Little Women

by Louisa May Alcott
First sentence: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
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Content: It is very long and old-fashioned (well, it was written in the 1860s). It’s in the fiction section as well as the middle grade classics section.

I have had an affection for this book for a long time. Maybe since youth? I’m not sure, but I think my youth affections were more for Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery than Louisa May Alcott. I know, as a mother, I have tried to be like Marmee: supportive and loving, but letting my girls be their own individual selves, giving advice and comfort as needed.

So, I haven’t read this for at least 25 years; I think the last time I cracked open the book was soon after the 1994 movie came out. And, well, now I remember why. See, I think I have a fondness for the story, and for the movies (I really enjoyed the new Greta Gerwig one!). But the book, I find, well, dull and long-winded and more than a bit preachy. I tell myself it’s because it’s 150 years old, but I don’t feel the same way about Jane Austen and those are more than 200 years old! There are moments of sweetness and sass (which is why the movies can distill the story so well), but the book is overlong, and full of passages that I ended up skipping.

And can we talk about the end? The whole book spent championing girls and women and their lives, and Jo decides to open a school for BOYS? It just didn’t sit well with me, but maybe that’s because I’m reading it with 21st century eyes.

So, yes to the story (and the movies). But it may be another 25 years before I read the book again.

The Vanishing Stair

by Maureen Johnson
First sentence: “‘Has anyone seen Dottie?’ Miss Nelson asked.”
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Others in the series: Truly Devious
Content: There’s some mild swearing and a couple of f-bombs. Somehow, this ended up in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid interested in mysteries.

Picking up where we left off… (Thankfully, Johnson gives us a bit of background to help out in the beginning) Stevie was at Ellingham, a non-conformist boarding school in Vermont, until Hayes, a fellow student, turned up dead, and Ellie, another student went missing. Stevie was pulled out of school and brought home, that is, until a powerful senator convinces her parents to send her back. The reason? So she can keep an eye on his son David. Whom Stevie happens to really like. But things don’t go as planned; there’s still a kidnapping/murder left from the 1930s left to be solved, a fellow student is still missing. And Stevie seems to be at the center of it all.

This is a good solid second book in a series, answering some questions left over from the first book, and bringing up new ones. It’s still a delight to spend time with Stevie, Noah, Janelle, and David, and Johnson has a way of spooling out a mystery with just the right amount of information at the right time.

And bonus: the last one is already out! I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance

by Tomi Adeyemi
First sentence: “I try not to think of him.”
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Others in the series: Children of Blood & Bone
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it graphic. And talk of sex but none on the page. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book picks up right after the first one in the series, so spoilers (obviously).

It’s a few weeks after ZĂ©lie brought magic back to Orisha, but things haven’t gotten any better for the magi. In fact, when magic came back, it came back not only to those who had magic, but to those who have magic ancestry. Which means, unfortunately, that the royals who have been oppressing the magi now have magic… and so they keep oppressing (and killing) the magi, especially those who have decided that the royals must go.

It’s not a happy book, this. It’s very much a second in a series — they won a battle in the first book, but it wasn’t enough to win the war. And so one side retaliates, and then the other side retaliates, and then the first side retaliates again… you get the picture. In fact, that’s what I got out of it: it’s a very long musing on what happens when people can’t let go of past hurts and work towards a mutually beneficial solution. Though maybe, sometimes, burning everything to the ground may be the best option. There’s a lot to think about.

I still really like Adeyemi’s world building, and I like the way magic is evolving and being used in new ways. I enjoy that no character is fully good or evil; the “bad guys” have motivations that make sense, and the “good guys” aren’t wholly without fault or blameless. There’s even complexity in the relationships in the book. And I find all that highly satisfying.

I do have to say that I’m quite curious where this next book is going to go. I’m definitely going along for the ride!

A Blade So Black

by L. L. McKinney
First sentence: “Alice couldn’t cry.”
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Content: There is some violence and three f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid if they were interested.

The day her father died was the first time that Alice saw a Nightmare. She didn’t know what it was, this monster snarling at her and trying to eat her, but since she could see him — and the mysterious boy, Addison Hatta, who slayed the Nightmare for her — she was recruited to become a Dreamwalker and help protect the world from the Bad Things in Wonderland.

