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.”
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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”
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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.”
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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
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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.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo
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Content: There are some situations with bullying. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

If you can’t tell from the title, this is a modern adaptation of Alcott’s Little Women. It’s a blended family: Meg’s dad married Jo’s mom and they had Beth and Amy together. That doesn’t stop the sisters from being incredibly close. Their dad is deployed in the Middle East and their mom is working hard to make ends meet. As we follow the March sisters over the course of a year — from one Christmas to the next — anyone familiar with the original will catch all the highlights: there’s Laurie and his grandfather across the street. There’s crotchety old Aunt Cath that Jo works for. There’s Brooks that has a relationship with Meg, as well as Meg’s aspirations to be part of the rich social set. Beth shy and quiet and Amy loud and obnoxious. t

There are differences from the original, but mostly because it’s modernized. Meg and Jo are making decisions that diverge from the original, reflecting today’s society, but I felt Terciere and Indigo stayed true to the spirit of the original work.

I did feel like this one fell short a bit, but mostly because I felt it wasn’t really it’s own thing. It’s an excellent adaption of Little Women, but I’m not sure it’s much else.

That said, I really enjoyed reading it.

A High Five for Glenn Burke

by Phil Bildner
First sentence: “Let’s do this, Silas,’ I say to myself.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 25, 2020
Content: There are some awkward moments. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sixth-grader Silas Wade has a loving family (though his parents work too much and his younger sisters are sometimes annoying), and a great best friend in Zoey. He loves playing baseball with his team, the Renegades, and and his coach, Coach Wade, is the best. But Silas has a problem: he has realized that he is gay, and doesn’t quite know how to tell everyone.

Enter a report on Glenn Burke: a real-life professional baseball player (and the inventor of the high five!) in the 1970s who was run out of the major leagues after he came out as gay. Learning about Burke gives Silas the courage to come out to Zoey and then to Coach Wade. It’s not all roses, however. There are ups and downs to this process as Silas figures out how to be his authentic self.

This is a really good book as well as being an Important One. I think there needs to be more sports-oriented books that have LGBT themes, partially because I think there still is a stigma about being LGBT and playing sports. (It’s probably less than it was, but it’s still there, I think.) It’s good to have a book — and one that is written so that kids can grasp what’s going on — that shows that an LGBT kid can play ball well and be gay. And not necessarily fit all the stereotypes that normally come with being gay. I also appreciated Silas’s growth arc; he starts out terrified that people will find out his secret, but as the book goes on, he becomes more and more comfortable with himself.

Bildner knows how to write for kids in a way that makes all of this make sense. And perhaps that’s the most important thing.

Gideon the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “In the myriadic year of our Lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
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Content: It’s violent and it’s sweary (including many f-bombs). It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

So, this one is hard to describe. The short pitch is lesbian necromancers in space, though that doesn’t really begin to touch on what really goes on in this book. The slightly longer version is that Gideon is an orphan raised by the Ninth House, which (in this world) is tasked with guarding the Locked Tomb for the Undying Emperor. However, when the heirs to each of the nine houses are called to the emperor to compete to be one of his Hands, Gideon is dragged along as the cavalier to Harrowhawk, the Ninth heir, into a world of intrigue.

But that doesn’t even give you a glimpse into the total awesomeness that is Gideon the Ninth. Not just the book, either: Gideon the character is so very awesome. Full of snark and sass and grit and just plain awesomeness, she’s a marvel. And I adore the relationship that grows between her and Harrow. Muir is a marvel of a writer, and the world that she has built is unique and brilliant and wild.

I can’t wait for the rest of this trilogy.

Tarnished Are the Stars

by Rosiee Thor
First sentence: “There was nothing quite like the first tick of a new heart.”
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Content: There’s some death — but not violent death — and some romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the future, and Earth has become inhabitable for reasons unnamed. A group of settlers have made it to a new world — Earth Adjacent — and have put up a settlement there. The Queen is still orbiting the world in the “Tower”, but the ruler of the earth is the Commissioner, who has issues with technology. So a splinter group of settlers have moved out to a hidden city, determined to use tech, mostly because they need it to survive. Something is making hearts stop working.

Enter Anna, the settlement’s most wanted criminal: The Technician. She defies the Commissioner’s edicts, in order to help people survive. And then one day, she runs across the Commissioner’s son, Nathaniel, who has a TICCER — an artificial heart — just like she does. That opens up a whole world of questions. Which only get more complicated when Emma, the Queen’s personal spy — arrives from the Tower, in order to marry Nathaniel and carry out the Queen’s will.

I started listening to this one on audio, and it was a complete fail. I just didn’t like the narrator, and there were enough moving parts that I couldn’t keep it in my head. Note to self: I don’t do fantasy on audio well (this isn’t my first fantasy audio fail). That said, I was interested enough in the story to pick up the physical book and finish it. And… it’s not bad. I liked that there wasn’t a lot of romance, and that the focus of the relationships were friendship and family. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, but it didn’t take away from the clever premise of a new world and what it takes to settle and populate one. And hooray — it was a stand-alone! I appreciate that Thor was able to wrap the story up in one book.

I solid debut, I think.

Kiss Number 8

by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw
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Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus depictions of teenage drinking and smoking. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Mandy has been best friends with Cat for forever; through all of Cat’s ups and downs, and dates, both good and bad. Though Cat hasn’t had much luck in the dating arena. Most of her kisses happened when she was younger, and most of them were really kind of lame. Though, as they are in their junior year at Catholic school, things are beginning to change. Not the least a mysterious phone call that makes her dad angry, and sets off a chain of events that reveals a deep family secret.

This was an interesting graphic novel. I don’t want to spoil everything (though the tag kind of gives things away), but it’s dealing with the LGBT community and religion, or at the very least, religious people. But the story was a bit of a mess. As were Mandy and Cat (and I felt really bad for the third wheel, Laura). I kind of get why Venable and Crenshaw were framing this story through kisses, but I’m not entirely sure it worked really well. I did enjoy it when Crenshaw’s art told more than the words, bringing more depth to the story, the way graphic novels should.

It wasn’t my favorite I’ve read, but it was an interesting story.