The Loophole by Naz Kutub

Are any of you surprised that I was very excited to get the chance to read a queer love story with fantasy elements?

The Loophole
by Naz Kutub

Bloomsbury, 2022

ISBN 978-1547609178

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Sayyed – who goes by Sy at his coffee shop job for accessibility reasons – has just about exhausted the patience of his best friend, the buff and sparkly Dzakir, with his constant mooning over his ex-boyfriend.  As the story opens, though, he sees a young woman crash into the door and slide down it.  When he’s the only one to help her instead of taking photos, she grants him three wishes.  Once he’s convinced that she can actually grant some of them – and his abusive father finally finds out that he’s gay and kicks him out –  he decides track down his love, Farouk, and try to win him back.  Farouk hasn’t been in contact with either Sayyed or his own family, but the mysterious benefactor, Reggie, is sure that by following the last traces left on his social media posts, they’ll be able to find him.  

This leads to a world journey, starting with traveling to London from California and continuing on to multiple other countries.  Along the way, we see Sayyed’s deep attachment to Farouk, symbolized by the ring he hasn’t taken off even after the breakup.  But we also see their earlier relationship, from first dating to supporting each other and then Farouk’s growing depression. And during the travels, Sayyed has to deal with not only the prejudice against his being gay from his family, but also wide-spread difficulties in travel as a young Muslim-appearing man. 

These grim moments are balanced with plenty of humor, much of it coming from Reggie, who is impulsive and over-the-top, partly as a result of her hard-drinking, high-adventure lifestyle.    And in between Sayyed’s past and present, we get pieces of the ancient story of separated lovers Hamza and Delima, helped by a djinn to find each other in the underworld. This story sheds some light on the question of whether Reggie is just a rich heiress or a genie, and also foreshadows the ending of Sayyed’s story (at least for this book.)  

For despite the pink cover and Reggie’s slapstick antics, this is not a traditional romantic comedy. The ending is one that makes sense for the characters, but wasn’t the one I was hoping for.  Sayyed learns more about himself, what’s important to him, and how he himself contributed to the breakup, even if he doesn’t get the answers he thought he was looking for. This was a satisfying story, entertaining to read but with plenty of thoughtfulness and real-life difficulties behind the fantasy.  I look forward to reading more from Naz Kutub. 

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5 Stories of Adventure & Change

Sometimes adventure comes in the form of epic fantasy quests – but sometimes, it’s trying something new, making a goal happen, meeting someone new, or moving to a new neighborhood. Here are five wonderful picks perfect for summer reading for those who like their adventures on the realistic side.

Stories of Adventure & Change: 5 contemporary middle grade picks.  Includes covers of the Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung, Stand up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim, The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert, Ways to Grow Love by Renee Watson, and Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung. Levine Querido, 2020. ISBN 978-1646140114. Read from library copy. Audiobook available on Libby.

Matt (Korean-American) and Eric (white) have been friends since fourth grade.  Now they’re in middle school, and Matt has switched from playing flute, which he loved, to percussion, so he could sit near Eric in the back.  But Eric is going to be moving away at the end of the school year, and the boys come up with an elaborate plan to escape from the band competition at an amusement park to the comic con taking place at the same time nearby, where their favorite author will be signing his books.  

That plan is convoluted and precarious enough to be highly entertaining on its own, but the book is filled with so much more.  There are bullies who frustrate Matt and Eric by calling them gay as an insult – they aren’t gay, but there’s nothing wrong with being gay – and the bullies have secrets that keep them from being one-dimensional.  Matt’s parents are hippy, Unitarian Universalists who talk about mansplaining and social justice while eating kale and quinoa (guilty as charged!) This is a delightful and rare story that celebrates geekiness and male friendship. 

Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim. Kokila, March 2020. ISBN 978-0525554974. Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook available on Libby. 

