Review of Blackout

Blackout

by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon

performed by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Dion Graham, Imani Parks, Jordan Cobb, Shayna Small, A. J. Beckles, and Bahni Turpin

HarperAudio, 2021. 6 hours, 55 minutes.
Review written December 30, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Teen Fiction

This is a lovely collection of six love stories written by six outstanding authors for young adults. All the stories are set on the day of a major blackout in New York City, and all the teens are Black. All the couples are also gravitating toward a block party supposed to happen in Brooklyn that night.

But given those constraints, we’ve got lots of variety. One story is presented in five acts as the couple attempts to walk across New York City from Harlem to Brooklyn to get home. They had recently broken up after years together, and now they’re stuck with each other again when the subways aren’t running. Another story has a boy helping another boy in the dark of the subway — and he’s only beginning to admit to himself that he’s attracted to that boy. One story takes place on a tour bus with a class from Jackson, Mississippi, exploring New York. There’s a love triangle on the bus. Another girl is helping out residents of a retirement home when she finally meets the girl her grandfather’s been telling her about. One girl wants to get to the party to confront her ex and get him to take her back. That plan is disrupted by the driver of the car she hired. Another couple have been friends for years and now they’re on a quest to settle a bet in the dark in New York Public Library after they were supposed to leave with everyone else.

All of the stories are charming, and all of them are fun to listen to. Tiffany D. Jackson’s story in five acts begins the collection, and then another act is presented in between the other stories. Each story happens a little bit later in that fateful evening as we hear about the couple walking across the city. And as that couple progresses through the city, they come near each other couple along the way. The listener gets a sense of walking through the city, but focusing in on side stories along the way.

And as they chose outstanding writers for this collection, they chose amazing narrators for the audiobook. This collection is a complete delight.

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Review of Terciel & Elinor, by Garth Nix

Terciel and Elinor

by Garth Nix

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 338 pages.
Review written November 29, 2021, from my own copy, preordered from amazon.com.
Starred Review

A prequel to Sabriel! I preordered myself a copy as soon as I found out about it. It’s been a very long time since I read Sabriel, but I still recognized the names of the foes threatening the Old Kingdom.

Terciel is a young man and the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. Elinor is a young woman who has grown up on the south side of the border with the Old Kingdom, isolated in a manor house with her mother, a governess and the governess’s uncle, an old groom. She has been told that the mark her great-aunt put on her forehead when she was young is a disfiguring scar – rather than a charter mark giving her access to the magic of the Charter.

Elinor’s mother gets mysteriously sick, and then the Abhorsen-in-Waiting comes abruptly to her house just in time to protect her from the Greater Dead monster that has inhabited her mother’s body.

After barely escaping that incident, with those she loves dead, Elinor goes to Wyverley College to try to learn magic and go to the Old Kingdom. But another incident with the dead has Elinor traveling north sooner than she expected – and she becomes an important part of working with Terciel and the Abhorsen to stop a great threat.

I think you can read these books in whatever order you like, though I already know about the Abhorsens and necromancers and free magic and charter magic – I don’t know if it would be confusing for someone first picking up the books. But this unusual world and its magic and the dead who walk still has the power to captivate me. In fact, I’m soon going to need to reread Sabriel now that I’ve been reminded of this amazing world.

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Review of The Girl from the Sea, by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea

by Molly Knox Ostertag
color by Maarta Laiho

Graphix (Scholastic), 2021. 254 pages.
Review written October 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet graphic novel about fifteen-year-old Morgan’s summer romance. She lives on an island and her parents recently split up and her brother is always angry, so she was off alone by the cliffs one night but slipped and hit her head. But she was rescued by a girl in the water, a very cute girl, and Morgan, thinking it’s all a hallucination, gives the girl a kiss.

The next day, the girl shows up on the shore just wearing an oversize jacket. She announces that her name is Keltie, and tells Morgan:

I am a selkie, and you are my true love, and your kiss has allowed me to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land.

Now we can find our fortunes together!

[Morgan:] Yeah, no, nope, we’re not doing that.

