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by John David Anderson
First sentence: “I push my way through the buzzing mom and freeze.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some bullying and some mild swearing. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, though it’s probably better for the upper end of that age range.

Eric Voss has found his “tribe”, the people in middle school that he would literally die for. There’s four of them, all of them with nicknames — Wolf, the piano prodigy whose nickname comes from Mozart; DeeDee, an Indian fantasy nerd, whose nickname comes from (you guessed it) D&D; and Bench, who gets his nickname from, well, sitting on the bench on all the sports teams he’s on. Eric himself is Frost, because he wrote an award-wining poem in 5th grade. He doesn’t mind. Frost (he goes by his nickname mostly in the book; they all do) thinks everything is good, until three things happen: 1) the school administration bans cell phones; 2) sticking post-it notes on lockers/walls/people becomes a Thing; and 3) Rose moves in and joins Frost’s “tribe”, at the invitation of Wolf and over the protestations of Bench. Then everything comes to a head, and Frost is left wondering who his real friends are.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s an engrossing one. I loved that Anderson caught the angst of middle school, the challenge it is to be the New Kid in the school, and the real desire to, well, fit in with everyone. I liked that the post-it phenomena when viral, and then turned negative, as many things often do. I liked that it was, ultimately, about friendship and fitting in, but there were also side issues like dealing with conflicts at home and how we perceive each other.

I’ve really liked both of  Anderson’s realistic fiction books; he’s got some chops. Definitely worth reading.

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Mask of Shadows

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: “The thick, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 29, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, one f-bomb, and lots of violence. I’m pretty sure it’s okay in the YA section (grades 6-8), though with a caveat for younger, more sensitive readers.

Sal Leon is  many things: a refugee from a war, of which they were the only survivor of their people. A thief. Ambitious. Reckless. And set on revenge for the lords who were responsible for the razing of their land. So when they come into the possession of an audition poster for the Queen’s Left Hand — a group of highly trained assassins in the service of the queen — Sal decides to take the chance. But little do they know that the trial is to the death, and that there will be many obstacles in their way.

Okay, so writing Sal as a they is a bit awkward, but since Sal is gender fluid — sometimes a she, sometimes a he, and sometimes a they, as Sal puts it — it makes it kind of difficult to describe. And yet, while the gender fluidity was part of the story (Sal was often annoyed when people didn’t get their gender; they did what they could to help people “get” it, but some characters were willfully obtuse), it wasn’t the whole story. There was so much more to love about the book.  Miller has a fantastic grasp of world building, giving us enough information to help us understand the world, but not going into long tangents about the history (though there is one attached at the end, if the reader is interested). There was magic in the world, but that was banished, which leaves for some intriguing subplots (and maybe some more exploration in the sequel?), but mostly this is a straight up survival book: Sal needs to survive the trials and become the new assassin if they want to enact revenge. It’s written in first person, and Sal’s life/head is a good place to be: they are smart, intuitive and a creative survivor. The book is also populated with a lot of fantastic secondary characters, from the servant Sal gets when they join the trials to the other members of the Left Hand. It’s a brutal book: in a trial to the death, there is bound to be people killed that the reader cares about. All that gives it heft, though, and shows that Miller’s not afraid to tell the story that needs to be told.

An excellent debut novel, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Felix Yz

by Lisa Bunker
First sentence: “I almost talked to Hector today.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 6, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s handling some more mature themes, so is probably not appropriate for the younger set (but you know your own kid). It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section, but it might do better in the YA (grades 6-8).

When Feliz was three, his father was doing experiments and, well, accidentally fused Feliz to a fourth-dimensional alien. Unfortunately, his father died in the process, but Felix and his alien, whom he ended up calling *zyxilef, or Zyx for short were left to figure out an existence together.

Which they have for ten years. But, things are getting harder for Felix, and he will die if they stay fused. So, his family — Mom, Grandy (his gender fluid grandparent), and sister Beatrix — has talked to researchers who have decided that the only way is to de-fuse Felix and Zyx. The only problem: Felix might die.

The book is Felix’s “secret” blog: a history of how he was fused, what life with Zyx is like (alternately good and kind of tough), and his hopes and fears for the future.

On the one hand, this gets bonus points for progressiveness: a genderfluid and a bisexual supporting character, plus a gay main character. I loved the new invented pronouns to talk about Grandy (“vo, ven, veirs, veinself”). I enjoyed Felix’s voice, even though he was often petulant. But then again, what 13 year old isn’t? It was lacking in the action department, and I didn’t feel Felix’s anxiety for his life as much as I thought I could. But it wasn’t a bad book, and I did enjoy many aspects of it. Even if it’s not perfect.

A Conjuring of Light

by V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “Delilah Bard – always a thief, recently a magician, and one day, hopefully, a pirate — was running as fast as she could.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows
Content: Swearing (including f-bombs) and violence mostly. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the other two, obviously.

