York: The Shadow Cipher

by Laura Ruby
First sentence: “The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes.”
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Content: It’s long, and there are some challenging vocabulary words, as well as a few intense moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to any adventuresome 4th grader and up.

I’ve been looking at this book since before it came out in May, thinking, “I really need to get to this one.” And so I was overjoyed that it ended up on the Cybils list. Even so, I put it off… perhaps thinking it wouldn’t live up to the hype I’ve heard surrounding it.

Boy, was I wrong! This is a difficult one to describe: it’s an alternative New York City, one in which there were genius twins — the Morningstarrs — in the 19th century who invented steampunk-like machines (many of which are still in use “today”), and then, when they disappeared mysteriously, left behind a Cipher to be figured out. Except in the intervening 160 years, no one has figured it out. That is, until a different set of twins, Tess and Theo Biedermann, and their friend Jaime Cruz, get a mysterious letter and set about following a whole new set of clues, in the hopes of saving their apartment building. Following the clues leads them on an increasingly dangerous path, full of wonders and betrayals, all the way to the end. Or perhaps: just another beginning? (Yes, it’s a first in a series.)

I was talking about this to A the other day, and trying to explain it, and she looked at me like this was crazy. And in a way, it is. But it’s SO very good. The characters are fun (Cricket needed a larger role!) and Ruby keeps the plot moving along. I have heard some say that it’s complicated, but I think she manages to mesh the mystery and the steampunk elements (plus good, if distracted, parents) quite seamlessly. I’m definitely on board for their next adventure!

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Voracious

voraciousby Cara Nicoletti
First sentence: “Growing up in a family of butchers and food lovers, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells of cooking from an early age.”
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Content: There’s nothing. Hand it to anyone who loves books and food. It’s in the cooking reference section of the bookstore.

The premise of this book is simple: Nicoletti, who studied English and Latin in college but whose professional life has been as a chef (and currently a butcher), has a passion for food scenes in books.  This is something she’s always enjoyed in books, especially since she grew up in a house surrounded by both books and food. So, pairing them both — first a blog, and then in this book — is a natural thing for her.

The book itself is a series of short vignettes, each about a particular book, followed by a recipe that, for her, fits each book. It’s a delightful read; she writes about experiences in her life, about where she is when she reads each book, and about what the books mean to her. I haven’t read a lot of the books (especially as Nicoletti moves into her adult years), but it didn’t seem to matter. She doesn’t go through plots and she doesn’t make you feel on the outside if you haven’t read them. This is what these particular books mean to her, and hopefully, it will resonate with you. (It did me.) And the recipes sound delicious! From donuts and cakes to soups and blinis and caviar, it all sounds delicious, and I will probably get around to making at least a few of them (hopefully). Even if I don’t, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the recipes. (Is that just me?)

An excellent read for those of us who prefer a little food with our books.

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.”
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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.

Another Brooklyn

anotherbrooklynby Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: August 9, 2016
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs, and a lot of illusions to off-screen sex as well as drug use. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The death of August’s father, and her return to Brooklyn for the first time in many years, sets off a chain of memories from her childhood. When she, her brother and father left the farm down South, soon after her mother committed suicide. The friendships she had with girls her age, and the different paths their lives eventually took. The way her father and brother turned to Islam and the hope and guidance their religion gave them. It all comes crashing down on her, in a series of reflective snippets, as she tries to make sense of her childhood.

I’m not sure I fully unpacked all that this novel had to offer. In fact, I know I didn’t. It’s deceptively short and it goes quick, and I know I missed things. Not only Big Things (not that there was much of a plot; it really was a series of short, almost poetic vignettes), but the Meaning behind those Things. It’s a harsh place, Brooklyn of the 1970s, a sexist one as well as a dangerous one. And August, through Woodson, tries to unpack what it all Means. And even though I enjoyed the lyrical flow of the book, and related to the women in it, I’m not sure I understood what Woodson was trying to do.

That said, I think it’s an Important book, and one that will be great for book groups to sit and hash over. (I’d love someone to talk to about it.) And, I can’t deny the beauty of the writing; Woodson is supremely talented. I just wish I were a better reader.

Towers Falling

towersfallingby Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “Pop groans.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: July 12. 2016
Content: It’s simple enough that the younger set can understand it but complex enough that it won’t bore the older kids. It’ll be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Deja is starting over at a new school, but not by choice. Her family was evicted from their home in Brooklyn, and they’ve moved into a homeless shelter closer to Manhattan. It’s not a happy situation; her father suffers from headaches and can’t hold down a job, and her mother — an immigrant from Jamaica — can only work so many hours.

