Squint

by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
First sentence: “Double vision stinks.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.

Thunderhead

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “How fortunate I am among the sentient o know my purpose.”
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Others in the series: Scythe
Content: There is violence (less than in Sythe) and swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Scythe, obviously.

K picked this one up first, and because we swore her to silence (no spoilers!), she suffered in silence. Then A read it, and she and K had to go off in a separate room to discuss it (because there is much to discuss). By the time I got to it, they kept asking “Where are you?”  “Have you gotten to The Part yet?” (and there are a couple of The Parts). And when I finished, K looked at me and said, “I couldn’t talk to ANYBODY!”

Because this book demands to be discussed.

It picks up nearly a year after the events in Scythe: Citra has become Scythe Anastasia and is serving her junior scythe years under the guidance of Scythe Curie. She has a very unique method of gleaning her subjects, one that gives her peace of mind at night which is good. Rowan, on the other hand, has become Scythe Lucifer, going around gleaning scythes that have become corrupt. Both are doing what they feel called to do. But then, things go wrong.

There’s also a side plot with a new character, Greyson, whom A loved and was wholly invested in and whose life becomes intertwined with Anastasia’s. And Rowan? Well, let’s just say his plot line made me super anxious. And Faraday’s plotline is interesting, but as K pointed out, kind of gets dropped near the end.

Oh: and I want to see the ending of this book on the big screen.

I know I’m being evasive, but really, the less you know, the better it’ll be. There’s really a lot to talk about: violence and corruption and religion and tradition and freedom. But mostly, just what an excellent storyteller Shusterman is.

I can’t wait for the next part of this story!

Scythe

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “We must, by law, keep a record fo the innocents we kill.”
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Content: There is, by the very nature of the book, violence. Some of it is graphic. There is also mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but, like Hunger Games, I’d be wary about giving it to overly sensitive kids.

My co-workers have been on my case to read this since it first came out. A couple of them love it (and Shusterman), but I just didn’t have time. (Sometimes, when I need to sell a book at work, I rely on other people’s opinions rather than just reading it myself, since I won’t have time to read all the books. Unfortunately.) But then, it won a Cybils award, and was picked for my online book club (and then they picked it for one of my in-person book clubs), so I figured it was about time I read this.

And, oh wow, everyone was right. This is an excellent piece of speculative fiction.

The basic premise is this: in the future we will have figured out how to defeat disease and death, thereby becoming immortal (pretty much). However, the earth couldn’t handle the subsequent population growth, so a group of people — called scythes — were organized to deal with that. They have a set of commandments, are outside the general law, and basically get to decide when people should die. There are rules governing that, as well — they have quotas they have to meet and can’t go over, and they can’t do it with forethought or malice. The book follows two teenagers, Citra and Rowan, who were chosen as a scythe’s apprentices. As it follows them through the year of their apprenticeship, it’s fascinating reading about their scythe and his philosophies, and then the difference between scythe philosophies (including a radical one who was just horrid). There is a bit of a romance(ish), but that didn’t really go anywhere (thankfully). Mostly it’s about humanity and the meaning of immortality, and how one deals with the power over life and death. There is definitely much to think about and talk about in this book.

A Short Stay in Hell

by Stephen Peck
First sentence: “Although I have loved many, there has been only one genuine love in my near-eternally stretched life — Rachel who fell to the bottom of the library without me.”
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Content: There’s some violence. It would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, if we carried it.

This was not the Stephen Peck book I set out to read. I was supposed to read Scholar of Moab, but about 1/3 into that, the apostrophes were driving me nuts (they were in the wrong place — do’nt as opposed to don’t — and while I understood why they were that way, it didn’t stop it from pulling me out of the story) and so Russell threw this book at me and said I might like it better.

The idea behind it is that everyone’s idea of the afterlife is wrong (except for the Zoroastrians). And our main character, who was a good Mormon in this life, is in hell. Which happens to be a big library, containing every possible book that could ever be written. Which means, it’s very very very very very large. The idea for him to get out of hell is to find the book containing his story, except that’s an impossible task. (Well not impossible, just very very very hard.) It follows him as he meets people, is part of a university, finds and loses his love, gets captured by a wack job, falls for days, and on and on. It’s an exercise in trying to grasp what infinity means (spoiler: you can’t).

And while I liked it enough to finish it (it was short, which helped), I’m not sure I get what makes Peck such a great writer. Maybe it’s because I’m too literal a reader (plausible), and his works are full of symbolism and metaphor and satire, all of which escape me. Give me a good plot, some great characters, and decent writing and I’m happy.

At least I tried.

Ghost Boys

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “How small I look.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 18, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues here, but all the violence is either handled delicately or is off stage. The publisher has it for 10 and up, so I will probably shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore, but it would be good for curious 4th and 5th graders.

