Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

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The Deceivers

by Kristen Simmons
First sentence: “Some parents tell their kids they can be anything.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 5, 2019
Content: There’s some pretty intense kissing scenes, and some drug use and drinking by teenagers. There’s also a bit of mild swearing. It will probably be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to 7th graders who were interested.

Brynn wants nothing more than to get out of her crappy Devon Park neighborhood, out under the thumb of her mom’s drug-running boyfriend, out of her crime-ridden neighborhoods, and into a better life. She knows that college is the key, but money is an issue. She doesn’t want to peddle drugs for Pete (that’s the boyfriend) so she takes to something … better: conning rich people out of their money. She’s saved up a hefty chunk when two things converge:  Pete finds the stash, and she follows a good-looking boy to an “audition” to get into the prestigious (and little-known) Vale Hall. Get into Vale, he tells Brynn, and your future is set.

What that good-looking boy neglected to mention was that Vale Hall is a school for con artists. Their job is primarily to discover (and divulge) secrets of the rich and powerful in their Chicago-like city (it’s not called Chicago, but it might as well be Chicago…). And soon Brynn finds out that the cost of having everything is, well, Everything.

Oh. My. Gosh. I couldn’t put this one down. Yes, I am a sucker for heist books (The Great Green Heist or Heist Society anyone?)  but this was a particularly good con book. Seriously good. There were long cons and short cons and cons that I didn’t see coming (though the clues were there). There were characters to root for (Brynn and Caleb) and love (more Henry!) and villains to root against. It was engrossing and readable and dang if I didn’t just love every moment spent at Vale Hall.

So, yeah, watch out for this one. And I would not mind spending more time with these characters at all!

The November Girl

by Lydia Kang
First sentence: “There’s a foolproof method to running away.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Every November on Lake Superior, the weather is unpredictable and ships go down. It’s been that way forever. They call it the November witch. And little do they know that they’re right: her name is Anda, and she’s the half-mortal, half-nature witch who feeds on death and destruction, living with her father on Isle Royale most of the year, and feeding on shipwrecks in November to satiate her appetite.

Hector is a half-Korean, half-Black kid who’s on the run from his abusive uncle. His plan: hide out on Isle Royale until he turns 18 in May, and can be a legal adult, and get out the grips of his uncle. Except, things don’t quite go according to plan. First reason? He can see Anda (no one else can). And second reason? They get involved.

I feel like, as a Michigander, I should have liked this one more. It was super atmospheric, and Kang’s love for the Lake (though not the one I’m most familiar with; I know Erie better) shines through. But, honestly? I just found I couldn’t care for the characters. I didn’t buy Hector and Anda’s romance (and I got tired of it, especially since she played the manic pixie dream girl role to Hector’s cutter outsider persona) and I thought the ending was a bit on the tidy side.

Maybe it’s just a wrong person, wrong time, wrong book problem.

The Wicked King

wickedkingby Holly Black
First sentence: “Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance — readiness.”
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Release date: January 8, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: The Cruel Prince
Content: There’s a lot of violence and some almost sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for The Cruel Prince, obviously.

Five months after Jude engineered the plan to put Cardan on the throne of Faerie, she’s discovering that, in the words of Hamilton (the musical), while winning is easy, governing is harder. She constantly has to be on her toes, and she’s always second guessing herself and everyone else. Cardan is still a mostly unwilling participant, but he doesn’t put up too many roadblocks, and lets Jude tell him what to do. But things start unraveling as Taryn’s (that’s Jude’s sister) wedding approaches. Balekin, Cardan’s oldest brother, has been making alliances with the kingdom of the sea to overthrow Cardan (or at least to gain more power). Then Jude is attacked and kidnapped, and things unravel more.

I went into this thinking it was a duology, so I’m telling you up front: it’s not. Things just get more complicated in this book (deliciously so), and so, yes, there will be at least one more to wrap this up. But, it also has everything I loved about The Cruel Prince: a fierce, smart, but vulnerable heroine, some high stakes, and a push and pull relationship that is just thrilling to read. Black’s a magnificent writer, pulling you into her very dangerous faerie world (and I did catch the shout out to The Darkest Part of the Forest, too!) and making you never want to leave.

I can’t wait to see what’s next for Jude.

This Mortal Coil

by Emily Suvada
First sentence: “It’s sunset, and the sky is aflame, not with clouds or dust, but with the iridescent feathers of a million genhacked passenger pigeons.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a few mild swear words, and an almost-sex scene, and a lot of violence. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) 

It’s the future, in which people have figured out how to write code that can write over your DNA, where everyone is literally plugged in, though panels on their arms, and VR nets in their skulls. The company Cartaxus basically rules the world, releasing apps and code updates solely though their company, controlling basically everything. 

