Weekend Shorts: Circuses and Villains

If we were playing Smash Up, my husband’s favorite genre-mashing card game, today’s post would be holding its own with the Steampunk and Shapeshifter factions. It would probably lose to me playing the Tabletop faction with anything else (man, is that deck overpowered), but it would do all right. And you will do all right to read either of these lovely stories, whether you understood any part of those first two sentences or not!

Dream Eater’s Carnival, by Leslie Anderson and David T. Allen
Dream Eater's CarnivalI was thrilled by this pick for my online book club because a) it was tiny and b) it was on the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library so I could get it for free! I’m always a fan of free. I was hesitant about it because it’s a quasi-steampunk-fantasy-ish story and that’s just generally not my jam.

But you know what is my jam? Circuses, apparently. After a brief fantasy-grade backstory with, like, a church and an involuntary student and some amber that does stuff or whatever, said student, Leisl, runs off to join a travelling circus and it is the awesomest. This circus is, like, literally a travelling circus, in that all of the buildings are built on wheels and as it travels the members go to visit each other by hopping from one precarious perch to another. So cool! But behind that delightful circusy surface, of course, lies danger and intrigue, as the circus may not be exactly what it seems…

This story serves as a sort of prequel to a full-length novel coming out… soon?… from the same authors, so it ends up a bit packed full of tidbits that don’t make a lot of sense because I presume they’ll be explained later, but the atmosphere of the book is so fantastic that I will probably check out that novel whenever it arrives.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
NimonaIf you run in the same internet circles I do, you have been bombarded by the exclamation “NIMONAAAA!” for the last approximately ever. I finally got the book into my library recently, checked it out, and read it on a quiet vacation Saturday. And it was wonderful.

Nimona is, unsurprisingly, about a girl called Nimona, who shows up at the lair of an evil villain and basically bullies her way into being his sidekick. He’s hesitant at first about her literal take-no-prisoners attitude and propensity for rushing headlong into danger without even a plan, but she wins him over with her awesome shapeshifter abilities and general adorableness. As the story progresses, you get to find out more about both Nimona’s and the villain’s backstories and the weird world that they live in that allows for things like evil villains in the first place. It’s alternately hilarious, depressing, and intriguing. Also, the art is amazing, with this neat sort of active line style that makes it seem like Nimona’s just constantly bathed in caffeine while everyone else is practically statuesque.

It was a super fun time and while I’m not quite shouting “NIMONAAAA!” from the rooftops, you should definitely check it out if you like neat, moderately subversive fantasy stories.

I Crawl Through It, by A.S. King

I Crawl Through ItTrue story: I am so on board the A.S. King train that when I saw a pile of advance copies of this book at the library conference I went to this summer, I snagged one immediately, even though I already had a digital advance copy and basically no plans to read it in print. It’s just so pretty! And it’s by A.S. King! I wants it!

When I finally did get around to reading it, entirely digitally, I was… confused. I haven’t read all of King’s books (a situation to be rectified indeed!), but all of the ones I have read have followed a similar pattern: normal teenager, normal but slightly heavy teenager problems, weird magical realism element that may or may not directly affect the plot or story.

But in this book, and King acknowledges as much in the, um, acknowledgements (haaa), it’s all the weird, all the time, and it’s more like magical surrealism.

The main character, Stanzi, is our more or less normal teenage girl with unspecified-at-the-outset normal teenage problems. Her friends, on the other hand, are super weird. Gustav is building an invisible helicopter that Stanzi can only see on Tuesdays. China walks around literally (figuratively? figuratively literally?) inside out hoping maybe someone will ask her why. Lansdale has hair that grows when she lies, and so has very very very long hair. Also, there is a dude who hangs out in the bushes giving away crafted letters (like, As and Js and Qs and the like) in exchange for kisses and possibly other things.

So, weird people. Also weird situations. These teens go to a school where someone is calling in bomb threats every day, so the kids are constantly doing bomb-threat drills, and when they’re not wandering in and out of the building due to potential bombs they are taking standardized tests because that’s how the high schools do. And that helicopter I mentioned? Gustav and Stanzi end up taking a ride in it to a land of geniuses from which there are no departures.

