See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

City of Saints & Thieves

cityofsaintsby Natalie C. Anderson
First sentence: “If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.”
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Review copy picked up for me by co-workers at Winter Institute.
Content: There’s a handful of minor swear words and some disturbing illusions to rape. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Tina has one goal: take down her mother’s former employer, Mr. Greyhill who happens to be the owner of a large mining corporation. And, as Tina believes, her mother’s murderer. It’s a goal she’s been working on for the past 5 years, since she left the Greyhill’s compound in the wake of her mother’s murder. She’s trained to be a thief, and her plan is simple: get in, have her tech friend BoyBoy hack Greyhill’s accounts and drain them, and then kill her mother’s murderer.

Things don’t go according to the plan, however. Greyhill’s son, Michael, is home from school (he wasn’t supposed to be), and catches the uncatchable Tina. And from there, Tina’s plan spirals out of control. As she begins to question everything she’s believed up to this point, she finds her past, her mother’s story, and yes, ultimately, justice.

I really liked this thriller, and thought that Anderson did an admirable job tackling the issues that East Africa faces. From milita terrorism, to kidnapping, to mining issues, to gangs: it was all there. Anderson didn’t sugar coat anything; even the “good guys” were complex and did questionable things.  It’s a complex place, Kenya, and Anderson, even though she’s not east African, did an admirable job reflecting that.

There was a bit of a twist at the end, too, which I didn’t quite see coming (should have, though), and I loved that Tina, for the most part, handled things on her own, but also was able to make decisions that stayed true to her character.

An excellent debut novel.

Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

msmarvelby G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, Nico Leon
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Others in the series: Volume 1, Volume 2
Content: There’s some violence, and there are a few more mature themes, but K is interested in this one and I’d let her read them. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Kamala has a problem. She’s been invited to be a part of the Avengers (not the problem), but between that, school, and home commitments, it’s getting harder and harder to stay on top of things. And so, she doesn’t notice at first when her face appears on the billboard touting a new development in her neighborhood. It’s nothing she signed off on, but it turns out that the development not only plans on destroying her neighborhood, but also is brainwashing all of its tenants. And, with Bruno’s help, hopefully she’ll be able to stop the developers.

That’s the better of the two stories in this latest Ms. Marvel, though the second story (about some clones that Bruno and Kamala make in order to help her get to all of her commitments) isn’t as strong, it does have one of my favorite moments, when Kamala realizes that she can’t do It All. The art — even though I still don’t like the switch between artists and prefer Miyazawa’s rendition best — is fantastic, and I love that the people are really realistically portrayed and diverse!

This series is SO good.

The Hammer of Thor

hammerofthorby Rick Riordan
First Sentence: “Lesson learned: If you take a Valkyrie out for coffee, you’ll get stuck with the check and a dead body.”
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Others in the series: The Sword of Summer
Content: There’s some violence, a bit of romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but heaven forbid you stop a Riordan fan from reading these.

It’s been a few months since we last saw Magnus, and he’s been managing okay out in Valhalla. But, Loki’s up to his old tricks again, and Thor’s hammer is still missing, and Magnus and his friends are needed to stop him. The problem: Loki has promised the giant Thrym that Sam the Valkyrie (who’s Muslim and engaged already) will marry him. In just over a week. Of course this can’t happen, except for one thing: Thrym happens to have Thor’s hammer. The trick: getting Thrym to give up the hammer, while not releasing Loki from his imprisonment AND having Sam not get married. But, of course Magnus and all his friends — including Alex, a gender fluid character — are up to the challenge. Mostly.

It took me a while to get around to reading this one, mostly because it’s just more of the same. Not that that’s bad; I love being in Riordan’s world when I’m there. But, I’m not as enthralled by Magnus’s part in the larger mythos as I hoped I’d be (I’m more interested in Apollo right now). Not that the story’s bad; it’s not. And Riordan’s fun and funny and maybe a bit too hip and contemporary, but I know (because A’s a huge fan) that the kids eat it up. It’s a good addition to the wider mythos that Riordan’s created, and I do appreciate that he’s definitely trying to be inclusive with his characters these days.

It’s just not my favorite.

