The Bird and the Blade

by Megan Bannen
First sentence: “I arrived in Sarai on the fifteenth day of the seventh month — Ghost Day — but for the first time I dream of my brother, Weiji, is two months later, on the night I meet Khalaf.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs (I think I didn’t count more than four) and other mild swearing. There is also frank talk about genitals. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think an interested 7th grader could handle it.

They say, “Don’t judge a book by a cover”, but we all do.  And my judgement for this one, when I first saw the cover was “okay, it’s going to be a light fantasy; I hope it’s good.” Well. It’s not a light fantasy (okay, so there’s a small ghost element at the end, but I’m not really counting that). Set in the late 13th century and  loosely based on the opera Turandot, it’s a sweeping story about a captured girl from the Song empire, Jinghua, the slave of the Kipchack Khanate. The il-khan, Timur, and his youngest son, Khalaf, are on the run after an invasion from a neighboring khanate, and through a twist of fate, Jinghua ends up with them as they travel across the Mongol empire. Once Khalaf finds out that the daughter of the Great Khan, Turandokht, is refusing to marry anyone unless they solve three riddles, Kahalf decides that that’s the only way to save his father and his kingdom, so they head there. Khalaf to solve the riddles, Jinghua to stop him.

It’s a difficult one to sum up, this book, because there is so much going on. It’s a forbidden romance — as Jinghua and Khalaf spend time together, they find they have  a mutual respect and admiration that develops into something more, but a son of an il-khan and a servant can never be together in any real way. It’s a road trip — as her characters travel, Bannen takes us through multiple parts of the Mongol Empire, showing just how vast and varied it was. And it’s a work of historical fiction, though it felt like it had a modern sensibility. Khalf stood up for Jinghua in ways that I’m not sure a 13th century man would, but I found I didn’t mind. It’s a unique book, set in a unique place, with some fantastic characters.

Definitely recommended.

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1

by M. T. Anderson
First sentence: “I was raised in a gaunt houses with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”
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Content: There’s violence and talk of human bodily functions. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore if we had it.

Octavian had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the house with a bunch of rational philosophers (in the Novanglina College of Lucidity) where his every move was studied and cataloged. He was dressed in the finest silks, taught to play the violin and speak Greek and Latin and French. And he had no idea he was black and a slave. That is, until the sponsorship for the society lapsed and they found a new person to sponsor them, someone who felt that Africans were truly less than people. From there, Octavian’s life changes, and not for the better. He escapes, and gets involved in the Revolutionary War.

I heard lots of good things about this one when it first came out, and it won the National Book Award and a Printz honor. I wanted to like it, to understand what all the excitement was about it. But. Times have changed in the past 12 years, and I’ve changed a bit with them, and the one thing I couldn’t get past was that this felt like appropriation. I like Anderson as a writer (for the most part), but to write a slave story just felt… wrong. Yeah, he made some of the white people sufficiently awful (well, one of them anyway), but he also has a literal white savior narrative at the end of the book which really sat poorly with me. And to be honest, I lost interest. I kind of skimmed through the last third of the book, just to see what happened, but I wasn’t engaged.

And I have no interest in reading the second part. I wish I had liked this better.

Breathing Room

by Marsha Hayles
First sentence: “Father jerked the car to the side of the road and stopped.”
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Content: There are some unsettling moments and a couple of characters die. The book would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore if we had it.

I know I’m not supposed to start a post like this, but: I wasn’t terribly thrilled about reading a book about a girl with tuberculosis in the 1940s. The main character, Evvy, is shipped off to a sanatorium because she has TB and her family hopes she can be cured. And it was surprisingly engaging and actually kind of gripping. I’ve not read many sick kids books (tending toward the cancer end of them), but I was fascinated not only by the treatments used in the 1940s, but just the general mood of the book. Evvy wanted to get better, and her body was fighting her, so there was that conflict. There was a camaraderie between the girls in the ward, but they were sick, so things that were outside of their control constantly interfered in their lives. It made for a very good story.

I was also fascinated by the historical pictures that the author put at the beginning of every chapter, as well as the small details she included in the book. It wasn’t anything that slowed the story down, but it added an extra layer to the story that I didn’t expect.

