Sourdough

by Robin Sloan
First sentence: “It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 5, 2017
Content: There’s several instances of swearing, including a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Lois Clary is a Millennial, stuck programming in a tech job in San Francisco. It’s a get up, go to work life, one that, while isn’t bad, isn’t fulfilling either. And then she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, and is in love. With the food. Run by a couple of immigrant brothers, it’s something that fills her soul. So, when they unexpectedly have to leave the country, they leave her the starter for the sourdough. It’s that small act that changes Lois’s world. She learns to bake sourdough, and discovers that the starter itself is a bit magical. But more than that, Lois finds a purpose in life, a meaning to everything. She becomes involved with an underground experimental farmer’s market, and works on teaching a robot arm how to cook. There’s a bit of conflict with big business and some over-anxious scientists, but for the most part, this is Lois’s story, her discovering there’s more to life than sitting in a cubical.

Which is really the point of this. It lies at the intersection of those who bake/love baking and those who “get” or are technologically savvy. There’s a strong sense of needing to get out of working with computers to find satisfaction in life, but there’s also a sense that technology is inevitable and working with it instead of fighting it is the way to go. It’s a fascinating balance, and Sloan handles it beautifully.

In the end, this isn’t a deep novel (then again, neither was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Now to go find a good loaf of sourdough to eat! (Or, maybe I should find myself a starter and learn how to make one…)

Outrun the Moon

outrunthemoonby Stacy Lee
First sentence: “In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some violence (done my Mother Nature) and some horrible people saying horrible things. Also, an illusion to sex (by minor adult characters). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Mercy Wong has Aspirations and Goals. She wants out of Chinatown, where the whole of San Francisco in 1906 wants to keep her and her family. She wants more than marriage (though she does like Tom, the son of a respected apothecary). She wants to Be Somebody. And, she’s decided that St. Clair’s School for Girls is the way to get it. She bargains her way in, and discovers that things aren’t always as simple as they seem. Then the earthquake hits, and when everything comes crashing down around Mercy, she discovers that perhaps the best things in life are friends and a bit of determination.

This really was a nice combination of historical — the dresses and rules of etiquette and restrictions on women — and modern, with Mercy’s progressive ideas and determination to do things without the permission of authority figures. Lee did a great job balancing the two, so it never felt too modern, nor too old-fashioned. I appreciated seeing San Francisco through a Chinese girl’s point of view, and Mercy really is one of those characters you just want to root for. I liked that while there was a romance, it didn’t dominate the story, and that Mercy was enough of her own person to make the romance believable rather than sappy.

I should go back and read Lee’s first book; I’ve heard good things about it. And if it’s anything like this one, it’s sure to be good.

You Know Me Well

youknowmewellby Nina LaCour and David Levithan
First sentence: “Right now, my parents think I’m sleeping on the couch at my best friend Ryan’s house, safely tucked into a suburban silence.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: June 7, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s illusions to sex (but none actual), some underage drinking, and lots of f-bombs. It’ll be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mark and Kate have sat next to each other in Calculus all year, but it isn’t until a June night at the beginning of Pride week in downtown San Francisco that they actually see each other. Mark is suffering from heartbreak: he’s been in love with his best friend for years, but his best friend isn’t really comfortable coming out as gay. Kate is supposed to be meeting this girl, the cousin of her best friend, but her anxiety takes over and she’s bolted. Between the two of them, maybe they can figure out their lives, their future, and which direction to go from here.

The thing that impressed me most about this was that it was less about the romance — although there was romance — and more about how Kate and Mark developed their friendship. It was about them needing a change from their lives and finding something new in a new person, something that allowed them to become More than they already were. It was about them being there for each other, not romantically, but as a good friend. And it was about jealousy that we all feel when our friends do something new or something different without us, about how sometimes that’s the hardest part of growing.

