Thornhill

by Pam Smy
First sentence: “I knew it was too good to last.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 29. 2017
Content: It’s creepy and the bullying gets intense. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful giving it to overly sensitive kids.

It’s 1982, and Mary is an orphan at Thornhill, in its final days. The orphans are being sent to other places, or place in foster homes. That is, except Mary — who has a form of selective mutism; she mostly can’t talk because of anxiety — and her nemesis, a girl we only know as “her” (I can’t remember ever reading a name, and as I went to find one, I couldn’t). Mary is bullied by her: psychologially, mostly, but also physically. But because she’s subtle about it, and because Mary is so terrified, she is never caught.

In a page taken from Brian Selznick’s books, Smy also tells a contemporary story, in which Ella and her father move into the house next to Thornhill, which has been closed for 30+ years, ever since a mysterious death of one of the orphans. Ella sees a girl in the window one night, and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is (Mary, of course!) and how she died.

This is a completely creepy book. Seriously. Not just the color palate; done in stark black and white, it adds to the sense of foreboding that is in the text. It’s got ghosts and dolls and psychological elements. It’s pretty intense. Which, if you like that sort of book, is a good thing.

Mask of Shadows

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: “The thick, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 29, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, one f-bomb, and lots of violence. I’m pretty sure it’s okay in the YA section (grades 6-8), though with a caveat for younger, more sensitive readers.

Sal Leon is  many things: a refugee from a war, of which they were the only survivor of their people. A thief. Ambitious. Reckless. And set on revenge for the lords who were responsible for the razing of their land. So when they come into the possession of an audition poster for the Queen’s Left Hand — a group of highly trained assassins in the service of the queen — Sal decides to take the chance. But little do they know that the trial is to the death, and that there will be many obstacles in their way.

Okay, so writing Sal as a they is a bit awkward, but since Sal is gender fluid — sometimes a she, sometimes a he, and sometimes a they, as Sal puts it — it makes it kind of difficult to describe. And yet, while the gender fluidity was part of the story (Sal was often annoyed when people didn’t get their gender; they did what they could to help people “get” it, but some characters were willfully obtuse), it wasn’t the whole story. There was so much more to love about the book.  Miller has a fantastic grasp of world building, giving us enough information to help us understand the world, but not going into long tangents about the history (though there is one attached at the end, if the reader is interested). There was magic in the world, but that was banished, which leaves for some intriguing subplots (and maybe some more exploration in the sequel?), but mostly this is a straight up survival book: Sal needs to survive the trials and become the new assassin if they want to enact revenge. It’s written in first person, and Sal’s life/head is a good place to be: they are smart, intuitive and a creative survivor. The book is also populated with a lot of fantastic secondary characters, from the servant Sal gets when they join the trials to the other members of the Left Hand. It’s a brutal book: in a trial to the death, there is bound to be people killed that the reader cares about. All that gives it heft, though, and shows that Miller’s not afraid to tell the story that needs to be told.

An excellent debut novel, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Young Jane Young

by Gabrielle Zevin
First sentence: “My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including several f-bombs, as well as some off-screen sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Release date: August 22, 2017

The relationship between mothers and daughters (and between women in general) is not a new topic for fiction. It’s been Done.  And yet, Zevin — through this tale of an intern, Aviva, who has an affair with her boss, who just happens to be a congressman — manages to make this tired trope fresh. We get the story from four perspectives: Rachel, Aviva’s mother ; Aviva — both then and now, as Jane; Ruby, the intern’s daughter; and the congressman’s wife. It’s a unique way of telling the story, in bits and pieces (you don’t get Aviva’s then perspective until the very end, and it comes as a sort of “choose your own adventure” tale, one in which she wishes she could change her decisions), and from different perspectives. Choices have consequences, more so for women in these situations (so, whatever did happen to Monica Lewinsky?) than for men. It’s a fascinating study of our scandal-obsessed culture (really, are famous people’s private lives really news?) and how we’re much more willing to forgive men than we are women. (I think that’s the most biting thing: that Aviva is much more harshly judged than the congressman ever was.) And how relationships between mothers and daughters are not always straightforward. And what one person says isn’t always what the other person hears.

I love the way Zevin spins a story, and the way she is able to make characters pop to life. She doesn’t dumb down the kids (or make them too precocious; Ruby was the right balance of nerdy and eager), and she makes everyone sufficiently complicated.

Definitely highly recommended.