The Sun is Also a Star

sunalsostarby Nicola Yoon
First sentence: “Carl Sagan said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: November 1, 2016
Content: It’s mostly swearing; there’s a lot of swear words, plus a handful of f-bombs. There’s some penis jokes as well, and references to wanting sex, but none actual. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Natasha is being deported. They came to NYC from Jamaica when she was eight so her father could pursue an acting career. It didn’t work out the way he envisioned and now (after a drunken night and several missteps) they’re being deported.

Daniel is being forced into a life he doesn’t really want. His parents, Korean immigrants, want him to go to Yale (“second best school”) and be a doctor, so he can have the life they never really had. He knows this, he wants to make his parents happy, but his life seems so… narrow.

Then on one fateful day, Natasha and Daniel are in NYC at the same time, and they just happen to bump into each other. And they just happen to connect. And, well, the  rest is history.

This is an Epic Love Story for the ages. Seriously, people. It’s got fate, chemistry, romance, angst, second chances, near misses, and a whole lot of heart. I adored both Natasha and Daniel, and it was absolutely delightful watching the wonderfully messy way they fell in love. It’s not a simple love story, and it goes deeper than just fluff; Natasha and Daniel talk about the immigrant experience, how it’s hard being in this country, and the ways in which things are different, and sometimes difficult, for children of immigrants. There’s science and poetry and karaoke, and it’s absolutely wonderful.

And I loved that the ending wasn’t perfect. There was no magical save or happily-ever-after, but rather a peek and a hope. It made me cry honest tears, which are the best kind.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

Unbound

unboundby Ann E. Berg
First sentence: “When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some tough subjects dealt with here, but there’s nothing graphic. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: I’m uncomfortable with this book. Not because of the subject matter (though I do have to admit that I’m tired of Civil War slave narratives. Not because they’re not important, but because it seems to be the only African American story publishers want to tell.) but because it’s a white woman telling the story. I’m not going to say she shouldn’t be telling this story, but rather because I think this story would have been better served being told by a person of color.

That’s not to say it was a bad story; it was okay, as far as slave narratives go. Berg was trying to tell the story of a community of runaway slaves in North Carolina who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp (where native peoples had settled for thousands of years), living there in order to be free from slavery. But that’s not really the story she ended up telling. It was more of the disgruntled slave who couldn’t keep their place and so they had to leave narrative. Which is fine, but not exactly the narrative of the people in the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It does tell a story at a level that children can understand. It does have non-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.

Nine, Ten

ninetenby Nora Raleigh Baskin
First sentence: “Everyone will mention the same thing, and if they don’t, when you ask them, they will remember.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It handles the tragedy of 9/11 on a level that is appropriate for the 3rd-5th grade crowd. It’d also make an excellent read-aloud. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Everyone (well, everyone of a certain age and older) knows the story of what happened on 9/11. But fifteen years on, there isn’t as many of the kids who know about that day. And so, Baskin helps introduce the tragedy through the stories of four eleven-year-old kids for the forty-eight hours before the planes hit. There’s Sergio, an African American kid from Brooklyn who is trying to make a better life for  himself but whose deadbeat dad is getting in the way. There’s Aimee, who has recently relocated from Chicago to L. A. and whose mother has a meeting in New York City that week. And there’s Will from Pennsylvania, whose father died in a freak accident and who is trying to get over that. And there’s Nadira, a Muslim girl from Ohio, who is trying to figure out the whole middle school thing. 9/11 changes each of their lives — though I’ll spoil it: no one has anyone they love die — in ways they could not have expected.

The thing I liked best was not so much the stories, or wondering how it would all play out (and wondering if Baskin would kill anyone). It was that Baskin caught the emotion of the day so very well. I was in Mississippi, having recently moved from DC, and I remember being caught up in the worry and horror and concern during it all. I wasn’t in the middle of it; I couldn’t imagine being in the middle of it. But, I, like many Americans, was affected by it. And Baskin caught that feeling perfectly.

I’m hoping this, along with Towers Falling, will spark a discussion about unity and how, no matter what we look like or believe, we can work to get past anger and mistrust and hate and be better citizens together. I hope, at the very least, that this one gets read and discussed.