Mask of Shadows

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: “The thick, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask.”
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Release date: August 29, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, one f-bomb, and lots of violence. I’m pretty sure it’s okay in the YA section (grades 6-8), though with a caveat for younger, more sensitive readers.

Sal Leon is  many things: a refugee from a war, of which they were the only survivor of their people. A thief. Ambitious. Reckless. And set on revenge for the lords who were responsible for the razing of their land. So when they come into the possession of an audition poster for the Queen’s Left Hand — a group of highly trained assassins in the service of the queen — Sal decides to take the chance. But little do they know that the trial is to the death, and that there will be many obstacles in their way.

Okay, so writing Sal as a they is a bit awkward, but since Sal is gender fluid — sometimes a she, sometimes a he, and sometimes a they, as Sal puts it — it makes it kind of difficult to describe. And yet, while the gender fluidity was part of the story (Sal was often annoyed when people didn’t get their gender; they did what they could to help people “get” it, but some characters were willfully obtuse), it wasn’t the whole story. There was so much more to love about the book.  Miller has a fantastic grasp of world building, giving us enough information to help us understand the world, but not going into long tangents about the history (though there is one attached at the end, if the reader is interested). There was magic in the world, but that was banished, which leaves for some intriguing subplots (and maybe some more exploration in the sequel?), but mostly this is a straight up survival book: Sal needs to survive the trials and become the new assassin if they want to enact revenge. It’s written in first person, and Sal’s life/head is a good place to be: they are smart, intuitive and a creative survivor. The book is also populated with a lot of fantastic secondary characters, from the servant Sal gets when they join the trials to the other members of the Left Hand. It’s a brutal book: in a trial to the death, there is bound to be people killed that the reader cares about. All that gives it heft, though, and shows that Miller’s not afraid to tell the story that needs to be told.

An excellent debut novel, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some almost sex, and some drinking. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I came to this one in a round-about way. I have a teen review group, and one of them read this (and loved it), and so I didn’t feel a need to read it. Too many other things on the pile. Then, it became a big thing (and rightly so), being talked about all over the internets. and so we picked it to be a part of our summer teen book group. And that is really what pushed me to read it. (If all else fails: pick it for a book group. I’ll read it then!)

As one of my co-workers said, I’m reading this as a privileged white woman, and it makes one VERY aware of that privilege. At first, I thought I was not hip enough for Starr and her world, but after a couple of chapters, I found myself immersed in the world Starr inhabits. Thomas very eloquently shows (not tells!) the reader what it’s like to live in the inner city, the conflict- both with the “system” and with each other – that they face every day.

The basic plot is this: Starr is at a party, when a shooting happens. As everyone is fleeing, she ends up with an old friend, Khalil, and they end up getting pulled over by a white cop. And, because this unfortunately happens too often, the cop shoots Khalil. And from there, the story follows Starr as she deals with the aftermath of that. From dealing with PTSD after the experience (it’s her second friend who has been shot and killed), to dealing with being a witness at the grand jury (and all the implications that brings), to dealing with the balance between her home life and her school life — she goes to a prep school in the suburbs — and her friends there. Thomas treats everything complexly and is incredibly forthright and honest about absolutely everything. It’s an excellent portrait of the life of a black teenager and an important book, especially for a white person to read.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love

by Maurene Goo
First sentence: “When I was seven, I thought I moved a pencil with my mind.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s a propensity to use the s-word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8; I debated, but decided that it ultimately wen there) of the bookstore.

Desi does it all: she’s student body president, involved in practically every club, soccer star, valedictorian, and a model daughter for her dad (especially since her mom’s sudden death seven years before). The only thing she doesn’t have (and hasn’t ever had): a boyfriend.  And then Luca shows up at her school: reserved, artistic, with a shady past, and that… something… that makes him completley desirable to Desi. The problem? Desi is absolutely lousy at flirting. (Or as her two best friends, Fiona and Wes, call what she does: flailure.) So, Desi turns to one of her father’s passions to get help, and starts binge-watching K-Dramas. She comes up with a list of 28 tried-and-true (and also a bit cliche) steps to Get the Guy and starts her project.

The best part of this incredibly sweet book is that you don’t have to know K-Dramas (though I suppose it helps) in order to enjoy that this is parodying K-Dramas while also following the formula. (It’s  Jane the Virgin in book form!) Yes, there’s a definite arc to the book, but it feels, well a bit wink-wink-nudge-nudge about it all. It’s very self-aware, and that was something I really enjoyed about it. That, and the father-daughter relationship. Sure, there’s a dead mom, but Desi’s dad is the most well-adjusted adult in a YA novel I’ve read in a while. I liked that he was a mechanic with a passion for funny shows (Desi was named after Desi Arnez) and K-Dramas. I liked his relationship with Desi, and the love that I could sense between the two.

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it’s a little silly, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy

by Rick Riordan
First sentence: “When our dragon declared war on Indiana, I knew it was going to be a bad day.”
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Others in the series: The Hidden Oracle
Content: There’s some dark undercurrents (but those will probably go over the heads of younger readers) and some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

So, Apollo is off on a quest, this time to figure out what Big Bad (really: he’s the worst) Nero is up to, and to get to it and stop it before Nero gets too much power. Tagging along with Leo and Calypso, they head to Indianapolis, where they find a huge mess involving yet another evil Roman Emperor to stop, battle ostriches, and a kidnapped oracle. Not bad, all things considered, and yet Apollo manages to make things worse.

