Review of The Next New Syrian Girl, by Ream Shukairy

The Next New Syrian Girl

by Ream Shukairy

Little, Brown and Company, 2023. 409 pages.
Review written March 27, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 More Teen Fiction

The Next New Syrian Girl beautiful interlaces the story of Khadija, a Syrian American girl about to graduate from high school, with Leene, a Syrian refugee girl the same age who has come to Detroit with her mother.

Khadija chafes under the control of her mother and finds relief at a local gym, where she learns to box, wearing her hijab. But when Khadija’s mother opens their home to Leene and her mother – and then holds Leene up as what a Syrian daughter should be like – Khadija isn’t pleased.

But as the girls get to know each other, they find each has something to learn from the other. Both girls are mourning the Syria they knew before war struck, but each had very different experiences.

I like the way Khadija wears a hijab but is not at all stereotypical. The characters read like distinctive individuals, so you feel like you’re getting to know real people when you read this book. A lot of the plot hinges on an enormous coincidence, but that coincidence means both girls are highly motivated to go to great lengths to make things right, so it did further the plot.

This debut stirred my heart and opened my eyes.

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Review of Rough Sleepers, by Tracy Kidder

Rough Sleepers

Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People

by Tracy Kidder
read by the Author

Books on Tape, 2023. 8 hours, 42 minutes.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 More Nonfiction

I’ve read a few of Tracy Kidder’s in-depth biographies now: Among Schoolchildren, Strength in What Remains, and Mountains Beyond Mountains. Like those amazing books, this one takes a deep dive into a man who has given his life to helping people who need it.

In this case, we’re looking at Dr. Jim O’Connell, who got drafted into a program of providing medical care for the homeless in Boston after he’d finished his internship. His plan was to simply help out for a year, but the people there and the need pulled him in, and his work has gone on for decades.

Tracy Kidder traveled along with Dr. O’Connell and gives a picture of the day-to-day and night-to-night work he and his organization do. They’ve got a van that goes out to rough sleepers, bringing blankets and cocoa. They’ve got a home where people can go when they’re discharged from the hospital but not yet able to care for themselves. Most of all, the homeless people of Boston have doctors looking out for them, caring for them. I’m honestly a little envious – but at the same time glad that this vulnerable population has people in their corner.

And the portrayal of Jim O’Connell makes him shine like Mr. Rogers — someone who sees people, who cares about his patients. He sees them as wonderful people, looking far beyond their difficult circumstances.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. Many of their patients die, and sleeping rough is still associated with shorter lives. Even efforts to get them housing doesn’t always work because the patients don’t necessarily know how to conduct themselves in that situation. We also get stories of some of the striking characters, with all their complexity, whose lives have been touched by Dr. O’Connell’s work and whose lives in turn touched others.

This doctor shines because he sees the beauty and wonder in vulnerable people and cares for them. This book shines because it helps the reader see that, too.

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Review of Sing Me to Sleep, by Gabi Burton

Sing Me to Sleep

by Gabi Burton

Bloomsbury, 2023. 417 pages.
Review written July 9, 2023, from an Advance Review Copy sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Teen Speculative Fiction

Sing Me to Sleep is the story of Saoirse, a siren living in a kingdom ruled by fae, where her existence is illegal. Fortunately, she has access to magic that enables her to change her appearance. By night, she sets aside that magic and works as a hired assassin. She has the power to sing to her marks and convince them to kill themselves. This satisfies the instincts that being near water rouse in her – water calling to her to kill.

By day, working in the training academy, Saoirse has posed as a fae who has no affinity for water or fire or air, even though they are generally despised, so that her power to control water will not be noticed. Then she must work to outperform all the other trainees. But when she achieves the top ranking, she is assigned to serve the Prince, part of the regime she despises.

The reader is of course not surprised when romantic tension sparks between them, despite Saoirse’s disguise with a scar across her face. But this leads Saoirse into conflict about the people she’s been asked to kill and the goals of her employer. The question of who her employer is becomes more important. Did the people she killed deserve death? Does she want the monarchy overthrown if it means the prince will die? And who, exactly, can she trust?

The world-building in this book is expertly done, without info dumps, as we gradually come to see there are more nuances than simply the monarchy is bad and needs to come down.

All the characters in this book have black or brown skin – a simple given, which is refreshing. Saoirse is stunningly beautiful – that’s her deadly weapon, and it’s nice seeing a black girl in that role.

The book does come to a finish at a nice place – but provides a lead-in to more. That’s how I like fantasy series to work. A danger was averted and the kingdom saved – but there’s still more to be done. And I’m looking forward to reading on.

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Review of All the Fighting Parts, by Hannah V. Sawyerr

All the Fighting Parts

by Hannah V. Sawyerr

Amulet Books, 2023. 387 pages.
Review written October 2, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Waler Award Honors
2023 Cybils Novels in Verse Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after my first reading. I read it again, and saw even more on rereading. A marvelous novel and one of our Morris Finalists!]

