Audio book: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

10 Things I Hate About Pinky

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “The dead body was an especially nice touch.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: July 21, 2020
Content: There’s some kissing and mild swearing. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore.

Pinky Kumar is the different one in her family. With her colored hair, eyebrow ring, impulsive nature, series of not-great boyfriends, and devotion to causes (and creating trouble), her parents — her mother, especially — are at their wits end. So, after being accused (by her mother) of burning a barn down while on summer vacation, Pinky blurts out that she has a boyfriend her parents would approve of. She just needs to find that boyfriend, stat.

Samir Jha has everything planned out: he’s going to DC for the summer to do a high-stakes internship as part of his goal to getting into Harvard. However, when that suddenly falls through, he’s pretty aimless. Then he gets a text from Pinky — who he knows, but not well — out of the blue: come pretend to be her boyfriend for the summer, and she will make sure he gets an internship with her mother, a high profile lawyer. Against his better judgement, Samir accepts. It should be easy, except for one catch: he can’t actually stand Pinky’s impulsiveness. The feeling’s mutual: Pinky thinks Samir is boring. How are they going to survive the summer?

Oh this was cute. Sure, it’s a formulaic rom-com, but that’s kind of what one wants out of a romance story. And it has a couple of additional layers: Pinky’s conflicted relationship with her mom (due to a lack of communication on both sides) and Pinky getting involved in a local dispute with a developer trying to develop a habitat at their summer home. But those just added to the overall cuteness and just happy-making of the book. Menon really does have a gift for making light, fun, sweet romances and I am more than happy to read every one of them.

Dragondrums

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “The rumble-thud-boom of the big drums answering a message from the east roused Piemur.”
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Others in the series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger
Content: There is some bullying and one very off-screen sex scene. It would be in the YA section of the bookstore if we had it.

Piemur — who was a minor character in Menolly’s story of the first two books — takes front and center in this one. A few turns have passed since we last heard from our friends in the Harper Hall, and Piemur, known for his clear boy soprano has had the worst thing happen: he’s started to go through puberty and his voice is changing. That means, he’s no longer the center of all the choruses, and Master Robinton needs to find something to do with him. That something is learning the message drums. Except precocious Piemur does it too well and he’s bullied. One thing leads to another and Piemur finds himself stranded on Southern lands, without a hold, but with a stolen fire lizard egg. Will he ever find a place again?

In some ways, I felt this was just “Dragonsong: part 2”. I guess McCaffrey felt like Piemer needed an arc ‘like Menolly’s: he was bullied, and pushed out of a place he thought he loved, he went holdless, he found joy in a new place. There are some Pern politics in the backdrop that give it a bit more depth than Dragonsong — the tension between the new dragon riders and the Oldtimers in the south, for instance. But, it was mostly just a reprise. Except that Piemur is a delightful character, and Menolly’s in the background giving him support. So: it’s really a better Dragonsong than Dragonsong is. In fact, this might be my favorite of the trilogy, as much as I want to wholly love Menolly’s books.

It holds up as a triolgy, though.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

Aurora Burning

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
First sentence: “The disruptor blast hits the Betraskan right in her chest.”
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Others in the series: Aurora Rising
Content: There is mild swearing, including three (very well placed) f-bombs. There is some alluding to sex but none actual.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

So the team of seven is down to six, their pilot, Cat, falling victim to the ancient and terrible enemy Ra’haaam, who absorbed her consciousness into their own. They’re wanted by the Terran Defense force and the GIA, which has been infiltrated by the Ra’haam, even if the rest of the ‘Way doesn’t know it. But, they discover the Hadfield, the ship Aurora was on before Tyler rescued her, and Squad 312 decides to go after it. The only problem: Kal’s sister Saedii is after them, and she’s got a whole Syldrathi army at her beck and call.

This is very much a middle book in a series: it’s a lot of moving the plot forward, but also setting up the Big Climax that will happen in the final book. Aurora learns more about her powers, we learn more about the Squad (including several shocking revelations). They become more of a unit even as the book is tearing them apat.

Which is one thing I can say about Kaufman and Kristoff: nothing is off limits for them. I think it was Kristoff who said, if there sin’t any stakes, the conflict doesn’t work. There ARE stakes in this. Not just big, life-changing ones, but smaller ones as well. And they balance the multiple and changing narrating perspectives quite admirably.

It’s an excellent, page-turning series. Even if I have to wait to read the third one.

The Midnight Lie

by Marie Rutkoski
First sentence: “There were warning signs in the War that day that anyone could have seen.”
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Content: There is a lot of emotional abuse and some physical abuse. There is off-screen sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s probably better for the older end of the range (depending on the kid).

Nirrim has grown up as an orphan in the Ward, a place on this remote island where they stick the lowest caste, the Half-Kith. She works for Raven, both in Raven’s tavern and as a forger of passports for Half-Kith to escape the Ward. Then, one day, a rare bird is sighted in the Ward, which Nirrim catches and turns in. Which gets her arrested and thrown in jail to be tithed (they take the blood of the Half-Kith), which is where she meets Sid. And her life completely changes.

The plot is a bit convoluted to get into, but it involves gods and magic and Nirrim waking up to her situation and acting for change. The book is more character and inner-dialogue driven than plot-driven, but it worked for me. Rutoski has written a beautifully worded book (it reminded me of Laini Taylor’s work), that drew me in and kept me turning pages, even when it felt like nothing was happening.

And the love story is gorgeous as well. I enjoyed the push and pull between Sid and Nirrim, how they bring out the best in each other. Though one word of warning: it’s a first book (though it reads like a stand alone) and knowing that may cushion the blow of the brutal ending.

