Must-Reads of 2019 So Far…

I’ve never recapped my personal best-of reading list so early in the year before, but 2019 is already off to such a great start I’m making an exception. The biggest silver lining of February’s snow show was getting more time to read. Here are just a few of my faves so far, in no particular order because these books are amazing and I refuse to rank my favorite children books.

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan
Recommended for fans of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.

I’m convinced I will always 100% love everything Renée Watson writes. This book hit so many high notes and addressed so many topics important to me that I really just want to read it again.

Best friends Jasmine and Chelsea are fed up with the way female students are treated at their supposedly progressive high school, so they start a Women’s Rights Club. Poems, essays, and videos go into their club’s online blog, Write Like a Girl. The blog goes viral, but online trolls escalate tensions in real life and the blog gets shut down by a condescending school administration. Jasmine and Chelsea aren’t ready to go quietly into the night–not when they know they are reaching other students who are facing the same misogynist treatment. How will they balance their need to help and be creative while not further angering their school’s administration?

The way that feminism, racism, body shaming, and everything else is addressed was just 10/10 perfect. The essays, poems, and playlists that the characters create for the Write Like a Girl blog were my absolute favorite part. It was like getting a very rad nonfiction bonus in my fiction book.

I fought for them. I cried for them. I cheered them on and didn’t want their story to end. These are multidimensional characters written authentically and I’m so here for it.

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren Recommended for fans of The Cutting Edge and The Everett Silvertips.

This book is for anyone like me who was completely obsessed with the film The Cutting Edge–where a hockey player and a figure skater are paired up for the Olympics–who also wanted a sequel to be about hockey.

Holland is the only girl on her high school’s hockey team and she’s used to holding her own skating with the guys–even though it means dealing with the misogynist insults from the small hockey town’s good ole’ boys. But when she’s selected to represent her team on national television to help sway the public to vote for a major hockey tournament to be held in her hometown, Holland will have to confront her own self-doubts and fears that she might not be good enough to be on the boys’ team.

Oh, and she’ll also have to deal with her changing feelings towards her bossy team captain who she’s starting to realize might not be her frenemy after all. Maybe, just maybe, her frustrations stem from strong romantic feelings for him that she’s ignored for too long.

Cold Day in the Sun is full of feminism, the Midwest, small-town life, and a romance that will hook you and not let you go.

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
Recommended for fans of historical fiction with a sharp social justice edge.

As soon as I finished this smashing book I immediately missed the residents of The Paragon Hotel. Especially Blossom. And Max. And Nobody. And okay, everyone. It’s literally everyone.

I spent several days utterly invested in this story of a white woman who goes by the name Nobody. She flees the Mob in 1921 after having to fake her death. Rescued by a concerned train porter, she is allowed to stay in an all-African American hotel in Portland. The Paragon Hotel’s residents are reluctant to welcome her, as having a white woman in their rooms will only draw negative attention from the bigoted community. Soon these fears become reality. Nobody and the hotel’s staff and residents are thrust under the KKK’s magnifying glass as they all search for a missing 6 year old foundling they’ve all been collectively raising from infanthood.

The pacing is great, dipping back into Nobody’s past when relevant, and showing how she learned to survive. The author turns phrases like pancakes and if I were highlighting all the clever passages the pages in my copy would be nearly solid yellow.

This book destroyed me in a good way.

Even though this is fiction, I learned a lot of disturbing things about the KKK’s nonfictional influence in Oregon. I’m likely to start digging into the Northwest Room for more information about this time period in Oregon’s past.

Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig
Recommended for fans of Leverage, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and heist novels.

I was immediately hooked at the premise of a heist novel starring teenage drag queens, and it only went up from there.

Margo isn’t your typical teen. By day she’s a socialite the paparazzi can’t get enough of. By night she’s a highly successful cat burglar. She and her four best friends, all of whom are teenage drag queens, each have their own reasons for doing what they do. The one thing they have in common? They’re damn good at stealing. But when a routine job goes wrong, they’ll need all their skills, training, and friendship to not only survive but to stop the mastermind who is determined to out them all.

There’s love, sex, violence, friendship, redemption, and huge helpings of both snark and bonding. If you’re looking for a fast-paced wild ride of a novel–look no further.

So let’s hear it. Which books have hit the tippity top of your favorites so far this year? Leave your recommendations in the comments. Who knows? Maybe one of your favorites will hit my next best-of list. Which judging by the way this year is shaping up might be sooner than we both expect.

