American Heart

by Laura Moriarty
First sentence: “One thing someone just meeting me might want to know is why I have two first names.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 30. 2018
Content: There are some disturbing situations, including an almost rape and violence against minorities. It will be in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Sarah-Mary and her younger brother are living with their aunt in Hannibal, Missouri, because their mother is one of those Bad Mothers who can’t take care of her children. Her younger brother is okay with this (except for the missing mom part), but it chafes with Sarah-Mary. She has a limited amount of freedom, which chafes. And then, she and her brother meet an Iranian woman, whom Sarah-Mary ends up calling Chloe, who is  on the run, avoiding the mandatory Muslim registry that has been implemented for “our safety”. Her brother begs Sarah-Mary to help get Chloe to safety in Canada, and of course Sarah-Mary promises. And thus begins the adventure.

It’s not a pleasant one, either. Moriarty attempts to focus on the wrongness of profiling people by race or religion (there’s this scene where Sarah-Mary witnesses a raid on a house where the person was harboring Muslims) and touches on prejudice and discrimination. She also make sure that the dangers of two women hitchhiking are amply described.  Nothing “bad” ever happens, but the novel brushes up against it several times, and it’s only through luck, wit, and technology that Sarah-Mary and Chloe get away.

And along the way Sarah-Mary learns the one great lesson that we all need to learn, especially right now: people are people. They all have hopes, dreams, and stories. And that judging a whole religion or race by one person’s actions not only is not fair, it’s wrong. However, the Muslim registry doesn’t miraculously go away at the end of the book, nor does Sarah-Mary’s actions have a larger Meaning, so maybe Moriarty missed the mark on something big here.

Perhaps, though, that’s also the problem with the book. That Sarah-Mary (read: white people) needed a Muslim woman (read: any diverse person of color) to Show Her the Way. As a concept, it’s clumsy, and I’ve read some responses on the book that lead me to think that it might be harmful, reinforcing White Stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and just the White Savior narrative. I did enjoy this while reading it, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best idea for a white woman to tackle something like this.

 

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See You in the Cosmos

seeyouinthecosmosby Jack Cheng
First sentence: “Who are you?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some illusions to difficult situations, but they’re pretty vague. I’m waffling between putting this in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) or YA (grades 6-8) sections of the bookstore, because it could go either way. I’d definitely say it’s for 5th grade and up.

Alex, age 11 (but 13 in “responsibility years”), has a passion for science and rockets and Carl Sagan, the scientist. He wants to send his Golden iPod up into space in a rocket he built, which is why he’s headed out to SHARF (Southwest High Altitude Rocket Festival) in New Mexico. It’s where It’s All Going to Happen. And it does, though not in the way Alex thinks it will. He meets some broken and incredibly nice people, and that leads him to Las Vegas where he finds he has a half sister. Which leads him to LA before heading back home again. It’s part road trip, part family story, part musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything. And entirely delightful.

The best thing about this book was the voice. The chapters are a series of recordings that Alex does as he goes on his trip, talking to the aliens to whom he’s intending on sending the iPod. Cheng captures the uncertainty of being eleven, Alex’s passion for his family and his dog without much exposition at all. It was the perfect way to tell Alex’s story, to experience all the crazy serendipitous things that happen to Alex. (Seriously: he’s a magical being, Alex. It’s like he wills good things to happen to him, and they do.) Cheng captured the heart and soul of the book and reminded me that there are Good People out in the world.

And that, perhaps, is the best thing about this book.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds

hundredthousandby Bob Proehl
First sentence: “Alex Torrey, nine but small for his age, writes the names of the places on the exit signs in his notebook.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 28, 2016
Review copy put in my box at work by the purchasing manager.
Content:  There’s a bunch — a couple dozen — of f-bombs, plus other swearing, and some sexytimes, though nothing graphic. It’ll be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

By all accounts, I should love this book. A single mother, the former star of a beloved canceled sci-fi show, travels across the country attending ComicCons (some big, some small), meeting all sorts of cosplayers and comic writers and artists as she comes to terms with letting her nine-year-old son live permanently (at least temporarily) with her ex-husband, his father.

