Review of The Q, by Amy Tintera

The Q

by Amy Tintera

Crown, 2022. 343 pages.
Review written February 9, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The premise of this book set in the not-too-distant future is that the entire city of Austin, Texas, was quarantined for a deadly virus with a 40 percent mortality rate. Eventually, they built a wall around the Q to keep people from escaping. Twenty years later, there is still no vaccine because the virus mutates too quickly and antibodies don’t help, though people inside have developed artificial organs that are keeping everyone alive. The Q seceded from the United States and is ruled inside by two rival gangs, each with their own territory.

Into this scenario, Lennon Pierce falls from the sky.

It’s election year, and Lennon is the son of one of the candidates for U.S. President. His Dad has been speaking up for the Q, trying to come up with helpful solutions, while the incumbent president is talking about nuking the whole thing, including the people inside. So someone kidnaps Lennon, takes him up in a helicopter, and drops him into the Q with a parachute.

Lennon lands in the south, in Lopez territory, and unfortunately, the only exit from the Q lies in the north, in Spencer territory. Fortunately, folks in the south have developed a temporary vaccine for the virus, and they give Lennon a shot of it right away. The US government knows about the vaccine and tells Lennon he can leave if he gets out within 72 hours.

Unfortunately, Lennon arrives just in time for an attempted takeover and a power vacuum in the south. A much-needed shipment of supplies is being held up by the north, so Maisie Rojas, teen daughter of the former Lopez enforcer, decides to go with Lennon to the north. She’ll get him to the gate, and he’ll help her recover the shipment. Unfortunately, the new would-be-leader of the Lopez clan would rather just fight — and hold Lennon as a hostage. Not to mention that folks in the north aren’t exactly open to letting people walk through their territory.

What follows is a heart-racing adventure. This was a book that was hard to put down. When I almost had it finished while waiting at the doctor’s office, I absolutely had to take the book to work and finish on my lunch break. Yes, there’s plenty of violence, in a place that has a wild West vibe. There’s also a nuanced romance — though of course if all goes according to plan, they’ll never see each other again after Lennon escapes from the Q.

Now, mind you, I don’t actually believe the book’s premise is possible. In the age of jet travel, I find it hard to believe that you could ever confine a virus to one city. Somebody would have left the city long before they figured out the virus existed and exactly who had been exposed. But that’s just background, and once I glossed over my disbelief in that, I was completely invested in the situation Lennon and Maisie faced.

Based on the Acknowledgments at the back, the author started this book before the Covid-19 pandemic and never thought it would get published once that pandemic hit. I think reading it today does make the setting more believable — at least that the government would try such a solution, even if I don’t think it would actually work.

Some favorite moments: Finding out why Lennon got arrested three times in the past. Maisie learning to trust in her own abilities as a leader.

I read this book because it’s a Cybils Finalist for Young Adult Speculative Fiction. And I’m happy to say that the panel did a great job picking this book. Read it for a thrill ride that’s also full of sweet moments.

amytintera.com

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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 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.

hannahsawyerr.com
abramsbooks.com

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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 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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Bloomsbury.com

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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 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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Review of Divine Rivals, by Rebecca Ross

Divine Rivals

by Rebecca Ross
read by Rebecca Norfolk and Alex Wingfield

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2023. 10 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written December 28, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Teen Speculative Fiction
2023 CYBILS Award Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Okay, before I start talking about this awesome book, I need to digress because I was reminded of how much I love stories where a couple falls in love via letters.

The example most people know about is the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” but one of my favorite Young Adult Fantasy novels, Crown Duel, has a similar set-up in a fantasy kingdom. I like this kind of romance so much, I have an unfinished novel fragment where I attempted to retell “You’ve Got Mail”/Pride and Prejudice with the letters happening in a fantasy kingdom by way of a magical diary.

Well, Rebecca Ross pulls off this plot much more effectively, expertly connecting our main characters through letters typed on magical typewriters. Like the other books, we start with an enemies-to-lovers trope. Like the others, the guy knows before the girl whom he’s corresponding with and tries to change that “enemy” perspective, because he’s figured out he’s falling in love with the friend he’s writing to.

And yes, the slow-burn romance is exquisite! I’m convinced that a part of why I love this scenario is that as an INFJ, I dislike small talk, love the written word, and love how with letters you can really get to know people. Iris, our main character in Divine Rivals, mentions that we all clothe ourselves in armor, but with letters, we can take off small pieces of that armor and share our hearts.

