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
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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.

Audiobook: Today Will Be Different

todaywillbedifferentby Maria Semple
Read by Kathleen Wiljoite
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Content: There’s two f-bombs, and assorted other milder swearing. There’s also some uncomfortable domestic issues, and thematically it skews, well, adult. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

I loved the way this book began:

Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I’m speaking to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.

It’s such a gloriously low bar for everything. I can completely relate.

Eleanor is trying to make it through each day. Some days are more successful than others. And on this day — the book takes place in 24 hours, with some flashbacks — she will be challenged. Her 8-year-old son, Timby, will fake being sick to get out of being bullied at school. She will discover her husband told his office he’s on vacation, which he is most assuredly not. She will be reminded — strongly — of her estranged sister. She will get a concussion and steal someone else’s keys. It will not be a winner of a day, by any standards, but Eleanor will be — hopefully — better for it.

I think the secret to this one, at least for me, was listening to it.  The narrator was AMAZING. So good in fact, that I want to hunt out other books she’s read. I think she captured Eleanor perfectly, and she pulled me into the narrative. I’m pretty sure it was because of the narrator that I came to love Eleanor and look forward to hearing more about this crazy day (and her crazy past) she was having. (Maybe I would have liked it in print… Stemple is a good writer; the story is entertaining and made me think as well. Plus there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments as well.)

Sometimes I like adult books. This was definitely one of those times.

Proxy

proxyby Alex London
First sentence: “Even a perfect machine wasn’t built to go this fast.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot of violence, including several deaths that, while not graphic, are a bit shocking. There’s also some futuristic drug use. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this vision of the future, there are those who have and those who have not. Syd is one of those who have not; in order to pay for the debt in incurred by being alive, he was forced to become a proxy for the child of a rich man. It works like this: the rich man takes on Syd’s debt, and in return, Syd takes on the punishments every time the child — Knox — gets in trouble. Seems fair, right? Except, it’s not that simple. It’s people’s lives they’re casually playing with, and Knox is exceptionally reckless. And when he accidentally kills a girl and Syd is condemned to die, Syd’s had enough: he’s going to escape this hellhole. But things aren’t as straight-forward as Syd thinks, either. And soon, Syd and Knox are on the run from a lot of people, and end up way over their heads.

I liked this one. It’s a smart vision of the future — dystopian, yes, but it’s the capitalistic system that’s become the cruel overlord rather than the government. He’s playing with class and debt and the relationships between the two. There’s a bit of chosen-one-ness going on here as well, but I thought London resolved it in a unexpected way. He definitely kept me turning pages, and I found that even the more annoying characters (Knox…) had layers to them. I hadn’t read anything by London before, and this was a great starting place.

And the best thing? I don’t have to wait for the sequel to come out!