On the Come Up

Is it possible to wait months for a book’s release, get an advance copy, geek out about getting an advance copy, forget about said advanced copy, get bogged down in work projects, read some less-fulfilling books, wait on the hold list for the now newly-released book, finally get your turn with the book, then remember the advance copy buried on your desk? Yes, it would appear that this is possible and I can prove it. That’s why I am only now gushing over Angie Thomas’s (relatively) new novel On the Come Up.

On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, the same neighborhood as Thomas’s incredible debut novel, The Hate U Give, and follows a teenaged aspiring rapper named Bri Jackson. Bri’s childhood has been informed by several traumatic events. As a young girl Bri lost her father, a rapper on the cusp of stardom, when he was murdered in front of her house. This terrible event devastated Bri’s mother who subsequently suffered from a years-long battle with substance abuse and addiction. As a result, Bri and her older brother spent a significant portion of their childhood living with their strict, god-fearing grandparents before their mother was able to regain her sobriety and reunite with her children.

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At age 16 Bri is an incredibly precocious rapper and somewhat ambivalent student with a quick-fire temper and a burning desire to make it big and earn the money to help her family. When a video of her battle rapping goes viral, Bri realizes that her dreams of hip-hop stardom could become reality. But the closer Bri gets to realizing her goal, the more slippery it becomes. A racially charged incident with school security leaves Bri suspended, then some of her angrier lyrics lead to misinterpretation, overwrought outrage, and media hysteria. Bri must also decide who to trust with her career – her devoted aunt with a penchant for neighborhood trouble or her father’s slick talking former manager.

At the same time that Bri is trying to jumpstart her career, she is also dealing with plenty of personal issues. From family conflict, to the stresses of poverty, to discrimination and bigotry at school, the challenges of everyday life are fraying Bri’s nerves. And then there are the boys! There’s Bri’s best friend who she has long had feeling for. But he just started dating someone else. And Curtis the wise cracking jerk who nobody takes seriously until Bri notices that he is hiding depth behind his jackass facade. As Bri’s personal life, family history, and rap god aspirations begin to collide she must contend with not only neighborhood beefs and career goals, but figuring out how to stay true to herself in a world determined to tear her down.

Angie Thomas is an incredibly skilled writer able to deftly balance the gross injustices of structural inequality, the unrelenting traumas of being a black woman in America, and the less weighty but still-urgent drama of teenage life. All of her characters are both relatable and realistic, and she has mastered the critical skill of capturing the voices of young people in a way that never feels contrived. Thomas was an aspiring teenaged rapper herself and Bri’s raps are as impressive as Thomas’s prose. In fact, I’d recommend listening to Thomas deliver some of these lyrics, as you can in this video, to get a better sense of the skill that Thomas possesses as an MC and writer. My favorite part is the dexterity of her flow when she rhymes coroner with corner. And if you’re looking for a soundtrack while you read, we have CDs by many of the artists Bri mentions in the book, including J. Cole, Rapsody, Kendrick, and Eric B. & Rakim, and you can stream or download a ton more for free with Hoopla!  

A Book Where Another Teenager Dies

I have no problem staying five feet away from the man I love, mainly because he doesn’t exist. The problem is getting one to scale my fortress of acerbic and self-deprecating sarcasm. Picture it: me in another 40 years, dead in my kitchen with my 22 cats eating my face.

That escalated quickly.

In Rachael Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart, 17-year-old Stella has spent her life in and out of the hospital with cystic fibrosis. She finds herself in the hospital for a month’s stay as she builds up her lung capacity and is dosed with antibiotics. She’s climbed the lung transplant list and now all she has to do is stay healthy enough to get that lung. Stella is in control of her illness and is getting healthy and nothing is going to stop her.

Famous last words.

Will also has cystic fibrosis. The rule with CFers is they have to remain 6 feet apart from one another at all times to keep from infecting one another’s fragile lungs. Will’s CF comes at a higher risk: he has B. cepacia, an antibiotic resistant infection. People with B. cepacia aren’t eligible for a lung transplant because the thought is if they get a lung transplant it’s a waste of a good organ.

Will’s been all around the world but not as a tourist. He’s been in hospitals trying drug trial after drug trial to treat his B.cepacia and nothing has worked. This time he’s in the hospital for a new clinical drug trial. His lung capacity is supremely low and he has no faith the new drug will work. But Will has a plan. In two weeks he’ll turn 18 and be able to make his own decisions. He’ll unplug himself from all the machines, leave the hospital, and go see the world he’s only seen from hospital windows.

As you have probably guessed, Will and Stella fall in love but they can never touch. The rule is they have to stay six feet apart. Stella decides to make her own choice, and take back a bit of her life. She changes the six feet rule to five feet. It might not seem like much, but it makes Stella feel like she’s not being controlled by her sickness.

