Best of 2017: Books for Young Adults

We continue our list of the Best of 2017 as recommended by library staff today with a bunch of great titles from the world of Young Adult Fiction, Non-Fiction and Graphic Novels. Enjoy and make sure to check out the Library Newsletter for all of our recommendations.

Young Adult Fiction

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Princess Anya is an orphan and second in line to the throne. Her stepstepfather is an evil wizard, the frog population in the moat is growing, and visiting princes keep vanishing. The royal dogs send Anya on a quest for a potion to reverse her stepstepfather’s spells.

A bitingly funny fractured fairy tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously and even pokes gentle fun at the genre.  –Emily

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

After learning that her deep voice is keeping her from being cast in plays at her exclusive performing arts school, Jordan Sun, junior, disguises herself as a boy and auditions for an all-male octet hoping for a chance to perform internationally.

What I thought would be a quick romp or just a comedy of errors was surprisingly insightful and at times a total gut-punch. As they discovered and explored new truths about themselves, these characters kept me up all night reading.  –Carol

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel meet at a Stanford University summer program, Dimple is avoiding her parents’ obsession with “marriage prospects,” but Rishi hopes to woo her into accepting arranged marriage with him.

The best romantic comedy of the summer, and also a book I want to read over and over again. Adorable, quirky, and full of heart: this book will have you cheering out loud, and maybe swooning. Fantastic debut from a talented new Indian-American voice.  –Carol

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

A historical action/adventure/comedy/romance. When a reckless decision turns his Grand Tour of Europe into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything Monty knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Spoiler: Monty is completely horrible for the first couple hundred pages (the vice). Get through it and be rewarded with his redemption story (the virtue)! Monty’s struggle with being bisexual in a time that doesn’t allow for it made me cry and cheer.  –Carol

The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

Ariel’s mother abandoned her when she was still a toddler, and she’s been on the move with her hard-drinking, hard-loving father for as long as she can remember. When they finally settle in California, she begins to discover home, love, and, eventually, answers.

Plenty of drama and dysfunction, along with strong characters, keep readers engrossed. A parallel story of a woman and her troubled marriage sometimes seemed out of place until the stories intertwine.  –Elizabeth

The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares

A summer house is carefully shared by a bitterly divided family, assuring the two groups never meet. Although they’ve never met, Ray and Sasha, both children of second marriages, share a room, and for many years have wondered about each other.

You know they are going to meet up, you can’t wait for it to happen, but how and when, and what will they think of each other? The anticipation coupled with a compelling story of family love, hate, and the possibility of healing make for a great read.  –Elizabeth

The Art of Starving by Sam Miller

Sixteen- year-old Matt is gay and friendless in a small, backward town. To add to that misery, his beloved sister has just left mysteriously, his mom may lose her job, and he has a serious eating disorder. He believes starving enhances his perceptions.

While things are looking pretty bad for Matt, he finds love in the most unexpected place. Despite major struggles, I felt strangely hopeful for his outcome.  –Elizabeth

Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Before Adri launches on a one-way trip to the experimental Mars colony, she’s told to say her goodbyes and find closure. As an orphan who never knew her family, she assumes this won’t be necessary. She is wrong.

This story combines two of my favorite genres in one book: sci-fi and historical fiction. Adri meets a long-lost cousin and discovers letters and diaries from pioneering young women in the early 1900s.  –Emily

Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Six teenagers from a small town in Ireland are having a typical summer. Drunken parties. Hooking up. Breaking up. The discovery of a spell book and mysterious pages from a stranger’s journal turns everything upside down.

Untwisting this story is like unraveling a tangled mass of yarn. The middle must be unknotted to figure out the end and the beginning.  –Emily

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

On a desolate ranch, there lives a saint. It’s a strange place, where pilgrims receive the miracle they deserve, not necessarily the miracle they want. The teens growing up on the ranch start a pirate radio station, hoping for a miracle of their own.