All the Fighting Parts is a novel in verse about a teen dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Amina’s mother died when she was five years old, and she’s been told that her mother was an activist and a fighter, and that Mina inherited all the fighting parts from her. Her father doesn’t really know how to relate to her, and has taken refuge in the church. When Mina’s teacher calls after she fought back in class, his suggestion is to do some volunteer work at the church as a penalty.

The book interweaves what led up to the assault with the police report about the assault and dealing with it afterward. At first, Mina pushes her friends away and won’t talk to anyone. That felt authentic and realistic. But I also like the way Mina is portrayed grappling with healing. Her boyfriend is almost too good to be true in his understanding – but as a reader, I definitely wanted that for her.

There’s another person abused by the same perpetrator, a respected member of the community, and she has a different way of dealing with it. But this is a sensitive and powerful portrayal of a teen trying to do what’s right and getting her trust betrayed. Then having to figure out it wasn’t her fault what happened.

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Review of Saints of the Household, by Ari Tison

Saints of the Household

by Ari Tison

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2023. 312 pages.
Review written May 14, 2023, from my own copy, sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 Walter Dean Myers Award Young Adult Winner
2024 Pura Belpré Award Young Adult Author Winner
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after I read the book the first time, before I discussed it with the Morris committee and before two more readings. I was blown away by this book from the first time I read it.]

Saints of the Household opens when two brothers, Jay and Max, are going to back to school after being suspended for beating up the school soccer star. They’re both seniors in high school, eleven months apart, and have to meet with a counselor, who is also requiring them to meet with their victim for reconciliation.

Jay is trying to figure out how things went so far, but we gradually learn that they saw the soccer star being rough with his girlfriend Nicole, Jay and Max’s cousin. Jay, Max, and Nicole are the only indigenous people at their Minnesota rural high school. Jay’s worried she won’t speak to them again, but also worries that the boy isn’t treating Nicole the way she deserves to be treated. And we find out that the boys’ dad isn’t treating their mother the way she deserves to be treated, either. In fact, Jay and Max have plenty of personal experience with abuse.

The story is told in short vignettes from Jay and poetry from Max, who is an artist. Jay worries that if Max doesn’t take the reconciliation process seriously, he won’t get into art school. But he has to learn that they each have their own burdens to carry.

As the book goes on, we grow to understand how each boy is coping. The book deals with abuse, trauma, depression, and protecting others – but also art, healing, strength and survival. The beautiful writing draws you in and makes you care about these boys.

Here’s one of Jay’s vignettes toward the end (not giving anything away), when he’s helping his grandpa get his home ready after an absence in the Minnesota winter:

First, we warm the house, and then we pull off the panels nailed to the windows that protected them in the cold. We have hammers, and we tug to undress this house.

I feel like this house.

Boxed up for a season of survival. I have survived well like this house. My muscles are as strong as ever as I tear off each panel. It’s a good strength, one I don’t need to use to hurt. A useful strength, and it has me crying. I start tearing off the wood faster and faster because I can’t help but think of each of these boards as a thick skin I had put up. I don’t even know what’s inside there.

The writing is stunningly beautiful, and I was amazed this is a debut author.

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Review of Mexikid, by Pedro Martín

Mexikid

A Graphic Memoir

by Pedro Martín

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2023. 316 pages.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 Newbery Honor Book
2024 Pura Belpré Award Winner for Illustrator and Author
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Audiobook
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Nonfiction

It’s no secret that I think graphic novel memoirs celebrating middle school years are the best thing ever. In this one, the author looks to be a little younger than middle school, and he and his family went on an amazing adventure. Pedro’s the 7th of 9 children, and his whole family hit the road in a Winnebago in 1977 and drove to Mexico to pick up his Abuelito and bring him back to California. Hijinks ensue.

Honestly, I can’t do justice to all that’s in here. Pedro loves to draw, and imagines his Abuelito as a superhero, based on the stories of his time during the Mexican Revolution. But then when he sees Abuelito, he does some feats of amazing strength.

Seriously, if you don’t think traveling in a Winnebago with a whole bunch of kids has all kinds of funny things to write about, you’ve never done it. Hmm. My family did that a few years before Pedro’s family, when there were probably 8 kids. But we didn’t have to deal with crossing a border and getting toys confiscated and nothing to listen to except “Shipoopi.”

You’re going to have to trust me that this book is hilarious and fun and full of adventure, because I don’t even know how to start describing details. It’s also about family – siblings and cousins, parents and grandparents, and a classic road trip bringing them all together.

