The Fountains of Silence

by Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “They stand in line for blood.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 1, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, and some talk of sexual assault and affairs. It will probably be in the Teen section (grades 9+) for more “mature” themes than the YA section usually holds.

The one thing that Sepetys does better than any other person writing historical fiction out there is finding the stories underneath the major events, and focusing in on what the decisions of dictators – in this case, General Francisco Franco of Spain — have done to ordinary people. (Well, she did write one book that didn’t head in that direction, but go with me here.) She looks at the lives of the peasants — in this case Ana and her siblings, who were children of people involved in the resistance during the Spanish Civil War — and how the strict rules and the fear effect their daily lives.

It’s 1957, and Ana has gotten a job at the Castellana Hilton, a posh hotel that has opened up in hopes that Americans will go to Madrid on vacation. One such American is Daniel, the son of a Dallas oil tycoon, who would much rather be a photojournalist than go into the oil business. They strike up a friendship (romance?) as David looks into the hidden worlds under then shine that is the Castellana Hilton.

There’s more going on than that in this book: Sepetys touches on the kidnapping of children — the government would take newborns away from parents, and tell them that their children had died soon after birth — and on the general fear that the Guardia Civil inspired in the population. It’s a lot for one book, but Sepetys handles it all without letting it overwhelm the more personal stories of the book.

Very highly recommended, like all of her books.

The Peacock Emporium

by Jojo Moyes
First sentence: “It was the third time in a week that the air-conditioning had gone out at the Hospital de Clinicas, and the heat was so heavy that the nurses had taken to holding battery-operated plastic fans over the intensive-care patients in an effort to keep them cool.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including f-bombs, and some talk of sex. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this is kind of hard to describe. It’s a mother-daughter story — Suzanna has always lived with the shadow of her mother’s flighty-ness; she left Suzanna’s dad and ran off with a salesman, and then died shortly thereafter. And it’s about class — because of her mother, and long memories of the town, Suzanna’s always felt like an outsider in her privileged English family. It’s about relationships and choices: Suzanna’s husband, Nick, has been on her case to have a baby, which she’s not happy about. It’s about friendship: Opening up her “Peacock Emporium” in the small town where she grew up, Suzanna makes a good friend in Jessie, and discovers what it Means To Live. And it’s about new love: Argentinian Alejandro moves to town and Suzanna realizes that maybe she’s been with the wrong man for 10 years.

I didn’t dislike it; I finished it, after all. And Moyes is a good writer. This one kept jumping back and forth in time, which made it kind of difficult to tell ages and time periods, but I didn’t mind it all too much. I didn’t love it, though. I guess nothing happened for most of the book, and then everything came down in the last 100 pages and maybe it felt rushed? I’m not entirely sure. I read this in bits and pieces over several months, which also may have contributed to me not really getting into the book.

Or maybe it’s just that adult fiction, sometimes, just doesn’t do things as well as it could. Not the best book out there, but not the worst either.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “These clouds are a concrete wall!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 27, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s kind of hard to tell imagination from reality and the print is a bit on the small side for a middle grade book. It’ll be in the middle grade section of the bookstore, but I’d give it mostly to 5-6th graders.

Ebony-Grace lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her mom and grandpa, who works at the NASA space center. He’s only an engineer — there’s no black astronauts in 1984 — but he inspires Ebony Grace. They have their own imaginary world, where he is Captain Fleet and she is Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and the go on Star Trek-inspired adventures throughout space. Except, now Ebony is being sent to her father’s in Harlem, which seems like a whole new planet — she dubs it No Joke City — with a whole bunch of “nefarious minions” that she can’t quite figure out. It doesn’t help that the friend she made last time she was in Harlem (three years ago!), Bianca, has moved on from space adventure games and is now jumping Double Dutch, breakdancing, and rapping with her crew, the Nine Flavas. Ebony has no idea how to fit in and just wants to go home.

On the one hand, this is a fun bit of historical fiction and I appreciated a geek girl main character. I loved that Ebony was super into space and science fiction and super knowledgeable about it. It was nice to see a Black girl be into something that is usually reserved for white boys. So yay for that! And I could relate to Ebony’s feeling of otherness, coming from the South and going to the north. I moved to Michigan from Utah right before 6th grade, and felt a lot of the same sense of outsiderness. I talked funny, I didn’t understand the lingo, and it didn’t help that I hadn’t really listened to the radio (like ever: I mostly listened to my parents records). This one will really resonate with kids who feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

What I didn’t like — what I reacted really viscerally and negatively to — were the adults in the book. I think they’re historically accurate: Ebony’s mom is more concerned with the way Ebony looks and that she’s polite and obedient to her elders, and her father isn’t much better. But I wanted to shake them all. They have a girl who is interested in SPACE! Why are they calling her crazy and telling her she needs to stop with the nonsense?!? Just because she’s a girl?!? The rampant sexism (again: historically accurate) drove me absolutely nuts. And it trickled down to the kids that Ebony met as well: they “grew up” and cared for more “grown up” things — clothes, boys, competitions, and I was so angry that they kept calling Ebony crazy and stupid for liking the things she liked.

I also had issues with the ending — Ebony never finds out what happens to her grandfather who gets in a bit of trouble off-screen and then suddenly dies (WTH?!) — but it’s a middle grade novel, so I can forgive that.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure what to feel about this book. I want to recommend it, because I like Zoboi and I like the idea of a geeky Black girl. I just may not be able to get past my anger at the adults.

Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some talk about sex, as well as off-screen sex; domestic abuse, and an attempted rape scene. There is also some mild language. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

My co-workers have been raving about this for months, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. A long drive home from Texas seemed just the time to give it ago.

