In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

Delaney Doyle and Cash Pruitt are best friends. Growing up in a very poor small town in East Tennessee with a large addiction problem, both having seen their share of hardship and trauma. When Delaney manages to get both of them a scholarship to an elite private high school in Connecticut, a new (and utterly unpredictable) chapter begins for both of them.

There is a lot of depth to this book. Told from Cash’s perspective we get both typical coming-of-age experiences and some very atypical life experiences. Delaney is a gifted scientist — her talk is peppered with black holes, human wormholes, olfactory fatigue, and a theory of how humans may have descended from aquatic apes (I love this one). She sees patterns everywhere — in people as well as the natural world. Cash is sure that his only choices are a “sh**ty life or an ordinary life.” His Papaw (grandfather) is slowly sinking with emphysema back home, and Cash has the strongest feeling that he doesn’t even deserve an opportunity like this in the first place. And then, in a complete surprise to himself, he discovers the magic of poetry.

The book is very sweet and brought tears to my eyes multiple times. Themes of love, family, loneliness, being an outsider, and doing the right thing, even when it is difficult pervade. Some fascinating discussions on the similarities between the sciences and the arts in trying to understand the world we live in. I am absolutely not a poetry person, but I found the descriptions of how Cash came slowly to love both reading and writing poetry to be fascinating — an aspect of character development through passions that I don’t often see to this extent. Some of the language seemed a bit overdone at times to me, but I do find Zentner’s writing quite beautiful. The negative characters seemed kind of two dimensional to me but I’m guessing that is how they appeared to Cash so it makes sense.

Good for fans of John Green.

A few good quotes (there are many):
“Because it’s heretical. That’s how science advances and takes humanity with it. People have to be brave enough to look stupid in a field where looking stupid is the worst thing you can do.”

“I think the real problem is you feel so lucky to have survived what you did, you think you bagged your limit of luck by finishing out your childhood in a safe and loving home.”

“You’ll never regret a decision more than the one you make out of fear. Fear tells you to make your life small.”

“Life often won’t freely give you moments of joy. Sometimes you have to wrench them away and cup them in your hands, to protect them from the wind and rain. Art is a pair of cupped hands. Poetry is a pair of cupped hands.”

“It feel like he’s bequeathing me an inheritance of the only wealth he possesses — his memories, his quiet joys.”

“Being a poet takes bravery. Yes, the courage to bleed on a page. But also to bleed for the world we write poetry about.”

Thank you to Crown Books for Young Readers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (Speculative Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Book two of the Scholomance series (which I previously labeled “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind”). Galadriel (“El”) is finally a senior at the Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted that operates without staff of any sort and typically graduates (i.e. allows to survive) only a quarter of the class. But this year, even the school itself is looking for a change, and if El and the invincible fighter Orion Lake have their way, this may be the last graduating class ever…

Very similar to book one — good writing, fun to read, likable characters — perhaps a little more detail on innovative monsters than I needed but it made for some very impressive “magical” world building. Strong messaging about the benefits of working together to ensure everyone does well, rather than desperation leading to selfish and ultimately self-destructive strategies.

I still have a preference for her earlier works — Spinning Silver and Uprooted but I always enjoy reading anything she writes. Is this the last book in the series? Hard to say — once again there was no real cliffhanger but … I do feel a little more needs to be explained! This could be read without reading book one but if you plan to do that, go online and get a quick plot summary for book one just to gain familiarity with the characters.

Thank you to Ballantine Del Rey and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Alcevedo (Young adult)

Spectacular book — possibly one of the best I’ve read this last year. Made me really “get” some concepts that I knew only peripherally.

This is a coming-of-age story about Xiomara — an Afro-Latina teenager with an intensely religious immigrant mother and a father who is absent even in his presence. She is “unhideable” with “too much body for such a young girl.” And she is a secret poet who puts her thoughts about family, religion, boys, and the place for girls into her poetry.

