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Book Recs: Kansas City book lovers share their summer must-reads

Rows of historical books on display at a library.
Claudia Brancart

Lucy Donnelly of the Kansas City Public Library, Cori Smith of the BLK+BRWN Bookstore and Mark Luce of the Barstow School join us to share their favorite books to get you out of the hot sun.

The breeziness of summer is the perfect time of the year to catch up on your reading.

Whether you're looking for an exciting novel to give you an escape on your vacation or a thinker, all three of our critics have amazing fantasy, classic and non-fiction works to share.

BLK + BRWN Bookstore owner Cori Smith says she's been diving into some classic Black literature, and she and Reading Specialist Lucy Donnelly of the Kansas City Public Library have been getting into some exciting romance. Mark Luce, chair of the Barstow School's English Department, shares some classic and contemporary non-fiction literature.

Lucy Donnelly's recommendations

"The Secret History of Home Economics" by Danielle Dreilinger

Home Economics has had its good name smeared by generations of disenchanted high school students, but what if Home Economics is something more than training to be a good homemaker? Danielle Dreilinger uncovers the rich history of the scientific field of Home Economics in a richly detailed and compelling fashion. Within these pages, learn how Home Economics was once a revolutionary field giving space to scientific discovery for women at a time when they were not permitted in other scientific fields of study.

"Lore Olympus: Volume Six" by Rachel Smythe

Lore Olympus is an award winning graphic novel perfect for fans of re-imagining Greek mythology with a healthy dose of romance. In Volume Six, we find Persephone at her lowest. Her magic spiraling out and Hades is desperate to keep her safe. The tension between the two leads is palpable, leaving the audience screaming, 'When will these two get together for real!' Smythe is a master at fleshing out and modernizing the Hades-Persephone myth through conversations on sexual assault, familial expectations and the pain of being in an unloving marriage. Come for the romance and stay for the rich characters and stunning art style.

"Escargot and the Search for Spring" by Dashka Slater and Sydney Hanson

A delightful picture book for readers of all ages! Within these pages Dashka Slater and illustrator Sydney Hanson have crafted an adorable and sweet world with a snail as our main character. "Escargot and the Search for Spring" is the most recent installment in the saga of Escargot learning how to make friends and engage in the world around him. Who will Escargot make friends with this time and what new French words will you learn? This series is perfect for readers looking for something light, humorous and a reminder of the joys of childhood.

"Beyond Getting By" by Holly Trantham

What do you do once you have mastered budgets? Enter Holly Trantham’s "Beyond Getting By," a treatise on how to contextualize financial stability and prosperity. While there's no prescription for how to become a millionaire or for picking the perfect stocks within these pages, there are chapter length essays encouraging readers to engage with defining a personal brand of success beyond just the financial. "Beyond Getting By" is a perfect continuation of "The Financial Diet" brand of financial advice and will encourage readers to break the mold of financial success.

"A Touch of Darkness" by Scarlett St. Clair

In the first installment of her Hades-Persephone saga, Scarlett St. Clair raises the question: "What if the Greek gods are real and live amongst us today?" Persephone pretends to be a mortal while attending college and not even her best friend knows her secret. Everything will change when one night she attends a party makes a deal with the King of the Underworld without even realizing. Can Persephone, the goddess of spring with no magic of her own, create life in the underworld in time or will she lose her freedom? The spice level of this seductive book is high! A perfect book for those looking to explore something a tad darker in the genre of romance.

Cori Smith's recommendations

“The Legacy of Orisha Trilogy” by Toni Adeyemi

An epic saga set in a West African-inspired world, this trilogy follows a group of teens as they fight to bring back magic for good. In book one, the teens are tasked with finding and protecting sacred artifacts in hopes of restoring magic back to their country, simultaneously fighting against tyranny and oppression. By book three the entire world has been thrown into disarray and there’s a new evil king to worry about. The teens fight mercilessly to stay alive and save the world they know. The series is both brutal and magical, with the kind of suspense and action that will keep you on the edge of your seat. They managed to bring back magic — but can they keep it from falling into the wrong hands?

"Go Tell it on the Mountain" by James Baldwin

This is a timeless masterpiece that delves deep into the complexities of faith, family and identity. Set in 1930s Harlem, Baldwin paints a vivid portrait of young John Grimes as he navigates growing up in a strict religious household overshadowed by hidden secrets and personal struggles. Baldwin's prose is lyrical and evocative, capturing the emotional intensity of a young man's journey towards self-discovery and acceptance. A classic novel that continues to resonate due to a powerful portrayal of the human experience.

