Sunny Side Up

by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
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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.

Audiobook: The Library at Mount Char

by Scott Hawkins
Read by Hilary Huber
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Content: SO so SO violent. So VERY violent. And a LOT of swearing, including a big bucketful of f-bombs. You are forewarned. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When the Random House rep came in to pitch this one, she started by saying “I have no idea how to  describe this book.” And it’s true: it’s about a Library. And librarians, but not the way you think. It’s about the end of the world, but not in the way you think. In fact, any way I try to sum this one up it’s going to end with: but not in the way you think. Throughout this whole book, that was the one constant: it’s nothing like you expect.

When Carolyn was eight, her parents died in a tragic accident, and, along with 11 other children, she was adopted by a man they came to know as Father. Father was a librarian, the caretaker of a most unusual library, and Carolyn and her new siblings became his apprentices, each learning a catalog. It wasn’t an ordinary apprenticeship, either: David, who was in charge of war, learned all the ways of war and death known to man (and some not yet known). He became awful and violent and cruel. Margaret learned the ways of death and the underworld, dying multiple times. (Another one, Jennifer, learned the ways of healing and was tasked with bringing everyone back from the dead.) Carolyn’s catalog was all the languages known to man, both ancient and current, as well as ones not known. To be simplistic, it was an awful existence: Father was heartless and cruel in his punishments, and there was no mercy to be seen anywhere.

But now, Father has gone missing, the siblings have been kicked out of the library, and it’s up to them — well, Carolyn, since she speaks English best — to figure out where Father is.

This is, unfortunately, one of those books that the less you know, the better. Know that Steve — an American man that Carolyn ropes into helping — is the heart of the book. And Erwin — an ex-military Homeland security agent — is crass and awful, but good at heart. Know that the end is worth the rest of the book. And that it definitely gets worse before it gets better. And that “better” is relative.

I was talking to another bookseller about it (one who read an ARC months ago) about how this one is best when read in a group, almost: you need another person to be able to process what happens. So, it’d be a good one for book groups, if you can handle the dark.

A bit about the audio: Hilary Huber was FANTASTIC. Seriously. In many cases, her narration is what kept me reading. Especially since, in many ways, listening to this book is more difficult than reading it: you’re not able to skim the really horrible bits. But her voice, and the way she chose to narrate this book, was amazing. So much so, that I’m going to look for more books read by her.

I didn’t love this one, but I am really glad I listened to it. There’s a lot to think about.

Boys of Blur

by N. D. Wilson

First sentence: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some intense moments, some violence, and some reference to abuse. It’s pretty intense, so while it’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, I’d hesitate giving it to the younger part of that age range.
There’s so much going on in this slim book, that it’s difficult for me to know where to start. 
There’s Charlie Reynolds, who had an abusive father, but whose mother was strong enough to leave and who found Mack, a former professional football player from a small town in Florida, to help keep her and Charlie safe. They got married and had an adorable little girl, Molly.
There’s Cotton Mack, the homeschooled son of one of Mack’s cousins, whom Charlie meets when he’s in Florida to attend the funeral of Mack’s former football coach.
It’s after that funeral that things start getting weird for Charlie and Cotton. Like ancient mythical men on mounds wielding swords weird. Like panthers that are tame and the zombie-like Stank (aka Gren) who feed off of envy and greed. And somehow it falls to Charlie and Cotton (well, mostly Charlie) to stop the Gren from rising and destroying their town.
In many ways, this one is reminiscent of The Dark is Rising: an ancient force pitted against a boy, who didn’t know he had it in him to face that ancient force. The difference is that this one is very southern, and is liberally scattered with African Americans. Which brings me to my one problem: why did the white kid have to be the one to save the world, in the end? Why did Cotton have to be taken out of commission? Although I really liked the book, with its mix of football and mythology and family, I was disappointed by this.
I don’t know how much that affected my enjoyment in the end, because Wilson does know how to pace a book, and he’s incredibly tight in his timing, and he knows how engage a reader. So, overall, I’d consider this one a win. 

Fairest

by Marissa Meyer
First sentence: “She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back.”
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Others in the series: Cinder, Scarlet, Cress
Content: There are some sexytimes, but it’s entirely off-stage and only vaguely alluded to. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, like the rest of the series.

This wasn’t the Marissa Meyer book I was expecting to review this year. I wanted Winter, the final installment in my series, the one that will hopefully bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. So, I kind of jokingly asked our Macmillian rep when he was here a couple weeks back if he had an ARC of it for me. His response? “Oh, you haven’t heard? They’ve pushed that off in favor of telling Queen Levana’s backstory.” Me? “WHAT?”

This one goes back an unspecified number of years (10? 15? 20?) to when Levana was 15, the younger sister of a very beautiful, and very cruel princess. A princess who used her mind-manipulation powers to control Levana. To make Levana do things she wouldn’t usually do. To hurt Levana. It’s also the story of the damaged (emotionally and physically) Levana trying to find love in inappropriate places (ie, with a married guard), and manipulating people to get what she wants. And, it’s the story of how Levana became queen (mostly by an accident of fate), and how she ended up with Winter.

Sometimes, going back and telling a character’s backstory works. Say, like Kristin Cashore’s Fire. It was needed to fully understand what she was going to tell in Bitterblue. But this? I enjoyed Levana as a cardboard villain, the fairy tale Bad Queen. I really wasn’t looking to find her sympathetic, to understand Why she was the Bad Guy.