It really was a good read, and one I’m glad I did.

Rebound

by Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “It was the summer when Now and Laters cost a nickel and The Fantastic Four, a buck.
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Others in the series: Crossover
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some drug dealing and stealing, but it’s all incidental to the plot. There’s a wee bit of romance. Crossover is in the Newbery section, and so I might put this one next to Booked in the Middle grade (grades 3-5 section) or I might move it to the YA section (grades 6-8) where it feels like it should go.

Even though this one is a pre-quel to Crossover, you really should read that one first.

It’s 1988 and Charlie Bell, the father of the characters in the Crossover, has just lost his father to a major heart attack. It’s the end of his 7th grade year and the loss — and the subsequent grief of both him and his mother — has put Charlie at odds with the world. He doesn’t want to deal with school or friends or his mother, even though he tries to put his father’s death out of his head; all he wants to do is sit and read his comic books. But then, he gets mixed up a bit with his friends older brother, and gets caught stealing (nothing major though), so his mom ships him off to DC to his grandparents (his father’s parents) for the summer.

It’s there that he learns how to deal with his dad’s death, and finds a passion for basketball that stays with him the rest of his life.

I’ve become a fan of Alexander’s in the years since his Newbery win, and this is no exception. It’s a lot geekier than his other books — there are comic poems, to reflect Charlie’s love of the comic book, and he’s not a suave as his kids turn out to be. But, it still has Alexander’s signature poetic style, and it tells the story of a kid coming to terms with his grief extremely well. I loved the 1980s references (throwback to high school!) and I thought Alexander handled the girl characters much better in this one (in fact, Charlie’s cousin, Roxie, is pretty amazing!).

An excellent read.

The Book of Boy

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
First sentence: “This story, like another, begins with an apple.”
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Review copy provided by the author.
Content: There is some challenging language, because it’s set in medieval times, but with the large print, short(ish) length, and illustrations, a younger kid/reluctant reader could enjoy it. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Things that surprised me about The Book of Boy: How religious it was (though I don’t know why that did; it’s set in 1350 in Italy, and religion was a huge part of everyday life), how much I didn’t mind it’s religious nature, and how charmed I was by Boy and the pilgrim he went on a quest with.

Things I’m unsure about: the speculative(ish) element of it. See, Boy is a humpback child, and was told to keep his hump covered and hidden and never touch it. He’s shunned because of this — this felt “true”, even though I don’t know if people who didn’t look whole were shunned, but that’s what stories have always led me to believe — by everyone except a wayward pilgrim on a quest to collect the relics of St. Peter. But, once on the quest, Boy discovers that his hump is not an ordinary one, which is a blessing and a curse.

Things I really enjoyed: I loved the narrative style of the book. I think Murdock caught the inner voice of this naive character, who was doing what he was supposed to, and unsure about his own future and any changes. I loved that Boy could talk to animals, and that the animals helped him when he needed it. And I really enjoyed the whole quest: there were challenges along the way, and both Boy and the pilgrim needed each other. It was very sweet and charming.

Overall, a good book.

The War That Saved My Life

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
First sentence: “‘Ada! Get back from that window!’ Mam’s voice, shouting.”
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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.

Enchantress of Numbers

by Jennifer Chiaverini
First sentence: “A piteous mewling jolts Lady Annabella Byron from her melancholy contemplation of the fire fading to embers though the evening is still young.”
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Content:

I picked this up because I think Ada Lovelace is the BEST, and there needs to be more about her. And so I was excited that Chiaverini wrote this historical fictional biography of her. Except. This wasn’t the biography I wanted.

This follows Ada Byron from her mother’s short marriage to Lord Byron through to… well… I don’t know because I didn’t finish it. I wanted to, I kind of liked what I was reading, but honestly? It wasn’t that great. It wasn’t bad. It was just long. And kind of boring. And I don’t know why I didn’t bail on it sooner. I guess I hoped it would get better. But, it didn’t, and even though I love Ada and think she’s a mathematical genius, I just didn’t like this book.

Oh, well. Can’t win them all.