The story is a novel-in-verse — told in poetry with an overall narrative arc. I was hesitant because I don’t typically enjoy poetry but this was utterly engrossing. The author was able to consistently distill complex thoughts, feelings, and narrative into a concise set of stanzas of great profundity. Told from Xiomara’s point of view, we see depth in the characters — her mami, papi, twin brother, best friend, potential boyfriend, priest, and the teacher who convinced her to join Poetry Club — through their relationship with her. Incredibly engaging and incredibly well-executed. No stereotypes in this book — Xiomara is anything but — she is always “working to be the warrior she wanted to be.” I was surprised to find that I really liked the character of the priest who was culturally bilingual (able to deal simultaneously with Mami’s deeply religious life and Xiomara’s search for her own way) and thus was able to help Xiomara and her mother come to terms with their different priorities and goals.

I’ve put some of my favorite quotes below — additionally, I absolutely loved the whole of the “Church Mass” poem on page 58-59.

“The world is almost peaceful
when you stop trying
to understand it.”

“But everyone else just wants me to do:
Mami wants me to be her proper young lady.
Papi wants me to be ignorable and silent.
Twin and Caridad want me to be good so I don’t attract attention.
God just wants me to behave so I can earn being alive.”

“How your lips are staples that pierce me quick and hard.”

The Half-Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F Smith (Young Adult)

A well-written book about a young girl going through the grief of her father’s recent suicide. Lila is 16 and has been reluctantly cajoled into attending a grief camp for the summer. This is the story of her slow journey towards healing, including a healthy amount of new friends, a budding love interest, and that irreverent teen style that helps makes the unbearable, bearable.

The author, who went through a similar experience, does an excellent job at describing the confusion of competing feelings, the different ways grief hits you at different times, and the eventual return to the three Ls: laughing, loving, and living without guilt. I really liked all the characters, and I want to emphasize that this was not at all a depressing book — there was a lot of honest reflection, observation, and fun. Plenty of racial and sexual diversity as well as discussions of addiction, suicide, and first love.

Thank you to Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (YA / Mystery / Thriller / Romance)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

I loved this book! Daunis Fontaine is 18 years old, 6 feet tall, an ice hockey ace, and a science whiz. While she grows up in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan with her white mother and grandparents she is also deeply ingrained in the local Ojibwa community of her father. What starts off looking like an upbeat teen romance takes a sharp left turn and becomes mystery, intrigue, and thriller (romance takes a back seat — pun intended). The plot keeps swerving — surprise after surprise after surprise — with Daunis giving us an intelligent and fiercely community oriented view of the ride. I couldn’t put it down. I’ll give you a hint — Daunis ends up being a Confidential Informer (she calls it being a Secret Squirrel) for law enforcement.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way the many characters in the Ojibwa community are portrayed. While references to past injustices are present and individual incidents of prejudice occur (Daunis and her friend like to play Bigotry Bingo — see quote below), they are not front and center. This is a novel of today — various members of the community are successful (by personal definitions of the word) while others are not; some are greedy and conniving while others are supportive and helpful; some have drug and alcohol problems while others have steered clear. In other words, no group stereotypes and no group victimhood. An array of well-drawn individual characters.

Daunis is a great character — I love her scientific approach to life, her fearless and unconcerned approach to typically male endeavors, and her deep involvement with the tribal culture and people. Great themes, great unfolding of the many mysteries past and present, and an absorbing view into a culture unlike my own. Ojibwa is a matriarchal society, and the story includes many strong women characters of all ages. I enjoyed the embedded language and cultural practice tutorials.

A couple of quotes:
“When Lily and I were on Tribal Youth Council, we all played a game called Bigotry Bingo. When we heard a comment that fed into stereotypes, we’d call it out. Dream catchers were the free space. Too easy. There are so many others though. ‘You don’t look Native.’ ‘Must be nice to get free college.’ ‘Can you give me an Indian name for my dog?’ ”

“My mother’s superpower is turning my ordinary worries into monsters so huge and pervasive that her distress and heartache become almost debilitating.”

“When you love someone, but don’t like parts of them, it complicates your memories of them when they’re gone.”

