We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “The first time I heard anything about Planet Choom, we’d been on Mars for almost a year.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There are some possibly scary situations, but Rodkey knows his audience, and the book is neither too long or too complex. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lan and his family are part of the last of the human race, the part that escaped to Mars when the Earth dissolved into a nuclear holocaust that made the planet uninhabitable. They’re also the part of the human race that decided to take a chance on the offer of asylum from the Planet Choom — a planet full of insect-like creatures, as well as small wolf-like creatures and marshmallow-like creatures — and take up residence there.

However, when they get out of biostasis and arrive at Choom, they’ve discovered that the government is now against the humans settling there and they want them all to just leave. Except the humans don’t have anywhere to go. So the Choom government — which is run by the insect-like creatures — allows Lan’s family to come down on a trial basis. Which means they’re the sole representatives for the human race and whatever they do the entire race will be judged on it.

If you haven’t gotten the allegory that Rodkey is telling here, let me spell it out (mostly because I knew it going in, and it was quite obvious to me): he’s exploring — in a way that is accessible to kids — the idea of immigration and the idea of being the “other”. And since he can’t write an #ownvoices book, he’s doing it the only way he can: through science fiction. As far as an allegory goes, it’s excellent: it allows the reader to feel how it is to be “alien”, even if they (I’m white and while I’ve felt like an outsider, I’ve never really felt “alien”) are not. But, on top of that, it’s fun to read, it’s got great characters (#TeamMarf all the way! She’s brilliant!) and it’s got a good heart at the center of it. It’s quite probably Rodkey’s best work so far.

And it’s definitely one worth reading!

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Seafire

by Natalie C. Parker
First sentence: “Cadelonia stretched along the prow of the Ghost as the ship sliced through black water.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s some violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Caldonia Styx is the captain of a rogue ship, Mors Navis, one of the few that’s not in the clutches of the feared drug lord, Aric Althair. She has a crew of all girls, ones that Caldonia and her best friend Pisces, have collected and saved from Althair. They also are a thorn in Althair’s side — hitting his barges and collection ships, trying to stop him whenever they can.

But, they end up with one of Althair’s Bullets — his soldiers — on board and even though Caldonia doesn’t trust him, he has information about Caldonia’s and Pisces’s brothers, information that will allow them to be rescued. If only the Mors Navis can get to them.

Going in, I was expecting pirates and old-fashioned ships, but got something more futuristic: these ships are solar powered and cut through the water at high speeds. There’s scuba diving equipment, bombs and some heavy-duty drugs that brainwash people. There’s a drug lord that kidnaps little kids as “payment” and subjects them to a life of servitude. There’s awesome girls, and Parker’s a ruthless author: no one is safe in her world, which ramps up the tension. It’s action packed — there are several battles and narrow escapes in this book — and even though Caldonia carries a secret that I felt like yelling “just tell it already”, she was a good character to spend a book with. She’s a smart captain, and gets Parker gives her the respect she’s due as that. And her crew works together really well, as well.

It’s a great start to a series, one I’m definitely going to keep an eye on.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

by Stephanie Burgis
First sentence: “I can’t say I ever wondered what it felt like to be human.”
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Content: There are some fantasy action moments, and a few intense scenes. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Adventurine is a young dragon, up in the mountains with her family, who longs for something… more. She’s supposed to find her passion — it was philosophy for her brother, and being amazing for her sister (there’s a lot of sisterly comparison by Adventurine, which is something I noticed, because of my daughters) — but she mostly just wishes she could fly around without an escort. So, she does what most rebellious dragons will do: she sneaks out. And subsequently gets turned into a human by a food mage’s magical cup of hot chocolate. The upside: she’s discovered her passion in chocolate. The downside: she’s a human.

Thus begins an adventure that is chocolate-filled and so much fun. Burgis captured Adventurine’s confusion at being a human as well as her lack of knowledge about human culture so well. But Adventurine never slid over into being annoying. She always remembered she was a dragon at heart, and while that sometimes put her in awkward situations, it also meant that she was able to make the most of her situation. Additionally, her family is fantastic! They’re a bit over protective (but she’s not a fully formed dragon!), but in the end, their love of her is part of both the conflict and the solution and it’s quite sweet. Actually, that’s a great word for the book as a whole: sweet. It’s sweet and charming and a delight to read.