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Review of She Is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran

She Is a Haunting

by Trang Thanh Tran
read by Emi Ray

Bloomsbury, 2023. 9 hours, 41 minutes.
Review written March 30, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Teen Speculative Fiction

Okay, let’s start with some honesty: I did not enjoy listening to this audiobook.

But the reason I listened to the whole thing is that I’m on the Morris Award committee. And the reason I didn’t enjoy it was that I don’t enjoy reading horror, and this book creeped me out. Once I’m done, I have to admit that this book was really well-written. So I’m writing up my thoughts *before* any discussion with the committee to see if I can articulate what was good about it. (I am pretty sure that others in the committee, who actually like horror, will probably find even more things than I do, but I want to be clear that I’m writing this before any discussion, so these are my initial impressions only.) I’ll also say that I listened to this one for the sake of time, but if it is a contender, I’ll be reading it in print form as well. But all this is to say that if you read Sonderbooks because your reading preferences match mine, think twice about this one. It is really well-written, though.

And also to be honest, by the time I was done with it, I’m glad to have read it.

[Note: Yes, this was one of our Finalists, and I read it again in print form. I enjoyed it more the second time, knowing what to expect. And wow, the way she gradually builds the creepiness and dread and works in themes of colonialism… It’s just so good.]

Okay, here’s the set up: Jade Nguyen is in Vietnam for five weeks in a deal to get her long-estranged father to pay for her first year of college.

He left them years ago, and Jade didn’t want anything to do with him. But her mother is working too hard already, and she turned to Ba for tuition money. He used that as leverage to get her to spend time with him in the decrepit French colonial house he’s renovating to be a bed and breakfast. He also requires her to work on the website for the house, along with Florence, the niece of his business partner. Ba wants Jade to be friends with Florence, and she resists, but then when she finds herself attracted thinks that’s one more thing her parents could hold against her. Jade’s sister Lily is there with them, too. Lily is actually happy to be with their father. And their father reveals that his grandmother was once a servant in this very house. Their ancestors planted the hydrangeas that abundantly bloom to this day.

The horror builds gradually. First there are piles of dead bugs in her bedroom and some kind of insect leg in her mouth when she awakes. Then she begins having dreams – and waking up paralyzed, still seeing awful things, unable to move.

Jade meets a white couple who are investing in the house, thrilled about the Frenchwoman who once lived here while her husband was in the army.

That gives Jade a name to the red-haired ghost she’s been seeing. But there’s another ghost, a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, who begins sharing her memories with Jade. The Frenchwoman called all Vietnamese people parasites – and parasites are a theme in the house. The Vietnamese ghost warns Jade not to eat anything in the house, but can she really keep the parasites at bay?

I liked that Jade had a reason to stay – she needs the money for college. And when that motivation is not enough, she needs to try to protect her sister. The horror builds gradually and the house becomes harder and harder to escape.

I also liked that themes were naturally built into the story rather than spelled out. For example, once when out doing things with Florence, Jade gets upset with herself that she doesn’t speak fluent Vietnamese. It’s a natural way to show us how she feels torn between the two cultures. This author is good at subtleties like that.

So if you like well-written books and can handle some horror, this book is one you shouldn’t miss. I’m not sure if this book will end up getting honored by our committee, but it’s a strong debut. [Added later: This was one of the earliest books I’d read. At the end of the year, it still stood out.]

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Review of Rez Ball, by Byron Graves

Rez Ball

by Byron Graves

Heartdrum (HarperCollins), 2023. 357 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from my own copy, sent from the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Winner
2024 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner, Best Young Adult Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 More Teen Fiction

I read this book because it’s eligible for the 2024 William Morris Award for best young adult debut book, so I’m writing this review before I’ve discussed it with the committee in order to guarantee this is only my opinion and I’m not giving any information about what the committee thinks.

Note: This was written after my first time through the book. I read it twice in print and then listened to it as an audiobook, and my appreciation only grew.

Rez Ball is a sports novel. I don’t generally love sports novels, but this one hooked me into a couple late nights turning pages.

It’s the story of Tre Brun, a sophomore at Red Lake Indian Reservation high school, hoping to play varsity basketball. His big brother Jaxon had been the star of the team last year. But Jaxon died in a car accident, and his team just missed going on to the state championships for the first time ever.

Now the same starters are back, but is there a place for Tre? And he and everyone else know that he’s not the same ball player as his brother. Is he good enough?

I thought Tre came across as an authentic sophomore boy who’s big and tall and has fame suddenly thrust upon him. He’s awkward with girls, feels like he needs to prove himself at parties, and has a lot to live up to in the shadow of his big brother. I love the way the author winds all that into Tre with believability and likeability, and you feel his thrill when the whole rez is cheering for him, but also the weight of those expectations.

The team does come up against some ugly racism in spots, and Tre has some friendship issues to untangle. And every part of the story makes it feel all the more true.