Thank you to Henry Hold & Co and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Fiction)

Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

A heartwarming story of three lost souls who come together in a small farming community (Hood River, Oregon) to find their place in life — one with purpose and people to care about. Alice Holtzman has worked in the County Planning Office for twenty years but her passion is beekeeping and the dream of one day running her own orchard. Jake Stevenson is eighteen and trapped in a wheelchair after a stupid stunt at a high school party. His proudest achievement? The world’s tallest Mohawk (at 16.5 inches). Other than hair maintenance, however, he is just killing time and soaking in regret. Harry Stokes is a “passenger in his own life” — desperate for a job with a criminal history and a now-condemned trailer as a living space.

I loved the main characters and the manner in which the author describes the way they each find each other and a solid, “feels right” path moving forward. There is a relatively simplistic overlay plot concerning the evil Supragro company that is pushing a toxic pesticide spray that is lethal to bees — and how the community comes together to successfully fight it. The “bad” guys are fairly two-dimensional — stereotypical greedy, powerful, and corrupt men — but I did like the way social media and video was used to expose what was happening. I also very much enjoyed the descriptions of Hood River and rural life.

Thank you to Dutton and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 27th, 2021.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (YA / African Futurism)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A coming-of-age story set in a future Northern Ghana. Sankofa is only five when her favorite tree pushes up a strange seed after a meteor shower brought sparkling bits of green to the Earth. Before she has any clue as to what is happening, she has been “gifted” with a terrible power which continues to bring tragedy even as she struggles to control it.

A combination of myth, juju, and technology populate this picture of future Ghana. The “bad guy” is LifeGen — a “big American corporation that’s probably going to eventually destroy the world.” But Sankofa is a child, and we watch as she absorbs information and tries to understand what has happened to her, why, and what she can possibly do with it. This is not your typical, action-oriented, one man against a giant, evil machine.

Okarafor labels her work a combination of “African Futurism” and “African Jujuism” — terms she coined — to reflect its African-centricity. I like her definition: “I am an African futurist and an African jujuist. African futurism is a sub-category of science fiction. Africanjujuism is a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.”

I enjoyed the writing and the characters and the imagery of a blended future — but I did find the plot a little weak.

Thank you to Macmillan-Tor/Forge and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

The Gifted, The Talented, and Me by William Sutcliffe (YA / Humor)

When his dad’s invention takes off and the family suddenly finds themselves rich, 15-year old Sam finds himself in a posh home and enrolled in the North London Academy for Gifted and Talented. His mother (clearly channeling a Northern California wealthy bohemian) encourages him to find his special talent. So begins this laugh-out-loud funny coming-of-age story about an “average” kid who is forced to find a creative side that he really doesn’t want at all.

Great characters and hysterical dialog — especially the internal dialog (trialog?) between his optimistic brain, his pessimistic brain and his … dick. Amidst an array of humorously drawn characters, all subject to equal-opportunity parodying, Sam does figure out what is important in relationships with others and with yourself. A fun, fun ride. Plus … very cool ending.

Thank you to Bloomsbury YA and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

If These Wings Could Fly by Kyrie McCauley (YA)

A coming-of-age story in small town Pennsylvania with magical realism thrown in the form of crows — thousands and thousands of them.

At 17, Leighton is living two lives: one as a teenager with a best friend, an excellent GPA, and a budding love affair with the handsome, athletic, bi-racial Liam McNamara. The other life is at home trying to protect her mother and sisters from domestic abuse — the kind of simmering, mostly hidden abuse that is so easy for everyone outside to ignore.

The writing is excellent, and the author offers a nuanced and in-depth treatment of a difficult subject. The dialog — both with others and within Leighton’s head — is full of insight. The denouement is artfully done — as the crows, her family, and the citizens are captured in Leighton’s prize-winning essay for the town’s “Auburn Born, Auburn Proud” contest.

I like that the book does not dwell on victimhood, and while the father’s behavior is explained, it is never excused. I also liked the wide variety of male and female characters — none are stereotypes. And lastly, I loved the sweetness and the intentional overcoming of her family’s emotional patterns that defines the relationship between Leighton and Liam.