The First Rule of Punk

by Celia C. Pérez
First sentence: “Dad says punk rock only comes in one volume: loud.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some lying (by omission) and some middle school drama. It’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore, though 6th-7th graders might like it too.

Mariá Luisa (call her Malú please) is NOT happy about moving to Chicago. She wants to stay where she is, in her own school, splitting her time between her house and her father’s record store. But, her mom got a job in Chicago teaching Mexican literature, so they’re moving. And so she has to start over. Which is additionally hard because she’s in a school with a large Mexican American population, and Malú is struggling to find her own identity, especially with her mother always harping on Malú’s love of punk music.

But, she slowly finds her crowd in this new school, and maybe even some friends, although she makes some enemies as well (inevitable). Maybe she can find a balance in this new place.

I loved this one! Malú is a seriously great character, and I loved how Pérez wove in Mexican culture and history through the work. I loved the inclusion of punk music (and lifestyle) and actually really liked the conflict between Malú and her mom (it’s SO hard to let kids be themselves and not what we want them to be). I loved the zines in the book, and Malú’s slow acceptance of her new school and neighborhood. It was just an excellent story all around.

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Solo

by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There’s some drug use and drinking, mostly by adults. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th/8th grader who is interested.

Blade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, whose career has been in a steady decline for most of Blade’s life. Drugs, alcohol, and Blade’s mom’s death all contributed to the decline, and Blade has lost patience with his father. Especially when he shows up, mostly naked, at Blade’s graduation. It also doesn’t help that his girlfriend’s father has forbidden her to see him. So, when a long-kept family secret comes out and Blade ends up half way across the world, he is given a chance to figure out his own life and maybe figure out his relationship with his family.

On the one hand, this was a super privileged book, with its Hollywood sensibilities with parties and drugs (mostly on the part of Blade’s dad) and Misratis and paparazzi. And when Blade gets to Ghana, there’s a LOT of “things are solved through the simple people” going on, which didn’t really sit that well with me. (Maybe it’s me?)

That said, Alexander and Hess’s poetry is lovely, and I loved how they incorporated music. There’s a line, near the end of the book about how, in spite of everything, music is something that binds us and brings us together, and that resonated so very much with me. Rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, classical… music is universal and helps heal, and Alexander and Hess captured that perfectly. Which, in spite of the little complaints I had, really made this book, well, sing.

Two DNFs

I suppose each  of these could have gotten their own post, but I didn’t want to work that hard.

hatersThe Haters
by Jesse Andrews
First sentence: “Jazz camp was mostly dudes.”
Review copy provided by publisher
Content: So many swear words, including a bucketful of f-bombs. Realistic, sure, but it lands it squarely in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Wes and Corey are at jazz camp. They’re not the world’s best musicians; mostly what they do is mess around on the bass and drums, respectively, and be super snobbish about the music they listen to. They figure it’s going to be a halfway decent camp, until they meet Ash, who is a lead guitarist. But not a jazz one. She’s also the only girl at the camp. And then, one night, she talks Wes and Corey into ditching camp and going on a “tour” as a band — just the three of them.

I wanted to like this one, and sometimes I did. Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I thought that Andrews’ observations on music and hipsters and snobs and possibly even teenagers were spot-on. But, that just wasn’t enough to make me care. I made it nearly halfway before I realized that I had no desire to find out what happens on this “world tour of the south” or how Wes, Corey, and Ash deal with everything. It was funny at times. It just wasn’t interesting.

Which is too bad.

maestraMaestra
by L. S. Hilton
First sentence: “Heavy hems and vicious heels swooped and clacked over the parquet.”
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: Um. Well. Let’s just say that it’s a smarter 50 Shades of Grey.  It’s in the Mystery section of all places.

I think there’s a plot to this one. By day, Judith works at an art house as a lackey — she’s super informed about art, smarter than everyone else at the art house, but she just doesn’t get respect. So, by night, she works at a house of pleasure (of sorts). I’m sure more stuff happens, but I bailed after she accidentally killed a guy in France (or was it Italy?) and went on the lamb.

I’ll admit I don’t mind sex in my books. I like sex when it’s smart, when I like the chemistry between the characters, when there’s a plot to attach itself to. I don’t go in for erotica, mostly because it’s sex and no plot. This one, I was assured, balanced the both: hot sex, interesting character, good plot.

Um. I never got past the hot sex part to see the other two. Sure, Judith was intriguing, but 100 pages in there really wasn’t much of a plot. And it’s rumored that this is a series? Seriously? I decided I was much too innocent for this one (the sex wasn’t so much hot as it was disturbing), and since the characters and plot weren’t enough to hold my interest, I bailed.

Husky

by Justin Sayre
First sentence: “Ducks, now would you look at this!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 22, 2015
Review copy provided by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable, though the subject matter is a bit on the more mature side. It will be in the YA section of the bookstore, though it’s probably good for 5th graders as well.

Davis is an only child, living with his mother — who is gone all the time, working at the bakery she owns — and his grandmother. His father’s out of the picture (dead? I think?) and his grandpa died a few years ago. And his grandmother is one of those Irish Grandmothers: overprotective, nosy, loud. The only real escape Davis has is his opera music (yes, he likes opera. No, it doesn’t come off as weird) and his friends, Sophie and Ellen. Except that Ellen is a sarcastic mean and likes Charlie (whom Davis isn’t really quite sure of), and Sophie has been hanging out with Allegra who is one of those stereotypical Mean Girls. So, where does that leave Davis?

During this summer before high school, Davis tries to figure all of it out.