Set in the early 1960s, the author weaves together strands of folklore, fable, legend, and historical fiction. The language and imagery is reminiscent of authors such as Clive Barker, Tom Robbins, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  –Emily

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

When the creator of a high school gossip app mysteriously dies in front of four high-profile students, all four become suspects. It’s up to them to solve the case.

Part Breakfast Club, part Agatha Christie, part Gossip Girl, this ridiculously entertaining whodunit will keep you guessing to the end. The audiobook is especially well-performed by an ensemble cast.  –Alan

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

It begins like a traditional “orphan sent to grand manor house, discovers mystery” story. But this one has five endings. Did one ending actually happen? Or did all of them?

The five scenarios touch on just about every genre: contemporary realism, romance, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. But with a twist or two.  –Emily

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Starr Carter lives in two worlds: the underserved neighborhood she lives in and the affluent prep school she attends. These worlds clash when Starr is the sole witness to the death of an old friend, an unarmed young black man shot by the police.

Thomas has written a book that is both timely and compelling. Starr Carter’s narrative gives the reader an important view into the life of a young black woman navigating a treacherous world.  –Jesse

Young Adult Graphic Novels

One-Punch Man Vols 10, 11, 12 by ONE

The mis-adventures of the “hero for fun” keep getting better with each volume, and the overall story arc across volumes is finally starting build beyond Saitama questing for recognition as the world’s greatest hero.

I can’t stop giggling at the contrast of unassuming Saitama’s appearance and his overwhelming strength. The development of top-level nemeses in these later volumes rewards returning readers and makes now the best time to start this series!  –Zac

The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks

In this new expanded edition based off of a web series, this comic follows Superhero Girl, a young woman with extraordinary powers and extraordinarily annoying problems, from her all-too-perfect brother to incompetent nemeses AND BEYOND!

Superhero Girl’s adventures are clever, hilarious, and delightfully illustrated. This book does an incredible job of capturing both the wonderful silliness of many superhero stories and the crippling angst of teenage life.  –Jesse

Young Adult Non-Fiction

Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager

This book is a collection of 23 mini-biographies of LGBTQ people throughout history, including a Roman Emperor, a First Lady, artists, actors, and many more. Perfect for activist, allies, and anyone curious about hidden history.

Many of these stories are inspiring accounts of public figures who were out and helped shape their time, but I was even more delighted to learn more about the surprising private lives of well-known individuals  –Jesse

Undefeated : Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football team by Steve Sheinkin

Jim Thorpe and Pop Warner are two towering figures of the sports world. This book finds them before they were household names, when Thorpe, a young Native American, and Warner revolutionized football and humbled the sport’s powerhouse teams.

Sheinkin manages to weave an incredible underdog sports story together with an account of the unforgivably shameful ways Native Americans have been maltreated by the United States. — Jesse

Because I was a Girl: True Stories for Girls of All Ages edited by Melissa De La Cruz

This volume features nearly forty stories told by successful women between the ages of 10 and 87. By taking the reader on their journeys, these incredible figures reveal their thoughts as they overcame obstacles to achieve great things.

These accounts are fascinating, inspiring and include impactful figures with lesser known stories. I also love the presentation of this volume, with full page quotes, beautiful photos, and decade by decade summaries of important achievements by women.
— Jesse

A Dog in the Cave: The Wolves Who Made Us Human by Kay Frydenborg

Frydenborg dives deep into the thousand plus year relationship between canines and humans, exploring not just how humans have influenced the evolution of the dog, but also how dogs have slowly changed us.

As a dog lover, it was fascinating to gain insight into our shared history with canines. Frydenborg also does a masterful job connecting the distant past to our current dynamic with these animals, showing how our relationship evolved along with us. — Jesse

Hard Truths in a Brilliant Book

When it comes to books, movies, song lyrics, or pretty much anything else, I’m not exactly known for the power of my memory. It’s why I’ve never nailed a movie quote, why I can’t get to the grocery store without the maps app on my phone, and why I’m 90% sure the new Thor movie stars Chris Hemsworth and not Christopher Walken but I can’t say for sure without Google’s help. This might also explain why my favorite books at any given time are often the ones I’ve read most recently-they’re so clear in my mind!  

