Felix Ever After

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some teenage drinking and pot smoking, swearing — including multiple f-bombs — and some tasteful making out. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Felix is a trans young man who is struggling. Not just with his father — who won’t say his name, just calling Felix “kid” — but fitting in at St. Catherine’s, an elite art prep school in New York City. Felix has one friend, Ezra, who is totally and completely accepting of who Felix is. However, not everyone on campus is. When one day during the summer term, an “installation” of Felix’s dead self complete with his deadname shows up, Felix is determined to find out who did that, and exact revenge. But things don’t go as planned.

I’ve not read a lot of trans fiction, especially for young adults, but I adored the way Callender handled this (one expects it would be handled beautifully, considering Callender identifies as non-binary). I adored Felix and felt his struggles to be accepted as his true self, even though he’s still kind of questioning his identity. I am glad Callender reminded readers that gender is a spectrum and perhaps labels aren’t always the best thing. But beyond that, I loved Felix and Ezra together, and the tension between Declan (who was a former boyfriend of Ezra’s) and Felix. I loved the emphasis on art, and how art can express inner feelings the way words sometimes can’t. And I still think Callender is a beautiful writer. They capture things on the page about being trans and black and queer and trying to fit into this world that doesn’t want them. It was powerful and challenging and wonderful all around.

I am definitely a fan of Callender’s now.

Super Fake Love Song

by David Yoon
First sentence: “Every superhero has an origin story.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mild swearing and in the older brother has a drinking problem. It’s in the YA section (grade 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sunny Dae (yes, that is meant to be punny) is a Nerd. Not only self-declared, but declared by the student body of his super rich California high school. Which is fine with Sunny. He and his friends Jamal and Milo have their own thing: a DIY FX YouTube channel for people who want to make their own cosplay outfits. It’s a perfectly fine existence, and aside from the fact that Sunny’s older brother Gray won’t talk to him and his parents are always working, one that Sunny is happy with.

Then Sunny meets Cirrus Soh, who accidentally thinks that Gray’s old room — full of guitars and “cool” things — is Sunny’s. And Sunny leans into that lie: yes, he plays guitar. Yes, he fronts a band. Yes, he’s “cool”. And all of a sudden, he has to make good on his lie. He ropes his friends into it, and gets the girl. The problem is: he’s kind of liking the “new Sunny” but he’s letting his friends down. Can he find a way to balance everything?

This book was super fun! Okay, so the romance part of this book wasn’t the best; Sunny and Cirrus were a bit forced and their romance never really felt real to me. What I did love, though, was Sunny. I loved his grappling with being nerdy and realizing that not everything or everyone fits neatly into boxes. I loved his family and their relationship to each other. For me, that was where the most interesting drama took place. I adored Milo and Jamal, and thought the three friends were brilliant together. And loved passages like this:

“My two best friends wore what they normally wore, which was to say a combination of low-performance joggers and blank polos that were so normcore, they went though dadcore and into weekend dadcore beyond.”

And this:

“The cynic would say Sunset [Boulevard] was like any other street in the godforsaken post-apocalyptic wonderland. But it wasn’t. It was a twenty-some-odd-mile-long serpent behemoth whose head had no idea what its tail was doing.”

No, it’s not brilliant fiction. But it is a lot of fun! And right now, that’s what really matters.

Audio book: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything

by Raquel Vasquez Gillliland
narrated by Inés del Castillo
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including many f-bombs and description of sexual assault as well as almost-sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s been three years since Sia’s mom disappeared in an ICE raid that sent her back to Mexico, a place where she had never been, having been brought to the US by her mother when she was young. Sia’s mom since disappeared, and was presumed to be dead. By everyone. So, for three years, Sia has been harboring grudge and aching for revenge on the sheriff who turned her mother in.

And… here’s where everything gets a little weird. I was enjoying this book about a girl who was dealing with her mother’s death, with the inherent racism in her town, with trying to keep her best friend together, with liking a new boy who just happens to turn out to be the estranged son of the sheriff. And then the book slants sideways and there are aliens? An Sia’s mom is not dead, but instead has spent the past three years being tested on in a secret government conspiracy? And it took half the book to get there?

I don’t know. I wanted to like this one more than I did. I adored the narrator; I think, in the end, she is what kept me listening (that, and I wanted to see just how far this alien thing would go) because I was annoyed. Annoyed that the jacket blurb gave away the aliens. Annoyed that they didn’t show up until halfway, and yet were so vital to the plot. Annoyed because it was a good book about a girl who was dealing with grief and loss and moving on, and all of a sudden: ALIENS AND YOUR MOM ISN’T DEAD.

I know there are people out there who liked this one. I’m just not one of them.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.

White Tears/Brown Scars

How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color
by Ruby Hamid
First sentence: “‘I am so uncomfortable having this conversation,’ said Fox News host Melissa Francis during a live broadcast of the network’s panel program Outnumbered on August 16, 2017.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some swear words, including a few f-bombs. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I was scrolling through Instagram one day and one of the bookish accounts I follow (I wish I could remember which one) said that if you’ve read Hood Feminism, you really ought to read this one. So I stuck it on hold at the library.

And that account is right: as a white woman, and a feminist, this one is a must read.

Hamad — who identifies as an Arab-Australian — deconstructs what it means to be a Brown and Black woman in the world where the effects of colonialism and racism is still felt. Every day. There is some history here: understanding the history of how white men used white women’s bodies (and white women, knowing the power structure went along with it willingly) to control Indiginous and slave populations is important to understanding the power structure in today’s society. And there are contemporary examples, white women who have made gains in business politics, an society, but who use those gains to keep out their Black and brown sisters.

It made me think of the saying: “If we lift from the bottom, everyone rises”. Colonialism and, by extension, capitalism lifts from the top. (It’s not just America; it’s a product of all colonialism — any place a different population came in and displaced the Indigenous population, any population that enslaved another population are affected this way. So really, the entire world.) It benefits Whiteness and punishes everyone else. (Or at least that’s the way I see it.) And Hamad’s book was basically an invitation to explore how I, as a White woman, interact with Black and brown people, how I use my whiteness (to help? to hurt?), and how I can can do and be better.

So, yeah. A tough read. But a very, very important one.

Tristan Strong Destroys the Universe

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “Nobody likes getting punched in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.