The Aquanaut

by Dan Santat
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Content: There’s a death of a parent, and mistreatment of animals. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Ever since her father, an marine researcher, died in a boating accident while out on the ocean, Sophia (and her Uncle Paul, who is taking care of her) has been just trying to survive. The place Paul and his brother built, Aqualand, is being run by a team of investors who don’t care about science, and Sophia’s grades are becoming worse and worse. And then, one day, a team of underwater creatures show up in Sophia’s father’s old diving suit.

It would just be easy to say: And then all havoc breaks loose. But it’s more than that. Paul and Sophia learn they need to actually try and grieve their loss and grow together as a family. Paul stands up to his investors, and less aqua land, but gains his dignity back. And the animals work together as a crew, while Sodapop (a hermit crab, I think) faces his fears of a giant squid. It’s about growth and togetherness and grief, with an underlying message about conservation and science, and maybe amusement parks that capture wild animals to put them in cages are bad.

I adore Santat’s heartfelt storytelling, and enjoy his art as well. This one is definitely one to hand to everyone, kids and adults alike.

Gallant

by V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “The master of the house stands at the garden wall.”
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Release date: February 2, 2022
Review copy pilfered from the ARCs at work.
Content: There’s a lot of narration, and not a lot of external action. It’s mostly an internal book, which may turn off younger readers. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This book is many things. It’s about an orphan — Olivia — being summoned to her family’s home (a family she never knew she had). It’s about standing up for yourself, and finding a place in life. It’s about found family, and belonging. The plot is simple: Olivia is in an orphanage, and gets called home to Gallant — where there are secrets she has to uncover.

What it really is, at its heart, is a Gothic Novel. I din’t realize this while I read reading it; I just felt a vague sense of being unsettled while reading. It’s not gory, it’s not “spooky”. There are monsters, but they are shadows in the night, and you don’t really understand them. No, it wasn’t until I was helping my youngest with an assignment on Gothic novels, that I realized that Schwab has capitalized on a main element of the genre: an uncertainty on the part of her main character. She keeps Olivia in the dark to help build tension (and it works) and to give the climax that much more punch (and it works).

It’s a very, very good story told by a very, very good storyteller. I loved it.

The Near Witch

by V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “It starts with a crack, a sputter, and a spark.”
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Content: There is talk of violence, but it’d be appropriate for teenagers if they were interested. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There has never been a stranger in the town of near. At least not in Lexi’s memory. And so, when one shows up, the town — especially the council — takes notice. And, when children start disappearing the night after the stranger arrives, the town is out for blood. Lexi doesn’t believe that the stranger has anything to do with the disappearances so she decides to set off on her own – against the wishes of her uncle and the town council – to solve the problem and get the children back.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Schwab is that she never writes the same book twice. Every single one of her books is vastly different. This is a bit of a coming-of-age story, about a girl learning to stand up for herself, and about a girl trying to find her own voice in a man’s world. It’s lyrical and delighful, and very very much a captivating story. Schwab is an excellent storyteller, and this, her first book, is a solid, captivating story.

I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World

by Benjamin Alire Saenz
First sentence: “And here he was, Dante, with his head resting on my chest.”
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Others in the series: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: There is much swearing, including many f-bombs, teenage drinking, and some tasteful sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Ah, Aristotle and Dante. I remember liking the first book when it came out, but not loving it. I’ve read Saenz’s stuff since then (like one other book?) And I have respect for his observations on life and living. This is no different.

Picking up where the first book left off, Aristotle and Dante are together, but because it’s 1987, they are not telling many people. Their parents, of course, but really that’s it. See, it’s dangerous to be gay in El Paso in 187. Dante got beat up, as do other characters for being too flamboyant, not “manly” enough. But Ari and Dante learn how to be together, Ari learns how to have friends and be a part of the group, they grw up and graduate, suffer loss, and basically Live.

It’s a beautiful book, full of Love of all kinds, full of Life and Heart. It’s gorgeously written; Saenz knows how to put words that Mean Something on a page. It’s probably a bit long, and the Tragic Event the back cover copy alludes to takes place nearly 2/3 of the way through. But, those re minor complaints. Saenz is a gorgeous writer and this is a gorgeous book.

On the Hook

by Francisco X. Stork
First sentence: “Hector could tell that Ai wanted to discuss something.”
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Content: There was a lot of violence, and some talk of drug use and addiction. There is swearing, but in Spanish. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think it’d be good for younger kids as well.

Hector lives a very small life. His father passed away a few years ago, and he and his mother, brother, and sister are all trying to scrape by. They had to move from their home and into the projects, wher ethey live next to drug dealers, one of whom, Chavo, has a beef with Hector’s brother, Fili. Hector just wants to stay out of the way. But Chavo’s brother, Joey, seeks him out to intimidate and assault Hector, and gets into Hector’s brain. Suddenly, Hector is convinced he’s not a “real man”, and when Chavo and Fili get into an altercation (over a girl), both Hector and Joey do rash things and end up in the same juvenile rehabilitation center. Hector has to deal with feelings of hate and revenge, and learn to live with them.

