Review of Everything I Thought I Knew, by Shannon Takaoka

Everything I Thought I Knew

by Shannon Takaoka

Candlewick Press, 2020. 308 pages.
Review written December 7, 2020, from a library book

Everything I Thought I Knew is the story of 17-year-old Chloe, six months after she got a heart transplant from an unknown donor. She’s recently been set free by the doctor to live her life, though her parents are anxiously keeping tabs on her, and she’ll be taking medication for life to keep her body from rejecting the new heart.

Chloe’s friends are spending the summer getting ready to go to college, but she has to go to summer school to finish the classes she missed the last semester of her senior year. And besides the nightly dreams about a terrible accident, she’s finding herself drawn to new things and acting out of character.

Without telling her parents, when she’s supposed to be at the library, she starts taking surfing lessons from a teen trying to make a little money. And she makes a friend at summer school and finds out what teens who have no parental supervision can get up to.

Chloe and Jane start doing a little research and discover internet theories about cellular memory, and stories of heart transplant patients who suddenly have skills their donor had and know people who were important to their donor.

Could this explain some of Chloe’s strange experiences?

At this point in the book, I almost put it down. It seemed a little too predictable. And while I think cellular memory might be a thing on some level, my suspension of disbelief didn’t extend to the detailed memories Chloe was experiencing.

But it turns out the book was not predictable at all. There’s a twist at the end I didn’t see coming and did enjoy – though it also was a little too much for my own suspension of disbelief.

But I did enjoy the way this tale is told. You feel Chloe’s bewilderment and her pressure to make the most of her life after the gift of a heart. Although I didn’t completely believe everything about this book, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

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Review of Kind of a Big Deal, by Shannon Hale

Kind of a Big Deal

by Shannon Hale

Roaring Brook Press, 2020. 394 pages.
Review written September 8, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Josie Pie was kind of a big deal in high school. She starred in the school musicals ever since she was a Freshman. She went to Washington, DC, and won a Jimmy Award. She got a chance to audition on Broadway, so she dropped out of high school and moved to New York to audition – and struck out. She scrounged for a while, trying to get parts, and took a nanny job to pay the bills.

As the book opens, Josie’s in Missoula, Montana, where the single mom she nannied for decided to move and now is on a trip to Kenya. She has a large credit card debt from New York City. She’s in charge of a preschool girl who’s starting to have some issues. Her boyfriend Justin is communicating with her less and less. She doesn’t know how to make friends with the standoffish other college-age nannies. She goes to a bookstore for some escapist reading.

And then she starts getting sucked into books.

First, it’s the tawdry romance the handsome bookstore clerk gave her. The characters all have the faces of the people she saw before she was sucked in, and the highwayman hero has Justin’s face. In fact, she gets to do some long-missed kissing before she comes back to reality and discovers only a couple minutes have passed.

It happens again with a book called Valentine’s Day that, despite its name, ends up being a post-apocalyptic horror novel. But a man with Justin’s face helps her fight the Zombloid hordes.

I think my favorite of the books she goes into is the graphic novel, told in graphic novel format, of course. As the overall story progresses, Josie has to figure out what’s going on with the books, if she has any control over what’s happening, how can she face life after peaking in high school, and where she’ll go from here.

And yes, there’s some danger if she stays too long in a book. Will she be able to get back to reality?

This is a fun story creatively told by a brilliant fantasy writer. It has more of a Contemporary feel than her other books set in fantasy kingdoms. I enjoyed the scene of Josie failing spectacularly in a community theatre audition. You can’t help but feel for her!

And how nice to have a book about being Kind of a Big Deal in high school. My ex-husband and I used to talk about how we chose our college majors as fields in which we won awards in high school – me in Math and him in Tuba Performance. It took soul-searching and thinking to turn my life toward Library Science instead. For Josie in this book, it hits her sooner, at 17, that maybe she doesn’t have to stick all her life with what made her Kind of a Big Deal in high school. That discovery isn’t easy for her, but it comes with lots of recognition humor for readers.

