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The Weight of Blood

I loved this retelling of Stephen King’s classic horror story Carrie! Updated by Tiffany D. Jackson to reflect the modern day, this novel also adds in the insidious effects of racism, making this a layered and timely narrative. I listened to this book on audio, and its full voice cast kept me mesmerized.

Set in a small town in Georgia in 2014, Maddy is a bi-racial girl raised by her single white father, who has forced her to hide her racial identity her entire life. Homeschooled as a child, she has been bullied and ostracized since starting public school in seventh grade. An incident at school with her hair during her senior year, reveals her secret and she is mocked for it, but of course, the bullies claim they are not racists, they were just joking. The bullying intensifies, and the students decide to have their first integrated prom to diffuse the bad press their school is receiving. Wendy, a white popular student who feels guilty, convinces her football star Black boyfriend Kenny to ask Maddy to the prom as penance. Due to the trauma she has endured, Maddy begins to discover she has telekinetic powers that come into deadly play when what you know will happen, happens at prom.

The framework of the story is set up as a podcast as a true-crime enthusiast and a skeptic research and discuss the horrific day. This switching between the past and the present day is effective and lets these podcasters muse about how the long-reaching legacy of racism led to Maddy’s breakdown. This chilling book was excellent and expertly braided in dark themes, making this more than your typical horror story. A few threads were left unexplored in the conclusion, so I would love a sequel!

Ride On

Faith Erin Hicks proves once again why she is on my Top 5 Comic Authors list with this sweet coming-of-age story.

Blue-haired Victoria has recently switched horse stables, from the top-regarded stable in the area to a smaller one where she hopes for a less stressful riding experience. There she meets three other horse lovers, who extend a hand of friendship that she initially rejects. But they wear her down with their authenticity and mutual love for the tv show Beyond the Galaxy, which is an IRL homage to Star Trek: TNG. As a Trekkie, I loved how these young teens band together over their shared hobbies, with a funny scene of them dressing up in futuristic costumes at a local Renaissance Fair.

The spunky characters have Hick’s trademark look, with additional loving depictions of horses. This is a perfect book for middle school or very early high school students, for many of them are going through that bittersweet ritual of adolescence, outgrowing childhood friends and (hopefully) finding a new set of friends with similar interests. In this semi-autobiographical tale, Hicks shares her own love of horses and crafts a happy ending for Victoria. While not all friendship woes will wrap up as neatly as they did in this one, I believe teens can gain some positive insight into real friendship in this lovely tail (tale)!

Star Trek tribute!

Sadie

Listening to Sadie on audio was absolutely the best way to experience this book and it deserves all the stars!

The story is told from two alternating viewpoints- nineteen-year-old Sadie and West McCray, a journalist who creates a radio podcast around the mystery of Sadie and her sister Mattie. Sadie’s beloved younger sister is found murdered on the outskirts of their small depressed town and Sadie leaves their hometown to track down who she feels murdered her. When the police can’t solve the mystery of Mattie’s death or find Sadie, the girl’s surrogate grandmother contacts West to see if he can help. What follows was an achingly real journey of discovery as Sadie desperately tracks down every clue that leads her closer and closer to who she feels is responsible. West follows the crumbs of clues afterward but is often weeks or months behind Sadie’s travels. A heartbreaking picture develops, as the girls had had the cards stacked against them from the beginning- with a drug-addicted mother, no known fathers and a town with little resources to help them.

Sadie, West and the whole cast of characters became alive in the audio narration. Sadie’s stutter and desperate need for revenge are heartbreaking, West’s caring demeanor shines through, while all the others truly seem like people you’d meet in everyday life. People on the outer margins are life are realistically rendered and the sad realities of child sexual abuse are addressed. The ending will gut you- while you don’t truly know what happens to Sadie, this unflinching story will make you guess what the likely outcome is. I highly recommend this story, not only to the intended YA audience but to anyone who enjoys gritty thrillers.

Firekeeper’s Daughter

I loved this book! So, as I mentioned in an earlier post about expanding my content, here is one of my favorite recent YA reads.

Set in 2004 on the Ojibwe Reservation in the UP of Michigan, Daunis is a bi-racial young woman who just graduated from high school. During one pivotal summer, her life is forever altered when she witnesses a murder and gets pulled into a covert sting operation with Jamie, a young FBI agent who is posing as a senior on the local hockey team. They need to pose as a couple, and soon real feelings develop between them, as they with a senior FBI agent, try to figure out who is making and distributing meth in the community.

