Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and The Racial Imagination- A Review and Audio Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Joan Edwards, a faithful follower of this blog, for winning Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power on last week's post.

I stumbled upon JUST AROUND MIDNIGHT: ROCK AND ROLL AND THE RACIAL IMAGINATION (Harvard University Press, 2016) while perusing Tantor Audio's huge list of audio books. Here's the blurb that drew my attention:
Rooted in rhythm-and-blues pioneered by black musicians, 1950s rock and roll was racially inclusive and attracted listeners and performers across the color line. In the 1960s, however, rock and roll gave way to rock: a new musical ideal regarded as more serious, more artistic-and the province of white musicians. Decoding the racial discourses that have distorted standard histories of rock music, Jack Hamilton underscores how ideas of "authenticity" have blinded us to rock's inextricably interracial artistic enterprise.
I requested the book thinking it might inform my novel, Half-Truths. To be honest, it was a scholarly (yet accessible) work that far exceeded my expectations. All it lacked were snippets from the multitude of songs and albums the author referenced.

I grew up in the 60's singing to the music coming from my father's transistor radio. I had no idea the cultural interchanges between white and black cultures that went on behind the scenes producing the lyrics I sang. I also did not know the personal life stories of the musicians. The author's extensive research and knowledge of music created a rich backdrop for this tumultuous time period. 

Here is just a sprinkling of the issues Hamilton addressed that I never considered as a teeny bopper listening to music at our neighborhood pool. 
  • Racial roots ran deep for the music that was popular in the 50's and 60's. 
  • Blacks felt as if their music was plundered involving issues of cultural ownership and racial authenticity. 
  • Hamilton traced the roots of 60's rock and roll back to the King of Soul, Sam Cooke, who he juxtaposed with Bob Dylan, the leader of the folk rock movement. 
  • Gospel music, slavery songs, civil rights, the southern freedom struggle and political unrest all influenced music. Similarly, there was dynamic back-and-forth movement as music itself influenced politics and culture. 
  • Protests against capitalism made big bucks for record companies. (Think of musicians in the 60's such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and of course, Bob Dylan himself.)
  • Music was made to be danced to and sold.
  • Performance and identity are intertwined for many musicians.
  • The term "invasion" should not have described the Beatles. There were tons of influences on the Beatles from this side of the Atlantic including Motown and Cuban music. Other influences included British blues (itself derived from American blues), Keith Richards, Tads, Skiffle
  • White artists performed black songs and vice versa.  For example, both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder sang Bob Dylan's songs. Aretha Franklin (the Queen of Soul), Janis Joplin (the Queen of Rock), and Dusty Springfield sang each other's music. Joplin sang black music in white-only venues; Franklin sang the Beatles, "Eleanor Rigby" in first person and made it into a rhythm and blues rendition that Hamilton called "audacious" and "genre bending". Hamilton went into great depth analyzing how each musician's rendition made a song his or her own and their motivation to assimilate the music into his/her own repertoire. 
  • What is soul? In Hamilton's words, "Soul is a way to think about race." According to some commentators at the time, "to have soul was to suffer unjustly at hands of whites." 
  • Do whites have the ethical right to play black music? If not, isn't this racism? The problem was that whites got paid more for their performances. 
  • There were musical commonalities between the Beatles and Ray Charles. Ideas of what white and black musicians can and cannot do, rarely hold up to scrutiny of musical practice. 
  • Often Jimmy Hendrix expressed his dismay at the Vietnam War through musical violence. To him, it was a critique of the society around him. But derogatory remarks made about him among critics often marked him as "other". 
  • The Rolling Stones were obsessively grounded in black roots. 

The narrator, Ron Butler, did an excellent job. I could listen to him read any book! Here is a sample from MIDNIGHT. If you are interested in delving into the cultural and musical environment of the 50's-early 70's, then this is a book for you. 

