February 11, 2015

Where the Line Bleeds.

Salvage the Bones.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir.

If you have not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, consider today your lucky day.


Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a small rural community with which she had a “love-hate relationship”. These hometown experiences have informed each of her three novels to date. While not technically published under the banner of children’s literature, Ward’s novels are particularly suited to the older YA audience due to the ages of the characters and the relevancy of their themes. Her pre-publication literary accomplishments are substantial: an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan (where she received five Hopwood Awards); a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University(2008-2010); a John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at The University of Mississippi (2010-2011). She currently serves as Associate Professor of English at Tulane University.


where the line bleeds jesmyn wardShortly after receiving her MFA, Ward and her family were forced to flee their flooding home by Hurricane Katrina. Where the Line Bleeds (Agate Publishing, 2008) is Ward’s first published novel. It is the story of twin brothers who grow increasingly estranged after one of them begins to sell drugs to assuage the family’s post-Katrina financial burdens. It endured three years of rejection before finding a home at Agate.


The prolonged devastation Ward encountered day to day—driving back and forth through ravaged neighborhoods on her way to work at the University of New Orleans—rendered her mentally and emotionally unable to write anything new during the three years it took her first novel to sell. Landing her first book deal, however, inspired Ward to pick up the proverbial pen again. Her renewed salvage the bones by jesmyn wardefforts produced Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA, 2011) which, although roundly ignored by the literary community upon publication, ended up winning the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. Post-nomination, it was suddenly and profusely well-reviewed. Another rich tale centered around Katrina, Salvage the Bones chronicles twelve days in the lives of a pregnant teen, Esch, her three brothers and her father. The twelve-day account includes the ten days leading up to the storm, the day it hits, and the day after. According to the book’s copy, it is “[a] big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty…muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.”


men we reaped by jesmyn wardMen We Reaped: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) is Ward’s most recent book. It is a reflection on her personal experience with the death of five young men in her life (including her brother). Causes of death range from suicide to drugs to accidents to the plain old “bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men.” In a starred review, Kirkus called it “[a]n assured yet scarifying memoir by young, supremely gifted novelist Ward… A modern rejoinder to Black Like MeBeloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear.”


In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Ward said this about the motivation behind her writing: “I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South…so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.” This sensibility makes her novels significant mirror and window books for mature teens of all ethnicities and backgrounds.


If you had not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, I hope you’ll consider today your lucky day. I certainly do.



For the buzz on Men We Reaped: A Memoir, click here.

For the buzz on Salvage the Bones, click here.

For the buzz on Where the Line Bleeds, click here.


For more extensive information on Jesmyn Ward and her books, please visit these article sources:

Author Photo Credit: Adam Johnson

Brown Book Review: My Own Worst Frenemy

December 13, 2011

I’d ask where books like My Own Worst Frenemy were when I was a young reader, but I already know the answer – they didn’t exist. It’s why I started writing YA, in the first place.

Reviewing books like Reid’s first in the Langdon Prep series is bittersweet for me. On one hand I feel like doing a friggin’ back flip to celebrate their arrival. On the other, I’m so annoyed that it’s seriously taken publishing this long to acknowledge that readers (of color or not) would enjoy a book like this.

So yeah, obviously I liked this book. And sorry a portion of my review was done on a soap box. This issue isn’t just close to me, it formed my identity as an author. It’s tough to sit back and separate the individual book from the overall issue of diversity in YA. Maybe one day…

That said, My Own Worst Frenemy is quite a gem. Readers looking to infuse a little mystery in their lives will love it. Chanti Evans (confession: every time I saw the MC’s name I wanted to call her Chianti – just how my brain works) is from a working-class hood in Denver. Her mom’s an undercover cop who wants Chanti’s academic career to have a fighting chance, so she sends her to Langdon Prep a snooty private school where all schools are in books – across town.

My Own Worst Frenemy is a good first in a series book. We meet Chanti, Bethanie (a sure-fire frenemy in the making), Marco (the future BF) and of course there’s a female and male meanie, Lissa and her twin Justin. Getting to know them all is most of the fun, but this is a mystery after all – so there’s some intrigue and sleuthing involved.

The 4-1-1 breaks down like this:

The Good
Chanti and Marco are full-bodied characters. They feel real and readers will care about them. But note to authors: stop making main characters so insecure. We all know they’re going to end up with dude in the end. Enough with them putting themselves down just to build up the tension revolved around the growing love interest!

