Elatsoe

by Darcie Little Badger
First sentence: “
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Content: There are a couple instances of mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s appropriate for younger readers, if they’re not turned off by the length.

Ellie is an Apache living in an alternative Texas where there are monsters, fairy rings to travel in, and she can raise ghosts. It’s an old family gift, and they only use it to raise the ghosts of dead animals. More specifically, for Ellie, the ghost of her beloved dog, Kirby. When her cousin, Trevor, appears to her in a dream saying that he’s been murdered, Ellie takes it upon herself to go down to the town where Trevor is and try and figure out what happened. However, there are secrets in Willowbee. Ones that could put Ellie and everyone she holds dear in danger.

I really liked the premise of this one: ghosts and monsters and vampires and fairies all superimposed on the current United State, plus a murder mystery? Yes! However, this one lost me when it just couldn’t figure out who the audience is. Ellie is seventeen, but she acts like a 13 year old. It feels like a middle grade book: illustrations, short chapters, simpler language. The only reason Ellie is 17, I feel, is so she can drive. There’s no romance, the swearing is pretty mild… it’s not really the YA that YA readers have come to expect. But, it’s also not really a middle grade book, either.

I did finish it, and it was a good story with a decent ending. But, it’s not one of my favorites.

Cemetery Boys

by Aiden Thomas
First sentence: “Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and some violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Yadriel is a trans Latinx boy and a member of a family of brujx. It took him a while to come out as trans, and make the transition, and as a result, some of his extended family have resisted him becoming a brujo like he was meant to be. So he decides to go through the ceremony in secret… and inadvertently raises the ghost of Julian Diaz, a kid from Yadriel’s school. Except that Julian really shouldn’t be dead. And Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing as well.

So Yadriel and Julian team up to figure out what’s going on. And in the process, Yadriel hopes that her family will accept him as a full-fledged brujo.

I liked thine one a lot. I liked it for the representation; Thomas is a transgender Latinx and I thought the traditions and language came through seamlessly. I loved the push-and-pull between Yadriel and Julian and I adored Yadriel’s cousin Maritza. I liked the mystery, even if I guessed it a bit before Thomas revealed it. And I liked that it was centered around Dia de los Muertos.

I didn’t love the chemistry between Yadrial and Julian, and the ending kind of threw me off. It was fine and all, but kind of felt like fan service rather than true to the story, but that’s just the way I reacted. It’s a really good book, and not justs for the representation.

Down Comes the Night

by Allison Saft
First sentence: “Wren had never seen a worse radial fracture.”
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Content: There is some medical gore, and some tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The neighboring countries of Danu and Vesria have been at war for centuries. So much so, that it has decimated the population, and wrecked the economies of both countries. The current queen of Danu was forced by the parliament to accept an uneasy truce, and so when soldiers on the border between the countries go missing, the uneasy truce seems ready to collapse.

Wren is the bastard niece of the queen, and all she has wanted to was to be useful. Thankfully, she has healing magic, and, because she also takes a scientific approach to medicine, she is one of the best in Danu. Unfortunately, this hasn’t really made the queen like her anymore. So after a quick series of events that leaves Wren even more on the outs with the queen, she ends up in another neighboring country (that doesn’t have magic, but has technology) commissioned to heal a patient. Except, that patient is the Reaper of Vesria, Hal Cavendish, and someone that Wren’s queen would love to capture. Which side of Wren is going to win out: the one that needs the queen’s approval, or the compassionate healer?

This one was recommended to me by a customer who shares the same taste in books as I do. And, I really enjoyed it for the most part. When I was about halfway through I described it as a cross between Leigh Bardugo and Mexican Gothic, and it was. There was good creepy plus magic, and I thought it would dissolve into full-on Gothic weird horror. But, Saft didn’t go there. There was a lot of good in the second half of the book, especially between Wren and Hal, but it pulled back and became a (admittedly good) treatise on the futility of war. Which isn’t bad. It just wasn’t what I wanted from where the first half of the book was taking me.

Even so: it’s a good book and a standalone (though I suppose we could have more adventures of Wren and Hal), which is always refreshing. A solid debut.

Audio book: Firekeeper’s Daughter

by Angeline Boulley
Read by Isabella Star LaBlanc
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and a rape scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Daunis Fontaine has not quite fit in growing up. She lives in Sault St Marie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and being half white and half Ojibwe has made it so that she never quite fit in either community. She wants a fresh start at the University of Michigan, but it doesn’t happen once her uncle dies suddenly. And then Daunis is drawn into an FBI investigation over the spread of meth in the region. It gets more complicated when she falls for the new guy, Jamie, and things keep getting more and more involved with the investigation.

