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!  

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.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

2018 brought a lot of heartache and stress.

I probably shouldn’t start this post out that way, but looking back it’s been an exhausting year for me. I sold my house, bought a new one, dealt with the movers using a broken toilet and overflowing the house we no longer owned (yes, really), packed and unpacked an insane amount of boxes stacked Tetris-style in a storage unit, spent months figuring out what plants I had in my new yard and how to not kill them, hosted visits from Midwestern family loves, and had to say goodbye to the sweetest cat ever.

It’s been barely controlled chaos. And that’s not even looking outward at our divided country and other political and social nightmares popping up on a daily basis.

However.

2018 also brought a deluge of amazing books. While society is one large dumpster fire and I still have a ton of stuff to check off my never-ending to-do list, giving up sleep in favor of reading means that I got to read more this year than I expected. So without further ado here are just a few of the best books I read this year.

Pride : a Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi
This is the modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice I had been waiting for! I read this in one sitting and want to go back and read it again–which is so rare for me I can’t even. Our setting is modern-day Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our Bennet family is actually the Benitez family, Afro-Latino and close-knit. Our Darcys are still the Darcys, but these Darcys buy the entire building across the street from the Benitez’s building and renovate it into one luxurious home for just the four of them. To Zuri Benitez the Darcys–and especially their arrogant son Darius–embody the gentrification that is rapidly changing her neighborhood and pricing out families who have lived there for generations. But Zuri’s older sister Janae is crushing hard on Darius’s older brother Ainsley, and thus Zuri is reluctantly drawn into Darius’s universe, even as her place in both Bushwick and the world (hello, college applications!) shifts. Pride is filled with emotion and possibility, and the characters speak like real teens, not like the stuffy ideal aristocracy in the original P&P. I am one of the few who didn’t like the original, so Pride really spoke to me and has become an instant classic.

We Are Not Yet Equal : Understanding the Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson’s groundbreaking White Rage has been adapted for teens, and I’m here to tell you this book is for literally everyone. Anderson reframes the conversation about race with a straightforward and accessible voice. Her chronology begins at the end of the Civil War and follows through to the turmoil we face today. Anderson focuses on the systemic and sadly legal ways American society has suppressed progress for African-Americans. Racism is a horrible problem we still face today, but by learning from the past–and present–there can be hope for change in the future. There are historic photos and added resources for further reading and reflection. Hand this book to your relative who thinks everyone was made equal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and doesn’t understand why we definitely still need activists and movements like Black Lives Matter.

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy : 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen
I’ve been steadily diversifying my TBR, adding in authors of color and LGBTQIA authors, generally absorbing life experiences that are different from my own as a way to expand empathy and understanding of more people. I haven’t been so great about seeking out books explaining mental health and how mental health challenges can look different to each individual. Kelly Jensen–former librarian, current Book Riot editor, and all-around book champion–has assembled a diverse and absorbing introduction to this extremely important and under-represented demographic. Each essay is from a different perspective but straightforward and descriptive, helping the reader see through each author’s eyes. What’s it like to be called crazy? And how can we start having real and true conversations about mental health when such stigma is attached? This book answers those questions and so much more.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
At a secluded house party, Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She’ll die every night at 11pm until Aiden Bishop can determine who her killer is and break the cycle. However, each day he wakes up in the body of a different party guest, with no way to predict which body he’ll inhabit next. As he lives each day and learns more about Evelyn, Aiden becomes determined to not only unmask the killer, but he intends to prevent her death entirely. This is the perfect mystery for readers who think they’re pretty good at predicting twists and figuring out whodunnit. Seriously, it’s just…not what you’re expecting, even if you (accurately) expect a murder mystery that answers the question: What would happen if Agatha Christie wrote a mash-up of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap? Don’t let the number of pages fool you. You’ll stay up late and cancel plans to finish reading this book.


Darius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram, There There by Tommy Orange, and Vox by Christina Dalcher
These books were fantastic and at the tippy-top of the favorites pile for me. I won’t go into detail here because Jesse and I have already written in-depth reviews about each. Go check them out and thank us later.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, aka Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings
There There, aka The Best Book I’ll Read This Year
Vox, aka 900 Words About Vox

Well, that’s all for me. As we wave goodbye to another year of fantastic reading, I can’t help but wonder what 2019 will bring us. Drop a comment below with titles you’re looking forward to reading and when they’ll be published. Because if this year taught me anything it’s this: my TBR cannot be too big, and reading when I’m stressed is the best thing for my soul.

Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings

From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.

Darius-the-Great-Is-Not-OkayIf these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.

When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history.  In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.

This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.

Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.

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Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!