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

The Leveller, by Julia Durango

The LevellerFor all that I enjoyed this book, I have to admit one thing: I have no idea why it’s called The Leveller. I mean, yes, it’s called that because the main character is a “leveller”, but the connotations I have for that word are “someone who destroys” and “someone who levels up in video games” and neither of those describes what the main character actually does, which is get people to leave a video game world. This really super bothers me.

But if we’ll just take as a given that the title makes no sense, the rest of the book is pretty okay. It takes place in a world where Second Life (or OASIS, if you’re a Ready Player One fan) is neurologically based and people, like, have a little nap and go play in the video game world for four hours at a time, unless they have illicit cheat codes that let them stay longer. Our protagonist, Nixy, is a teenage girl who makes her money by going into the MEEP (because that’s totally what I would call my virtual reality) to drag other teenagers back to the real world and their really ticked off parents.

Then she is recruited by the inventor of the MEEP to go get his son back from a virtual reality world littered with traps that have terrified grown adults, and things only get worse from there. Nixy has to battle her phobias, enemy agents, and a creepy MEEP artifact called The Black — oh, and try to figure out the butterfly feelings she gets around the guy she’s trying to bring home.

There’s lots of action and adventure, is what I’m saying, and if this book is not already in production as a future summer movie I will be kind of shocked. There’s also a decent amount of worldbuilding, both literally in the MEEP and about the outside world where the MEEP has its own, possibly unintended consequences, but the story doesn’t really delve too far into any of that. Probably the sequel will, though, and yes, the ending pretty much requires a sequel to really finish up this story, which is a bit frustrating.

I thought I would hate the love story, which was prominently featured in the blurb I read about the book, but it was actually pretty okay, with a nice straight line instead of a triangle and only the requisite awkwardness of teenagers. What got me more was the part where a teenager was being asked to do this rescue mission that adults couldn’t — the reason for a rescue being needed is sufficiently explained but why they would ever send in a person without a fully formed frontal lobe is not.

But, regardless of the weirdness and plot holes, I enjoyed the heck out of the book. I read it in almost exactly two hours and was eager to get back to it any time I had to leave, because action and adventure was happening and I didn’t want to miss it! If that sequel happens I will definitely be getting my hands on it and hoping that it doesn’t go too off the rails.

Recommendation: For fans of dystopian worlds who want something with a little less death involved, I think.

Rating: 8/10

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenThis book and I have a bit of a history together. I first heard about it before it came out, when John Green (a college friend of Riggs) was spreading massive love for the book around the internets. Then it came out, and there was tons more love all over the place, but I was busy doing who knows what and didn’t get around to reading it. Then I was at my favorite beach book store maybe a year ago, and I was like, I want to buy books from you, what should I buy. This book ended up coming home with me but remained unread until my book club picked it to read. (Technically, my copy is still unread as I started reading the book on my Kindle and never switched over.)

And so maybe it’s the fact that I’ve known about this book and its fans for so long, that perhaps I had built up the awesome in my head too far, that I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to, for sure. It’s a book with a precocious kid who essentially finds out that magic is real, and also there’s bad guys and time travel, and really this book seems like a slam dunk. But it just… wasn’t.

If you also haven’t managed to read this book, the plot is thus: precocious kid has a grandfather who told him wild stories about his childhood that turned out to be pretty obviously made up when kid became teen. Grandfather becomes senile, thinks monsters are after him, dies horribly at the hands of what teen sees as, in fact, monsters, kid goes into therapy, therapist recommends a visit to the island grandfather told teen to visit with his last words, teen goes, discovers hidden time pocket where grandfather’s stories are true and grandfather’s childhood friends are still living as teens themselves, bad guys discover same pocket, teen and very old teens work together to defeat the bad guys.

This seems great! In fact, like Scarlett Undercover, my teen self would probably have devoured this book in minutes and loved it.

But cranky adult me sees what Riggs is doing and wishes he had done it better. The driving force behind this book is a set of pictures that Riggs collected that show mostly kids doing weird things — floating, lifting boulders, looking much older than they are, etc. These pictures became the titular peculiar children, and the pictures are actually printed in the book, which is cool but also annoying because you know every time a picture is coming because Riggs says something like, “I remember this girl, there was that picture where she was holding a chicken and there’s a long drawn-out explanation why she had a chicken so let me tell you what that is,” and I just don’t care. I don’t care why this girl is holding a chicken, I care about the fact that chicken girl and everyone else is in a time loop and also in trouble! This plot is interesting, let’s talk more about it!

