Tracks by Jim Black

Tracks

Tracks

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1968 in the small town of Archer City, Texas.  Fifteen-year-old Jim and his friends, Charles and Gary, are freshmen in high school and the world is suddenly full of hope and possibility…and broken hearts, broken noses, and a few bruised egos.  Yes, life is good until strange things begin to happen.  There are reports of livestock being found mutilated just outside of town and rumors of satanic cults and aliens begin swirling around faster than a Texas dust storm.  Every nerve in town is raw and on edge and that could only mean one thing: the time is absolutely ripe for Jim, Charles, and Gary to pull off a prank worthy of the ages.

Tracks is the sequel to Jim Black’s delightful and humorous semi-autobiographical River Season.  I was gifted my copy of Tracks by the author himself (who also kindly signed it) who mailed it to me after reading my review of his first book and noting that I was looking for a copy of his sequel.  I must say, I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading Tracks.  Would it capture the same magic and nostalgia as its predecessor?  What if I didn’t like it?  How can I tell an author, who personally sent me a copy of his book, that it fell a little flat and then afterwards, how would I be able to fake my own death?  I shouldn’t have worried because Tracks captures the same heart, soul, and humanity that originally endeared me to three teenaged lads in a small Texas town.

Like Black, I grew up in a small, southern town.  During the 1970s, my town had a population of only 646 and I remember the barbershop with the lighted barber’s pole, the diner, the hardware store, post office, service station, bank, library, and courthouse that stood along Main Street.  Black’s novel isn’t just a story about the special bond of friendship and how family goes way beyond blood, it’s a sentimental and tender journey back to a time when after a fight or a bad date, all it took to set the world right again was a fried fruit pie and a flavored Coke with your best friends sitting beside you in the corner booth.  A time when you walked into the diner and all you had to be asked was, “The usual?”  A time when your mom served you Malt-O-Meal for breakfast, you played Parcheesi with your grandmother on Sunday, and you sat around the television set watching Bonanza at night.  It was a time when friendship meant that someone always had your back and was ready to offer up a hand or a shoulder when needed.  It’s a story about life and everything that goes with it: humor and heartbreak, hope and disappointment, pitfalls and promises.  It’s the uncertainty and the adventure that makes life worth living and a story that each of us writes for ourselves with every breath we take.

I will never be able to thank Jim Black enough for his kindness and generosity for sending me Tracks (he sent me a second book which I will be reading and reviewing in the very near future).  I read because I love getting lost in a story and I write because it is what God gifted me to do.  When the two meet and happen to come across an appreciative eye, it makes life all the more sweet.

Ben Franklin once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”  With the help of his two best friends in the world, Jim Black was able to accomplish both.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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River Season by Jim Black

River Season

River Season

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

I think my mom’s patience with Charles, Gary, and myself stemmed from years of working on the pediatric floor at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Maybe seeing so many sick and dying kids makes you look at your own in a different light.  I don’t know.  I do know she was not overly protective or strict back then.  I really think she just wanted us to enjoy the privilege of being kids, and I’ve always loved her for that.  It was easier back then, too, because times were different.  In our small town, we really did sleep with doors unlocked and windows open.  I know now those were the best of times.

Jim Black was thirteen in the summer of 1966.  Growing up in Archer City, Texas with his two best friends, Gary Beesinger and Charles Luig, life was great.  This summer, Jim had big plans: playing baseball, mowing lawns, and hanging out with his friends.  What he didn’t plan on was meeting Samuel “Sam” Joseph Washington, an older black man from the other side of town.  This man, who decided to take up residency at his favorite fishing spot, would not only grow to be a father figure to Jim, but would also become his friend and would show Jim the value of acceptance, generosity, and love.

In an interview with Brothers Judd (brothersjudd.com), Jim Black explained that There’s a River Down in Texas (which, after the addition of fifty pages, would later become River Season) is largely autobiographical with the remainder being pure fiction.  River Season gives us a warm, sometimes bittersweet, and nostalgic look at growing up in small-town America during a time when the only things on a boy’s mind were baseball, pretty girls, hanging out with friends, and getting into just enough mischief to make life interesting but not enough to get you arrested.  It was a simpler time when you knew who your friends were and, more importantly, who your enemies were.  Bullies were never anonymous and disagreements were settled swiftly resulting in either an inflated ego or a black eye.