And, let me be clear, I have not named all the weird things in this book. It is weird. But it’s also, as is to be expected from King’s books, a smart look into the lives of teenagers. All of the characters have their issues, and with those issues a need both to hide them and to share them with everyone else. But everyone else is so busy with their own issues that there’s not time to play those games until it’s nearly too late. Oh, teenagerhood, how I do not miss you. Of course, the parents in this book are all at least as weird as their kids, so that’s something to look forward to, I guess?

This is definitely not the book I was expecting, and I spent much of it with a look on my face approximating “What even is going on here?” But still it was fun and fascinating and it’s A.S. King so it was wonderfully written and I would definitely not recommend this as your first King book but if you’ve liked her others you will like this one.

Now to go work on her backlist some more until her next book comes out!

Recommendation: For lovers of the superest of super weirdness.

Rating: 8/10

Love is the Drug, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Love is the DrugI had picked this book up as an advance copy at last year’s ALA conference because, I mean, that cover, but it went straight into the teen giveaway box and not into my grubby little hands. But after the umpteenth time the internets told me good things about it, I was like, fine, internets, I will read this book.

And I’m glad I did! I was disappointed that the book wasn’t quite the suspenseful thriller I was promised, but when I eventually figured that out, I started liking it a lot more.

See, what happens is, a teenage girl called Bird goes to a fancy-pants networking party at a classmate’s house, talks some dangerous talk around some CIA-type dude, and then wakes up eight days later to find out that she apparently got both super drunk and super high and got herself in a car accident. CIA dude, Roosevelt, is rather pointedly wondering if perhaps she remembers anything from that night, and in fact she does — but what she remembers doesn’t quite match up with what he’s telling her.

So Bird starts asking around, trying to figure out what really happened, while meanwhile a terrorist-spread flu virus is taking down city after city around the world and her drug-dealer friend is hiding from the cops because he’s accused of giving Bird whatever made her so high and also Bird is just trying to make it through senior year in the hopes that there will be a college for her to go to next fall.

Oh, and, love triangle. Ish. It’s not a terrible one but it still made me roll my eyes quite often.

I enjoyed the story a lot, and I very much wanted to know what Bird knew and why anyone wanted to know it as well and what exactly was up with her parents and their top-secret everything. I liked the DC setting a lot, including the juxtaposition between Bird at fancy private school and Bird at “home” with her uncle in the decidedly-not-fancy part of DC and Bird with her various rich and scholarship friends at school. There’s a definite focus on class and race and especially what it means to be Black and how much presentation matters in being taken seriously.

Things I didn’t like include the ending, which is practically epilogue-ish in its efforts to tie everything up in a pretty bow, and the fact that so much of this entire story could have been avoided if only people would just freaking talk to each other. On the plus side, the lack of communication is actually well done and feels different depending on who is failing to communicate. Bird just really really needs to get new friends. And parents. And probably enemies.

So, all around, a pretty good book! I’ll definitely be checking out more from this author in the future.

Recommendation: For fans of teens solving problems and getting into fairly dangerous situations in the process.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Tiny Cooper and Terry Pratchett

Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story, by David Levithan
Hold Me CloserTrue story: I almost didn’t read the adorable and wonderful Will Grayson, Will Grayson, because I didn’t want to deal with Tiny Cooper. And yet, when I saw this ridiculously shiny book coming out earlier this year, I was like, yeeeeeah I’m totally going to read that.

Hold Me Closer is, I guess, Tiny’s draft of the big gay musical he puts on during Will Grayson, Will Grayson, with all the songs and talking but also little notes about how Tiny sees particular scenes going and jabs at Will’s love life. The musical itself is great and pretty realistic for a teenager’s first musical — the songs are obviously not professionally written but are pretty darn good, and the content is infused with that hopefulness that teenagers have in spades.

And Tiny is a wonderful character, full of self-confidence and self-doubt alike as he navigates his childhood and the wonders of dating and friendships and family life as you get older. Even if you are not a large gay teenager, you will still relate to a lot of the ideas of this book.