And yet this year the book that I’m still talking about, that is crystal clear in my mind, is one that I read waaaay back in March. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with the Ginkgo Biloba I forget to take every morning. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas wasn’t just the best book I read this year, but was among the best I’ve read in a long time.

the-hate-u-giveThe narrator of this novel is a teenager named Starr Carter. Starr lives in a neighborhood that is majority black, under-served, and impoverished. Starr’s family has deep connections to their community; her mother is a nurse and her father owns the local convenience-style grocery store. Starr’s father also grew up there and made many mistakes as a younger man that continue to follow him. Rather than hide his past, however, he speaks honestly and uses his own experiences as a catalyst to help the young people around him. Although they embrace their community, Starr’s parents also want Starr and her brothers to have greater opportunities and send them to an expensive private school in the suburbs.

The Hate U Give opens with Starr attending a party where she encounters a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is interrupted when members of rival gangs come into conflict and gunshots are fired. Starr flees the party with Khalil who offers to drive her home. They are pulled over by the police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin. This traffic stop ends like many that have made headlines and provoked outrage in recent years. Khalil, an unarmed young black man, is shot dead by a white police officer. Starr witnesses all of this and finds herself with a gun in her own face during the incident leaving her deeply traumatized, enraged, and terrified.

This shooting occurs very early in The Hate U Give and the rest of the story traces its effect on Starr, her family, and her community. Starr’s parents are fearful for their daughter and encourage her to avoid the news crews and the activists who show up in the wake of this tragedy. At the same time, Starr sees her old friend Khalil get linked to drug dealers and local gangs and unjustly blamed for his own death. Her loyalties are further fractured by pressure from people in her neighborhood and her love for her uncle, who also happens to be a cop. As Starr’s life lurches forward she must figure out how to speak the truth about Khalil’s life and death without tearing apart her family and neighborhood or jeopardizing her own future.

Thomas’s skillful and thoughtful storytelling combined with the circumstances of the lethal shooting guarantee that The Hate U Give is both a topical and emotionally charged read. While I appreciate and value this story, the book is also a masterful consideration of Starr’s full life as a young black woman. Starr spends a considerable amount of emotional energy concerned with her own identity, worried about how she presents herself in her neighborhood and in the affluent school where she is surrounded by white classmates and friends. She is aware of the way that she code-switches, altering her speech, mannerisms, and appearance to adapt to these very different environments, and she is burdened by the guilt of hiding parts of herself at school while keeping secrets about her school life from her loved ones.

Thomas also explores the emotional weight of Starr being her community’s representative at her school and the unfair responsibility Starr feels to defend Khalil, as if his death is only unjust if he led a mistake-free life. It is this final point that ties back to the unconditional, unapologetic statement that black lives matter and that the onus to actualize this idea in our communities is on all of us, not just those facing oppression. This is a statement that can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept but through Starr’s eyes it feels essential and undeniable.

Fall Publishing Season is My Christmas

Oh TBR, oh TBR! Your books just scrape my ceiling.

Some people love Halloween. For others they just can’t wait for Christmas. I’m definitely a fall publishing fanatic and that’s not just because my job is in cataloging. I’m a voracious reader and much like the kid whose eyes are bigger than her stomach (also me) I am constantly checking out, or shelving on Goodreads, more books than I can possibly read. I like to read based on my mood so I can never stick to a prescribed list for long–even if I’m the fool who made the list in the first place! Therefore I give to you (and let’s be honest, this is going to be a blog post so I can bookmark it for myself for later) the books that came out this fall that I haven’t read yet but I really, really want to.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
A collection of short stories about the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies. So many of my reading buddies have been raving over this one. I’ve never gotten into short stories before but I think it’s time I started!

It Devours: a Welcome to Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
The weirdest podcast I listen to (and I also listen to a podcast that is literally a family playing Dungeons & Dragons) is Welcome to Night Vale. I read the first novel, aptly named Welcome to Night Vale–or rather I had the podcast’s narrator, Cecil Baldwin, read it to me via audibook. Guess what? The library also has both the print and audio versions of It Devours so I can pick my poison.