Daunis is very connected with her family and tribe and respects Ojibwe traditional medicine and lore. Daunis’ family relationships are messy and complicated, as she has a younger half-brother from when her Native father cheated on her white teenage mother. That scandal and her mother’s family’s prejudices are an intriguing layer to her character. We also are introduced to a lot of background knowledge that is built-in for readers to pick up on, which I appreciated. While I had guessed at who was involved in the drug trade, the action-packed ending brought it to an exciting close. While there was justice for some, there were several endings that didn’t wrap up neatly, but that added realism to the story.

This novel has built up a lot of traction in the last year and was chosen as the winner of the Printz Award, which honors excellence in YA books. I wish I had picked it up earlier, but the beautiful Native American-inspired art on the cover made me think it was a fantasy novel, vs the gritty thriller it actually is. The book is a love letter from the author to her Native culture, and I will absolutely pick up future books by Angeline Boulley, as she celebrates and honors her heritage while telling an excellent story.

Guest Post on the 2022 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my sixth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I got to read two excellent sci-fi novels- Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders and Upper World by Femi Fadugba. One was more a space epic, while the other was grounded in reality, but both will appeal to a YA audience. Check here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

Incredible Doom

It’s 1994 and the internet is new. In this coming-of-age tale, four teens come together in an unlikely alliance as their home lives fall apart around them.

We are introduced to Allison, whose manipulative and abusive magician father tries to control every aspect of her life. She finds refuge in the new computer he brings home and discovers an online community and really connects with a young man Samir (Sam). We also really get to know Richard, a teen who has recently moved to a new high school, where he runs into someone he knew years ago from summer camp, who starts to bully him and creates false rumors about him to his new classmates. While being attacked in the hallway by this bully, an unlikely punk savior appears to help Richard- Tina, a tough computer expert who lives with other teens in a house in the country.

Eventually, Allison escapes from her violent father and she and Sam are on the run in the middle of the night. On a parallel journey, Richard is thankful for Tina’s help, but feels confused and trapped with Tina’s housemates, recognizing they aren’t true friends like his group of friends from his old school. But circumstances and their connection online lead the two pairs to meet on the last page, opening up further adventures for this new quartet.

This graphic novel effectively captures the early 1990s and reminds us of that era of technology -computer usage before the World Wide Web via dial-up with a text-based bulletin board system (BBS). It looks so very primitive now, but was cutting edge for a new generation of youth who would come of age with home computers. I remember being in awe of a family that I babysat for in my neighborhood who had a computer and then a few years later in college when one of my rich sorority sisters was the first to have her own computer vs the rest of us who had to use the college’s computer lab. Now everyone seems to have their own private laptops- how far we have come in a relatively short time.

The art is done in black and white with blue accents for shadows and to infer other colors. A variety of panel placements and computer screens successfully pull you into this world of technology and limitless possibilities. The art style reminded me somewhat of Scott McCloud of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Daniel Clowes of Ghostworld. Clothing and hair-styles of the grunge inspired youth, are captured well in the minimalist illustrations, with solid line art.

Incredible Doom is set up to be an ongoing series, and I’m invested enough in the disenfranchised and realistic characters to look for future volumes. These tail-end Gen X teens are looking for connections, and I have enough nostalgia for that era to tune in for more.

-Nancy

School Library Journal reviews, part 3

I have been reviewing YA books and graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine since 2018. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library.  Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 200-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. The magazine wishes to be transparent with descriptions regarding race, so people don’t default to thinking characters are white, so any physical descriptions of characters are now required in the review. I’ve now reviewed eighteen books for them- here are my first six and my second set of six.

Junk Boy by Tony Abbott

Gr 9 Up–Bobby Lang lives on the edge of town in a dilapidated house with his father, who is disabled and continuously drunk. The kids at school call Bobby Junk, a cruel reminder of the junk-filled property he lives on, and he tries to be invisible at school to avoid the bullying. His story is told in free verse and readers are privy to his thoughts as he ruminates on his lonely life. By accident, he witnesses a moment of violence against his classmate Rachel when her mother discovers her with her girlfriend. Bobby and Rachel bond over their outsider status, and her friendship gives him hope where earlier he felt none. Seasoned YA author Abbott crafts a nuanced story about an unlikely but desperately needed friendship between two outsiders. Both Bobby and Rachel are dealing with weak and abusive parental bonds and the damage this does to them is capably shown. Readers will cringe over what Rachel’s mother tries to force on her daughter because of her sexuality, and will hopefully be pushed to think critically about how words and actions affect others. The narrative also respectfully shows positive aspects of religion and getting mental health assistance.

