Cemetery Boys

by Aiden Thomas
First sentence: “Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and some violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Yadriel is a trans Latinx boy and a member of a family of brujx. It took him a while to come out as trans, and make the transition, and as a result, some of his extended family have resisted him becoming a brujo like he was meant to be. So he decides to go through the ceremony in secret… and inadvertently raises the ghost of Julian Diaz, a kid from Yadriel’s school. Except that Julian really shouldn’t be dead. And Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing as well.

So Yadriel and Julian team up to figure out what’s going on. And in the process, Yadriel hopes that her family will accept him as a full-fledged brujo.

I liked thine one a lot. I liked it for the representation; Thomas is a transgender Latinx and I thought the traditions and language came through seamlessly. I loved the push-and-pull between Yadriel and Julian and I adored Yadriel’s cousin Maritza. I liked the mystery, even if I guessed it a bit before Thomas revealed it. And I liked that it was centered around Dia de los Muertos.

I didn’t love the chemistry between Yadrial and Julian, and the ending kind of threw me off. It was fine and all, but kind of felt like fan service rather than true to the story, but that’s just the way I reacted. It’s a really good book, and not justs for the representation.

Why Fish Don’t Exist

by Lulu Miller
First sentence: “Picture the person you love the most.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and discussion of suicide. It’s in the creative nonfiction section of the bookstore.

When this showed up on my TBR pile a year ago, I remember thinking “Ah, that’s the woman from Invisibalia. I love that podcast. I should read this.” But the pandemic started, and I didn’t, and I have a vague memory of M reading the ARC I had and kind of liking it (maybe she took that ARC because I can’t find it?) but I had forgotten about it. Until I was reminded about it by another NPR podcast — Pop Culture Happy Hour this time — and I stumbled across another copy of it at work.

I needed a break from the fantasy I’ve been reading (nothing wrong with fantasy, I was just kind of fantasy-ed out) and so I picked this one up.

I’m glad I did.

Nominally a biography of an early 20th-century scientist and taxonomist, David Starr Jones, this book is also s much more: it’s an exploration of why we do the things we do, how we face the Chaos of the world, and how one woman — Miller — attempts to make sense of it all. Miller is an excellent writer and storyteller (something I knew from the podcasts I’ve listened to) and she kept me involved and interested through all of Jordan’s ups and downs, twists and turns. It was a fascinating story, and one I didn’t know (you’ll have to read it yourself to figure out the title). Let me say this: so much of this fascinating, beautiful, crazy world does not make sense. And to try and force it to may just be missing the point.

I very much needed this little book right now, and I’m glad I picked it up.

Down Comes the Night

by Allison Saft
First sentence: “Wren had never seen a worse radial fracture.”
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Content: There is some medical gore, and some tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The neighboring countries of Danu and Vesria have been at war for centuries. So much so, that it has decimated the population, and wrecked the economies of both countries. The current queen of Danu was forced by the parliament to accept an uneasy truce, and so when soldiers on the border between the countries go missing, the uneasy truce seems ready to collapse.

Wren is the bastard niece of the queen, and all she has wanted to was to be useful. Thankfully, she has healing magic, and, because she also takes a scientific approach to medicine, she is one of the best in Danu. Unfortunately, this hasn’t really made the queen like her anymore. So after a quick series of events that leaves Wren even more on the outs with the queen, she ends up in another neighboring country (that doesn’t have magic, but has technology) commissioned to heal a patient. Except, that patient is the Reaper of Vesria, Hal Cavendish, and someone that Wren’s queen would love to capture. Which side of Wren is going to win out: the one that needs the queen’s approval, or the compassionate healer?

This one was recommended to me by a customer who shares the same taste in books as I do. And, I really enjoyed it for the most part. When I was about halfway through I described it as a cross between Leigh Bardugo and Mexican Gothic, and it was. There was good creepy plus magic, and I thought it would dissolve into full-on Gothic weird horror. But, Saft didn’t go there. There was a lot of good in the second half of the book, especially between Wren and Hal, but it pulled back and became a (admittedly good) treatise on the futility of war. Which isn’t bad. It just wasn’t what I wanted from where the first half of the book was taking me.

Even so: it’s a good book and a standalone (though I suppose we could have more adventures of Wren and Hal), which is always refreshing. A solid debut.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

by TJ Klune
First sentence: “‘Oh dear,’ Linus Baker said, wiping sweat from his brow.”
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Content: There are several mild swear words and some illusions to abuse. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section but I’d give it to any kid who doesn’t mind reading about a couple of 40-something men.

Sometimes, you hear about a book for a while before it really seeps into your head that you ought to read it. This was one of those books. I’d seen it around the store — maybe not in hardcover, but definitely in paperback in December. I have to admit it was the cover that first drew me in (well, that and hearing about it on bookish Instagram) but eventually I heard about it enough that I picked it up on a whim. (Read: I needed to shelf a couple of books and there wasn’t enough space, so I bought this one to make space. Bookseller side effects,)

The plot isn’t really what the book’s about: Linus Baker, a case worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, spends his days observing the orphanages that DICOMY has set up to take care of, well, magical youth. He observes the conditions these children are in, and makes his objective recommendations. And then he gets assigned an orphanage with highly classified children out in the middle of nowhere (on an island in the sea, actually). And once Linus has meet Arthur Parnassus, the headmaster, and his six wars, his life will never be the same.

