Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
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Content: It’s long. And there is some action violence. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong is the son and grandson of boxers, but that’s not what he wants to be. No, he’s a bit of a nerd, and would rather spend his time with his best friend Eddie collecting stories. Except his best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan couldn’t save him.

After losing his first boxing match, Tristan is sent to his grandparents in Alabama to try and work though is feelings about Eddie’s death. And that’s where, unfortunately, Tristan falls through a hole and into the world of MidPass and Alke, where gods and folk heroes are battling iron machines and the Maafa for control of their world. What can a 13-year-old do to help? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

This was such a fun book! I enjoyed Tristan’s adventures and the way Mbalia wove both African and African American myths and folk tales into the story. I loved how Tristan came into his own as the book went along, and he was able to face his grief as well as figuring out how to get through his fear (it was nice to have a hero who was terrified but manged to work through it!). I loved how everyone that Tristan met worked together, and how the solutions weren’t about fighting and winning, but more about cooperation. I also liked that Mbalia addressed slavery as part of the whole mythos but it was never a book that was solely about the slave experience.

Definitely highly recommended!

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

by Stephanie Burgis
First sentence: “Once upon a time in a beautiful dirty, exciting city full of people and chocolate and possiblities, there was a girl so fearless and so daring that…”
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Others in the series: The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s some tense moments. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So Silke has managed to help make peace with the dragons, and she and Adventurine are happily helping make chocolate. Except, Silke still wants more: she misses her parents who disappeared with the Elves six years ago. She wishes she had a better home than on the riverbank with her brother. She just wants… MORE. So when the Crown Princess asks her to be a spy during the “diplomatic” visit from the Elves, Silke jumps at the chance: If she succeeds, not only will she get to live permanently at the palace, she might find out where her parents are.

But, it’s not all roses and chocolate (well, there is some of that). It’s hard fitting into court culture, especially for someone who needs to move as much as Silke, and it looks like the Elves may be able to trick their way into and out of just about everything. And maybe, just maybe, Silke’s talents like in something other than spying.

This is still a super sweet (but not cloying!), super fun middle grade series. I adore the characters — there was probably not enough Adventurine here, but I’m curious about Sofia, the younger sister princess, because she was whip-smart and intriguing. I did want to shake Silke sometimes, but overall, I enjoyed where the book went.

The other nice thing about this series is that it doesn’t rely on the previous one. Sure, the events of Dragon played into this, but it really was its own stand-alone story, and it came to a very satisfying conclusion.

I definitely will be picking up the next one. Eventually.

QualityLand

by Marc-Uwe Kling
Translated by Jamie Lee Searle
First sentence: “So you’re off to QualityLand for the first time ever.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In the future, our world has been automated to the point where we don’t have to think. Algorithms can pick your partner, determine your “level” in life (which determines your privileges and careers and your partner), personalize your literature and movies, and even send you stuff before you know you want it. QualityLand (which is the “bestest land”) has commodified absolutely everything. So when Peter — a Level 9 (anything under 10 is determined to be “Useless”) scrap machine operator (except he’s kind of bad at that, preferring to salvage the AI that he’s supposed to be scrapping — receives something he doesn’t want — a pink dolphin vibrator — from TheShop (think Amazon), he decides to return it.

This book is a LOT less about plot (there isn’t really much of one) and more an exploration of what life would be like if we took our current society (this was published in Germany in 2017) and pushed it to the extreme. It’s not an argument I haven’t heard before (living in the family I do, married to the person I am married to): while technology itself isn’t inherently bad, letting technology overtake our lives is (she says, while scrolling on Instagram). The people who are behind these corporations are NOT out for *our* collective good, they’re out for personal gain. They’re selling our data, they’re invading our lives, and we should be aware of what’s being taken from us.

That said, coming across as “fiction” makes it sound a whole lot less “grumpy old man conspiracy extremist” than in the essays and non-fiction books I’ve read (or heard Russell talk about). Maybe it won’t make me change my ways but there’s certainly a lot to talk about. It’s clever and weird and funny (at times). And it’s Kling is definitely one of the “prophets” out there screaming to the void (how many of the readers will buy it as an e-book from Amazon, and what’s the irony in that?) that maybe we need to remember our humanity. If only for the sake of our culture, if not ourselves.

A fascinating read.

The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
First sentence: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is hard to describe: it’s Russia on the cusp of when Christianity is becoming more accepted, but the Old Ways are still in play. There are demons keeping the Big Demon — known as The Bear — at bay, but due to priests, the people are beginning to neglect the Old Ways. Everyone, that is, except for Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a northern lord, she sees and talks to the demons that keep the hearth fires burning, the stable animals quiet, and the lands safe. And when her father remarries a woman who is paranoid about the Old Ways, Vasilisa is the only one who keeps the village and the lands safe.

It’s a slow start, this one, but once it gets going — about halfway through — it really takes off. I mostly liked Vasilisa as a character; she is headstrong and not traditional and doesn’t keep anyone’s advice but her own. I really enjoyed the magic and the contrast between the Old Ways and religion, and how the priests believed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Arden is exploring interesting themes and I’m curious to see where the next one goes, since this one felt like a stand alone.

Maskerade

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “The wind howled.”
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches Abroad, Lords and Ladies
Content: There’s some reference to sex, because that’s just who Nanny Ogg is. And some creative swearing. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

Ah, I have come to adore Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Sure, some of the witches books are better than others (my personal favorite is still Witches Abroad), but I do adore the combination of Granny and Nanny taking on the world.

In this one, they head to Ankh-Morpork to tackle the opera. It seems that one of Lancre’s own, Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita X. Nitt) has moved to the big city to try and make her fortune, and has fallen in with the opera. That has a Ghost who seems to not only be haunting the opera house, but is murdering members of the cast and crew.

So, if this sounds vaguely like Phantom of the Opera, you’re probably right. Except — like a few of the other ones in the witches series — Pratchett takes the familiar bones of the story and overlays a funny and clever and insightful story with Granny and Nanny being their amazing selves. There’s a mystery in this one that they manage to solve (with some hilarious asides about being in the book publishing business), before getting Agnes to come back to Lancre and take up her True Calling as a witch.

Not my favorite of the series, but definitely fun! (I thought this was the last of them, but it turns out that there’s one more to go before I hit the Tiffany Aching series.)

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

by Cynthia Hand
First sentence: “The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. It would be in the Christmas section if we carried it, but I’d also shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8).

Holly Chase is dead. She was the recipient of “Project Scrooge” — which is based on A Christmas Carol, going around and finding callous individuals who need redemption — and failed. Miserably. She didn’t believe it was real, she didn’t believe she would die (granted: she wasn’t quite 17), and she ignored all the warnings. And ended up dead.

Now she works for Project Scrooge as The Ghost of Christmas Past. For the past five years, she’s stayed 17, and gone into peoples’ memories, searching for moments of good that could change them. But this year is different. The target is Ethan Worthington III who has a lot of similarities to Holly (and is super attractive too!): they both can pinpoint their increasing materialism and callousness to the point when they lost a parent.

I’m going to leave the rest of the story for you to find out. It was incredibly enjoyable; I liked how Hand echoed the Dickens book without coping it outright. It’s not a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but more a riff on it. Which makes all the difference. I enjoyed Holly as a character, even when she was being a brat, and Hand genuinely surprised me with the direction the story took.

An excellent addition to the world of Christmas books. Maybe not an instant classic, but very, very good.