Except, I didn’t like it. At all. (In fact, I thought upon finishing it: “This is why I don’t read that many adult books anymore!”) It wasn’t bad enough to bail on; in fact, I kept hoping that it’d get better.  But I just didn’t like it. I wanted to like the inside peek behind the scenes of a con, of the ups and downs of being a cosplayer, or even one of the main talent. I’m not too terribly interested in the politics of comics (that’s more Hubby’s ballgame), and there was a lot of  time devoted to the politics of characters, the dynamics between artists and writers, and the politics of creating a storyline, none of which I was interested in.  (And that’s not even mentioning the precocious nine-year-old who was simultaneously too young and too old to be real.)

I wanted to like it. I hoped to like it. But, in the end, it just fell flat.

The Road to Little Dribbling

littledribblingby Bill Bryson
First sentence: “One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a bunch (a dozen or so?) of f-bombs scattered throughout, and it’s a bit old-n-cranky for the younger set. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing (plus England), then it’s in the Creative Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s been 20 years since Notes from a Small Island, and Bryson’s publisher thought it’d be an interesting thing for Bryson to go back and revisit places. Well, he decided not to do that. Partially because he’s not one to do things exactly the same way, and partially because he applied for British citizenship and one of the questions asked what were the two farthest cities in Great Britain, he drew a line down the middle of the country and decided to loosely follow it, visiting places.

It doesn’t sound like much to hang a book on, but this is Bill Bryson after all. It’s been a while since he’s done a travel book, and I was more than happy that he got back to it. I was much more willing to read this one than I was Notes (I didn’t “get it”. I wonder what that means now.) and I thoroughly enjoyed traveling to all these small, out of the way, strange little English places with him.

But what really struck me is that Bryson is a bit of a crank. A lovable, affable, hilarious crank, but a crank nonetheless. He’s one of those people who think that it Used To Be Better back when he was younger, and that the world — or, more particularly, Great Britain — is going to pot. And yet, the affection he has for his adopted country is obvious. He adores Great Britain, not just with all his faults but because of them. In spite of his occasional crankiness (or maybe because of it?) I had a hilarious, fun, and sometimes insightful (his throw-away comments on U. S. gun control in the last chapter are spot-on) time traveling England with him.

The Porcupine of Truth

by Bill Konigsburg
First sentence: “The Billings Zoo has no animals.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

Carson Smith has drawn the short stick for the summer: he’s stuck in Billings, Montana with his mom. They’ve moved back to take care of his dying, alcoholic father whom Carson hasn’t seen in 14 years. It’s not exactly the Ideal Summer at all.

Then Carson, completely by chance, meets Aisha and strikes up a friendship. No romance here: Aisha’s a lesbian who has been kicked out of the house by her super religious dad. She’s having a winner of a summer too, so she moves in with Carson and his parents. Everything is shaping out to be a complete Win until Carson and Aisha start nosing through boxes in the basement and uncover some clues to Carson’s grandfather’s disappearance back in the early 1980s. One thing leads to another and soon Carson and Aisha are on a road trip to find Carson’s grandfather.

This was a hard book for me to read, as a religious person. Mostly because Carson and Aisha are incredibly hostile — for good reason, I think — toward organized religion. I can understand why: too often people hide behind Religion, using it to justify their prejudices and to promote hate. But not everyone does, and I was made uncomfortable by the broad strokes: all people who are “religious” are bigots.

Thankfully, there is growth with these characters, and I appreciated that. I appreciated that, overall, Konigsberg treated everything thoughtfully and carefeull. Which meant that no one was truly black and white and that both Carson and Aisha learned things along the way.

There’s a lot to think about in this book, and I do think it’s a story, with all its broken people and hurtful relationships, that needs to be told. I just wish religion and religious people came off better.