VERDICT This novel-in-verse has an engaging male POV, and would be a good read-alike for those who enjoyed Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. The message of breaking through barriers to reach out for help and being an empathetic friend are important themes for teens to understand, and makes this a definite buy for YA collections.

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

Gr 8 Up–Newt is a young miner, described early on as “not a boy nor yet a wimmin,” who lives and works in a mine named Bearmouth. All the boys and men there are trapped by low wages, cruel management, and a draconian religion, thus dooming them to a life of servitude. The miners develop a family underground with Newt being especially close to Thomas, who is teaching the young miner to read. When a new worker named Devlin is added to their crew, Newt is wary yet drawn to him. Devlin begins to plant seeds of revolution in Newt’s mind, so when a secret is revealed and their way of life is challenged, Newt’s eyes are opened to how very trapped they all are. Debut author Hyder gives Newt a distinctive voice. The prose is written phonetically, as if Newt is sharing the story with what little knowledge of writing they have. It’s a challenge to get into the rhythm of this writing style, which may be off putting to readers, but the world-building is strong, as life in the claustrophobic mines seems to be a cross between a dystopian future and the Victorian era. There is a scene with the threat of sexual assault. Physical appearance isn’t often described, though Devlin is white and Thomas has brown skin.

VERDICT A unique story that will take readers a while to get used to. This book might be a hard sell to teens, but for those who are ready for a fresh narrative, this gripping story of hope, friendship, and revolution will be worth it.

Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher

Gr 8 Up–Amelia and Jenna, best friends since middle school, attend a literary festival after graduation, since they share a passion for “The Orman Chronicles,” a series written by the young and enigmatic N.E. Endsley. While there, curly-haired Jenna meets the author—but Amelia doesn’t, driving a wedge between the two friends just as Jenna leaves for a trip to Ireland before they start college together in the fall. While overseas, Jenna dies in a car accident, leaving her parents and Amelia grief-stricken. Soon afterward, Amelia receives a rare copy of “The Orman Chronicles” in the mail, and she is sure Jenna is behind it. She tracks the book down to an eclectic bookstore in Michigan, where she meets the elusive author, who goes by Nolan. Schumacher’s lovely debut will have romantics swooning over blonde-haired, blue-eyed Amelia and black-haired Nolan’s love story. These two teens have endured loss and family trauma, but both have found acceptance and family elsewhere, and bring out the best in each other. The novel is also an ode to the love of reading and how books can provide the magic and comfort needed during difficult times.

VERDICT Recommended for all YA collections. Readers will root for these resilient protagonists who face heartbreak and must make tough choices.

The Salt in our Blood by Ava Morgyn

Gr 8 Up–The summer before her senior year, Catia discovers that her grandmother Moony, who has been raising her, has died in her sleep. With nowhere else to turn, Cat reluctantly reaches out to her estranged mother, Mary, who brings her daughter back to her apartment in New Orleans. Her mother has been grappling with bipolar disorder for years, with extreme highs and lows that made parenting Cat impossible. A mixture of gritty realism and fantasy are intertwined unevenly as Cat moves between solving the mystery of her mother’s past and interacting with other-worldly beings. Cat begins a healthy romance with a multi-racial young man who proves to be a good balance to her dysfunctional family dynamic. Tarot cards, mysticism, and religion tie in together as Cat unearths a secret from Mary’s past that explains some of her behaviors and sets Cat on her own path of discovery. Morgyn creates an atmospheric narrative that tackles some facets of mental illness and how some youths end up taking a parental role in their relationship with a mother or father. An author’s note explains Morgyn’s connection with Mary’s secret and includes the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Cat and her family are white.

VERDICT This magical realism story would be a good addition to larger collections and might prove welcome to those who do not have traditional households.

She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

Gr 9 Up–In this thriller, Mick, a blonde junior on the high school swim team and on the outs with her mother, begrudgingly attends a party with a friend and meets Veronica, a Chicana photographer with an edge. The two girls quickly hit it off, with Veronica taking a photograph of Mick immediately after their first kiss that becomes a sensation on Instagram, allowing her to break into the art world. Veronica introduces Mick to her best friend Nico, a 20-year-old brunette who creates subversive art in their San Diego region, and the two teens become willing participants in his illegal art installations. However, soon they are in over their heads as several murders and a raging fire occur and they become pawns in a larger scheme. Heard capably explores the tipping point in which a group can move from righteous anger to destruction when they let the adrenaline of the moment overtake reason. At what level do you go from political activist to eco-terrorist? Heard also captures the extreme highs and lows of teen romance. The imbalance in Veronica and Mick’s relationship could push teens to explore where they would draw the line on romantic boundaries and consent.

