On the Hook

by Francisco X. Stork
First sentence: “Hector could tell that Ai wanted to discuss something.”
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Content: There was a lot of violence, and some talk of drug use and addiction. There is swearing, but in Spanish. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think it’d be good for younger kids as well.

Hector lives a very small life. His father passed away a few years ago, and he and his mother, brother, and sister are all trying to scrape by. They had to move from their home and into the projects, wher ethey live next to drug dealers, one of whom, Chavo, has a beef with Hector’s brother, Fili. Hector just wants to stay out of the way. But Chavo’s brother, Joey, seeks him out to intimidate and assault Hector, and gets into Hector’s brain. Suddenly, Hector is convinced he’s not a “real man”, and when Chavo and Fili get into an altercation (over a girl), both Hector and Joey do rash things and end up in the same juvenile rehabilitation center. Hector has to deal with feelings of hate and revenge, and learn to live with them.

I struggled with this one. Stork played into all sorts of Mexican stereotypes: drug dealers, macho men who can’t deal with feelings except by drinking or through violence, women who really don’t have a say and men who fight over them. Hector has embraced this toxic masculinity and struggles against it, but fails: he has determined that the only way to “balance” things is to kill Joey. I found myself loathing Hector as the book went on; he wasn’t a fun character to live with.

And I know there are always truth to stereotypes, and books need to be written about people who struggle with toxic masculinity and come through on the other side, which Hector did. (The one thing I did like: Hector and Joey never became friends. That would have been much too maudlin.) But that doesn’t mean it was fun to read.


by Sarah Crossan
First sentence: “The green phone on the wall in the hall hardly ever rang.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some off-screen sex. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Ten years ago, Joe’s older brother, Ed, was imprisoned and sentenced for killing a cop. He says he didn’t do it, but that hasn’t made any difference, since they can’t really afford a good lawyer. Or one at all, really. And now Ed’s time is up, and an execution date has been set. And he wants Joe, who’s 17, to come to Texas and be with him as he faces his execution. Since Joe (and their older sister) is really all Ed’s got.

This is heartbreaking. Seriously. It’s easy to forget with Black Lives Matter (which is important!) that the problem with the U.S. justice system isn’t just race, it’s also money. Crossan picks a poor white family as her characters, one that scrapes by barely making ends meet. A mom who is plagued by drugs and alcohol, kids who aren’t the brightest in school. And it didn’t take much for the cops to intimidate and bully Ed into a “confession” which held up in a jury. It’s heartbreaking.  And the take away? If you’re poor, you’re going to end up in prison.

That said, this isn’t a book about the justice system, though that’s a part of it. It’s about forgiveness and family and decisions and choices. And it’s packs a punch. Written in verse, it’s spare but that spareness works to Crossan’s advantage in the book. There’s nothing extra in here that needs to be cut out; it’s straightforward, but told with a lot of heart.


(As an aside: I met her at Children’s Institute, and she’s hilarious. She also has the Irish storytelling genes, keeping us all spellbound with her stories.)


by Jennifer Matthieu
First sentence: “My English teacher Mr. Davies rubs a hand over his military buzz cut.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs as well as other mild swearing. There’s a description of an assault, plus some definitely crude t-shirts worn by guys. There is also teenage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid who is interested.

I picked this up on a whim, partially because I met Jennifer Matthieu last fall and she was delightful, but also partially because it looked, well, cool. (Which I am not.) I didn’t realize I was in for a complex and interesting feminist anthem.

Viv is a junior at East Rockport High, where football is king and the boys, literally, get away with anything. Demeaning girls in class. Doing a “March Madness” ranking of them. Play a “game” of “bump-n-grab” (yes, it is exactly like it sounds). The girls complain, but the administration turns a deaf ear. In fact, one could even say they’re part of the problem: doing random dress code checks in which they publicly shame girls for “breaking” the code. Viv has spent her whole life flying under the radar, but after discovering some of her mother’s old Riot Grrrl zines, she decides to take a stand. She starts Moxie, an anonymous zine that she distributes in the bathroom. Initially, she doesn’t know how it will be received, but over the months, the zine takes a life of its own, and helps push back against the culture of the high school.