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a white police officer while playing in the park. He had a toy gun, and the officer thought he was being threatened and therefore shot Jerome. If that sounds familiar, it’s intentional.

The book isn’t about the shooting, exactly. It’s told from Jerome’s perspective, after his death. He’s a ghost, hanging around, angry he is dead, and wondering what his purpose is. From there, we learn in flashbacks how he came to be shot, as well as following the preliminary hearing (in which the white officer gets off), and learn about Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi in 1955. The point of the novel, however, isn’t about the story. It’s about the feelings this kind of murder generate. The sadness and anger in Jerome’s family. The questioning by the daughter of the officer. The sheer number of black boys that have been murdered. But also hopeful feelings: the friendships that come out of a tragedy like this.

While it’s a bit on the heavy-handed side, I think that was done intentionally. Rhodes wants to get her readers — many of whom are young — thinking about why this happens. About underlying racism. About seeing the “other” as, well, not “other”. And I think she wants to get a dialogue going, because if we don’t talk about these things, our culture won’t change and black men and boys will keep getting murdered.

It’s a quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for kids (and adults!) to read.

A Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman
First sentence:”Ove is fifty-nine.”
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Content: There’s swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ove’s beloved wife died six months ago. And he’s been at a loss ever since. He’s gone to work, but since he was terminated, he’s really lost all purpose. So, he’s decided to kill himself. That is, until his new neighbors — Parvanah and her husband and children — decide to nose their way into Ove’s life.

It’s a simple plot, but it’s not the plot that makes this this book a good one. I have one HUGE quibble with it though: Ove is NOT fifty-nine. I know it says that in the first sentence, but he doesn’t act like a 59-year-old. he acts like mt grandpa did when he was 85 or so. So, once I aged Ove up about 20 years in mt mind, I was able to sit back and enjoy the story. I loved Parvanah, and her big heart and stubborn refusal to leave Ove alone. Ove reminded me of my grandpa, and so I knew there was a good heart under his crusty exterior, but I enjoyed the unfolding of the story, and the way those in his life included him. It was heart-warming and a lovely reminder that there are good people out there.

A very good story.

Kids of Appetite

kidsofappetiteby David Arnold
First sentence: “Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There are a bunch of f-bombs, some teenage smoking, and some depictions of domestic abuse. It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Vic is many things: a teenage boy, a son whose father has died of cancer, a lover of music and math. He also has Moebius syndrome, but he doesn’t let that define him. No, these days, he lets his dad’s absence and his mom’s new relationship define him. And one night, when things become unbearable, Vic grabs his dad’s ashes and takes off. Out there, he runs into an interesting group of kids, under the protection of a Congolese immigrant named Baz. They fly under the radar, taking people in who need help, give them the help they need, and send them on their way. And Vic most definitely needs help. Especially after he opens his father’s urn and discovers instructions as to where his ashes should be spread. So Vic, with his new-found friends, takes it upon himself to scatter his dad according to his wishes.

Things aren’t that simple, though. Vic gets caught up in the lives of what comes to be called Kids of Appetite, and when the uncle of one kid ends up dead (and Baz is a suspect), Vic finds himself in the police station.

There’s a lot going on in this novel: there’s a main character with a disability, and some discussion on etiquette when dealing with someone who doesn’t look like you. There’s diversity and refugee and immigration issues with Baz and his younger brother as they try to make a new life for themselves. There’s a semi-traditional love story. There’s a murder. But, even with all these weird eclectic elements, it works. It’s such a character-driven novel and each and every character (well at least with the Kids of Appetite) is a gem. The novel alternates between Vic and Mad, an 18-year-old girl who is kind-of a runaway as well, and each of their voices was delightful. I liked that there was a dark edge to this, that there are things to think about, and yet it’s ultimately a story of hope and redemption.

Highly, highly recommended.

Me Before You

mebeforeyouby Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “When he emerges from the bathroom, she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.”
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Content: There’s a bunch of f-bombs scattered throughout (but not enough to seem excessive) and some talk of sex (but none actual). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve known about this one for years, and I’ve just been putting reading it off. Perhaps it’s my aversion to all things “everyone” reads (I know: I should read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but…). Maybe I thought it would be maudlin and depressing. The movie came out (and went, here), and I still didn’t really feel much of a need. Then, as summer book bingo is winding down, I had the “Everyone But Me Has Read” square, and I figured this was what needed to fill it.

(I’m assuming y’all know what the plot is.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed it. I loved Lou; she was smart and spunky and real. I loved her relationship with Will, that it was complicated but also honest and open. And I loved that Moyes faced the ideas of a Life Worth Living head-on. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions, but it made me cry and it gave me something to think about.

In short, maybe the hype was right about this one. Now, to see how the movie holds up.