[Keltie:] But our destinies are intertwined! Sealed by a kiss!

[Morgan:] That was a near-death=experience hallucination!

[Keltie:] I assure you, it was not.

Morgan doesn’t have the heart to send Keltie away, but she still doesn’t want anyone else to know about her. Morgan isn’t out as gay to anyone — she thought she’d get off the island some day and then come out — so she wants to keep this romance hidden. Her friends start wondering why she’s not as quick to hang out with them.

And then it turns out that Keltie also has an agenda, something she promised to do for her seal siblings.

It all adds up to a lovely story of a teen whose neat and tidy plans get completely shaken up in a beautiful way.

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scholastic.com

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Review of Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter

by Angeline Boulley
read by Isabella Star LaBlanc

Macmillan Audio, 2021. 14 hours.
Review written September 21, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Firekeeper’s Daughter is an amazingly good mystery/thriller for teens by an indigenous author. From the cover image, I mistakenly expected a fantasy, but got a lovely contemporary novel focusing on Daunis Fontaine, the daughter of a Native American Firekeeper and a non-Native woman. Only her mother is still alive, but Daunis has embraced Native American spirituality and the traditions of her people.

Since I listened to the audio version, I don’t trust myself with spelling the Native American terms freely used through this book in a natural way, but the narrator helped make their use seamless. As the book begins, Daunis has graduated from high school, but has not left for college because she doesn’t want to leave her grandmother, who recently had a stroke, and who is being cared for by Daunis’s mother. Daunis is also troubled by the recent death of her uncle, a chemistry teacher, which neither she nor her mother believes was really from an overdose of meth.

Daunis had been a star on the hockey team, but an injury has sidelined her, though she still supports the team with her brother the captain this year. An attractive new kid has come to town, but he turns out to have some secrets.

And before long, there are more deaths and more people using meth, and Daunis gets pulled into the investigation and mystery of who is behind the meth ring and how does that relate to her uncle’s death. It all seems tied up in the reservation and the hockey team, and Daunis has insider information on both.

This book is wonderful on many levels. Yes, it becomes suspenseful and yes, our main characters are in danger. But it also works as a richly emotional story before any suspense is present, about romance and family and belonging and caring for others and learning to trust. There are also underlying issues as to Native American people and their treatment by law enforcement, and citizenship issues on the border with Canada.

Something I loved about this book was the same thing I loved about Darcie Little Badger’s Native American fantasy, Elatsoe — Daunis is part of a community and gets help from the community. She respects and values her elders and gets important help from them, and it’s lovely how it works out.

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Review of Parachutes, by Kelly Yang

Parachutes

by Kelly Yang

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 476 pages.
Review written November 23, 2020, from a library book

Parachutes is a story about a Chinese teen who’s been dropped by her wealthy parents into America to get an American education. Parachutes is the term used to describe these kids, many of whom end up on their own without any supervision, which comes with its own problems.

This book focuses on Claire, a junior in high school who’s sent to America from Shanghai, and Dani, also a junior in high school, whose single mother decided to get some much-needed cash by renting a room to a Chinese student, Claire. They both attend the same private school, but the parachutes are given separate classes from the American kids. Dani’s been working hard on the debate team, and with extra encouragement from her coach, she’s hoping to get to go to an elite debate competition and win a scholarship to Yale. Her after-school job is cleaning houses, where she gets a window into the lives of the rich, including some fellow students.

Meanwhile, Claire spends time with her fellow parachutes, who prioritize shopping and parties. She catches the interest of a boy whose father owns one of the largest corporations in China. Claire’s and Dani’s lives intertwine in unexpected ways.

There’s a content warning at the front of the book: “This book contains scenes depicting sexual harassment and rape.” So it’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that’s in there. My main reservations about the book have to do with how the book ended, so I’m not going to go into detail. This was colored by my recently having read Know My Name, by Chanel Miller, who was the victim in the famous Stanford rape case, and having read that book made me less enthusiastic about how this one ended than I would have been otherwise. (How’s that for vague?)

