A Room Away From the Wolves

roomawayfromthewolvesby  Nova Ren Suma
First sentence: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and abuse that could be triggering. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is going to be tough one for me to sum up, because I am not sure what, exactly, happened. The words were very pretty and I read the whole thing, but I, for the life of me, do NOT understand what happened.

There’s a girl — Bina — whose mother remarried when she was nine to a man with two daughters who were quite abusive to Bina. And so, the summer before Bina turns 18, her mother suggests she leaves. Bina goes to a place in New York City her mother had stayed when she was young, before Bina, the Catherine House. There are 14 girls in the house, where weird things happen, and they try to bring the ghost of Catherine back, and Bina’s super confused, and… I just lost the thread of what was going on.

I suppose this was meant to be a grand metaphor for something, and I’m sure there are people out there who like this atmospheric type of book with a hugely unreliable narrator, and I did finish it, to it’s not terrible.

It’s just that I need someone to explain it to me.

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Allegedly

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.”
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Content: There’s a lot going on here: drug use, (tasteful) sex, lots and lots of swearing, not to mention more mature themes. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mary Beth Addison was convicted at 9 years old for the murder of a baby, Alyssa. She never said a word in her interviews with detectives, and was convicted in the court of public opinion: some children, Mary being one of them, was just Bad. It didn’t help that the baby was white, and Mary is black.

Six years later, she’s out from “baby jail” (her words) on good behavior, and in a group house with five other teenage girls, convicted of crimes, some more major than others. She was just trying to survive until she met Ted and got pregnant. When she realizes that the state could take her baby away from her, she decides to take action: she wants to go to college, so she attempts to take the SATs. But, mostly, she finds her voice and decides to tell people what really happened the night Alyssa died.

This books was… a lot. Seriously. A LOT. So much to take in: a critique on parenting and poverty and the justice system and white privilege and teenage pregnancy and and and… It’s SO well written and so compelling, that even in its worst moments, when I, as a white woman, had to look at it and realize just how far from my lived experience this book was, and realize that there are people — KIDS — out there LIVING this experience, I could NOT put it down. It has a good mystery element to it as well — what really happened the night Alyssa was killed, and how can we really believe anyone’s testimony — but, as social critique, it’s superb. And it’s a great story as well. Jackson had me totally won over to Mary’s side, and yet left questions and doubts and open ends all the way to the very end.

Incredible.

Hey Kiddo

by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
First sentence: “C’mon, get behind the wheel.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  This is not a light graphic novel. There’s swearing, talk of drug use and abuse, and bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, but it might appeal to younger teens as well.

I was told by my publisher rep that this one was incredibly powerful. I trust her judgement and opinion, but I didn’t fully appreciate what she meant.

In this graphic novel that was initially inspired by his TED Talk , illustrator and author Krosoczka puts down into pictures — grays and browns with a splash of orange — what his childhood was like. He was the grandson of  Polish immigrants — Joe and Shirley, the hardworking types who mostly showed tough love more than actual love. He was born to their second daughter (they had five children in all), and went to live with them  when he wa about three because his mother couldn’t take care of them. He writes about how this effected his life: the not knowing nothing about his father — not even his name — or much about his mother, where she was, or whether or not she’d show up. He talks about addiction and how it played a role in his life — not as a user, but as someone who loved a user. But, for me, it wasn’t just about his mother, it was about his grandparents as well. How they struggled to raise him (and their other children; Jarrett’s mom wasn’t the only teenage pregnancy in their family) and how they tried to make it day-to-day. Krosoczka doesn’t hold anything back, and I appreciated that. The through line was his art. And one of the things his grandparents did right was support his passion and talent for drawing. Even though they weren’t always the kindest to him, and even though it was weird being raised by his grandparents (it was the 1980s/1990s after all), it came through how much they loved him.

It also was nice that he didn’t pass judgement on his mom in the book. He could have railed on her for abandoning him, for never being there, for not being able to conquer her addiction to heroin. But he didn’t. He was honest about his feelings towards her — the times in his life that he craved her attention as well as the times when he was angry with her — but he didn’t pass judgement on her. I found that refreshing. It’s good to have stories of kids who are living with their grandparents because their parents can’t handle it. It’s good to have stories of forgiveness (because he does, eventually forgive his family for not being perfect). And it’s good to have stories about kids of drug addicts where the kids turn out okay.

It’s definitely worth reading.

