Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “The house always wins.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Content: There is talk of addiction in adults, some bullying, and a mild “relationship”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

AnthonyJoplin — Ant to his friends, but don’t call him little — comes from a family of serious Spades players. His grandfather, his father, his brother, were all really great at it, winning the local tournament (and then some). But Ant can’t seem to get in the game. He’s “weak”. Or that the way he feels, especially around his dad, his brother, and his friend. That he needs to be stronger, better. He needs to win the tournament, for starters.

He and his friend make a good team, but when his friend is unexpectedly unable to play, Ant turns to the new girl – Shirley – as a partner. Which is its own set of problems. Add to that his father is acting weird, staying up in the middle of the night playing online poker, and Ant is just confused about what he really is supposed to expect out of life.

I love that Johnson gets the middle grade audience, tackling touch subjects like addiction and masculinity without talking down to his readers. I love that he gives us characters that are interesting and complex, which makes them and their problems seem more real. I love that he sprinkles his books with humor, so they are not depressing, but rather reflect life’s ups and downs.

The only think I didn’t like about this book was the narrator: I liked the folksy aspect of it, with the slang and the way it felt like someone telling a story, but I often felt the narrator — who was a character in their own right — got in the way of the story.

But it was’t enough to turn me off of this book. Definitely another very good read!

A Constellation of Roses

by Miranda Asebedo
First sentence: “My hand slips into the woman’s gaping purse like it’s my own.”
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Content: There is some teenage drinking, talk of addiction, and three f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Trix has been on her own for a while ever since her mother walked out on her. They weren’t exactly living in the best circumstances, wandering from hotel to hotel while Trix’s mom tried to scrape together money to keep them alive (and feed her addiction). Since she disappeared, Trix has been stealing and moving trying to stay alive. That is until the police catch up to her and give her an ultimatum: jail time or move in with an aunt Trix didn’t know she had in a small town in Kansas, and graduate. Trix takes the deal and heads to Rocksaw, Kansas to learn about this family she didn’t know she had.

It’s an adjustment: small-town life versus city life, a family, people who want her to participate instead of run away, and Trix isn’t always successful at making the adjustment.

It’s a sweet little book; the magic realism was light enough that it didn’t bother me, and I appreciated the way Asebeo revealed Trix’s and her mother’s past. It highlighted the good things about small towns, like how everyone cares a lot about each other (which can also be stifling). But mostly it’s a sweet little family drama about forgiveness, and one I liked a lot.

Audio book: Fable

by Adrienne Young
Read by Emma Lysy
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some violence and some off-screen, implied sex near the end. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been four years since Fable watched her mother die in a storm that sank the ship that they, along with Fable’s father, were on. And four years since Fable’s father dumped her on a god-forsaken island, abandoning her to her fate. Now, she’s found a way off the island on a ship captained by West, a young trader who has bought her gems for the past couple of years. And Fable is determined to take her place in her father’s crew.

But things are not what they seem in this cutthroat world of trading and selling. And West is not everything he seems. Can a girl — even one who was raised the daughter of a captain and who has special gifts — make her own way in this world?

I really enjoyed the world that Young built here. It’s rich and lush, and very Pirates of the Caribbean-y. Which, in my book, is a good thing. There’s magic, of a sort, but it’s very slight. I liked Fable’s journey getting off the island, and the slow reveal of her past and her place in her father’s empire (of sorts). The romance was a bit out of nowhere (all of a sudden they were kissing, and while I don’t mind that, it did feel a bit, well, unearned.) but it wasn’t the focus of the book, which was a relief. I did feel Young did a bit too much telling rather than showing, but it’s the first in a duology, and she needed to set up the world, and I’d rather some telling all along than a big infodump at the beginning.

Lysy was good as a narrator, even if she did over-emphasize her Ts at the end of sentences. (Once I noticed it, I couldn’t unhear it.) She kept me engaged and kept the story moving forward. I think I enjoyed this a lot more on audio than I would have otherwise.

And the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger (there got to a be a point about 3/4 of the way through where I kept expecting something bad to happen. And it did. In the last chapter.) so yes, I’ll be checking out the sequel.