This one definitely has the feeling of a middle book (maybe because it is…). It’s not a bad book; Riordan knows how to pace an action-packed novel, and there’s enough pop culture references to nod and wink at the reader without it being overbearing. They sassy haiku are back (my favorite: Yeah we got the skills/Fake hexes and shooting feet/Teach you ’bout pancakes), which is always fun. Apollo is much less unlikable in this one (he has his moments, but they’re getting fewer) and Riordan seamlessly weaves in ancient myths and stories. It’s much like all the others: good, fun, enjoyable, but nothing that sticks with you for long.

Still, worth reading.

Words in Deep Blue

by Cath Crowley
First sentence: “I open my eyes at midnight to the sound of the ocean and my brother’s breathing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 6, 2017
Content: There’s some inferences to sex, some teenage drinking (it’s legal in Australia) and some swearing (I don’t remember there being any f-bombs, but don’t quote me on that). It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Rachel realized, three years ago, that she was in love with her best friend, Henry. So, she told him, via a letter in his family’s bookstore’s “Letter Library” (the coolest idea ever: leaving notes in books for strangers and/or friends). He never responded, having eyes only for another girl. And then she moved to the coast, so she figured (even though he wrote) they were over.

But, three years later, Rachel’s younger brother has drowned, and neither Rachel nor her mother are dealing with it well. Rachel’s flunked out of Grade 12, and it seems like perhaps the best thing would be to go back to the city and live with her aunt Rose and figure out what the next step should be. She ends up working at Henry’s family’s bookstore, and comes back into Henry’s orbit, again. Rachel’s dealing with too much to get into a relationship right now. But being back with Henry is comfortable, and maybe Rachel can figure out how to heal from her brother’s death. And maybe, this time, it’ll be different with Henry.

I loved this book, mostly because it hit all my sweet spots. Summer romance, bookish characters, second chances at love. I thought Crowley managed both grief and the healing process realistically. And I loved the letters that were scattered throughout the book, how the characters used the books to communicate with each other. I liked that the grief gave it an edge, and I really liked how it resolved.

An excellent summer romance.

Alex, Approximately

by Jenn Bennett
First sentence: “He could be anyone of these people.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of drug use (by a minor character), some teenage drinking, and some non-graphic sex. There is also some mild swearing and two f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Bailey has just moved to California to live with her dad, and it just happens to be in the same northern California surfing town as her on-line BFF (and crush), Alex. He’s everything she thinks she wants: they share the same taste in movies, they love to banter… the only thing is that she doesn’t know who he is.

And then she meets Porter Roth. He’s everything Alex is not: annoying, irritating, and a surfer. And Bailey’s stuck working with him at her new summer job. But then, she finds herself falling for him and starts to wonder whether or not she needs Alex after all.

That kind of sounds lame, doesn’t it? But, truthfully, it’s the perfect mix of retro, sassy repartee, and romance (with a few steamy bits). There’s California surf culture (though it felt more southern than northern, but that’s nit-picky), there’s a bad egg of a former best friend to keep things exciting. There’s a friendship story as well as a boyfriend story and it’s summery and just perfect. And yeah, the “big” reveal at the end is pretty obvious (you can figure it out a mile away), but you know what? I didn’t care.

It hit the spot.

Thick as Thieves

thickasthievesby Megan Whalen Turner
First sentence: “It was midday and the passageway quiet and cool.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The ThiefThe Queen of AttoliaThe King of AttoliaA Conspiracy of Kings
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a bit slow, and the main character is an adult. There is also some (not very graphic) violence. It will be in the YA section ( grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Turner writes in the introduction to the ARC that you really don’t have to read the other books in the series in order to enjoy this one. It does help, of course, but this one holds its own on its own. And she’s right: it’s been years since I’ve visited these characters, and it didn’t matter that I can’t quite remember exactly what The Thief was about. (Which means I need to reread it.)

Kamet is a slave of one of the high officials in the Mede empire. He’s happy, pretty much, because he’s his master’s right  hand man, which means he has a certain amount of privilege and power. And then, in the course of a single day he is offered freedom from a strange Attolian soldiear, and he is told that his master was poisoned. He doesn’t want to be blamed (and killed) for the murder, so he takes the Attolian up on his offer and leaves.

Most of the book is Kamet and “the Attolian” (you’re not given a name until the end, but if you’ve read the others, you’ll guess who it is) making their escape. It’s not a straightforward thing: they have difficulties, they’re chased by the emperor’s guard, they meet friends and foes alike. It’s not a fast book, it’s not an intense book, but it is an intriguing journey, and the developing friendship between Kamet (who is not always the most reliable narrator) is a delight.

There are some nice twists at the end as well, ones I kind of saw coming but was still delighted by. And Turner helpfully left the door open for another book. Which is always good, because I’ll happily visit this world anytime she decides to set a story there.