Friday, February 21, 2020

7 Books To Read This Year: Guest Post from Desiree Villena

Today we have a guest post from Desiree Villena.

I must admit, I have not read any of her seven choices, so I'll have to add them to my own lenghty TBR list. Here's Desiree's recommendations for your 2020 reading.

7 Books to Read This Year

Spring might be right around the corner, but the year’s still young—and now’s the perfect time to check in on your reading goals for 2020. Whether you’re breezing through your TBR like a champ or getting a slow start since life got in the way, you can still make this your best reading year yet!

From buzzy Big 5 memoirs to dazzling indie adventures, here are seven books to help you ring in a new decade of reading. Keep the momentum going or turn over a new leaf (of a book)—you can make 2020 a literary year to remember.

1. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray                                                                     

This gorgeous contemporary novel might be Anissa Gray’s first published book, but she’s no stranger to bylines and writerly recognition: she’s spent the past two decades covering global finance for the likes of Reuter and CNN. Given her history of breaking big news, you might expect her first book to be action-packed and lightning paced—say, a globetrotting thriller where huge sums change hands. Instead, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a thoughtful family story of trauma, recovery, and relationships that hurt even as they heal.

The story kicks off when upstanding couple Althea and Proctor are arrested, to the shock of the entire community. Althea’s sisters, Lillian and Viola, step up to care for their teenaged nieces while Althia and Proctor prepare for a grueling legal battle. Will their family ever be the same again?

2. Destiny’s War: Saladin’s Secret by Pyram King     

Self-published author Pyram King’s debut is many things: a pulse-raising adventure, a lush Lawrence of Arabia homage, and a painstaking—though never painful—work of historical imagination. It’s also among the best that self-publishing has to offer.

There’s a lot going on in Destiny’s War, but it’s all pulled together by a charismatic leading man of the old school: the dashing war correspondent, amateur archaeologist, and spy Francis Marion Jäger. Incredibly enough, he was also a real person. King based his story on Jäger’s diaries—with some artful embellishments, of course. Sent to Egypt to cover the Middle Eastern theater of the Great War, Marion gets ensnared in a medieval legend that may just have bearings on the conflict raging around him. 

3. Highfire by Eoin Colfer     

If you were a YA buff during the early aughts, you probably remember the long-running Artemis Fowl series—a playful hybrid of high tech and old magic that pitted a prepubescent criminal mastermind against a scrappy, subterranean fairy cop. The series’ last installment came out in 2012, but Eoin Colfer fans can rejoice: the Irish author just came out with his first work of adult fantasy, and it’s just as witty and original as his YA.

Highfire’s hero, fifteen-year-old Squib Moreau, isn’t as precocious as Artemis. But he has his own issues with law enforcement as the corrupt local constable, who also runs the town’s drug trade, won’t stop harassing his mom. Luckily, Squib makes a friend that even a gun-toting kingpin would be afraid to cross: the world’s last surviving dragon—who also happens to be a vodka-swilling Flashdance fan.

4. The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin     

This thoughtful family saga serves up science fiction in an elegant lit fic package, although author Tara Conklin may not think of it that way. Still, The Last Romantics’ ambitious genre-bending is encapsulated by its opening scene: in the year 2079, a poet contemplates the climate apocalypse.

Conklin shifts effortlessly between this fire- and flood-ravaged future, when Fiona Skinner is 102, and her formative years from the 1980s onward. The youngest of four children, she grows up in a family fractured by the unexpected death of her father and the slow emotional withdrawal of their mother. In the absence of real parental support, Fiona and the other Skinner kids band together, and the novel centers on their complex, moving relationships. Its title, incidentally, comes from the name of Fiona’s sex blog, The Last Romantic—the only outlet for her writerly ambitions before she finds poetic success.

5. Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey   

There’s been a lot of conversation about this polarizing debut novel, which is both disarmingly complex and what it says on the tin: a series of conversations. Needless to say, this is a talky, thinky sort of book, light on action sequences and heavy on introspection. Its 200-plus pages are full of relationships being played out through poignant (and often meandering) talk. And because all the talkers are women, Topics of Conversation place female desire, ambition, and pain front and center.

Come for the pitch-perfect dialogue, stay for the floridly gorgeous writing. Miranda Popkey is an ambitious stylistic who cheerfully ignores the dictates of literary minimalism. In a market glutted with wannabe Hemingways, her plush style can be a surprising breath of fresh air. 

6. Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener  

A book-length expansion of a viral n+1 essay, this tell-all tech memoir is one of the year’s most talked-about titles. Of course, 2020’s still young. But a book this readable and smart is sure to hang onto its crown of acclaim, making countless “best of the year” lists come December.