I loved this one! I loved it for Viv, and her slow awakening — her realizing that there was something she can do to help (maybe) make a difference. I loved it for the ways in which she made a difference, for the realization that feminism is an embracing not a dividing. I loved the slight love story. I loved that Matthieu gave us a diverse high school — we interacted with Latina girls, black girls, gay girls, straight girls… all sorts of girls. I really loved the zines, and the fierceness that is inherent in them: a Moxie girl doesn’t take any crap. Which is really what I loved about this: Viv and her friends learned how to stand up for themselves, demand respect from those around them (especially men!), and enjoy each other.

Give this one to any teenage girl, if only so they know they’re not alone.

Nothing Up My Sleeve

nothingupmysleeveby Diana López
First sentence: “Z could always find a reason to feel cursed.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s bigger font on small pages, so even though it looks thick it goes fast. It reads very much like a Wendy Mass story, with short chapters, alternating viewpoints, and a lot going on. There’s a slight not-quite-romance (a couple of the boy main characters “like” the girl, but it goes nowhere). It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Z, Dominic, and Loop have been friends for a long, long time. Which means their friendship is one part they like each other and one part competitive. And so when, one hot Texas summer, they discover a magic shop and enter a competition, it becomes somewhat of a tension-creator. They spend the summer working on their magic tricks, but what starts out as just fun becomes more tension-filled. Will their new hobby ruin their friendship?

The good things first: this is full of diversity. Yay for making Texan kids Latin@! And giving them real-world problems: Dominic’s parents are divorced, Z is the youngest of a big family and is always getting ignored, and Loop just found out the man he thought was his biological father isn’t. Plus the way López writes about magic is really neat. She explains the tricks, so you can get a sense of what’s going on, but she doesn’t give away any (well, not many, anyway) of the secrets of the trade.

My big problem was that I felt sorry for Z, who was pathetic, and I felt Dominic was a bit annoying, but Loop and Ariel (she’s the daughter of the magic shop owners) were so annoying I wanted to smack them. Maybe I should give López props for making me care enough to want to smack the kids, but I found them annoying. Which means I really didn’t care too much about how it all resolved. I finished it — it wasn’t really bad — but I didn’t love it. (It really wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great either.)

Maybe I just wasn’t the right person for it.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly
First sentence: “To my great astonishment, I saw my first snowfall on New Year’s Day of 1900.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a bit old-fashioned and there are a lot of scientific words, but if you’ve got that sort of 9 year old reader, it’d be perfect for them. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the library.
Others in the series: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I was super excited to find out that my favorite scientific Texan was back in a second installment. I really adored Calpurnia the first time around, and was very excited to spend more time with her. It’s 1900, and Calpurnia is doing her best to keep up with her scientific studies with her grandpa. It’s hard, especially with pressure from both her parents to be more ladylike. Calpurnia would much rather be tromping around the forests and swamps near their central Texas home, collecting specimens. Or studying the stars and weather.

Then a hurricane hits Galveston (a fact which sent me to Google to find out if it was real. It was.), and Calpurnia’s life changes. In to town blows an older cousin (who is, understandably, distraught) and a veterinarian. All of a sudden, Calpurnia has found a calling. The problem? She has to fight to let people even consider the idea of her wanting to be a vet.

Much like the first one, the charm in this is in the narration. Calpurnia is such a delight to spend a book with. This time, I felt her frustration and pain at being a second-class citizen, in her school, in her house, around the town. It seems that everyone, except grandpa, decided already that girls can’t do anything non-girly, and it was a wall Calpurnia kept banging up against. I admired her perseverance in breaking down barriers.

Also, like the first one, I thoroughly enjoyed all the science and the little historical details that Kelly uses to make Texas in 1900 come alive.


Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek

by Maya Van Wagenen
First sentence:”‘School is the armpit of life,’ my best friend Kenzie once told me.”
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Content: Because eighth graders aren’t exactly the nicest creatures in the world, there is some language, all of it mild and very infrequent. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-12) of the bookstore, but honestly, anyone who can handle the subject matter (she does talk about taking sex ed and drug inspections and lockdowns at her school), should read this one.

The summer before she starts eighth grade, Maya Van Wagenen discovers in a box a copy of “Betty Cornell’s Guide to Teenage Popularity”, circa the 1950s  Her mom suggests, offhand, that maybe Maya should follow the advice in the book, write it down, and see what happens.

This book is the result of that year.

