All the Crooked Saints

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “You can hear a miracle a long way after dark.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 10, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but younger kids might be interested in it.

The problem with this book is that the plot is really hard to describe. There’s a family in the southern Colorado desert, the Sorias, that have basically made a living performing miracles for pilgrims who come to their homestead looking for help. But, it’s much more than about the miracles. There’s a boy who comes looking for help (but not a miracle) and a few pairs of lovers, some who are new and some who have lost their way. In fact, a lot of the plot is about how to find one’s way back from being, well, lost.

It’s historical, set sometime in the 1960s (I had it initially pegged for contemporary, then set in the 1970s… so I was close), but it feels, well, set out of time.

Mostly, though, the best thing about this is, like many Stiefvater novels, the words. She just has a way of telling a story that sucks you in and won’t let you go. And this was no exception. The magic here was less “magic” and more magical realism; it felt like it really could happen, that it was a natural outgrowth of the story, and it made perfect sense.

I’m sure Stiefvater will get some push back for writing a story with Latin@ main characters, but honestly, I don’t think she used stereotypes at all. (Or at least, that’s the way I felt; I’m not a great judge of this.)  I loved all the characters, from the Soria family to the pilgrims, and I loved the way Stiefvater told the story. Everything just seemed to fit.

It’s really a wonderful story.

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Sourdough

by Robin Sloan
First sentence: “It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 5, 2017
Content: There’s several instances of swearing, including a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Lois Clary is a Millennial, stuck programming in a tech job in San Francisco. It’s a get up, go to work life, one that, while isn’t bad, isn’t fulfilling either. And then she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, and is in love. With the food. Run by a couple of immigrant brothers, it’s something that fills her soul. So, when they unexpectedly have to leave the country, they leave her the starter for the sourdough. It’s that small act that changes Lois’s world. She learns to bake sourdough, and discovers that the starter itself is a bit magical. But more than that, Lois finds a purpose in life, a meaning to everything. She becomes involved with an underground experimental farmer’s market, and works on teaching a robot arm how to cook. There’s a bit of conflict with big business and some over-anxious scientists, but for the most part, this is Lois’s story, her discovering there’s more to life than sitting in a cubical.

Which is really the point of this. It lies at the intersection of those who bake/love baking and those who “get” or are technologically savvy. There’s a strong sense of needing to get out of working with computers to find satisfaction in life, but there’s also a sense that technology is inevitable and working with it instead of fighting it is the way to go. It’s a fascinating balance, and Sloan handles it beautifully.

In the end, this isn’t a deep novel (then again, neither was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Now to go find a good loaf of sourdough to eat! (Or, maybe I should find myself a starter and learn how to make one…)

Hour of the Bees

hourofbeesby Lindsey Eagar
First sentence: “Something flies too close to my ear.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a tricky story, moving between “reality” and “magic” for much of it. Though there’s really nothing content-wise that would be inappropriate for younger readers, they might lose interest with the plotting. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, though I’d give it to a 4th or 5th grader if they expressed interest.

All Carol wants to do the summer before 7th grade is hang out with her friends and have pool parties and sleepovers, but instead she’s stuck out at her grandfather’s ranch in southwest New Mexico, helping her family pack him up in order to send him to a nursing home. Not exactly her idea of fun. And it doesn’t help that her grandfather is suffering from dementia, either. It’s shaping up to be a long, hot, boring summer.

Except, once she gets there, Carol finds out that her grandfather is full of crazy, magical stories, ones that may or may not be true. And, over the course of the summer, Carol decides that maybe it’s not too bad.

Okay, that’s not exactly all there is to it. There’s a whole thread about a drought, and a tree, and bees taking away the rain that, honestly, I didn’t find all that interesting.

Maybe I should start with the good: I really like that there’s a book out there that deals with grandparents, dementia and death. It’s something that children do need to deal with, and it’s good that there’s a book that does take something like moving a grandparent out of the house and into a nursing home as well as tackling the mood and personality swings that come with dementia.

