protagonist is faced with difficult and dangerous choices as she tries to help. I enjoyed the realism the author created in making Letitia vulnerable both mentally and physically and in the terrible conflict she feels. The settings are well-drawn and the plot moved well.

The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C. Louis. 3/5
This is a tough read, but probably an important book about Native American life and the struggles Native Americans face, often caused directly by white colonialism and interference. There are no heroes here, and no easy or hopeful stories. The casual brutality and willingness to use people and nihilism made this hard for me to read.

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