I’m not sure if you could get away with reading just this and not Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but you should read the original book anyway so why not do both?

A Slip of the Keyboard, by Terry Pratchett
A Slip of the KeyboardAnother true story: It took me five whole months to get through this book. To be fair, I started off reading one short essay per day, and then kind of completely forgot about the whole thing, and then came back to it and read it much more quickly. I think you can read it either way — slowly parceled out or in huge gulps — and still have a fine time with Sir Terry.

This was kind of a weird book for me to have picked up, really, as I’ve only read three of Pratchett’s books, all fiction, and this is a book of non-fiction essays whose only commonality is that Pratchett wrote them. So there are essays about books and reading and fantasy and science fiction and all those great things, but there are also introductions to books I know nothing about and asides about books of Pratchett’s I’ve not read yet and essays about weird Christmas things and nuclear power plants and stuff. I feel like I probably needed at least five more of Pratchett’s books under my belt before attempting this.

But it was still pretty darn good! And the reason I blazed through it at the end is that I got to the section where Pratchett rants about Alzheimer’s and how it’s a terrible thing, and you need not have any of his books in your house to agree with that sentiment. You may not agree with his stance on assisted death, on the other hand, but in these essays he’s clearly done his research and it’s fascinating to see the various opinions in this debate.

All in all I would definitely recommend this more to Pratchett mega-fans, but even if you’re not you’ll make it through all right.

Girl Defective, by Simmone Howell

Girl DefectiveI came upon this book as a “readers also enjoyed” for the cute Life in Outer Space, but I think the only thing connecting these two books is that they’re both set in Australia, so… cool! I like Australia. You can cuddle koalas there (well, only in Queensland).

This book is not about cuddling koalas. Sadly. This book is about a teenager called Sky, doing teenager-y things and thinking teenager-y thoughts and trying to survive teenager-hood as best she can while things are going crazy around her. Her mother’s gone off to be a rock star in Japan, her father’s physically present with her in St. Kilda but is drunk all the time so maybe less emotionally present, and her younger brother has decided to deal with all this by donning a pig snout mask and playing detective. Yay?

Meanwhile, Sky’s BFF is acting weirder than usual and a mysterious new guy comes to town and is quickly hired into Sky’s dad’s record store. Also there’s a brick through the store window and a dead girl and a rising music god who may have slept with half of Melbourne, at least.

There’s not really a plot, exactly, outside of Sky’s brother sort of working on solving the brick-through-the-window mystery and Sky sort of working on solving the existential mystery of the dead girl. But surprisingly, I really got into this story that is essentially just a couple weeks in the life of regular, boring teenager.

I liked seeing the world through Sky’s eyes and that she saw her family and friends as fully dysfunctional human beings. I liked that she had the opportunity to make dumb decisions and smart ones and reap the consequences of both.

There was some weirdness throughout the novel, though, that just didn’t resonate with me, and I’m not sure exactly what it was. Perhaps the strange focus on the dead girl mystery that doesn’t really go anywhere, or the pains taken to make all of the plot threads come together in the end for no apparent reason, or the way questions come up and never quite get answered. None of these are bad, exactly, and probably they’re at least partly intentional, but it just didn’t work for me.

On the plus side, Australia!

Recommendation: For fans of Australia and thinky teenagers and very thin plots.

Rating: 7/10

Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenSo continues my love affair with Elizabeth Wein. If she could just write YA fiction about every historical event, ever, I would know SO MUCH world history. I managed to learn new things about World War II in her first two books, but this book absolutely astounded me with all the history I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

See, it turns out that there were not one, but two wars between Ethiopia and Italy, one at the end of the 19th century and one right before the start of World War II. In fact, the second Italo-Ethiopian war may have helped give Hitler the confidence to go invade all the places, because it showed that the League of Nations was really bad at its job. Italy didn’t even bother pretending to play nice, bringing in planes to fight against spear-carriers and dropping mustard gas in spite of a little thing called the Geneva Convention.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Emilia and Teo, the respective children of White Raven and Black Dove, an interracial female barnstorming duo. Emilia’s dad is Italian, Teo’s dad was Ethiopian, and they and their parents lived together in the US until Teo’s mother died in a plane accident. Teo’s mother had wanted everyone to move to Ethiopia, where Teo and Emilia could play together without all the wonderful US racism, so when that option presents itself, Emilia’s mother moves everyone over. Then the war starts, slowly but surely, and things go very wrong.

