The Girl the Sea Gave Back

by Adrienne Young
First sentence: “‘Give me the child.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 3, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it gory. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore.

Tova, a member of the Kyrr tribe and covered in tattoos that brand her as a Truthtongue, has spent the last 13 years in exile with the Svell tribe. Their Tala (religious leader? I wasn’t entirely sure the role of the Tala) took her in, even though most of the people of the tribe are terrified of her and what she does. And for a people that believe strongly in Fate, Tova is terrifying: she throws the runes and reads them and They Come True.

The Svell tribe is at a crossroads: they are planning to attack of the tribe to to the north, the Nadhir, but the reasoning is kind of fuzzy. I think it’s because the Svell just wants to conquer the world. At any rate, they massacre a border town, kill the Nahdir leader, and then massacre another town on their way to invade the capital.

Tova, in all this, has been throwing runes that perhaps show the ultimate domination of the Svell, but she becomes uneasy allied with them. And, upon seeing Halvard, who becomes the Nadhir leader after the leader is killed, she decides to throw her fate in with them.

As you can tell, the plot of this one is a bit, well, hard to sum up and make interesting. I did like Tova as a character — she’s an exiled person (she’s supposed to be dead, but it’s never really explained why she’s not) trying to make a home with a people who never trusted her. The romance is a bit forced; I liked Halvard, but I never really got why they were attracted to each other. Thankfully, the romance is mostly only implied; the real conflict is Tova and her desire to get away from the Svell who are really committing an act of genocide. But I’m not sure that Young really delved into the conflict between Tova and the Svell leaders. Tova took the blame for the genocide — because she threw the runes — rather than the leaders, where it belonged. I guess I just wanted more out of this; it just felt hollow.

And the ending is… weird. I won’t go into it, but I felt like it came out of nowhere.

So, I wanted to really like this book. There are parts that are great. But, in the end, it wasn’t all that I was hoping it would be.

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Hope and Other Punch Lines

by Julie Buxbaum
First sentence: “Tuesday, the least descriptive day of the week.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of teenagers drinking and hooking up, but none actual. There are two f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Abbi Hope Goldstein has a terrible claim to fame: On 9/11, a photographer snapped a picture of her, at age 1, being rescued by a worker from the Twin Towers, running away from the destruction. She was named “Baby Hope” by the media, and her picture splashed across the country as a sign of hope and reliance. Which meant, over her seventeen years of living, she’s had a lot of awkward encounters. Mostly, though, this summer — especially as she’s developed a worrisome cough that’s probably linked to the 9/11 attacks — she just wants to be a normal teenager.

Except there’s Noah: his dad died in 9/11 (they’re both from New Jersey), and Noah’s mom — though remarried now — has always been reluctant to talk about his dad. This summer, though, Noah wants to get answers from what he’s always suspected: his dad was in the background of the Baby Hope picture, and he wants to know what happened. And so when he runs into Abbi at a summer camp they’re both working at, he thinks it’s Fate and goads her into helping him contact all the people in the photo.

It sounds like a lot, and in some ways it’s a heavy book. It deals with loss and survivors guilt and grief — and not just the overarching 9/11 loss; there’s also loss of friendships, as Abbi has dealt with the dissolution of her friendship with her former best friend (nothing malicious; they just grew apart). But, in many ways, this is a typical teen romance. Noah is sweet and dorky and charming (and who doesn’t love a lovable guy in a teen romance) and his best friend, Jack, is the best. Abbi’s problems don’t seem too heavy; she is dealing with a lot but Buxbaum doesn’t ever let that control the narrative.

It was definitely a charming read, one with depth and heart.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
First sentence: “Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air.”
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Content: There is some drinking and swearing, including mulitple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Sal is starting his senior year of high school, and he feels like his life isn’t making sense. He’s mom died when she was three, he never knew his biological father, and although he loves his adoptive father and his Mexican family, he still wonders about the family he never knew. His best friend, Samantha has a crap relationship with her mom, and his other friend, Fito’s, mom has drug problems. Sal’s life is pretty tame comparatively, but still. He’s trying to figure himself out.

Actually, the plot of this one is kind of incidental to the book. It’s mostly about relationships: between Sal and his father, Sal and his grandmother, and Sal and Sam. It’s about the dynamics between them all and what it means to be a part of a family. There is discussion of death and making life worthwhile, as Sal (and Sam and Fito) try to figure out how they fit into the world. Even though it wasn’t heavy on plot, it was beautifully written. Sáenz has a gift for language and I enjoy the way he wrote the characters. Sal’s dad, Vincente, is one of the best fathers I’ve read in a very long time. It was delightful spending time with these characters that I came to care about. (Yes, I cried when Mima died.)