Iris has been working in a newspaper office, competing with her rival, Roman Kitt, to win the position of columnist and be able to put away the obituaries for good. But when her mother dies, she misses a deadline and loses the columnist job. Iris decides there’s nothing more for her in the city, and she signs up to become a war correspondent – hoping to find her brother Forrest, who went off to fight for the goddess Enva and promised to write, but never did. Iris had begun her magical correspondence with Roman by typing letters to Forrest and putting them in her wardrobe.

This fantasy world is expertly drawn. Without a slog of back story, we listen to the two characters writing to each other about the god and goddess who woke up after hundreds of years and plunged the human world into war. The war is carried out with the technology of World War I from our world — think trenches and poison gas. Refreshingly, some social factors are not like our world, with Iris encountering two women married to each other and soldiers who are women, and she finds that unremarkable.

A lot of the action takes place at the front. It reads like a historical novel of World War I with our heroes falling in love during wartime.

And, oh, the romance! There’s a meeting of minds before the meeting of hearts and bodies, and that always wins me over. In fact, I’ve had to come to terms with realizing that’s my own private fantasy – to some day fall in love via letters (possibly in electronic form). I’m sure it was being influenced by this book that motivated me the day after I’d finished it to *not* shut down a stranger who slid into my direct messages on Twitter, asking me three times in two days how I was doing. Well, I very quickly saw that was a major mistake. But the fact remains that I have many dear friends in my life, both men and women, whom I have gotten close to through the written word, from letter-writing to my friend who moved away as a kid to emailing now. In this book’s case, it was lovely to enjoy an example where the close friendship built in letters went hand-in-hand with romantic compatibility. I’m well aware that doesn’t always happen, but so much fun to read a story where it does.

Now, a word of caution. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cliffhanger ending. But there’s where I lucked out! And if you haven’t read this book yet, you too can luck out! You see, the sequel, Ruthless Vows was published two days after I finished reading the book. (And it’s said to be a duology, so the sequel should not have a cliffhanger ending.) Even better, I order books for our public library system. The audio version of the sequel had 49 Notify Me tags in Libby (the ebook had 81), and so of course I ordered it. But my big score was as soon as it got ordered, I went to my own Libby account and checked out a copy! I don’t often take advantage of this insider knowledge, but this time it made me very happy.

And yes, the audiobook version is wonderful, so I’m happy to get to listen to the next book, too. They have British accents and are a delight to the ear. I’m not sure if I will get the sequel finished before 2023 ends, but either way I have no doubt it will be a Sonderbooks Stand-out — either for 2023 or 2024.

I picked up this book because every week since it’s been published, we needed more ecopies at the library because of all the holds. Once I finished reading for the Morris awards, I decided to find out what the fuss was all about. I’m so glad I did!

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Review of An Echo in the City, by K. X. Song

An Echo in the City

by K. X. Song
read by Christina Ho and Ewan Chung

Hachette Audio, 2023. 9 hours, 13 minutes.
Review written September 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

An Echo in the City surprised me with how powerful it was. We begin in Hong Kong in 2019 with Phoenix, a junior in high school, whose mother is pressuring her to study to retake the SAT so she can get into Yale and leave Hong Kong. Phoenix lived in North Carolina when she was little, but her wealthy family took her back to Hong Kong for the opportunities. With her parents’ recent divorce, she feels like they hardly notice her except to complain about her grades.

But then she starts talking with her goof-off older brother’s new girlfriend Suki, who is involved in the student protest movement. The government had introduced a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and they feel this would allow anyone to be arrested who did anything China didn’t like – such as protest. Suki’s uncle has run a bookstore for years that sells books banned in China, and he is now on the blacklist.

As Phoenix gets more and more involved in the movement, she meets Kai, a handsome seventeen-year-old who has recently moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai after his mother’s death. What Phoenix doesn’t know is that Kai’s father is a police officer, and Kai has enrolled in the police academy to please him. So Phoenix doesn’t realize that Kai is on the opposite side of what turns out to be more and more like a war.

I appreciated the conflict in this book – it didn’t feel contrived. Each teen has a back story such that their reactions make sense. Their romance is lovely – while you know that there’s going to be conflicting emotions, and are just waiting for Kai to get found out.

I also had known nothing about the student protests in Hong Kong, and hearing about them from both the perspective of a student and the perspective of police was eye-opening.

Both characters grow in this book, with both of them realizing that they need to think about how they want their own lives to go and not just what their parents want for them. A story of star-crossed lovers that also teaches you about recent history.

kxsong.com

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