City of Saints & Thieves

cityofsaintsby Natalie C. Anderson
First sentence: “If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.”
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Review copy picked up for me by co-workers at Winter Institute.
Content: There’s a handful of minor swear words and some disturbing illusions to rape. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Tina has one goal: take down her mother’s former employer, Mr. Greyhill who happens to be the owner of a large mining corporation. And, as Tina believes, her mother’s murderer. It’s a goal she’s been working on for the past 5 years, since she left the Greyhill’s compound in the wake of her mother’s murder. She’s trained to be a thief, and her plan is simple: get in, have her tech friend BoyBoy hack Greyhill’s accounts and drain them, and then kill her mother’s murderer.

Things don’t go according to the plan, however. Greyhill’s son, Michael, is home from school (he wasn’t supposed to be), and catches the uncatchable Tina. And from there, Tina’s plan spirals out of control. As she begins to question everything she’s believed up to this point, she finds her past, her mother’s story, and yes, ultimately, justice.

I really liked this thriller, and thought that Anderson did an admirable job tackling the issues that East Africa faces. From milita terrorism, to kidnapping, to mining issues, to gangs: it was all there. Anderson didn’t sugar coat anything; even the “good guys” were complex and did questionable things.  It’s a complex place, Kenya, and Anderson, even though she’s not east African, did an admirable job reflecting that.

There was a bit of a twist at the end, too, which I didn’t quite see coming (should have, though), and I loved that Tina, for the most part, handled things on her own, but also was able to make decisions that stayed true to her character.

An excellent debut novel.

Lone Survivor

lonesurvivorby Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
First sentence: “Would this ever become easier?”
Content: It’s a non-fiction military book so there is a lot of harsh situations and swearing. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

No, this is not my usual reading. But I figured I’d branch out and give something that’s completely outside of my comfort zone a try. And I was willing to read this story of a Navy SEAL and their mission to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. I’d like to think I went in with an open mind, willing to hear Luttrell’s story, to listen to the justifications for war, and to try and understand what makes someone become a Navy SEAL.

And at the beginning I was mostly okay with it. I was fascinated and impressed with his recounting of his training, of the hardships he had to endure. But, the longer I read this the more one thing bugged me: this book didn’t have an editor. And it was driving. me. nuts.

“Didn’t have an editor” is an assumption. I’m sure someone went through for spelling and punctuation. But what was missing was a cohesiveness, a tightness to the story. Luttrell would repeat himself time and time again. He’d go off on a pages-long rant on the “liberal media” (two words I’m tired of hearing together; what they really mean is corporate east-coast based media, and that includes Fox News). He would quote someone and then have a paragraph explaining how this wasn’t accurate but you get the gist. In short: the publishing company did Luttrell a disservice for not giving him a good editor and making him tighten up his writing: Luttrell sounded much less intelligent than I am guessing he is. No, he’s not a writer. I get that. That’s why publishing houses hire ghost writers (and if this is Robinson’s doing, then he’s not a very good ghost writer): to make the “celebrity” story more cohesive.  It just got to a point where I couldn’t stand the circular writing, the opinionizing, and the plain bad editing.

Which is sad, because I think Luttrell’s story is a valuable one. I just wish I could have gotten through the book.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
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Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Monsters of Men

monstersofmenby Patrick Ness
First sentence: “‘War,’ says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting.”
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Others in the series: The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer
Content: It’s a violent book — it’s a violent series — and no one is safe. It’s also emotionally difficult. That, and mild swearing, puts it in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested 6th grader.

This is a big, difficult book to get through. Not because of the length (though it is nearly 600 pages), but because of the emotional content of this. I’m incredibly glad I’ve had a book group to read this one with because otherwise it would have been much too difficult to handle.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so let’s just say that everything culminates in this one, and that characters you thought you knew you find out you don’t. That nothing is safe, and that (especially this) war is an awful thing and unless someone takes the higher road, there will be no end to it.

The thing that has surprised me most about this series is how relevant it still is. The best thing speculative fiction does is explore the issues in the world, and this one takes war, terrorism, and power head on. It’s brilliant in its portrayal of colonization, of the way people grab and hold on to power, and the sacrifices it takes to make it all just stop.

I’m usually disappointed with endings, but this one fit the series. Harsh and brutal, and yet hopeful, it didn’t make me cry, but I definitely respected what Ness did.

A very, very good series overall.

The Winner’s Kiss

by Marie Rutkoskiwinnerskiss
First sentence: “He told himself a story.”
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Others in the series: The Winner’s Curse, The Winner’s Crime
Content: There’s some sexytimes, but it’s tastefully off screen. Mostly. I am toying with moving this to the Teen section (grades 9+). (I hate doing that, especially since the other two are really pretty firmly in my 6-8th grade range. But, I also don’t want one in the Teen section and the other two in the YA section, so I may just move them all, or keep this one in YA. Frustrating.)