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer
You say there aren’t any female serial killers? I say they are, and Lady Killers says there are at least 14. I should probably have tried harder to read this before Halloween but honestly all I have to do is turn out the lights and get out my clip-on book light and no matter what I’m reading will definitely end up with me being creeped out by the darkness alone. Add in some gruesome murder details and I may never sleep again.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
This novel centers around a rape, a group of girls determined to avenge it (even though they didn’t know the person who was raped), and the movement that transforms the lives of everyone around them. This is another book my reading buddies are raving about. Do they hold a secret cool-girl book club without me? If they did I wouldn’t blame them. The way I’m flighty about what to read next, they’d be waiting on me forever. However, after reading Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu (review to come!) this seems like an excellent companion novel even though it’s by a completely different author.

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz
Are you a P&P fangirl or fanboy? What if I told you there’s a novel where the roles of Darcy and Bennet are gender swapped, it takes place during Christmastime, and is written by an incredibly talented author? If you’re checking all the boxes, you to need this book in your life. I’ve had my own copy of this on my nightstand for a while but I’m purposefully putting off starting it until closer to Christmas. Because Christmas reads are the best at Christmas.

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur’s first book of poetry, Milk and Honey, completely gutted me and put me back together. I’m not sure what to expect from this next book of poetry but it’s one I preordered because I knew I would love it to pieces. I’ll chime in later after I actually read it and let you know how successful I was in determining my pre-adoration!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
JOHN GREEN PUBLISHED A NEW BOOK FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FIVE YEARS. If you had’t gotten the memo yet, you now have the knowledge so make use of it! I confess I’ve never actually read a John Green novel yet (stop it! I know!) but I absolutely adore all the awesomeness he’s thrown out into the world via the internet and this book in particular, about the search for a millionaire and a girl stuck in a spiral of her own thoughts, speaks to me.

We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True by Gabrielle Union
Oh my goodness, I really love Gabrielle Union! Her book is a collection of essays that cover all kinds of topics that are totally my jam: gender, sexuality, race, feminism, and more. One of my friends compared it to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, and if that’s even half true I am so totally in.

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence
What better way to wrap up this towering TBR than with a book about books? Annie Spence is a librarian and she’s written an entire book of letters to the books in her life–it’s really meta. I’ve heard it’s absolutely hilarious and I’m morally obligated to read books written by librarians.

There are literally dozens more books in my TBR that’s taller than me, but I’m out of time. What are you reading or looking forward to reading in the (hopefully) near future? Your suggestions will definitely grow my TBR tower but don’t worry; it’s always going to grow and I’d much rather it grow with legitimately good recommendations than just my wandering eye.

The Red Estate

When people call me a writer I get uncontrollable giggles, like when I’m walking around the grocery store and find that aisle where a weird guy’s been hanging out for fifteen minutes belting out The Best of Celine Dion even though there’s no Muzak playing. Or when someone gets on the elevator with you at the hospital and they immediately open up about their upcoming hemorrhoid surgery.

I don’t consider myself a writer. At all. It makes me feel like a fake even though I spend a couple of hours writing every day.

In Lauren Karcz’s The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, Mercedes Moreno knows exactly what I mean. She’s finishing out her senior year in high school and not sure if she even considers herself an artist or not because she hasn’t created anything since her last piece won first place in an art show. She’s in love with her best friend Victoria, her grandmother has had a stroke and is dying in a hospital in Puerto Rico and her mother leaves, sending back word that while sitting at her mother’s bedside she saw her hand move. Mercedes knows this is wishful thinking because things do not look good for her grandmother whom she and her sister Angela are close to, having spent whole summers with her.

