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.

The Last King of Texas

by Rick Riordan
ages: adult
First sentence: “Dr. David Mitchell waved me toward the dead professor’s chair.”
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My in-person book group is reading The Red Pyramid for their selection this month. Since I’ve long since devoured everything Riordan’s written for kids, and since I usually include the sentence “he’s also written a mystery series for adults but I’ve never read them” while talking about Riordan, I figured the least I could do is find out what the whole mystery series for adults is about.

Our erstwhile hero is Dr. Jackson Navarre, Ph.D. in Medieval Studies, also known as “Tres” (Spanish for three, not “Tray”; a mistake I was making). Tres is also a private investigator. In fact, that’s the reason he moved back to San Antonio, after years in the Bay Area. He’s offered a position at UTSA, in part because of his P.I. job: the man who had the position right before Tres ended up being shot to death in his house, after receiving several death threats via letter. Then, in the middle of the interview, a pipe bomb is delivered, exploding shortly thereafter. Of course Tres takes the job. It’s a series of twists and turns from there, as we explore the gritty underbelly of 1990s San Antonio. This is the third in the series (the first published in hardback, and the first my library has. I love Riordan, but not enough to hunt down the first two Tres Navarre books), but works just fine as an introduction to the world of Tres. There are a lot of characters to juggle, but Riordan manages that beautifully; Tres is easy to like, as are many of the other characters. Even the baddies are well-drawn, and have intriguing and complex motivations for their actions.

It’s vintage Riordan, to say the least. Not as funny as his books for children, but still quick-witted and engaging. It’s quite the homage to San Antonio; even though it’s rough and edgy, there’s an undercurrent of love and admiration for Riordan’s hometown. Probably most importantly, it’s brilliantly plotted (which is something that Riordan always does well); there’s enough information in the book to make the mystery solvable if you follow the clues (I didn’t call it!), but there’s also enough twists and turns to make the book exciting. Sure, it’s clunky in spots, but it’s also a page turner from the point a pipe bomb explodes into the first chapter until the final reveal at the end.

Which it to say: it’s Percy Jackson awesomeness for adults.

Keeper

by Kathi Appelt
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Keeper leaned over the edge of the boat.”
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I wasn’t that interested in reading this one because I had such a bad experience with The Underneath. But Pam at Mother Reader convinced me that it’s completely different from Appelt’s first book. And she was right. It’s on that hinterland between reality and fantasy: while it has elements of both, it’s not really either. But even that worked for me.

It’s a simple story: Keeper has grown up on the Texas Gulf of Mexico shore, her family consisting, for the last seven years since her mermaid mother left, of Signe, Dogie and Mr. Beauchamp (that’s not counting the animals). They are the residents of a little road down by the shore. It’s a good life, one that seemed to, in one day, fall completely apart. So, Keeper has decided that she needs to go ask her mother how to put it back to rights. She gets a boat and in the middle of the night, heads out to the ocean to figure out how to put her life back together.

It’s a beautifully written book: sparse in the language, slipping in and out of viewpoints, including the animals, as the story needs. I loved that she used language I haven’t heard for a long time: cooleoleo, calloo callay, shazaam, easy peasy, and so on. It fit the feel of the book, as something both current yet also outside of time. It had the feel of mythology, and incorporated the mer mythos. But it was also very much grounded in reality. I loved how she defined family as anyone who cares about one another, no matter what. I didn’t think there would be enough of a story to manage 400 pages, but with flashbacks to the past explaining how this family came to be a family, it worked for me.

It’s not a flashy book, but it’s a sweet, quiet, tender one. And sometimes that’s exactly what a book should be.

Same Kind of Different as Me

by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (with Lynn Vincent)
ages: adult

First sentence: “Until Miss Debbie, I’d never spoke to no white woman before.”

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I would have never, in a million years, have picked this up if it weren’t for my in-person book group. I don’t to religious books, I especially don’t do evangelical books. It’s not that I have anything against religion or even evangelicalism, it’s just that I prefer to escape when I read.

I’d love to say that I loved the book, in spite of my hesitations. But, I didn’t. I liked it. I thought the story was interesting. But I wasn’t moved by it, or even motivated by it.

It’s the story of two men: Ron Hall, who came from a lower-middle-class Texas upbringing and turned himself, by luck and the grace of God into a millionaire art dealer; and Denver Moore, the product of Jim Crow laws and a Louisiana sharecropping upbringing, who was homeless in Fort Worth when Ron and his wife Debbie first met him. Debbie insisted that Ron reach out to Denver, and it eventually turned into a friendship. One that helped Ron make it through his wife’s cancer and eventual death (yep: it’s one of those cancer books). It’s basically their witness and testimony: look what God wrought in their lives.

