Dread Nation

by Justina Ireland
First sentence: ” The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.”
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Content: There’s a lot of violence and some swearing and some references to the sex trade. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) but I think it’d be good for a younger reader, if they were interested. 

It’s the 1880s, and America is still trying to overcome the zombie — they call them shamblers — infestation that began during the Civil War. Sure, the war kind of petered out, but the south is pretty much wiped out, given over to shamblers. And the east coast is partially fortified, but mostly because the government ships blacks and native peoples into schools where they get training to be, well, shambler killers. 

Our main character is Jane McKeene, a half-black girl from a plantation in Kentucky, who has attended Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. She’s set to graduate and become an Attendant, protecting some rich white woman, when she discovers the seedy underbelly of the city. Which puts her into some definite hot water. And lands her in the West, where there are no rules. Especially for someone like her. 

I loved this one. Seriously. It’s a lot of fun, first of all (and I don’t really read zombie books), and I really liked the alternative history that Ireland created. It felt like it could have been a real history, just with zombies. But, I also really liked that it wasn’t all fluff and nonsense, that there were some real issues of racism and sexism and even zealotry in there. Things that would make for a good book discussion. 

And while there will most likely be a sequel, the story did come to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is always nice. 

A really really good book. 

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A Crack in the Sea

by H. M. Bouwman
First sentence: “As with true stories, Venus’s story has no beginning.”
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Content: There are some heavy themes, and it might be a little slow for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is one of those stories that doesn’t feel like it has much of a plot or a point; one whose only purpose is to tell mythology. And this one did that well. It takes place in an alternative, second world, one that’s reached through a crack in our world. There a hundred or so escaped slaves made a home for themselves, existing in a world with magic and creating a new life away from the cruel slavers.

200 years later, the people have grown into a Raftworld and an island nation, and a brother-sister team may be what can save the relations between the two nations.

I wanted to like this one more than I did. While I liked the format — it reminded me of the Grace Lin books — I kept thinking that it was problematic. See: the author is white. And this one, pulling on slaving stories and mythologies, should have been written by someone whose mythology it is. And while I liked the story well enough, I couldn’t shake that feeling, that somehow this was imposing.

But that may just be me.

The Empty Grave

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “Want to hear a ghost story?”
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Others in the Series: The Screaming StaircaseThe Whispering SkullThe Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow
Content: Scary stuff and violence, of course. They’re in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I always make sure the kids can handle scary stuff before selling these.

There’s not much new to say about this series that I haven’t already said before. I adore Lockwood, Lucy, George (and now Holly and Kipps, too!). I love that Stroud knows how to pace a story, giving us smaller ghosts and mysteries that all link together in a big huge climax. I love that while this one feels like a good ending, it’s also a good story in its own right. I will definitely miss this world and this series and I’m SO glad I started it all those years ago. If you’ve been waiting until all the books were out to start this series, now’s the time. Go do it. You won’t be sorry.

 

My Lady Jane

myladyjaneby Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows
First sentence: “You may think you know the story.”
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Content: There’s some mention of sex (it’s a “special hug”) but it’s completely off the page. Otherwise, it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

You think you know the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for 9 days. (And you probably do.) But Hand, Ashton, and Meadows have re-imagined it as a love story, a humor story, with a big of magic (there are people who can change into animals in this version of history). It’s charming.

The plot is somewhat irrelevant: there’s Edward, the king who dies and gives the throne to his cousin rather than his half-sisters. But, that’s really all there is of history. The authors go from there, letting characters live who should have died, giving characters romances and a future together. I’m trying not to give too much away, because it really is fun discovering how they twist history.

There is a bit of an intrusive narrator thing going on, but for the most part it works. It’s a silly story (actually the word I kept coming up with while I was reading was “adorable”), but it’s a silly that isn’t overbearing or dumb. Maybe it ran a wee bit long (I found myself losing interest about halfway through, but I didn’t put it down and it picked back up). But, it was a light, fluffy distraction for a little bit.

Smoke

smokeby Dan Vyleta
First sentence: “‘Thomas, Thomas!’ Wake up!'”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a bit of violence and some swearing, but aside from it’s length (it’s huge) there’s nothing I wouldn’t expect a high schooler to be able to handle. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Imagine a world where everyone’s bad thoughts, awful actions, impure intentions come out of the body as smoke. The more wicked the action, the darker the smoke. And it doesn’t just come out of you, it stains you, eats away at your heart. Grim, no?

Thomas is a latecomer to the posh boarding school for the upperclass where they teach you how to control your smoke. It’s not really working for him; he’s convinced that because his father murdered someone, he’s destined to be black at heart. He makes friends with Charlie, a son of a prominent Lord. Everything is going as well as can be until Thomas and Charlie make some discoveries, and their lives change forever.

It’s a weird conceit: a Dickens-era London with this smoke (is it magic? It it destiny?). It’s getting at class issues (the more upper class, the less likely you are to smoke for various reasons), and issues of pre-destiny. It’s interesting. It’s an interesting bit of story weaving; there’s some dark characters, and a bit of twisty action. Even so, I found myself impatient with the book. It’s really long. Like REALLY long. I get impatient with really long books. But, I persevered. And, while this won’t be my favorite book this year, it was interesting. And I’m definitely intrigued with the ending.

So, maybe it was worthwhile.

The Inventor’s Secret

by Andrea Cremer
First sentence: “Every heartbeat brought the boy closer.”
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Content: There’s a couple of intense romantic moments, and the characters talk of “wanting” each other, but no actual physical contact takes place other than kissing. There is talk of an affair a character’s dad had, and there is quite a bit of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) but I wouldn’t blink at giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

It was the cover that caught my eye. The steampunk dragonfly with the explosion in the background promised really cool things. And since I hadn’t read any Cremer before (she of the Wolf series), I wasn’t really expecting anything.

So, I was more than blown away when I was pulled into an alternate history where the American Revolution failed, Boston converted to a maximum security prison, and the “traitors” were hanged for their crimes against the crown. And they were the lucky ones. In the years since the failed revolution, the Empire has just become stronger and more stratified. The elite live in the Floating City, New York City, in levels rising up into the sky. The lower you are, the worse off. There’s still a rebellion, out in the woods outside of the city, where the adults are trying to topple the Empire. And the children? They’re in the Catacombs, underground, safe from harm until they turn 18 and go to join the rebellion.

The Catacombs is all Charlotte remembers. She and her older brother, Ash, have been there since they were 5 and 7, respectively. And now, at nearly 18, Ash is in charge. This is where the plot gets a bit tricky to describe. Too much, and it sounds silly. And maybe it is.  I do know there was more romance than I was expecting, and it was a bit hackneyed and overwrought as well. But I loved the world. I loved the combination of history and mythology and technology. I loved how the class issues were at the forefront. I loved the imagination that Cremer put into the book, the cool little things — like mice bombs, or Pocky the gun — she littered everywhere.

No, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it IS fun. And that’s exactly what I needed right now.