Tristan Strong Destroys the Universe

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Nobody likes getting punched in the face.”
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Others in the series: Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is some violence and talk of trauma. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong fixed the problems that he created in the first book in this series. And then he returned to our world while Alke rebuilds. Except: there is a new foe. The Shamble Man has is wreaking havoc on Alke and he has come into our world and kidnapped Tristan’s grandmother. Which leaves Tristan no choice but to return to Alke to get her back. And what he finds is a whole lot messier than he thought it would be when he left.

This is very much a second book in a series — being a bit more dark and dismal than the first. However, I enjoyed that Mbalia not only gave us a complete story. No cliffhangers here. I also appreciated along with the humor and adventure, Mbalia addressed the underlying trauma that happens when things — bad things, hard things — happen. It’s a clever and good way to introduce the concept to kids, and to allow for an opening to talk about them. It’s handled really well. But, even though Mbalia tackles tough subjects, it’s still a lot of fun to go with Tristan back into the world of Alke. I adore Gum Baby and her silly bravado, and I liked the way Tristan was able to work with people he initially found difficult to work with.

In short: it’s smart, it’s fun, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Magic Fish

by Trun Le Nguyen
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Content: There some fairy tale-type violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

 Tiến is a first-generation American, trying to live his best life. However, he has recently come out as gay to his friends, and wants to share that with his parents. However, he doesn’t know if they understand English well enough and he doesn’t know the words in Vietnamese. His mother feels like Tiến is growing apart as he grows up, but they do still share one thing: a love of reading fairy tales. And maybe through this connection,  Tiến will find a way to share about his life.

Honestly? It was a gorgeous book. The art was spectacular, and the fairy tale retellings (three re-tellings of Cinderella-type stories) were marvelous. I liked  Tiến  and his friends and the way he tries to navigate coming out and his feelings while his mother deals with being separated from her elderly, sick mother.

However, I’m not entirely sure who this graphic novel is for. I know adults will read it and love it, as will those who enjoy fairy tale re-tellings. But, is it for the middle grade age group? Maybe? Maybe there are some 4-8th graders who will read this and see themselves, or need to read this because they lack the confidence to come out to their family. But it lacks a real plot, which most middle grade books kind of need to have.

At any rate, it’s a gorgeous book, and Nguyen is a talented artist. I will be curious to see what he does next.

The Truths We Hold

by Kamala Harris
First sentence: “Most mornings, my husband, Doug, wakes up before me and reads the news in bed.”
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Content: It’s pretty policy-heavy. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up over the summer mostly because I was interested in what her story was. I didn’t get around to reading it until right after the election, when I figured that because she was going to be Vice President, I really ought to learn more about her.

Granted, reading a memoir that was mostly likely written because she was considering a presidential run isn’t the most balanced way to get information about a person. That said, I am interested in people’s stories and how they see themselves. Looking at it that way, I learned a few things.

1: Kamala really is her mother’s daughter. She rarely, in the book, talked about her father — he as a presence in her life for the first several years, but after her parents divorced, he was out of the picture (at least narratively). You can tell, as a reader, how much Kamala admires her mother, and how much she relied on her advice, and how big a loss it was when her mother passed away.

2: Although her mother was South Indian, Kamala and her sister were raised as Black women. They lived in a heavily Black neighborhood in Oakland, CA, during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her mother was involved in the Civil Rights movement and exposed her daughters to many of the leaders at the time. Kamala grew up around passionate Black women who not only believed in justice, but had each other’s backs as often as they could.

3: Kamala works hard. And she cares. Maybe sometimes her polices are a bit misguided (not that she would admit that), but I think they come from a good place. She wants justice and a better life for people. She wants to reform the justice system, but she also wants to try and stem off the things that lead people into the justice system. Maybe she doesn’t have the best ideas to do it, but she is willing to listen, to put herself into situations that allow her to listen, to advocate, and to do the work. I can respect that.

So, not, it’s not a brilliant narrative, and she’s not the most lyrical writer. But it was still good to read.

Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn
First sentence: “The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.”
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Content: There is mild swearing, and six f-bombs. There is also some violence and kissing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d hand it to younger kids who like epic fantasies.

Bree has wanted to get out of her small North Carolina town, and has seen the Early College program and the University of North Carolina as her ticket out. However at the start of the program, she is dealing with the grief from her mother’s death in a car accident, which puts her in a very precarious emotional state. So when, at a party, she starts seeing things — supernatural things — she doesn’t know what to think. Is it real? Is it a hallucination?

Then (after a brief run-in with the dean) she is assigned a peer mentor, Nick. Who happens to be part of this super-secret (all-white) society of magical beings whose job is to protect humanity from the Demons. Bree starts on a path, where she comes to realize that there was a lot more to her mother — and to Bree, herself — than she ever knew.

The question is what will she do with the knowledge she has now?

Oh, this was so good. Seriously worth the hype it was getting. I loved the world that Deonn created, riffing off the Arthurian legend in some really fascinating ways. I was fascinated by the way race and class came into play, and how magic wasn’t limited to just this one society. I liked how Bree disrupted the narrative of this society. Plus the budding romance between her and Nick was amazing. It was some solid storytelling, weaving grief and loss with magic and romance. There have been some comparisons to Cassie Clare, but this is SO much better.

I can’t wait to read the next installment!

Furia

by Yamile Saied Méndez
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Content: There is swearing, including two f-bombs, and some suggestive content. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Camila Hassan has a lot going on in her life. On the one hand, she’s a dutiful daughter of an abusive father, going to school and learning English in her Argentinian town. On the other hand, she’s la Furia: an fútbolera, playing soccer with all her heart. The thing is: she’s got talent on the pitch. And the team she plays on has made the Sudiamericano championships. Camila wants — with all her heart — to follow the dream she has of playing soccer professionally. Possibly in the United States, even.

