Audiobook: Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance
Read by the author
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Content: There’s a LOT of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

J. D. Vance didn’t have the best upbringing. That’s putting it mildly. The grandson of Kentucky to Ohio transplants, people who moved to work in factories to find a better life, he grew up in a small manufacturing town in southern Ohio. His mom, one of three kids, was a drug addict who bounced between guys, and so J. D. ended up with his grandma, whom he called Mamaw. He eventually found his way out of the poverty and abuse cycles, joining the Marines, going to Ohio State and Yale Law. But, as he points out in his memoir, his story is atypical.

It’s mostly Vance’s memoir of his childhood (insane as it is) and his family. But he also ties it into the larger issue of rural poverty. It’s something I’ve thought since the year we lived in Mississippi: it’s not (just) about race, it’s about class. And if we don’t do something about the working poor — and I don’t have the answers here — things will just get worse.

J. D. doesn’t have the answers either; just a lot of first-hand observations. The most striking of which is that interventions that happen in high school often come too late. They need to sooner. (Honestly, I saw a lot of our foster daughter in this story. And he’s right: if someone had intervened when she was younger, it would have saved her a world of hurt and trauma.) But it’s also complex: the politicians and agencies don’t always know or understand or assume things about the poor.

A fascinating book. And listening to him read it (he has a slight Southern twang) was a great way to experience this book.

Highly recommended.

Traitor to the Throne

traitortothethroneby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “Once, in the desert kingdom of Miraji, there was a young prince who wanted his father’s throne.”
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Others in the series: Rebel of the Sands
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some almost off screen sexytimes and a lot of violence. It’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been a bit since Amani has joined the Rebel Prince to try and claim the throne from his father, the Sultan. Things aren’t going so great for them; they’ve had several setbacks and it’s starting to seem hopeless. Then Amani is kidnapped by her aunt and sold to the Sultan. Suddenly, it looks like things might be turning around for the rebellion.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it seems: the Sultan is crafty and conniving, and Amani finds herself more than under his control; she’s stuck in the haram trying to find a way out. And all she can hope is that she comes out on the winning side.

It took me a bit to get back into the world, to remember what I really liked about Rebel of the Sands, but once I got going, I found I couldn’t put this one down.  I loved Amani’s fierce style, her problem-solving, and the way she was able to make plans, even under the direst of circumstances. There wasn’t as much of her and Jin, and he was more in the background of this book, but I did enjoy the moments when he did show up.

Mostly what this book was about was the politics of leadership: what makes a good ruler, how firm or fierce one should be, and the reasons subjects do or don’t follow one. I found that part fascinating.

I am definitely committed to the story line, and curious about where Amani and her rebel friends will go next.

See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

This Savage Song

thissavagesongby Victoria Schwab
First sentence: ”
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Content: One of the main characters smokes, and there’s three f-bombs as well as a lot of violence. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

I’m going to say this up front: this one isn’t easy to sum up.

Kate is the daughter of the North City’s main mob boss. You pay him for protection from the monsters that go bump in the night. And if you can’t pay, well… let’s just say there’s very little mercy. All Kate wants is to be accepted and loved by her father. Which isn’t easy when he’s such a cold, hard bastard.

August is one of those monsters that go bump. In a world where there are several types of monsters — the Corsai, which basically just eat you alive; the Malchai, which are like vampires — August is the “worst”: a Sonai, which use music to suck people’s souls out of them. He is at conflict with this, but awful things happen when he doesn’t “feed”.

So, when August and Kate cross paths at a posh boarding school — August is there on the orders of his older “brother”; Kate as a last-ditch attempt to prove to her father that she’s tough enough — things, well, explode.

Lest you think this is romance-y (I did, at first): it’s not. Sure, August and Kate end up  doing things together, and (I think) caring for each other, it’s not all kissing and swooning. It’s a book that swims very heavily in the grey areas. Kate’s not especially likable as a character, and she does some pretty awful things. And yet, she’s one of the “good” guys. August is more complex as a character, and yet you’re told from the outset that all monsters are “bad”. And August, too, does some pretty awful things. It’s fascinating exploring this world.