Furia

by Yamile Saied Méndez
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Content: There is swearing, including two f-bombs, and some suggestive content. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Camila Hassan has a lot going on in her life. On the one hand, she’s a dutiful daughter of an abusive father, going to school and learning English in her Argentinian town. On the other hand, she’s la Furia: an fútbolera, playing soccer with all her heart. The thing is: she’s got talent on the pitch. And the team she plays on has made the Sudiamericano championships. Camila wants — with all her heart — to follow the dream she has of playing soccer professionally. Possibly in the United States, even.

Complicating things (abusive an sexist father aside), her childhood friend (and possible boyfriend?) Diego is back in town after a successful season with a professional Italian soccer team. He’s the sweetheart of the barrio, and Camila doesn’t even know if he remembers her, let alone wants to have a long-distance relationship.

This is not just an excellent portrait of an ambitious girl striving to make the most out of her life in a place where the decks are stacked against her. Which it is; I loved how Méndez included race and colorism as well as sexism as part of the story, highlighting all the various things influencing Camila’s life and decisions.

It’s also a swoon-worthy romance, but one in which the relationship isn’t the main focus of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed having it be a part of the book, but not the main focus. On top of everything, I think Méndez is a fantastic writer and definitely one to watch. I’m looking forward to reading more books from her.

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.

Beach Read

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “I have a fatal flaw.”
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Content: There are swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There are also two on-screen, but not overly graphic, sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

January Andrews has a problem: she’s a romance (sorry: “women’s fiction”) writer and has hit a roadblock in her writing: she no longer believes in happily-ever-afters. Her dad died and at his funeral, January found out he’d been cheating on her mom. And then her long-time boyfriend broke up with her. In a hot tub. So, she moves back to her dad’s hometown in Michigan (the upper part of the lower peninsula) into the house her dad bought to share with his mistress. Not fun, but also cheap. As it turns out, she moved in next door to her college writing nemesis: Gus Everett. And (of course) they reconnect. This leads to (after a bad evening) a bet: Gus, who writes Literary Fiction, will take on writing a Romance book, and January will write a Novel. In order to help facilitate this, they will take the other one on excursions as “research” (definitely not dates). The catch: Absolutely NO falling in love.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way (it is Women’s Fiction, after all). But it’s incredibly fun getting to the end of this book. Henry’s dealing with more than just falling in love: she’s dealing with grief and loss, grappling with the idea that parents aren’t always who we think they are, and with perceptions (or misperceptions) of other people. In between all this, there is a smart love story, with some fun, sassy moments, and I felt like the development of the relationship between Gus and January wasn’t contrived. It was defiantly a happy-making book. Perfect for a, well, beach read.

Dragonsong

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “Almost as if the elements, too, mourned the death of the gentle old Harper, a southeaster blew for three days, locking even the burial barge in the safety of the Dock Cavern.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though I’m not entirely sure you still can.)
Content: There is some emotional abuse and injuries. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I wrote about this about 14 years ago (I have been blogging for a very long time!) but I thought I’d give each of these a proper post of their own (because once you read the first, you kind of have to read the rest).

Menolly is the youngest daughter of the Half-Circle Sea Holder. He’s a strict man, in charge of the whole hold (think a small medieval city) and he doesn’t have time for Menolly’s “twaddlings” — her foray into music. She has a gift for songwriting, but because she’s a girl, her father (and mother) believes that she’s a disgrace because she should be doing women’s work. Not music. After a knife accident supposedly renders one of her hands useless, Menolly runs away. And inadvertently impresses nine fire lizards. She doesn’t think much of this until a dragon rider finds her, and brings her back to the Weyr. It’s there that she learns her true worth.

It’s a fantastic story. You can’t help but feel for Menolly’s plight in the Sea Hold, stuck with parents who don’t understand her desires and dismiss her talent as “useless”. It’s so very easy to hate her parents and her siblings (well, there’s one brother who’s okay) because they just don’t understand or care. And when Menolly gets to the dragon weyr, her life changes so drastically. There’s one scene where all the people at the weyr are fussing over her, helping her get new clothes and a haircut, and Menolly bursts into tears because no one has ever been this nice to her.