Perhaps not the most exciting book I’ve read recently, but I did enjoy it.

Audio book: Three Sides of a Heart

Stories about Love Triangles
Edited by Natalie C. Parker
Read by Almarie Guerra, Bahni Turpin, James Fouhey, and Lulu Lam
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There are some stories with f-bombs, and some talk of sex and drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The idea behind this short story collection was “love triangles”, but as Natalie Parker mentions in her introduction, that was interpreted in many different ways. Many of the stories were standard two boys one girl or two girls one boy, but I think I liked the unusual ones best. I only skipped two: “Work in Progress” by E. K. Johnston and “The Historian, the Garrison, and the Cantankerous Cat Woman” by Lamar Giles. I don’t know if it was the story or the audio narration, but I found myself tuning out and so I just skipped them. As for the rest, my favorites were Parker’s story “Cass, An, and Dra” which not only played with Cassandra as as seer, but had a lesbian couple and a gender fluid person as the love triangle. I also really enjoyed Brandy Colbert’s “Hurdles” because the character is making a difficult choice between two good things and Colbert ends the story with the choice unmade. I also thought Brenna Yovanoff’s story, “Vega” was clever: it was between a girl, a boy, and the city of Las Vegas, which is an interesting look at a love triangle.

The collection was uneven, but to be honest, that’s the way I often feel about short story collections. I thought the idea behind the collection was an interesting one — definitely good for summer! — and I enjoyed where some of the authors went with it.

Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Hearts Unbroken

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Half past nine a.m. in the residual haze of my junior prom, I ducked into a powder room off the kitchen at the swanky lake house where the after-party took place.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are multiple f-bombs and a tasteful sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Louise is a senior at a small(ish)-town Kansas high school, and has decided this year to be on the newspaper. She mostly wants to try out something new, but it’s also because her last boyfriend, Cam, turned out to be racist towards Native Peoples. And since Louise is a member of the Muscogee Nation, that really sat wrong. She’s decided that she’s going to make a stand against all the little micro-aggressions toward Native Peoples that she sees.

It doesn’t help that her family is being targeted by racists: her younger brother Hughie has been cast as the Tin Man in a color-blind casting of The Wizard of Oz (a black girl was cast as Dorothy) and the white people in town — especially the wife of the pastor of the big evangelical church — are Up In Arms. They think this is Ruining Their Values. And so, Louise, and her potential-love-interest Joey, tackle the story through the high school paper.

I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. On the one hand, I appreciated all the ways that Leitich Smith pointed out that we, as a culture, have adopted stereotypes of Native Peoples, and how that’s affecting them, whether directly or indirectly. But, I feel like there wasn’t much of a story there. Sure, there was a plot: Louise is dealing with her own issues, working on a relationship with Joey, and trying to balance friendships and family and school. But, I never really connected with it. I just felt like is was “here’s a situation, let me explain why this is racist”. Maybe that’s my problem: I felt like white people were the audience for this book, and while it’s an Own Voices title, I’m not sure how much a Native teen would relate to this book. I felt like Leitich Smith was Explaining Things to me, when I just really wanted a story about a Muscogee girl in Kansas who is dealing with high school and issues.

But maybe it’s just me.

Valiant

by Lesley Livingston
First sentence: “The steam rising off the backs of the cantering horses faded into the morning fog.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s violence, obviously, and some references to naked people and drinking. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Fallon is a chief’s daughter of one of the Celtic tribes back in Roman times. They fought off the Romans, once, but her father was captured and her sister was killed rescuing him. Which means, Fallon’s not allowed to join the warriors (even though she’s an amazing fighter) and is being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. So, in fit of pique, she storms off only to be captured by Roman slavers. She’s sold — for an exorbitant price — to a gladiatrix training school, one that Julius Ceasar owns, and has to decide: will she fight in warrior games for a country she despises? Or will she become target practice?

I didn’t expect to like a book set in Roman times about a female gladiator, with a side love story with a Roman soldier, but you know what? I did. Livingston knows how to propel a plot and I really enjoyed the female relationships in this. Fallon wasn’t the only girl the slavers captured, and I liked how Livingston developed those relationships. They learned to work together and care for each other, and while she did have some women (once Fallon got to the academy) who were operating out of jealousy, it was mostly a supportive environment.

I didn’t particularly like the romance, though, and it all felt a bit too modern for me at points, but that’s forgivable. I don’t know if I’m going to go on to read the other two in this series, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.