Allegedly

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.”
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Content: There’s a lot going on here: drug use, (tasteful) sex, lots and lots of swearing, not to mention more mature themes. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mary Beth Addison was convicted at 9 years old for the murder of a baby, Alyssa. She never said a word in her interviews with detectives, and was convicted in the court of public opinion: some children, Mary being one of them, was just Bad. It didn’t help that the baby was white, and Mary is black.

Six years later, she’s out from “baby jail” (her words) on good behavior, and in a group house with five other teenage girls, convicted of crimes, some more major than others. She was just trying to survive until she met Ted and got pregnant. When she realizes that the state could take her baby away from her, she decides to take action: she wants to go to college, so she attempts to take the SATs. But, mostly, she finds her voice and decides to tell people what really happened the night Alyssa died.

This books was… a lot. Seriously. A LOT. So much to take in: a critique on parenting and poverty and the justice system and white privilege and teenage pregnancy and and and… It’s SO well written and so compelling, that even in its worst moments, when I, as a white woman, had to look at it and realize just how far from my lived experience this book was, and realize that there are people — KIDS — out there LIVING this experience, I could NOT put it down. It has a good mystery element to it as well — what really happened the night Alyssa was killed, and how can we really believe anyone’s testimony — but, as social critique, it’s superb. And it’s a great story as well. Jackson had me totally won over to Mary’s side, and yet left questions and doubts and open ends all the way to the very end.

Incredible.

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West

by Edith Pattou
First sentence: “I had placed the box, the one etched with the runes that contained the story of Rose and her white bear, in a quiet corner of my library.”
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Others in the series: East
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 23, 2018
Content: There are some intense moments, and the main character is married with a baby, so it may not interest younger readers much. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

When I finished this — and don’t get me wrong: I loved it — I thought, “Well, that’s the best unnecessary sequel I’ve ever read.”  See: East (which I also loved) ended satisfyingly. Rose and the White Bear (spoilers, if you haven’t read it or don’t know the fairy tale) got their happily ever after. There was, really, no need for there to ever be a sequel.

And yet, here we are.

It’s two years after the end of East, and Rose and Charles are happy. They have an adopted daughter, Estelle, and a baby, temporarily named Winn. They have a good life in Fransk. Then they decide to go visit Rose’s parents, traveling separately, and Charles never makes it. Word comes that he died in a huge storm. But Rose determines that, no, he’s still alive, and her old arch-enemies, the Trolls, are behind it. So she takes off — leaving Estelle and Winn in the care of her family — to rescue her White Bear. Again.

It really was an enjoyable read, but I just couldn’t shake the whole unnecessary side of it. Why did Rose need to go again? I understand wanting to revisit this world that Pattou created, but I really didn’t need a rehashing of Rose’s story. It it, instead, had followed Neddy (which it did, for a bit, and I really liked those parts) or Estelle (and made it a really young adult book, rather than this weird feels-like-a-young-adult-but-the-main-character-is-an-adult book) I might have liked it more. Pattou couldn’t have even come up with a new antagonist; she had to resurrect the Troll Queen again. So, yeah, while Pattou’s writing is lovely, and the story is nice enough, it’s really all… unnecessary.

Though I suppose there will be fans who are grateful for it.

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

Muse of Nightmares

by Laini Taylor
First sentence: “Kora and Nova had never seen a Mesarthim, but they knew all about them.”
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Release date: October 2, 2018
Others in the series: Strange the Dreamer
Content: There’s references to sex and rape, and there’s violence. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Strange the Dreamer, of course.

This one picks up immediately after Strange ends. Lazlo is now one of the gods. Sarai is dead. And neither one knows what’s going to happen next. And what does happen next — which takes place over mere hours, it feels like — is completely unlike anything they expected.

Interspersed with flashbacks, where Taylor introduces a couple of new characters and explains how the gods came to be over Weep, Taylor looks at tragedy, occupation, and the choices we make when faced with fear and rage and love.

I actually think I liked this one better than Strange, primarily because it didn’t feel like  retread of old ground for Taylor. She’s come up with some interesting world-building, and even though the “bad guy” — in this case the one who started all the horror — has been long dead, his presence was still made known in the book. Taylor’s exploring — I think — the aftermath of occupation and how, even if the occupiers are long gone, there are still scars that need to be healed. On both sides, really. It’s a much more introspective book than her other ones , or at least it feels that way. There is some action, and Sarai really does play an important role in the end, but mostly it’s exploring character’s feelings of bias and prejudice and hate and revenge, and, ultimately, forgiveness.

I’m not sure this duology is for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
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Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

Pride

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 18, 2018
Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think a 7th/8th grader who was interested would like it, as well.

I’ll admit this up front: I’m a sucker for Jane Austen retelings. I adore them, especially when they’re well-done. And this one, set in Brooklyn with class tensions (but not race) and feisty girls who speak their mind, this one is extremely well done.

The fun thing about this is that if you know Pride and Prejudice, you smile as Zoboi hits all the notes of the original. A rich family moves into the neighborhood where the Benitez family — of Dominican/Hatian blend — live. The family — the Darcys — are well-off African Americans, and they completely re-do the house all fancy. Because they can. And yeah, they look down their noses at the Benitezes, with their loud, immigrant ways and their spicy immigrant food, and well… everything. Zuri is the second daughter of this crazy family, and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is fiercely proud of her neighborhood and her family, and she doesn’t want a snotty rich brat, no matter how fine he is, stomping on her turf.

And, if you know the original, you know how it turns out. What I loved was that Zoboi paid homage to Austen while making the story thoroughly her own, and thoroughly modern. While I could sense the Austen book in the background, the everything felt organic and natural, and the characters more than just caricatures. Even if you don’t know the original, the plot made sense on its own, and I loved that Zoboi was able to do that. And I thought it was interesting for her to highlight the class differences within the African American community; it gave the book a depth it wouldn’t have if she had gone with a rich white/poor black narrative. And I appreciated that.

It was a delightful dip into a story I love but looking at it in a whole new light.

Ruin of Stars

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Mask of Shadows
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of violence (but not overly graphic) and one tasteful sex scene (that’s more implied than anything). It’s still in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m thinking about moving it.

When we left Sal, they had  just become part of the Queen of Igna’s right hand, taking up the mantle of Opal. But, since that moment, Igna is facing imminent war. Their neighbor, Erland — they of the restrictive gender norms and constricting policies, they who also wiped out Sal’s birth land — has invaded Igna, taking back some of the land they lost in the war ten years earlier. And Sal has  been asked to put a stop to all this by killing Erland’s leader and those who conspired against Igna. It’s easy for Sal to take this assignment: the names of the people coincide with the names on their list of people to exact revenge for wiping out their home and family.

The problem? The cost that assassinating these people and stopping the war is extremely high: costing Sal their friends, their love, and possibly their life.

This is a fantastic end to Sal’s story. Seriously. Miller’s got pacing and writes action incredibly well. I found myself getting anxious for Sal and their mission as I went through the book. I still think that Miller handled the fluidity incredibly well; it was part of the plot in that Erland’s culture was incredibly homophobic and suppressed anything that didn’t buy into traditional gender norms, and Miller was a bit heavy-handed with letting readers know that this was part of the reason Erland was the “bad” guys (though she makes a much more compelling case for readers to dislike people — or at least those in charge — from Erland later), but she settled into the plot and the book went super fast.

Incredibly exciting, and I really loved the ending. A strong series.