The most inspiring person (obviously, since it’s their story about her and because she’s passed on) is Debbie: how she took the money Ron made and put it to better use. How she got involved in her community and worked to make it a better place. But, even that wasn’t enough to salvage the book for me.

Now, I suppose this is me being all hyper-critical: just because the writing wasn’t the most elegant, just because the story was a bit cliche, should I take apart these men’s beliefs? Because I do believe that they believe they were doing good by writing this book. No. That wouldn’t be fair. I guess my fundamental problem was that I just never got what I was supposed to get out of their story. (There’s class issues here as well, I discovered: I have a problem with wealthy people throwing their money at good causes and saying “Look at me doing good! Aren’t I wonderful?” And I felt like I got a lot of that.) In the end, though, I felt like I feel in those tear-jerker movies: manipulated. And that rankled me.

That said, there is good in this book. There’s a good story. There’s redemption and forgiveness and grace. I just didn’t feel it. But maybe you will.

Belly Up

by Stuart Gibbs
ages: 10+
First sentence: “I’d just been busted for giving the chimpanzees water balloons when I first heard something was wrong at Hippo River.”
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Teddy Fitzroy has had a charmed life. The son of a gorilla researcher and a nature photographer, he’s spent most of his life surrounded by animals in the Congo.

Now, at age 12, he’s found himself smack in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, at FunJungle, the worlds biggest, best, and newest zoo. It’s supposed to be state-of-the art, best researchers, finest environments for the animals, a whole safari experience without having to go to Africa. Except, Henry the Hippo — the mascot, and a huge, ornery, animal — has turned up (literally) dead. It looks like natural causes at first, but upon a closer look, it turns out that Henry was murdered. And it seems it’s up to Teddy (and his new friend, Summer, who is also the daughter of the park owner) to figure out who did it and why.

There’s adventure as Teddy and Summer try to unravel the mystery before them, with some close scrapes. It’s not so hard of a mystery that the reader can’t at least try to figure it out, but not so easy as to be predictable. It’s entertaining, and yet with all the animals, it kind of feels (I’m hoping it is at least) a little educational. If anything, it has a fabulous balance to it: well-written and engaging plus entertaining and kid-friendly.

Quite enjoyable, in other words.

(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.)

Rocky Road

by Rose Kent
ages: 10+
First sentence: “‘Pleeeez stop singing, Ma.'”
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Tess is not happy with her mother. Sure, life in San Antonio wasn’t all that terrific: their Pa walked out on them years ago, Ma’s grand ideas for making money kept flopping, and the rent was overdue. But was all that a reason to uproot the family — Ma, Tess and her younger, deaf brother Jordan — to Schenectady, New York? Especially in January, the dead of winter. And the grand plan this time? To open an ice cream shop. Tess is less than pleased, to say the least.

Adjusting to the snow, ice, and a whole new middle school isn’t a piece of cake; it’s cold and she doesn’t quite feel like she fits in. Jordan keeps resisting his new school, he’s not learning new signs, which worries Tess. Ma’s spending all her time (and money) getting the new shop ready, which really worries Tess, since Ma’s prone to high ups and crashing lows, and Tess knows they can’t afford to have that happen.

It’s only as the winter wears on, and Tess finds ways to reach out: in the Senior Center community that they live in, at school with peer mediation, and eventually at the ice cream shop, that Tess finds out what community, friendship and surviving the rocky road of life is really kind of sweet.

It’s a sweet little book; very distinctive in its voice: the clash of Texas and New York is just oozing out of it. The characters, though perhaps a bit stereotypical (deaf younger brother provides challenge, crazy mom, well-meaning neighbors who offer up home-made charm, strange Zen-vegan new friends, crusty ex-Navy man with a heart of gold), still are quite enjoyable and engaging to read about. The conflict is all with Tess and her mother; Tess feels so much older than her twelve years, mostly because her mother — due to an eventual diagnosis of bipolar disorder — is so unreliable. And the whole crazy mother thing is often so overdone. But in this case it worked to make it a true Middle Grade novel: Tess took the initiative, got help from friends, including adults, and worked to make things — like this book — a success.

The ice cream recipes in the back are just an added bonus.

(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.)