Merci Suarez Can’t Dance

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “It was Miss McDaniel’s idea for me and Wilson Bellevue to work together in the Ram Depot, a job that nobody wants.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is talk of kissing, periods, and puberty. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I bet 6th graders would love this.
Others in the series: Merci Suarez Changes Gears

It’s halfway through seventh grade, and Merci is kind of (sort of) figuring things out. She’s not happy with her grandfather’s continuing descent, and her aunt isn’t around as much anymore, leaving Merci to babysit her terror twin cousins. And at school she’s trying to get along with Edna, but it doesn’t seem to be working well. And now, there’s the Heart Ball, the seventh grade fundraiser, which Edna is in charge of, and Merci is trying to avoid. But there’s Wilson, the boy she runs the Ram Depot with and maybe (?) may like-like. It’s all, well, a LOT.

This book had a ton of heart. I loved Merci trying to figure her way out, and I adore her family and the way they have each other’s backs. I loved the way Media wrote a character that was dealing with Alzheimer’s, and how the family worked to make his life easier. You could just tell how much the family loved each other. And I liked the middle school angst of it as well. Merci was delightfully awkward, making the best decisions she could, mostly, and terribly realistic. It was just a delight to read.

I know this book wasn’t really “necessary”, but I’ll take more Merci books any time.

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “The house always wins.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 5, 2021
Content: There is talk of addiction in adults, some bullying, and a mild “relationship”. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

AnthonyJoplin — Ant to his friends, but don’t call him little — comes from a family of serious Spades players. His grandfather, his father, his brother, were all really great at it, winning the local tournament (and then some). But Ant can’t seem to get in the game. He’s “weak”. Or that the way he feels, especially around his dad, his brother, and his friend. That he needs to be stronger, better. He needs to win the tournament, for starters.

He and his friend make a good team, but when his friend is unexpectedly unable to play, Ant turns to the new girl – Shirley – as a partner. Which is its own set of problems. Add to that his father is acting weird, staying up in the middle of the night playing online poker, and Ant is just confused about what he really is supposed to expect out of life.

I love that Johnson gets the middle grade audience, tackling touch subjects like addiction and masculinity without talking down to his readers. I love that he gives us characters that are interesting and complex, which makes them and their problems seem more real. I love that he sprinkles his books with humor, so they are not depressing, but rather reflect life’s ups and downs.

The only think I didn’t like about this book was the narrator: I liked the folksy aspect of it, with the slang and the way it felt like someone telling a story, but I often felt the narrator — who was a character in their own right — got in the way of the story.

But it was’t enough to turn me off of this book. Definitely another very good read!

Life’s Too Short

by Abby Jimenez
First sentence: “Wailing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:There is lots of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also on-screen sex and talk of penis size. It’s in the romance section of the bookstore.

Vanessa Price is a pretty famous travel blogger, and so when she landed in St. Paul to help her sister give birth (its an unplanned an unwanted pregnancy), the last thing she expected was to end up taking care of the baby full time. But, here she is, without content, not having showered for ages. Coming to the rescue is Adrian Copeland, defense attorney, eligible bachelor, and surprising baby whisperer. As the weeks go on, Vanessa and Adrian grow closer together, figuring out life and babies and family and ultimately how to live your life to the fullest.

I absolutely devoured this one. It’s fluffy and fun, but it’s also got depth as Vanessa is dealing with a family history of ALS as well as a parent who is a hoarder and a half-sister (the baby’s mom) who is a drug addict. Mostly, though, it’s a lot of flirting and will they/won’t they and a lot of spending huge amounts of money on wine and home furnishings (Jimnez knows that a man cleaning is sexy!) and ultimately a very satisfying romance. I read it in a weekend afternoon, and then found out it was part of a “series”, so I picked up the first one.

I can’t wait to devour that one, too.

The Elephant in the Room

by Holly Goldberg Sloan
First sentence: “What SilaTekin would remember about that afternoon was that she had been wearing her favorite shirt.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It deals with heavy subjects, but on an accessible level. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sila Tekin has lived in Oregon all her life, but her parents are immigrants from Turkey. They’re in the United States legally, but one day, Sila’s mom gets deported because her paperwork is not “correct”. It was supposed to be short deportation, but turns into nearly a year as Sila and her dad become more and more depressed. Enter Gio – an older man whose wife passed four years earlier and who recently won the lottery. The three of them – and they add a school mate of Sila’s, Mateo, later – make a sort-of family, helping each other through the process of healing. And then there’s an elephant.

The elephant is a rescue from a family circus, and brings more healing for our characters. I think Sloan was trying to advocate not only against circuses but in favor of humane animal treatment in captivity. She also had a strong case for elephant-human bonding. I just think Sloan really likes elephants.

The story itself was… okay. I think it’s good for a picture of immigration — and as a reminder that not every immigrant comes through from the southern border — and to help kids deal with tough situations. I’m just not sure Sloan was the best person to tell this story. Sloan says she has been profoundly affected by her time in Turkey, but I think this story may have been told better by someone who has had the experience of being an immigrant.

It’s not a bad book, but not my favorite by her either.

Instructions for Dancing

by Nicola Yoon
First sentence: “Books don’t work their magic on me anymore.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 1, 2021
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some mention of teen drinking and mentions of sex. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore when it comes out.