Rex, their landlord and next door neighbor, checks in on them and feeds them. One morning, a piano shows up on their front lawn. Her fourteen year old sister Angela has always wanted to learn how to play the piano (me too if just to annoy my brothers by playing Chopsticks for three hours straight). Mercedes and Angela haul the piano inside and make room for it. Soon, Angela can barely be torn away from it. Mercedes is trying to come up with a painting that rivals her award-winning Food Poisoning #1 (that title alone is a winner with me) but she’s feeling less than artistic as she waits for news from her mother about their grandmother, deals with her unrequited crush on her best friend who will be auditioning for Julliard (and no doubt getting in because she’s that good of a ballet dancer) and wondering what she’s going to do with her own life after high school.

Go to art school? Go to a local university? She sees her future as pretty grim, never leaving home and “playing” at her art, never seeing her best friend Vic again (or even acting on the chance that there might be more to their friendship). Life, as Mercedes knows it, feels all lived up and worn out. Until Rex announces that he has a new renter, a young woman named Lilia Solis. “She’s a painter like you!” Rex announces (insert slow eye roll here). Since Mercedes and Angela are on their own, Rex invites them over to eat and get to know Lilia. Mercedes is taken with her at first sight, this woman who’s only a few years older than Mercedes and a painter, living her life exactly the way she wants.

Lilia shows some of her work to Mercedes and says there’s this building called the Red Mangrove Estate where many artists rent space to work: painters, musicians, anyone who needs a place to unleash their creativity. I like that idea. I normally write sitting in the middle of my bed with my writing music on shuffle and then spend 45 minutes changing songs because that song doesn’t fit with my current mood of writing and then I scrap writing altogether and watch Netflix. Mercedes goes with Lilia to the Estates. She hears bands in other rooms rehearsing and looks through partially open doors snatching glimpses of other writers in the throes of creation: that place all artists go to where time has no meaning and they often look up and breathe deeply as if they’ve been underwater and now have to resurface.

The ten foot thick steel door in Mercedes’s head that has been holding back her art creaks open and she begins to create losing time, losing herself, and losing her worry over her grandmother. Her head becomes clearer. But like most obsessions that seem fantastic at first, the Estate begins to take on a life of its own. It’s all Mercedes can think about. She unthinkingly takes Vic there one day, even though outsiders and hangers-on are not allowed. She kisses Vic. She kisses the best friend she’s in love with.

But she soon finds that the Estate is truly a world of its own, a different one. There’s the life lived and created in the Estate and there’s the world outside of it where Mercedes didn’t kiss Vic. These two worlds begin to perilously overlap, especially when Angela, who has become an amazing piano player, goes to the Estate and begins playing with a band who wants to take her on tour. Meanwhile, the news from Puerto Rico is not good. Their mother spends every minute in the hospital with their grandmother who is in a coma. She is slipping further away by the minute.

Mercedes must decide what to do: continue living two lives with one in the Estate where she can create mind-blowing art or come back to the real world and continue trying to create while secretly thinking she has not a talented bone in her body.  In the end, she makes a choice that ripples through many lives, changing her own future.

There’s one part of the book near the end that blew my mind but I’m not into spoilers (thanks Internet for ruining The Walking Dead for me; yeah, I’m still bitter about that) so I won’t mess things up for you, reader. Let’s just say author Lauren Karcz weaves a tale full of Florida heat, cigarettes chain smoked, the NEED to create bursting through every vein and nervous system, and family. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is about who we are and what we think we will become in the future. But of course, unless you’re psychic (if you are you should have seen this next sentence coming) you have to let life be lived as it unfolds.

Now, I gotta boogie. I have a favorite cardboard box in the driveway I like to write in. What? It’s all I could afford.

School is Coming

I’m hoping somebody can tell me where the summer went. Between visits from family, the Summer Reading crush, Eclipse excitement and (SURPRISE!) two weeks of Jury Duty, the summer has been a whirlwind and a half. With kids out of school looking for entertainment and excited to do some pleasure reading this is my favorite season in the Library. It is also by far the most exhausting.