That said, this smack WAY too much of the Magical Mexican for me. Truthfully, it may just be me (though as I was relating it to E — who’s Mexican — she said, “Um. No.” But she may have been biased from my retelling); please let me know if you read it and you think I’m wrong here. But, I felt like the whole thing of “needing to get back to your roots” and the whole magical realism story thing just didn’t work. Yes, roots are important. But, so is change and growth. You don’t need to sacrifice one for the other (and I felt like Eagar was coming down firmly on Family and Roots are Very Important, especially since we’re Mexican).  It just felt… forced. Off. Not quite natural. And then there was Carol’s whole flipping from being a city girl to being a ranch hand at the end. I just didn’t get WHY. Was it her grandfather’s stories? Where did this deep connection to her roots come from? Why did it happen so suddenly, and so deeply that she would do drastic and rash things at the end? It didn’t make sense to me. (Again: it may just be me. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot.)

At any rate, it ended up not being one that I really loved.

The Key to Extraordinary

keytoextraordinaryby Natalie Lloyd
First sentence: “It is a known fact that the most extraordinary moments in a person’s life come disguised as ordinary days.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Release date: February 23, 2016
Content: It’s short(ish) and the words aren’t too terribly difficult, but there’s kind of a little romance, so maybe it’s not for the 3rd graders? It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The women in Emma’s family have had a long history of doing Extraordinary things. They have a dream, which they call their Blue Wildflower dream, and in that dream they are Shown Their Path, the way in which they’ll be extraordinary. At almost 13, Emma’s convinced that in spite of all this, her life won’t be that special. She lives in a smallish town in Tennessee, and while she loves her Grandma Blue and the cafe she runs, where Emma’s older brother is the baker, there really isn’t much else.

Then Emma gets her wildflower dream, and it doesn’t make sense.  Then developers start sniffing around the cafe, wanting to buy it, and suddenly maybe Emma can piece together some lost history and save the cafe while filling her destiny.

I liked Snicker of Magic quite a bit, and I like Southern Quirky (as Ms. Yingling calls it), but this one didn’t work for me.  I’m not sure I can pinpoint why, though. Maybe it’s a bit of a reading slump (I tossed aside about four books partially read before I settled on this one), maybe it’s that I’m a bit under the weather. Either way, Emma and her plight didn’t sit with me. It even had a Nice Moral at the end: follow your dreams and expectations and don’t let the accomplishments of the past make you intimidated (or at least I think that’s the message), but I kind of just shrugged and said, “Meh.”

Which is too bad. I did want to like this one more.

Bone Gap

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some intense situations, some creepiness, and some on-screen, tasteful sex. It’s also pretty mature in its themes. For those reasons, it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Bone Gap is one of those places that everyone knows everyone else’s business and opinions once formed aren’t so easily changed. So, everyone knows that the Rudes are hopeless and mean. That Charlie Valentine is just plain weird. And that Priscilaa — who insists upon being called Petey — is homely. And that Sam and Finn are okay without their mom, who ran off, but they could be better. And that the strange newcomer, Roza, is the most beautiful girl ever.

They also know that Finn’s not the most reliable person; he’s kind of spacey, like his mom, and so when he says some guy in a black SUV took Roza, no one believes him. They chalk it up to “women are always leaving those boys”. They assume that Roza wants to go. But Finn? Finn knows different. So, he sets about trying to find Roza, not because he loves her but because his brother does and his brother can’t quite bring himself to find her. Little does Finn know that looking for Roza will change everything.

I have been sitting here, staring at the screen, trying to figure out what to say about this book. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I didn’t love it like I felt I should.

My favorite part?  The women. I loved them. I loved Roza and her desire to be Seen for herself and not for her beauty. I loved Petey and her fierceness. I wished there were more women to love, because Ruby knows how to write them whole and complex, people rather than stereotypes.  I liked that they saved themselves, even though the men weren’t worthless louts or even helpless. It was something that was just Done, that they rose up and just did that. They were my kind of women. I also loved the idea that what we assume about other isn’t always the Truth. That there’s more to people than what we see.

