Crownchasers

by Rebecca Coffindaffer
First sentence: “The Otari came here to die.”
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Release date: September 29, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, mild swearing, and about four f-bombs. It will be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Captain Alyssa Farshot has everything she needs: a worldship, a membership in the Explorer’s guild, and space. And her engineer/trusty sidekick Hell Monkey. But when her Uncle Atar — who happens to be the Emperor of the thousand planets in this universe — suddenly and unexpectedly dies, Alyssa (and Hell Monkey) finds herself a crownchaser, along with other nominees from the prime families, searching for the seal that will make her empress.

Except she doesn’t want it. And the whole chase becomes more deadly than anyone expected.

That’s the basic plot, but that’s not really a great pitch for this book. How about this: Alyssa is a sarcastic, fearless pilot who has a heart of gold and is willing to go to any lengths for her friends. I loved how Coffindaffer told this story, interspersed with flashbacks to explain the relationships Alyssa has with the other characters in the book. They’re placed at just the right moments, and give the narrative a depth I wasn’t expecting. I adored Alyssa (shoot, I adored all the characters) and the way she just threw herself headfirst into everything she did.

I loved the tone of the book; it didn’t take itself too seriously but also managed to give weight to a couple of ideas (like representation for all, and the inherent classism in the worlds’ systems). It was a perfect balance and kept me turning pages.

An excellent debut novel.

Fire and Hemlock

by Diana Wynne Jones
First sentence: “Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed.”
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Content: There’s some intense situations and mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It took me a bit when reading this to remember that it was a re-read. But I hit a point – maybe about a third of the way in — where it felt familiar, and I looked it up. Sure enough: I had read it before.

Since I already did a thorough review, I’m just going to jot down my thoughts revisiting this book 11 years later. First: Polly’s parents are terrible. Absolutely terrible. So, no wonder she attaches herself to Tom. He’s a father figure, an older sibling, a friend who believes in and humors her rather than shutting her down all the time. And then, in the end, he becomes a romantic interest? Honestly? I found that creepy. He’s at least 15 years older than her, and he’s been with her since she was 10. Creepy.

That said, I did like Polly and Tom’s adventures, and Polly trying to figure out as a 19 year old why she had two sets of memories. I don’t think Jones does romance terribly well, but then, I don’t think this was supposed to be a “romance”. I really appreciated the essay at the end of the book where Jones explained where the idea for Fire and Hemlock came from, and what she was attempting to do. Namely: have a girl be the heroic protagonist of a book. We kind of take it for granted that girls can do that now, but back when Jones was writing (this came out in 1985; I don’t know how I missed it, it would have been perfect for me back then), there just wasn’t a lot with girls playing the hero.

What this did make me realize is that I’ve only ever read two Diana Wynne Jones books, and that is something I should probably fix.

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.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
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Content: It’s long. And there is some action violence. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong is the son and grandson of boxers, but that’s not what he wants to be. No, he’s a bit of a nerd, and would rather spend his time with his best friend Eddie collecting stories. Except his best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan couldn’t save him.

After losing his first boxing match, Tristan is sent to his grandparents in Alabama to try and work though is feelings about Eddie’s death. And that’s where, unfortunately, Tristan falls through a hole and into the world of MidPass and Alke, where gods and folk heroes are battling iron machines and the Maafa for control of their world. What can a 13-year-old do to help? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

This was such a fun book! I enjoyed Tristan’s adventures and the way Mbalia wove both African and African American myths and folk tales into the story. I loved how Tristan came into his own as the book went along, and he was able to face his grief as well as figuring out how to get through his fear (it was nice to have a hero who was terrified but manged to work through it!). I loved how everyone that Tristan met worked together, and how the solutions weren’t about fighting and winning, but more about cooperation. I also liked that Mbalia addressed slavery as part of the whole mythos but it was never a book that was solely about the slave experience.

Definitely highly recommended!

Call Down the Hawk

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence (and a pretty high body count) and swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Some non-spoilery things about Call Down the Hawk:

  1. You don’t have to have read the Raven Cycle to enjoy this one. (But why haven’t you?)
  2. It’s very much a first in a series book. There’s a LOT of set up, which takes most of the book, as Stiefvater lays down the groundwork to this world that’s similar to, but more expanded than, the one in the Raven Cycle.
  3. Which means she’s introduced new elements into the Dreamer world. It’s made it a more realistic source of magic, I think.
  4. She promised adventure, and by the end, there is tension and suspense and adventure.
  5. Ronan-and-Adam are fine, if not physically together.
  6. My favorite pages are 253-255.
  7. Her writing is So. Damn. Beautiful. Even when writing about horrible things.
  8. I liked the new characters — especially Hennessey and Jordan.
  9. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind spending a whole book with Ronan (I was a bit worried about that) and I really liked Declan. A lot. He was always probably not a prick, but Ronan just thought he was so readers did too.
  10. I’m curious to see where the next one goes.

Audiobook: The Sun is a Compass

by Caroline Van Hemert
Read by Xe Sands
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some swearing, including several f-bombs. It’s in the creative non-fiction section of the bookstore.

I picked this one out of my audiobook stash primarily because I’m a sucker for travel books, and this one — in which Caroline and her husband Patrick traverse from Bellingham, Washington to the Arctic Circle entirely on foot and boat over the course of six months –seemed to fit the bill.