Yumi lives in Los Angeles under the shadow of her big sister Yuri, a successful med school student.  Yumi’s expected to do the same, but she struggles at private school and secretly longs to study comedy, like her favorite young YouTube comedian Jasmine Jasper.  Yumi is also stressed about her family’s failing Korean barbeque restaurant.  Even though her parents are spending money they can’t afford to send her to hagwon – an expensive tutoring school – Yumi sneaks into a comedy summer camp for kids her age that’s happening close to the public library, where she’s supposed to be studying her algebra.  There she finds that another Asian student hasn’t shown up, and Yumi is able to take her place.  The summer camp is great – she makes good friends with two of the kids she meets there and improves her comedy skills.  But what will happen when all her lies come crashing down around her?  This is both hilarious and heartfelt, and should resonate with kids who dream of YouTube success.  

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert. Little, Brown, 2020. ISBN 978-0316456388. Read from library copy.

Alberta – Al – is a surfer girl growing up with her two dads in a mostly white California beach/tourist town. So far, she’s hung out with  fellow surfer Oliver Guzman and her BFF Laramie, and is tormented by fellow surfer girl Nicolette, who’s always saying that Alberta’s surfing awards aren’t earned and who unhappily lives right across the street.  Now, though, Laramie has inexplicably started spending more time with Nicolette than with Al.  So when a new girl who’s also Black moves into the B&B on the corner, Al is really hopeful that she might be a new friend.  Edie, though, is a black-clad New York City girl who feels way too cool for Al.  More change comes in the form of Al’s bio-mom, a good friend of her dads, coming to stay for a few months.  Into all this comes a mystery, as Edie and Al discover forgotten journals in the attic of the B&B and start to uncover a mystery about the previous owner.  In the process, both girls learn about what it means to be Black and how to fight society’s weird assumptions.  

Ways to Grow Love by Renée Watson. Bloomsbury, 2021. ISBN 9781547600588. Read from library copy. 

It’s the summer after fifth grade for Ryan Hart, and all the normal summer plans have been canceled due to her mom’s pregnancy.  There are not even enough library books to keep her occupied! Short, funny story arcs link together to form an album of summer memories – beating the boys at water balloon fight, getting up in the middle of the night and eating all the pickles in the house; the excitement of overnight church camp tempered with the unpleasantness of Ryan’s best friend Amanda inviting mean girl Red into their cabin, and the joys of picking out a name for her new baby sister.  This is just delicious, and would make a great family read-aloud or a book for advanced younger readers as well as for kids around the fourth and fifth grades.  

Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2022. ISBN 9780593379899. Read from library copy. 

Bo has lived alone with her mother in an apartment for as long as she can remember.  She hates school, but outside of that, she loves baking with her mother and babysitting for her young neighbor Dougie. 

Everything  changes when her mother remarries and moves both of them in with her new husband, Bill, who lives in a large brownstone with another family (Bill uses wheelchair.)  Bill has a daughter the same age as Bo, Sunday.  The other family has twin girls, Lee and Lil, also the same age. All the kids are “free schooling” and the household includes a menagerie of animals, including a dog, cats, a turtle, a bearded dragon, and a couple of chickens.  And while all of this is exciting and the other girls are eager to welcome Bo to their sisterhood, it’s also a lot for an introverted girl used to having her mother to herself.  Even as older dreams seem impossible, Bo pushes herself to start a new project with her sisters: organizing a block party that will celebrate Mum and Bill’s wedding (since they couldn’t afford a ceremony), hopefully help the neighborhood warm up to their rowdy household – and possibly even showcase the band the girls are putting together (even if the band is partly just to keep an old neighbor lady from complaining every time they practice different songs at the same time.)  

This story hearkens back to classic stories of large families, from All-of-a-Kind Family to the Penderwicks, while adding a refreshing Harlem setting, a modern blended family, and a celebration of Black history, culture and joy.  I loved every minute of it.  (And I loved that The Boys in the Back Row had a character reading Rhuday-Perkovich’s earlier book Two Naomis, while one of the girls here reads The Boys in the Back Row.)

Have you read any of these? Are there any you’d add to this list?

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Witchlings by Claribel Ortega

I loved Claribel Ortegas Ghost Squad, and was so excited to see a new books from her come out! This book reads slightly older, but still has an appealing mix of friendship, danger and magic.

Cover of Witchlings by Claribel Ortega

Witchlings
by Claribel A. Ortega

Scholastic, 2022.

ISBN 9781338745528.

Read from library copy. 