So, when Deja’s new school starts studying the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Deja wonders what on earth it has to do with her. But, as the weeks and months go on — and she learns more about the attacks that happened before she was born — she and her friends Ben and Sabeen learn that no one is unaffected by history.

Rhodes is doing a couple of things here: first, she’s telling the story of the towers falling for kids who may not know anything about it. Sure, it’s not super distant history, but there are still kids who aren’t really familiar with it. And I’m not sure how much it’s being taught in schools (C got it a lot, A got a lesson or two in 5th grade, and I’m not sure anyone at school has brought it up for K) anymore. So, there definitely is a need for a reminder. But, Rhodes has gone bigger than just “hey kids, this happened” history. She’s encompassing issues of kids being homeless, of religious tolerance (Sabeen is Muslim, and she and her family face discrimination because of that), of diversity. She strikes a nice balance in the book between teaching the kids and preaching to them, and  manages to be diverse and moral-centric without being didactic and moralistic.

It’s definitely a book worth checking out.

When Friendship Followed Me Home

whenfriendshipby Paul Griffin
First sentence: “You’d have to be nuts to trust a magician.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s not a difficult read, and there’s nothing objectionable, but the subject matter is probably more serious than your average 8- or 9-year-old will want. That said, if they’re interested, I’d give it to them. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Ben has had a rough life. He was dropped off at a group home when he was a baby, abandoned by his mother. He made friends, but one of them died after an accident. That lead to him meeting a social worker, an older woman whose partner had died, and him being adopted by her. Everything was looking up, especially after he found a stray dog (who ended up being the dog of a woman who had recently become homeless) and met a new friend, Halley, who is in remission from a rare cancer.

If you’ve read ANY middle grade/YA books, you know where this one is headed.

On some level, I wanted to be annoyed with this book. I felt like Griffin employed every single cliche out there: Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Dead Parents, Bad Parents, Cancer Book, it’s all in there. I wanted to be annoyed at it. I was a little frustrated when I realized the direction it was taken. But… I didn’t hate it. I didn’t.

Partially, it’s because it’s self-aware. There’s one quote, early on when Ben and Halley are talking about a story they’re writing, where Halley says, “Well, you have to get rid of [parents] somehow, and that is the most merciful yet expeditious way. Otherwise how do you turn her into an orphan? This is a middle grade story, for like ages ten to fourteen, and the rule is you need an orphan.”

I laughed, and as the book went on, I realized that Griffin knew what he was doing. He was Making Points, but subtly, and I didn’t hate him for his messages. I liked Ben and Halley and Flip the dog, among other characters, so I could get past the messages. And even though I wasn’t Moved by the book, I did enjoy reading the stories. And it was, in fact, written well.

So, I’m torn. I didn’t Love it like I wanted, but I didn’t loathe it either.

Kill the Boy Band

killtheboybandby Goldy Moldavsky
First sentence: “People have called me crazy.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 23, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a LOT of f-bombs, plus an off-screen sex scene. It’ll be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

You ever finish a book and think “Huh. That was a wild, weird, insane trip”?

Yeah, this is that sort of book.

The premise? Four friends — Samantha, our narrator; Erin; Isabel; and Anna — who are all dedicated fans of The Ruperts (a One Direction-like band) have met up in New York City for The Ruperts’ Thanksgiving show. They’ve managed (thanks to Anna, whose family is loaded) to score a room in the hotel where the boys are staying. Their goal? To score tickets to the show, maybe meet the band.

Or at least that’s what it begins like.

Then, they accidentally sort-of on purpose kidnap the most useless member of the Ruperts, Rupert P., and things kind of go (hilariously) downhill from there.

I’ll admit it: I laughed. I laughed a lot. The premise is so ridiculous, so inane that I had to laugh. The fans are called Strepurs (that’s Rupert’s backwards). The four girls got into ever increasingly weird situations. But, at it’s heart, it’s a dark novel. What is the purpose of a celebrity? How much do they owe their fans? How much should a fan expect? You see this all the time with celebrities, finding a balance between being a private person and appeasing their fans, and Moldavsky just takes it to the extreme. It’s also a musing on the extremes that fans — especially teenage girls, but maybe that’s a stereotype — will go to meet and interact with the object of their affection. It’s a fascinating look — albeit satirical — at the current state of culture.

Did I like it? Yes. Did it scare me? Somewhat. (My boss says it’s because I have teenage girls who are fans of things.) Is it good? Definitely.