Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Character: 5/5

21-year old Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. Drawing inspiration from Viking lore, she is writing (and living) her own legend, tackling life with courage and loyalty to her tribe. She was also born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum (FASD) and is aware of needing to take things slowly, follow rules, and study things more thoroughly than others. Her brother Gert — with his shaved head, tattoos, and a thug-like exterior — has been taking care of her since he extracted both of them from the abusive Uncle who took them in when their mother died.

A remarkable cast of characters populates this unique coming-of-age story as Gert gets into some questionable means of support in a neighborhood rife with violence and trouble … and Zelda tries to help. It has one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and meaningful endings I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the traditionally happy ending I was expecting, but one in which people had to learn some hard truths about themselves and the people they loved. I particularly appreciated the way nobody was presented as all “bad” or all “good” but merely people trying to do their best, not always succeeding, and coming to terms with how to make the best of what they had.

Zelda’s voice is quite engaging. While many reviewers call it “humorous”, I actually found it to be innocent and completely lacking in artifice — which I found quite refreshing. From Zelda directly, galvanized by her Viking research: “Dagaz means to become awake or to transform. That is what I want to do in my legend: I want to go from a normal Viking to a hero.”

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan 28th, 2019.

This I Know by Eldonna Edwards (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I absolutely loved this book — just as I loved her latest book, Clover Blue. The author has such a luminous voice, and Grace — the 11-year old center of the story — completely captured my heart from the first page. There is something compelling about a young voice trying to make sense of the world. I think it must be the start from innocence — it feels fresher and unsullied.

Grace is born with a gift she calls “The Knowing.” She sometimes knows when something is going to happen, she can sense illness and sometimes heal, and she can always talk to her twin brother Isaac — who she remembers from the womb but who never made it into the world alive. Her father is a preacher who worries that Grace’s talents are the work of the devil, while Grace (and Isaac) believe it is a gift from God. And therein lies the context of this delicate and unique coming-of-age story set in rural Michigan in the 60s.

Gorgeous, exquisite, writing; perfect pacing; an array of characters that pull at your heartstrings; and a beautiful, beautiful, ending.

Some great quotes:
“My teachers call me a day-dreamer, but I’m not dreaming. The me who goes places in my head is a lot more awake than the bored me sitting at my desk.”

“I love the soft flesh of Mama’s warm palm against my own even though sometimes I feel a deep sorrow through her skin. Mama usually does a good job of hiding behind her preacher’s wife smile, but sometimes her crinkled forehead gives her away.”

“Daddy tends to leave a dent in soft things. Not just because he’s big, but because he means to. Everything about him is heavy, from his voice to the way his food lands on the floor. Sometimes just in the way he looks at you.”

“Not having Mama as part of our family is like having the thread slip from the needle. She pulled us all into this world and we need her to keep us sewn together.”

“It’s not what I was expecting. And no, I didn’t know that. Lately I feel like a chipped plate at a table set for company.”

“But I can feel him. I feel his loneliness and his sadness as if they were my own. Maybe they are mine. Maybe the reason we get along so well is because we know exactly how the other feels”

“Everyone is offered this gift, but most people turn away from it at a very young age. Truth frightens people. You’re one of the brave ones.”

Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

16-year old Abbi Weinstein is known to the world as “Baby Hope” — she was the one-year old birthday girl clutching a red balloon fleeing the towers in the arms of a day care worker in an iconic (fictional) photograph from 9/11. Noah Stern is obsessed with that photo because he holds the secret hope that one of the background figures is his father, presumed dead. Both hail from Oakdale, New Jersey, a fictional town loosely based on Middletown, New Jersey, with the dubious honor of having the largest number of 9/11 fatalities outside of New York City. Together, they slowly put together the missing pieces from that day, and the ongoing impact ripples on the people affected.

Despite the subject matter, this is an uplifting book. It’s full of humor, friendship, and love as well as a lot of heartfelt and sob inducing stories. It is a way forward from tragedy, not a hopeless and depressing fixation on it. I like YA fiction because somehow the issues are clearer — less muddied by the accreted neuroses and mental sluggishness of age — and I am able to learn more easily from it.

I think Julie Buxbaum is brilliant — I love her characters and her humorous, banter-rich, prose. Each of her books focusses on real and difficult issues — and helps the characters work on making sense of the world and their place in it. This book is easily the best of all — I read it in one sitting. The stories woven together were touching, personal, and inspiring. I sobbed through a lot of it, but finished feeling centered and hopeful.

There are so many great lines in this book — here are a few:
“I think our stories are actually what make us people. We each have a history… Stories are like the … currency of connection. And all your stories woven together might tell some larger story about the history of our country from that moment to now.”

“I was fashionably late to the existential panic party.”

“She’s the one who gave my mom her stoicism. In my mother it takes on a cheery perversion, but my grandma is all strong, clean lines, when it comes to the difficult stuff. She’s stating a fact, true words without any sentimentality.”

“My mother has always liked to outsource our difficult conversations. It was my dad, not her, who sat me down last spring and asked if I’d be interested in going on the pill.”

“Well, the good news is that awkward phases help with long-term personality development.”

“All it takes is a tiny, inexplicable tear in the fabric of the moral universe.”