Told from alternating perspectives, Five Feet Apart is not only about falling in love. It’s also about deciding on a future when it seems like there isn’t one. The world could probably learn a thing or two from Stella and Will about surviving and keeping the fire of hope alive.

And don’t worry. They don’t die. I wouldn’t dangle this book in front of you if another teenager died. Then again, my narration can’t always be trusted. I mean, my face is going to be eaten by a large amount of cats 40 years from now. Can you trust a book review from someone like that?

Just read the book. It’s worth it.

Enter the Grishaverse

I usually try to approach book-to-screen adaptations with a fair bit of skepticism. Sure, they sometimes work out, but I’m a levelheaded guy who controls his impulses and manages his expectations with Jedi-like discipline. Just kidding! I never learn my lesson. Every time I hear about a new adaptation, my hope spirals out of control. Why keep your cool and be pleasantly surprised when you can build unrealistic expectations and experience utter devastation?

This might explain why I’m ecstatic that Rick Famuyiwa will direct Children of Blood and Bone. And why I refuse to worry that Brian K. Vaughan’s Y, the Last Man (already shortened by FX to Y, which definitely isn’t a bad sign, right?) will use CGI for Ampersand the monkey. And when Netflix announced an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I really lost it. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a TV show.

So, what exactly is the Grishaverse? Leigh Bardugo has written seven books in this world so far, with at least one more in the pipeline and rumors of several more to follow. This world is first introduced in Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising. These books are set in Ravka, a land both on the brink of civil war, and facing encroaching threats from powerful nations at its borders. Complicating matters further, Ravka’s military is divided into two groups. The first of these is a pretty straightforward army. But Ravka’s Second Army is composed of magic wielders known as Grisha and led by the Darkling, a mysterious, ambitious, and charismatic young man who also happens to be the world’s most powerful Grisha. Like many misunderstood groups, the Grisha have long suffered abuse in Ravka and other nations and the Darkling seems bent on not just defeating foreign enemies, but also securing permanent power for himself and Grisha dominance throughout society.

This trilogy focuses on a young orphan named Alina. When her powers as a Grisha manifest, it becomes clear that she has a unique and legendary gift. She quickly finds herself in an elevated position, both courted and mentored by the Darkling. Alina quickly learns that she will need to navigate many dangers: jealous rivals, court intrigue, foreign assassins, and the Darkling’s morally ambiguous schemes, while learning to develop her power and determining which decisions she makes might save her country and which might lead to its ruin.

While I love Alina’s story, it isn’t necessarily where I recommend readers begin. My first foray into Bardugo’s thrilling work was the duology composed of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. These stories take place after the events of the Grisha trilogy, and follow a ruthless, scrappy, and irresistible group of criminals when they take a job breaking into an impenetrable fortress and rescuing a scientist who possesses incredibly powerful and dangerous knowledge. I don’t want to say a lot more about these books – they’re filled with twists, betrayals, and cliffhangers that I don’t want to risk ruining. I will say, however, that the characters in these books are immensely likable, their relationships are complicated in ways that are both satisfying and maddening, and that Bardugo’s work in this series is as strong as any fantasy writing that I’ve read. The best description I’ve seen for these books is Game of Thrones meets a heist movie. If that doesn’t have you chomping at the bit, check your pulse.

King of Scars, Bardugo’s latest work, is the first book in a new duology. Virtually any details about this novel would spoil the earlier books. Suffice it to say, this new release follows a cursed king as he deals with dangerous new threats, a returning menace, and two very, very badass Grisha. For fans of deep dives, there is also The Language of Thorns. This collection of short stories brings to life the myths and fairy tales of the Grishaverse. This is a worthy read, and ties in nicely with the traditions that crop up throughout all these books.

It’s been a pleasure to read (and re-read) these books and watch as Bardugo’s sharp and witty writing has matured. Over the course of these seven books, she has built a world filled with magic, intrigue, and adventure. I eagerly await more Grishaverse novels, and will be following every update on the miniseries with bated breath. Don’t screw this up, Netflix.

How to Win Children and Influence Parents

One of the truly great no-downside parts of my job is that I get to share pop culture enthusiasm with young people every day. Whether we’re ranking Harry Potter, judging each other’s floss skills, or kvetching about that darn pigeon, it’s often the highlight of my day. But I also love introducing young readers to their next obsession. This is great when it happens in the library, but I also enjoy being the one to swoop in with under-the-radar recommendations for the children of my friends and family. While I prefer to tailor my suggestions to the reader, I’ve found that there are certain books that rarely fail. And for the low cost of free.99, you too can be the hero of the next family gathering or dinner with friends! Here are a few of my favorite “wise-guy” picks.

