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.”
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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.

Audio book: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
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Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

Mooncakes

by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
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Content: There is some violence and kissing and the characters are out of high school. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Nova Huang is a teenage witch. She works in her grandmothers’ bookstore by day, and is apprenticed to them, mostly because she didn’t want to leave after her parents’ deaths. Tam is a werewolf who moved away years ago. They’re back in town, though, chasing a demon that feeds off of wolf energy. As Tam and Nova rekindle their childhood friendship (which leads to romance!), Tam needs to figure out how to stop the demon. Thankfully, Nova and her grandmothers are willing to help.

This graphic novel is a very cute and charming story. It’s less about the paranormal and witches — that’s just really a backdrop — and more about friendship and trust and creating your own family. Tam identifies using they/them pronouns, and from what I can tell from the story, their mother and stepdad aren’t that thrilled or accepting of Tam, though it may be more about the werewolf than the gender neutral pronouns. Nova, on the other hand, has loving grandparents but is hanging around because…. she misses her parents? Who show up as ghosts on major holidays? I’m not entirely sure.

I liked this one, though I felt it was a bit disjointed. I never really got enough development for Nova and Tam’s relationship, and the twist with the demon kind of came out of nowhere. A good graphic novel, but not a great one.

The Afterlife of Holly Chase

by Cynthia Hand
First sentence: “The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing. It would be in the Christmas section if we carried it, but I’d also shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8).

Holly Chase is dead. She was the recipient of “Project Scrooge” — which is based on A Christmas Carol, going around and finding callous individuals who need redemption — and failed. Miserably. She didn’t believe it was real, she didn’t believe she would die (granted: she wasn’t quite 17), and she ignored all the warnings. And ended up dead.

Now she works for Project Scrooge as The Ghost of Christmas Past. For the past five years, she’s stayed 17, and gone into peoples’ memories, searching for moments of good that could change them. But this year is different. The target is Ethan Worthington III who has a lot of similarities to Holly (and is super attractive too!): they both can pinpoint their increasing materialism and callousness to the point when they lost a parent.

I’m going to leave the rest of the story for you to find out. It was incredibly enjoyable; I liked how Hand echoed the Dickens book without coping it outright. It’s not a retelling of A Christmas Carol, but more a riff on it. Which makes all the difference. I enjoyed Holly as a character, even when she was being a brat, and Hand genuinely surprised me with the direction the story took.

An excellent addition to the world of Christmas books. Maybe not an instant classic, but very, very good.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
First sentence: “Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air.”
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Content: There is some drinking and swearing, including mulitple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Sal is starting his senior year of high school, and he feels like his life isn’t making sense. He’s mom died when she was three, he never knew his biological father, and although he loves his adoptive father and his Mexican family, he still wonders about the family he never knew. His best friend, Samantha has a crap relationship with her mom, and his other friend, Fito’s, mom has drug problems. Sal’s life is pretty tame comparatively, but still. He’s trying to figure himself out.

Actually, the plot of this one is kind of incidental to the book. It’s mostly about relationships: between Sal and his father, Sal and his grandmother, and Sal and Sam. It’s about the dynamics between them all and what it means to be a part of a family. There is discussion of death and making life worthwhile, as Sal (and Sam and Fito) try to figure out how they fit into the world. Even though it wasn’t heavy on plot, it was beautifully written. Sáenz has a gift for language and I enjoy the way he wrote the characters. Sal’s dad, Vincente, is one of the best fathers I’ve read in a very long time. It was delightful spending time with these characters that I came to care about. (Yes, I cried when Mima died.)

Perhaps not the most exciting book I’ve read recently, but I did enjoy it.

The Remarkable Inventions of Walter Mortinson

by Quinn Sosna-Spear
First sentence: “‘Walter’ is no kind of name for a boy.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s death, including one Really Tragic One, as well as some kissing. It was in the middle grades (3-5) section, but I decided that that age group doesn’t want to read about kissing so I moved it to the YA (grades 6-8) section.

I picked this one up after the first line was chosen as the best of the week a couple weeks back. I was intrigued (I love the cover!). It’s the story of an imaginative boy with an overbearing mother and a dead father in a dreary town and his search for Something More. Walter’s dead father was an inventor (his mother is a mortician) and he desperately wants to follow in his footsteps, so when he gets an invitation to join a famous inventor on his island, he takes his mother’s hearse (a 13 year old knows how to drive?!) and runs away with the girl next door.

It’s less about Walter and Cordelia’s adventure though, and more about forgiveness and acceptance between Walter and his mother. See, Walter and Cordelia retrace the path that his parents took when leaving the island and coming to their boring, dreary town, and in doing so Walter Learns Things about his parents, particularly his father, which he never knew before.

It wasn’t a bad book; I did finish it, though by the end I was skimming (it may have been me). In the end, though, it seems to me the kind of kids books that adults would like rather than kids. I’m not sure many kids are wanting to explore their relationships with their overbearing mothers (on the other hand, there are overbearing mothers who need to read this) and not many kids are interested in heteronormative relationships either. There just wasn’t enough adventure and too much moody musing. Maybe they wanted to be all Dahl-esque, but it just kind of fell flat for me. Which is just too bad, since the premise is pretty great.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

Beneath the Citadel

by Destiny Soria
First sentence: “Four people were supposed to die at sunrise.”
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Content: There’s multiple instances of one swear word, and some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Things I really liked about this book:

  1. The time frame was super condensed: most of the action took place (shock) beneath the citadel, where the council of Eldra has been hiding, listening to prophecies, and determining the Fate of the citizens of their country.  Likewise, the entire book took place over four days. 
  2. Even though there was shifting perspectives (I really am kind of over that) between the five characters, Soria kept the action propelling forward, and I never found myself losing interest in the story. 
  3. Which is to say: Soria really knows how to write. No, the sentences weren’t lyrical and lovely all the time, but the characters and dialogue popped, and she kept me guessing throughout the whole book. And she doesn’t hold back any punches. 
  4. I really liked the world Soria built, and the conflict between prophecy and free will. It was a nice tension, and the fact that who the “bad guy” was kept shifting was pretty impressive as well. 

In short? I really enjoyed this one.