Review: Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Candlewick. 2011. Audio: Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by JD Jackson. Odyssey Honor Book.

The Plot:  Twelve year old Cole’s mother doesn’t know what to do with Cole. He’s cut so much school that he may be left back, he’s getting into trouble, there’s nothing else for her to try  — so she drives from Detroit to Philadelphia, to leave him with the father he hasn’t seen since he was an infant.

Northwest Philly is just like Detroit… Except for the horses. Horses? In the city? And his father is one of the people who rides and takes care of horses? Impossible, thinks Cole: cowboys don’t live in cities. Cowboys aren’t black. His father can’t be a cowboy!

Except his father is a cowboy. Cole is about to learn some lessons: about life, about family, about horses. And about cowboys.

The Good: JD Jackson’s narration was excellent! I felt like Cole was right there in the car with me, telling me his story.

Cole, his mother, and his father are all stubborn. Cole is skipping school and getting into trouble, even though he’s smart enough to know better. His mother was stubborn enough to exclude Cole’s father from their lives and, now that she fears that her son is on a path that she is powerless to stop, is stubborn enough to drive him from Detroit to Philadelphia to a man he doesn’t know, in a last ditch effort to put Cole on a better path. Cole’s father is stubborn enough that when Cole’s mother took her infant son and left, he let them go. Cole is stubborn in his reluctance to see anything positive about the stranger that is his father.

Cole may be stubborn, but he’s not so stubborn to let pride or anger get in his way. Despite himself, he is curious about these “ghetto cowboys,” and learns a bit about their history and culture. Cole connects to one of the horses, and that connection, becoming responsible for another’s well being and safety, gives him a positive place to put his stubbornness, his independence, his strength and intelligence. It’s not just caring for a horse: it’s fighting for them. Cole’s visit to his father coincides with a city crack down on such urban stables, which threatens both the stables, their horses, and their riders, but also the positive contributions those cowboys and stables make to their local communities.

I love learning about subcultures; here, learning about cowboys in cities. Who knew? I didn’t! As G. Neri explains in a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations, the ghetto cowboy plot is based on real life. There really are such stables! Before this book, when I heard “horse” I thought of two types of people. Wealthy people, who can afford to buy and care for a horse. Or people in the country, who work with horses. This opened up my eyes to a bigger world.

Because I loved Cole. Because JD Jackson’s narration made me feel like this was happening around me. Because I am fascinated by these cowboys. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Girls in the Stacks (with author interview).

Review: Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Review copies from publisher. Listened to audio. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Plot: One minute, Alex is hiking, trying to figure out her future and deal with her past. Sounds typical for a seventeen year old, but her future is complicated by an inoperable brain tumor and her past by the death of her parents four years before.

An electromagnetic pulse changes that.

Suddenly, the world changes.

No electronics are working. Alex find herself responsible for Ellie, an angry eight year old who just saw her grandfather die from the pulse. At first, they think the dangers they face are low supplies, a rough trek to the ranger’s station, and wild dogs.

Then they return into two teenagers. Unlike Alex and Ellie, these kids are changed. They eat flesh. Human flesh.

Alex and Ellie find another survivor, Tom, who hasn’t changed, and band together to figure out what happened and what to do next. Along the way, the encounter other survivors and discover that most teens have become wild flesh-eaters. In response, the surviving seniors are not welcoming towards kids they suspect may change any moment.

Should they head to a big city? Somewhere with less people? Would a military base be safe? Or have any towns survived?

Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, which appears to offer safety. She discovers flesh-eating teens and armed bandits aren’t the only things to worry about.

The Good: So many things!

There is Alex. Her father was a police officer; her mother, a doctor; and both enjoyed camping. The type of camping that meant teaching their only daughter survivalist-type skills: she knows how to make a debris shelter, what to do to make water drinkable, can read maps and knows her way around a gun. If anyone can survive the end of the world as we know it, it’s Alex.

One of the things I liked about at Alex? At times, I didn’t like her. She’s in a hurt, bitter, selfish place at the beginning of the story. Her parents are dead, she’s taken their ashes, her own future is bleak because of the brain tumor, she’s gone through years of treatment, she doesn’t even have a sense of smell anymore. There is more than a hint that she brought her father’s gun with her for more than protection.

When the pulse happens, Alex is thinking of herself, not Ellie, and acts accordingly. Keep in mind, at this point Ellie is challenging her fear, anger and grief into stubborness and whining. In short: she’s a brat. Honestly? At this stage, Alex is so caught up in herself that she doesn’t handle the situation well. That’s OK; she’s only seventeen. An important part of the story is Alex’s own progress from an understandably self-centered teen to someone who thinks about others. It’ s not just that, of course. Whether by her own hand or not, Alex was preparing for death. Now, she’s fighting to stay alive/

Alex and Ellie meet Tom, a young soldier on leave. The situation means Alex begins to think about others: hey, there’s nothing like fighting for survival to bond people together.

Alex’s brain tumor had affected her physically. After the pulse? Those symptoms go away. Not only can she smell; she has a super sense of smell. Is that why she wasn’t turned into a flesh-eater? Why wasn’t Tom? Alex tries to figure it out, based on what she knows of the handful of teens who didn’t change. Tom had nightmares from his time in the middle east; does that mean anything?

About halfway through, the book changes from one of adventurist survival to a different type of survival. Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, a place that has survived fairly intact and safe. She finds out it’s not as safe as it appears to be. I’ll be honest, for some reason I had an easier time believing in the flesh-eating teens than I did in Rule. I understand that society would change because of the pulse, the deaths, the flesh eaters; but it seems like Rule had always been — different. Controlled by a handful of families. Religious, but not quite like any traditional religion. It didn’t help that the story is told from Alex’s point of view, so all I know about Rule is what Alex knows or what she guesses.

The narration is terrific! Kellgren kept me on the edge of my seat. I listen to audiobooks during my commute (roughly an hour each way), and sometimes I had to just sit for a few minutes to calm down.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. It ends with a shocking reveal and a “how are you going to get out of this one” cliffhanger. I have a feeling that some of the things that frustrate or confuse me about Rule will be revealed. I can’t wait to read the next book!

Other reviews: Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith Joint Discussion; S. Krishna’s Books; Stacked; The Book Smugglers