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Reviews of the Week with Sarah Deming, Jokha Alharthi, Kekla Magoon, and More!

Every weekday, we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

The story of a fiercely determined young woman who makes a better life for herself and her brother through her passion for boxing; a groundbreaking Man Booker International Prize winner that depicts the deep roots in an Omani family; the multiperspective account of a young Black girl tragically shot by a police officer; the beautiful portrayal of a young Muslim girl’s decision on the color of her new hijab; a poetic and illustrated cityscape of an ever-changing neighborhood in Chicago. Courageous voices for all readers are in this week’s Reviews of the Day, posted between September 9 and September 13, below.

Monday, September 9

Gravity, by Sarah Deming

Sixteen-year-old Gravity Delgado is making her mark on the world of amateur women’s boxing, with a Golden Gloves victory under her belt and undefeated status in the ring. Finding the Cops ‘n Kids boxing gym in Brooklyn was her salvation, quickly changing from a place where she could simply channel her anger at her drunk, abusive mom to Gravity’s ticket to a better life with her kid brother, Ty. Now the Olympic trials for the 2016 games in Rio are approaching and Gravity is training hard to knock out any competition among her fellow Lightweights and secure a spot on the U.S. team. Deming’s own background as a boxer, coach, and sports journalist comes through in vivid writing that slings sweat and pulls no punches. Fights and sparring matches are energetically relayed and exciting to follow, even for those unfamiliar with the sport. She also provides narrative variation by inserting accounts of fights and boxing news from a respected boxing blog that Gravity follows. Though fiercely passionate about boxing, Gravity’s love for Ty is unrivaled, and their relationship is tenderly depicted.

Tuesday, September 10

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth

Altharthi makes literary history as the first female Omani author to be translated into English and as author of the first novel written in Arabic to win the Man Booker International Prize. She shares that extraordinary success with translator and Oxford professor Booth, who reveals, “I like very much that Jokha does not write for readers who do not know Oman: she does not try to explain things.” Indeed, Althari’s unique structure demands vigilant participation as it is more jigsaw puzzle than linear narrative, and the skeletal family tree provided proves useful. Set against Oman’s rapid shifts during the twentieth century from slave-owning nation to oil-rich international presence are three generations of an upper-class Omani family: Salima, who survived a difficult childhood, and her husband, Azzan, who can’t resist the pull of the moon (goddess); their three (surviving) children—dutiful Mayya, book-obsessed Asma, and waiting Khawla—and Mayya and her husband Abdallah’s children: independent London, irresponsible Salim, and Muhammad, who has special needs. Most memorable perhaps is enslaved Zarifa, excluded from the family tree yet integrally bonded.

Wednesday, September 11

Light It Up, by Kekla Magoon

Magoon’s latest novel houses an unapologetic, poignant narrative that forces readers to come face-to-face with the harsh realities of racial violence and racial profiling in America. Shae is a 13-year-old Black girl who leaves school one day and never makes it home. Rather, she is shot and killed by a police officer for doing nothing more than wearing headphones and simply existing, her body left lying in the street for hours. Her senseless death rocks her community and affects the lives of many around her. Following Shae’s murder, unrest mounts in her community, and protesters bearing the message that Black Lives Matter clash with white-supremacist demonstrators. This tragic, timely story unfurls in vignettes told from various perspectives of those closest to Shae and her death, including an officer on the scene, Shae’s friends, and her sister.

Thursday, September 14

The Proudest Blue, by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S. K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly

The first day of school is also the first day of hijab for little Faizah’s sixth-grade sister, Asiya, who selects a beautiful shade of blue to wear. Faizah sees her sister as a princess, but not everyone shares her perspective. “What’s that on your sister’s head?” asks a classmate. At recess, someone shouts, “I’m going to pull that tablecloth off your head!” These moments teach Faizah to represent her culture with confidence: her whispered answers grow louder; she and her sister walk away from the bully. Muhammad and Ali’s poetic prose has a reminiscent quality, with short sentences setting a thoughtful rhythm (“Mama holds out the pink. Mama loves pink. But Asiya shakes her head. I know why. Behind the counter is the brightest blue”) that allows the flourishes to shine (“The color of the ocean, if you squint your eyes and pretend there’s no line between the water and the sky”). Aly’s ink-wash-and-pencil illustrations settle and soar along with the language, swapping seamlessly between the concrete setting and metaphoric reflections on Asiya’s hijab, the scarf’s blue tail flowing out into curls of ocean or sky.

Friday, September 13

Everything Must Go: The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood, by Kevin Coval and illustrated by Langston Allston

Coval (A People’s History of Chicago, 2017) rhapsodizes about his hometown of Chicago in this latest poetry collection. Accompanied by Langston Allston’s illustrations, this series of profiles, vignettes, and discursive rants present a time capsule of late-1990s Chicago, when Coval returned to his family’s old neighborhood in Wicker Park to settle and make a life of his own. A Portrait of the Artist in the Hood expresses the poet’s inner conflict about moving back: “what does it mean when we appear / the children of white flight / back / again”. In laments over gentrification, Coval speaks for his neighbors and a neighborhood that slowly and detrimentally changes over time. Progressive anthems spring up, hailing the rewards of difficult, service-oriented work as in “Café Matou,” which sonorously describes each staff member and their impact on the poet’s life and “Ode to the Waitress,” which showers idiosyncratic compliments to all who have waited on him. Coval’s poems are accessible even as the references are personal, and Allston’s drawings strengthen the connection.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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