A biologist by trade, Van Hemert also grew up in Alaska, and has had a need for adventure — or to at least be in the outdoors — her whole life. And she found a kindred spirit in Patrick, who (if I remember right) built his own cabin in Alaska (though he grew up on the East Coast) and lived in it for a year between high school and college. They are the sort of people to decide to spend six months trekking 4000 miles and then write a book about it.

I don’t mean to sound bitter (if I do); they are amazing people. And I’m glad that there are people like them out there. I’m not sure this one worked entirely in audio; while I was transfixed with the story, I was a bit frustrated I didn’t have a map. The places she was talking about (aside from Bellingham; I know where that is) were foreign to me. Sure, I could have stopped the book and Googled it, but I listen while I drive, and it wasn’t practical. That said, I did enjoy her story, the ups and downs of six months of backwoods hiking, and the reminder that the world is a big, wild place that has been here (and will be here) a lot longer than we humans.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins

by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
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Content: It’s violent, but not overly so, and there are multiple instances of f-bombs. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In an interesting twist on things, this graphic novel is based on a podcast, in which the McElroy family gets together and plays Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve never listened to the podcast, though I did dip into it a little bit just to see how much like the podcast the graphic novel was, but I thought this one sounded interesting. What they did, essentially, was pull out the threads of the story from their game, and make it into a straight-up story. (For the most part. Griffin, who’s the dungeon master, shows up as the DM on occasion to direct the action.)

And for the most part, this was fun. It holds up as a story of three adventurers — and elf, a dwarf, and a human — who are on a rescue mission which turns into something bigger than they thought. They interact with wild and weird (and often hilarious) characters, like the bad bodyguard Barry Bluejeans, or the boss gerblin, or the female orc that has a bigger, more encompassing purpose.

It’s silly, and I think it’ll especially resonate with people who have either listened to the podcast or played a lot of D&D. But it still worked for me.

This Was Our Pact

by Ryan Andrews
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Content: It’s a bit on the longish side, which might intimidate readers. There’s nothing objectionable, content-wise. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Every year, on the Autumn Equinox, Ben’s town lights lanterns and set them floating on the river. There are stories about what happens to the lanterns, but no one really knows. Most times, the kids who follow the lanterns, turn back at the bend. But this year, Ben and his friends — the Cool Kids — have made a pact to follow the lanterns all the way to the end.

Except there’s Nathaniel. Ben’s dad wants him to be friends with Nathaniel, but he’s a dork, and awkward, and Ben’s friends don’t like him. So, when Nathaniel starts following Ben and his friends, Ben does his best to ignore him. But, Ben’s friends pull off one by one, abandoning the Quest, and soon it’s just down to Ben and Nathaniel. And that’s when the adventure REALLY starts.

Oh my goodness, this graphic novel is so gorgeous. It’s whimsical and fun and beautiful and so very magical. I liked the evolution of Ben and Nathaniel’s friendship, and the way the whole adventure went. I adored Andrews’ use of color — its mostly in blue tones, because the book takes place at night, but with pops of yellow and pink and red. The whole book is just a gorgeous, fantastic adventure.

Absolutely recommended.

Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl

by Ben Hatke
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita, The Return of Zita, Mighty Jack, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
Release date: September 3, 2019
Content: There is some fantasy violence. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the boosktore.

Jack thought he closed the door to the world of the giants. Zita’s been home from her adventures for a while. They’ve met, and they’re hanging out (well, Zit and her friends have pretty much moved in, much to Jack’s mom’s dismay) and Jack is way enamored with Zita’s stories, which makes his friend Lilly kind of angry. But then the giants start breaking through the final door, and suddenly Zita, Jack, Lilly, Maddie, and Joseph (plus assorted robots, space creatures, and goblins) realize that they have to work together to save the world from the impending giant invasion. So, they do.

I adore these books and think they’re great fun. And this one is no exception. I loved the theme of friendship through it all, and how that even though you meet someone new, that doesn’t mean you give up your old friends. And how the sum of many is greater than the strength of one. It gave me everything I’ve come to love about Hatke’s work: adventure, heart, and humor. And it’s a satisfying end to the series.

I’m just really sad this series is ending.

Sea Sirens

by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense moments, but the language is actually pretty simple. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section, but I’d give it to the younger end of that set.

Trot is a California girl through and through. She spends the days (when she’s not in school!) at the beach with her grandfather while her mother works — he fishes, she surfs. Except there’s a problem: her grandfather has the beginning stages of dementia and doesn’t always remember where he is or that he’s supposed to be watching Trot. After one experience where her grandfather goes missing, Trot’s mom grounds them both to the house. So, Trot sneaks out with their cat, Cap’n Bill, and they go surfing. Except, they end up in the underwater world of the Sea Sirens. The are mortal enemies with the Sea Serpents, and Trot and Cap’n Bill help defeat them. So, they’re taken in as heroes for an underwater adventure with the Sea Sirens. (And Grandpa comes too!)

As I mentioned in the content, this is almost a beginning chapter Graphic Novel (does it belong with the other beginning chapter books? Perhaps.) — the language is basic, there are a lot of illustrations and not a lot of text, and the adventure is pretty simple. I think it serves the same function as the Babymouse books: it’s there to help beginning readers find a footing in the world of graphic novels. It’s fantastic that the main character is Vietnamese-American, and that her grandfather sometimes slips into Vietnamese when he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. It’s a cute book — I bet the full-color finished is quite gorgeous — and it’s a start of a series of adventures that Trot and Cap’n Bill will have. It’ll be a good one to put into the hands of those 1-3rd graders who are looking for something fun to read.