Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

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.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely

cursesodarkby Brigid Kemmerer
First sentence: “There is blood under my fingernails.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 29, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some inferences to sex and lots of violence. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I bet a 7/8th grader who wants to tackle this might really enjoy it.

Rhen is the crown prince of Everfall, but 5 years ago he made the worst decision of his life: he slept with, and then rejected, an enchantress. She (because she can) put a curse on him: at the end of every season (spring, summer, etc.) he will turn into a monster for a length of time. He has to find True Love to break the curse.

(If this sounds like Beauty and the Beast, you’re right.)

Harper lives in DC, and her family has fallen up on hard times. Her mother’s terminal illness has sucked the family finances dry, and so her father turned to loan sharks and other shady characters for money. And then he split, leaving Harper and her older brother Jake to clean up the mess. That is, until she’s inadvertently kidnapped (she wasn’t the intended target; in fact, she tried to stop the original kidnapping) by Rhen’s captain of the guard, Grey. And then she finds herself in Everfall.

There was so much to love in this book. The nods to the original fairy tale. The banter between Rhen and Harper. Harper’s fierceness (she’s not a warrior, but she cares about people and she’s willing to defend them). Rhen has a painful backstory, and Grey is an amazing foil. And the enchantress? Is wonderfully, justifiably awful.

It pulled me in on page one, and didn’t let me go until I finished. The only complaint I have? That it wasn’t a stand-alone (it could have been), but instead left a thread open for a sequel (which I will probably read).

Still. It was excellent.

 

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

The War That Saved My Life

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
First sentence: “‘Ada! Get back from that window!’ Mam’s voice, shouting.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some depiction of abuse, and tense moments when there is bombing. The bookstore has it in its middle grade (grades 3-5) section, but the state awards deemed it for 6-8th graders.

I know I’ve needed to read this one for a while now, and when my class did a unit on other awards and we were instructed to read a Schneider Family Award winner, I jumped at the chance to finally cross this one off my list.

Ada was born with a club foot. And, because her mother is AWFUL, she was raised to think that somehow her foot made her less. She wasn’t allowed out in public, she couldn’t walk, and her mother shut her in a cupboard and hit her every time she did something her mother didn’t like. And then Germany threatened invasion, and the children of London were sent to the countryside. Ada wasn’t on the list; her mother really was that cruel, but she decided she couldn’t let her younger brother go by himself, and so she went too.

Once there, they were placed with Susan Smith, who had been grieving the loss of her friend, Becky (it was unstated, but I believe they were partners), for two years. Susan didn’t want children, but she made the best of it. And, that simple act changed everyone’s lives.

It is a simple book, following Ada as she figured out how to live a life. Bradley does really well at portraying a traumatized child; Ada is sullen and ungrateful and unresponsive, and has panic attacks set on by the smallest things. But Susan is patient and kind and Ada flourishes. This really is a testament to kindness and resilience and the human spirit.

Very good.

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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

Not if I See You First

by Eric Lindstrom
First sentence: “My alarm buzzes and I slap it off and tap the speech button at the same time.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: December 1, 2015
Content: There’s a lot of swearing — not overly so, but enough that I wouldn’t recommend it to sensitive souls. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Parker Grant hasn’t had an easy life. She lost her sight at age 7 when her mother crashed the car (and was killed), but she and her dad have made do. Parker found a close cohort of friends that have stuck with her through the years. With the exception of Scott, who she thought was her friend until a betrayal in 8th grade. Now, just before the start her junior year, Parker’s life just got messy again: her father accidentally overdosed on prescription meds, and she’s alone again. (Well, not really: her aunt and uncle and their family have moved in with her. Which helps, but isn’t really something she is happy about.)

(Before I go much further, I know: dead parents. I understand getting them out of the way for the purposes of the story, but wow. Merciless.)

Now, Parker has to figure out what she’s going to do. She’s coping, but not well. And when Scott shows back up at her high school (they went their separate ways in 9th grade), she has to deal with those resurfacing emotions as well.

Lest that make it sound like a love story, it isn’t really. Yeah, there’s some kissing, and some talk about love and boyfriends and such, but the ending isn’t a perfect, happily-ever-after.

I did, however, fall in love with Parker. Seriously. From the opening pages where she goes for an early morning run, and the mechanics of that, I knew I was hanging out with someone worth getting to know. And the great thing is that she was a complicated person. She was angry, she was holding her emotions about her dad, about Scott, about everything in. She was a bad friend sometimes. But she also learned and grew and changed. And there were pretty great people (who were also normal) surrounding her.

I don’t know how accurate Lindstrom’s depiction of a blind girl was, or how well it’ll resonate with people who have experience with blindness. But, I liked that he didn’t limit Parker by her “disability”. She was capable, she was smart, and yes she needed help, but she was independent in so many ways. I also liked that no one was limited by color, size, sexuality (though that wasn’t really explored), or ability. There were POCs in the book, but it was only mentioned in passing. It wasn’t dwelt upon; these were just kids hanging out, making decisions, trying to get through each day.