This is a sports novel that made me want to give the protagonist a great big hug. It was a lovely combination of showing his insecurities along with the pride and thrill of playing ball with excellence. A sports novel to love – even if you don’t particularly like sports novels.

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Review of Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Once There Was

by Kiyash Monsef
read by Nikki Massoud

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 11 hours, 28 minutes.
Review written July 3, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Speculative Fiction

Once There Was is a contemporary fantasy tale interwoven with Persian stories that begin, “Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

Marjan is 15 and owns a veterinary clinic after the violent death of her father a few weeks ago. The police don’t have any clue who did it, and Marjan feels detached from it all, trying to keep the clinic running.

Then a mysterious woman sends her plane tickets to London to visit a griffin. When Marjan places her hands on the griffin, she senses everything the griffin is feeling, and he is very sick. And that is how she learns that one of the stories her father told her is true – and she inherited a gift from her father going back to an ancestor who was pierced by a unicorn’s horn. Oh, and besides that – griffins and other magical creatures are real.

But then Marjan gets entangled with more than one powerful group who wants to control who has access to these amazing creatures, and she wants to be on the side of the creatures, but which side is that? In her efforts to help, she has some amazing adventures, while trying to understand her place in all this, keep the clinic afloat, and figure out who killed her father – all while trying to keep her friends from worrying about her.

She gains some allies along the way, including a rich boy from London whose family has hosted the griffin for centuries and a teenage witch whose familiar is ill – and needs a place to stay. It’s good she has help, because it turns out that everything is riding on the fate of these magical creatures, and Marjan and her friends are going to need to save the world.

My one little complaint about the book is that the big climactic world-saving action happens with still more than an hour left in the audiobook. But the things that follow are pretty crucial to Marjan’s story, too, so I don’t think I’d want it changed – or put off and resolved in another volume.

The publisher is marketing this for children (ages 10 to 14), but Marjan is 15, in high school, and dealing with adult things like running a business, and has a friend who drives. So I think teens will enjoy the book, too.

I didn’t begin this eaudiobook until it was almost due to expire, so on the last day, I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and listened to the last 4 hours (sped up a tiny bit), and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book. I love the way the interspersed Persian tales illuminate the story and keep the feeling of magic strong.

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Review of The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen

The Merciful Crow

by Margaret Owen
read by Amy Landon

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2019. 12 hours, 58 minutes.
Review written January 2, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Teen Speculative Fiction

I’ve become a big fan of Margaret Owen’s work after Little Thieves was my favorite book read in 2022, and the sequel Painted Devils was one of my favorites in 2023. So I was happy to find her debut book available as an eaudiobook on Libby.

As in the other series, The Merciful Crow features a girl who’s a scrappy underdog. In this case, she’s part of the caste of Crows — the very lowest and most despised caste in the kingdom of Sabor. There are twelve castes altogether, all named after birds. Each caste has a certain number of witches with an inherited magic for their caste. The ruling family of Phoenixes, for example, can manipulate fire.

Crows don’t have a specific magic of their own — but if they have teeth from someone of another caste, living or dead, they can manipulate that person’s magic. And fortunately, the Crows have access to teeth, because they are the caste that deals with bodies. Crows are immune to the Sinner’s Plague – so when a village lights a Plague Beacon, Crows go in and give the person with the plague a merciful killing, then remove the bodies from the village and burn them.

Fie is the daughter of a chief of the Crows, and she’s training to use the magic of teeth and become a chief herself. As the book opens, they’ve been called to the palace for the first time in 500 years. Fie’s Pa goes in and brings out the shrouded bodies of Prince Jasimir and his bodyguard Tavin. And then they negotiate for payment.

But after they get out of the royal city, it turns out the prince and his companion aren’t dead. It was a ruse to escape from the Queen, who is trying to kill him. Now he wants to travel with the Crows to get to his allies before he shows up as miraculously recovered from the Plague.

But things begin to go wrong. Due to treachery, after their next stop, Fie ends up traveling with the prince and Tavin on her own, with her whole family held hostage. She has a string of teeth, including Phoenix teeth, she has a charge from her father, and she has determination to look after her own. She’ll help the prince to save her family.

The journey is long and difficult, and there are twists and turns all along the way. As they travel, the prince and Tavin are surprised to learn how badly Crows are treated. Fie doesn’t know if she can ever trust the prince to treat them like people, as he’s promised. On the other hand, the Queen intends to allow vigilantes to attack Crows in broad daylight instead of only at night like they do now.

Using caste in a fantasy world was an interesting way to talk about racism in the real world and treating all people as people of worth. This book held magic, romance, adventure, and the story of a girl learning to be a leader.

Research shows this is the first of a duology (but it does stop at a good stopping place), so the advantage of reading it years after publication is that I can start the next book right away.

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