Pashmina

by Nidhi Chanani
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is in high school, and there is some references to sex. I’m not 100% sure if it’d put it in Middle Grade Graphic Novels, but it doesn’t feel like it fits in with the Teen Graphic Novels either. Hm.

Priyanka Das has a decent life: she and her mom live in America, and whileshe has unanswered questions about her father, or why her mother left India, she has a pretty good life. That is, until Pri’s curiosity about India gets sparked by a magical pashmina Pri finds in her mother’s suitcase. The pashmina gives Pri a glimpse of India, and she desperately wants to go. And she does, eventually. But when she gets there, it’s nothing like she expected, and yet everything she wanted.

On the one hand, this is written by an Indian, and it very much embraces the “India as amazing homeland” narrative that so often comes up in Bollywood movies. The narrative that one can find oneself in India is not a new one, and yet it still is something that resonates. It works here, primarily because it’s not a white person co-opting that (says the white person), but because Pri’s does actually need to go to India to see what it was her mother left behind. I liked that part of the story. The magical pashmina, though, didn’t do much for me. It does have a good reason to be there — it specifically helps women take charge of their lives — but it felt, well, forced. That, and Pri felt younger than she was in the book, which was a slight disconnect.

Even with those (slight) criticisms, it was a good story about family, and about how learning about your family’s past helps accept and understand your present. It was also nice to “visit” India for a bit.

A good debut novel.

Replica

replicaby Lauren Oliver
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 4, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, all off screen, and about a dozen f-bombs scattered throughout. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Gemma has spent her whole life feeling like a freak: she’s overweight and her parents are over-protective and yet distant, all of which leads others at school to make fun of her. So, when a rock tied around a Frankenstein mask gets thrown through the window of her house, she figures it’s the school bullies picking on her again. But, she overhears her parents arguing late at night and suddenly everything takes on a new meaning: it’s not HER the mask was meant for, but her father.

See, her father was co-owner of this super pharma business, which had some dealings with Haven, a super-secret island off the coast of Florida. No one knows what they do there, but her father had enough complaints that he got out. But that got Gemma curious: what is Haven, and why all the secrecy?

All that leads Gemma to sneaking off to Florida for spring break, to get answers to figure out what is going on with her parents and why this whole Haven thing is so secretive (and somehow, important).  What she finds out will change her life forever.

In some ways, this is a fascinating novel, playing with the ideas of humanity and just how far science will go to justify the ends it wants. I’m not entirely sure it justified the two-part story, however. I read Gemma’s version first, on a whim, and by the time I got to Lyra’s I wasn’t sure how much I cared. And yet, in retrospect, it’s possibly Lyra’s story that’s more important. Imagining that replicas have thoughts and feelings, that they are individuals, is fascinating thing to think about. And yet, I felt like something was lacking. Perhaps the ending was too abrupt? Maybe I hoped for more understanding or perhaps retribution. It all felt so… tidy.

Even so, I was thoroughly engrossed by the book. I wanted to know Gemma’s (and Lyra’s, as well) story, and the horrors of what the characters were going through was enough to keep me turning pages.

The Best Man

bestmanby Richard Peck
First sentence: “Boys aren’t too interested in weddings.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There’s some bullying and it’s not really action-heavy. But I’d give it to a 4th grader and up. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Archer Magill is just trying to figure things out. As a 5th (and then 6th) grader, he’s kind of clueless. About girls, about friends, about life. And so, he’s looking for role models and he’s found three: his dad (who’s a really great dad), his grandpa (who’s pretty awesome), his Uncle Paul (who’s incredibly cool). And then, a student teacher, Mr. McLeod comes into his life.

Actually, this isn’t a book about an awesome male teacher, thank heavens. Event though there’s an awesome male teacher. No, it’s more about Life, and Figuring Things Out, and Friendship. And how other people’s lives intersect with ours. And the Chicago Cubs.  It’s a Slice of Life novel, one that is full of charming characters and a great family. And one that, refreshingly, treats a LGBT relationship as something that’s to be celebrated. No, our main character isn’t gay, it’s not a coming out book for kids. There’s no angst in this book. It’s a story where the LGBT relationship is a part of who the people are, and that’s okay.

It’s a funny, sweet, refreshingly charming novel, and I adored it.