Isle of Blood and Stone

islefobloodandstoneby Makiia Lucier
First sentence: “The outing had been planned on a whim; an afternoon lesson up in the ills, away from the smoke and stink of the city.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, even though the characters are 18/19 years old.

Eighteen years ago, the two princes of Island of St. John del Mar were kidnapped with the chief navigator and their nurse, never to be seen again. The king (and everyone, really) presumed them to be dead and went to war with a nearby island, Mondrago, ravishing it. Fast forward, and the king’s remaining son, Ulises, has become king, and his two friends, Mercedes — half Mondragan and Ulises’ cousin — and Elias, the son of the former chief navigator, have discovered some maps with a riddle about that fateful event 18 years ago. And, at the king’s command, Elias begins to look into it.

What he finds is a complex and tangled riddle, full of lies and information that will shake not only Elias’s beliefs, but perhaps the entire kingdom.

On the one hand: this was a compelling book, and a fantastic idea. I liked both Elias and Mercedes (who were roughly our narrators; it was written in third person, but we never followed Ulises around), and I loved the twists and turns as Elias uncovered information about the princes’ disappearance.

What held me back from really loving the book, however, was that I felt that Lucier told me what was going on rather than showing me. There was a LOT of exposition, and a lot of narrative, which isn’t necessarily bad, but what it did was keep me at an arm’s length. Like, Elias and Mercedes ended up falling in love (mild spoiler), but I had absolutely no connection to that. At all. There were strains of racism and sexism, but I felt like it was all at a distance, and never really connected with any of it.

Which is too bad. I really wanted to love this one.

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5 Worlds: The Cobalt Prince

cobalt princeby Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeler, and Boya Sun
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Others in the series: The Sand Warrior
Content: There is some fantasy violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Picking up where the first book left off, we get more of Oona’s backstory as she tries to figure out how to light the rest of the sand beacons and change the fate of the five worlds. The Cobalt Prince is the leader of the blue planet, Toki, which conquered the sand planet, and destroyed the sand castle. Turns out, though, that he has been taken over by the Mimic, an evil spirit that wants to gain control of the universe. Oona finds her sister there, working with the Cobalt Prince. Can she figure out her past, and save her sister and stop the mimic?

I put off reading this but honestly, I shouldn’t have. This is such a great series. I like the art, and while there’s a huge cast of characters, I think the authors juggle everything incredibly well. I also like how each individual one has it’s own arc while being a part of the larger whole; it makes it so each can be read as a stand-alone, which is nice.

Here’s to waiting for the next one!

Reign the Earth

reigntheearthby A. C. Gaughen
First sentence: “There was a scorpion in my tent.”
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Content: There’s violence, including spouse abuse (both verbal and physical). Also, though the main character is 17, she marries a man 10 years older than her. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The basic plot: a desert girl, whose nomadic country has been at war with a bigger, more powerful, oppressive country, is married off to the king of the country in order to achieve peace. Said peace is only tentative as long as the king is happy (and he’s not often happy, for many reasons) and as long as desert girl keeps her magic powers a secret from her husband.

There’s more to it: including a prophecy and a resistance and a secret love, but really, that’s it.

I’m being a little snarky, but I did like this enough to finish it. I did have a big issue with this: the main character is married to an abusive man. It starts out with him raping her on their wedding night (he kind of couches it in “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable” but he doesn’t really take her comfort into mind) and it just escalates from there. Granted, our main character does, eventually, stand up to him (and he is the “bad guy” of the story), but I couldn’t help but wonder: is this really a book for teens? I don’t mind darkness in books, or even dealing with issues like abusive relationships, but this one felt more… adult than usual. I know the marriage has something to do with it, but I’m not sure that’s all. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it exactly.

Also: I feel like this one could have been better if it were an own voices story. Again, I’m probably nit-picking, but I felt like it was just “desert girl saves white oppressed culture” and not much else.

So, while I liked it enough to finish it, I didn’t love it.

What If It’s Us

whatifitsusby Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
First sentence: “I am not a New Yorker, and I want to go home.”
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Content: Loads and loads of f-bombs, some mild drinking, as well as some off-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s the summer before senior year, and Arthur Seuss is in New York City from Atlanta with is parents for the summer. His mom is a lawyer working on a big case, and he’s got an internship. But mostly, he’s there to see the city and hopefully a few Broadway shows. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

And then he bumps into an attractive boy at the post office and he’s smitten. The problem? He didn’t get the boy’s name.

Ben is trying to just make it through the summer. He’s come off a bad breakup with his boyfriend, Hudson, and he’s stuck in summer school because he failed chemistry. He just wants to pass the class. Love is definitely NOT on the radar.

That is, until Arthur (and the universe) conspires to get them together.

So this is very rom-com-y: a meet-cute, they have to work to get together, ups and downs in a relationship… it hits all the tropes. But, it was still a lot of fun. Especially if you (like me) really like romcoms. I adored Arthur and his extra-ness, and Ben and his great Puerto Rican family. I loved the side characters (especially Dylan; he was so great) and it’s nice to have a couple sets of decent parents in a YA book.

So, while it’s not really breaking any new ground (maybe in that it’s a gay romcom?) it’s still an incredibly fun read.

