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.

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.

Allegedly

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.