Eternal Life

by Dara Horn
First sentence: “Either everything matters, or everything is an outrageous waste of time.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the booktstore.

Rachel has lived for centuries. Way way back, in Roman-occupied territory, she made a deal with God: save her son (the child of her and her love) and she will give over her death. Which means: she’s lived a long, long time. She’s been married many times, and reinvented herself many times. She’s had dozens and dozens of children. And yet, she’s never looked older than eighteen.

And so, in this most recent iteration of her life, her granddaughter is a scientist who is trying to solve the “problem” of death, and her lover (who also fore-swore death) has shown back up, manipulating her children’s lives, and Rachel has realized (not for the first time) that what makes life bearable is knowing that it ends.

The book was… okay. As far as musings about eternal life and what it means goes, it’s not bad. And I did finish it, so it wasn’t horrible. It just wasn’t great. It was interesting, but not compelling, and the ending was just there. Maybe I expected something more exciting (it’s about what it means to not die, after all), but really, it wasn’t all that.

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Mirage

by Somaiya Daud
First sentence: “He is the only one of his family without the daan.”
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Content: There is some violence, and a few mild swear words. It was in the teen section (grades 9+) but I moved it to the YA, partially because there was nothing really “offensive” in it, and partially because I think 6-8th graders might be a better target audience. 

I’ve been thinking of this one as Star Wars with a Persian flair. Let me explain: in this universe, there is a cruel imperial overlord, the Vath, who conquer lesser systems, including the home world of our main character, Amani. The cruel overlords (and their droids) have wiped out the native language and customs, though they do keep some. 

The daughter of the emperor is about to come of age, and it turns out that she is very disliked on Andala, the world she is set to rule. So, Amani is kidnapped — because she looks exactly like the princess — and made to serve as a body double, something she resents, until she discovers (you guessed it: the resistance). See? Star Wars. 

The Persian flair is what made this book stand out to me: Daud infuses the world with a rich mythology, religion, and history, sewn together with poetry and family. I liked the developing relationship between Amani and the princess’s fiance, Idris. And I even really liked where the story went, though it took a long time to get to the climax. My only complaint is the usual one: I do wish it had been a stand-alone. 

Even so, it was a unique and interesting tale. 

American Heart

by Laura Moriarty
First sentence: “One thing someone just meeting me might want to know is why I have two first names.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 30. 2018
Content: There are some disturbing situations, including an almost rape and violence against minorities. It will be in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Sarah-Mary and her younger brother are living with their aunt in Hannibal, Missouri, because their mother is one of those Bad Mothers who can’t take care of her children. Her younger brother is okay with this (except for the missing mom part), but it chafes with Sarah-Mary. She has a limited amount of freedom, which chafes. And then, she and her brother meet an Iranian woman, whom Sarah-Mary ends up calling Chloe, who is  on the run, avoiding the mandatory Muslim registry that has been implemented for “our safety”. Her brother begs Sarah-Mary to help get Chloe to safety in Canada, and of course Sarah-Mary promises. And thus begins the adventure.

It’s not a pleasant one, either. Moriarty attempts to focus on the wrongness of profiling people by race or religion (there’s this scene where Sarah-Mary witnesses a raid on a house where the person was harboring Muslims) and touches on prejudice and discrimination. She also make sure that the dangers of two women hitchhiking are amply described.  Nothing “bad” ever happens, but the novel brushes up against it several times, and it’s only through luck, wit, and technology that Sarah-Mary and Chloe get away.

And along the way Sarah-Mary learns the one great lesson that we all need to learn, especially right now: people are people. They all have hopes, dreams, and stories. And that judging a whole religion or race by one person’s actions not only is not fair, it’s wrong. However, the Muslim registry doesn’t miraculously go away at the end of the book, nor does Sarah-Mary’s actions have a larger Meaning, so maybe Moriarty missed the mark on something big here.

Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem with the book. That Sarah-Mary (read: white people) needed a Muslim woman (read: any diverse person of color) to Show Her the Way. As a concept, it’s clumsy, and I’ve read some responses on the book that lead me to think that it might be harmful, reinforcing White Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and just the White Savior narrative. I did enjoy this while reading it, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best idea for a white woman to tackle something like this.

 

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

aintsoawfulby Firoozeh Dumas
First sentence: “Today’s Sunday and we’re moving, again.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s no swearing (well, maybe a mild one) but the subject matter — middle school and the Iran Revolution in 1978 — might be a little mature for the younger set. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section (or the YA — grades 6-8 — section, I haven’t decided) of the bookstore.

I was in third grade in 1981 when the American hostages in Iran were released and I have a vague memory of it. Nothing substantive, just some hazy images of me seeing the news on TV. I don’t know much else about that, and even though I’ve read a bit about the Iranian revolution, that’s one aspect that I didn’t know much about.

Zomorod Yousefzadeh is in America because her father has a job with an oil company in California. They’ve been here before, when Zomorod was younger, but now she’s going into 6th grade, and she wants to turn over a new leaf. Be more American. So, she changes her name to Cindy and sets out to make new friends. It’s not easy being Iranian in California in the late 1970s (most people either think she’s Mexican, or ask her if she owns a camel. The answer is no to both), but eventually, Cindy figures things out. And then the Iranian revolution happens, and suddenly the home she and her parents thought they could go back to is no longer there. Add to that, Americans were taken hostage, and suddenly Cindy and her parents find themselves subjected to anti-Iranian sentiment. Her father loses his job. Garbage is left on their doorstep. Kids at school tell her to “go home”. It’s not easy.