American Dialogue

by Joseph Ellis
First sentence: “Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true.”
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Content: It’s a work of scholarship, even if it’s written for a mass audience. There are footnotes and endnotes, etc. It’s in the history section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up because I was curious after hearing an interview with Ellis on the New York Time Book Review podcast. I’m not quite sure what it was that he said that made me want to pick it up, but after hearing it, I put it on hold at the library. 

The basic premise is this: Ellis takes a look at four of the American founders — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington — each through a prism of an issue that is both relevant back then and today. Jefferson gets race; Adams, equality (monetary, not gender); Madison, law; and Washington, war. Ellis dissects each man’s letters (easiest to do with Adams, most difficult with Washington), speeches, and papers, in order to come up with what they were thinking about when they framed the country — from the Declaration to the Constitution, but especially the latter — and what we can learn from that. 

And I think that the take-aways are striking. Ellis starts from the position that slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples are America’s original sin, the things that we have yet to redeem ourselves from. We (especially today) have forgotten that the Constitution was never meant to be written in stone, but is, in fact, a living document that’s supposed to change and adapt to the needs of a growing and changing country. He admits that the founders were geniuses, but they were also human, with flawed logic and changing opinions. 

I’m not sure it’s a book everyone Must Read, but I found it fascinating to learn about these men and the ideas they had. 

Audio book: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentlemansguideby Mackenzie Lee
Read by Christian Coulson
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing and a lot of drinking and some allusions to sex, including one mostly nude scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The only thing Henry “Monty” Montague wants is to go on his Tour of the continent with his best friend Percy. Sure, there are complications, the big one being is that Monty has a secret crush on Percy. That, and his father has given him an ultimatum: go have a supervised year on the continent and then come back, settle down and run the estate. None of which Monty wants.

However, the year doesn’t go the way that Monty expect. After a disastrous escapade at Versailles, in which Monty steals what he thinks is a simple trinket box, things go away. Monty, his sister Felicity, and Percy find themselves on the run from highway men. And it just goes downhill from there. Full of twists and turns as our fair adventurers try to find out exactly what that box Monty stole was, and then figure out their way home.

Oh, heavens, this is so much fun! Perhaps this was one that I liked because I listened to it, because Coulson was a fabulous narrator. I appreciated that he didn’t make Felicity overly “girly” (because she’s not; let’s hear it for 18th century girls who want to be doctors!) and I adored all the French accents. I loved Monty’s growth arc; he was a douche in the beginning, but as the layers peeled away, I began to understand just why Monty was the way he was. And Percy, even if he was a little overly long-suffering, was sweet and adorable, and I ended up loving him as much as Monty did.

There were some darker parts of it; Lee doesn’t gloss over the racism inherent in 18th century society (Percy’s half black and always mistaken for Monty’s servant/slave) and the prejudice against gay people. It grounds the silliness and over-the-top-ness in the book, giving it a darker edge.

But really, this is just a trip and a half, and definitely worth the read/listen!

Evicted

evictedby Matthew Desmond
First sentence: “Jori and his cousin were cutting up, tossing snowballs at passing cars.”
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Content: It’s a work of non-fiction and Desmond doesn’t hold any punches. There is talk of drug use, swearing, and some violence. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out a few years ago, but let other things get in the way until we picked it for my in-person book group. And, just like I thought, I found it to be difficult to read and yet incredibly important at the same time.

Desmond, a professor of Social Science, moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a year to study the effects of poverty in the inner city, particularly through the process of evictions. And what he found is sobering. He goes into a lot of detail, following both black and white renters as well as landlords over the course of the year (though I think it may be longer), but it boils down to two things: capitalism isn’t good for everyone, and it’s important to have a stable home in order to succeed in life. The first one is this: there are lot of people getting rich off the backs of poor people. Not just the landlords, who buy the property for practically nothing and then raise the rent so it’s almost more than the renters can pay. There’s also the “business” of evictions: moving companies, storage places, and so on. Not to mention the city process: there is a whole court system to deal with this (I didn’t know that). It’s insane, and a product of our ethos here in America that believes if you can’t make it on your own, then it’s your own fault.

The second part may be obvious: constant moving is hard on children and adults. It’s hard to start over when you have to move once a year (as we did when my oldest was young), but moving two, three, four times in a school year makes it impossible for kids to keep up. And it goes for adults too. Many of the people Desmond was writing about were drug addicts (their own choice, sure), but he followed a couple of them as they tried to get out, and once they had a stable home, a secure environment, in a neighborhood that supported them, they were able to turn their lives around. I found that interesting that a home — someplace a person could come to that was secure and not falling apart, where there was heat and electricity — could mean that much. I guess, since it’s always something I’ve had, I took it for granted.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the author’s note, where he talked about his methodology. He doesn’t have many answers, except that poor people are paying too much of their income in rent (more than 2/3 of their income! Which is why they get behind!) and that we (the government? non-profits? private corporations?) should invest in some stable housing for poor people. In our book group discussion, we talked about how Utah has dealt with the problem of homlessness. Maybe more cities/states can take note and move in that direction. Because, honestly, more good, stable housing for our poorest people is good for everyone.