I picked up River Season at a secondhand book store and after visiting Black’s website (jimblackbooks.com), this may be the only way for interested readers to obtain copies of his books.  Black explains that all contracts with his publisher have been cancelled and his books are no longer being produced.  I hope lightning strikes twice and I am able to find his sequel Tracks so that I can follow a fifteen-year-old Jim as he tackles high school, bullies, and a broken heart.

Although River Season does touch upon the racial tensions that occurred in the 1960s South, Black is not overly preachy on the subject.  He could have easily made this the focal point of his story, but he instead concentrates on the friendship between himself, Charles, and Gary, as well the touching bond he shared with Sam.  American author and businessman, Arthur H. Glasow, once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”  Most of us would be fortunate to have just one friend like this.  Jim Black was blessed to have found three.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com

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Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (YA)

Under the Mesquite

Under the Mesquite  

Guadalupe Garcia McCall (Young Adult Fiction)

Lupita knows that her Mami has a secret that she is hiding from her and her seven siblings.  She hears her talking with her comadres in their hushed words and sees their furtive glances.  Something is different.  Something is wrong.  Then Lupita hears the word that Mami keeps tucked behind closed doors…”cancer”.  Suddenly, Lupita has to deal with her mother’s chemo treatments, her best friend’s sudden ridicule, and her upcoming 15th birthday.  Through it all, she has her writing.  For a brief moment, Lupita is able to block out the world and find solace as she pours out her feelings under the sanctuary of her family’s mesquite tree.

McCall gives us inspiration through tragedy as she delivers a compelling story written entirely in free verse.  Although this is a quick read (a slow read is encouraged), the author provides an enormous amount of depth, detail, and emotion by using just a few words proving that less is indeed more.

I enjoyed seeing Lupita go between her homeland of Mexico and her current home in the United States.  McCall’s use of Spanish words throughout the book gives the story a richness that allows us to totally immerse ourselves in Lupita’s culture and world.  These two halves of her life are very different, but somehow fit seamlessly to give us a whole girl who is headstrong, caring, and mature beyond her years.

In the beginning of the story, a mesquite tree unexpectedly grows in the middle of Mami’s prized rose garden.  But over time, this intrusion is a welcomed and comforting presence.  Through pruning, the tree has grown to be quite lovely, but it is not its beauty that strikes Lupita.

“I envy the mesquite

its undaunted spirit, its ability to turn

even a disabling pruning

into an unexpected opportunity

to veer in a different direction,

flourishing more profusely than before”.

It would be wonderful if we were all just a little bit more like the mesquite tree:  growing stronger after being weakened, finding new opportunities through loss, and thriving wherever planted.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Jacqueline Kelly (Young Adult Fiction)

Calpurnia Tate is 11 years old (almost 12!) and having quite the summer.  It’s 1899 in Fentress, Texas and her sole objective at the moment is staying cool…which is proving to be quite impossible.  Priorities soon shift when her brother Harry gives her a small, red notebook and tells her she can use it to record her daily observations.  You see, Calpurnia loves to watch things, and after she watches things, she has questions—lots and lots of questions.  One of those questions brings her to her grandfather who presents her with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  This singular gesture not only marks the beginning of their relationship, but it also sets Calpurnia’s life in a direction that’s very different from the one her mother has planned for her.

I really enjoyed Calpurnia’s character—a girl ahead of her time who dismisses the notion that women can only be teachers, nurses, or wives.  Instead, she is eager to trade her knitting needles for a microscope and her cookbook for a science book.  Kelly gives us a strong and feisty heroine who loves, angers, disappoints, and surprises yet through it all, never loses her sense of self or what is most important to her.  I also loved seeing her relationship with her grandfather deepen as their shared love of nature and science draws them closer.  The author does leave a few unanswered questions at the end of the book which may frustrate some readers, but these loose ends are not enough to detract from a likeable main character and a charming, witty story.

Grandfather Tate once told Calpurnia, “It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look.”   I hope The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate encourages all of us to disconnect from our devices long enough to reconnect with the beauty and majesty that surrounds us in the natural world.  All we have to do is sit quietly and look.

Rating: 4/5