Summer of Salt

summerofsaltby Katrina Leno
First sentence: “On the island of By-the-Sea you could always smell two things: salt and magic.”
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Content: Lots and lots and lots of swearing, including f-bombs (which seemed really out of place to me; I don’t know why) and some teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Georgianna and Mary are twins that have grown up on the island By-the-Sea, daughters of the Fernweh line of women who have, well, magic. It usually manifests at birth, but sometimes takes longer. One of their great-grandmothers, Annabella, has turned into a bird, and comes back every summer to nest and attempt to hatch babies. Except this year.

This is the year that Georgianna and Mary turn 18, the summer before they are destined to leave the island. And everything seems to be going wrong. It won’t stop raining. Mary’s acting strange. And Annabella hasn’t shown up. And Georgianna’s magic won’t manifest itself.

This was an odd book — more magical realism than anything else — but I found myself enjoying it. I loved the matriarchal family, I loved the little island and it’s support of the weirdness that is the Fernweh women. I loved the magic, and now ordinary it was. And I just enjoyed the way Leno told the story.

It was all very charming.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

by Hank Green
First sentence: “Look, I am aware that you’re here for an epic tale of intrigue and mystery and adventure and near death and actual death, but in order to get to that (unless you want to skip to chapter 13–I’m not your boss) you’re going to have to deal with the fact that I, April May, in addition to being one of the most important things that has ever happened to the human race, am also a woman in her twenties who has made some mistakes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but a high school student who was interested could definitely read this one.

April May is just living her life — and not really her best one, at all — when she stumbles upon a… thing… in Manhattan at three a.m. She has enough presence of mind to grab her filmmaker friend and upload a video about the phenomenon that will come to be known as The Carls, which shoots April into the world of the famous. She  is at the forefront of everything Carl-related: TV stations want interviews, her YouTube and Twitter followers skyrocket. And, yet, no one knows what the Carls really want.

Soon, April is experiencing the darker side of fame: There are factions out there that want to defend the world from The Carls, and see April as a traitor for being a “spokesperson” for them. And it doesn’t help that April keeps burning the bridges between her and everyone in her life that cares about her.

There are two ways you can read this book:

1) as a straight-up science fiction story. And, to be honest, it kind of lacks on this level. It’s not really a great plot; you only find out what The Carls are up to at the end of the book, and it turns out to be rather anti-climatic. April is a questionable human being, more concerned about her own fame than the lives or feelings of the people around her (though I do wonder if I’d feel the same way if Green wrote April as a man). There’s a bit of action, but not much; it’s mostly talk about coding and uploading videos and dealing with people.

2) as an exploration of what fame can do to a “regular” person. This is where I thought the book actually worked. If you know anything about Green (one half of the Vlogbrothers, etc.), it seems that he is coming to terms with the way fame works, especially in the era of social media, and how that affects people. I found that part of the book to be fascinating; how the masses glom on to someone — anyone really — who says things we like (or don’t) and by the sheer force of numbers make that person famous. And how that fame — and the money advertisers and corporations and “news” stations are willing to throw at them — ultimately changes a person. It was an interesting exploration into April’s psyche and the ups and downs of fame.

An interesting read, in the end.

Flocks

by L. Nichols
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and two f-bombs, plus some drinking and self harm and illusions to sex. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ll be up front: Nichols is a transgender man who was assigned female at birth in Louisiana and raised in a very religious Southern Baptist family.This is his story.

It’s not just a story of feeling out of place in a religious society — he tried very very hard to pray the gay away from the time he was young — but also feeling out of place in his own body. The only place he felt at home and at peace was in nature. He graduated from high school and went to MIT (the first in his family to go to college) where the sense of displacement both increased and decreased. Decreased because he was among friends who accepted him and cared about him for who he was; increased because he loathed his body — he began cutting himself — and couldn’t figure out why (that is, until he had a realization that it was because he wasn’t male enough). It’s a very personal story, as one would expect from a memoir, but one that raises some interesting questions about religion and community.

I loved Nichols’ art as well. Everyone is drawn fairly realistically except him, and he’s in this doll-esque shape, which I loved because it allowed him to not only be the gender he was assigned at birth (while simultaneously demonstrating his obvious discomfort with himself) but it allows the reader to empathize more with him as a character. It’s quite clever, and I loved it.

I also loved that this made me think, not just about trans people, but about how communities include and exclude others and the benefits and disadvantages of that. I appreciated his (inadvertent) critique of religion vs. God and it made me want to be more open and kind to others. We’re all struggling here, why add hate to the pile?

Excellent.

Ruin of Stars

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: ”
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Others in the series: Mask of Shadows
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of violence (but not overly graphic) and one tasteful sex scene (that’s more implied than anything). It’s still in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m thinking about moving it.

When we left Sal, they had  just become part of the Queen of Igna’s right hand, taking up the mantle of Opal. But, since that moment, Igna is facing imminent war. Their neighbor, Erland — they of the restrictive gender norms and constricting policies, they who also wiped out Sal’s birth land — has invaded Igna, taking back some of the land they lost in the war ten years earlier. And Sal has  been asked to put a stop to all this by killing Erland’s leader and those who conspired against Igna. It’s easy for Sal to take this assignment: the names of the people coincide with the names on their list of people to exact revenge for wiping out their home and family.