VERDICT This psychological thriller is sure to be popular with teens. A sapphic romance with elements of art, danger, and obsession, it is recommended for all YA library collections.

Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize by Margo Rabb

Gr 9 Up–Lucy Clark, a 16-year-old junior in boarding school in Texas, is mourning the loss of the grandmother who raised her, as her parents’ globe-trotting life has prevented Lucy from ever living with them. Alone and bereft, she becomes best friends with Dyna, but when the girls are involved in an altercation with some bullies, Lucy is suspended from school and sent to New York City to live with a cousin and work for an elderly woman named Edith. Lucy is immediately swept up in a mystery as Edith believes someone is trying to kill her. An eccentric group of suspects is revealed, and, in an implausible twist, Dyna joins Lucy in New York and the girls piece together the clues of who is trying to kill Edith. This story feels more like a cozy mystery for adults that was modified to fit a YA audience. The theme of creating a family of choice versus a family of origin is certainly worthwhile, but the trope of absentee parents in YA novels is taken to an extreme here. While the whimsical tone and the multigenerational connections are a plus, the mystery is far-fetched. Little description of Lucy and Dyna’s appearances is given in the narrative.

VERDICT This mystery might take some hand-selling by librarians but would be a good fit for teens who feel misunderstood and yearn to be heard.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

Guest Post on the 2021 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my fifth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Flamer by Mike Curato and Go With The Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. Both books were excellent and dealt with issues facing teens today. Make sure you read my original reviews, as the YASF review was edited considerably for length. Click here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

The Crossroads at Midnight

The Crossroads at Midnight is a collection of five creepy short stories written and illustrated by Abby Howard. It is a good introduction for an older YA audience looking for horror graphic novels, who are ready for some gore, but not too much.

The Girl in the Fields

A queer teen is outed when her private online correspondence is read by her conservative parents.  They threaten that their pastor will cure her, and living out in the country, Frankie has nowhere to escape to.  But she seems to strike up a friendship with a neighboring girl who she can’t see because of the tall fence. Determined to meet in person, she climbs over but can’t find her, but unfortunately runs across a farmer who is a religious zealot and who plans to kill her with his tractor. This was a heavy story to start off with, but it had an interesting blend of reality with the unexpected.

Mattress, Used

Christina, a frazzled college student who is crashing in a friend’s apartment snags a used mattress from a city street. Her roommate is rightfully disgusted, as stains are evident. But Christina’s nights become filled with nightmares with a large creature says he wants her flesh. Upon waking she is exhausted, feverish and develops a bad rash. After a horrific long hospital stay in which she loses a lot of skin, she is visited by the creature once she returns home. Is she doomed to lose the rest of her skin? The last panel shows the mattress out on the road again- who’s next???

The Boy From The Sea

Two sisters vacation with their father at a beach, when a strange boy befriends the younger sister. The older sister clues in that the boy means her harm and is on guard to keep her sister safe. But the older sister needs to make a heartbreaking decision when he comes to drag her sister into the ocean. Thirty years pass and another agonizing scene occurs with no recourse.

Our Lake Monster

The naivete of youth! A young teen reminisces about the days in which her family traveled with a lake creature, before a tragedy occurred, putting an end to their side-show income. She believes the lake monster is still kind as it was when it was young and much smaller, and waxes poetic to her little brother about it. She then makes a decision that has terrible consequences for the entire family.

Kindred Spirits

This melancholy story was strangely sweet, although it was the only story that did not include a young character. An older woman Norah who has never married or had children lives out in the country, which is adjacent to a bog. A bog woman mysteriously shows up at her doorstep and believe it or not, the two women strike up a friendship of sorts. Two other voiceless bog women join them, and Norah researches who they might have been in the past and the circumstances of their death. Later, after rejection after rejection by the townspeople during her time of need, she makes a decision that brings her peace.

Howard’s black and white art was powerful. Her crosshatching of shadows and effective use of white vs black gutters to hint at the changing tone was spot-on. Her art reminded me of Junito Ito’s work- both in style and substance. Body horror was forefront in most of the narratives, and you need to have a strong suspension of disbelief. These bittersweet tales are a perfect slice-of-life horror.

Thanks to NetGalley for an early online copy. As a teen librarian, I will definitely be buying a copy for my library’s collection!

-Nancy

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