Evie is done with love. Ever since she caught her dad cheating on her mom (and then the subsequent divorce and his pending remarriage), she has determined that love — especially as seen in romance books — is a sham. No one stays happily ever after forever.

And then Evie is gifted with the ability to see couples past, present, and future. This just solidifies her belief: every couple ends in heartbreak. Then she is drawn to a dance studio, gets roped into competing in an amateur ballroom competition, and meets X. It’s got her rethinking love, but in the end: is loving someone worth the inevitable heartbreak?

I have loved Yoon’s books in the past, and this is no exception. She perfectly blends fluff romance (and y’all: X is hot!) with deeper questions about life and relationships. And it’s not just romantic relationships: Evie’s ups and downs with her friends and her family — including her father — are just as important as the budding relationship with X. I loved the deeper end of the book, as Evie struggles with forgiveness and acceptance. But I also loved the fluff: Yoon is very good at writing chemistry, and Evie and X getting to know each other was absolutely delightful.

Very much another excellent book by Yoon.

Otto P. Nudd

by Emily Butler
First sentence: “‘Otto, you’re splendid,’ mumbled Bartleby Doyle.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Full disclosure: the author is a friend of a friend, and I am friends wtih her on social media.
Content: The font is pretty large and there are illustrations on every chapter header. There is some talk about parent deaths. it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Otto considers himself a Very Intelligent Bird. He was raised in captivity by Bartleby Doyle, but the Old Man (as Otto calls him) has let Otto go free, to make a nest nearby. Otto still comes and helps Bartleby with his inventions, but he really just wants to make sure the neighborhood is in order. This means he’s not very nice to the other birds and animals. However, when Bartleby has an accident, and Otto can’t get in the house to push the emergency button, Otto is forced to turn to the “lesser” birds and animals in the neighborhood to help him out.

I am sure there is some animal-loving second- or third-grader out there who is just perfect for this book. Butler has a very chatty style and is often very humorous in spots. Otto — and Marla the squirrel and Pippa the girl – is an interesting character to hang with for a while, and there is a very delightful birds vs. raccoons skirmish at the end. The book has a nice lesson about making amnends and resitution for wrongs (even if it is just hurt feelings).

But this just didn’t rise above the level of “just fine” for me. And I get it: I am definitely not the target audience. (And, to be honest, I wasn’t when I was in third grade, either.) That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. It’s just not one for me.

People We Meet on Vacation

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “On vacation, you can be anyone you want.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: May 11, 2021
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There are a dozen or so f-bombs and some tasteful on-screen sex. It will be in the Romance section of the bookstore.

When Poppy met Alex their freshman year of college they immediately decided they were not for each other. She was loud, dressing in vintage clothing, and loved to travel and experience things. He was quiet and studious, preferring khakis and to stay at home in their Midwest hometown. So, it was incredibly unlikely that they would become friends.

But become friends they did. And one of the things they looked forward to? Their annual Summer Trip: Poppy picked the destination and made the plans, usually cheap and haphazard, and they went and had a great time.

Fast forward ten years, and Poppy and Alex have had a falling out. They haven’t talked or texted or gone on their vacation for two years, and when Poppy’s friend asks her when the last time she was truly happy, she immediately knows: the last time she was with Alex. So, she takes a risk and asks him to go on one of their old vacations again. Miraculously, he agrees.

The thing is, they’ve got a week to figure out what went wrong in their relationship. And how to get it back again.

I plowed through this book, not wanting to put it down. Not only does Henry give us a sweet friendship-turned-romance (and the payoff is SO worth it!), she gives us a bunch of little travel vignettes. I adored reading about the places that Alex and Poppy went and loved their experiences there. It’s not wholly a travel book: Poppy and Alex have an arc, and Henry deftly fills us in on not just their history but their pasts apart from each other as well. It was all deftly packaged within the framework of their trips.

No, it’s not earth-shattering, or life-changing. But it was fun. A LOT of fun. And right now, I’ll take that.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe
First sentence: “When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 28, 2020
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and some graphic sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When Michael moved to North Shore, California, he moved in next door to Bunny Lampert and her father. Bunny was the star of North Shore, tall, blonde, beautiful (even at eleven) and talented at volleyball. Even though Michael was none of those things — being, rather, a tortured, deeply in the closet gay teenage boy — he and Bunny became best friends. Not the sort of friends that hung out at school (or even after, really) but the kind that stays up late at night doing face masks and talking about all sorts of things. While they were not inseparable, they were devoted.

So much so, that Bunny is willing to go to bat for Michael when a girl on the volleyball team starts badmouthing him. Go to bat, in the sense that she beat the other girl into a coma. From there, Michael’s and Bunny’s paths irrevocably diverge.

This story is all told through Michael’s reflections as an adult, as he tries to figure out who he is, and why society is so deeply unfair to those who don’t have the money to make a decent life for themselves (his mother was sent to prison for defending herself against and abusive husband). He gets into abusive relationships because he’s deeply self-loathing, as is Bunny, and maybe this self-loathing is what ties them together? It’s not a happy narrative, but it is one that has made me think. About perceptions — did Bunny become the person everyone thought she was, or was she always that way — about class, about the things in our lives that affect us.

I’m not entirely sure I liked this book, but it is one that will stay with me for a while, and perhaps that’s worth something, in the end.