Definitely worth reading.

Dragonsinger

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “When Menolly, daughter of Yanis Sea Holder, arrived at Harper Craft Hall, she arrived in style, aboard a bronze dragon,”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Dragonsong
Content: There is some bullying. It would be in the YA section of the bookstore if we had it.

This picks up exactly where Dragonsong left off: with Menolly, discovered by Masterharper Robinton, arriving with her nine fire lizards at Harper Hall to become an apprentice. It takes place over her first week, where she makes some friends and a lot of enemies, gets into more trouble because of her fire lizards, and tries to find confidence in herself.

I think this one is better, overall, than Dragonsong, but only because there’s a lot more going on and a lot fewer awful people. In the first book, it’s Menolly against the world. In this book, Menolly makes some friends and it isn’t quite her vs. everyone. Though it seems that in McCaffrey’s world, Menolly’s enemies are mostly empty-headed girls, which bothered me. I disliked the lack of female support, and the one-dimensionalness (not a word, I know) of the other women in the book. M pointed out that most of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, but still, for all of Menolly’s talent and awesomeness and that I’m glad she learned to stick up for herself, I kind of wished she had developed more of a circle of female friends rather than becoming “one of the guys”. But, the book was published in 1977, so maybe that’s too much to ask.

At any rate, it was a fun little read.

Dragonsong

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “Almost as if the elements, too, mourned the death of the gentle old Harper, a southeaster blew for three days, locking even the burial barge in the safety of the Dock Cavern.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though I’m not entirely sure you still can.)
Content: There is some emotional abuse and injuries. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I wrote about this about 14 years ago (I have been blogging for a very long time!) but I thought I’d give each of these a proper post of their own (because once you read the first, you kind of have to read the rest).

Menolly is the youngest daughter of the Half-Circle Sea Holder. He’s a strict man, in charge of the whole hold (think a small medieval city) and he doesn’t have time for Menolly’s “twaddlings” — her foray into music. She has a gift for songwriting, but because she’s a girl, her father (and mother) believes that she’s a disgrace because she should be doing women’s work. Not music. After a knife accident supposedly renders one of her hands useless, Menolly runs away. And inadvertently impresses nine fire lizards. She doesn’t think much of this until a dragon rider finds her, and brings her back to the Weyr. It’s there that she learns her true worth.

It’s a fantastic story. You can’t help but feel for Menolly’s plight in the Sea Hold, stuck with parents who don’t understand her desires and dismiss her talent as “useless”. It’s so very easy to hate her parents and her siblings (well, there’s one brother who’s okay) because they just don’t understand or care. And when Menolly gets to the dragon weyr, her life changes so drastically. There’s one scene where all the people at the weyr are fussing over her, helping her get new clothes and a haircut, and Menolly bursts into tears because no one has ever been this nice to her.

It’s a story about a girl persevering even though everything’s against her, and it’s a joy to read. And there’s bonus bits for those who have read all the other books as well. (Or at least the original trilogy.) The best thing is that it still holds up all these years later. Such a good book!

Tigers, Not Daughters

by Samantha Mabry
First sentence: “The window to Anna Torres’s second-story bedroom faced Hector’s house, and every night she’d undress with the curtains wide open, in full view of the street.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a lot of swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There is also a lot of talk about teen sex and some teen drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The four Torres sisters live in an unhappy house. Their mother died when the youngest, Rosa, was born, and their father hasn’t been the same since. But their one attempt at running away was foiled. And a year later, the oldest sister, Ana, was dead.

The three remaining sisters have been grieving in their own way. And a year after Ana’s death they’re at a breaking point. And when Ana’s ghost shows up, it pushes the rest of the girls over the edge.

This is a little bit family drama, a little bit empowerment story, and a little bit ghost story, and Mabry makes it all work together excellently. The narrative switches between the three surviving sisters, as the story of Ana’s death, and their home life, unfolds. It’s a celebration of sisterhood — not just actually having sisters, but the act of women working together and supporting each other. And how we are stronger together than apart. It’s about grief and healing and support and the intersection of those three.

It’s an excellent story. I really ought to read more of Mabry’s book.

The Gravity of Us

by Phil Stamper
First sentence: “At home, I’m invisible.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a bunch of swearing, including a dozen or so f-bombs, as well as some teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Cal has a decent life in Brooklyn: he lives upstairs from his best friend, Deb. He has a goal in life for after his senior year. He’s got a following on FlashFame, a social media app. The only downer: his parents constantly fight, mostly about his dad applying to be a pilot for one of NASA’s missions to Mars. Which means, if he gets it — and he does — they’ll have to relocate to Houston. Which is something neither Cal or his mom wants.

But once they get to Houston, Call meets Leon, the son of another astronaut. And there’s some instant attraction. Like loads of it. Enough that maybe Cal might change his mind about wanting to go back to Brooklyn.

There’s more to the story than that. There’s tension between Cal’s FlashFame celebrity and StarWatch, a network that is supposed to have unlimited access to the astronauts and their families. And there’s some uncertainty about whether or not the program will, in fact, go forward.

I thought this was a sweet book. I liked the merging of a retro-60s feel with the astronauts and the space program; we don’t really get excited about astronauts going into space anymore, and maybe we’ve lost something by not caring more about space. I liked that Stamper balanced the astronaut story with the story about journalistic ethics and a very cute gay love story. I really liked Cal and Leon and how their relationship developed.

It was a charming read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Stamper writes next.