Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky

by Kwame Mbalia
First sentence: “There was a rhythm in y fists.”
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Content: It’s long. And there is some action violence. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

Tristan Strong is the son and grandson of boxers, but that’s not what he wants to be. No, he’s a bit of a nerd, and would rather spend his time with his best friend Eddie collecting stories. Except his best friend Eddie died in a bus accident, and Tristan couldn’t save him.

After losing his first boxing match, Tristan is sent to his grandparents in Alabama to try and work though is feelings about Eddie’s death. And that’s where, unfortunately, Tristan falls through a hole and into the world of MidPass and Alke, where gods and folk heroes are battling iron machines and the Maafa for control of their world. What can a 13-year-old do to help? Well, a lot, as it turns out.

This was such a fun book! I enjoyed Tristan’s adventures and the way Mbalia wove both African and African American myths and folk tales into the story. I loved how Tristan came into his own as the book went along, and he was able to face his grief as well as figuring out how to get through his fear (it was nice to have a hero who was terrified but manged to work through it!). I loved how everyone that Tristan met worked together, and how the solutions weren’t about fighting and winning, but more about cooperation. I also liked that Mbalia addressed slavery as part of the whole mythos but it was never a book that was solely about the slave experience.

Definitely highly recommended!

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman
First sentence: “Many gods and goddesses are named in Norse mythology.”
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Content: There’s some odd situations, and a bit of violence. It’s with the other mythology books in the bookstore, but I’d give it to anyone who likes Norse mythology (like K, who wants to read this next).

This is exactly what it says it is: retellings of old Norse myths. Gaiman goes basically chronologically, beginning with with the creation of the nine words and the gods and the creation of Yggdrasil, the world-tree, and goes through to Ragnarock, and what that will be. There are stories about Thor and Loki and Frey and Freya and the giants.

It’s a good retelling, as far as retellings go — Gaiman is a talented writer, and it shows in this — though to be honest, I’m not fond of reading the myths in their original form. It’s kind of like reading short stories; I want something longer, something more cohesive. That said, I’m glad I read them, if only because I could see how Rick Riordan worked the myths into the Magnus Chase series.

I picked this up for book group, which is probably the only way I would have read it. It’s just not something I’m interested in reading. But, that said, I’m glad I read this.

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth

by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raul the Third
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Content: There are some scary images — all based in folklore. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section.

First off: this is a second book in a series, so I felt like I was missing a bit of origin story, but it really does work okay as a stand alone.

Three friends: Elirio Malaria (a mosquito), Lupe Impala (an impala, the animal not the car), and El Chavo Flapjack Octopus (again, self-explanatory) have noticed that their friend, Genie (the cat!) has gone missing. They decide to go looking for Genie, and soon discover that he’s been taken captive by Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld. Not to be outdone by some god, the three friends take their car into the underworld to get Genie back.

On the one hand, this is a super cool graphic novel. Ancient gods, huge fights, and who doesn’t love a trip into the underworld? They met all sorts of mythical creatures, from the jackal to La Llorona, and even celebrated Dia de los Muertos. If you know Texas, too, you’ll recognize some landmarks.

I’m not a huge fan of the art style, it’s tri-color pen-and-ink, but it just reinforces the busy-ness of the book to me. I get why the author was using that style; it kind of looks like tattoos, and it is reminiscent of doodling on pages, but it didn’t work for me. And while I appreciated the use of Spanish mixed in with the English, the fact that they provided footnoted translations (which, again, I understand why) really ground my reading to a halt. It worked better once I figured out I could just gather the meaning of the Spanish from the context.

I’m not sorry I read this one, though. It’s clever and fun, and even if the art wasn’t my favorite, I think it was worth the time. Maybe start with book one, though.

Circe

by Madeline Miller
First sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, a rape scene, and some references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested high schooler.

I am not overly familiar with Circe’s myth. As one of our customers said, when I mentioned that I was reading this book, “she’s the one who turned men into pigs, right?” That’s pretty much all I knew.

So, I was taken with Miller’s re-imagining of this myth. (And since I didn’t have anything to compare it to, I was a blank slate.) Circe was an interesting character (if a bit annoying at times), and I really loved her slow growth arc, how she went from being a clueless daughter of the god Helios to a witch to a woman with a confidence in her own abilities. I liked the details that Miller put in; you could tell she’s a scholar of the mythology, and she handled the huge cast of characters extremely well. It was a bit slow in the middle, when Circe was exiled to her island, but nothing much else was going on, but once Odysseus showed up, it picked back up again.

All of this to say: I really enjoyed this one a lot!

Aru Shah and the End of time

by Roshani Chokshi
First sentence: “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them.”
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Release date: March 27, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some complex names, a little violence, and hints of crushes, but I’d give it to anyone reading the Percy Jackson series. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we saw Rick Riordan, and he was talking about his imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, one of my husband’s concerns is that the writers of these books on this imprint will just basically be telling Percy Jackson stories, superimposed on people of color and their mythologies.

And, after finishing Aru Shah and the End of Time — with its Hindu mythology — I can say that’s partly true. Aru Shah felt like a Percy Jackson book: a girl finds out she’s the daughter of a god (in this case, Indra, the god of Thunder), goes on a quest with a new-found friend and a sidekick to save the world (from the demon The Sleeper, which has awoken) , in a book full of humor, pop culture references, and non-stop action. So, yeah, in a sense that’s true. But Aru Shah is also wholly its own thing. Aru is more conflicted than Percy ever was: she, inadvertently sets off the crisis she has to save the world from, which fills her, not unexpectedly, with guilt. And while the quest part feels the same, there are notable differences: primarily being the mythology; there are a ton of stories in Hindu lore, and while I’m not familiar with all of them, I do know some, and I liked the spin that Chokshi put on them. I liked that Aru and her friend Mini’s relationship was complicated: they were reincarnated souls of former brothers, which makes them sisters, though they have different god fathers and different families in the human world. It gave a deeper, richer layer to their relationship, which I really enjoyed. Everyone in the book seemed more complex and mulit-faceted than I was expecting, which was nice.

In short, while this does feel familiar, and will to anyone who has read the Percy Jackson books, Choski has also put her stamp on the stories, which is a refreshing, welcome thing.

A Crack in the Sea

by H. M. Bouwman
First sentence: “As with true stories, Venus’s story has no beginning.”
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Content: There are some heavy themes, and it might be a little slow for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is one of those stories that doesn’t feel like it has much of a plot or a point; one whose only purpose is to tell mythology. And this one did that well. It takes place in an alternative, second world, one that’s reached through a crack in our world. There a hundred or so escaped slaves made a home for themselves, existing in a world with magic and creating a new life away from the cruel slavers.

200 years later, the people have grown into a Raftworld and an island nation, and a brother-sister team may be what can save the relations between the two nations.

I wanted to like this one more than I did. While I liked the format — it reminded me of the Grace Lin books — I kept thinking that it was problematic. See: the author is white. And this one, pulling on slaving stories and mythologies, should have been written by someone whose mythology it is. And while I liked the story well enough, I couldn’t shake that feeling, that somehow this was imposing.

But that may just be me.