There aren’t the words to express my love here.  Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter just finishing eighth grade, and it’s been a rough year for her. Perhaps, it’s because I was much like how Maya started eighth grade: socially awkward, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, trying to fit in my small, conservative, Michigan middle school. (I had just moved there two years before, and still hadn’t figured out how to fit in with kids who’d known each other since kindergarten.)

But my enjoyment went beyond just being able to relate to Maya. She tackled a chapter or two of Betty’s book each month during the school year, and the chapters were divided up with her reflections of her progress. Along the way, I got to know her family (she has terrifically cool parents; my favorite side story of hers was the list of answers you’re not supposed to say when crossing through a U.S./Mexico border patrol. My favorite was “I am, but I’m not too sure about the kids in the trunk.”) and her school mates (she lives in Brownville, TX, and to say that she has a rough school, is an understatement). At first, she’s very humorous about he whole project. For instance, when she hits the dress chapter, she takes it literally, dressing like someone from the 1950s, getting stared at and teased for dressing like someone’s grandma. It’s easy to think that Betty’s guide really doesn’t fit in today’s world.

Somewhere along the way, Maya — and I, as well– discovered that Betty’s book is really still applicable, and maybe she really does have the secret to “popularity”.  I was touched by Maya’s insight, her observations, and her maturity. By the time I closed the book, I wanted to cheer for her — she’s an amazing girl, one I’d be proud to call my daughter — and to thrust this book in the hands of everyone I know, grownups and teens alike.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

by Kathi Appelt
First sentence: “From the rooftop of Information Headquarters, Bingo and J’miah stood on their back paws and watched Little Mama and Daddy-O trundle away; their stripy gray and black silhouettes grew smaller and smaller in the deepening dusk.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a few difficult words but it’s pretty appropriate for anyone. It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore. I think it’d make a great read aloud for younger kids as well.

Bingo and J’miah are the two newest members of the Sugar Man Scouts. Like their ancestors before them, they are the raccoons that keep an eye on the Sugar Man Swamp, listening to the Voice, and keeping ready to wake the Sugar Man in case they need to.

I suppose I should back up and say that Sugar Man Swamp is in Texas (not Louisiana, which is where I thought it was for half the book and where I am convinced it should be) and in it grows this amazing sugarcane. From which Chap Brayburn and his mom make fried sugar pies. Which should be famous, but aren’t because they are off the Beaten Path.

And so, they owe lots of money to a nefarious businessman named Sonny Boy, who wants to sell the swamp to a ‘gator wrestler for a theme park.

Oh, and did I mention that a gang of wild hogs are on the rampage?

That kind of gives you a taste for this tale. And it is a tale. In fact, the narrator was bugging me — it’s a pretty intrusive narrator — until  I realized that this is the sort of book that begs to be read aloud. Once I imagined myself listening to this story, perhaps told by a fantastic storyteller with a fabulous Southern accent, then the book came alive for me. I understood the humor, I understood the whimsical nature of the characters, and — honestly — I fell for it.

It’s not perfect — it’s probably a bit longer than it needed to be — but it’s very, very good. And charming. And enjoyable.

And that’s enough for me.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Rebel Island

by Rick Riordan
ages: adult
First sentence: “We got married in a thunderstorm.”
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Tres Navarre has finally married his longtime (on and off) girlfriend, Maia, and now they’re off (with Tres’s brother Garrett in tow) to they’re belated honeymoon to Rebel Island: an old haunt of the Navarre family, and not really one that has good memories. And because Tres is who he is, and trouble seems to follow him around, they encounter a weekend like no other: a major hurricane on top of a killer on the loose.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Except, well, it does. Out of the several things I noticed while reading this, the one that stood out the most was that it really didn’t need to be written. Mission Road was a good stopping point for the series, and while I guess it’s nice to know that Tres and Maia got married, and are having a kid, it’s not really necessary to have a whole book about that point. The other thing was you can tell that Riordan consciously pulled back on these novels; while there’s still language in this book, it’s not nearly as gritty as the earlier Tres Navarre books are. You can almost see him thinking, “Dang! I’ve got kids reading my books. What if they want to read these, too? Better not make them as foul as they used to be.”

On top of that, it just didn’t read as well as the earlier Tres Navarre books. It was a quick read, but unfortunately predicable (at one point, I thought, “Oh, man, I hope he doesn’t make him out to be the bad guy…”), and even the little twist at the end didn’t redeem it for me. It was all ho-hum, formulaic, and not particularly exciting.