Loosely based on Dumas’ life, this novel not only captures a slice of history (fairly accurately, but without being kitschy) but also manages to be timely as well. I found myself thinking about how Americans reacted to Muslims after 9/11 (or now, really). Or how immigrants are treated in general. It’s a good thing to see American life from the perspective of an immigrant, and to find out that we’re equal parts good and bad. (Which really isn’t a surprise.) Dumas also manages to capture the awkwardness of middle school with grace and humor. There were some actual laugh-out-loud parts. She definitely understands middle school, with all its ups and downs. And it was delightful to read a book where the parents weren’t bad or sick or dead.

It’s definitely an excellent read.

The Conference of the Birds

by Peter Sis
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s nothing. I found it in the kids poetry section, but it’s more an adult poem; something to ruminate on. So I moved it to the adult poetry section.

So, I blame Books on the Nightstand bingo for this. I started my card back in May, and the one I ended up with has a square for “written for adults but with illustrations”. I had no idea what to do with that. Then, we got a competition of sorts going at work (we all have bingo cards going and the first one to blackout wins… something), and I was doing inventory in my sections (the kids books are basically my fiefdom. Seriously. I have had  many coworkers tell me they just “don’t mess with Melissa’s sections”.) and discovered this book. It’s not a children’s book, so it fits the bill: adult book, with illustrations (but not a graphic novel).

Bascially, it’s an adaptation of a 12th-century Sufi poem, about an epic flight of birds, who fly through thick and thin, through days, through the deepest despair, in order to find their True King, Simorgh. You can pretty much sense the allegory dripping off of this poem (Deeper Meaning for my mother). And I’ll admit: I needed to read this poem this week. It gave me the reminder that I can get through all the valleys of my life, and maybe there will be fulfillment in it all.

But, what I truly loved was Peter Sis’s art. The book itself is gorgeous: thick pages, that are just luxurious to touch (and should be, with such a high price for a slim book). And the paintings were done in muted earth tones, with layers of depth to them (at least to my untrained eye). It’s a book I could imagine going back to when I just wanted to page through something lovely.

It’s not something I ever would have picked up on my own, so I’m grateful for the extra push from the bingo game. Sometimes getting outside of your comfort zone is a good thing.

The Wrath and the Dawn

by Renee Ahdieh
First sentence: “It would not be a welcome dawn.”
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Review copy supplied by the publisher rep.
Content: There is some (implied) sex and there’s some violence, but it’s mostly appropriate for those who love grand, sweeping romances. I’d give it to an 8th grader and up, even though it’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

In this land, the king — 18-year-old Khalid — marries a new bride (chosen at random) every night, just to have her murdered the next dawn. It’s horrible for the people of the country who have come to look at him as a monster. But for Shahrzad, it’s personal: the most recent young woman sent to her death was Shazi’s best friend, Shiva. So (of course) Shahrzad volunteers for the job of bride.

And what follows is her attempt to stay alive.

If you know, even vaguely, the story of Arabian Nights, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. But, Ahdieh takes the story a step further: it’s not just the tales Shahrzad tells to keep alive. She gives motivation to Khalid (though in many ways it came too late for me to care very much) and she gives drive to Shahrzad. She’s there to exact revenge for her best friend, but discovers that there’s more to Khalid than murder.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I know people are loving this book. Seriously loving it. But, I just didn’t. I wanted to; I wanted to enjoy the sweeping Persian-inspired grandeur of the story, the fiestiness of Shahrzad, the illusions to the old tale. But, mostly what I wanted to do was smack Khalid and wonder why Shahrzad fell in love with him. (Too much telling, not enough showing?) It’s not that it didn’t make sense; it’s more that I just felt it was Decreed that they Fall in Love and So Mote It Be. I didn’t feel their love story. Then again, I didn’t feel Shahrzad’s rage. Or her first love’s betrayal. It was all Grand and Distant and I really didn’t care.

But since it’s getting pretty much universal raves from everyone else, it’s probably just me.

Monstrous

by MarcyKate Connolly
First sentence: “I will never forget my first breath.”
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Content: It’s long and slow and while the romance is fairly age-appropriate, it’s not just alluded to. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d gear it to the older end of the age range/young YA.

Kymera is a newly formed creation of her Father’s.She’s part girl, yes, but also part bird and part.. something else with a scaled, stinging tail. Her purpose, her father tells her, is to rescue the girls that have been imprisoned by the wizard. She heads into Bryre every night, stinging the guards and bringing out one girl which her father then tells her is being taken to the safety of Belladoma, a nearby country.

If you’re not getting huge creeper undertone vibes from this, I’m really not doing it justice. See: everything is not what it seems. One of the best things about the first half of this book is the unease that Connolly writes into it. I just KNEW something wasn’t right, that Kymera was being too trusting (then again, being new-born she didn’t know any better), that something would go horribly wrong.

And, once she meets a boy, Ren, against her father’s wishes, it does.

I  won’t tell you how it all unravels; the twists and turns are best left to surprise. So, even though this is a slow book, with a lot of internal dialogue and musings, I was still interested enough to keep reading. I loved the dark Frankenstein-like aura it has, though it has a very Grimm-like overlay. Like Connolly couldn’t decide whether to tell a fairy tale or a monster story. But, the mashup works.

Until the end.

See, it turns fairy tale in the end, and I think we were supposed to be Moved by the ending, but I felt cheated. I suppose I wanted some sort of middle-grade happily ever after, and I should be happy Connolly refused to give it to us, but it felt… forced. And that made me dissatisfied.

But, overall, it was a well-done, dark middle grade fantasy.