It’s nominally the story of Kya, a girl who grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother and siblings all abandoned her to her father when she was seven. She basically raised herself, especially after her father left three years later. With some help from the African American community, she basically figured things out on her own. She did have one friend, Tate, who taught her to read and encouraged her in her scientific studies — she was basically self-educated, but also highly observant — of the marshlands. And then Tate left to go to college and didn’t come back.

It’s also a bit of a murder mystery. The bright young star in town, Chase Andrews, is found dead by the fire tower. And all signs point to Kya as the murderer. The question was: did she do it, or was she framed?

It’s a gorgeously written book, full of details about the natural world, and the narrator was marvelous. I was spellbound most of the way through the book. But I think I was more invested in the murder mystery part of that, because it was left without a tidy resolution. (Ah, adult fiction being so true to life.) I liked the characters, but it really was Owens’ storytelling that drew me in (and the narrator’s reading!) and kept me hooked in this book.

A really excellent read.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

by Mackenzi Lee
First sentence: “I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Content: There was some mild swearing and some frank depictions of 18th century medicine. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, because that’s where Gentleman’s Guide is.

First off: you don’t have to read Gentleman’s Guide before reading this one, though it will probably help with some small references, and with knowing who the characters are.

It’s been a while since Felicity has come back from her “tour” with her brother and his now-boyfriend, Percy. She decided that instead of going back to her parents, she would rather try her hand at getting into a medical school in Edinburgh. However, that didn’t go well. At all. For all the reasons you can guess: she’s a woman, women are inferior, why don’t you go play with the midwives, honey? So when this man she has befriended, the Callum of the opening sentence, proposes, Felicity panics and heads back to London. Where, through a series of chance encounters (and some standing up for herself), she ends up on a trip to Stuttgart in the company of a less-than-trustworthy woman, to attend the wedding of her former best friend.

Of course, adventures ensue. Felicity and the other women — Sim, who turns out to be a pirate princess, and Johanna, the daughter of a naturalist — have to fight (both literally and figuratively) for their right to be heard, to be understood, to be listened to. And, along they way they learn a bit about themselves.

I adored this one (as much as Gentleman’s Guide, which means it wasn’t all the narrator with that one). I loved that Lee got in many different kinds of women, and several different feminist points (you can, in fact, loves clothes AND science!). I loved that Felicity was asexual, and was okay with that. She thought maybe she worked differently from other people, but that was okay with her. I loved that the girls all ended up as friends (even though Sim has a bit of a crush on Felicity), and that there wasn’t a romance in the plot. I loved that Lee gave us some feisty and fierce historical girls, who were willing to blaze paths and be unapologetic about making the world a better place.

A very excellent read.

Audio book: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentlemansguide

by Mackenzi Lee
Read by Christian Coulson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing and a lot of drinking and some allusions to sex, including one mostly nude scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The only thing Henry “Monty” Montague wants is to go on his Tour of the continent with his best friend Percy. Sure, there are complications, the big one being is that Monty has a secret crush on Percy. That, and his father has given him an ultimatum: go have a supervised year on the continent and then come back, settle down and run the estate. None of which Monty wants.

However, the year doesn’t go the way that Monty expect. After a disastrous escapade at Versailles, in which Monty steals what he thinks is a simple trinket box, things go away. Monty, his sister Felicity, and Percy find themselves on the run from highway men. And it just goes downhill from there. Full of twists and turns as our fair adventurers try to find out exactly what that box Monty stole was, and then figure out their way home.

Oh, heavens, this is so much fun! Perhaps this was one that I liked because I listened to it, because Coulson was a fabulous narrator. I appreciated that he didn’t make Felicity overly “girly” (because she’s not; let’s hear it for 18th century girls who want to be doctors!) and I adored all the French accents. I loved Monty’s growth arc; he was a douche in the beginning, but as the layers peeled away, I began to understand just why Monty was the way he was. And Percy, even if he was a little overly long-suffering, was sweet and adorable, and I ended up loving him as much as Monty did.

There were some darker parts of it; Lee doesn’t gloss over the racism inherent in 18th century society (Percy’s half black and always mistaken for Monty’s servant/slave) and the prejudice against gay people. It grounds the silliness and over-the-top-ness in the book, giving it a darker edge.

But really, this is just a trip and a half, and definitely worth the read/listen!

Sweep

sweepby Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “There were all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some scary moments, and some talk of death. Plus the prose just feels “older”. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it could easily go older as well.

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep her whole life. She started out with a man she called Sweep, until one day he just didn’t come back, and so she took up with her current master, Crudd. He, if you can’t tell from his name, isn’t terribly nice.

Then one day, the worst thing that can happen to a sweep happens to Nan: she gets stuck. They try to get her out, but nothing works, and so they try the Final Option: burning her out. She blacks out, and when she wakes up… she’s rescued. And there’s a creature there. She ends up calling him Charlie — he was made from a small piece of char that the Sweep left her — and it turns out he’s a golem.

It has a tough beginning, but after Charlie comes into the story, it settles down into small adventures: Nan tries to keep from getting caught — she is supposed to be dead, after all — and tires to find out more about Charlie and his purpose as Charlie himself learns more about the world. It’s very atmospheric (in all the best ways), as Nan and Charlie end up relying on each other. There is a couple of small sub-plots, dealing with the horrid conditions of chimney sweeps in Victorian England (and they are horrid) and with Crudd’s vengeance for Nan “escaping” her indenture. But, mostly it’s a charming little tale of Nan and Charlie and their friendship.

Auxier, when he was here for school visits, said that he considers himself more of a storyteller than a writer, and that shows: although his writing is elegant, it’s the storytelling that comes through. He knows how to tell a story to keep a reader reading, and to make the characters come to life. It’s a strange, sweet story and I adored every moment of this one (even the ending, which made me cry).

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