And then the Hydra virus appears. This virus has three stages: you become infected, you get a fever,  the virus wraps itself around your cells, and then you explode. If you’re near an explosion, you get infected too. And if you’re near someone in the second it triggers something inside you that makes you go crazy and want to kill. The only way to become immune is to eat the flesh of someone in the second stage of the virus. Sure, Cartaxus created bunkers to keep everyone safe, but in doing so, they take away your freedom. 

Or so Catarina, our main character, has always thought. At the beginning of the outbreak, her father Lachlan, a genius coder, was taken by Cartaxus (at gunpoint) and Cat has been left to survive the virus wasteland on her own. And then one day, a soldier from Cartaxus shows up with the news that 1) there’s a vaccine for this virus and 2) Cat’s father has died creating it, and it’s up to her to figure out how to get it to everyone. 

It’s a lot more complex than this, but that’s the basic gist. And man, it is a fun, interesting, work of science fiction. I liked that it was intelligence — Cat’s ability to create and read code, as well as the whole theory of gene manipulation — not necessarily brawn that drove the plot (though there was a lot of shooting, running, stabbing, and blowing things up). There was a bit of a romance (which was kind of predictable) and the twist at the end wasn’t entirely satisfying for me. But mostly, I thought it was smart and fun. 

Not Even Bones

by Rebecca Schaeffer
First Sentence: “Nita stared at the dead body lying on the kitchen table.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a LOT of violence, and some of it is gory. There is also swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

First off: this is being billed as a horror novel, and in some ways, I guess, it is. I was wary about starting this one, mostly because I really don’t do horror, but it’s more surgical gross/violent. And I do better with that in print than I do on the screen. So, if there is ever a movie made of this one (and it’d be a cool movie), I probably wouldn’t see it. 

Nita’s parents — her mother, mostly — deal in the black market. Body parts of supernatural beings, specifically. And for as a long as she can remember, Nita has been doing the dissecting. Until one day, Nita’s mother brings home a live “specimen” and Nita decides that she has some ethics, and refuses to dissect a non-dead body. However, that ends up badly: Nita is kidnapped and finds herself on the wrong side of a cage, in a parts market along the Amazon river. Which means, since she really doesn’t want to die, she needs to find a way out. 

It was one part moral dilemma — all of Schaeffer’s characters are “bad”, ranging from despicable to just morally questionable — and one part suspense novel (will Nita make it out alive and in one piece? How did she end up kidnapped? Who sold her out?). But it was immensely readable, and highly unputdownable. I thought Schaeffer had a very clever take on mythical creatures; unicorns, for example, were men who preyed on virgins, but whose bones, once ground up, were more addictive than crack. It was a unique and interesting world, one I definitely would like to learn more about. I also liked that this book is compact: Nita has one goal, to get out, and while questions are raised, Schaeffer doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing them down. 

It’s a first in a series (at least two), which means Nita will have more adventures as she tries to figure out the answers to her questions, and I think I might be willing to follow her there.

Isle of Blood and Stone

islefobloodandstoneby Makiia Lucier
First sentence: “The outing had been planned on a whim; an afternoon lesson up in the ills, away from the smoke and stink of the city.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some mild swearing and violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, even though the characters are 18/19 years old.

Eighteen years ago, the two princes of Island of St. John del Mar were kidnapped with the chief navigator and their nurse, never to be seen again. The king (and everyone, really) presumed them to be dead and went to war with a nearby island, Mondrago, ravishing it. Fast forward, and the king’s remaining son, Ulises, has become king, and his two friends, Mercedes — half Mondragan and Ulises’ cousin — and Elias, the son of the former chief navigator, have discovered some maps with a riddle about that fateful event 18 years ago. And, at the king’s command, Elias begins to look into it.

What he finds is a complex and tangled riddle, full of lies and information that will shake not only Elias’s beliefs, but perhaps the entire kingdom.

On the one hand: this was a compelling book, and a fantastic idea. I liked both Elias and Mercedes (who were roughly our narrators; it was written in third person, but we never followed Ulises around), and I loved the twists and turns as Elias uncovered information about the princes’ disappearance.

What held me back from really loving the book, however, was that I felt that Lucier told me what was going on rather than showing me. There was a LOT of exposition, and a lot of narrative, which isn’t necessarily bad, but what it did was keep me at an arm’s length. Like, Elias and Mercedes ended up falling in love (mild spoiler), but I had absolutely no connection to that. At all. There were strains of racism and sexism, but I felt like it was all at a distance, and never really connected with any of it.

Which is too bad. I really wanted to love this one.