The problem? The cost that assassinating these people and stopping the war is extremely high: costing Sal their friends, their love, and possibly their life.

This is a fantastic end to Sal’s story. Seriously. Miller’s got pacing and writes action incredibly well. I found myself getting anxious for Sal and their mission as I went through the book. I still think that Miller handled the fluidity incredibly well; it was part of the plot in that Erland’s culture was incredibly homophobic and suppressed anything that didn’t buy into traditional gender norms, and Miller was a bit heavy-handed with letting readers know that this was part of the reason Erland was the “bad” guys (though she makes a much more compelling case for readers to dislike people — or at least those in charge — from Erland later), but she settled into the plot and the book went super fast.

Incredibly exciting, and I really loved the ending. A strong series.

Audio book: Leah on the Offbeat

by Becky Albertalli
Read by Shannon Purser
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content:  There’s a LOT of swearing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This is being billed as a sequel to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and it is, kindof, but I don’t think you need to have read that one to enjoy this one. Sure, there’s some little Easter eggs for those who have, but this — first and foremost — is Leah Burke’s story. And 1) because they’re all seniors now and 2) the book is through Leah’s eyes, this is a lot more angsty than I was expecting from this world.

The basic plot is this: it’s near the end of senior year, and everyone — Simon and Bram, Nick and Abby, etc. — is happy. Except Leah. She identifies as bi, and has a raging crush on Abby, which of course is unrequited because 1) Nick’s girlfriend and 2) Abby’s straight. But after Abby breaks up with Nick right before prom and then kisses Leah on a trip to the University of Georgia (where they’re both going in the fall), Leah’s not quite so sure. About anything.

It’s a lot of ups and downs and angst and friendships falling apart, but I think Albertalli got the uncertainty of the second half of senior year, when everything is just about to change and be different. It’s a tough time (change is always tough), and I think Albertalli caught that in Leah’s story. And I really enjoyed the narrator, as well. She got Leah’s voice down — kind of that apathetic, sarcastic front for someone who feels deeply but who doesn’t want to share — and I found it didn’t really matter that she didn’t do voices for the other characters. It made sense: this is Leah’s story, and keeping the focus on Leah’s voice was something I respected.

I didn’t like this as much as I did Simon, but I did like it.

The Prince and the Dressmaker

by Jen Wang
First sentence: “The prince is holding a ball!”
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Content: There are some more mature themes, and it’s in the teen graphic novel/graphic novel section of the bookstore, but I think if there was a 4/5th grader who was interested in the subject, they could certainly read it.

Frances is a dressmaker in Paris in around the turn of the 20th century. She works for a tailor, but has dreams of creating her own fashion line, if only she can meet the right people. When she designs a dress for a client for the prince’s ball celebrating his 16th birthday, it captures the attention of a mysterious patron. Frances jumps at the offer: it’s her chance to get noticed.

The mysterious patron turns out to be the prince himself, who has a secret he keeps from everyone except Frances: he likes to wear dresses and wants Frances to make it possible for him to go out in public. He becomes his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia, who, dressed in Frances’s creations, becomes the talk of the town. This, however creates a conflict: Frances wants credit for her designs, but Prince Sebastian is afraid of what his family and his people are going to think if they discover that he is Lady Crystallia.

I’m actually not sure if this fits under the LGBT umbrella, since Sebastian is actually attracted to Frances (I thought for a long time that he was gay, since he wasn’t interested in any of the girls that his parents were proposing he marry), but the ending is ambiguous (aside from a couple of kisses), so maybe it does? It does fall under the “let people be themselves” umbrella. Setting it in the late 19th century, Wang heightens society’s disapproval of someone breaking gender norms, which is really the point. Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should it matter who he is attracted to? Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should that affect how he relates to those around him or even, eventually, govern? Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should that make him less of a person? The ending is a bit too quick for me: initially everyone rejects Sebastian, but they come around pretty quickly (or maybe lots of time passed and I just missed it because it was a graphic novel)…

Wang’s art is charming, as always, and I found the book, overall, to be a delight to read.

Arrows of the Queen

by Mercedes Lackey
First sentence: “A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though, to be honest, you’ll probably have to buy it used.)
Content: There is some violence, and some (tasteful) attempted sex. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Talia is a young, sheltered girl in a Holding that is super patriarchal, giving all the power to men and making women either wives or nuns in service to the Goddess. But Talia dreams of something more: she wants to be a Queen’s Herald. She’s secretly read tales of the Heralds, with the horse-Companions and the adventures, and longs to be one of them. She has no idea how one becomes a Herald, but when she turns 13 and her elders start talking about marrying her off, she runs off. And is chosen by one of the Companions, Roland. From there, Talia is thrust into a whole new world, one of classes and work and acceptance and challenges and friends. At first, she is hesitant, but as the months and (eventually) years go on, she becomes more confident with her role not only as a Herald, but as the Queen’s Own.

I’ve read Lackey before, but not in a while, and not very much. I like her style, though there seems to be a lot more exposition than either action or dialogue. Perhaps that was part of the style when this was written in 1987, but it did drag the story down. That, and Talia was super perfect. I liked her — I mean you have to be heartless if you don’t — but she wasn’t the most interesting character. She was always stalwart, always likable, and always had the answers to her problems. It got old pretty quickly.

Even so, I liked her adventures and the world that Lackey built, and I’m not sorry I dipped into this one.