But I read this anyway. And I still feel the same: I’m not sure it was a necessary diversion, but perhaps I’ll be proved wrong when Winter finally comes out.

All the Bright Places

by Jennifer Niven
First sentence: “Is today a good day to die?”
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Content: There’s teenage smoking and drinking and some off-screen sex. Not to mention the several f-bombs, and the weighty subject matter. All this puts it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Finch is just coming out of a two month’s “sleep”, as he calls it. Violet is dealing with survivor’s remorse, being the only survivor in a car accident that killed her sister. Both find themselves at the top of the school’s bell tower one wintery day, contemplating the idea of jumping off, ending it all.

It’s a weird way to start a relationship, saving each other from suicide, but Finch can’t get Violet off his mind. And slowly, through a class project and sheer determination, he wins her over.

There’s really not much else to the plot. I’m sure this one will get huge comparisons to Fault in Our Stars (teens fall in love in spite of Obstacles) or Eleanor & Park (teens fall in love in spite of Differences in background and in spite of Bad Circumstances), but I didn’t feel like it was as good as either of those.  I wanted to like Finch and Violet, but didn’t connect with either one. I felt like Niven was throwing WAY too much at me: suicidal thoughts, car accident deaths, neglectful parenting, abuse, depression, bi-polar, actual suicide, and bullying, with a smattering of eating disorders in there as well. It’s like all the crappy things that could happen to anyone in life were happening to Finch and Violet. And that was just too. too. much.

What I did like, however, were Finch and Violet’s trips exploring the state of Indiana. I enjoyed seeing the state through their eyes, exploring the nooks and crannies and off-beat places that people don’t usually go.

But that wasn’t enough for me to truly enjoy this book.

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

by Amélie Sarn, translated from French by Y. Maudet
First sentence: “The women walk slowly, heads down.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: Augst 5, 2014
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is violence, some mild swearing, and some teen drinking and smoking. I’ll probably put this in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a 7th- or 8th-grader who is interested.

Sohane Chebli is many things: 18 years old, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, French, and a Muslim. She lives in an apartment complex full of others of  Algerian heritage, and mostly she and her younger sister (by 11 months), Djelila, get along with their neighbors, schoolmates, and each other just fine.

Then, during Sohane’s senior year, a few young Muslim men take it on themselves to start harassing Djelila because she dresses in jeans and tighter shirts. Because she wears makeup. Because she smokes with her friends. And Sohane, whose path has become more conservative — she wears the hijab — doesn’t step in to defend her sister. Partially because Sohane thinks her sister is wrong for following a path away from Islam. And partially because Sohane’s been expelled from school, due to a French law banning all religious symbols, for wearing the hijab.

I’m going to spoil a bit — it’s not too bad, because from the beginning,  you know this — but Djelila is killed by the Muslim boys for her refusal to conform to their expectations. And it’s that paired with the other side of the coin: Sohane’s constant discrimination for wearing the hijab. (Not that I mean to compare murder with discrimination.) But it got me thinking: why do we feel a need to tell others how to behave? Why did these boys feel compelled to not only shame, but eventually kill a girl for not following her/their religion to the letter? Why did people refuse to see Sohane’s hijab wearing as an expression of her religion, instead interpreting it as an act of repression? It’s a thought-provoking book.

And it’s written well, in tight, short chapters. It took a bit for me to catch the rhythm of the book because it’s translated, but once I did, I was hooked. And I wasn’t disappointed, in the end.

Half Bad

by Sally Green
First sentence: “There’s these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Content: There’s talk of imagined sex (none actual), and some (mostly mild) swearing. But the talk of the abuse Nathan takes is hard to get though, even for me as an adult. It’s in the teen section  (grades 9 and up) because of that. Be wary of giving this one to an overly-sensitive person.

I was talking this book up in January to a group of educators, saying to look for it, that Green turns the whole “white=good and black=bad” thing upside down. How little did I know.

It does do that: sure. But to say that’s all this first in a trilogy does is to woefully underestimate it.

Nathan is the illegitimate child of a White Witch — his mother — and the baddest of all Black witches. Marcus, Nathan’s father, has alluded the White Hunters for years. And so, to say that having his kid in their midst irks them is a gross understatement. So the council imposes Codes — restrictions — on all Half Bloods. They start mild, with yearly assessments, but get increasingly more restrictive as Nathan gets older. It ends with him being held in a cage for two years. This is partially because of a vision Marcus saw that Nathan would kill him. The White Hunters want to make that happen: he’s ostensibly being “trained” to murder his father. Not that he has any say in the matter.

So, yes, Greene is turning good and evil upside down; how can the “good” people treat someone who is different from them so atrociously. (And believe me, it’s worse than bad.) But, the black witches don’t fare so well, either. Marcus, from all reports (granted, they’re  untrustworthy) is a despicable person. And the one time we see him, he doesn’t entirely acquit himself either. And the only other black witches we see aren’t that much better. Perhaps it’s more a treatise on how power corrupts, and how differences become so ingrained that we can’t see those who aren’t the same as us.

And even though it was difficult at times to get through, emotionally, it did give me a lot to think about. I’m quite interested to see where she goes with this series, and if she can keep up the complex nature of the characters.