When Uncanny Valley begins, Anna Wiener feels like she’s going nowhere. As an assistant at a literary agency, she lives on a meager income in New York City, and she’s just broken up with the guy who used to pass her freelance editing gigs. Needless to say, the situation is… suboptimal. So when she gets the chance to move on and join the legions of bright young things converging on Silicon Valley, what can she do but go for it? The ensuing adventure is, of course, more than she bargained for, equity stake or not, but it makes for a fascinating story. Wiener evokes the heady atmosphere of the last decade’s startup culture with a precision you might call uncanny.

7. When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald   

Narrated by a neurodivergent protagonist, this quirky contemporary novel is moving, sharp, and sweet. Twenty-one-year-old Zelda is a college student who lives with fetal alcohol syndrome. She can’t always count on the kindness of strangers, but she’s got a crew that always has her back: her boyfriend, Marxy; her stoic older brother; Gert; and his sometimes-girlfriend, AK47. She’s also sustained by her love for Vikings: those fierce, sword-wielding, Thor-worshipping warriors of old.

Zelda’s cozy world is shaken when she learns her brother might be in trouble—to support them both, he’s gotten mixed up with some dangerous people. Can she channel her inner Valkyrie and come to his rescue? When We Were Vikings introduces us to a beautifully characterized heroine with a truly unforgettable voice.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cybils Judging Results: 5 Book Reviews

The winners have been announced, so I can finally release my reviews on the books under consideration, shown in order of my preference for them, not any ranking through Cybils. My category was General YA Fiction. The judging was done by committee for each category, and a majority vote decided the winner.

The Downstairs GirlThe Downstairs Girl by Stacey  Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jo Kuan is sassy and witty and delightful, and having been raised by a wise Chinese man (Old Gin), she is also full of old proverbs and sayings she has picked up along the way. Sometimes being an eloquent minority is a blessing, but it gets her into trouble more times than not. Being Chinese, Jo must always know her place. The Downstairs Girl presents race relations in the late 1800s in the South from an interesting outside view. Jo is neither white nor “colored,” and she often doesn’t know where to stand—or sit, more specifically, when the streetcars are segregated. Not fitting into either group, the Chinese often found themselves in worse conditions than blacks: unable to even rent property. And the story also tackles women’s suffrage and not only the desire to vote but the uprising of women who insisted on having a voice in their homes and communities.

That theme of finding your place in the world enrobes the whole story, and that is more than a teenage problem. Jo is ready to fight for her future more than the law will allow, and she is fully aware of the challenges ahead to have what would be considered even a reasonably comfortable life. There’s a bit of romance, and a bit of reality.

I love, love, love this book! I had to stop with about 30 pages left, and all day long I kept fussing about getting back to it for the conclusion. I must say, however, that I do not think this novel should be categorized as YA. Maybe NA, that elusive group, but it really reads more like any women’s historical fiction novel. I fear Lee is missing a huge chunk of readers who would thoroughly enjoy it but won’t pick it up because they don’t read YA. Yes, it is written in first person present tense, which didn’t annoy me as much as it usually does, but that doesn’t make it automatically YA. There’s no high school angst or lingo or even teenage situations to navigate. Jo lives in the world of the adults of the 1890s and faces grown-up problems. Maybe all the fuss about how good the novel is will bring in more readers so Lee’s work can be fully appreciated.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

Patron Saints of NothingPatron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! This story was fantastic. While it was unique in having a main character who is Filipino, something I’ve personally never seen before (and actually written by a Filipino, which is extra special), it dealt with age-old issues of family and culture and knowing who we are and where we come from. Jay’s journey to find out more about his cousin ends up being a journey to also find himself in a larger world. I simply loved this book and highly recommend it. While fiction, sadly the situations presented are very real and based on facts. Getting that information out into the world of young readers through a gripping and interesting story is an accomplishment worth applauding.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

I'm Not Dying with You TonightI'm Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly   Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of this book is interesting: two teens thrown together during an explosive night of rioting, one white and one black, with the chapters switching between the two points of view and written by two separate authors—one white and one black.

I admit that I was confused a few times and would forget whose POV I was in and have to reread a bit to get myself back on track, though most of the time the difference was clear, especially through dialogue because the black character drops words and slings slang like it’s her career. The whole story is done in first person present tense, which I’m not a fan of but is the standard in YA books today so you just have to go with it. In this case, it does add to the immediacy of the situation in which the girls find themselves.