I highly highly recommend this one on audio. I don’t know how it would play out in print; I suspect that I would have tripped over the Anishinaabe words that Boulley peppers throughout the book. Speaking of which: I appreciated Boulley’s inclusion of Native customs and practices but in a way that felt like they were important to Daunis, but not crucial to the outcome of the story. I loved LaBlanc’s narration, and the way she brought the characters to life. (The only complaint I had about the audio book is that they pronounced pasty wrong. It’s PAH-sty not PAY-sty. Any self-respecting Michigander knows that.) No, it’s not the fast-paced thriller the publisher is marketing it as, but it is an immersive story about a young woman who is trying to figure out how she can fit in, grieve, honor her traditions, and find her own path.

In short: I found it remarkable.

A Vow So Bold and Deadly

by Brigid Kemmerer
First sentence: “The weather has begun to turn, allowing cold wind to swoop down fro the moutnains and sneak under the lather and fur of my jacket.”
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Others in the series: A Curse So Dark and Lonely, A Heart So Fierce and Broken
Content: There are two sex scenes, both off-screen. And there is a lot of violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Things look bleak for our characters: Grey is in Syhl Shallow, trying to convince them that he’s not going to turn traitor and kill the armies when they march on Emberfall. Lia Mara is trying to find a balance between having her people respect but not fear her, and still maintain control. Rhen feels increasingly like he’s pinned into a corner by Lilith, the enchantress who initially cursed him. And Harper’s just trying to forgive Rhen (or at least move past) for imprisoning and beating Grey. As the two countries head toward war, everything looks like it’s going to come crashing down around everyone.

This was a really good conclusion to a series that started out as a Beauty and the Beast retelling. It became something much more: a treatise on violence and when it’s warranted, and the choices that we make because we feel we have to or are forced to. I did enjoy spending time with the characters, and while I didn’t necessarily find it swoon-worthy, it was fun. Which is all you need, sometimes.

It’s a good, solid series, and now that all three are out, there’s reason not to read them.

Concrete Rose

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There swearing, including f-bombs, some tasteful sex, and talk of drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Maverick Carter is just trying to live his life. He’s got a girlfriend he adores, and friends — including a cousin, Dre — that have his back. But then, his life is upended: a girl he had a one-night stand with (the condom broke) got him to take a DNA test to see if her baby was his. And sure enough, it was. Then she dumped the baby in Maverick’s lap and left (she was suffering from postpartum depression, so I get it). Which meant, all of a sudden, Maverick has to take stock of his life. Does he want to be involved in the King Lords and sell drugs, even though the money is good? How can he help his mom out (especially since dad’s been in prison since Maverick was eight). And then after a tragedy happens where Dre is killed, how can Maverick just go on?

In this prequel to The Hate U Give (you don’t have to have read that one first), Tbomas explores what it’s like to be a Black man in the inner-city in the late 1990s/early 2000s. When really all anyone expected of Maverick was for him to be a part of a gang, and to get a couple of girls pregnant. It’s all about Maverick finding it within himself to not be a stereotype, to not fall into the life his father lived, to be something — and someone — different. And, because Thomas is a gifted writer, she is able to bring life to this world and this character without making it seem preachy or trite. It really is an excellent story, and one that makes you feel for Maverick and his struggles and situations.

Thomas’s not just an important writer doing important work, though. She’s an excellent writer telling good stories. And that’s what really matters.

Felix Ever After

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”
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Content: There’s some teenage drinking and pot smoking, swearing — including multiple f-bombs — and some tasteful making out. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Felix is a trans young man who is struggling. Not just with his father — who won’t say his name, just calling Felix “kid” — but fitting in at St. Catherine’s, an elite art prep school in New York City. Felix has one friend, Ezra, who is totally and completely accepting of who Felix is. However, not everyone on campus is. When one day during the summer term, an “installation” of Felix’s dead self complete with his deadname shows up, Felix is determined to find out who did that, and exact revenge. But things don’t go as planned.

I’ve not read a lot of trans fiction, especially for young adults, but I adored the way Callender handled this (one expects it would be handled beautifully, considering Callender identifies as non-binary). I adored Felix and felt his struggles to be accepted as his true self, even though he’s still kind of questioning his identity. I am glad Callender reminded readers that gender is a spectrum and perhaps labels aren’t always the best thing. But beyond that, I loved Felix and Ezra together, and the tension between Declan (who was a former boyfriend of Ezra’s) and Felix. I loved the emphasis on art, and how art can express inner feelings the way words sometimes can’t. And I still think Callender is a beautiful writer. They capture things on the page about being trans and black and queer and trying to fit into this world that doesn’t want them. It was powerful and challenging and wonderful all around.

I am definitely a fan of Callender’s now.

