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.

The Truth Commission

by Susan Juby
First sentence: “First let me say that this will not be an easy tale to tell, so I’ll warm up with an author’s note.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some discussion of rape and bullying and a character doing drugs, but there’s no swearing, etc. It’s currently in the Teen section (grades 9-12), but I’d give it to a 7th or 8th grader.

This is going to be quick since I need to head to work. The basic story: Normandy Pale (she’s a girl) goes to an elite art school on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Her claim to fame? Her older sister immortalized a very awful version of their family in a cult popular graphic novel.

Normandy has never been happy with this, but when her sister shows back up into their lives (having suddenly left a prestigious art college in California), she’s really not happy. Add to that her friends Neil and Dusk (her name is really Dawn, but her personality is more Dusk-like) deciding that what they need to do is elicit Truth from people who aren’t fully honest with themselves, Normandy’s a bit of a mess.

Told as a work of “creative non-fiction” (complete with footnotes), this is really a delightful read. Juby’s exploring things like perception and truth, and whether or not it’s good to be honest with each other and with ourselves. It has a messy ending (being “true to life”), and some bumps along the way (the parents were particularly milquetoast) but in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

An Ember in the Ashes

by Sabaa Tahir
First sentence: “My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before daown, when even ghosts take their rest.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s dark and it’s brutal. Seriously. More so than Hunger Games. And because of that, it’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Laia has grown up in a world where her people, the Scholars, are a captive people. Their great enemy, the Martials, conquered them and have shown no mercy. They imprison the Scholars, they rape the women, they torture and kill those that they catch. Laia’s parents were part of the resistance, and they were betrayed and killed, along with her older sister. She and her brother Darin lived with their grandparents, trying to fly under the radar of the Martials. Until one day, when they don’t. And the Masks come for them, kill her grandparents, take Darin. Laia barely gets away.

Elias has grown up at Blackcliff, the military school that trains the Martial Masks. An unwanted bastard son of Blackcliff’s Commander, he spent the years before he turned six with the Tribal people in the desert. Then the Augurs — the mystic, magical, immortal Martial prophets — came for him and thrust him into a kill-or-be-killed world. The only way he survived was because of Helene, his fellow student and best friend. Now, just as he was graduating and dreaming of freedom, the Augurs decide that it’s time for a new emperor, and pit Elias and Helene against each other and two other students in a bid to be emperor (or die).

I think the most logical comparison read for this book is Game of Thrones. This is brutal, unflinching, dark, violent, harsh… there’s magic, but it takes a back seat to the exploration of Martial culture. And yet, underneath all of that dark is a hope, a light. Elias, for all the terrible things he’s done (and that have been done to him), turned out to be a decent human being. Laia, even though she thinks of herself as weak, has a quiet strength and bravery to her that isn’t readily seen or valued. It’s a very human book, as well: the characters are complex and messy, there’s depth even to the most hateful of characters (Marcus and the Commander, I’m looking at you), that makes them understandable, even if they aren’t likable.

In fact, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was that there are many unresolved issues, and many unanswered questions at the end. Then again, if this is the quality of writing that Tahir gives us with her first book, I only have high hopes for where this story is going to go.

Stella By Starlight

by Sharon M. Draper
First sentence: “Nine robed figures dressed all in white.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some pretty intense stuff going on in this book, by Draper never lets it get too dark. She knows her audience and (rightly) assumes they can handle anything that is thrown at them. Be prepared, however, for some discussion. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) at the bookstore.

It’s 1932, North Carolina. The whole country is in the throes of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt is running for office. For Stella and her family, this doesn’t really matter. They’re more concerned about making ends meet. And avoiding the local Klu Klux Klan.

And they’re doing a pretty good job until Stella’s dad, pastor, and a family friend decide to exercise their constitutional right and vote. Then, all hell breaks loose.

There’s actually a lot more going on than that: Draper knows her history, and paints a picture of what life was like for African Americans struggling to get ahead in the 1930s. The one-room school, with a teacher who handles all grades next to the white school where they get new books. The small houses and hand-me-over clothes. Having to enter in the back door of shops. Or, most tellingly, a white doctor who won’t come help Stella’s mother after she’d been bitten by a rattler.

And Stella is such an engaging character to go through all this with. She’s an observant, smart girl, but one who also struggles with writing in school. She’s trying to figure out her place in life, how to navigate the injustices of her situation, and still come out ahead. She’s got fantastic parents, and a supportive community. There’s so much that I found admirable about the way she deals with her situation. And so much to discuss (I know; I ended up talking to my family) when you’re done.

