A Sense of the Infinite by Hilary T. Smith

2017
08.15



“I had known Noe for only ten minutes, but already I could feel that protecting her would give me a purpose, give my tortured energy somewhere to go…I could be a normal human as long as I was interacting with Noe.”  Shy, awkward freshman Annabeth found a best friend and savior in Noe, a vivacious gymnast whose social capital kept them both afloat through high school.  Now it’s senior year and their solid friendship is starting to falter. Even though she would much rather be camping or hiking, Annabeth joins the gymnastics team and reluctantly strikes up a bantering relationship with Noe’s boyfriend Steven just to keep Noe close. But Noe continues to pull away, spending more time with the “gym birds” and deciding to apply to a different college. As Annabeth struggles with the legacy of a brutal family secret, a possible eating disorder and the consequences of one romantic night, she realizes she needs a real friend to help her get through it. But after closing herself off for so long, can Annabeth find the strength to trust someone new? This character-driven, emotionally intense tale about the slow uncoupling of a friendship will hit way too close to home if you’ve ever lost a BFF to time, distance, or someone else. Hilary T. Smith has only written two novels, and each one is a complex, lyrically written examination of a human being struggling to understand her place in the world against huge emotional odds. Prepare to be devastated, in the best way possible.

Berserker by Emmy Laybourne

2017
08.05


In a small village in Norway in 1883, Hanne and her three siblings live a hardscrabble life. Their hopeless father drinks away what little money he makes from butchering, and their mother left long ago. There is no time for school, play or friendships. It is up to Hanne, and her brothers Steig and Knut, to keep the family farm afloat and care for their frail youngest sister Sissel. All of this would be difficult enough, but Hanne’s family also carries the burden of being Nytteson, descendants of ancient Vikings who are each blessed (or damned) with a special power. Knut is a stout Oar-Breaker, a strongman who can lift and carry many times his own weight. Steig is a Storm-Rend who can control the temperature and winds. And Hanne is a Berserker, a fearless warrior whose senses and physical strength become so heightened when anyone in her family is threatened that she can effortlessly kill grown men with her bare hands. And that is exactly what happens when a group of angry village men come to collect on her father’s gambling debt. Horrified at what she has done, Hanne flees and books passage to America with her brothers and sister in hopes of finding a distant Berserker cousin who may be able to train her to tame her deadly gift. On their way out West, they meet Owen Bennett, a kind young cowboy who offers to be their wilderness guide, and things finally begin to look up for the cursed family. But what they don’t know is that they are being pursued by the law in both countries, and by a mysterious scholar who holds the key to both their prosperity and their DOOM. Folks, I don’t mean to overstate my love here, but this shockingly original book is a full-on UNICORN. This singularly unique reading experience combines super-cool settings, real history and and jaw-dropping action sequences in a way that that is as rare as a pearl in an oyster and just as perfect. I have really enjoyed the author’s other books, but this is some next-level stuff. Darn you, Emmy Laybourne! You have spoiled the rest of my summer reading stack! You’ll be able to take this one-of-a-kind read for a spin yourself when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

2017
07.27


High school senior Justyce McAllister is feeling the heat of being an African American man in 2017. The news is full of stories of unarmed black men being shot by white cops. He’s arrested by a police officer for just walking down the street, when all he was doing was trying to keep his drunk ex-girlfriend from getting behind the wheel of her car. He gets dragged into a frustrating racial argument in his Societal Evolution class with classmates who believe in “colorblindness.” Disgruntled students at his exclusive private school suggest that the only reason Justyce got into Yale was to “fill a quota.” On top of all that, he’s also fighting a strong attraction to his debate partner Sarah Jane, who is smart, funny….and white. Life is becoming beyond complicated, so Justyce seeks out the wisdom of the one person he thinks might understand what he’s going through: Martin Luther King. In a series of poignant letters to Dr. King, Justyce tries to understand why “things aren’t as equal as folks say they are” and how he can keep moving forward when it seems like the whole system is bent on pushing him back. The writing helps, a little. But when Justyce’s world explodes at the end of a gun, his belief in MLK’s philosophy is shattered. Will he answer violence with violence or will he find the strength to rise above and be like Martin? Nic Stone’s debut novel reads like a timely fictional primer of the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the frank and authentic dialogues that takes place between Justice, his friends and teachers like Dr. Dray, who teaches Societal Evolution. The topical, provocative discussions that take place in Dr. Dray’s class immediately took me back to the heated arguments that reverberated in Ms. Lemry’s Comtemporary American Thought class in Chris Crutcher‘s YA classic Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Like Crutcher before her, Nic Stone is writing about the issues a new generation of teens care about in a raw voice that is undeniably true. You won’t be able to look away. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2017.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

2017
07.06



Welcome to Reading Rants: Summer Reading Edition! I decided to re-read Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, partially because of this NYC reading challenge When the winning book turned out to be one I had recently  devoured, I took a dive into ATGIB instead because a) I found this pretty, pretty paperback edition and b) I read it years ago and I had completely forgotten the plot. (Just wait, kids. Memory loss STINKS.)