It’s not that it was a bad book; I just didn’t feel Tres and company were up to the standard that I’ve come to expect.

Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray
ages: 15+
First sentence: “This book begins with a plane crash.”
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I have come to the conclusion that Libba Bray is brilliant, but completely insane. (Or maybe brilliantly insane?)

Ever wonder what you’d get if you mixed Lord of the Flies with the Miss America pageant, tossed in some James Bond, and slathered with a huge helping of satire on pop culture? Me, either. But, thankfully, blessedly, Libba Bray did, and Beauty Queens is the result.

The top 20 girls for the Miss Teen Dream pageant were all on a plane, headed toward the pageant finals when the plane crashes. On a deserted island. Killing everyone, except a handful of girls. What are they — girls who are beauty queens, presumably without any practical resources — to do?

Well… survive.

From here, the plot goes all twisty and turney: the girls make their own camp on the beach, and manage to not only get along (mostly), but thrive on their own merits as they wait to be rescued. However, things are not as pretty as they seem: there’s weird stuff lurking in them thar jungle, and those who go into it don’t always come out. And if they do, they’re not quite sane. There’s also pirates (!), stupid trust fund guys, completely wacked out dictators, and vengeful past beauty queens. This book has it all.

On the surface, the book is terribly shallow and stereotypical. Bray has lumped every single cultural reference and stereotype she could think of in this book: there is a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, stupid Southerner, aggressive Texan, Indian-American, black contestant. (Sure, why not one of each?) There’s a grand poking at everyone naming their kids Caitlin. Honestly: none of the characters are likeable (Miss Texas, I wanted to throttle! And Miss Mississippi just lived up to the low expectations I have of that state.), and the plot was fairly simplistic, which almost made it hard to get through (however, the hilarious footnotes made up for that).

But, when you read it as a satire, the book works brilliantly. In one of the more brilliant moves, there are commercial breaks in the book, in which Bray lampoons every single kind of beauty product, movie, and item that corporations try to sell to women. In the end, the book is not about the characters, or plot development, it’s about girl power: rising above the stereotypes and the product placement, and not only finding one’s true self, but acting on that, embracing the differences we have as women. (And no one is better than the other.)

In fact, I think this would be a blast to deconstruct in a book group or English class; there’s so much meat under the shallow surface, that the discussion could be quite fascinating.

And I’m sure she wrote it that way on purpose.

The Devil Went Down to Austin

by Rick Riordan
ages: adult
First sentence: “The first time I knew I would kill?”
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Our erstwhile college professor and PI, Tres Navarre, is off to UT Austin for the summer to teach a class in Medieval English lit. Which means, since he’s not interested in getting an apartment for six weeks, he gets to bunk with his older brother, computer programmer extraordinaire, Garrett.

Except, because it’s Tres, things don’t quite go as smoothly as planned. He ends up going early because he’s found that Garrett’s mortgaged the family ranch to cover costs for his new start-up tech business. Which is failing. Badly. And then, Garrett’s partner and long-time friend, Jimmy, ends up shot dead, and Garrett’s the main suspect. So, it’s up to Tres (well, it’s not, but Tres decides it is) to figure out who, besides his paraplegic older brother, could have done the dirty deed. Throw in a scheming ex-wife, some rich but estranged relatives, and a cutthroat businessman out for blood, and you’ve got some dangerous people to deal with. Not to mention Tres’s ex, a successful corporate lawyer, that he hasn’t seen in two years.

Just like in The Last King of Texas, Riordan piles it on fast and furious. He’s moved the local to Austin, and while he doesn’t have the same affection for that town as he has for San Antonio, he captures the unique flavor of Austin and the UT campus. That said, the town itself takes a backseat to the story, which is all kinds of gripping. It’s an incredibly gritty story, but for different reasons than King was: dealing with domestic issues as well as business ones. Still, Riordan puts the reader through the paces, keeping us guessing as to who the real murderer is. And when the twists come (and they are there), it’s enough to knock you out of your seat. And yet, they are not out of nowhere: the ground has been laid, and it makes perfect sense when they do come, right at the end. But, even with the grittiness and twists and turns, Riordan doesn’t skimp on character: Tres is fleshed out even more, and the relationship he has with his ex is a fascinating, complex one.

I would say I’m finding it hard to believe I’m hooked on these mysteries, but honestly, I’m not. I adore Riordan’s writing. And these definitely qualify as good Riordan writing.