I’ll Give You the Sun

by Jandy Nelson
First sentence: “This is how it all begins.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some teen drinking, a (non-graphic) rape scene, and several f-bombs. That, and because of the subject matter, puts it in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Noah and Jude are twins, separate people but connected in thought and purpose (generally). So much so that they’ve become NoahandJude, pratically inseparable. That is, until the summer they turn 14. Then everything starts to fall apart. Jude becomes “wild”; Noah retreats into his own world until a new boy shows up next door. They end up “dividing” their parents, each vying for the other parent’s attention and love. On top of that, they are fiercely competing to get into the local prestigious art high school. It’s a mess.

Two years later, things aren’t much better. Jude made it into the school; Noah (who was arguably the better artist) did not. They’re still dealing with the aftermath of their mother’s fatal accident. They harbor secrets. And they’re no longer NoahandJude. They’re not even Noah and Jude. They’re two separate planets, who never talk to each other. It’s different from what it was before, but no better.

Did I mention that Jude sees the ghost of her dead grandmother, and senses the presence of her dead mom?

It’s thanks to the two ghosts that Jude searches out Guillermo, sculptor extraordinaire and Latino Mystical Guide, and finds not only salvation but True Love.

Yeah, the book derailed just about there.

For the record: everyone in this book is a Tortured Soul Needing Redemption. And they all find it together. I did enjoy Guillermo — in fact, he was the most interesting character — but that doesn’t change the fact that his role in the book was to cause a change in the white people around him. He was Passionate Lover, he was Father Figure, he was Spiritual Guide. And sometimes he was a living-breathing person, but those times were rare.

And don’t even get me started on the whole Soul Mate thing. Ugh.

What saved this book from being Truly Horrible was the writing — Nelson paints the world vividly, and I do have to admit that there was some good chemistry between Jude and her Soul Mate, even if that’s a trite trope and needs to be done away with. But what I really loved was the art. I loved Guillermo’s giant sculptures and the way Nelson depicted the process of art. I loved Noah’s chapters and the way he’d come up with paintings for everything. I loved how she considered fashion an art.

In the end, I did respect what Nelson was trying to do. But it’s not a perfect book by any means.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

by Leslye Walton
First sentence: “To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 25, 2014
Review copy sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an IndieNext blurb.
Content: There are a few mild swear words, but lots of sex (none of it graphic), including a rape scene. It also reads more like an “adult” book than a “teen” one. I’ll probably shelve it in the Teen (grades 9 and up) section, though it might do better in the general fiction section at the bookstore.

While the title of the book suggests this book is about a girl named Ava Lavender, there is more to this story. In fact, it’s about Ava Lavender only because she’s the granddaughter of Emmaline Roux and daughter of Viviane Lavender. It’s equally their story. And it’s (to be honest) a difficult story to tell.

There’s foolish love, unrequited love, passion, and most of all a magic running through it all. It’s the magic of Like Water for Chocolate: Things happen because of the passion. Not the least of which is that Ava Lavender was born with wings. Not just little wings, either. Full-fledged, huge speckled wings. Her mother, being the person she is, doesn’t allow Ava to leave their hilltop Seattle home. But. Ava longs to be a “normal” teenager. Unfortunately, normality comes at a price.

The magic runs in other places as well: Ava’s twin, Henry, only talks when he needs to, and that’s not very often. Her grandmother sees ghosts. Her mother sense of smell is beyond extraordinary. The man down the road inspires people to confess their sins. Things like that.

The writing is… lyrical. The book… magical. And me? Well, I read it. See, magical realism and I don’t really get along terribly well. I wanted… something more to happen.  It’s not that it was a bad book; it wasn’t. It just wasn’t, well, my cup of tea.

All the Truth That’s in Me

by Julie Berry
ages: 13+
First sentence: “We came here by ship, you and I.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.

Two girls go missing. One turns up dead, floating in the stream. Two years later, the other one returns to the small town, intact, but with her tongue cut out. The villagers — from the preacher to her own mother — call her cursed, and shun her.

I’ve tried to sum up what goes on in the rest of the book, but I’ve found that I don’t really want to give too much away. Because much of the pleasure I got from reading this (in one sitting!) was not knowing that much about it. I will tell you this: at first, I thought it was a fantasy setting, because I think that’s what I was expecting. It’s not. Even though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s a Puritan setting, somewhere on the east coast. And the religion and mores that those communities set out play a major role in the book. And, even though it’s a story about kidnapping and murder, and you fear the worst for Judith, I will tell you that, as the story unfolds, it’s not the worst. It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as it gets.

The meat of the story is Judith — she’s the girl that returns — and her road to healing. For, in spite of everything that the village (and her mother) heaps on her, she does need to heal. It’s this process that is the true story. How Judith salvages her life from her trauma and reclaims her own sense of self. How she finds friends in the face of all the opposition in the town. How she even finds love. It’s a testament to the power of truth, to the power of the human spirit.

Remarkable.