The Countdown Conspiracy

by Katie Silvensky
First sentence: “Nearly every single person in this auditorium is wearing a T-shirt with my name emblazoned on the front.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, but it’s all off screen, and some mild crushes. There are also some intense situations. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably not give it to the younger set, who might find it confusing.

Miranda is brilliant, especially when it comes to robotics. And so when she’s given the opportunity to apply for a Mars training program, she jumps at the chance, small as it may be. She gets in, and is off to Antarctica to train and learn with five other kids from around the world for their mission to Mars. Except things don’t go right. Her boat is attacked. The program is harder than she thought. Things are being sabotaged. And, possibly worst of all, some of the other kids are difficult to work with, and consider her a liability. It’s not at all what she expected.

So when the kids suddenly find themselves launched into space — which wasn’t supposed to happen for nine years! — the question becomes how on earth are they going to figure out how to get home?

I really enjoyed this book! There’s some good science fiction going on here: lots of science and technology, balanced out with a good plot (including a mystery: who is behind the bombings and attacks?) and some great characters. While there was more pre-space stuff than actual space stuff, it was still a lot of fun. Slivensky is a science educator and it shows; I felt that the science was both realistic and plausible and that she had done her research well. An excellent read.

State of the TBR pile: August 2017

I feel like it hasn’t changed much from July. It’s still more of a “wish I were reading” pile, but I’ve got a two week break before school and busy-ness start up again, so maybe I can make some headway on it.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen
Swing It, Sunny by Jennifer and Matthew Holm
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
Brave by Svetlana Chmakova
Bodyguard: Recruit by Chris Bradford
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez
Jaya and Rasa by Sonia Patel
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

What are you looking forward to on your TBR pile?

Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary
First sentence: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,  My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:  It’s simple without being simplistic, and deals with some tougher themes like bullying and divorce. It’s in the Newbery Medal section of the bookstore.

Even though I was the perfect age when this came out (I was 11 in 1983), somehow I missed it. Maybe I didn’t pick it up because by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie and trying to read War in Peace, and this would have seemed too simplistic for me. (Also, maybe the boy on the cover turned me off? I don’t know.) But, having read it now (for the first time!), I’m sorry I missed out on it.

It’s the story of a boy, Leigh Botts, who writes to his favorite author, and over the course of the book, figures out a bit about himself. His parents are divorced; his dad’s a trucker and his mom works at a catering company. He doesn’t see much of his dad at all, and because he’s in a new school, he’s finding it difficult to make friends. And so he turns to Mr. Henshaw, his favorite author, writing him letters. Eventually, those letters become a journal, and eventually that journal helps Leigh figure out things. At least a little bit.

This is the sort of book I needed when I was 11. We had just moved and I was starting a brand-new school in sixth grade, one where everyone had grown up together and I was most definitely the outsider, so I could completely empathize with Leigh. No, my parents weren’t divorced, but I understood his loneliness and his desire to be accepted and loved. I loved that there was a teacher who was good to Leigh, but didn’t play the “inspiring teacher” role. Leigh did figure things out by himself, with just a bit of guidance by the author and his teacher and his mom.  It was delightfully different from the other Cleary books I read this summer, more weighty and less, well, simplistic. It ended hopefully but not happily, and it gave me things to think about. And I think it definitely deserved the Newbery Medal it won.

Excellent.

Sweet Spot

by Amy Ettinger
First sentence: “Family dinners in my house were a death match.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: I think there might be some mild swearing, but nothing significant. It is in the Creative Non-fiction section of the bookstore.

I knew I had to read this one as soon as it came in, mostly because it hits all my buttons: it’s good writing, mixing history and contemporary observations, and it’s about FOOD. In this case, ice cream. Bonus.

And it was a delightful read. Ettinger knows how to make one involved in the book (not just with recipes!), finding the words to describe the experience of eating ice cream. She’s become, over the years, an ice cream snob, on a continual search for the perfect cone (and the perfect ice cream eating experience). That leads her all over the place, as she looks into the ice cream industry. And it was fascinating. She discovered that it’s pretty difficult for local artisan shops to make their own ice cream base (and most have it shipped in from somewhere else) because of the pasteurization laws She discovered that the best frozen custard, hands down, is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She looked at ice cream truck turf wars in Brooklyn, at the frozen yogurt industry as well as what it takes to make an ice cream sandwich. She looked at corporate ice cream and artisan ice cream. And it make me, well, want ice cream, and to go searching myself for that perfect cone experience. (That said, my ice cream making has gone up since I started reading this. I recommend the Ample Hills Creamery book.)

It really is a perfect summer read.  Just expect to go looking for a perfect cone when you’re done.