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Review of An Arrow to the Moon, by Emily X. R. Pan

An Arrow to the Moon

by Emily X. R. Pan
read by Natalie Naudus, Shawn K. Jain, and David Shih

Little, Brown Young Readers, 2022. 8 hours, 24 minutes.
Review written June 29, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I read and loved Emily X. R. Pan’s debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, during my Newbery committee year, so I made sure to get my hands on this book.

This book is more lyrical writing and magical realism as Chinese mythology collides with the modern world.

The book follows two Taiwanese teenagers who were born on the same day. They both have strange magical things about them. Hunter Yee never misses a shot — whether with a bow and arrow or balled-up paper into a trash can. Luna Chang is followed around by magical fireflies that show her what to do. And when they come together – their kisses leave soft blue marks on each other’s skin.

But like Romeo and Juliet before them, their families hate each other. And Hunter’s family is living in hiding after his father stole an ancient Chinese artifact. A powerful mob boss is looking for them, and their protection is somehow wearing off.

And before the story of the teens, we hear a tale of something that happened in the sky long ago, and then in China.

Against that backdrop, Hunter and Luna’s romance blossoms. They’re drawn to each other, despite their parents. And intrigued by the magic they each contain. Hmm. My summary doesn’t convey the atmospheric resonance of this book. It was a magical listening experience.

While I was listening, it bothered me a little that, while Luna talks with girlfriends a little at the beginning, they seem to disappear as her romance with Hunter blossoms. They kiss while riding the school bus and no one notices or comments. The world seems to become just them. When they find a private place and have sex (off-stage), nobody else suspects or is at all interested in their all-absorbing relationship — and that made me wonder a bit.

But given how the story turned out — my quibbles seemed less important. This book is transcendent and beautiful. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the ending, since it was foreshadowed nicely — but I was indeed amazed by how beautifully Emily X. R. Pan pulled it off.

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Review of The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros

The City Beautiful

by Aden Polydoros

Inkyard Press, 2021. 462 pages.
Review written February 1, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Sidney Taylor Award Winner, Young Adults
2021 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The City Beautiful is set in 1893 Chicago, during the World’s Fair. Alter Rosen works in a print shop, scraping and saving to bring his mother and sisters to America from Romania, still haunted by the death of his father during their voyage to America.

Then Alter’s best friend Yacov is found dead. Alter hadn’t even been able to admit to himself that he was in love with Yacov. He’s convinced this is connected to the disappearances of other Jewish boys in the neighborhood, but the police scoff at the idea.

And then when Alter is trying to tend Yacov’s body, he gets possessed by Yacov’s dybbuk. He is haunted by Yacov’s memories and a compulsion to find the man who killed Yacov — and his family back in Russia. It’s clear that if Alter doesn’t fulfill this mission soon enough, the dybbuk will take over, and they will both die.

So we’ve got a mystery with some twists and turns. Along the way, we learn about the horrible hatred that followed the Jewish people across the ocean. And a young gay teen trying to come to terms with his emotions. And a young man trying to survive in America and make a home for his family.

The author helps you understand the world of 1893 Chicago and what kids and immigrants were up against, simply trying to survive. One of Alter’s friends works for an anarchist newspaper, and we’ve got background about that movement as well.

This is an atmospheric historical mystery with heart.

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Review of Much Ado About Baseball, by Rajani LaRocca

Much Ado About Baseball

by Rajani LaRocca

Yellow Jacket (Little Bee), 2021. 312 pages.
Review written January 4, 2022, from a library book
2022 Mathical Honor Book, grades 6-8

12-year-old Trish is new in town. She’s used to being the only girl on the baseball team and the only girl and sixth grader on the Math Puzzler team – but just when her old teammates had gotten used to her, now she has to win over a new team. Her brother Sanjay has encouraged her to win them over by being good at baseball.

Ben is back on the baseball team this summer after two years off. And he’s upset when he sees Trish – the girl who beat him for the Individual Math Puzzler championship. Now she’s going to do better than him at baseball? But they both love math and baseball, so shouldn’t they be friends?

