Hope and Other Punch Lines

by Julie Buxbaum
First sentence: “Tuesday, the least descriptive day of the week.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some talk of teenagers drinking and hooking up, but none actual. There are two f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Abbi Hope Goldstein has a terrible claim to fame: On 9/11, a photographer snapped a picture of her, at age 1, being rescued by a worker from the Twin Towers, running away from the destruction. She was named “Baby Hope” by the media, and her picture splashed across the country as a sign of hope and reliance. Which meant, over her seventeen years of living, she’s had a lot of awkward encounters. Mostly, though, this summer — especially as she’s developed a worrisome cough that’s probably linked to the 9/11 attacks — she just wants to be a normal teenager.

Except there’s Noah: his dad died in 9/11 (they’re both from New Jersey), and Noah’s mom — though remarried now — has always been reluctant to talk about his dad. This summer, though, Noah wants to get answers from what he’s always suspected: his dad was in the background of the Baby Hope picture, and he wants to know what happened. And so when he runs into Abbi at a summer camp they’re both working at, he thinks it’s Fate and goads her into helping him contact all the people in the photo.

It sounds like a lot, and in some ways it’s a heavy book. It deals with loss and survivors guilt and grief — and not just the overarching 9/11 loss; there’s also loss of friendships, as Abbi has dealt with the dissolution of her friendship with her former best friend (nothing malicious; they just grew apart). But, in many ways, this is a typical teen romance. Noah is sweet and dorky and charming (and who doesn’t love a lovable guy in a teen romance) and his best friend, Jack, is the best. Abbi’s problems don’t seem too heavy; she is dealing with a lot but Buxbaum doesn’t ever let that control the narrative.

It was definitely a charming read, one with depth and heart.

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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.

Evvie Drake Starts Over

by Linda Holmes
First sentence: “Go now, or you’ll never go, Evvie warned herself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 25, 2019
Content: There is some talk of sex, and a handful of f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Evvvie (as in Chevy) Drake was unhappy in her marriage. She’d been with her high school sweetheart for nearly half her life, and it had gotten to the point where she couldn’t take his emotional abuse anymore. Except on the day that she decided to leave, he was killed in a car accident. No one ever knew about her decision.

Fast forward two years, and she hasn’t been able to get out from under her dead husband’s shadow. He was a beloved doctor in town, and since no one ever knew about the abuse, his memory is perfect. Which leaves Evvie wondering what that made her for wanting to get away. Enter Dean, a friend of Evvie’s best friend, Andy, who’s suffering from the “yips”: once a major league pitcher, he can’t throw a game anymore. He moves into the apartment in Evvie’s huge house, and the two of them set about figuring out each other. And maybe — just maybe — healing in the process.

Oh this was a delight. Seriously. Even if you don’t listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour (why don’t you?), there is reason to pick this up. It’s sweet and charming, with just enough depth to keep it grounded and from being too saccharine. I adored all the characters, from Evvie’s and Andy’s relationship (they’re really Just Friends, yay!) to the way Evvie and Dean developed. And the fact that Evvie got some female friends along the way, too. It was so incredibly satisfying watching Evvie blossom through the course of the book. And the love story was charming and sweet and oh-so-satisfying as well. I’ve always thought that Holmes knows her stuff when it comes to romance, and this just proves that she knows how to write is as well as she knows how to write about it.

An absolutely perfect summer book.

Finding Orion

by John David Anderson
First sentence: “The night we found out about Papa Kwirk, I had a jelly bean for dinner.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: May 7, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a brief mention of kissing. And this one feels more weightier than Anderson’s usual fare. It’s still in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it might be better for older readers.

Orion (call me Rion, pronounced Ryan, please) is the middle child — and only boy — in a very, well, quirky family. His mom runs the local planetarium (hence being named after a constellation; his sisters are Cassiopeia and Lyra) and his dad invents jelly beans at the local candy factory. Cass, his older sister, is super into theater and Lyra is a 10-year-old brainiac. The only person Rion can relate to is his grandfather, Papa Kwirk: he, with is stories of Vietnam and Harley Davidson, at least seems “normal.” The only downside is that they only see Papa Kwirk once a year, at Christmas.

But then, Papa Kwirk suddenly passes away. And Rion and his family head to his dad’s hometown for the funeral, and come to realize that they don’t know Papa Kwirk as well as they thought they did. The next couple of days, as they head around town on a scavenger hunt (no one said the Kwirks do things the easy way), they discover that there is more to Papa Kwirk than they could have ever imagined.

I have adored Anderson’s books — some more than others — for a while now. He’s always a bit odd, and he tackles big subjects (like the death of a grandparent) with humor and heart. It’s not as funny as some of his other books, but I really loved the way the family worked together (chalk this one up with The Penderwicks as a good family book!) to solve the scavenger hunt. It embraces the importance of family and telling family stories, which I also appreciated. There was a slight subplot that was a bit hokey, but it set up a great climatic scene where the entire family worked together.

So, maybe this isn’t a true middle grade book, but it’s still a fun read.

Squint

by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
First sentence: “Double vision stinks.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s not terribly long, but there are some more mature themes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Flint is a seventh grader, but because of his degenerative eye disease, everyone calls him Squint. Which he doesn’t really like. So, he’s channeling it into a graphic novel he’s drawing for a competition, because his grandmother has always said that he’s good at drawing. But, since he can’t really see, he doesn’t really know.

Yes (of course) he’s bullied by the popular kids at school, because middle school is a horrible place. But McKell, a new girl at school who’s joined the popular clique, isn’t feeling it. Her brother has a terminal illness, and so she reaches out to Flint, in order to do her brother’s “challenges” (via his YouTube channel). They have a rocky start, but eventually Fint and McKell learn that taking chances are a good thing, that a real friendship is the best thing, and maybe making good experiences is what life is really all about.

This was a super charming little book. My only real complaint was that the comic book sections were actually prose. I think it would have been MUCH better if the comic book sections were, well, actually comics. I think that would have increased the readability for kids (I skimmed those sections, too!) but would have added overall. But aside from that, it really was a sweet little story.

The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe

by Ally Condie
First sentence: “Call tells me he sees a star and that makes me laugh.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 26, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this near-future, dystopian world, Poe is a member of the Outpost, a group of people who mine the river for gold and basically try to survive. (From what, we don’t know). They are up against the raiders, every time they take to the rivers, and when Poe is on her first voyage, the raiders kill her love, Call. So, she vows revenge. She creates an impenetrable armor for the ships as they dredge the rivers, collecting gold. And now, it’s her last voyage, the one on the biggest river, the one where she’s captain. The one where she will get revenge for Call’s death.

And then everything goes. wrong.

I wanted to love this one. I wanted it to be fierce girls taking on the patriarchy, overturning everything, breaking free from the bondage of male rule. But, what I got was one girl, grieving for a lost love, building a weapon out of revenge, and her personal journey to enlightenment. Not that it was a bad journey: I liked Poe, and I thought that (for the most part) her journey from one side of the conflict to the other was believable. Maybe a bit rushed, but understandable. Mostly I felt this book was an exploration of the anger stage of grief, and how a person gets through to acceptance and moving on. Which is fine and all, but not what I wanted out of the story. (For a much better girls taking on the patriarchy book, check out Anne Ursu’s The Lost Girl)

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.