A Room Away From the Wolves

roomawayfromthewolvesby  Nova Ren Suma
First sentence: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and abuse that could be triggering. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is going to be tough one for me to sum up, because I am not sure what, exactly, happened. The words were very pretty and I read the whole thing, but I, for the life of me, do NOT understand what happened.

There’s a girl — Bina — whose mother remarried when she was nine to a man with two daughters who were quite abusive to Bina. And so, the summer before Bina turns 18, her mother suggests she leaves. Bina goes to a place in New York City her mother had stayed when she was young, before Bina, the Catherine House. There are 14 girls in the house, where weird things happen, and they try to bring the ghost of Catherine back, and Bina’s super confused, and… I just lost the thread of what was going on.

I suppose this was meant to be a grand metaphor for something, and I’m sure there are people out there who like this atmospheric type of book with a hugely unreliable narrator, and I did finish it, to it’s not terrible.

It’s just that I need someone to explain it to me.

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

darkdescentby Kiersten White
First sentence: “Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through teh louds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of violent acts, and one swear word. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book is being billed as a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I think it’s more a prequel: the story is of Elizabeth, who becomes a childhood companion of Victor Frankenstein, ostensibly to keep him company, but really to keep his anger and unusual tendencies in check. She is endebted to the Frankestein family for taking her in when she was a small child and basically raising her. And now that they are grown, she feels like Victor is all she has. If she doesn’t keep him in line, she will lose her whole life. So, when he disappears after going away to school, Elizabeth goes after him. And what she discovers is, well, the subject of the classic book.

What this really was (or at least the way I read it) about was the portrait of an abusive man and a woman’s response to it. Victor, if you’ve read the original, is not a nice person. And the way White wrote him, he was never a nice person. And Elizabeth was gaslighted from a very young age. Victor was her world, and the way White portrayed it, that was never a good thing. Or, maybe that’s just the way I read it. Either way, I was angry and disturbed and more angry. It was an interesting book, though: Elizabeth had a phenomenal growth arc, and there were some characters along the way who helped her realize just what an awful situation she was in.

In the end, though, I couldn’t get past the abusive relationship at the heart of it, and the book just made me angry. Maybe that’s a good thing?

Educated

by Tara Westover
First sentence: “I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn.”
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Release date: February 20, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some harrowing scenes of abuse and some mild swearing (no f-bombs). It will be in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think any junior or senior in high school may be interested in it.

I was handed this book because I’m the Mormon on staff, and because Westover grew up Mormon, in Idaho, everyone just assumed I needed to read it. Having finished it, I’m here to say that it’s not for those of us who are Mormon (though I think we’ll see some inherent criticisms of our culture, that others might miss), but it’s for everyone, in the way The Glass Castle is for everyone. Westover’s story is remarkable.

The basics are these: she grew up on a mountain in Idaho, the child of a fundamentalist/survivalist father who used religion as the reason to spurn the government. She was a wild child, helping out in the junkyard, avoiding books, until her older brother, Tyler, left and went to college. That spurred something in her, and she tried to go to school (they were all nominally “homeschooled”, which is code for “there are scriptures lying around the house if you choose to read them”) but consistently fell back into old habits. It wasn’t until she began being physically abused by her older brother that she felt a need to leave. She got into BYU (she studied for the ACT, and managed to get a good enough score), and once there learned just how far from “normal” her family was.

It’s a remarkable journey, not just because Westover got “out” of the situation she was in (though there really isn’t a resolution with her abusive brother, in the end, which while disappointing in a narrative setting, makes sense), but because of her reflections on education, class, money, religion, and the government. It’s an interesting line she walked, between her family and the education she received, first at BYU and then at Cambridge, but it is made so by her writing, her open, honest (sometimes brutally so) reflections on not just her family (she points no fingers) but also herself. This book feels like a work of therapy; like Westover needed to write it to understand herself, and by sharing it with the rest of us, we may understand not just her family, but ourselves as well.

I’m not sure remarkable is the best word for it. I was caught up in the story, my breath taken away (as a mother I was shocked and appalled: how COULD they let these things happen to their daughter!) and I was in awe that she found a way for herself.

Excellent.

Gunslinger Girl

by Lyndsay Ely
First sentence: ”
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Release date: January 2, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence, none overly graphic, some drinking, some off-screen sex, and a bit of mild swearing. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

In this near future scenario, the US has dissolved, through war and disease, into a loosely-formed Confederacy of North America. Not all states are part of it, but inside CONA there are communes, where those faithful to CONA (the war feels a bit like the war in Firefly; the Patriots were on the “losing” side, but they were probably right…) to live. Outside of CONA’s borders, though, anything is game. Especially in Cessation, the largest city out west.

Serendipty “Pity” Jones lives on one of those communes with her hateful father and two brothers. And when her father decides to marry her off, she runs away. Initially headed to Columba, CONA’s capital, Pity ends up, instead, in Cessation. In Casimir — the largest brothel/hotel/casino/theater in town — specifically, where she takes her mother’s guns and training, and turns them into an act.