I liked how it felt seamless between Kate and Mark’s parts; that characters who showed up in one part felt authentic in the other, how LaCour and Levithan balanced their character’s stories. And, as a cis-gender straight person, I was able to find things to relate to. Life really is universal.

Quite good.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World

by Katie Coyle
First sentence: “There came a time when the American people began to forget God.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 6, 2015
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is teenage drinking and a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also frequent off-screen violence. It’ll be in the Teen Section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

In this sort-of future, American has been taken over by the conservative, pseudo-Christian  Church of America. Except “taken over” is too strong. It’s not like America has become a theocracy. No, it’s just that the Church of America founder, Beaton Frick, has predicted the end of the world. The rapture will come on a night in March, and all the faithful will be taken up.

Even though a good majority of Americans follow the Book of Frick, as it came to be called, Vivian Apple doesn’t. Her parents do, though. They’re faithful believers. And so, when the “rapture” comes, they disappear, leaving Vivian behind.

I’m going to stop right here for a minute. I’ve read a bazillion dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels and this is the first time I’ve come across the rapture as the cause. (At least in mainstream fiction. Is this a theme in Christian fiction?) In fact, this is what compelled me to pick the book up. I’m often curious about the way religion is portrayed in mainstream fiction, and I thought this could be an interesting take on it. And it was, even if it wasn’t necessarily a kind one. Religion and believers come off badly in this book, as people who believe anything they hear without question and are willing to commit acts of violence for the sake of their belief. More than once, I cringed at the “religion” and marveled at what I saw as pot-shots against the religious right.

But I digress.

Vivian determines that it’s all a hoax and she sets out from her hometown in Pittsburg to the Church headquarters outside of San Francisco with her friend, Harp. She just wants to know answers. They pick up a boy along the way, Peter, who seems to be on their side. Little do they know what’s waiting for them.

There is some good in this book: I really liked the tentative romance that budded between Vivian and Peter. I liked that Harp was Indian. I liked the way Vivian grew and became more willing to make decision and to Act in her own life throughout the course of the book. And I can even forgive that the book didn’t end, but rather left me hanging with more questions than answers.

But this one will be a tough sell around here.

The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “He was gathering dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some disturbing moments, not only violence, but also racism. I was made uncomfortable by it (which I think was the point). There is also about four censored f-bombs. Sheinkin is masterful at simplifying data  without being simplistic, so I think this is suitable for 5th grade on up. It’s in the Middle Grade History section at the bookstore.

During the summer of 1944, on a little-known port in the San Francisco Bay where Navy ships were loaded with ammunition, an enormous explosion happened. So large that it killed more than 300 men were killed, the pier and the docked ship were obliterated, and men in the barracks were injured, some severely.

It sounds like a tragedy, but nothing too serious. Except for this fact: of the 320 men who were killed, 202 of them were African American men who had signed up for the Navy and had been relegated to the dangerous job of loading the ammunition. The way the Navy worked in 1944 was that the white men got to serve on the ships; the black ones were segregated out and assigned the menial tasks the white sailors didn’t want.

But it gets better. The men who survived the blast were shuttled to a nearby port, and even though they were suffering trauma from the blast (who wouldn’t be), the were ordered to go back to loading the ships. Fifty sailors flat out refused orders. So they were put on trial for mutiny. And convicted. Even though there was never any plot to defy their superiors or take over the base. They just were tired of being treated differently than the white sailors and wanted to know why.

Some good came out of this: because the Secretary of the Navy was a (mostly) reasonable man (and because Eleanor Roosevelt got involved) the Navy (and soon after the rest of the military) was one of the first places that was desegregated in the country.  But, was the price of being convicted mutineers and spending 16 months in jail too high?

