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.”
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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”
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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.

Tarnished Are the Stars

by Rosiee Thor
First sentence: “There was nothing quite like the first tick of a new heart.”
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Content: There’s some death — but not violent death — and some romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the future, and Earth has become inhabitable for reasons unnamed. A group of settlers have made it to a new world — Earth Adjacent — and have put up a settlement there. The Queen is still orbiting the world in the “Tower”, but the ruler of the earth is the Commissioner, who has issues with technology. So a splinter group of settlers have moved out to a hidden city, determined to use tech, mostly because they need it to survive. Something is making hearts stop working.

Enter Anna, the settlement’s most wanted criminal: The Technician. She defies the Commissioner’s edicts, in order to help people survive. And then one day, she runs across the Commissioner’s son, Nathaniel, who has a TICCER — an artificial heart — just like she does. That opens up a whole world of questions. Which only get more complicated when Emma, the Queen’s personal spy — arrives from the Tower, in order to marry Nathaniel and carry out the Queen’s will.

I started listening to this one on audio, and it was a complete fail. I just didn’t like the narrator, and there were enough moving parts that I couldn’t keep it in my head. Note to self: I don’t do fantasy on audio well (this isn’t my first fantasy audio fail). That said, I was interested enough in the story to pick up the physical book and finish it. And… it’s not bad. I liked that there wasn’t a lot of romance, and that the focus of the relationships were friendship and family. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, but it didn’t take away from the clever premise of a new world and what it takes to settle and populate one. And hooray — it was a stand-alone! I appreciate that Thor was able to wrap the story up in one book.

I solid debut, I think.

The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson

by Quinn Sosna-Spear
First sentence: “‘Walter’ is no kind of name for a boy.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, including one Really Tragic One, as well as some kissing. It was in the middle grades (3-5) section, but I decided that that age group doesn’t want to read about kissing so I moved it to the YA (grades 6-8) section.

I picked this one up after the first line was chosen as the best of the week a couple weeks back. I was intrigued (I love the cover!). It’s the story of an imaginative boy with an overbearing mother and a dead father in a dreary town and his search for Something More. Walter’s dead father was an inventor (his mother is a mortician) and he desperately wants to follow in his footsteps, so when he gets an invitation to join a famous inventor on his island, he takes his mother’s hearse (a 13 year old knows how to drive?!) and runs away with the girl next door.

It’s less about Walter and Cordelia’s adventure though, and more about forgiveness and acceptance between Walter and his mother. See, Walter and Cordelia retrace the path that his parents took when leaving the island and coming to their boring, dreary town, and in doing so Walter Learns Things about his parents, particularly his father, which he never knew before.

It wasn’t a bad book; I did finish it, though by the end I was skimming (it may have been me). In the end, though, it seems to me the kind of kids books that adults would like rather than kids. I’m not sure many kids are wanting to explore their relationships with their overbearing mothers (on the other hand, there are overbearing mothers who need to read this) and not many kids are interested in heteronormative relationships either. There just wasn’t enough adventure and too much moody musing. Maybe they wanted to be all Dahl-esque, but it just kind of fell flat for me. Which is just too bad, since the premise is pretty great.

Squint

by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
First sentence: “Double vision stinks.”
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Content: It’s not terribly long, but there are some more mature themes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Flint is a seventh grader, but because of his degenerative eye disease, everyone calls him Squint. Which he doesn’t really like. So, he’s channeling it into a graphic novel he’s drawing for a competition, because his grandmother has always said that he’s good at drawing. But, since he can’t really see, he doesn’t really know.

Yes (of course) he’s bullied by the popular kids at school, because middle school is a horrible place. But McKell, a new girl at school who’s joined the popular clique, isn’t feeling it. Her brother has a terminal illness, and so she reaches out to Flint, in order to do her brother’s “challenges” (via his YouTube channel). They have a rocky start, but eventually Fint and McKell learn that taking chances are a good thing, that a real friendship is the best thing, and maybe making good experiences is what life is really all about.

This was a super charming little book. My only real complaint was that the comic book sections were actually prose. I think it would have been MUCH better if the comic book sections were, well, actually comics. I think that would have increased the readability for kids (I skimmed those sections, too!) but would have added overall. But aside from that, it really was a sweet little story.

Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some talk about sex, as well as off-screen sex; domestic abuse, and an attempted rape scene. There is also some mild language. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

My co-workers have been raving about this for months, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. A long drive home from Texas seemed just the time to give it ago.

It’s nominally the story of Kya, a girl who grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother and siblings all abandoned her to her father when she was seven. She basically raised herself, especially after her father left three years later. With some help from the African American community, she basically figured things out on her own. She did have one friend, Tate, who taught her to read and encouraged her in her scientific studies — she was basically self-educated, but also highly observant — of the marshlands. And then Tate left to go to college and didn’t come back.

It’s also a bit of a murder mystery. The bright young star in town, Chase Andrews, is found dead by the fire tower. And all signs point to Kya as the murderer. The question was: did she do it, or was she framed?

It’s a gorgeously written book, full of details about the natural world, and the narrator was marvelous. I was spellbound most of the way through the book. But I think I was more invested in the murder mystery part of that, because it was left without a tidy resolution. (Ah, adult fiction being so true to life.) I liked the characters, but it really was Owens’ storytelling that drew me in (and the narrator’s reading!) and kept me hooked in this book.

A really excellent read.