Jane, Unlimited

by Kristin Cashore
First sentence: “The house on the cliff looks like a ship disappearing into fog.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 19, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are six (or so) f-bombs, some mention of sex (none actual). It will be in the Teen Section (grades 9+).

Jane’s guardian, her Aunt Magnolia, made her promise one thing before Magnolia left for Antarctica (and then subsequently died): don’t turn down an invitation to Tu Reviens, the home of the eccentric millionaire Octavian Thrash. Jane promises, and so when her former tutor, and Thrash child, Kiran invites Jane to a gala the mansion, Jane agrees to go, unsure of what she’ll find.

At this point, the book reads like your typical YA novel: a girl who’s trying to find herself, a dead “mom”, a mansion with secrets. But, at one point, Jane is asked to make a decision of which person to find and talk to: Mrs. Vanders (the housekeeper), the little girl (whom Jane has seen around the mansion), Kiran, Ravi (Kiran’s twin), or Jasper (the basset hound). And from there the novel diverges into incredibly unique territory. Jane is allowed, throughout the course of the novel, to make each of those decisions, and in doing so, lives five different versions of the day.

I’ll be frank: it took a bit to settle into this. But, as the different versions went on, I caught on to what (I think) Cashore was exploring. One version of “reality” bled into the next, and it got more and more fascinating as it went on. I liked the exploration of the idea of multiverses, I liked seeing how Jane reacted to each of the situations she found herself in. And I found myself getting caught up in each version. Of course, Cashore’s writing is impeccable, and while I caught the Jane Eyre and Winnie the Pooh references, I missed the biggest homage: to Rebecca. (Which means, I should reread this one!)

It really was a delight to read.

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Sourdough

by Robin Sloan
First sentence: “It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 5, 2017
Content: There’s several instances of swearing, including a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Lois Clary is a Millennial, stuck programming in a tech job in San Francisco. It’s a get up, go to work life, one that, while isn’t bad, isn’t fulfilling either. And then she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, and is in love. With the food. Run by a couple of immigrant brothers, it’s something that fills her soul. So, when they unexpectedly have to leave the country, they leave her the starter for the sourdough. It’s that small act that changes Lois’s world. She learns to bake sourdough, and discovers that the starter itself is a bit magical. But more than that, Lois finds a purpose in life, a meaning to everything. She becomes involved with an underground experimental farmer’s market, and works on teaching a robot arm how to cook. There’s a bit of conflict with big business and some over-anxious scientists, but for the most part, this is Lois’s story, her discovering there’s more to life than sitting in a cubical.

Which is really the point of this. It lies at the intersection of those who bake/love baking and those who “get” or are technologically savvy. There’s a strong sense of needing to get out of working with computers to find satisfaction in life, but there’s also a sense that technology is inevitable and working with it instead of fighting it is the way to go. It’s a fascinating balance, and Sloan handles it beautifully.

In the end, this isn’t a deep novel (then again, neither was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Now to go find a good loaf of sourdough to eat! (Or, maybe I should find myself a starter and learn how to make one…)

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.

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.

The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy

by Rick Riordan
First sentence: “When our dragon declared war on Indiana, I knew it was going to be a bad day.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Hidden Oracle
Content: There’s some dark undercurrents (but those will probably go over the heads of younger readers) and some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

So, Apollo is off on a quest, this time to figure out what Big Bad (really: he’s the worst) Nero is up to, and to get to it and stop it before Nero gets too much power. Tagging along with Leo and Calypso, they head to Indianapolis, where they find a huge mess involving yet another evil Roman Emperor to stop, battle ostriches, and a kidnapped oracle. Not bad, all things considered, and yet Apollo manages to make things worse.

This one definitely has the feeling of a middle book (maybe because it is…). It’s not a bad book; Riordan knows how to pace an action-packed novel, and there’s enough pop culture references to nod and wink at the reader without it being overbearing. They sassy haiku are back (my favorite: Yeah we got the skills/Fake hexes and shooting feet/Teach you ’bout pancakes), which is always fun. Apollo is much less unlikable in this one (he has his moments, but they’re getting fewer) and Riordan seamlessly weaves in ancient myths and stories. It’s much like all the others: good, fun, enjoyable, but nothing that sticks with you for long.

Still, worth reading.

Felix Yz

by Lisa Bunker
First sentence: “I almost talked to Hector today.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 6, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s handling some more mature themes, so is probably not appropriate for the younger set (but you know your own kid). It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section, but it might do better in the YA (grades 6-8).

When Feliz was three, his father was doing experiments and, well, accidentally fused Feliz to a fourth-dimensional alien. Unfortunately, his father died in the process, but Felix and his alien, whom he ended up calling *zyxilef, or Zyx for short were left to figure out an existence together.

Which they have for ten years. But, things are getting harder for Felix, and he will die if they stay fused. So, his family — Mom, Grandy (his gender fluid grandparent), and sister Beatrix — has talked to researchers who have decided that the only way is to de-fuse Felix and Zyx. The only problem: Felix might die.

The book is Felix’s “secret” blog: a history of how he was fused, what life with Zyx is like (alternately good and kind of tough), and his hopes and fears for the future.

On the one hand, this gets bonus points for progressiveness: a genderfluid and a bisexual supporting character, plus a gay main character. I loved the new invented pronouns to talk about Grandy (“vo, ven, veirs, veinself”). I enjoyed Felix’s voice, even though he was often petulant. But then again, what 13 year old isn’t? It was lacking in the action department, and I didn’t feel Felix’s anxiety for his life as much as I thought I could. But it wasn’t a bad book, and I did enjoy many aspects of it. Even if it’s not perfect.