Crownchasers

by Rebecca Coffindaffer
First sentence: “The Otari came here to die.”
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Release date: September 29, 2020
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence, mild swearing, and about four f-bombs. It will be in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Captain Alyssa Farshot has everything she needs: a worldship, a membership in the Explorer’s guild, and space. And her engineer/trusty sidekick Hell Monkey. But when her Uncle Atar — who happens to be the Emperor of the thousand planets in this universe — suddenly and unexpectedly dies, Alyssa (and Hell Monkey) finds herself a crownchaser, along with other nominees from the prime families, searching for the seal that will make her empress.

Except she doesn’t want it. And the whole chase becomes more deadly than anyone expected.

That’s the basic plot, but that’s not really a great pitch for this book. How about this: Alyssa is a sarcastic, fearless pilot who has a heart of gold and is willing to go to any lengths for her friends. I loved how Coffindaffer told this story, interspersed with flashbacks to explain the relationships Alyssa has with the other characters in the book. They’re placed at just the right moments, and give the narrative a depth I wasn’t expecting. I adored Alyssa (shoot, I adored all the characters) and the way she just threw herself headfirst into everything she did.

I loved the tone of the book; it didn’t take itself too seriously but also managed to give weight to a couple of ideas (like representation for all, and the inherent classism in the worlds’ systems). It was a perfect balance and kept me turning pages.

An excellent debut novel.

Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving now distraction from the great rocking thump-thump-thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Gideon the Ninth
Content: It’s violent, brutal, and doesn’t mince swear words. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There really is no way to mention the plot without spoiling it; truly the less you know about Harrow going in, the better it will be. Trust me.

Know this: Harrow has been made a Lyctor. The first three-fourth of the book will have you questioning your sanity and wonder what the hell Muir is up to. Stick with it. It is not uninteresting, and Muir will keep you guessing and wondering. The final fourth makes up for everything that went before.

It is awesome and amazing and I can’t wait to see how Muir ends this all.

Audio book: You Should See Me in a Crown

by Leah Johnson
Read by Alaska Jackson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some bullying, a race and homophobic-centered hate crime, and one f-bomb. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Liz Lighty has kept her head down through all of high school, avoiding crowds, avoiding any sort of drama. Which isn’t easy in Campbell, Indiana because she is one of only a handful of black kids in the school (and town). But when she doesn’t get a scholarship to the college of her choice, she decides to enter the competition for Prom Queen, since winning that comes with a scholarship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s thrust into the limelight, where she isn’t comfortable.

But there are good things that come out of running for prom queen, too. Like re-kindling her friendship with Jordan, whom she fell out with their freshman year. And the new girl, Mack, who is smart and funny, and whom Liz might just have more than a little crush on.

Oh, this was such a delight to listen to! The narrator is perfect for the book, pulling me in with Liz’s voice and just keeping me there. And Johnson balanced some heavy topics: like a mom who died from sickle cell anemia, as well as the idea of popularity, and overt and covert racism and homophobia. But it’s never an “issue” book. It’s centered in Black joy and excellence, and is just a delight every step of the way. Plus the love story is super super cute. So much cute.

It was exactly the thing I needed and I’m so happy I listened to it.

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
Support your local independent bookstore: buy the book there!
Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Audiobook: Over the Top

by Jonathan Van Ness
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: Jonathan has not lived a PG-13 life, and his book reflects that. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

Much like Tan France’s memoir, I listened this for the sheer pleasure of getting to “know” another person’s story. Jonathan grew up in Qunicey, Illinois, as one of the few out gay people in the town (as he said: “Hunny, I was never in!”). It wasn’t easy. He’d experienced sexual abuse at a young age at the hands of a family friend, and spent most of his childhood and 20s trying to suppress the shame and trauma that came along with that abuse. It doesn’t make for a light, fluffy, fun book, but that’s the point. JVN is known on Queer Eye for being the positive, optimistic one, and he sets out in this book to share all the parts of himself with us. Part of that is bubbly and optimistic, but there’s a lot that isn’t. He’s been through a lot. And I’m glad he’s talking about it.

He was absolutely delightful as a narrator, as well. I liked that he made himself giggle at times and that his voice was choked with emotion at other times (the death of his stepdad, whom he loved, was particularly hard). It’s a very personal story, and I’m glad I chose to experience it in this personal way.

It’s not high literature, but I never expected it to be. It is engaging and entertaining and enlightening, though. And I loved it for those reasons.

The Midnight Lie

by Marie Rutkoski
First sentence: “There were warning signs in the War that day that anyone could have seen.”
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Content: There is a lot of emotional abuse and some physical abuse. There is off-screen sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but it’s probably better for the older end of the range (depending on the kid).