And I hate that it’s realistic that American teens – and international teens in America – have to deal with these things. The parachutes portrayed were at even more risk, being far from parental supervision and facing peer pressure to spend extravagantly and take advantage of their independence.

The story here was well-crafted, alternating between the two girls’ perspectives, so the reader was more aware than they were about how their lives were intertwining. The book kept me up late reading, and you will be rooting for both girls.

kellyyang.com
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Review of Grown, by Tiffany D. Jackson

Grown

by Tiffany D. Jackson

Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2020. 371 pages.
Review written October 3, 2020, from a library book

There’s a Content Warning at the front of this book for “mentions of sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction to opioids.” The book begins with the main character, Chanty (short for “Enchanted”) waking up covered with blood and surrounded by blood. I expected a gritty novel about living on the streets.

But then chapter two flashes back and shows us a seventeen-year-old girl attending private school and on the swim team, who’s got a clearly loving and involved family. She’s got a wonderful singing voice, and as the book opens, she goes to an audition for BET’s version of American Idol. She doesn’t win the audition, but she gets the attention of Korey Fields, a 28-year-old rock star. He gives Chanty and her family VIP tickets to his upcoming show.

At the show, Korey gets her phone number, but asks her not to tell anyone. They begin a secret texting exchange.

At this point, I was happy that the book started with blood. That was a distinct signal that this relationship isn’t a good thing, and it’s not going to end well. And it doesn’t. In the name of boosting Chanty’s singing career, Korey convinces her parents to let him give her private lessons and even go on the road with him. To Enchanted, he’s getting her more and more involved in a relationship with him. A relationship that’s more and more controlling.

Since the story is told from Chanty’s perspective as it happens, we see easily how she’s sucked in. How flattered she was to get attention from a big star. How she tells herself he’s not all that much older and it’s meant to be. By the time things start going wrong, she’s already hooked and only wants to please him.

So you know it’s going to end poorly, but the effect is desperately wanting to warn her as Chanty gets more and more sucked in. And then there’s the blood – we don’t end up knowing who is actually responsible for that.

There’s a list of Resources in the Author’s Note at the end. We end up with a thriller that is based on actual cases and may open eyes to what domestic abuse can look like.

And, oh yeah, it’s also a really gripping story.

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Review of The Girls I’ve Been, by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I’ve Been

by Tess Sharpe
read by the author

Listening Library, 2021. 9 hours, 48 minutes.
Review written August 12, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow! This thriller for teens doesn’t let up the tension for a second.

The book begins as Norah goes into a bank with her girlfriend and her best friend, Wes. We learn that Norah’s worried about Wes, who’s mad because he hadn’t known Norah and Iris were a couple and this is one more time Norah has lied to him.

Then the guy in the line behind them pulls out a gun.

The bank robbery clearly doesn’t go according to plan – the bank manager is not in his office – so the two would-be robbers take hostages. They have no idea who they’re dealing with in Norah. They’re going to be sorry they thought they could use her to their own advantage.

The story is told beautifully, with little bits of Norah’s background slipping out as the tense situation in the bank keeps developing. We learn she’s escaped her mother, who is a con-artist. Her mother used to find a mark and play a con – and then get out, completely changing their identities. So Norah has been many different girls.

But can she use what she learned from those other girls to get herself and her friends out of the hostage situation alive? It’s for sure not going to be easy.

I wish I could say more – but it’s all revealed in perfectly small, tantalizing doses, and I don’t want to detract from that. Let me simply say that this is one of the best suspense novels I’ve ever read.

And it’s a big mistake for bad men to mess with Norah!

Besides the gratifying triumphs and clever, surprising escapes (I’m talking about the past, not necessarily the bank, because I don’t want to give that away), this book also shows the beautiful friendships Norah has during the present time of the story, after escaping the abusive childhood with her mother. So this book also gives the hope that people can recover and heal. They may still have scars, but they can rise above.

The author reads the audiobook, and it’s just as well I listened to it, because this is a book I don’t think I could have stopped reading if I didn’t have to turn off the sound.