Spoilers for the first two, obviously.  Also: I still hate these covers with a passion. I mean, they’re pretty and all, but they’re NOT the books.

Kestrel has been arrested as a traitor to her country and shipped off to a work camp in the frozen tundra. Arin is still reeling from betrayal, when Kestrel rejected him and is throwing himself into his alliance with the Dacrans, determined to beat Valoria out of his country once and for all. He’s still in love with Kestrel, but she doesn’t seem to return his affections.

Both are determined to make the best of their situation. Both are determined to exact vengeance upon the leaders of Valoria, which includes Kestrel’s father. Neither are prepared for the directions that goal will lead them.

I don’t want to give more away from the plot (though if you’re smart, you can make some assumptions from the content…), but I’ll say this. It’s a good ending. I liked how Rutkoski wrapped things up, giving the story a complete finish, while not giving us every single little detail about the future. I love how she gave both Arin and Kestrel moments to shine, moments to grow, moments to be complex and do the unexpected. I liked that there was palpable tension, not necessarily between people but in situations. I found myself biting my nails, hoping things worked out okay. I loved how no one was black or white, and that even the bad guys were complex and interesting.

I’m definitely sad that this series is ending. It was definitely a good story.

Rebel of the Sands

rebelofthesandsby Alwyn Hamilton
First sentence: “They said the only folks who belonged in Deadshot after dark were the ones who were up to no good.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: March 8, 2016
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some pretty disturbing violence near the end of the book. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The store’s Penguin children’s rep (whom I adore, and not just because she’s got an Irish accent) told me when she handed me the ARC of this book that it was Totally Brilliant and that I was going to Totally Love It. (Just imagine that in an Irish accent. She’s great.) I said okay, I’ll read it. And then it got stuck on the back burner. Things crept up, and then A stole it from me and plowed through it. And she said that it was really really good and I should totally read it. And still it was on the back burner.

(This is less a review a more of a “why didn’t I read this SOONER” post. Sorry.)

But then a day came when I was shuffling through my shelves and piles looking for something Really Good, and this finally Called to me.

And as I plowed through the first two chapters — in which our heroine, Amani Al’Hiza finds herself in a shooting contest in order to get out of her dead-end desert town and away from her lecherous uncle and demanding aunt — and was hooked. Seriously. I was reminded of Harry from The Blue Sword and of Katsa from Graceling and I was in love. I plowed through this book like I didn’t have to work or do dishes or manage four kids in the house.  (Some people are calling it East Meets West — it’s set in a Middle Eastern-like country, with djinn but there’s guns — but I disagree. Sure, it’s pulling on all influences, but I really didn’t get the whole “Western” vibe. It’s a fantasy with guns instead of swords. I can go with that.) I loved the characters (yeah, so I called the love interest from the first chapter, but I did love the twists that came), I loved the complexity of the mythology Hamilton created, I loved that she didn’t give me a clean ending. (I didn’t love that it’s probably not a stand-alone, but at least it came to a conclusion.) It definitely hit all the right buttons for me.

Which leads me to say, don’t do what I did and put this one off. It really is THAT good.

Salt to the Sea

salttotheseaby Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “Guilt is a hunter.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some disturbing elements — it is the horrors of WWII, after all — including violence and rape, though none of it is graphic. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested 7th- or 8th-grader.

One of the things I really admire about Sepetys is her willingness to tell the untold story. The story that’s been buried or neglected because of the way history has been told. The story that’s difficult to face or bear. She looks at them unflinchingly, and compels us to bear this hard history with her. It’s a difficult thing, but she does it so eloquently we just can’t look away.

This time around she tackles the sinking of the Willhelm Gustloff, a Nazi ship that was carrying 10,000+ refugees that was sunk by the Soviets near the end of the war. We follow four young adults (they range in age from 15 to 21) — Emelia, a pregnant Polish refugee; Florian, a Prussian who’s on the run with a stolen secret; Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who’s been able to repatriate into Germany, and who’s searching for her mother; and Alfred a young Nazi recruit who is a bit… off — as they head toward the ship in the dead of winter. The chapters are short, almost poetic, and they intertwine in compelling ways. It propels you forward, in spite of the horrors (perhaps because of them?). The minor characters — the orphan boy Joana finds, as well as the shoemaker they travel with, among others — are just as fleshed out and real as the main characters. Sepetys didn’t cut corners, and I appreciated that.

It’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from her. And that’s the best thing.