Complicating things (abusive an sexist father aside), her childhood friend (and possible boyfriend?) Diego is back in town after a successful season with a professional Italian soccer team. He’s the sweetheart of the barrio, and Camila doesn’t even know if he remembers her, let alone wants to have a long-distance relationship.

This is not just an excellent portrait of an ambitious girl striving to make the most out of her life in a place where the decks are stacked against her. Which it is; I loved how Méndez included race and colorism as well as sexism as part of the story, highlighting all the various things influencing Camila’s life and decisions.

It’s also a swoon-worthy romance, but one in which the relationship isn’t the main focus of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed having it be a part of the book, but not the main focus. On top of everything, I think Méndez is a fantastic writer and definitely one to watch. I’m looking forward to reading more books from her.

Audio book: Mexican Gothic

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Read by: Frankie Corzo
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is mild swearing and three f-bombs. There is also some disturbing sexual imagery (but no actual sex). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore

Noemí Taboada is a socialite in Mexico City, without much of a care in the world. Her job is to get married, though she tends to go after boys of whom her father disapproves. Then, as a response to a disturbing letter, Noemí is sent off to High Place, in the mountains, to see what is going on with her cousin and her new husband, Virgil Doyle.

What she finds is a whole lot of weird. Creepy family, creepy house, weird dreams… and it gets increasingly more disturbing. The only ally she has (she is rarely allowed to see her cousin) is the family’s youngest, a 20-something boy named Frances. Perhaps, with his help, she can figure out what the heck is going on, and how she’s going to get out of the mess she found herself in.

Oh, man, this was creepy. Partially it was the narrator, who read it in a super calm voice, even when things were going all sorts of crazy weird. It bothered me at first but eventually it added to the tension of the book. It was wild. And the story itself? Gothic to the core, with an added race factor. The Doyles are not just creepy, they’re racist and Moreno-Garcia plays with at that in some fascinating (and haunting) ways.

It’s not my usual fare, but it was perfect for October.

Punching the Air

by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
First sentence: “Umi gave birth to me”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Amal Shamal was growing up in New York City, attending a school specializing in art. He had friends. And, yes, he had a temper. But, one fateful night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up starting a fight with a white boy. A fight that ended — Amal didn’t end it — with the white boy in a coma in the hospital. And Amal ended up in prison for something he didn’t do.

It’s a quick(ish) read, but a heavy one. Based somewhat on Salaam’s experience (he was part of the Exonerated 5), this is mostly a story of how Shamal gets through the hell that is prison. He’s technically in juvenile prison, but even in there it’s a lot less hope and a lot more despair. The book is Amal fighting against the expectations of the (white) world, trying to find a space for himself and his art. Trying to find hope and a will to go on in the face of oppressive and systemic racism.

If you think that prison is a good thing, that it keeps criminals and “thugs” off the street, this is a book you need to read. It drives home that the prison system (and by extension, the justice system) is not only flawed, it’s racist and corrupt. And it’s erasing futures.

Definitely a must-read.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

Class Act

by Jerry Craft
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Others in the series: New Kid
Content: There is talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s the start of eighth grade at Riverdale Academy Day School, and so Jordan and Drew are no longer the new kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the school culture, especially for Drew, who is a darker-skinned Black kid than Jordan. In fact one of the things I found most interesting about this book was the way Craft leaned into racisim and colorism. Jordan is a lighter-skinned Black kid, and everyone (well, white teachers) often overlooks Jordan when talking to or about the Black kids at school.

In fact, as the book follows Drew (though we still get a good dose of Liam and Jordan as well as some of the other friends they made in New Kid), Craft highlights all the little ways that Drew is battling racism in his every day life. Especially from well-meaning white people (which caused me to reflect on the myriad of ways I may have been unintentionally racist towards Black friends).

It’s a fun book, though. I enjoyed learning more about Drew and his life, and how he struggles to figure out who he really is and what he really wants. My favorite section though was when Liam and Drew visited Jordan’s family for an afternoon. I loved seeing the interactions between the adults and the kids and just experiencing Joy.

An excellent book. (And hopefully there will be more!)

When Stars Are Scattered

by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
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Content: There is war and death as well as some situations that might be rough for the tender-hearted. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So, this is a real story Omar Mohamed is a real person, and Jamieson worked with him to bring his story — which, when she met him, he was writing down for adults — to children. It’s set in the 1990s, when Somalia was in a war, and Omar and his younger brother Hassan are refugees in a camp in Kenya. Omar’s father was killed and he and his brother were separated from their mother, which left them all alone. Thankfully, their neighbor Fatuma stepped in and became their guardian. This graphic novel is a depiction of their time in camp, the ups and downs, and how Omar and Hassan — who is disabled and has seizures — manage from day to day. It’s set in three parts, one when Omar was probably about 11, another when he was 13/14 and the last when he was 18 and finally was able to be relocated to the United States.

It’s a powerful story, partially because there aren’t many stories about what life is like in refugee camps (spoiler: it’s a lot of hunger and boredom), but also partially because of the way Jamieson and Mohamed choose to tell it. There’s a bit about Islam, about cultural norms — there are two girls, Nimo and Miryam, who are going to school with Omar. One is married off, the other gets to continue her studies — but mostly it’s about Omar and his trauma and relationships to those around him.

It’s a remarkable story, one with an ending that made me cry. I’m so glad Jamieson and Mohamed chose to share it with us.