The writing is also kind of confusing, with conflicting information given about the kids’ powers and the rules of the time loop and whatever, and everyone that’s not the main kid and his crush object get short shrift on character development. The dad is especially a letdown, since you can see where he could have been really integral to the plot but instead he gets left behind to drink all the beer while his kid goes off and has adventures.

Basically I think this book would have been better if it were Hollow Earth, which has weird stuff well explained and lots of characters with actual character. But again, teen me would have loved it anyway, so there’s clearly no accounting for taste.

Recommendation: For readers seeking weirdness that comes with pictures and those who appreciate the “kids with absent parents” part of most children’s books.

Rating: 5/10

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1I had heard absolutely nothing but love and fangirl-ing over this comic series, so well before it was available to order I bugged my local comic shop to put the first volume on my pull list. Eventually, it was orderable, and eventually, it came in, and then I set everything aside and dove in! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to devour it in one sitting, and after reading the first two issues I was like, what the junk, I do not understand the love for this series outside of its delightful catchphrases.

So, there’s this camp, right, for Lumberjanes, who are kind of like Girl Scouts but different, I guess, and the series follows the campers of one particular cabin who are wont to leave their counselor behind and wander off on adventuresome adventures and exclaim exclamations like, “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?” But it’s definitely not your normal camp, as we find out on the third page of the first issue when we are suddenly introduced to creepy three-eyed wolves and enigmatic phrases. The second issue is much the same, with a canoe trip cut short by a three-eyed river monster and the discovery of a creepy cave. Goody? Things may also not have been helped by the fact that the issues are bracketed by pages from the Lumberjanes manual, which is made of text and so therefore I read it and hoo boy is there some terrible writing in those pages. I kind of couldn’t even.

After a night away from the book and the campers, I came back with trepidation to at least finish out this book I paid good money for. Strangely, this time around I thought the book was pretty awesome! Possibly this is because of changed expectations and less thorough reading of manual pages, possibly it actually gets significantly better. I think it gets better, because actual explainable (well…) stuff starts happening, like the fact that the cave is booby-trapped and the girls have to work together to get out of it, and then we meet Boy Scouts Scouting Lads who are not quite what they seem and these are storylines I know what to do with. We also get to know the individual girls better over the course of four issues and so I was better able to care about them and their exploits. I’m usually a fan of in medias res, but I could really have used at least one smidgen of knowledge to start this book off right.

On the plus side, now that I’m through with this volume I can see that things are exciting and crazy and I very much want to know what happens next. I’m not sure I could take this in single issues, though, so I’ll just be waiting patiently here for the next collection and working on my Pungeon Master badge.

Recommendation: For ladies who have ever gone to camp and fans of rad girls doing rad things.

Rating: 8/10

Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

The Shadow Cabinet, by Maureen Johnson

The Shadow CabinetHas it really been two years since I read The Madness Underneath? Am I going to have to wait another two years to see how this ends?? Things are getting crazy up in this series and I don’t think I can handle it.

If you haven’t read the series, seriously, start with the first book, read the three existing books as fast as possible, and then come back here. If you read on without doing so, I can’t promise you won’t be spoiled to the best parts of the first books.

This book starts off right where the last one left off, with an upsettingly dead person. Sad face! Rory and Co. are pretty sure the UDP is a ghost now and decide to go track UDP down, but they’re already pretty busy looking for the crazy Jane Quaint and Rory’s kidnapped classmate Charlotte. Then Rory, in the midst of breaking all the rules, meets a new ghost-seer with a wealth of information about London and ghosts and even secret society conspiracy theories that are totally just wacko theories except perhaps they’re not? Meanwhile, we get the back story on crazy Jane, who helped a pair of twins murder a bunch of people in an attempt to beat death, which twins are totally dead but possibly not for long.

This book is nuts, but still awesome because Maureen Johnson does not know how to write a not-awesome sentence or a not-awesome Rory. Rory is the best, guys, even if she is incredibly terrible at following rules. And I am super-interested in all the new characters Johnson introduces and what they’re going to do in the next, last book.

This book also introduces a lot of that intrigue and subterfuge that I like, and even though I felt like things were going a little off the rails, plot-wise (Secret societies! Magic stones! Cults of personality! People who are only mostly dead!), I was still totally interested in how everything was going to play out, and it played out quite nicely. The ending was even sufficiently creepy without resorting to killing people I like! Very excellent.

Recommendation: For those who like ghost stories with subterfuge.

Rating: 8/10