ATGIB is in many ways a perfect summer read, that I know for a fact is probably on many of your school summer reading lists. It’s a perceptive, immersive examination of the childhood and adolescence of Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in the impoverished neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 1912-1918. Based on Smith’s own life, Francie is an innocent idealist trying to make sense of a harsh world. The title comes from Francie’s fascination with a “Tree of Heaven” that grows outside her fire escape, a hardy species my grandma used to call a “weed tree” that can survive almost anywhere. Even though her father is an alcoholic singing waiter and her mother a stoic washerwoman who together barely make enough money to pay for rent and food, Francie takes great delight in little things in life like the pleasure of a bag of penny candy and a library book. The family endures many hardships, but Smith lightens the tragedy with great scenes of comic relief, like the time Papa decides to take Francie, her brother and a neighbor’s child on a doomed fishing expedition off the Carnarsie Pier, or when Aunt Sissy, a serial bigamist, insists on calling each of her husbands “John” even if that’s not their name. Even though Francie is made sadder and wiser by cruel classmates, a terrifying encounter with a child molester, the loss of a beloved family member and a young soldier who falsely promises his undying love, she never loses her zest for life or her devotion to her beloved Brooklyn, which takes on an unreal quality as she grows older: “Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?” If you crave a deep, rich historical read that will transport you to another time and place while simultaneously revealing universal human truths, then you’ll want to plop yourself right under this TREE.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

2017
06.20



In the late teens and early 1920’s, many young American women were thrilled to find paying work outside the home in factories that sprang up in the wake of WWI. Two of these factories, Radium Luminous Materials in Newark, New Jersey and the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, manufactured glow-in-the-dark wristwatches. The factories employed young women, many of them starting when they were teenagers, to delicately hand paint the watch faces with incandescent paint made with radium powder. Though scientists knew that the radioactive element could destroy human tissue and it was used in the fight against cancer, it was also considered a wonder drug that could cure anything from “hay fever…to constipation.” While the girls were elated just to be in the presence of the expensive substance (which sold for $120,000 a gram), it didn’t hurt that the jobs also paid handsomely. Because the radium powder was so expensive, the girls were admonished to use it sparingly. But the powder scattered everywhere when they tried to mix it with the paint, settling on their skin, clothes and hair, which all glowed in the dark when they got home. They also got paint in their mouths from licking the thin brushes in order to make them fine-tipped enough to paint the tiny numbers.  It was fun when their clothes and teeth shone in the dark, and with all the money they were making, they could afford the latest stylish clothes, go to parties after work and enjoy being young. Until, one by one, they all began to sicken…and die, many before they reached thirty.

This is the true story of several of the women who fatally suffered from radium poisoning the 1920’s and their efforts to sue the companies that not only made them sick but refused to admit that radium was poisonous. Kate Moore‘s poignant, sympathetic work reads like a legal medical thriller as she dives deep into the lives and families of the women who were affected and chronicles their heart breaking attempts to hold the companies accountable. Shockingly, one of the companies didn’t even consider testing the ill women until the first MALE scientist died as a result of radium poisoning. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, another tragedy where workplace safety was compromised when it came to female laborers. Radium Girls is for anyone interested in women’s history, medical mysteries, labor laws or courtroom dramas, because this story has it ALL!

Something New by Lucy Knisley

2017
05.21


Not being a big fan of weddings in general, it took me awhile to pick up Lucy Knisley‘s charming graphic memoir about her own wedding experience. What I should have remembered is that Knisley has a knack for drawing me in to whatever she’s drawing (pun intended)–whether it’s food, travel or family, and Something New was no exception. In her usual small, tidy trademark style, Knisley lovingly chronicles the year leading up to her wedding in upstate New York, warts and all. She details arguments with her mom, worries about the budget and ambivalence towards the whole idea of a traditional wedding. She also describes her shining love for her fiancé, John, the thrill of finally finding the right, simple dress and the joy of making your own decorations. What I liked best about this book was Knisley’s honest examination of conventional wedding components and her pleasure in subverting each one. In the end, Knisley created an heartfelt account of her unique experience that also managed to feel universally human. Teen peeps, while you may not be at the point of  planning a wedding yourself, you can still enjoy Knisely’s quirky adventures in dress shopping, family drama and DIY reception crafting. And it also makes a great gift to bring to all those weddings you’re going to be dragged to this summer!

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Andrea Offerman

2017
05.14


Yvain, a little (ish) known knight from the court of King Arthur, wishes for adventure and gets more than he bargained for when he kills a local lord in battle and then promptly falls for the dead lord’s lady, Laudine. Luckily he is saved from this uber-awkward situation by Laudine’s maid, Lunette, who convinces her lady with logic to marry the lovelorn knight. But Yvain messes up royally again when he fails to return from adventuring by the deadline Laudine has set for him. Cast out of her castle, he roams the countryside seeking a way to win his lady’s heart back, encountering dragons, giants, and demons, and picking up a  pet lion in the process. With an emphasis on the importance and wisdom of the women who help school naive Yvain in the ways of the world, this sumptuous medieval graphic novel has a distinctively 21st century feel. Yvain’s journey is lushly illustrated by artist Andrea Offerman, who’s detailed watercolor & ink panels beautifully convey the opulence of the medieval courts and the dusty green of the mythical English countryside. My only quibble was that some panels were far too small to capture the lavish action captured within. Fans of Anderson’s rich historical fiction will enjoy this attractive venture into a new format, and can continue their exploration of King Arthur’s court by checking out Excaliber: The Legend of King Arthur and Here Lies Arthur.