Nirrim has grown up as an orphan in the Ward, a place on this remote island where they stick the lowest caste, the Half-Kith. She works for Raven, both in Raven’s tavern and as a forger of passports for Half-Kith to escape the Ward. Then, one day, a rare bird is sighted in the Ward, which Nirrim catches and turns in. Which gets her arrested and thrown in jail to be tithed (they take the blood of the Half-Kith), which is where she meets Sid. And her life completely changes.

The plot is a bit convoluted to get into, but it involves gods and magic and Nirrim waking up to her situation and acting for change. The book is more character and inner-dialogue driven than plot-driven, but it worked for me. Rutoski has written a beautifully worded book (it reminded me of Laini Taylor’s work), that drew me in and kept me turning pages, even when it felt like nothing was happening.

And the love story is gorgeous as well. I enjoyed the push and pull between Sid and Nirrim, how they bring out the best in each other. Though one word of warning: it’s a first book (though it reads like a stand alone) and knowing that may cushion the blow of the brutal ending.

Definitely worth reading.

The Gravity of Us

by Phil Stamper
First sentence: “At home, I’m invisible.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a bunch of swearing, including a dozen or so f-bombs, as well as some teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Cal has a decent life in Brooklyn: he lives upstairs from his best friend, Deb. He has a goal in life for after his senior year. He’s got a following on FlashFame, a social media app. The only downer: his parents constantly fight, mostly about his dad applying to be a pilot for one of NASA’s missions to Mars. Which means, if he gets it — and he does — they’ll have to relocate to Houston. Which is something neither Cal or his mom wants.

But once they get to Houston, Call meets Leon, the son of another astronaut. And there’s some instant attraction. Like loads of it. Enough that maybe Cal might change his mind about wanting to go back to Brooklyn.

There’s more to the story than that. There’s tension between Cal’s FlashFame celebrity and StarWatch, a network that is supposed to have unlimited access to the astronauts and their families. And there’s some uncertainty about whether or not the program will, in fact, go forward.

I thought this was a sweet book. I liked the merging of a retro-60s feel with the astronauts and the space program; we don’t really get excited about astronauts going into space anymore, and maybe we’ve lost something by not caring more about space. I liked that Stamper balanced the astronaut story with the story about journalistic ethics and a very cute gay love story. I really liked Cal and Leon and how their relationship developed.

It was a charming read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Stamper writes next.

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe
First sentence: “When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 28, 2020
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and some graphic sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When Michael moved to North Shore, California, he moved in next door to Bunny Lampert and her father. Bunny was the star of North Shore, tall, blonde, beautiful (even at eleven) and talented at volleyball. Even though Michael was none of those things — being, rather, a tortured, deeply in the closet gay teenage boy — he and Bunny became best friends. Not the sort of friends that hung out at school (or even after, really) but the kind that stays up late at night doing face masks and talking about all sorts of things. While they were not inseparable, they were devoted.

So much so, that Bunny is willing to go to bat for Michael when a girl on the volleyball team starts badmouthing him. Go to bat, in the sense that she beat the other girl into a coma. From there, Michael’s and Bunny’s paths irrevocably diverge.

This story is all told through Michael’s reflections as an adult, as he tries to figure out who he is, and why society is so deeply unfair to those who don’t have the money to make a decent life for themselves (his mother was sent to prison for defending herself against and abusive husband). He gets into abusive relationships because he’s deeply self-loathing, as is Bunny, and maybe this self-loathing is what ties them together? It’s not a happy narrative, but it is one that has made me think. About perceptions — did Bunny become the person everyone thought she was, or was she always that way — about class, about the things in our lives that affect us.

I’m not entirely sure I liked this book, but it is one that will stay with me for a while, and perhaps that’s worth something, in the end.

Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Mooncakes

by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence and kissing and the characters are out of high school. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Nova Huang is a teenage witch. She works in her grandmothers’ bookstore by day, and is apprenticed to them, mostly because she didn’t want to leave after her parents’ deaths. Tam is a werewolf who moved away years ago. They’re back in town, though, chasing a demon that feeds off of wolf energy. As Tam and Nova rekindle their childhood friendship (which leads to romance!), Tam needs to figure out how to stop the demon. Thankfully, Nova and her grandmothers are willing to help.

This graphic novel is a very cute and charming story. It’s less about the paranormal and witches — that’s just really a backdrop — and more about friendship and trust and creating your own family. Tam identifies using they/them pronouns, and from what I can tell from the story, their mother and stepdad aren’t that thrilled or accepting of Tam, though it may be more about the werewolf than the gender neutral pronouns. Nova, on the other hand, has loving grandparents but is hanging around because…. she misses her parents? Who show up as ghosts on major holidays? I’m not entirely sure.

I liked this one, though I felt it was a bit disjointed. I never really got enough development for Nova and Tam’s relationship, and the twist with the demon kind of came out of nowhere. A good graphic novel, but not a great one.