I'm giving away the MP3-CD that I received from Tantor Audio. It is encoded in MP3 format and is iPod ready but will play only on CD and DVD players or computers that have ability to play MP3 formatted disks. (That meant I could play it in one of our cars but not the other and it didn't work on an old CD player.) Please leave your email address if you are new to my blog. Giveaway ends June 2. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power: A Review and Giveaway

Cleopatra Edison Oliver is a fifth grade force to be reckoned with. Her superpower is the art of persuasion and she is convinced that she can not only create and market personalized hair clips ("Tell the world who you are!") to every girl in her grade, she's sure that her idol, talk show host, Fortune A. Davies, will endorse her. Following the pervious book, CLEO ADDISON OLIVER: PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE, PERSUASION POWER by Sundee T. Frazier (Scholastic Books, 2017) will appeal to 4th-6th grade girls.  

In one of the initial scenes Cleo's teacher, Mr. Boring, rebukes her for not focusing on their language arts lesson. Cleo admits that she can't imagine how metaphors or similes could be useful. Mr. Boring points out she used a metaphor in the ad copy for her passion clips. Like an inside joke, for the rest of the book Sundee Frazer sprinkles flavorful similes and metaphors into Cleo's thoughts and speech. For example, when Cleo thinks about another girl who became quickly popular she thinks, "The girl was all whipped cream and no pudding." 

Although this is a book about how Cleo translates her passion for hair clips into big sales, it is equally about Cleo wanting to find her birth parents. 
Her parents loved her. A lot. And yet lately she'd felt a growing desire to know more about her birth parents. To have a relatives list of her own. To see herself in her family. To have some clues about what she might look like all grownup. (p.73)
The author uses an apt simile to describe Cleo's feelings about her adoption: 
She had her parents. But something else--a gnawing, like hunger, except it wasn't in her stomach--told her that something was missing. She just wanted to know: Did they [her birth parents] remember her, wonder about her too? (p.82)
Cleo comes up with a foolproof plan to find her birth mom. She'll become a "kidpreneur" on Fortune's show, her birth mom will see her and contact her. When her mother warns against getting her hopes up too high, 
Cleo lets the words slide off her like grease on a non-stick pan. She was a seed in dirt, a dog chasing a scent, a dentist with a scaler! Nothing--not even her overly cautious mom--could stop her from trying to reach Fortune. (p.107)
Despite anxiety over meeting her birth father, she tells him, "I'm a girl with big dreams who won't let anything stop her. I may be young, I may be small, but I'm as persistent as the Itsy-Bitsy Spider." Her birth father gets a funny look on his face and she's worried that she said something wrong until he says, "That's exactly how I was when I was your age."
Suddenly, she was flinging her arms around his middle and hugging him as hard as she could. His arms hovered above her, then slowly he embraced her, ...and the feeling of her birth dad's arms around her mingled together and became a memory she would never forget--a coin in the piggy bank of herself that she would never, ever spend. (p. 228)
And even though Cleo never appears on Fortune's television show, the ending leaves the reader with a satisfied smile. I have just two points of critique. As much as I enjoyed this fast-paced contemporary novel, I would have liked if better if Caylee, Cleo's "business partner" was a little more developed and provided more push-back. It seemed as if Caylee was always hard at work creating the passion clips and worried over Cleo taking on more orders than they could manage--but there didn't appear to be consequences of Cleo's choice to turn over the majority of the "manufacturing" to her best friend. Similarly, Cleo spends a lot of class and homework time daydreaming about her business passions without any  consequences to her grades. 

This book will entertain the lower middle grade crowd and I have a paperback copy to give away. (My apologies in advance; the book arrived from the publisher with creases in the cover.) Leave me a comment by May 26 and your email address if you are new to my blog, and I'll enter your name in the giveaway. It would be a great book for your daughter, granddaughter, or to add to your classroom library. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Nerdy Books Blog

As blog schedules may have it, I was a guest blogger on Nerdy Books the day after I blogged for Kirby Larson. If you're not familiar with this comprehensive blog for readers, I hope you'll check them out. They have several different types of essays throughout the week; click on "Posts" and browse around.

In my Nerdy blog last week, I highlighted ten mentor texts that have helped me as I've written Half-Truths. Next week I plan to be back in your inbox with another book review and giveaway. Thanks to all of you for your support. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friend Friday: Guest Blogger for Kirby Larson and a First Page Critique

Congratulations to Joan Edwards who won SOPHIE QUIRE and THE LAST STORYGUARD off last week's blog.