But aside from that, I didn’t really love it. Maybe it was the whole magical realism thing; that genre and I have never really quite gotten along. I think I prefer my magic overt: if there’s going to be something strange going on, then give me magic with Rules. I didn’t understand what was going on until the book was nearly done, and that left me feeling, well, stupid.

So, I didn’t enjoy it as much as others on the interwebs, but I still think it’s a novel worth reading.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

by Kelly Johnson
illustrated by Katie Kath
First sentence: “My great-uncle Jim had your flyer in his barn.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy swiped off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some tricky words, and I’m not sure whether or not the epistolary format will turn off reluctant readers or encourage them. There’s a lot of fun illustrations and some good chicken facts, though. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably give it to a confident 2nd grade reader.

Sophie Brown and her parents have just moved from the bustling city of Los Angeles to a farm in the middle of nowhere California. It was a move partially because of necessity — her dad lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one — and partially out of happenstance — Sophie’s dad’s uncle died and left him the farm. So, they’re trying to figure this whole thing out. And it’s not going terribly well. That is, until Sophie discovers a catalog for “exceptional” chickens. Turns out, that Uncle Jim was not only a farmer (he had a vegetable garden and some grape vines) but he raised, well, unusual chickens.

The chickens are not quite magical, and they’re based on real chickens, but they’re not quite normal either. (One lays glass eggs, for example.) Sophie is given instructions by the person who runs the catalog on how to catch and care for the chickens, but someone is trying to steal Sophie’s chickens. The question is: will she figure out how to keep the chickens (without divulging their magical properties)? And can she stop the thief from stealing her chickens?

The cleverest thing about this book is the format: Sophie’s story spills slowly over the course of the book through letters she writes to her dead abuela, dead great-uncle Jim, and the chicken place. (It’s kind of unusual her writing to dead people, but it works. She doesn’t really expect an answer back.) It’s a very one-sided story, and we only get snippets of things other than chickens: her mother’s free-lance writing, or her father’s failing search for a job. But, the tone is light, and there is a mystery to be solved with the chicken thief. But what really comes through is Sophie’s voice. She’s a determined child, someone who is willing to figure things out and solve problems. She’s spunky. And she’s half Latina. All of which makes for a charming book, a fun read, and a book worth checking out.

Genuine Sweet

by Faith Harkey
First sentence: “Genuine Sweet.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent by the publisher.
Content: There’s a bit too much lovey-dovey stuff than I like for books this age (they kiss a bit and hold hands). Even so, it’s really a middle grade novel, so it’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’m a sucker for small town Southern books. (Unlike Ms. Yingling, who loathes them.) I love the small community feel, the quirkyness, and you throw in a bit of magical realism and I’m sold.

Genuine Sweet has all of that. She lives in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone’s business, so that means everyone knows that her daddy is a drunk. Genuine’s (pronounced gen-u-wine) grandma takes care of her, since her mother’s dead, and it turns out that a gift runs in the female side of the family: wish fetching. They don’t grant them, per se, they sing to the stars and fetch the star juice (for lack of a better word) and give it to people who need things. The one cardinal rule: they can’t grant any for themselves.

So, burdened with this knowledge, Genuine sets out to make life a little better for those in the town. But, even as she does so, things get worse at home. No money, no food, no electricity. And as word gets out about her wish fetching Genuine has more and more pressure to fill them ALL. Which takes a toll.

On the one hand, quirky Southern charm. It was very sweet and very Southern, and I liked the way the magic worked: nothing major, nothing huge, just small little helps that fit in with the mood of the book.

But, even with all the quirkyness and the Southerness and the magic, I didn’t absolutely love this book. Partially, because I thought the romance between Genuine and Travis was a bit, well, out of place in a book aimed toward the younger set. And the drunk dad was pretty unnecessary. As was the angry, bitter woman who opposed Geunine’s wish fetching. And all of that added up to make me like, but not thoroughly enjoy this one.

It was a good book, but I think it could have been so much better.