Chanti is African-American and Marco is Mexican. I’m fairly certain the other characters are of color too, but the book doesn’t dwell on that. Which is a plus. The reader can assume everyone is brown or not – it’s up to them really.

The Bad
The chapters revolve between the present and flashbacks of how Chanti ended up in trouble and thus at Langdon. The flashbacks were distracting and sometimes slowed down the action. It was obvious Chanti had gotten caught up in something, but since she’s not in juvie or jail, it couldn’t have been that serious. So, really, it almost didn’t matter to me how she ended up there. For the sake of the series, I hope the flashbacks end at book one.

The Ugly
No ugly.

Like most mysteries that involve teen sleuthing, the reader will have to suspend a little belief about just how much knowledge and moxie Chanti has. But that’s the fun of reading mysteries, right? We all want the MC to be a bit more courageous and smarter than we would be in the situation. Chanti’s righteously nosy and observant which makes her a great investigator and ripe to be a new millennium girl-detective idol.

Commentary: Life – An Exploded Diagram

November 7, 2011

By Mal Peet

My problem is, I’m way too literal. When someone tells me that a book is Young Adult, I sort of believe it. And right, wrong or indifferent, for ME a Young Adult novel has to primarily revolve around a young person’s experience. Some YA historical fiction reads like adult historical fiction.

An adult historical fic can start with the protagonist at birth or even before the protag is born and I’m fine with that. I’m not okay with that if it’s a YA historical fic. Feel free to argue this point with me, but I’m not likely to budge. I like my YA about young adults!

So, in a nutshell that’s one of my issues with Mal Peet’s, Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of them.

In all fairness, the Worldcat summary of Life says:
In 1960s Norfolk, England, seventeen-year-old Clem Ackroyd lives with his mother and grandmother in a tiny cottage, but his life is transformed when he falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy farmer in this tale that flashes back through the stories of three generations.

So I’m warned that the story is told through three generations. But then it shouldn’t be YA. It makes me wonder if it was classified YA because they felt it was more easily marketed that way.

Okay, moving on…

Even if I ignored that the story was told over three generations, the other issue I had with Life was that the heart of the story “how Clem’s life is transformed when he falls in love with a daughter of a wealthy farmer” was lost in the detail of the Cuban missle crisis. The detail about the USA’s standoff with Cuba over nuclear arms should have been woven into how it impacted the characters. Instead, there was far more detail about the crisis, how it started and played out than I wanted. And the impact it had on Clem and Frankie felt like a side story rather than the main story.

I’ll put it this way, I can tell you more about Clem’s parent’s relationship and its quirks more than I can about Clem and Frankie. Their overall relationship felt…rushed. There was no good reason for Frankie to be attracted to Clem, but she was. And I took it on face value. But as soon as I was ready to throw myself totally into their romance that pesky nuclear arms crisis kept interfering.

As historical fiction goes, it’s a nice body of work. Had someone booktalked it to me alluding to the fact that an adult Clem is re-telling his life story – I would have probably lapped it up. I would have still had an issue with the level of detail about the arms crisis, but I would have come at the book in a different frame of mind. As it were, this was presented as YA. In that regard, it didn’t work as well for me.

Brown Book Review: Bitter Melon

November 4, 2011

By Cara Chow

The best thing a book can do, to and for me, is evoke some sort of passion. The bell rings if it makes me angry. Bitter Melon rang my bells, much like What Can’t Wait did. Both are stories about what it’s like to be a first generation American citizen of an immigrant parent. Both portray the conflict these young people are faced with when the message from their parents is mixed – the parents want them to have a better life but they also want to ensure the teen doesn’t forget their culture and roots.

Immigrant families aren’t the only folks facing that issue. Every family has its own culture, tradition and roots. So there’s always some level of struggle a teen faces when they’re ready to go out and find their way in the world.

The difference, in most cases, is the level of intensity those born of immigrant parents faces. It can reach heights of tension bordering on familial warfare. And in Bitter Melon, it becomes abusive. Frances (Fei Ting) is a seventeen-year-old senior in 1980’s San Francisco expected by her hardworking mother to become a doctor and take care of all mama’s medical and financial ills. Lofty goals, especially considering Frances has no desire to be a doctor.

