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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.

 

Nomad

nomadby William Alexander
First sentence: “Nadia Antonovna Kollontai, the ambassador of her world, was not on her world.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series (though I’ve not read it): Ambassador
Content: There’s some intense moments, and maybe some difficult made-up words, but I’d give it to a 4th grader or higher. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

I didn’t know what to expect heading into  William Alexander’s latest. From the cover, something in space, most likely. What I got was an epic adventure that involved aliens, space travel, time travel, and kids learning to put aside biases and learning to work together. There’s also a side story (which was never truly fleshed out to my satisfaction, but it didn’t deter from my overall enjoyment) about deporting illegal immigrants and how that affects people. In short: there’s a lot packed into this one.

From what I understand, Gabe and Nadia’s story begins in Ambassador, but since this is a Cybils book (I could have checked it out, but I honestly didn’t know until after I’d finished Nomad) I just dove right in. And aside from some initial getting used to the world that Alexander had created — a world in which aliens from all over space and time meet together in a dream space that you get to by, well, dreaming — I fell headfirst into the story and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

I really enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of this as well. Nadia has been in space for 40 years (and hasn’t aged; isn’t speed-of-light travel fun?) and has to learn how to get along without her sight (she lost it in a failed experiment). She didn’t moan or whine about it; she just tackled the problem and looked for solutions. Gabe was the same way with being put into a new situation with being the Ambassador of Earth. He needed to learn the rules and guidelines and how to cooperate with people who are vastly different from him, and he did.

The only thing I didn’t think fit exactly was the subplot involving Gabe’s dad being deported. It did give Alexander an excuse to use a holding area near the border in Arizona, and to spotlight the awful conditions that immigrants (especially children) were being held in. But, other than that, it really didn’t serve much of a purpose to the overall story.

But even with that one little quibble, it was a delightful book, one I’m glad I read.

(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.)

Mars Evacuees

marsevacueesby Sophia McDougall
First sentence: “When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s several mild swear words and some violence (including bullying). It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s sometime in the future, and the Earth has shared its home with an alien species, the Morrors. The problem? The Morrors are changing the nature of the earth, freezing it over, and that’s got the humans mad. So, they started waging war against the Morrors, trying to kick them out. But it’s not working, mostly because they’re invisible to the human eye.

So, the humans are resorting to evacuating a select group of kids to Mars to train for combat. Alice Dare, whose mother is a star fighter pilot in this war, is one of those kids.

At first, it seems to be like any other boarding school: there are bullies, and Alice makes some friends — another English girl named Josephine and an annoying boy named Carl and his younger brother Noel — and everything seems to be going okay. Then, one day, all the adults disappear.

Most of the school goes haywire, but Josephine and Alice (along with Carl, Noel, and their robot teacher Goldfish) decide that what they really need to do is go find the adults. What they end up finding is a whole lot of trouble.

Oh. My. Gosh. I know the summary didn’t do this justice because it was the most awesome I’ve read in a long time. It’s smart, it’s funny, there’s fantastic characters, it’s packed with adventure, it’s diverse. It kept me hooked from page one through the conclusion. (And while there’s a sequel, this one stands on its own.) It was just so. much. fun.  Seriously.

(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.)

The Scorpion Rules

 scorpionrulesby Erin Bow
First sentence: “Once Upon a Time, at the End of the World.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are exactly two f-bombs, some mild swearing, and one illusion to sex. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th grader, if they had no objections to the content.

At this point in my life, I’m very much been-there, done-that when it comes to dystopian/post-apocalyptic books. I feel like I’ve read/seen them all, and there’s really nothing new to explore there.  So, my first thought was that this was just going to be more of the same-old, same-old, and I passed on the ARC. Then it came in, and on the back were quotes from authors I respect, so I thought (somewhat begrudgingly), that I would give this one a try.

(I know, I know: I’m not “supposed” to start these with “I’m not a fan of x”. But bear with me.)

It didn’t take me too long to realize that I was utterly wrong. First of all, the premise is something I haven’t encountered in a long while: humans have destroyed the world through climate change and war, and somewhere along the way, invented artificial intelligence. One of the AIs decided that enough was enough, and took over — by blowing up a number of huge cities — ruling the world. And the way Talis, the AI, decided to keep the peace? By keeping the children of the world’s rulers hostage. If they enter into war, their children would be killed.

Brilliant, no?

Greta is the Crown Princess of the PanPolar Confederacy, a major North American power formed out of what we know as Canada. She’s also a hostage of Talis, living in the prairies of Saskatchewan at the Precepture with her compatriots, fellow hostages. Then one day, war breaks out, one of her friends dies, and a new boy, Elian, shows up. He’s the grandson of the leader of a new alliance, and he’s not at all willing to take his role as a Dutiful and Humble hostage. He fights every step of the way. And somehow, this awakens Greta (and the rest, including her best friend La Da-Xia) to the horrible reality that is her life.

There is so much more to it than that, but I don’t want to give it all away. I adored the combination of high-tech (there are flying battleships and smart pads and cameras and, of course, the AI) and low-tech (the children at the Precepture are basically farmers, thinking about raising goats and bees and harvesting vegetables. There’s a monastery-like feel, as well: they call the AI in charge “Father”. But I also loved the diversity: Bow rightly depicted people from all over the world — African, Asian, Native American, Hispanic — but it felt natural and organic rather than some sort of forced diversity.

But what I really loved was the fluidity of the romance. There’s a love triangle of sorts, but not your typical one; Greta is bisexual and there’s no angst or heartache about this. She’s in love with both a male and a female, and it’s just the way she is. And even Talis, when he shows up, was more gender fluid in his depiction (as benefiting and AI, no?). It was all very different, and very, very refreshing.

It’s the start of a series, and I’ll definitely be picking up the next one to see where Bow takes Greta’s story.