 

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

A Mad, Wicked Folly

by Sharon Biggs Waller
First sentence: “I never set out to pose nude.”
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Content: There’s one steamy kissing scene and some posing “undraped” (it’s not naked, it’s nude if it’s art). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

it’s 1908, and all Vicky Darling wants is to be an artist. She has found a community in Paris that she sneaks away to, away from her finishing school, and draws to her heart’s content. The thing is: Art is not done in Vicky’s social circles. At least not by women. Sure, they can paint… but only acceptable things: flowers, furniture, etc. Not Art. And definitely not Nudes.

So, when Vicky poses nude for her (all-male) art class, it causes a scandal. And she’s sent home to London where her parents decide the best thing is to marry her off as quickly as possible (she’s 16!) to curb her desires to Make Art. Because, of course, being a wife and mother will be so fulfilling that Vicky won’t have time for Art.

Except, it doesn’t really work. it’s also the time of the suffragette movement, and Vicky is inspired to help out. Initially, it’s only to draw them to work on her application to the Royal Art College, but eventually, she finds herself emboldened and empowered by these women who are fearlessly trying to exercise their right to vote.

It doesn’t help, either, that she’s met a supportive (and cute!) police officer, who’s willing to be her muse.

Vicky ends up faced with a choice: please her parents and society and give up her passion or follow her passion and give up her place in society?

Two guesses as to which one she picks.

I actually really enjoyed this one. It’s good to be reminded of the initial fight for equal (such as they are) rights for (white, mostly) women, and the struggles and trials they went through. And while Waller was sympathetic to Vicky and the suffragettes, she never really painted the upper class world that Vicky ran in as completely morally bankrupt. Constricting, yes. And lacking in understanding. But her parents did care for her (even if her friends and their parents did not). I especially liked the end (well, most of it), when Vicky left. Waller never hid the amount of privilege she had. She didn’t sugarcoat what it cost Vicky — monetarily, but also personally — to leave, and how much she had to learn when living on her own.

It was a really well done bit of historical fiction. And thoroughly enjoyable.

The Lost for Words Bookshop

by Stephanie Butland
First sentence: “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some off-screen sex, some difficult themes, and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Loveday (pronounced love-DEE) Cardew works in a used bookshop, and would rather not deal with anyone she doesn’t have to. Archie, the owner, is okay — he’s been informally looking out for her since she walked into his office at 15 and tried to steal a book and he offered her a job instead — but everyone else? Loveday is fine on her own, thank you very much.

But then two things happen: Nathan, a magician and a poet, accidentally walks into Loveday’s life, and books from her past start appearing at the bookshop. These two things combined force Loveday to rethink her relationship to her past, as well as to others around her. And maybe — just maybe — it’s time for a change.

It’s rare for me to find an adult book I like, even rarer to find one that I find completely charming. But this one hit all my buttons: it’s basically about book-lovers, and it’s a smart love story with a depth to it. I adored Loveday and her gruffness; as her backstory unfolds, you understand why she is the way she is, and you feel for her. And I loved Archie; he was definitely a personality that takes up the room. It was populated with all sorts of characters I wanted to get to know and loved spending time with. I also liked the format; Butland titled sections “Poetry” and “History” and “Memoir” among others, and I thought it was clever and fitting in a book set in a bookshop.

In short: this one was incredibly sweet and I adored it.

Girl Mans Up

by M-E Girard
First sentence: “There are four of us dudes sitting here right now.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s smoking and drinking, a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs) and talk of sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’m going to say this up front: I’m glad this book exists. I’m glad that this book is out there for the people it represents, and for people to understand those who are different. I understand the value of this book, even if I didn’t finish it.

Pen Oliveria just wants to be herself. She likes playing video games, and she likes dressing in jeans and tshirts and hanging out with guys. She’s attracted to girls, but she doesn’t want to be your stereotypical “feminine” girl. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold up with her old-world, traditional Portuguese parents, and no one at school — even her friends — seem to get this.

I bailed mostly because I wanted to punch Pen’s best friend, Colby. He’s the definition of toxic masculinity, picking up girls to hook up with them and dump them, judging them solely on their looks. He claims that loyalty is the most important thing, but he is constantly making fun of his friends and leaving them high and dry.  He tolerates Pen because she reels the girls in for Colby to bag and bang, but when she decides to be done with that — after Colby gets a girl pregnant and says it’s not his problem — he’s done with her. I literally wanted to punch him every time he opened his mouth. And Pen’s parents were no better. They are constantly upset at Pen’s older brother, Johnny, for not having a “real” job — Johnny owns his own landscaping business that is slowly gaining a good reputation — because he doesn’t want to work at the factory where their father works. And they’re constantly railing on Pen for not being feminine enough. It’s awful and toxic and a good way to ruin a relationship with your children.

Between the two of those things, I just couldn’t finish. Call it wrong time for me and the book.