Frances’ mother uses mental and physical abuse to keep her daughter on the required path. Not until she erroneously ends up in a speech class instead of Calculus does Frances find her voice (pardon the pun) and begin to consider life outside her domineering mother. She finds an ally in a former competitor and begins to secretly live life on her own terms.

On one hand, Frances was a sympathetic character. You’d have to be heartless not to feel for someone enduring that level of abuse. But on the other, the abuse made her selfish, sometimes suspicious and sneaky. It’s no Cinderella story, for sure.

Bitter Melon doesn’t break any new ground. And there seemed very little reason for it to be set in the 80’s. There were points where I forgot it was 1989 until there was a pop culture or fashion reference. However, Frances’ struggle for independence (what teen doesn’t at some point?) and her willingness to get into trouble for a simple sip of a social life kept me reading.

I also found the end satisfying and balanced. It’s neither triumphant or tragic, but steeped in the mixed feelings one would likely have after enduring years of abuse from a loved one.

Compulsion Review

October 30, 2011

By Heidi Ayarbe

Compulsion. Ten letters. Ten plus zero equals 10. Damn! Not good.

If you’re wondering what I’m raving about, wait until you dive into Compulsion and into the very chaotic head of seventeen-year-old Jake Martin, star soccer player and OCD sufferer.

Jake’s held prisoner by his compulsions – needing the time, or people’s words, or french fries or his steps and just about anything else countable to end up in a prime number. Having to do everything exactly the same every single day to keep the spiders from gnawing at his brain.

I’m a happy ending type of gal, but only when it warrants it. This didn’t warrant it. Mental illness is a complex problem that can’t be happy ended easily. Yet, I wanted Jake to have a happy ending so badly that I think I held my breath the last 20 pages of the book, hoping against hope he would.

I know, I know this is total opposite of how I felt with Leverage. And God only knows the characters in Leverage went through enough to deserve their pat ending. Still, Jake’s story is heart-wrenching. I needed him to catch a break.

This story could have easily been from the perspective of a kid who chooses to lurk in the shadows because of their disorder. You’d almost expect that since the compulsions are so intense, the assumption would be everyone would notice just how odd this kid is.

But Jake is the star soccer player on whose shoulders winning the team’s third championship in a row rests. He’s popular by sheer force of his athletic prowess. So hiding his OCD is an exhausting routine. I was tired right along with him by book’s end.

Although Compulsion attempts to tag a trigger to Jake’s disorder, the reality is it’s clearly genetic. Jake’s mom exhibits severe symptoms of mental illness and his sister slightly so. All the more reason Jake is a very sympathetic character.

He started out in a deficit thanks to his mother, making the odds of him catching that break I mentioned slim.

It’s complex stuff. But Ayarbe pulls the reader into Jake’s head. She doesn’t get into any clinical detail about mental illness or OCD. Instead, she forces the reader to experience the all-out hell it is when you can’t control your impulses and the effects on your mind and body both when you give in to them and when you can’t. It’s a hellish version of a Catch-22.

Readers who don’t mind dipping into the depths of the brain’s darkside will enjoy Compulsion. As an aside, although I don’t believe Jake was, many of the book’s other central characters were of Latino-descent. It threw me, at first, because there wasn’t any particular reason there should have been so many Latino characters – other than Ayarbe lives in Colombia and is clearly influenced by the culture. Still, I welcomed the diversity.

Brown Book Review: Bestest.Ramadan.Ever

October 26, 2011

In case you were wondering, the Cybils judging is going just fine. Thanks. Every waking second that I’m not working, writing or mommying/wifeing I’m reading. In reality, that’s not really a lot of seconds but for the first time in history my fast reading skills have come in handy. For once, consuming a book in an hour or less is a good thing! So stuff it to all those people, over the years, mad about my skills. The ones who claimed I was skimming or wasn’t getting as much out of the book simply because I happen to read at a pace faster than most. Look at me now!

Now then, on to the business at hand. Cybils judging has become about my ability to get my hands on books. As many of the books are new, my library system is either in process of ordering or simply don’t have. So my ability to get my hands on some of the brown book noms has been somewhat limited. So far there’s been The Queen of Water and now, Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. by Medeia Sharif.