This has all the charm of a Pratchett novel with a heavy Arthur Dent-ish vibe. It was so so so delightful, Watching Linus come out of his shell.. The children. Oh, the children. Silly, hilarious sentences, but with the underlying point: we are all children, we should all be valued for what we are rather than what society wants to see us. It’s got deep themes, but at its heart, this is a deeply, wonderfully, happy, joyful book.

And I am so so glad I finally read it.

Felix Ever After

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”
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Content: There’s some teenage drinking and pot smoking, swearing — including multiple f-bombs — and some tasteful making out. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Felix is a trans young man who is struggling. Not just with his father — who won’t say his name, just calling Felix “kid” — but fitting in at St. Catherine’s, an elite art prep school in New York City. Felix has one friend, Ezra, who is totally and completely accepting of who Felix is. However, not everyone on campus is. When one day during the summer term, an “installation” of Felix’s dead self complete with his deadname shows up, Felix is determined to find out who did that, and exact revenge. But things don’t go as planned.

I’ve not read a lot of trans fiction, especially for young adults, but I adored the way Callender handled this (one expects it would be handled beautifully, considering Callender identifies as non-binary). I adored Felix and felt his struggles to be accepted as his true self, even though he’s still kind of questioning his identity. I am glad Callender reminded readers that gender is a spectrum and perhaps labels aren’t always the best thing. But beyond that, I loved Felix and Ezra together, and the tension between Declan (who was a former boyfriend of Ezra’s) and Felix. I loved the emphasis on art, and how art can express inner feelings the way words sometimes can’t. And I still think Callender is a beautiful writer. They capture things on the page about being trans and black and queer and trying to fit into this world that doesn’t want them. It was powerful and challenging and wonderful all around.

I am definitely a fan of Callender’s now.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
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Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.

The Magic Fish

by Trun Le Nguyen
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Content: There some fairy tale-type violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

 Tiến is a first-generation American, trying to live his best life. However, he has recently come out as gay to his friends, and wants to share that with his parents. However, he doesn’t know if they understand English well enough and he doesn’t know the words in Vietnamese. His mother feels like Tiến is growing apart as he grows up, but they do still share one thing: a love of reading fairy tales. And maybe through this connection,  Tiến will find a way to share about his life.

Honestly? It was a gorgeous book. The art was spectacular, and the fairy tale retellings (three re-tellings of Cinderella-type stories) were marvelous. I liked  Tiến  and his friends and the way he tries to navigate coming out and his feelings while his mother deals with being separated from her elderly, sick mother.

However, I’m not entirely sure who this graphic novel is for. I know adults will read it and love it, as will those who enjoy fairy tale re-tellings. But, is it for the middle grade age group? Maybe? Maybe there are some 4-8th graders who will read this and see themselves, or need to read this because they lack the confidence to come out to their family. But it lacks a real plot, which most middle grade books kind of need to have.

At any rate, it’s a gorgeous book, and Nguyen is a talented artist. I will be curious to see what he does next.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

by Hank Green
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

April has died in a fire, Carl has disappeared, and the world is trying to recover. Mostly April’s friends — Maya, Miranda, and Andy — are trying to move on. And they each do in their way. That is, until they start getting a mysterious book that is telling them what to do. And from there, the plot gets really really complicated and it’s so much better not knowing too much.

And, much like the first book, this one is about more than just humans vs. alien robots. It’s about collective action, and free-will. It’s about whether or not we can stop ourselves from destroying the earth. It’s about friendship and trust and forgiveness.

And, much like the first book, it’s a delight to read. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s pretentious but not overly-so, and I think Green knows (and has thought long and hard) what he’s talking about. It’s a fun romp, and a good conclusion to the story, but it’s also a thoughtful book with a lot to discuss.

Or maybe I just really like the Green brothers. Either way: it’s a good read.

If You Could be Mine

by Sara Farizan
First sentence: “Nasrin pulled my hair when I told her I didn’t want to play with her dolls.”
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Content: There is some all of sex and drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve had this one on my backup TBR shelf for nearly six years. I’m just impressed it didn’t get given away in one of my purges!

Sahar has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she could remember. She is the only person Sahar wants to be with. Except they live in Iran and being gay — not to mention marrying someone of the same gender — is not only illegal, it’s punishable by death.

Sahar and Nasrin know this so they try to keep their deepening romance secret. That is, until Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her. To someone nearly twice her age (which is mid-30s, but still). This sends Sahar into a tailspin, and she discovers that while being gay is illegal in Iran, gender reassignment surgeries are not. So, she decides that the best way to be with Nasrin is to become a man.

While I enjoyed learning about Farizan’s take on Iranian culture and life, it was all a bit, well, convoluted. Sahar didn’t ever ask Nasrin whether she wanted her to change her gender. Sahar just assumed that’s what it would take to stop Nasrin’s wedding, and was bullheaded about going forward with it, in spite of objections from people who have gone through the reassignment surgery.

Maybe it was the lack of communication between Nasrin and Sahar that bothered me. Or the way Nasrin treated Sahar. It really wasn’t a healthy relationship. And I’m glad (kind of spoilers) that Sahar was finally able to let Nasrin go while staying true to who she really is.

It wasn’t a great book, but I finished it. So it wasn’t horrible either.