The Bird and the Blade

by Megan Bannen
First sentence: “I arrived in Sarai on the fifteenth day of the seventh month — Ghost Day — but for the first time I dream of my brother, Weiji, is two months later, on the night I meet Khalaf.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs (I think I didn’t count more than four) and other mild swearing. There is also frank talk about genitals. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think an interested 7th grader could handle it.

They say, “Don’t judge a book by a cover”, but we all do.  And my judgement for this one, when I first saw the cover was “okay, it’s going to be a light fantasy; I hope it’s good.” Well. It’s not a light fantasy (okay, so there’s a small ghost element at the end, but I’m not really counting that). Set in the late 13th century and  loosely based on the opera Turandot, it’s a sweeping story about a captured girl from the Song empire, Jinghua, the slave of the Kipchack Khanate. The il-khan, Timur, and his youngest son, Khalaf, are on the run after an invasion from a neighboring khanate, and through a twist of fate, Jinghua ends up with them as they travel across the Mongol empire. Once Khalaf finds out that the daughter of the Great Khan, Turandokht, is refusing to marry anyone unless they solve three riddles, Kahalf decides that that’s the only way to save his father and his kingdom, so they head there. Khalaf to solve the riddles, Jinghua to stop him.

It’s a difficult one to sum up, this book, because there is so much going on. It’s a forbidden romance — as Jinghua and Khalaf spend time together, they find they have  a mutual respect and admiration that develops into something more, but a son of an il-khan and a servant can never be together in any real way. It’s a road trip — as her characters travel, Bannen takes us through multiple parts of the Mongol Empire, showing just how vast and varied it was. And it’s a work of historical fiction, though it felt like it had a modern sensibility. Khalf stood up for Jinghua in ways that I’m not sure a 13th century man would, but I found I didn’t mind. It’s a unique book, set in a unique place, with some fantastic characters.

Definitely recommended.

Advertisements

Tess of the Road

by Rachel Hartman
First sentence: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there.
Others in the series: Seraphina, Shadow Scale
Content: There are many allusions to sex (including rape). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

As a head’s up, while this one references Seraphina and Shadow Scale, it’s a completely separate story, and you can probably get away without reading them if you’re not interested. (I didn’t re-read them, and so really didn’t remember much, and still enjoyed Tess.)

Let me say this at the start: I love Hartman’s writing. It’s not elegant like Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater, but Hartman knows how to tell a story in such a way that you lose yourself in it. Tess is a human girl — Seraphina’s half sister — who just wants to be intellectually challenged. But raised in a strict household (they’re paying for Seraphina’s “sin” of being a dragon), what’s expected of her is to marry well. But Tess messes that up when she gets pregnant (at age 14!) and has a baby. And now, when she’s 17, faced with the prospect of raising her twin sisters children or going to a convent she does the unthinkable: she disguises herself as a boy and takes to walking the road, ostensibly to help her quigutl (a sub-species of dragon) friend find the World Serpent.

This is such a remarkable book: a heartfelt and emotional tale as Tess’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks, but also an adventurous one, as we experience Tess and Pathka’s adventures on the road. It’s a deeply feminist book as well, as Hartman explores the consequences of not teaching your kids sex ed or discouraging girls from getting an education, if they want. It’s all about expressing anger and compassion and helping others out along they way and redemption and forgiveness.

And it’s left open-ended, so we may (or may not) get to join Tess for more adventures.

It’s wonderful.

The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle

by Christina Uss
First sentence: “The front door to the Mostly Silent Monastery was missing.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: June 5, 2018
Content: It’s got a few fantasy elements, but is more realistic fiction. It’s probably longer than emerging readers can mange, but I think it’d make a great read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

This book, for a myriad of reasons, is highly implausible. A 12 year old girl biking alone across the country? Making friends with  a ghost? Ending up with a super high-tech bicycle? Attending the Kentucky Derby for free? All probably not going to happen. However, that doesn’t mean this first book by Uss, an avid biker herself (she biked across the U. S.!) any less enjoyable. Bicycle is a delightful character to spend a book with as she branches out (maybe in an overly extreme way) and tries to make friends and experience things for herself. Though, to be fair, I wouldn’t want to be sent to the Friendship Farm, either. It’s incredibly charming and ultimately heart-warming and inspiring as Bicycle (and Uss) finds the best parts of this vast country.

(One small quibble: if Bicycle was going through Kansas in late May/early June, she wouldn’t pass fields of sunflowers… that’s more an August/September thing. At least it wasn’t corn fields, though.)

Hand this to anyone who wishes they had the time and freedom to see the country the slow way.

 

Love & Luck

by Jenna Evans Welch
First sentence: “Dear Heartbroken, What do you picture when you imagine traveling through Ireland?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some sexual harassment and mild swearing. It is in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Addie has been looking forward to the end-of-summer trip to her aunt’s wedding in Ireland. Mostly because she’s going to pop over to Italy afterward (to see Lina from Love & Gelato) but also because it will get her away from the boy who dumped her after their secret summer relationship. She is planning on sitting in the sun and eating gelato and forgetting.

Except, her other brother, Ian (who was supposed to go with Addie to Italy) has other plans: he’s hooked up with an internet friend, Rowan, and they’re going to go on a band-themed road trip in Ireland ending up at the last concert of their favorite band. Addie’s WAY against this (since their parents don’t know), but is convinced to let them drop her off at the airport. But… the car breaks down, the traffic is bad, and she misses her flight. And suddenly, she’s on a road trip with a boy she barely knows and a brother she’s barely speaking to.

I expected this to be a light, fluffy romance, but Welch delivered something… different. Sure there was a small bit of romance, but mostly the book was about bad decisions and healing and forgiveness. It’s a bit much to go into here, but I liked Welch’s descriptions of the sibling relationships, and how hard it is to find out who you are in the middle of a big, boisterous (and loving) family. (It was nice that the parents were actually good parents, too!) I liked the cheesy “travel guide” that is quoted throughout the book, as well; even though it was often corny, there were some good thoughts in it, and yes, it did make me want to go see Ireland.

It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I really liked it.

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.

 

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.