Fifteen-year-old Almira Abdul has a lot going on. As her family observes Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, she’s dealing with competition from her best friend on her crush and a new Muslim girl at school who has opinions about everything including Almira’s chance at nabbing the guy of her dreams. It’s classic YA with a Muslim twist.

Anyone who has viewed even one of my posts here at BBS knows I have an extreme soft spot for brown books that portray brown characters as “everyday” kids who just happen to be brown. Every book has its place, but for too long brown books were boxed in to the point where even now, I think some parents would rather their child read only books with an African American protag that deals with our historical struggle or our modern-day struggle to rise up from poverty. Those parents don’t get it. But those of us who do will continue to write stories that feature people of color where race has nothing to do with it.

Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. is Sharif’s debut into YA. So it’s understandable that her first novel would center around Almira’s religion and her struggle to be an average American who just happens to be Muslim. There’s talk of a sequel and I imagine the next book we’ll see those aspects playing less of a part. But it’s part of the game to introduce brown characters and all their “differences” so we can get to the fact that even those differences make us all generally alike. In that respect, BRE delivers as an intro to what some Muslim teens experience in the mostly Christian public school arena.

Although Almira is fifteen, she comes off a little younger in voice. Not a bad thing, as I think BRE will appeal primarily to younger YA readers.

Sharif’s description of Almira’s battle to not cheat during Ramadan (this is the first year she’s attempting with conviction to successfully complete the fasting month) will give non-Muslim readers insight into something they likely know little to nothing about. And the battle between Almira and her grandad, who insists on teaching her Arabic, can translate across a variety of generational issues.

It’s good to see a contemporary pop fiction book featuring a Muslim protag and a diverse cast of other characters (Almira’s best friend is Latino). That alone makes it worth putting into the hands of young Muslim readers who want to see themselves portrayed outside the normal range of topics. I can almost feel Sharif’s need to pioneer this debut just to prove there’s an audience. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if her other goal is to prove the story itself will appeal beyond Muslim readers. But that’s where BRE’s weakness lies…appealing to other readers.

It can. But I think some readers may find the overarching Ramadan storyline repetitive. I almost found myself feeling like – let’s move on and stay focused on the meat of Almira’s issues with Lisa and the new, bold Muslim girl, Shakira. The book eventually does just that. But took a little longer to get there than some readers may have patience for.

I think Muslim readers will want more of Almira. I hope publishing, by now, respects how important it is for the vast array of brown teens to see themselves reflected in popular culture. But if Sharif wants to reach a wider circle of readers, there may have to be a smoother blend of Almira’s differences with her average teen struggles.

Cleopatra’s Moon Review

October 24, 2011

By Vicky Alvear Shecter

I like historical fiction – more than I realized until I became a total Ken Follett nut.

I like reading about ancient cultures. The past is fascinating to me because it’s already happened and can be analyzed and picked apart to death. I’m an overanalyzing kind of gal (the first step to curing a problem is owning up to it).

So, Cleopatra’s Moon came into my reading circle with two things squarely in its corner. Seriously, I was predisposed to like the book, right away. I don’t need to provide gory detail for you to know it didn’t bowl me over the way I expected. But rather than nitpick it apart (why exacerbate my overanalyzing problem, right?) I’ll say this…

Personally, whether or not a book was good is tied directly to whether it made me want to do one of two things: 1) did it make me want to clutch the book to my chest, carrying it everywhere I went reading every spare second only to fall into an exhausted heap when it’s over upset that the ride is over? and/or 2) did it give me that writing itch? When I read a book I love, I want to hop up from the sofa and race to the PC and get right back into my latest WIP because I’m so inspired.

This book didn’t invoke either of those.

Cleopatra’s Moon is well-written and from a historical perspective it provides a great deal of insight into what happened to the orphaned daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. But the latter is also why I didn’t enjoy it. I want a lot of fiction in my historical fiction and Cleopatra’s Moon was too heavy on the historical tidbits revolved around young Cleo’s life leading up to her parents death.

As intriguing as the backstory of young Cleo’s life was, this was YA.
Had the story been mainly revolved around Cleopatra’s love triangle and how that played a part in her choosing her own destiny, that would have suited me just fine. Lots of young readers will experience those sort of decisions and a good novel can entertain while giving insight.

History buffs may feel differently. The novel’s slow pace is suited best for those who want to absorb the nuances of the fact behind the fiction. But YA purists may find the book lacking in action relevant to a teen audience.