There are hints of something magical happening this summer, some amazing treats, and then two magical books of math puzzles show up at Trish’s house and at Ben’s house. Ben right away figures out it’s magic, but Trish thinks it’s probably some special formula invisible ink. But either way, there are some fun and challenging math puzzles to solve, woven into this story of baseball, rivalry, and friendship.

Perhaps if I knew the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing better, the plot wouldn’t have seemed quite as random. The magic didn’t really seem to operate with rules, but perhaps chaotic fairy magic, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t need to. Anyway, it was a fun story, and for me the math puzzles woven in made it even more fun. There’s material at the back taking some of the concepts further.

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Review of The Mirror Season, by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Mirror Season

by Anna-Marie McLemore

Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), 2021. 311 pages.
Review written January 15, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Wow. This book is transcendent and magical. But also horribly tough.

It begins with a warning. I’ll include it as well:

This book contains discussions of sexual assault and PTSD. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please know that there’s help, and there’s hope.

If you don’t know where to start, start with RAINN: rain.org/resources or (800)656-4673.

So, yes, this book involves sexual assault. As the book opens, Ciela is taking a boy to the hospital. She doesn’t know his name or even where he’s from. She tells the nurse, “They drugged him. We were at a party.” And then she gets out of there before the police show up. She knows he’ll have to wake up alone, knowing only that something bad happened to him. But she can’t stay.

And on the way back to her car, she sees a rose turn to mirrored glass. As she reaches for it, it shatters, and a shard gets into her eye. And as the days go by, she can feel its hard cold glass going into her heart.

And something bad happened to Ciela, too. Something so bad, she’s not yet ready to even tell herself exactly what happened. And she feels responsible for what happened to the boy, who turns out to be a new kid at her private school, on scholarship like she is.

Ciela works at her families pastelería. She has always been able to tell what pan dulce a customer wants or needs before they ask, inheriting that magic from her great-grandmother. But since the party, that ability is gone. And she keeps seeing flowers turn into mirrors. She wants to save anyone else from having one of those sharp pieces get into their heart.

This isn’t a retelling of The Snow Queen, but it has echoes of the Hans Christian Anderson story. The book is set in San Juan Capistrano, and the swallows, too, have a role in the story.

I usually have trouble with magical realism – I like my magic logical and orderly. But Anna-Marie McLemore has a deft hand, and I discovered that symbolism is the perfect way to deal with trauma and its aftermath. The magic in this book is powerful and helps Ciela reclaim her own body and find her voice and her gifts again.

Yes, this book deals with hard things and frightful events. But there’s healing and compassion here. The healing isn’t instant, and the trauma leaves marks, but it’s all helped along by magic, transforming about a book about something awful into one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long time.

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Review of A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger

A Snake Falls to Earth

by Darcie Little Badger

Levine Querido, 2021. 372 pages.
Review written February 14, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 National Book Award Longlist
2022 Newbery Honor Book

Because Darcie Little Badger’s debut novel, Elatsoe, was one of my favorite books I read in 2021, I had this book all checked out ready to read as soon as I finished reading for the Cybils Awards. So I felt like I’d won the jackpot when it won Newbery Honor, and I already had it checked out.

Like Elatsoe, this book features an older teen protagonist and is on the Young Adult shelves at my library, but has no sex or graphic violence and will appeal to middle school readers as well as older teens. Also like Elatsoe, A Snake Falls to Earth is steeped in Native American tales from the author’s Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas.

This book follows two stories. One is the story of Nina, a sixteen-year-old Lipan girl who lives in Texas and is worrying about a hurricane headed for her Grandma’s house. That house is on land that has long been in their family, and Grandma gets sick if she leaves it. The story her dying great-grandmother told Nina might shed some light on the reasons why, if Nina can manage to translate it.

The other story is about one of the animal people in the Reflecting World. In his true form, Oli is a cottonmouth snake. In his false form, he’s a boy with scales in place of eyebrows. When we first meet Oli, his mother has sent him away from home, and Oli has adventures looking for a place of his own. He makes friends along the way, and when one of those friends gets in trouble, Oli is willing even to make the dangerous journey to Earth to help.

And of course those stories come together in unexpected and delightful ways when Oli makes it to Earth.