Except it’s not as easy as it sounds. Hatta’s been poisoned, the Black Knight is on the loose, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep out of trouble with Alice’s mom (seriously: she kept sneaking out, and I was just waiting for the time that everything would got to hell because Alice’s mom locked her in her room or something like that). It doesn’t help that Alice’s friendship with her best friends is on the rocks because of all of the Wonderland stuff.

Oh this one was fun! I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, but McKinney used her source material so incredibly cleverly. With the Queens and Knights and the Vorpal Blade, and the Tweedle twins (they were Russian: Dee and Dem). It was all very, very cleverly used. And on top of that McKinny wove an incredible magic world, but gave it real world consequences. I know I snarked a bit about Alice’s mom, but McKinney thought about the consequences of Alice’s actions, and gave her mother realistic reactions. I appreciated that Alice’s mom was a viable presence throughout the book, acting as any good mom would.

It’s a good start to a series, and one that I’m actually curious to find out where it takes me.

Throw Like a Girl

by Sarah Henning
First sentence: “
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Release date: January 7, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is swearing, mostly mild, and kissing. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’m not a huge aficionado of sports books for teens, but I have read some. Most are geared towards boys (like Kwame Alexander’s books or Stupid Fast), but every once in a while, I get a good sports book, especially a football book, that has a girl as the main character, and embraces the idea that girls, yes, can play football too. (Honestly: the last one I remember is Dairy Queen, which I loved.) In fact, Henning doesn’t dwell on the “can she play football?” issue here. Our main character, Liv, is actually scouted out by the starting quarterback, Grey, primarily because he’s seen her play softball (the sport she excels at) and mess around playing football with her brother, and he needs someone who can be a backup, since the freshman who is actually his backup is a bit weak.

There’s more going on in the plot than that — Liv lost her scholarship to the elite private school where she was playing softball for punching another player (with good reason) and there’s a nice romance between her and Grey — but it’s mostly about being on a team and working hard and just being able to play a game that she loves.

Henning was a former sports writer, and it shows: she’s able to not only give play-by-plays of the games (both football and softball), but she is able to portray the work it takes to be a good athlete, as well as the feelings that come from being a part of a team and from being on the field. (Not that I’ve ever been any of those things, but I feel like she gets it!) And she’s good on the romance front too: Liv and Grey’s relationship didn’t feel contrived, and it wasn’t perfect. Though there were some incredibly swoon-worthy parts.

It was a fun read, and one that will do well as part of the YA sports cannon.

The Good Luck Girls

by Charlotte Nicole Davis
First sentence: “It was easier, she’d been told, if you kept a tune in your head.”
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Content: There are illusions to sex and drinking, but none actual. There is also some mild swearing, It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The Good Luck Girls work at a Welcome House providing “services” to male clients. Most of them have been sold to the welcome house, because their family needs the money. Sisters Clementine and Aster — not their real names; they take on flower names when they’re sold to the house — decide to run when Clementine accidentally kills a “brag” — one of the men they service — which is not an easy feat. They end up taking three other girls with them when they get away, but they’re on the run from the law and the raveners — men who possess powers to create despair and pain — and in search of a bedtime story: Lady Ghost who is supposed to help girls like them.

It’s a long, dangerous path, and one that the girls can only make with the help of a ranger, Zee. Aster is the leader and our main character, and it’s interesting following the journey through her eyes. She doesn’t have the love arc (that belongs to other characters) or the sacrifice arc, but I do appreciate how she grows as a leader. She has difficult decisions to make, and I thought Davis did an excellent job giving Aster the complicated storyline.

It’s a good “road trip” story, with a hint of the old west. I liked that the girls were up against the patriarchy, even if Zee was a bit overhelpful. It made sense though, since the girls didn’t have much outside experience. As fantasy is a way to explore real world issues, this brings to light the plight of girls who are sold into sex work, and the ways in which they are kept captive.

It also works as a stand-alone, which is nice. I think there’s potential for a series, but there doesn’t have to be, and I find that immensely fulfilling.

A good debut.