Not Even Bones

by Rebecca Schaeffer
First Sentence: “Nita stared at the dead body lying on the kitchen table.”
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Content: There is a LOT of violence, and some of it is gory. There is also swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

First off: this is being billed as a horror novel, and in some ways, I guess, it is. I was wary about starting this one, mostly because I really don’t do horror, but it’s more surgical gross/violent. And I do better with that in print than I do on the screen. So, if there is ever a movie made of this one (and it’d be a cool movie), I probably wouldn’t see it. 

Nita’s parents — her mother, mostly — deal in the black market. Body parts of supernatural beings, specifically. And for as a long as she can remember, Nita has been doing the dissecting. Until one day, Nita’s mother brings home a live “specimen” and Nita decides that she has some ethics, and refuses to dissect a non-dead body. However, that ends up badly: Nita is kidnapped and finds herself on the wrong side of a cage, in a parts market along the Amazon river. Which means, since she really doesn’t want to die, she needs to find a way out. 

It was one part moral dilemma — all of Schaeffer’s characters are “bad”, ranging from despicable to just morally questionable — and one part suspense novel (will Nita make it out alive and in one piece? How did she end up kidnapped? Who sold her out?). But it was immensely readable, and highly unputdownable. I thought Schaeffer had a very clever take on mythical creatures; unicorns, for example, were men who preyed on virgins, but whose bones, once ground up, were more addictive than crack. It was a unique and interesting world, one I definitely would like to learn more about. I also liked that this book is compact: Nita has one goal, to get out, and while questions are raised, Schaeffer doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing them down. 

It’s a first in a series (at least two), which means Nita will have more adventures as she tries to figure out the answers to her questions, and I think I might be willing to follow her there.

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The Agony House

by Cherie Priest
First sentence: “Denise Farber stomped up the creaky metal ramp and stood inside the U-Haul, looking around for the lightest possible box.
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Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils. 
Content: There is some violence, but it’s not bad. And some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. 

Things I really liked about this: I liked that it was set in New Orleans, post-Katrina, and that white people moving into underdeveloped neighborhoods and displacing the black population was an issue, if only in passing. I liked the subtle feminism in the story, as well as the fact that the parents were really good. I liked that Priest highlighted a New Orleans that wasn’t voodoo or jazz music. And I liked the way she wove the graphic novel into the story.  

Things I didn’t like: it just really didn’t work terribly well as a ghost story, for me. I never felt terribly threatened or scared by the ghosts, or even terribly worried for the characters (even though the ghosts were causing a LOT of damage to the house). I also didn’t like that the main character was balancing her new life in New Orleans — her mom and step-dad moved her there right before her senior year — and her old life in Houston. It was realistic, sure, but it felt unnecessary to the overall plot (which was the ghost story). 

It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping. 

The Cruel Prince

by Holly Black
First sentence: “On a drowsy Sunday afternoon, a man in a long coat hesitated in front of a house on a tree-lined street.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s violent. And dark. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a willing 7th grader.

Jude has lived in Faerie ever since she was 10, when her mother’s first husband, a faerie general named Madoc, came to the human world and slaughtered her parents, and spirited away her, her twin sister, Taryn, and her mother’s first child, Vivian. It’s not been a comfortable life, being a human in Faerie, but Jude had made do. In fact, she’s done better than that: in spite of her terror at everything (because her life is constantly in danger), she has learned to fight, to strategize, and to, well, thrive.

And so when, as Faerie prepares to crown a new High King, she gets involved in the Court drama, she feels capable of handling what’s thrown at her. Except, things don’t quite go the way she thinks.

I loved this one. I like faerie stories generally, and Holly Black’s are particularly gorgeously told. I loved the dark undertones, and I loved the way Jude worked with her limitations and made the best of her situations, the way she played the situation. And, since this is the first in a series, I can’t wait to see how it all will play out in the next one.

Truly Devious

by Maureen Johnson
First sentence: “Fate came for Dottie Epstein a year before, in the form of a call to the principal’s office.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 16, 2018
Content: There’s a smattering of mild swear words, and a couple f-bombs. It’ll probably be in the YA section of the bookstore.

This is the story of a boarding school, Ellingham Academy,  with a sordid past – in 1936 a girl was murdered and the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and never recovered. Which makes it the perfect school for Stevie Bell, a true crime aficionado who thinks she can solve the decades-old crime. But when she gets to Ellingham, things aren’t so simple as waltzing in there and putting the pieces together. There’s friendships and relationships to navigate, and then more… sinister things start happening.

I’ve loved Johnson’s work for a while, and her ability to capture the quirkiness of teenagers. I loved Stevie, and the friends she made. Though this book is less about friendship and more about the mystery, which Johnson also does really well. She wove the 1936 mystery through the book as the contemporary mystery was unfolding, which helped with the air of creepiness, and kept me looking for parallels between the two. (I’m a terrible mystery reader; I never pick up the clues.)