Abbi’s grandmother is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimers — this is what she tells Abbi: “You know what I think about sometimes? I think about how all the little bits of me that I’m losing will somehow find their way to you. Like they are … what’s the word … tangible. Like they are tangible things that can crawl from my bedroom to yours and so as I become less me, you will become more you, and I will continue to march on within you when I’m not me anymore. You’re going to keep growing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Life can really suck, right? So why not make it at least a little bit fun whenever we can? I mean, think about it. There are few things that a well-timed joke can’t solve.”

“Pretty much everything about being in high school is embarrassing. Not only the hours spent jerking off behind locked doors, the days cooped up in windowless classrooms — not to mention the greasiness of it all. I’m talking our very existence. We are a reminder to grown-ups of how far they’ve come and how much further they wish they could go.”

“When you have a kid, it’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body. You never get used to it.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

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

Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.

Our heroine is January Scaller, and the time is ~1900. January is a motherless child of indeterminate color who lives with her father’s employer, the kindly and wealthy Mr. Locke. By comparison, January is told she is “quite improper, willful and temerarious” — temerarious quickly becomes her favorite word :-). However, no thing or person is exactly what they seem in this deliciously complex story that weaves together intricate stories across time and multi-world space.

The Doors represent Change — as January’s father explains it: “Doors are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned… Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified and storyless.” But not everyone is enamored of the “change” the Doors represent, and someone or something is working hard to close them all down, ostensibly to maintain order and bring Progress and Prosperity to our world (but mostly benefiting themselves).

A number of memorable characters step in to help or hinder including: Mr. Locke and his slightly unsettling Archeological Society; Samuel Zappia, January’s only “non-fictional friend;” Jane Irimu, sent from East Africa by way of a predatory Leopard people world by January’s father; and Adelaide Lee Larson “ born of poor luck and poverty and raised by ignorance and solitude,” whose epic love story begins when she meets a ghost boy in an empty field at 15.

Speculative fiction is often used a vehicle for discussing difficult topics through the guise of “other worlds,” and this book is a thinly veiled portrayal of the perception of Change as necessary (liberals) or as something to be feared (conservatives). While I personally favor liberal policies, I don’t appreciate the over simplified and highly stereotyped cabal of rich, white, men that are literally out to rape, pillage, and destroy the happiness and life potential of everyone else. Well-written fiction can feel so real that it is easy for stereotypes like this to be perpetuated without the reader’s conscious awareness. So … great writing and a tremendous girl-power adventure — but a little heavy handed on the definition of the “bad guys” for me.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J Lockington (YA)

A coming-of-age story for 11-year old Makeda. Opening on the road as she and her family are relocating West for her father’s new job as Principal Cellist in the New Mexico Symphony, we quickly learn that she is a black girl adopted into a white family shortly after birth. She both wonders about her birth mother and struggles with ongoing (and annoying) reactions of those around to her. People are constantly commenting on “how white she talks” and persisting with queries about where “she is really from” (even though the answer is simply “Atlanta.”)

Told with a mixture of prose, poetry, and tumblr posts with her best friend back in Baltimore (also a black adoptee in a white family), we get an up close and personal look at one young girl’s transracial adoption experience.

The writing is very good and the details of Makeda’s thoughts and feelings are incredibly perceptive and well-expressed. It’s important to remember that the book is completely focussed on Makeda — her perceptions, her memories, her hopes, and her experiences from her perspective. As an older white person (not the target demographic here), I cringed at the description of her mother — the absolute stereotype of a guilt-ridden white liberal. When it becomes clear that her mother is mentally ill — she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in the book — her whiteness and mental illness kind of blend together. Makeda’s experiences at her new school and a girl scout troop were also blatantly racist, without any compensating non-racist encounters which I found disappointing.

On the whole I found this worth reading — it felt authentic and certainly broadened my perspectives in a number of ways. I wish there had been a slightly more hopeful path at the end, but of course that is not the whole story.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 30th, 2019.

Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 5

When 10-year old Clover Blue witnesses his first live birth in his Northern California commune, he begins to wonder which of the sister-mothers he actually came from. But there is an odd hush around that subject, in this otherwise open, loving, and caring community.

Ranging from 1974 through 1978, the book follows Blue’s quest to understand who he really is. Blue is a wonderful character and the detailed depiction of communal life and those who chose it are inspiring. The author manages to paint a full picture of real people who have consciously formed a family in a spiritual environment and yet who have also made mistakes with serious impact. I love the balanced way she has shown what might happen in such circumstances — with an objective tone which simultaneously portrays the beauty of the people, their relationships, and their way of life as well as the struggles, frailty, and hypocrisies.

I loved reading this book — particularly for the characters and the fact that it embodied all the best things I remember from that era (Blue is four years younger than I was during the time period). The commune members have their own backstories and their relationships within the commune parallel the evolution of the commune itself. The story unfolds beautifully with ongoing reflection. The commune is clothing optional and the kids are home schooled — with each of the “Elders” imparting their own wisdom. The local library serves as a fantastic resource. The essay Blue is assigned to write about people watching TV is priceless (he has to go to the local clinic to observe this as there is no television at the commune). One of the Elders sums up all of the great religions with: “Great prophets like Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha pretty much said the same thing… Be kind. Respect life. Pay attention. And focus on the here and now, not the promise of something better in the afterlife.” So simple.

The start is a little slow — I initially found the writing a little clunky and almost stopped reading — but fairly soon I was completely caught up in the characters and their surroundings and forgot I was reading at all (my measure of a good book!).

Highly recommended!

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.