"Blood at the Root" by LaDarrion Williams

In this debut novel, we meet Malik, a teenager on the run from his past life as he finds the family he never knew existed. Malik’s life changed forever after his mother vanished and he discovered he had magical powers. After hopping from one foster family to the next, he finally decides to strike out on his own and head for California. Malik stumbles across a magical HBCU and another conjurer and who helps him find information about his mother and reconnect with his family.

“You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty” by Akwaeke Emezi

 A steamy romance with a second chance and a little forbidden love. It’s been five years since Feyi lost her husband unexpectedly in an accident. She’s living the dream now as an artist, with her own studio and a beautiful brownstone she shares with her best friend. She even started dating the perfect guy — until she locks eyes with the one person she absolutely should not

“Sula” by Toni Morrison

This novel is a raw and honest exploration of the bond between two Black women. Sula and Nel are two friends growing up on opposite sides of the tracks in a small Ohio town. They share everything with one another from secrets to dreams. Sula eventually decides to leave their small town to find herself and explore the world. Nel stays and starts a family, keeping to the traditions of their community. After a decade apart the two are finally reunited. Things have changed between them and their friendship quickly becomes strained. True to her fashion, Toni Morrison unravels themes of love, betrayal and self-discovery in a way that’s uniquely Morrison.

Mark Luce's recommendations

“My Favorite Thing is Monsters,” Vol. 1 & 2 by Emil Ferris

Emil Ferris shook the graphic novel world with the release of her 2017 masterpiece “My Favorite Thing is Monsters.” Told from the perspective of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, the novel is part coming of age, part murder mystery and part family memoir. While the storytelling shines, Ferris’ unique panels — cross-hatched colorful ball-point pens on lined notebook papers — are the real star here. She also breaks up the narrative with fictional covers of monster magazines. By turns horrific and hilarious, Ferris’ two volume set will surprise even the most accomplished of readers.

“Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock and Roll History” by Bill Janovitz 

This magisterial biography, written spryly by the founder of Boston power-pop trio Buffalo Tom, examines the good, the bad and the ugly of piano impresario, record producer, singer, songwriter and all-around raconteur Leon Russell. Russell, from humble beginnings in Tulsa rose to a must-have session player with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Phil Spector, the Beach Boys to Jerry Lee Lewis. Janovitz catalogs Russell’s extraordinary career that would at times ebb and flow due to Russell’s substance abuse, stage fright and health issues. Readers will walk away with Russell’s sheer importance to the rock world and a career that was as wild as it was long.

“There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension” by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, has turned himself into one of the foremost non-fiction writers around. While ostensibly about basketball, the book also delves into memoir, religion, music, neighborhoods, racial issues and flight. Abdurraqib’s vulnerability really comes to the fore here, whether describing his eviction from an apartment or his time in county lock-up. There’s a lyricism here that sings circles around other writers. If you don’t know Abdurraqib’s work, you can start here or try "A Little Devil in America,” an amazing look at Black performance.

“Big Ideas from Literature” by School of Life Press

While this volume from the Britain-based School of Life may be best suited for younger readers, adults can learn something from this quiet, wise book as well. In fact, I like it so much I will use it in my high school literature classes this fall. It’s a book about what we get from literature, but not in a pedantic, school-marm sense. To the School of Life Press, literature is “more about understanding yourself and the world around you a bit better. It means being able to understand your feelings and getting better at dealing with the millions of problems (big and small) that come from being human and having to live with other just as complicated people.” The book is a smart, witty well-illustrated guide to the rich rewards of reading.

“Four Kings” by George Kimball

Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns and the “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler are middleweight pugilists who ruled the ring in the 1980s. They wowed the boxing world over the course of nine fights against each other. Kimball, an elite boxing writer for the Boston Herald, takes us ringside for the fireworks, but also gives readers the often seedy world of boxing. Kimball writes with authority, precision and a healthy skepticism of the business side of boxing. Fans of the sweet science will love this classic book and will undoubtedly lead them to re-watching these epic fights online.

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As a host and contributor at KCUR, I seek to create a more informed citizenry and richer community. I want to enlighten and inspire our audience by delivering the information they need with accuracy and urgency, clarifying what’s complicated and teasing out the complexities of what seems simple. I work to craft conversations that reveal realities in our midst and model civil discourse in a divided world. Follow me on Twitter @ptsbrian or email me at brian@kcur.org.
Sireen Abayazid is the Up To Date intern. She is a native of Omaha and a recent graduate of Mizzou, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Email her at sabayazid@kcur.org.
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