It’s a story about a girl persevering even though everything’s against her, and it’s a joy to read. And there’s bonus bits for those who have read all the other books as well. (Or at least the original trilogy.) The best thing is that it still holds up all these years later. Such a good book!

Tigers, Not Daughters

by Samantha Mabry
First sentence: “The window to Anna Torres’s second-story bedroom faced Hector’s house, and every night she’d undress with the curtains wide open, in full view of the street.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a lot of swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There is also a lot of talk about teen sex and some teen drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The four Torres sisters live in an unhappy house. Their mother died when the youngest, Rosa, was born, and their father hasn’t been the same since. But their one attempt at running away was foiled. And a year later, the oldest sister, Ana, was dead.

The three remaining sisters have been grieving in their own way. And a year after Ana’s death they’re at a breaking point. And when Ana’s ghost shows up, it pushes the rest of the girls over the edge.

This is a little bit family drama, a little bit empowerment story, and a little bit ghost story, and Mabry makes it all work together excellently. The narrative switches between the three surviving sisters, as the story of Ana’s death, and their home life, unfolds. It’s a celebration of sisterhood — not just actually having sisters, but the act of women working together and supporting each other. And how we are stronger together than apart. It’s about grief and healing and support and the intersection of those three.

It’s an excellent story. I really ought to read more of Mabry’s book.

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe
First sentence: “When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 28, 2020
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and some graphic sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When Michael moved to North Shore, California, he moved in next door to Bunny Lampert and her father. Bunny was the star of North Shore, tall, blonde, beautiful (even at eleven) and talented at volleyball. Even though Michael was none of those things — being, rather, a tortured, deeply in the closet gay teenage boy — he and Bunny became best friends. Not the sort of friends that hung out at school (or even after, really) but the kind that stays up late at night doing face masks and talking about all sorts of things. While they were not inseparable, they were devoted.

So much so, that Bunny is willing to go to bat for Michael when a girl on the volleyball team starts badmouthing him. Go to bat, in the sense that she beat the other girl into a coma. From there, Michael’s and Bunny’s paths irrevocably diverge.

This story is all told through Michael’s reflections as an adult, as he tries to figure out who he is, and why society is so deeply unfair to those who don’t have the money to make a decent life for themselves (his mother was sent to prison for defending herself against and abusive husband). He gets into abusive relationships because he’s deeply self-loathing, as is Bunny, and maybe this self-loathing is what ties them together? It’s not a happy narrative, but it is one that has made me think. About perceptions — did Bunny become the person everyone thought she was, or was she always that way — about class, about the things in our lives that affect us.

I’m not entirely sure I liked this book, but it is one that will stay with me for a while, and perhaps that’s worth something, in the end.

Mooncakes

by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
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Content: There is some violence and kissing and the characters are out of high school. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Nova Huang is a teenage witch. She works in her grandmothers’ bookstore by day, and is apprenticed to them, mostly because she didn’t want to leave after her parents’ deaths. Tam is a werewolf who moved away years ago. They’re back in town, though, chasing a demon that feeds off of wolf energy. As Tam and Nova rekindle their childhood friendship (which leads to romance!), Tam needs to figure out how to stop the demon. Thankfully, Nova and her grandmothers are willing to help.

This graphic novel is a very cute and charming story. It’s less about the paranormal and witches — that’s just really a backdrop — and more about friendship and trust and creating your own family. Tam identifies using they/them pronouns, and from what I can tell from the story, their mother and stepdad aren’t that thrilled or accepting of Tam, though it may be more about the werewolf than the gender neutral pronouns. Nova, on the other hand, has loving grandparents but is hanging around because…. she misses her parents? Who show up as ghosts on major holidays? I’m not entirely sure.

I liked this one, though I felt it was a bit disjointed. I never really got enough development for Nova and Tam’s relationship, and the twist with the demon kind of came out of nowhere. A good graphic novel, but not a great one.