A quick aside: Konigsberg stopped by the store as part of his Porcupines for Trevor tour. While it wasn’t super well-attended, we got a small crowd and we sat in a circle talking about religion and the LGBTQ community. It was a very interesting (and civil) discussion, one that I was glad we had.

Also: we took a selfie. He was very kind, and very, very tired.

Kissing in America

by Margo Rabb
First sentence: “According to my mother, my first kiss happened on a Saturday in July.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few mild swear words, s**t being the most prevalent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Eva Roth adores romance novels, much to her feminist mother’s chagrin. Eva loves the sweeping romance, the rugged men (who are ruggedly handsome), the idea of falling in love. She lives in New York City, though; someplace where there aren’t rugged cowboys or Highland Scotsmen to sweep her off her feet.

Then she meets Will: cool, on the swim team, completely inaccessible. Until he is: he’s kissing her on the sidewalk in front of a subway stop, and Eva’s world changes completely.

Enough so that when Will moves to LA  to live with his dad, Eva concocts a way to go see him: she and her best friend, Annie, are going on a cross-country bus trip to be on this Smart Kids game show. Just so she can see Will.

It sounds like a fluffy romance, no? And in many ways it is: Eva falls in love, other people fall in love, there is sweeping kisses and lots of corny romance novel references. But this novel has a darker undercurrent running through it: The reason for the bus trip is that Eva has been afraid to fly, ever since her father died in a freak plane crash.  In fact, the novel turns out less to be about romance than about Eva’s relationship with her mother, grief, and moving on since her father’s death. Which is not what I was expecting.

Even though it wasn’t quite the fluffy romance I was expecting, I did enjoy the story. I liked Eva’s relationship with her best friend, Annie. (Though I wanted to smack her aunt and mother. Seriously overprotective, even if it is understandable.) I liked the road trip part, with Eva getting out of her bubble and routine. (Though it was quite tame compared to, say, the bus trip in Mosquitoland.) And I did like that everything wasn’t “happily ever after”;  it was realistic while being hopeful, and that worked for me.

A good summer read.

Shadow Scale

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “I returned to myself.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Seraphina
Release date: March 10, 2015
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at work.
Content: It’s pretty complex, when it comes to keeping tabs on everything that’s going on, and it’s fairly long and slow-moving as well. It’s also more mature in its sensibilities, though there’s not much else that would put it in the Teen section (grades 9+). Even so, that’s where I shelve these.

There’s so much going on in this novel that, much like Seraphina, it’s kind of difficult to put all of what’s going on down on paper. (Or the internet, for that matter.) On the one hand, this is a straight-forward road trip: to help her friend Glisselda, who is now queen of Goredd, Seraphina goes on a quest to find the other ityasaari — those who are half-dragon, half-human. She feels that, if she gets everyone in one place, they’ll be able to create a mind-field to keep the renegade dragons out of the city. Seraphina initially thinks this will be a simple task: go into the surrounding countries, locate the ityasaari, get back to Goredd and they will all live happily-ever-after.

Thankfully for the reader, it’s not that simple. There are obstacles in Serpahina’s way, and not least of all is Jannoula, an abused, embittered, scheming ityasaari who has the ability to manipulate the humans (and dragons) around her. She is there every step of the way, adding conflict, tension, and suspense to Seraphina’s path.

Also like Seraphina, there’s much to love about this one. Hartman’s world-building is impeccable, and it’s fantastic to see what she’s done with the other cultures, religions, and people surrounding Goredd. The romance that was budding at the end of Seraphina is still here, but it takes a back-seat to Seraphina’s journeys and allows Seraphina to become her own strong woman independent of anyone else. That said, there’s some surprises by the end of the book, ones that I thought were thoroughly refreshing.

Speaking of the end, about two-thirds of the way through, I worried that Hartman wasn’t going to wrap up the story, but she pulled through. In classic high-fantasy style, she gives us an epic and truly fantastic ending, one that is thoroughly satisfying while staying true to the story, characters, and world she built.

Hartman is truly a writer to keep an eye out for. Whatever she touches is just amazing.