Sure, there are questions: how did the monsters come to be? Why did the United States fall apart and reform into these territories? What happens if the monsters take over and kill off all the people? What’s going to happen next?

Schwab is a fantastic storyteller, and this is definitely a unique cross between paranormal and post-apocalyptic. I’m curious to know what happens next to August and Kate, especially since the ending of this one was so, well, final. (There are doors left open for a sequel, and this one is billed as #1, so there will probably be more.) It’s definitely a world I’ll want to revisit.

The Matchstick Castle

matchstickby Keif Graff
First sentence: “It was supposed to be the perfect summer.”
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Content: It’s a whole lot of silly, and there are some big words, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd grader and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Brian has a good life in Boston. Friends, his family (consisting of Dad and two older brothers), soccer. Then this summer comes along and his dad gets an opportunity to go to Antarctica to look through this awesome telescope (which probably had something to do with his job, but I was never quite sure), and takes it. Brian’s older brothers can either stay with friends or are old enough to stay home alone, but Brian is farmed out to his Uncle and Aunt’s house… in Boring, Illinois. (At least it’s not Ohio or Kansas).

Brian and his cousin Nora are in for the most Boring of Boring summers: Uncle Gary is developing educational software and needs beta testers. He’s obsessively strict about it: “school” starts at 8:45 and goes until 4, and the kids aren’t allowed to leave the yard. (UGH.) But Brian breaks the rules and goes exploring in the woods and finds… this awesomely weird and crazy house with an awesomely weird and crazy kid, Cosmo, with his awesomely weird and crzy family He drags Nora into it (after there’s some grounding and a lot of lying on the part of the kids), and they end up having a couple of Adventures as they search for Cosmo’s missing uncle (turns out he was in the house) and fight against Boring’s Bureaucracy that wants to knock the house — the titular Matchstick Castle — down.

I liked that it was just weird and crazy and not Magical; everything unusual that happened had a rational, realistic explanation while still seeming fantastical.  It did have an old-fashioned feel (it’s interesting to see how authors get around the Modern Dilemma of hovering parents and technology; in fact, one of my favorite bits was the weird and crazy family interacting with computers, which they have avoided for lo these many years) to it, which was fun.

But, I wasn’t super wowed by it either. Uncle Gary was such a caricature of overbearing parents that it was silly. And, aside from Nora, there wasn’t any girls in it at all. (Well, Cosmo’s mom does make an appearance, and Nora does have a mom who kind of hovers in the background). And, honestly, Nora doesn’t do all that much, either. Which was disappointing.

It was fun enough, though, even if it wasn’t brilliant.

Fish Girl

fishgirlby David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 7, 2017
Content: It’s a simple graphic novel, but it has dark undertones. Probably not for the super sensitive souls. It will be in our middle grade graphic novel section.

I usually don’t write about books this far in advance, but the end of the year is nigh, and I couldn’t wait for this one.

I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel from David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli, but this book is a gift. The story is simple: a mermaid living in an aquarium with the fish and her octopus friend, run by the person she believes to be her only family, Neptune. Then she meets a girl, Livia, who — by the fact of her friendship, by some simple questions  — expands the mermaid’s world.

But it’s more than that.  There’s a dark underbelly, as the mermaid — dubbed Mira by Livia — becomes brave enough to explore her world and as she realizes what Neptune has done. There’s themes of friendship and choice and standing up for oneself running through the book, themes that aren’t heavy-handed, but rather subtly employed throughout for those who are looking for them. Napoli is a master writer, and Weisner speaks volumes with his gorgeous (and often fantastical) watercolor drawings.

I didn’t know that a Weisner/Napoli graphic novel was something I wanted in life. Now, I can only hope they team up for another.

 

 

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.