But Casimir and Cessation aren’t everything they seem. While Pity makes a place for herself and some friends, there are pitfalls and traitors and life-threatening situations.

A combination thriller, Western, and speculative fiction,  Gunslinger Girl has it all:  action, adventure, dark undertones, romance, betrayal. I’ll admit when I began this, I wasn’t sold, but by the end, I was enthralled.

A spectacular debut.

Caraval

caravalby Stephanie Garber
First sentence: “It took seven years to get the letter right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 31, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some domestic abuse and an almost-rape. If the reader is sensitive to those topics, then this probably isn’t for them. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I will say this straight up: this one is a hard book to sum up. There’s devoted sisters, the older — Scarlett — of which will do anything for the younger — Tella. There’s a controlling and abusive father who uses the sisters’ devotion against them. There’s a traveling game, Caraval, that is invitation only and that Scarlett has wanted to attend for years. There’s a history between Caraval’s master, Legend, and Scarlett’s grandmother. And then there’s Scarlett’s impending marriage.

And then Scarlett and her sister get invited to the game, the week before her wedding. And it turns out that finding Tella is the POINT of the game. One in which Scarlett must be prepared to risk everything to win.

I loved this. Seriously. No, it’s not lyrical and the writing isn’t the grandest, but it’s good, solid storytelling with an epic story to be told. I loved that the stakes were high. And the chemistry between Scarlett and Julian? When it was on, it was ON. I liked the use of magic in the game and the way it kept me in suspense about what was real and what wasn’t

I liked that the story wrapped up, mostly suitably, even though there was a bit left undone for a sequel. Definitely worth reading.

Kids of Appetite

kidsofappetiteby David Arnold
First sentence: “Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There are a bunch of f-bombs, some teenage smoking, and some depictions of domestic abuse. It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Vic is many things: a teenage boy, a son whose father has died of cancer, a lover of music and math. He also has Moebius syndrome, but he doesn’t let that define him. No, these days, he lets his dad’s absence and his mom’s new relationship define him. And one night, when things become unbearable, Vic grabs his dad’s ashes and takes off. Out there, he runs into an interesting group of kids, under the protection of a Congolese immigrant named Baz. They fly under the radar, taking people in who need help, give them the help they need, and send them on their way. And Vic most definitely needs help. Especially after he opens his father’s urn and discovers instructions as to where his ashes should be spread. So Vic, with his new-found friends, takes it upon himself to scatter his dad according to his wishes.

Things aren’t that simple, though. Vic gets caught up in the lives of what comes to be called Kids of Appetite, and when the uncle of one kid ends up dead (and Baz is a suspect), Vic finds himself in the police station.

There’s a lot going on in this novel: there’s a main character with a disability, and some discussion on etiquette when dealing with someone who doesn’t look like you. There’s diversity and refugee and immigration issues with Baz and his younger brother as they try to make a new life for themselves. There’s a semi-traditional love story. There’s a murder. But, even with all these weird eclectic elements, it works. It’s such a character-driven novel and each and every character (well at least with the Kids of Appetite) is a gem. The novel alternates between Vic and Mad, an 18-year-old girl who is kind-of a runaway as well, and each of their voices was delightful. I liked that there was a dark edge to this, that there are things to think about, and yet it’s ultimately a story of hope and redemption.

Highly, highly recommended.

Sunny Side Up

by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 25, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s some implied drug and alcohol abuse by the character’s older brother, so it’ll probably engender some discussion. It’ll be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s 1976, and Sunny is being sent to live with her grandpa in Florida. It’s not something Sunny wants to do; she’d rather be at the coast with her best friend. But, her older brother’s been having problems with drugs and alcohol (that’s putting it mildly), and so Sunny is being sent away for her own safety. On paper, it’s okay: Florida has Disney World, right? But, in reality? Her grandpa lives in a retirement community, and that’s just boring. Trips to the post office or the grocery store, early all-you-can-eat buffet dinners, a kid-less pool. Thinks look up when she meets Buzz and he introduces her to comic books. But, she’s still haunted by  her brother’s actions and the secrets she keeps. Can Sunny make the most of the summer she’s been given?

The Holm siblings have come up with a semi autobiographical novel addressing some pretty heavy issues. Granted, they do it in such a way that’s accessible to kids and that engenders discussion. K read this one, too, and we talked a lot about how other people can hurt us but that it’s not our fault. The only complaint we had, though, was trying to figure out how the flashbacks fit into the present story line. It was a bit confusing at first, but we eventually figured it out. We did like the relationship between Buzz and Sunny as well as Sunny and her grandpa. The other residents of the community were delightfully quirky, and it’s also great that Buzz and his family were immigrants from Cuba.

It’s not the Holms’ usual fare; it’s more like Raina Telgemier’s books. But, it’s a very heartfelt and sweet look at a very dark subject.