When I finished the second book, I told one of my co-workers, who is also in love with this series, that I wasn’t as happy with the second book. But, I said, it’s a middle book in a trilogy. I bet (I hope!) the third will be great.

And it is.

One of the Antari (those are blood magicians, of which there are only three… now…), Holland, has unleashed a bit of sentient magic on the Londons. It came from Black London (and it’s Kell’s fault as well, thinking Holland was dead and pushing him into Black London), and it’s possessed Holland and taken over White London. And now it — Osaran is its name — has it’s sights on Red London. And maybe even Gray. And it’s up to Kell, Lilah, Rhy, and everyone, really, to stop it. If it CAN be stopped.

It’s a long book — 600 pages — but it flies by, and Schwab spares no one. It’s vicious and emotional and heartbreaking and exciting. It’s just a sweeping epic story, (mostly) well-told, and definitely one I’d recommend.

 

We Are Okay

weareokayby Nina LaCour
First sentence: “Before Hannah left, she asked if I was sure I’d be okay.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 14, 2017
Review copy sent by the publisher’s rep, who is my favorite.
Content: There’s one f-bomb, some inferences to sex and a scene where the main character gets drunk. It’ll be in the Teen Section (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

I know from the outset that I’m not going to do this book justice. Partially because the plot is simple: it’s Christmas break, and college freshman Marin doesn’t want to go home for lots of reasons. The chief one being that right before she left for college, her grandfather — her only living family — died. So her best friend (the one who has been texting and calling and Marin’s not answering) comes to see her. And over the next few days before Christmas, and through a series of flashbacks, we find out the depths of Marin’s grief.

Which is really what this book is “about”: the varied ways we all deal with loss, heartbreak, lonliness, and grief. Some ways are healthier than others. Some have friends who are willing to put in the work to rescue them. And sometimes, distance and time can be both the best and the worst thing.

And LaCour gets all those difficult emotions beautifully. The story unfolds bit by bit, giving us small slices at a time, until we see the whole, heartbreaking picture. It’s a remarkable moment, one which brought tears to my eye. And it’s a universal feeling: we have all wanted to be loved, we have all had heartbreak, we have all had grief and been lonely. It’s beautiful and moving and heartbreaking all at once.

Perfect.

Proxy

proxyby Alex London
First sentence: “Even a perfect machine wasn’t built to go this fast.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot of violence, including several deaths that, while not graphic, are a bit shocking. There’s also some futuristic drug use. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

In this vision of the future, there are those who have and those who have not. Syd is one of those who have not; in order to pay for the debt in incurred by being alive, he was forced to become a proxy for the child of a rich man. It works like this: the rich man takes on Syd’s debt, and in return, Syd takes on the punishments every time the child — Knox — gets in trouble. Seems fair, right? Except, it’s not that simple. It’s people’s lives they’re casually playing with, and Knox is exceptionally reckless. And when he accidentally kills a girl and Syd is condemned to die, Syd’s had enough: he’s going to escape this hellhole. But things aren’t as straight-forward as Syd thinks, either. And soon, Syd and Knox are on the run from a lot of people, and end up way over their heads.

I liked this one. It’s a smart vision of the future — dystopian, yes, but it’s the capitalistic system that’s become the cruel overlord rather than the government. He’s playing with class and debt and the relationships between the two. There’s a bit of chosen-one-ness going on here as well, but I thought London resolved it in a unexpected way. He definitely kept me turning pages, and I found that even the more annoying characters (Knox…) had layers to them. I hadn’t read anything by London before, and this was a great starting place.

And the best thing? I don’t have to wait for the sequel to come out!

The Best Man

bestmanby Richard Peck
First sentence: “Boys aren’t too interested in weddings.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There’s some bullying and it’s not really action-heavy. But I’d give it to a 4th grader and up. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Archer Magill is just trying to figure things out. As a 5th (and then 6th) grader, he’s kind of clueless. About girls, about friends, about life. And so, he’s looking for role models and he’s found three: his dad (who’s a really great dad), his grandpa (who’s pretty awesome), his Uncle Paul (who’s incredibly cool). And then, a student teacher, Mr. McLeod comes into his life.

Actually, this isn’t a book about an awesome male teacher, thank heavens. Event though there’s an awesome male teacher. No, it’s more about Life, and Figuring Things Out, and Friendship. And how other people’s lives intersect with ours. And the Chicago Cubs.  It’s a Slice of Life novel, one that is full of charming characters and a great family. And one that, refreshingly, treats a LGBT relationship as something that’s to be celebrated. No, our main character isn’t gay, it’s not a coming out book for kids. There’s no angst in this book. It’s a story where the LGBT relationship is a part of who the people are, and that’s okay.

It’s a funny, sweet, refreshingly charming novel, and I adored it.