Audio book: Fable

by Adrienne Young
Read by Emma Lysy
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some violence and some off-screen, implied sex near the end. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been four years since Fable watched her mother die in a storm that sank the ship that they, along with Fable’s father, were on. And four years since Fable’s father dumped her on a god-forsaken island, abandoning her to her fate. Now, she’s found a way off the island on a ship captained by West, a young trader who has bought her gems for the past couple of years. And Fable is determined to take her place in her father’s crew.

But things are not what they seem in this cutthroat world of trading and selling. And West is not everything he seems. Can a girl — even one who was raised the daughter of a captain and who has special gifts — make her own way in this world?

I really enjoyed the world that Young built here. It’s rich and lush, and very Pirates of the Caribbean-y. Which, in my book, is a good thing. There’s magic, of a sort, but it’s very slight. I liked Fable’s journey getting off the island, and the slow reveal of her past and her place in her father’s empire (of sorts). The romance was a bit out of nowhere (all of a sudden they were kissing, and while I don’t mind that, it did feel a bit, well, unearned.) but it wasn’t the focus of the book, which was a relief. I did feel Young did a bit too much telling rather than showing, but it’s the first in a duology, and she needed to set up the world, and I’d rather some telling all along than a big infodump at the beginning.

Lysy was good as a narrator, even if she did over-emphasize her Ts at the end of sentences. (Once I noticed it, I couldn’t unhear it.) She kept me engaged and kept the story moving forward. I think I enjoyed this a lot more on audio than I would have otherwise.

And the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger (there got to a be a point about 3/4 of the way through where I kept expecting something bad to happen. And it did. In the last chapter.) so yes, I’ll be checking out the sequel.

Super Fake Love Song

by David Yoon
First sentence: “Every superhero has an origin story.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing and in the older brother has a drinking problem. It’s in the YA section (grade 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sunny Dae (yes, that is meant to be punny) is a Nerd. Not only self-declared, but declared by the student body of his super rich California high school. Which is fine with Sunny. He and his friends Jamal and Milo have their own thing: a DIY FX YouTube channel for people who want to make their own cosplay outfits. It’s a perfectly fine existence, and aside from the fact that Sunny’s older brother Gray won’t talk to him and his parents are always working, one that Sunny is happy with.

Then Sunny meets Cirrus Soh, who accidentally thinks that Gray’s old room — full of guitars and “cool” things — is Sunny’s. And Sunny leans into that lie: yes, he plays guitar. Yes, he fronts a band. Yes, he’s “cool”. And all of a sudden, he has to make good on his lie. He ropes his friends into it, and gets the girl. The problem is: he’s kind of liking the “new Sunny” but he’s letting his friends down. Can he find a way to balance everything?

This book was super fun! Okay, so the romance part of this book wasn’t the best; Sunny and Cirrus were a bit forced and their romance never really felt real to me. What I did love, though, was Sunny. I loved his grappling with being nerdy and realizing that not everything or everyone fits neatly into boxes. I loved his family and their relationship to each other. For me, that was where the most interesting drama took place. I adored Milo and Jamal, and thought the three friends were brilliant together. And loved passages like this:

“My two best friends wore what they normally wore, which was to say a combination of low-performance joggers and blank polos that were so normcore, they went though dadcore and into weekend dadcore beyond.”

And this:

“The cynic would say Sunset [Boulevard] was like any other street in the godforsaken post-apocalyptic wonderland. But it wasn’t. It was a twenty-some-odd-mile-long serpent behemoth whose head had no idea what its tail was doing.”

No, it’s not brilliant fiction. But it is a lot of fun! And right now, that’s what really matters.

Audio book: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything

by Raquel Vasquez Gillliland
narrated by Inés del Castillo
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including many f-bombs and description of sexual assault as well as almost-sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s been three years since Sia’s mom disappeared in an ICE raid that sent her back to Mexico, a place where she had never been, having been brought to the US by her mother when she was young. Sia’s mom since disappeared, and was presumed to be dead. By everyone. So, for three years, Sia has been harboring grudge and aching for revenge on the sheriff who turned her mother in.

And… here’s where everything gets a little weird. I was enjoying this book about a girl who was dealing with her mother’s death, with the inherent racism in her town, with trying to keep her best friend together, with liking a new boy who just happens to turn out to be the estranged son of the sheriff. And then the book slants sideways and there are aliens? An Sia’s mom is not dead, but instead has spent the past three years being tested on in a secret government conspiracy? And it took half the book to get there?

I don’t know. I wanted to like this one more than I did. I adored the narrator; I think, in the end, she is what kept me listening (that, and I wanted to see just how far this alien thing would go) because I was annoyed. Annoyed that the jacket blurb gave away the aliens. Annoyed that they didn’t show up until halfway, and yet were so vital to the plot. Annoyed because it was a good book about a girl who was dealing with grief and loss and moving on, and all of a sudden: ALIENS AND YOUR MOM ISN’T DEAD.

I know there are people out there who liked this one. I’m just not one of them.