I've been a Kirby Larson fan ever since I read Hattie Big Sky followed by Hattie Ever After. I recently reviewed two of Kirby's newer books Audacity Steals the Show and Liberty. I was honored when she invited me to write a guest blog for her!

Can you imagine what my topic is? 

For the answer, check out this Friend Friday post and leave a comment. I'm also offering a first page critique; you have until May 17 to enter the giveaway. Make sure to leave your email address if I don't already have it. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Avi, Auxier, Life after Death, and "Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard" Giveaway

Congratulations to Connie Saunders who won CALL ME SUNFLOWER from last week's blog.

This week I'm taking on a difficult topic: life after death. I have recently read two middle grade books which include references to eternal life. Although not the central theme of Avi's THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS or Jonathan Auxier's SOPHIE QUIRE, protagonists in both books experience the death of important secondary characters. 


In Medieval England Sybil, a young servant girl, is in bondage to Thurston, an alchemist determined to make gold and procure eternal life. In his quest, he creates green stones that give him magical powers and eternal life when swallowed. After swallowing the first stone, he "dies" but then comes back to life 20 years younger. In fact, he dies three time. 

"I must live because I don't want to die," he says. Each time Thurston thought he had outwitted death and was enabled to live life all over again. In an almost contradictory note, the narrator concludes that there is no magic because magic takes away what it gives, but life gives what it takes. 


Auxier provides a rich sequel to PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES, which I listened to and enjoyed. Sophie Quire, a twelve-year-old bookmender is enlisted by Peter Nimble to save the world from the imminent destruction of all its storybooks. The Herculean quest on which Sophie and Peter proceed is layered with literary allusions, beautiful imagery, and the importance of books--often with inside jokes that writers will enjoy. 

I smiled at this reference to the hero's journey:
She had read enough stories in her life to be familiar with the trope in which heroes make a great show of being reluctant when told they must embark on a dangerous quest. They often refuse the call to adventure, only to change their minds at the very last moment. This had always bothered Sophie, who thought that such dithering was both unrealistic and unheroic. But now that she was the hero and she was being told she must embark on a dangerous quest, she suddenly understood just how difficult it was to take that first step. (p. 159)
But like THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS, after important secondary characters die, magic brings them back to life.


In these novels for boys and girls, both Avi and Auxier are grappling with a huge truth: death happens. In my mind, they unveil the universal fear of one's own mortality. People don't want to die and would rather imagine they can live forever. 

Most young people don't think about death as a fact of life, unless confronted by the death of a close friend ore relative. How should writers who are writing for the children's or young adult market take on this subject?

Avi and Auxier chose to provide magical answers. To the question of what happens after death they've answered, "Magic can allow you to live forever." In my estimation, there is only one author and book that doesn't shy away from this tough subject and doesn't offer magic as the answer. 

In the gospel of John, there is a record of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just prior to this miracle Jesus tells Lazarus' sisters, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." (John 11: 25-25, New King James Version)

Jesus went on to demonstrate his power over death by rising from the dead, a miracle that was witnessed by the disciples on several occasions (Matthew 28: 16-17, Luke 24: 13-16, John 20: 1-2, 19, 24, by Paul (Acts 9: 3-5), and by 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).

I think that layered underneath Avi and Auxier's magical portrayal of characters coming to life is a fear of death itself. The author of Hebrews (most likely Paul) writes, 
"Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Hebrews 2: 14)
There is life after death--but it's not obtained through magic. 


For those of you who are my friends or faithful blog followers, you know that I don't often reference my faith in my book reviews or on this blog. I had such a strong reaction to both of these books that I felt compelled to write a response from a Christian perspective.

If you are interested in receiving my hard copy of SOPHIE QUIRE (provided by the publisher, Abrams) please leave me a comment by May 6th with your email address if you think I don't have it. I look forward to your comments about this post or  your thoughts on other children's books which have tackled this difficult topic of death. 


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