I wanted to like it. Partially because I like our rep, and she really liked this one. But. I just didn’t get it. Davis was bothered by his weight, but it’s not a fat book. Which is a good thing. It’s not one of those books where he has to Overcome Being Fat in order to be happy. But, it’s also not a Accept Yourself and Be Happy book, either. On the one hand, it’s a process, and it doesn’t have a tidy happily-ever-after, which I respect. But I didn’t like the underlying assumption — especially at the end — that Davis was gay. A boy who listens to opera and whose best friends are girls isn’t necessarily gay. (Way to play into stereotypes.) That really bothered me, in the end.

Davis was a decent enough character; a bit lethargic for my tastes, and prone to being a reactor instead of someone who actually participates in his own life. But, it wasn’t a bad thing.

Aside from the stereotypes, I really can’t pinpoint why I didn’t love this book. It just wasn’t my thing.

The Year of Shadows

by Claire Legrand
First sentence: “The year the ghost came started like this:”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There are ghosts and shades and it gets pretty scary. There’s also a lot of pre-teen Angst and a little bit of romance. For those reasons, even though it’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, I’d probably hand it to the older end of the spectrum. But that’s just me.

Olivia hates her life. Her father — whom she less-than-affectionately calls the Maestro — is wholly absorbed with being the conductor of their town’s struggling orchestra. So involved that Olivia’s mother left. So involved that they sold their house and auctioned off their belongings and moved into the back rooms of the concert hall in order to keep the orchestra afloat. And for 13-year-old Olivia, this does not sit well. In fact, she loathes it. (Understatement of the century.)

She’s miserable, she’s basically homeless, and then… she discovers there are ghosts in the concert hall. Not just ghosts, but shades — ghosts that have given up the search for the chance to move on and given into Limbo — as well. And it’s the shades that are Dangerous. And it’s up to Olivia and her new friend Henry to help the ghosts move on and defeat the shades. And, perhaps, in the process maybe they can figure out how to save the concert hall and the orchestra.

I adored this book for lots of reasons. Olivia was dark and grumpy and prickly and perfect for a ghost story. I loved the musical setting for this — the concert hall, the strains of orchestral music (it needs a soundtrack!) running through the story; in the endnote, Legrand talks about choosing pieces to fit the mood of Olivia’s life, and being familiar with many of the pieces, I think she did fabulously. (I don’t know how non-musical readers would react to it, though. Would it make them want to go look up the pieces?) I enjoyed Henry and some of the other minor characters, with their New-Agey feel and their support of Olivia. Because the Maestro? He’s firmly in the bad parent camp. He’s not a “abusive/horrible/evil” dad, but rather the “neglectful/unobservant” dad. And I can understand Olivia’s anger towards him.

There is one quibble: there’s a plot twist near the end of the book that I didn’t feel was absolutely necessary. (And which added to the Maestro’s bad parent-ness.) I think Legrand needed it for plot purposes, but it felt like it was out of left field, and didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book.

Other than that, though, it was highly enjoyable.

(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.)

The Lucy Variations

by Sara Zarr
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Try harder, Lucy.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.

Sixteen-year-old Lucy is a has-been. Ever since she walked off the stage at a piano competition in Prague, she hasn’t touched the keys. Her grandfather — who holds the money, therefore the power — told her if she walked off that was it. Finis.

Lucy has mostly accepted it, until her younger brother Gus’s teacher died and — because Gus has a high-profile charity benefit concert coming up — their grandfather and mother hire a last-minute replacement: Will. He’s young(ish), talented, and — possibly most importantly for Lucy — interested in helping her rekindle a love of playing. Not for competition, not for an audience. For herself.

I think the thing that spoke to me most about this book was the idea of how music speaks to a person. As a pianist (though not a brilliant pianist), I know about finding peace, finding beauty, finding a sort of… love, in the act of playing, and I think Zarr captured that perfectly. That moment when Lucy realizes that playing the piano is part of who she is: perfection.

It’s not a perfect, easy ride for Lucy, and I appreciated that Zarr didn’t make it easy for her. She’s struggles with readjusting to school. Her best friend’s parents are going through a divorce, and there is drama there. Lucy develops a crush on Will, which Zarr uses most effectively. I was gratified that while Zarr brushed up against the line (Will’s happily married), she never crossed over to affair territory. That would have been creepy, and I spent a good while hoping she wouldn’t. Thankfully, she told the story — expertly, simply, beautifully — without needing to go there.

It’s a moving story about a girl trying to find her path in a family, in a world where she thought she’d lost a part of herself. One which touched me.

Bonus: there’s a playlist of songs Lucy loves at the end. Which made a nearly-perfect book that much better.

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie

by Jordan Sonnenblick
ages: 11+
First sentence: “There’s a beautiful girl to my left, another to my right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

This is a cancer book. Just to get that out of the way.

Steven is in eighth grade and on his way to being a wicked-good jazz drummer (being one of two eighth graders in the All-City Jazz Band). He has had a crush on Renee since third grade, and she still doesn’t know he exists. And his best friend, Annette, has been acting a little weird lately.

Steven also has a younger brother. Jeffrey is five, and annoying in the way five year olds can be. And while Steven doesn’t mind his younger brother, he often feels like he’s competing with Jeffrey for his parent’s affection. And who can win out against a very cute five-year-old?

Steven starts the year complaining about everything, but in October, things change. That’s when Jeffrey’s diagnosed with leukemia, and Steven’s — well, the entire family’s, really — whole world is turned upside down. It’s heartbreaking and tough to deal with, as we witness this crumbling. And yet, it’s not a downer of a book. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s endearing. Steven’s a good kid, and while he struggles and is resentful, he means well. By the end you’ve grown to love both him, and Jeffrey (whom you couldn’t help but love), and understand and empathize with them. It’s an excellent example of showing: while we get Steven’s perspective, we’re never pummeled over the head with anything.

Which makes it the best kind of cancer book, I think.