I struggled with this one. Stork played into all sorts of Mexican stereotypes: drug dealers, macho men who can’t deal with feelings except by drinking or through violence, women who really don’t have a say and men who fight over them. Hector has embraced this toxic masculinity and struggles against it, but fails: he has determined that the only way to “balance” things is to kill Joey. I found myself loathing Hector as the book went on; he wasn’t a fun character to live with.

And I know there are always truth to stereotypes, and books need to be written about people who struggle with toxic masculinity and come through on the other side, which Hector did. (The one thing I did like: Hector and Joey never became friends. That would have been much too maudlin.) But that doesn’t mean it was fun to read.

Cemetery Boys

by Aiden Thomas
First sentence: “Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and some violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Yadriel is a trans Latinx boy and a member of a family of brujx. It took him a while to come out as trans, and make the transition, and as a result, some of his extended family have resisted him becoming a brujo like he was meant to be. So he decides to go through the ceremony in secret… and inadvertently raises the ghost of Julian Diaz, a kid from Yadriel’s school. Except that Julian really shouldn’t be dead. And Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing as well.

So Yadriel and Julian team up to figure out what’s going on. And in the process, Yadriel hopes that her family will accept him as a full-fledged brujo.

I liked thine one a lot. I liked it for the representation; Thomas is a transgender Latinx and I thought the traditions and language came through seamlessly. I loved the push-and-pull between Yadriel and Julian and I adored Yadriel’s cousin Maritza. I liked the mystery, even if I guessed it a bit before Thomas revealed it. And I liked that it was centered around Dia de los Muertos.

I didn’t love the chemistry between Yadrial and Julian, and the ending kind of threw me off. It was fine and all, but kind of felt like fan service rather than true to the story, but that’s just the way I reacted. It’s a really good book, and not justs for the representation.

Audio book: Fable

by Adrienne Young
Read by Emma Lysy
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some violence and some off-screen, implied sex near the end. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s been four years since Fable watched her mother die in a storm that sank the ship that they, along with Fable’s father, were on. And four years since Fable’s father dumped her on a god-forsaken island, abandoning her to her fate. Now, she’s found a way off the island on a ship captained by West, a young trader who has bought her gems for the past couple of years. And Fable is determined to take her place in her father’s crew.

But things are not what they seem in this cutthroat world of trading and selling. And West is not everything he seems. Can a girl — even one who was raised the daughter of a captain and who has special gifts — make her own way in this world?

I really enjoyed the world that Young built here. It’s rich and lush, and very Pirates of the Caribbean-y. Which, in my book, is a good thing. There’s magic, of a sort, but it’s very slight. I liked Fable’s journey getting off the island, and the slow reveal of her past and her place in her father’s empire (of sorts). The romance was a bit out of nowhere (all of a sudden they were kissing, and while I don’t mind that, it did feel a bit, well, unearned.) but it wasn’t the focus of the book, which was a relief. I did feel Young did a bit too much telling rather than showing, but it’s the first in a duology, and she needed to set up the world, and I’d rather some telling all along than a big infodump at the beginning.

Lysy was good as a narrator, even if she did over-emphasize her Ts at the end of sentences. (Once I noticed it, I couldn’t unhear it.) She kept me engaged and kept the story moving forward. I think I enjoyed this a lot more on audio than I would have otherwise.

And the book ended on a bit of a cliffhanger (there got to a be a point about 3/4 of the way through where I kept expecting something bad to happen. And it did. In the last chapter.) so yes, I’ll be checking out the sequel.

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.

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!

Crownchasers

by Rebecca Coffindaffer
First sentence: “The Otari came here to die.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 29, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, mild swearing, and about four f-bombs. It will be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Captain Alyssa Farshot has everything she needs: a worldship, a membership in the Explorer’s guild, and space. And her engineer/trusty sidekick Hell Monkey. But when her Uncle Atar — who happens to be the Emperor of the thousand planets in this universe — suddenly and unexpectedly dies, Alyssa (and Hell Monkey) finds herself a crownchaser, along with other nominees from the prime families, searching for the seal that will make her empress.

Except she doesn’t want it. And the whole chase becomes more deadly than anyone expected.

That’s the basic plot, but that’s not really a great pitch for this book. How about this: Alyssa is a sarcastic, fearless pilot who has a heart of gold and is willing to go to any lengths for her friends. I loved how Coffindaffer told this story, interspersed with flashbacks to explain the relationships Alyssa has with the other characters in the book. They’re placed at just the right moments, and give the narrative a depth I wasn’t expecting. I adored Alyssa (shoot, I adored all the characters) and the way she just threw herself headfirst into everything she did.

I loved the tone of the book; it didn’t take itself too seriously but also managed to give weight to a couple of ideas (like representation for all, and the inherent classism in the worlds’ systems). It was a perfect balance and kept me turning pages.

An excellent debut novel.