So while it is bittersweet to see all of our young patrons head back to school this week, I will confess that I am looking forward to the structured schedule of the school year. It also happens that a lot of books I love are steeped in the petty grievances and serious identity crises that come with starting at a new school. Here are a few of my favorites:

25701463Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe centers on a young woman named Julia. Julia is deaf, and has always been surrounded by the deaf community: her best friend is deaf, as are both of her parents, and she attends a high school for the deaf. When Julia is betrayed by a friend, however, she is expelled from her school and faces the daunting task of attending a public school where the vast majority of students and teachers struggle to communicate with her, where she has to use a (really annoying) translator, and where no one knows her or seems terribly interested in getting to know her.

But Julia has even bigger problems. A budding graffiti artist, Julia is chagrined to find that another painter is changing her works, adding to them but also improving upon them. Julia feels humiliated and violated by this challenge to her art and sets out to best this mysterious new tagger all while navigating her new school, making new friends, and confronting old ones. Gardner does something very clever to help the reader understand Julia’s communication frustrations. When people try to talk to her and she struggles to read their lips, dialog will have some words missing, replaced with “——-.” This decision ingeniously drops the reader into Julia’s shoes, forced to decipher meaning based on surrounding context.

y648Like Julia, Riley Cavanaugh, the narrator of Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, has a lot going on. Starting at a new high school is bad enough for Riley who is already prone to anxiety attacks. But on top of that are the expectations of Riley’s father who is running for reelection in a hotly contested congressional race. Between the pressure to make friends, blend in, “act normal” and not screw up, it’s no wonder Riley is feeling stressed. But Riley is also dealing with something else – a secret that only Riley’s therapist knows. Riley identifies as gender fluid. A far-too-simple explanation would be that sometimes Riley wakes up feeling male, and sometimes Riley wakes up feeling female. But as Riley says “…it’s not that simple. The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.

To try to cope, Riley starts a blog and is shocked when posts start going viral. Riley begins to settle in, make a few friends, discover a potential romantic interest, and find some respite from all of life’s external pressure. But good things never last. A blog commenter seems to have uncovered Riley’s identity and is threatening to out Riley. Now Riley must decide whether to shutter the blog and betray those who have come to depend on Riley’s posts or to stand proud and risk the judgment of friends and family as well as possibly ruining Riley’s father’s political career.

30256109In American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, Fabiola Toussaint is a young Haitian immigrant who lands in Detroit ready to embrace the American dream. From the start, however, things do not go as planned. Her mother, who was supposed to accompany her, is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New Jersey and Fabiola arrives alone, meeting her aunt and cousins for the first time. American culture and expectations to assimilate immediately overwhelm Fabiola, but her resilience and determination ensure that this is not a derivative fish-out-of-water story.

Fabiola’s fierce cousins, known as the three Bees (brains, brawn and beauty), are respected and feared affording her a measure of protection in the neighborhood while also helping her find her place in school. Fab quickly begins to settle in, but is torn between her desire to conform and her devotion to her Haitian identity. She also begins to realize that her aunt and cousins might be involved in some unsavory dealings and that in order to help her mother, she may need to betray the family that welcomed her in Detroit. Though her mother is far away Fab is never alone. All around Detroit Fab sees lwas, Vodou spirits, who help guide her and warn her of impending danger. These visions give American Street a surreal mysticism that edges towards magic realism while also lending authenticity and depth to Fabiola’s immigrant experience.

One of the reasons I love YA fiction is the way its talented writers impart empathy in their work. I’m fortunate to have decent hearing, I’m not an immigrant, and until I read the Symptoms of Being Human my understanding of gender fluidity was rudimentary at best. All three of these works do a masterful job of weaving diverse perspectives into their work, helping the reader to understand the lives of others without overpowering their works’ compelling narratives.

deadlyAnd now for something completely different! In the ongoing series, Deadly Class, Marcus is a homeless teenager simply trying to survive. Sure he has some demons in his past and the police would like to speak with him, but otherwise he seems like a decent guy.  A new world is opened to him when he is invited to attend King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school dedicated to training young assassins. Suddenly Marcus finds himself thrust into a world of precocious young killers, the children of gang leaders, mob bosses, drug kingpins, and genocidal dictators. Marcus must learn to carefully navigate the halls of this school unsure of who to trust because he is certain that if he can survive he can take revenge on the people who destroyed his own family.  This beautifully illustrated comic is profane, thrilling, hilarious, and incredibly difficult to put down.  