Thornhill by Pam Smy

2017
05.11


Two eerie tales intertwine in this gorgeously illustrated gem. Mary’s story unfolds through the pages of her diary, dated the spring and summer of 1982. An orphan, Mary lives with several other girls and their caretakers at the Thornhill Institute, where she is terrorized by another girl so malicious that she won’t even write her name in her journal. Mary avoids her tormentor by escaping to her room, where she reads voraciously and makes jointed dolls out of cloth and clay. But when the bullying crosses over into cruelty, Mary finally stands up for herself, with tragic results. Meanwhile, Ella’s story, told entirely in pictures and set in 2017, presents her move into a new house, where her bedroom window gives her a direct view into the overgrown back garden of the old, condemned Thornhill Institute. After seeing the figure of a girl in the trees, Ella sneaks over the barbed wire wall to try and find her. Instead, she finds a series of broken dolls, that slowly lead her to an attic room in crumbling Thornhill where she uncovers the terrible secret of what happened to Mary all those years ago. This creepy-cool take on a traditional ghost story will give you chills even on the hottest days of summer, and is perfect for fans of Brian Selznik and Shaun Tan. Coming to a library or bookstore near you August 2017.

Be True to Me by Adele Griffin

2017
04.09


I don’t know about you teen peeps, but when the April thermometer stays stubbornly in the 30’s and 40’s and I’m ready for warmer weather, there’s no better antidote than sending myself to a steamy place via a book. And Adele Griffin‘s delicious new title about a love triangle set on Fire Island during the sultry summer of 1976 more than fits the bill! Jean Custis can’t stand “slinky, scrappy” Fritiz O’Neill, and it’s not just because Fritz had the nerve to beat her in Sunken Haven’s Junior tennis tournament last year. It’s because Fritz O’Neill doesn’t belong, she’s not a “Sunkie,” and never will be as far as Jean and many of the other Sunken Haven families are concerned. Fritz O’Neill doesn’t think much about Jean Custis, the cool, smooth girl with wealth and connections to spare that she beat in tennis last summer. The gorgeous, raspy-voiced Army brat is much more concerned with having the best summer of her life getting over the quarterback who broke her heart. When both stone foxes set their hearts on Gil Burke, a new edition to an old Sunkie family and a “real Ryan O’Neal type,” the heat is turned up on their simmering competition. Then a senseless tragedy gives each girl a raw, sorrowful understanding of what’s really important. Told in alternate, first-person chapters, Jean and Fritz emerge as complicated, fully realized characters, each full of burning desires and unfulfilled longings. And tortured Gil, as seen through the eyes of the girls who’ve fallen for him, is just as complex, navigating a world of wealth and privilege that he was born to but never allowed to take advantage of until now. Friends, I have fallen deeply for this juicy tome that feels like a inspired mash-up of all my warm weather favorites, including The Summer I Turned Pretty, Little Darlings, Nantucket Blue and Dirty Dancing, while still telling a timeless story about social class struggles in a groovy historical setting. It’s DYN-O-MITE! Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about this book is the title, which seems way too generic for such a hip historical fiction. Still, you’ll want to pack this book first in your beach bag or summer camp duffle when it sails into a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2017.

The Girl In Between by Sarah Carroll

2017
03.24


An unnamed girl in an anonymous city tells the story of her and her Ma, a homeless addict who tries to stay clean for her daughter but never quite succeeds. The girl and Ma move from tent to alley to abandoned building, constantly dodging the frightening Authorities in their official yellow vests. They are finally able to make a home in the overgrown and forgotten Castle, an old abandoned mill on the edge of the city. There, they set up a stopgap bedroom, ramshackle living room and even a makeshift kitchen. The girl feels safe, even though Ma says she must never go outside in case she is seen by the Authorities. So she spends her days reading school books Ma has brought home, spying on faraway apartments with her old binoculars and talking to the Caretaker, an old man who has also made his home in the shadow of the Castle. Then the ghost shows up, a mysterious presence that reminds the girl of the one terrible night Ma left her alone before they came to the mill.  Haunted by her own bleak memories, the girl must find a way to remember what happened that night so she can save Ma and herself from the ghost and their own grim futures. This  eerie, gritty debut blends suspense, survival and magical realism into a satisfyingly spooky stew that will keep readers guessing until the very last page. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you June 2017.

Contact

Jen Hubert Swan
Librarian, Book Reviewer,
Reading Addict
swampophelia27@yahoo.com