Something I loved about Elatsoe was that kids didn’t hide magical events from the adults in their lives, and that’s true in this book, too. There’s a strong sense of community, including parents and elders. Altogether, this is a magical adventure that feels like a yarn you could hear at a storyteller’s feet.

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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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Review of Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn

Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), 2020. 498 pages.
Review written December 7, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2021 Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe New Talent Author Award

Legendborn takes the idea of inherited magic from the Knights of the Round Table and King Arthur – and throws an African American girl into the mix, making this an exceptionally timely fantasy with a classic feel.

16-year-old Brianna (Bree to her friends) is starting at the Early College program for high school students at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill while still grieving her mother’s death. Right away, at a party she probably shouldn’t have attended, she witnesses a magical monster subdued by someone with apparently magical powers. She then watches him erase the memories of the other witnesses – but she still remembers.

Then she’s assigned a student mentor who’s very attractive – and involved with that same group of magic-users. And she’s beginning to remember someone similarly trying to erase her memories at her mother’s death. So she decides to become a Page in the Order of the Round Table, with a chapter at the university, to try to find out more and if there was a connection with her mother.

It turns out that her student mentor is a direct descendant of King Arthur himself. And more and more Shadowborn creatures are coming through gates and a war is looming.

But at the same time, Bree learns that her mother practiced a different kind of magic. Could this be why the mesmers of the Merlins don’t work on Bree? So she’s learning about Root magic and aether magic from the Order of the Round Table all at the same time. And since the Order involves families that have been passing on their legacy for hundreds of years – she does encounter plenty of racism in their midst.

The world-building is a little bit murky, but since Bree is learning as she goes, some of that is natural to the plot. And I’m not saying too much, because Bree learning about the magic and how it is wielded is part of the story.

But we’ve got a modern-day African American teen learning to wield legendary magic and how to fight evil demonic creatures while figuring out college residential life and racism and being attracted to someone who may become the Awakening of King Arthur. There are twists and turns all along the way, with some big surprises at the end. I’m not going to be able to resist finding out what happens next whenever a sequel comes out, because temporary matters resolve, but the story is definitely not finished.

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Review of Burn, by Patrick Ness

Burn

by Patrick Ness

HarperTeen, 2020. 371 pages.
Review written December 28, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#10 Teen Speculative Fiction

Burn is set in 1957, just before the Soviets launched a satellite, in an alternate reality where dragons exist. As the book begins, Sarah’s father is hiring a dragon to do some work on their farm in Washington State, because that’s cheaper than hiring human labor.

Sarah is mixed-race, and her mother died two years ago. She has a hard time with the deputy sheriff, and so does her Japanese-American boyfriend. Unexpectedly, the dragon they’ve hired helps them out.

Chapters alternate to follow a mysterious teenage boy traveling across Canada toward Washington. Gradually, we learn that he’s a trained assassin, and he is a Believer who prays to the Mitera Thea, the Goddess of the dragons. The Mitera Thea is guiding him to fulfill a prophecy and kill a girl in Washington.

Meanwhile, the dragon on Sarah’s farm tells her about a prophecy that she will stop the destruction of the world. And that an assassin is coming to kill her.

In the middle of the book, these things collide in unexpected ways – and many characters wind up in a “nearby” parallel universe, one without dragons, one that very well might be our own. Things play out in interesting ways.

Now, I don’t actually believe in parallel universes. And I think that if they were possible, a universe where dragons exist would be entirely and completely different from – and be inhabited by completely different people than – a universe where dragons did exist. Technologies would be different, and pretty much all of human history would have played out differently. In addition, I have a problem with parallel universes in books, because if every possibility exists in a universe somewhere, why are you telling a story about this one? It seems like choices don’t matter as much.

However, with all that said, if you accept the premise that “nearby” parallel universes are possible, the author plays with interaction between them in a fun way. I enjoyed the explicitly ambiguous prophecy that no one knows how it will be fulfilled until it is – and the dragon acknowledging that’s the nature of prophecies.

This is a fun book about dragons and prophecy and trying to keep the world from being destroyed – and find love at the same time.

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