Intergalactic Fantastic

If I heard music beamed to earth by an alien civilization, my first thought would be to whip out my phone and try to look it up on iTunes. Actually, my first thought would be ‘I really need a change of underwear.’ Also, I think if there is intelligent life in the universe and they’re driving along enjoying the cosmos, when they see Earth they’d hit the door lock mechanism and beat feet on out of there.

In Ryan Gebhart’s Of Jenny and the Aliens, the people of Earth have sent messages into outer space to see if anything would answer back. Ten years later, something does. (Seems about right. Takes a dude about ten years to text me back.) Derek is a high school senior living with his single mother. On the night the alien message, in the form of music, is heard on Earth, Derek goes to a body painting party to celebrate because hey, what else are you going to do when you hear music from another world? You go to a party, get blasted on booze and whatever weed is floating around and hope someone there is drunk or stoned enough to take you home.

At the party, there’s talk going around that the aliens might invade and everyone’s imagining alien enslavement. Except for Derek. He doesn’t give a toss because Jenny, a girl he’s had a crush on for years, is at the party. And walking around topless. I’m not talking strutting about in a bra. She’s in full skin mode and poor Derek, being a 17-year-old boy, has no idea how to not openly gawk at her. She’s talking to him, paying attention to him when he thought she didn’t even know who he was.

Short story long, they walk to her house where she puts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Derek loses his virginity to her. Derek’s immediately in love and starts imagining their life together. After she falls asleep, he walks home deciding to stop by a local river. Derek lies down on the riverbank and looks into the sky but something else catches his attention. There’s someone on a tiny island hiding behind a tree. He sees a hand with horrifically long fingers splayed out against the tree trunk. And then he sees a baby deer and he thinks he’s still just a little drunk and makes his way home.

When he gets home it’s five in the morning and his mom is still awake. She’s glued to the TV where there’s a breaking news alert that NASA discovered a link in the alien music. It’s a video. It shows a planet that is remarkably like Earth but a little bigger. The camera pans to show strange animals as big as elephants grazing in a cornfield. They’re a cross between dinosaurs and something with feathers. The video shows a run down ranch house. The camera spots someone (something?) on the porch. It’s a small being with grey skin with mottled patches of color everywhere. It has large eyes and two slits in its face where a nose would be. It appears to struggle to speak. It says it enjoyed the music we sent out and hoped Earth liked the music he sent back. But God oh God, it has rows and rows of sharp shark-like teeth. Why so many nightmare teeth?

After seeing the alien, the world goes into chaotic survival mode. Everyone heads to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, thinking that at any moment flying saucers are going to drop from the sky and start in on the anal probing Olympics. I think my first instinct would be a healthy spike of fear but hey, at least the music they shared with us wasn’t Kanye West. I think that right there would be cause for an invasion.

Derek isn’t worried about the possible alien invasion because he just lost his virginity and is in love. He’s thinking Jenny might be in love with him too. But there’s something a little broken about her. Last summer her brother, a Navy SEAL, was killed on a mission in Raya. She and Derek become almost inseparable for two weeks. He takes her to the river after telling her about the strange noises and long fingers he’d seen by the trees. He tells her to get her camera out and start taking pictures. He swims across the river and is cracked on the head by the alien he saw a few nights ago.

When he comes to, Jenny is long gone and he’s sitting next to an alien smoking a joint. The alien has on jeans, a sports jacket and an orange turtleneck. He’s short, maybe 4 feet tall. They begin a halting conversation about sports and life back on his planet. The alien’s name is Karo. Lights and sirens are beginning to appear and Karo leaves. Jenny went to the police saying Derek had been assaulted. She captured a good picture of the alien. Derek says he’s fine, just tried to do something stupid like swim across in frigid waters to the small island.