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Review of A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, by Vesper Stamper

A Cloud of Outrageous Blue

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 307 pages.
Review written October 12, 2020, from a library book

Vesper Stamper’s illustrated young adult novels are amazingly evocative. Let me say that again: They’re illustrated young adult novels. The illustrations add a dreamlike quality to the book, as they did in What the Night Sings.

This one was set in medieval England about an orphaned girl who recently lost everything and was sent to a priory – just in time for the plague.

This book had lots of death and dying, so despite the dreamlike quality, it wasn’t exactly pleasant reading. I also have a prejudice against fanatically evil religious characters, and this book had a couple of those. So by the end, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I thought I would at the beginning. I didn’t quite follow all the plot choices either.

But as a book talking about how a large group of women lived together in the middle ages, with information about illuminating manuscripts, the book was lovely. Especially before they started dying.

Our orphaned main character was a synesthete who saw colors when she heard sounds. That sort of thing was thought to be demonic visions at the time, so she’d learned to keep silent about it. But it also gave her extra love for art and illuminated manuscripts.

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Review of We Are Not Free, by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 384 pages.
Review written November 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 National Book Award Finalist

We Are Not Free is a novel about Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. An interesting and effective choice made for this novel is to present the story from multiple perspectives. Every chapter has a different perspective.

We start with a 14-year-old kid in a community of Japanese Americans living in “Japantown” in San Francisco. We hear about the older teens he looks up to who will end up being viewpoint characters as the book goes on.

The book starts three months after Pearl Harbor when people of Japanese descent are getting targeted by racists. It continues as they have to sell off their possessions, because they’re only allowed a little bit of luggage in the slightly-refurbished racetrack where they’re taken next. It goes on through the war as the people in the camps have to decide if they will declare their loyalty to a government that removed their rights and volunteer to fight in the war.

By using so many perspectives, we get a broad view of what happened to different groups of people, including those who went on to fight in the war and those who refused. We learn about various levels of inhumane treatment, from the horrific conditions for those who were deemed a threat to the smaller indignities such as happened to those set loose with $25 and having to find a new place to live.

The teens have widely different attitudes. Many are angry. Some just want to make the best of things and move on with their lives. All of them encounter grave injustices, and seeing the situation from so many different eyes helps the reader understand the whole thing better.

And, yes, there are a lot of painful things that happen. This isn’t a feel-good book, but it is a book that shows you many sides of a terrible historical injustice perpetrated by our own government. I wish this book weren’t as timely as it is.

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hmhbooks.com

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Review of A Heart So Fierce and Broken, by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken

by Brigid Kemmerer

Bloomsbury, 2020. 445 pages.
Review written October 31, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Heart So Fierce and Broken is the second book in the series begun with A Curse So Dark and Lonely. And no, the series is not finished yet. The first book finished with a dramatic breaking of expectations with big implications for what would happen next – and so does this book. Both books seem to resolve most conflict brought up in the book – and then our tidy sense of completion is totally disrupted.

The first book is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Harper is brought from DC in an attempt to break the curse. Meanwhile, the kingdom isn’t getting much governing, but she helps the prince get through that crisis and an attack from a neighboring kingdom. At the end of the book, though, without giving details, we learn there’s a secret older brother who should be the rightful heir to the throne. And he is the child of a magesmith and has magic in his blood.

This book is about that heir, who doesn’t want to claim the throne but also doesn’t want to be killed. We also follow the fate of a princess of the neighboring kingdom who was not chosen to be her kingdom’s heir but wants to see if she can bring peace.

I like the way the author puts realistic political problems (needing a harbor for trade) into the fantasy kingdom. There’s some horrific cruelty in both books which I didn’t like, though it does make the people working for peace shine more brightly.

I enjoyed this second volume greatly. It now doesn’t have much to do with the “Beauty and the Beast” story, but is an excellent tale of a group of travelers trying to navigate dangers on every side and figure out what course of action is best.

Yes, I’m going to want to read the next book. Amazon says it’s called A Vow So Bold and Deadly and will come out on January 26, 2021. And yes, Amazon says it’s the conclusion to the series. It’s been set up well.

brigidkemmerer.com
bloomsbury.com

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