Sheinkin doesn’t whitewash anything that happened during those months and years surrounding the Port Chicago 50 trial. He lets the Naval officers stand for themselves (and any reasonable person would see that they were IDIOTS. Or maybe that was just me), and lets the trial transcripts stand for themselves. Thurgood Marshall even got involved, trying to get the government and the military (the officers of which come off as a bunch of racists; I was going to use a stronger word, but changed my mind) to exonerate these men for being human. Sheinkin pointed out that this was the first event on the long path of the Civil Rights movement, which was something I didn’t know, and something we don’t often remember in history books.

It’s extremely well-written and as intriguing as Sheinkin’s other works. He’s a masterful history writer, and knows just how to make things interesting and informative without being dry.

Excellent.

The Fourteenth Goldfish

by Jennifer L. Holm
First sentence: “When I was in preschool, I had a teacher named Starlily.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Release date: August 26, 2014
Content: I think it’s geared towards younger readers: larger font, lots of white space, and everything is pretty much spelled out. It’ll go in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but could go for strong younger readers.

Eleven-year-old Ellie has a pretty normal life. Her parents — both Theater People — are divorced, but get along. She is dreading middle school, especially since she and her best friend since Kindergarten seem to be drifting apart. But, mostly, it’s just your normal, every-day life. That is, until her mom gets call to go pick up “Melvin”. Who happens to be her father, Ellie’s grandpa. Except now he’s 13. Turns out, he discovered a new species of jellyfish, one when ingested, gives you back your youth.

But things aren’t all roses and unicorns for Melvin: being 13 is not the same as being in your 70s. There are some upsides: a good digestive system, and the lack of a need to pee in the middle of the night. But the downside is that Melvin has lost access to his lab, which means if he can’t get the jellyfish, he can’t prove his theory, and he won’t win the Nobel Prize.

While Ellie is our narrator, it’s Melvin who drives the action. He’s the one who introduces Ellie to Science; gets Ellie to talk to her new friend, Raj; the one who needs to break into the building. One of my problems with this (aside from being Too Old; I do think younger readers will love it) is that Ellie is not proactive, but rather reactive in her own life. She’s a sweet girl, and a nice person to read about. But the book just wasn’t exciting.

It was, however, charming and informative. Holm managed to put a ton of science in her science fiction book: everyone from Galileo and Newton to Oppenheimer and Einstein make an appearance. And she explains some basic scientific concepts in pretty general — and clever — ways. So, while it wasn’t exciting, it was interesting. It did take me a while to figure out the title, why it was called the 14th goldfish (since goldfish didn’t play much of a role), but I thought the ending was sweet and Holm did explain it.

Not my cup of tea, but I’m glad I read it.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan
ages: adult
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

After graduation from college, Clay Jannon is ready to take on the world. Except it’s a recession, and there aren’t many jobs out there for him. After a stint as a marketing/advertising designer for NewBagels in San Francisco, Clay finds himself unemployed, wandering around looking through Craigslist for a new job. On one of his daily wanderings, he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which has an opening for a night clerk. He goes in on a whim, and finds himself not only employed, but immersed in an increasingly strange world.

There are two kinds of customers that frequent Penumbra’s — who is, by all accounts, an odd sort of man — store, especially at 2 a.m.: late-night wanderers who buy some of the normal stock, and those wandering in, bleary-eyed, asking for something off what Clay comes to call the Waybacklist. It’s those customers who pique Clay’s imagination, and get his creative juices flowing: just what is the Waybacklist, and what are these customers doing?

It’s that question that sends Clay into a world of codes and cults, of computers and books (Google plays a huge role and is almost a character in itself), of adventures and immortality. It sounds more magical than it is; there isn’t a drop of magical realism, just good programming and smart people figuring puzzles out. Even so, there’s a whiff of fantasy here: as part of everything, Sloan involves sweeping fantasy trilogies and a Dungeons & Dragons-like game but only as a slight framework in which to lean his story about the relationship between books and technology. (The conclusion? We still need both.)

It was a delightful, charming book (I hesitate to call it that, even though it was. It seems that books like this should be Deep and Edgy), one in which I thoroughly enjoyed.