Overall, the story was well done and exciting and kept me wanting to turn the page. The novel is certainly dealing with timely topics and the assumptions one race can make about another (going both ways). It would be an excellent read for a teen book club and lead to some lively discussions about the choices the characters make in the story.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

On the Come UpOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I’d love to say I enjoyed this book, but I just didn’t. I know I’m not any part of the target audience, but I did enjoy The Hate You Give so I’m not sure that’s the problem. The main character, Bri, was just annoying and constantly confrontational to a level that felt excessive over and over, and I know that’s what Thomas wanted for her but it left me wanting to just shut the book and quit reading. If you can’t get behind the main character, it’s hard to get behind the story. I also felt like I could see every “twist” coming and that the ending was preachy. Reviewing is all about how a book hits us, personally. This one just left me flat.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a sweet book, but it left me a bit flat. Nothing big really happens, problems are easily solved, and all the big UMPH things I expected to happen just didn’t. I’m not saying it’s a book to avoid or anything, but knowing I was picking it up because it was a finalist in an award competition, I expected more. More drama. More peril. Just more. And I was distracted by the meals Emoni creates at home with spices and fresh produce when they are apparently broke and living on the edge of not paying bills every month. Maybe teens don’t understand what groceries cost, but I do.

The writing was good overall, but the two page chapters were annoying, even breaking right in the middle of a scene for some reason. Does Acevedo think teens can’t handle chapters? I don’t know.
If you have a love of cooking, this is certainly a book for you. If you are a teen mom, I’d suggest that this story presents a smooth wash over the problems you are going to face.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

Don't Date Rosa SantosDon't Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a sweet coming of age romancy story, but a lot of it felt forced or didn’t quite make sense. Rosa is supposedly doing dual credits between high school and college, yet she has full day after full day to deal with community issues and never seems to be attending class—online or otherwise—or doing homework. It also had a very “one of each” vibe at the beginning when the community is introduced. In a mostly Cuban old-school community, there’s a mayor named Yang with a service dog, yet we never hear from him again or find out what the dog is for. He’s just kind of dropped in there with characters of various races and sexual orientation. It just felt carefully designed instead of natural to what that small city would look like. Rosa Santos herself is a nice character, but I also found it hard to swallow the huge leaps she makes from things she has refused to do her whole life. Overall, it’s a cute book, but not the top of my list.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

HeroineHeroine by Mindy McGinnis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was fully prepared for this to top my list, but I got really tired of reading about the drug use. 300 pages of how great Oxy and Heroin are, but very little about the horrible road of recovery. It was sort of like, went to the clinic and got all better. The recovery is horrendous!! And it never really ends. I personally have two little cousins who were addicts and struggle daily. That on-going part was lost for me. And I really didn’t like Mickey. It was hard to care about her situation. I would not recommend this book to a teen because it seemed to glorify the blessings of drug use (look at all she accomplished before it went bad!) more than really necessary. Well written, but it missed the bar for me on the good it could do.

*I reviewed this book as a second round judge of the Cybils Book Awards, but I checked my copy out of the local library (did not receive a free copy from the publisher) and am under no obligation to post a positive review.

If you've read all the way through, you might notice that my order of preference does not reflect the end result of the voting. That happens sometimes. Heroine continued to slip in my rankings as the days went by, but the other judges loved it and felt it was important and should win. Maybe you should read them all and come to your own conclusion. Unless you have issues with addiction. Then don't read Heroine. It comes with a trigger warning that I would urge you to take seriously.

You can find my previous reviews for New Kid and Coyote Sunrise at these links.

Now on to judging the OWFI writing contest where I get the solo vote for Best Juvenile Book of 2020. 😎

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Before I Fall: Book Review

Before I FallBefore I Fall by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grabbed this book at the library after I saw the movie version. I mostly just wondered if it ended the same way (which it does), but then I was drawn into the writing and ended up reading the whole thing. Of course, the book is better than the movie, but the film version (with the luminous Zoey Deutch, daughter of Lea Thompson, in the lead) does a serviceable job of getting to the heart of the story in 90 minutes.

Rather like "Groundhog Day" for a Mean Girl, I loved the message it held about how much power our words and actions hold and how we should use them wisely instead of cruelly. Samantha begins as, frankly, a pretty big bitch. The kind of girl you hated in school unless she was your friend and you were a Mean Girl too. But as the story unfolds, Sam learns that there is not only more to her and what she wants for her life but more to her friends and those she has been mean to for years. And yes, we all have the power to change. Is she in purgatory? Or is her experience what we all have a chance to go through for a bit of redemption before we leave this world? Some of it might feel trite to adult readers, but the teens it is aimed at will be given much food for thought. Especially if you are a Mean Girl.

View all my reviews