The novel is written sort of end-first, opening with a letter from Emilia to Haile Selassie begging for a passport for Teo after these very wrong things have happened. Then, through essays and “flight logs” and diary entries we get the full story.

In that story lies all the learning stuff. There’s lots of history, of course, but also quite a bit of sociology. There’s talk about religion and spirituality and their role in each character’s life, and there’s also a look into the prejudices of society. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at racism and sexism and classism in both the US and Ethiopia at this time and see how they intersect. And then of course there’s flying and action and adventure and it’s all so exciting!

I do have to admit that the diary conceit only just barely holds this novel together, as I found myself constantly thinking, “Wait, why is she showing all of this stuff to the emperor? How does she think this particular story is going to get Teo a passport? How is she remembering all this heavy dialogue with such accuracy?” I like the immediacy and intimacy of the diary conceit, and I think Wein does great things with it, but it definitely needed a better frame story.

But, whatever, I loved the heck out of this book and I found myself between breaks thinking, “I hope everyone’s okay! I hope no one dies! Someone’s going to die, but I hope it’s not anyone I’ve grown fond of!” My coworker did not quite understand my concern, but I’m sure some of you do! I cannot wait to see what Wein’s got up her sleeve next.

Recommendation: For fans of Wein’s other work (Code Name Verity I love you!) and also history and planes and excitement.

Rating: 9/10

Life in Outer Space, by Melissa Keil

Life in Outer SpaceI’ve been in the mood lately for a cute, quirky, romance book like Attachments, but I cannot for the life of me find anything remotely like it. Attachments is basically an adorable YA romance except starring adults, and this is somehow not a thing and I need someone to get on that, because I will give you all my dollars. Well, my library’s dollars. But dollars nonetheless!

Anyway, Goodreads offered me Life in Outer Space as a “Readers Also Enjoyed” to Attachments and I was like, nerd boy, Warcraft, Australia, you can stop there I’ve already started reading this book. It’s not the same — it’s an actual YA novel with teens and stuff and it doesn’t tug the same unrequited-love heartstrings — but it’s pretty darn good.

Our protagonist, Sam, is a teenage boy who more or less has high school figured out. He’s got his friends, he’s got his enemies, he’s got a place to eat lunch that isn’t the lunchroom where his enemies eat, and he’s pretty sure he can coast on this for the next couple years. But then, of course, new girl Camilla comes in and completely upends Sam’s life. She’s super popular right from the start, and therefore an enemy, but she plays Warcraft and likes spending time with Sam and his friends, so she’s… a friend? This is clearly way too complicated. Even worse, the rest of Sam’s life refuses to stay the course, leaving him with friends and family drama that was absolutely not part of his schedule for the year. Luckily Camilla’s there for him, all the time, whenever he needs her. She’s a great friend, but totally just a friend. Totally.

I am surprised that I hadn’t heard about this book earlier, because it is so completely in the John Green oeuvre that is super duper popular these days. Sam and his friends are nerd kids who use big words and wax moderately philosophical on a regular basis, Sam’s love interest is an enigmatic new girl prone to grand gestures and with problems of her own, and the various parents of the book are around and dramaful themselves but don’t get much in the way of the story. It is also comprised of several wildly improbable elements held together with just enough realism that you think, yeah, I totally want my bff/quasi-love interest to orchestrate for me a weird scavenger hunt from another continent. This is a thing that will happen.

It’s a ridiculous book, and I found myself so often being like, no, stop it, this is seriously ridiculous, what are you doing, but it was still super fun and decently cute, love-story-wise, though that part doesn’t happen until way late in the novel. And I loved the author’s sentences, even the crazy ones, so I will definitely be on the lookout for the US version of her second book, which seems like it should be even cuter and nerdier than this one. Score!

Recommendation: For John Green fans, nerds, people pining for Australia.

Rating: 8/10