9780316483018_p0_v1_s550x406It’s relatively new, but Bob Shea’s Crash, Splash, or Moo! has become the first book I grab when I have a chance to read a story aloud. This is a lightly plotted picture book formatted as a game show. The host is, of course, Mr. McMonkey and the audience’s task is simple: watch ACTION CLAM and (plain, old, boring) Cow complete in a series of increasingly preposterous stunts and predict whether they will end with a crash, a splash, or a….MOO. Like many of Shea’s books, it’s filled with bright, engaging colors and stuffed with jokes and delightfully silly scenarios. I love that this book both encourages a ton of audience participation and leaves everyone (including the reader) cackling with glee. It’s as much fun as I’ve had with a story in a long time and even when I have to read it several times in a row (by popular demand) I never get sick of it.

743b09a15d28ca3221e153270b710b93I have to make a confession about Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera. This is a stolen recommendation. My mother, who is a remarkable children’s librarian in her own right (as was her mother before her – I seem to have entered the family business) clued me in to this middle grade chapter book. Ms. Rapscott’s Girls follows the titular Ms. Rapscott, the headmistress of a “school for girls of busy parents.” These poor children are sent there because their parents simply do not have the time to care for and raise them. If that sounds awfully dark for the intended audience, fear not! Primavera builds a world that is equal parts whimsical and absurd as Ms. Rapscott and her charges embark on a series of misadventures. And my goodness, this book is at its hysterical best when it is roasting adults. I will leave you with this description of one student’s parents:

Her parents, Dr. Loulou Chissel and Dr. Lou Chissel, were very busy. They had started out in the cinder-block business and slowly but surely had worked their way up to become prominent cosmetic surgeons. In a stroke of genius Beatrice’s father, Dr. Lou Chissel, had even devised a way to fill our wrinkles and lips from the raw materials he had used to make his cinder block.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Liu often said.

But the Chissels didn’t stop there. Dr. Loulou Chissel had shortened her daughter’s name from Beatrice to Bea to save time, because Dr. Chissel was very busy experimenting with ways to grow hair on cinder blocks.

“Just think of the possibilities,” she crowed.

Dr. Lou rubbed his bald head, “Just think.”

As you can imagine, all this thinking required a great deal of quiet. But their daughter, Bea, was always wanting something -like breakfast- and she was always asking questions like, “What’s a birthday present?”

When no one answered she would get louder and louder, until she would shriek at a decibel loud enough to shatter glass:

“What’s a birthday present?!!!!!!”

This is how Beatrice Chissel became Known for Being Loud.

jason-reynolds-spidermanYA is one of my favorite areas to read, so I have many go-to books for teenagers. I was tempted to talk about Nic Stone, but I’ve blogged about both of her novels before. I thought about mentioning Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but I’d rather devote a future post to them. So I’ll go with my favorite, an author I talk about nearly every day but don’t write about enough, Jason Reynolds. While all of his books are transcendent, the recent popularity of Marvel’s animated film, Into the Spider-Verse, makes this a wonderful time to give a teen Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

This book follows Miles through a particularly tough stretch of his junior year of high school. His uncle just died, as has Peter Parker, his spider-sense is on the fritz, and, oh yeah, his history teacher? He might be a super-villain. Add to that the stress of school, family pressure, and his crush on a classmate and Miles has his work cut out for him! I love that this book is appropriate for a wide range of teens – I’m as comfortable recommending it to sixth graders as I am to high school seniors. Reynolds is also simply a phenomenal writer, exploring serious issues like race, class, and identity, while also flashing a masterful ability to create realistic teenage characters. Don’t take my word for it – I’m currently discussing All-American Boys, which he co-wrote with Brendan Kiely, with a high school book club and the students all agree that he nails teenage dialogue. I have little doubt that Miles is the Spider-man we need right now and I can think of no one better than Jason Reynolds to do him justice.

Rumor Has It

What the heck must it be like to be so confident in yourself that you could see someone you like, march right up to them, and say: “You. I’m taking you home to my bed right now.” Not only to have the confidence to say that, but also the confidence to know that the person is going to nod yes, take your hand, and let you lead them to a place where you can be alone. Mind you, I’ve just downed more than half a box of cold medicine, a feat that would impress Keith Richard, so I’m also wondering how men can have sex with a lamp on or the curtains open, letting all that new moon shine down on, well, all that moon.

In Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen, Jack is a promiscuous high school student and I mean promiscuous in the best way possible: he likes himself and he likes sex. He likes it a lot. And for that, he’s become fodder for the high school gossip mill. The girls bathroom is right next to the boys and once a week Jack enjoys a solitary cigarette while listening to the latest news about himself through the thin walls of the bathroom. Evidently, any male he makes eye contact with becomes a conquest. It’s been said he was part of a forgy (an orgy of 3 or more people). Many of the rumors about him are wrong except that he does like sex. He’s just not about doing it for popularity.

One day he opens his locker and a note slips out. It seems he has a secret admirer. He can’t tell if it’s sweet or creepy. His best friend Ben, a romantic who is still waiting on his fist kiss, thinks it’s sweet while Jenna, with her razor sharp tongue, thinks it’s a little stalkery.

Jenna got kicked off the school’s newspaper for articles like which teacher was pulled over for a DUI, so now she does online news. She wants Jack to answer sex, relationship, and life questions for her blog. He’s reluctant to put himself out there, giving advice he’s afraid might mess someone’s life up. But he starts reading submitted questions and gets hooked. His answers to questions would make Doctor Ruth turn bright red and fall off her sex therapist chair.

Jack begins to get more notes slipped into his locker. They’ve gone from sweet to restraining order worthy. The notes begin to threaten his friends and his mother. Jack’s always been close with his mom but lately he feels like they haven’t been connecting. He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom chose a sperm donor. One of the notes threatens her job. He does his best to keep the notes from her.

He confides in his beloved art teacher. (Why is there always that one teacher you know will be in your corner and fight for you? And why can’t that happen when you become an adult and get a boss?) She takes Jack and the notes to the principal. The principal basically says that Jack brings it on himself, wearing a little make up to make his looks stand out. Just when Jack is going to give up and give in to his stalker, he finds out who it is. And it’s not anyone who’d ever be on the suspect list.

Full of love, doubt, and confusion, Jack of all Hearts is about not apologizing for who you are or playing into the cliche of how everyone thinks certain people should act.

Excuse me, the other half of the NyQuil box is calling and Keith Richards is mumbling about how amazed he is someone can survive that ( except nobody can understand him so someone finds a translator.) Be yourself, have as much sex as you can, be safe, protect your heart but if it gets broken, let it be broken for awhile before you find the super glue in the junk drawer.

Here’s to the Scientists and Monkeys

Every once in a while, I read a book that must have been made for me. I don’t mean one that just aligns with my interests. I mean there’s an underground lab somewhere filled with white coated technicians experimenting with plot formula and monkeys with typewriters tapping away, all working on the singular mission to create books perfectly tailored for my taste.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Released in October. I only found this book last week. As I’ve read it, I’ve been increasingly impressed by the work of this cabal of scientists and monkeys that call themselves “Amy Rose Capetta” and increasingly annoyed that it took me two months and a decent amount of dumb luck to stumble upon it.

9109wewh-qlThe Brilliant Death is set in a kingdom filled with murder, intrigue, and stories of magic wielding strega. Teodora di Sangro has grown up with ample firsthand experience of violence and viscous plots. Her father is the head of one of five families that rule the kingdom. Like the mafia, these families rule through an intricate web of extortion, intimidation, and retribution that keep the people fed, clothed, and thoroughly subjugated.

Teo also carries a secret. The stregas of childhood legend are more than bedtime stories. They are real, and Teo is one of them – possibly the only one. She has always kept her magic secret, but has used it to help her family. When an enemy, rival, or other problematic person threatens them, she is quick to secretly transform them into pretty trinkets that now line her bedroom’s shelves.

Then one day, Teo’s entire world is shaken. First, her father is poisoned and falls into a coma. The new capo, who rules the five families, claims credit for the assassination attempt and summons a family representative to the capital. Teo believes she is the best choice among her father’s children to assume this task – after all, she has been secretly defending her family for years. However, Toe is also a daughter in a world where her gender effectively disqualifies her from leadership.

Yet on the same day her father falls, Teo meets Cielo. Cielo is beguiling, witty, and possibly quite dangerous. Like Teo, Cielo is a strega. And a gender fluid strega at that! Cielo’s appearance, combined with their ability to completely transform their appearance, give Teo hope that she too can transform, allowing her to travel to the capital and confront the capo. With the help of Teo’s brilliant younger brother Luca, she and Cielo set off for the capital in an uneasy alliance, one that will need to be unbreakable to survive the deceit, cruelty, and corruption that await them.

The Brilliant Death is full of mythical magic, fantastical world-building, and political intrigue in a kingdom stuffed with dastardly criminals and dashing rogues. It also prominently features queer romance, a thoughtful approach to identity, and complicated presentations of family, loyalty, and betrayal.  I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but for me it comes pretty darn close!