In addition to the alien situation, all is not well in Love Land. Jenny is moody and isn’t as into the monogamous lifestyle that Derek prefers. In fact, she’s messing about with one of his best friends. Heartbroken, Derek wants a way to win her back. There’s a credible rumor that America is about to send 200,000 troops into Raya and it will likely be an all out war. Jenny makes an impossible promise to him. If he can stop the war in Raya, she’ll be his girlfriend. So what does Derek decide to do? He decides to try to get the aliens to help him stop the war so Jenny will be his. I’ve done some truly stupid things to get someone to like me (remember making a crush a mix-tape of your favorite songs?) but Derek is about to go over the top.

Of Jenny and the Aliens is told in a heartbreaking voice of first love. Yeah there are aliens in it, but at its core the novel is about love and the seemingly ridiculous lengths humans go to keep it. If you don’t have PTSD about your first teenage love (I still have fond nightmares about mine), grab this book and listen to the wisdom sung by the universe. Or whatever.

An Alien-less Invasion

I’ll admit it. I am very excited. The first total solar eclipse to span the United States in over 100 years, and we are close enough to the path to get a very good show. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the eclipse, about eclipse glasses, and about the best places to view the eclipse, so I know eclipse-mania (eclipsanity?) is not restricted to my nerdy circle of friends. And I am delighted to have a chance to further build the hype among our young patrons – I’ll be presenting a special eclipse themed storytime this Thursday.

I’ve been obsessed with space for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek and Star Wars books, before graduating to more “sophisticated” fare like Starship Troopers, The Forever War and, of course, Ender’s Game. With the coming eclipse, I’ve been thinking about these books and even revisiting a few of my favorites. And yet what I keep coming back to is the best book about an alien invasion that I’ve ever read, even though there aren’t any actual aliens in the book.

Grasshopper-Jungle-Andrew-Smith

Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the history of an apocalyptic pandemic as recorded by Austin Szerba, a wry, self-aware teenager dealing with fairly typical high school problems: school, family, local jerks, and his complicated relationship with his girlfriend, Shann. He’s also facing some issues that are a little messier – his brother is off fighting in Afghanistan and he is not sure exactly how to define his feelings for Robbie, his gay best friend.  

Of course none of this is too far outside the realm of many other great coming of age stories. That’s because I haven’t yet talked about the plague that Austin and Robbie have accidentally unleashed. This is not the kind of virus that “simply” kills it’s host. Instead it causes them to molt their human shell, turning into giant praying mantis-like super-soldiers who are only interested in two things: eating and ….well, you can probably guess the other thing. As this beastly infection spreads at an alarming speed, either infecting or devouring anyone in its path, Austin, Robbie and Shann embark on a hilarious, perilous, and awkward journey towards both self-discovery and an understanding of the history and consequences of the merciless killer they’ve unleashed.

Smith is an incredible writer with a precise and masterful feel for the uncertainty and self-consciousness of teenage life. He also understands the tedious boredom of the daily adolescent routine and the bursts of frenzied excitement that punctuate these years. As with all his books, the quirky strangeness of his writing captivates from page one but it has extra vitality when delivered in the voice of Austin Szerba. Austin is obsessed with creating historical records even though he understands the futility of doing so, as he explains in the book’s opening:

I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

This is my history.

There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

Just like it’s always been.

In a sense, the entire book is a narrative journey through Austin’s meticulous records. Despite the many engaging storylines what truly shines is Austin’s frustrated devotion to his town and its many residents, warts and all. His obsession with unwinding their histories may be laced with acerbic wit, but he is telling these stories because he cares desperately.

Maybe my ranting and raving praise doesn’t make you curious to read this book. Maybe you’re still wondering why I am talking about a book published in 2014. Maybe, just maybe, I can sweeten the pot. Edgar Wright, geek director extraordinaire, is in the process of developing the film adaptation of Grasshopper Jungle, which I am waiting for with far less patience than I am for this damn eclipse. And if that’s not enough, come on people! Giant, horny, man-eating praying mantises!