My only complaint was that I was hoping it would be a stand-alone. (Johnson does have a problem with starting a series and then not finishing them. I’m still waiting for the last Suite Scarlett book…) But, alas, it’s not. It comes close; one of the two mysteries solved, sort of, but there are still lots of questions to be answered. Which means, I’m waiting for the next one. Here’s hoping it’ll come soon!

Kids of Appetite

kidsofappetiteby David Arnold
First sentence: “Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 20, 2016
Content: There are a bunch of f-bombs, some teenage smoking, and some depictions of domestic abuse. It will be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Vic is many things: a teenage boy, a son whose father has died of cancer, a lover of music and math. He also has Moebius syndrome, but he doesn’t let that define him. No, these days, he lets his dad’s absence and his mom’s new relationship define him. And one night, when things become unbearable, Vic grabs his dad’s ashes and takes off. Out there, he runs into an interesting group of kids, under the protection of a Congolese immigrant named Baz. They fly under the radar, taking people in who need help, give them the help they need, and send them on their way. And Vic most definitely needs help. Especially after he opens his father’s urn and discovers instructions as to where his ashes should be spread. So Vic, with his new-found friends, takes it upon himself to scatter his dad according to his wishes.

Things aren’t that simple, though. Vic gets caught up in the lives of what comes to be called Kids of Appetite, and when the uncle of one kid ends up dead (and Baz is a suspect), Vic finds himself in the police station.

There’s a lot going on in this novel: there’s a main character with a disability, and some discussion on etiquette when dealing with someone who doesn’t look like you. There’s diversity and refugee and immigration issues with Baz and his younger brother as they try to make a new life for themselves. There’s a semi-traditional love story. There’s a murder. But, even with all these weird eclectic elements, it works. It’s such a character-driven novel and each and every character (well at least with the Kids of Appetite) is a gem. The novel alternates between Vic and Mad, an 18-year-old girl who is kind-of a runaway as well, and each of their voices was delightful. I liked that there was a dark edge to this, that there are things to think about, and yet it’s ultimately a story of hope and redemption.

Highly, highly recommended.

Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head

curiosityhouseby Lauren Oliver (and H. C. Chester)
First sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up and don’t be shy.”
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s murder and some adult smoking and drunkenness. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Orphans Philippa, Sam, and Thomas have basically grown up in Dumfrey’s Dime House, a place where unusual kids like them — Philippa is a mentalist, Sam is a strong man, and Thomas is a super-math-genius — are welcome. But, soon after Max (knife thrower extraordinaire) arrives, Mr. Dumfrey’s prize shrunken head goes missing and then people around the city start dying. It’s up to the four kids to figure out what is going on. And, in the process, figure out who they Really Are.

I found the mystery end of this delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed the four kids as they learned to work together and puzzle out who exactly was the person behind the killings. I figured it out before they did, but not much before, and I loved that the clues were there for anyone to pick up. Even the big twist ending wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s only vaguely speculative fiction (mentalist abilities and all that), so it’s perfect for those who don’t want much magic or ficitonal places. The only complaint is one I remember Ms. Yingling having: I wish the historical context was more explicitly put out there. Like her, I was able to figure it out, but I’m not sure that kids would get it (in fact I know so: this is one that my kid review group at work read and they didn’t even notice). Though that’s probably not something that would bother them.

At any rate, it’s a lot of fun.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

All Fall Down

embassyrowby Ally Carter
First sentence: “‘When I was twelve I broke my leg jumping off the wall between Canada and Germany,’ I say, but the woman across from me doesn’t even blink.”
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Content: There’s some intense situations, but no swearing and  no sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Grace saw her mother murdered three years ago. She is 100% sure of this fact. She knows it was a man with a scar on his face, that her mother was shot, not burned in an accidental fire. The problem? No. One. Believes. Her.

She’s spent the past three years in and out of therapy and in and out of drugs, and now has come to Embassy Row in Adria to live with her grandfather and forget what happened. The problem? Grace can’t let it go.

And it doesn’t help that Grace is positive that she’s seen the man who murdered her father. So, she ropes her new friends Noah and Megan (and her German neighbor, Rosie) into spying on the man. The further she goes, however, the more confusing everything becomes. Grace has no idea who’s her friend and who isn’t.

This is darker than Carter’s usual fare, and without the swoon factor (ahhh HALE). But what it lacks in fluff and swoon it more than makes up for with a completely unreliable narrator, several twists and turns, and a pretty amazing ending. Grace is a fascinating character, angsty (well, I prefer to think of it more as PTSD-y), smart, and completely wrong about so much. It makes for a trippy ride, one where I had no idea what was going to happen next. I loved that about this book. And I’m completely in the dark as to where the next book is going.

Of course I’m going to have to read it.