The biggest milestone for 12-year-old witchlings in the contemporary-feeling magical town of Ravenskill is being assigned to a coven at the Black Moon ceremony.  Seven Salazar and her best friend Poppy have long dreamed of being in Hyacinth Coven.  But on the fateful evening, only Poppy makes it into Hyacinth Coven, while Seven and two other girls are left-over Spares, doomed to have stunted magical powers and be left out of mainstream society for the rest of their lives.  

Without even consulting the two other girls – rich Valley Pepperhorn, who’s tormented Seven her whole life, and timid new girl Thorn Laroux – Seven invokes the Impossible Task, so that she and the other two girls can be granted full coven status and be allowed to keep using their magical powers.  But that leaves three girls with rudimentary magic skills who don’t know or trust each other to hunt down the fearsome Nightbeast that’s terrorizing Ravenskill and the nearby towns.  

The premise here felt a little bit flawed at first – why and how would a society decide to fail its young people out of the magical system even if they were competent magic users?  Why three children every year?  Did this make sense at some point in the past, or was it originally envisioned as a way to create a servant class?  But as I read, it seemed more and more that discovering the injustice in a system that was so familiar that Seven had never thought to question it before was the point. 

Besides this issue, the story was fantastic.  I loved Seven’s supportive parents and her giant baby brother, Beefy.  I enjoyed that the town was run by the Gran and the Uncle instead of a mayor, and that life in Ravenskill is filled with details both contemporary and magically whimsical (like toad racing), drawing the reader into it.  Seven’s struggles with friendship felt true to life, as she struggles to maintain her friendship with Poppy after they end up in different life situations, and has to learn to get along with and appreciate people she never would have chosen to associate with on her own.  Meanwhile, the plot is twisty and dangerous enough to make for an exciting read that stops just short of being too terrifying.  I’m look forward to reading many more books by Claribel Ortega! Dare I hope for more in this world?

For more stories of developing witches, try Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe and Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston.

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Chaos on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

Catfishing on Catnet was one of my favorite books of 2021, though I sadly never got around to reviewing it. Still, I was recently telling a friend about it, and that prompted me to go track down the second volume. I’m so glad I did! This review cannot avoid spoilers from the first book, though I tried my best.

Cover of Chaos on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

Chaos on Catnet
by Naomi Kritzer

Tom Doherty, 2021.

ISBN 9781250165220

Read from library copy. 

Steph is just getting started at a new high school in Minneapolis under her real name for the first time ever, after the events of Catfishing on Catnet. CheshireCat, the friendly AI who helped her, is stressed about an anonymous message it’s received. Steph’s classmate Nell has just been removed from a cult,  after the disappearance of first her mother and then her girlfriend, and is even more traumatized and skittish than Steph. 

But all is not well in Minneapolis, where tensions are rising despite some new community-building apps that everyone seems to be playing – and Nell notices that both the deeply conservative Christian app she used to use to contact her girlfriend and the Mischief Elves game (how fun does that sound?) the kids at school play have nearly the same interface.  Could it be coincidence that these are happening at the same time that CheshireCat has been contacted by what appears to be another, perhaps sinister, AI? 

As with Catfishing on Catnet, Kritzer balances the fast-paced plot, full of danger and twists, with deep and supportive friendships and an exploration of escape from an abusive situation – in this case, the difficulty of leaving a community that had felt like home, even after realizing that it was harmful.  But in the meantime, stopping the end times will require a lot of work on the part of CheshireCat and its teen friends – including CheshireCat inhabiting some robot dogs, giant snow sculptures, a valiant rescue, the shock of moving from a conservative household to a polyamorous one, a reimagined Minneapolis police force,  and a newly-met car-racing grandmother.

The first book in the duology won lots of awards, but I still feel like these books are underappreciated, at least at my library, considering how fabulous they are.  Y’all need to go read these, people, so maybe she’ll write more of them. 

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King also has visions of the near future dominated by religious extremism, while (in the same post) The Living by Matt de la Peña is another teen thriller with excellent character development.

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BLOG TOUR: Drifters by Kevin Emerson

I was first introduced to Emerson’s work with his Cybils finalist Last Day on Mars, and went on to read the rest of the series, so I was very excited to have a chance to participate in the blog tour for this book and share it with you, dear readers! 

Cover of Drifters by Kevin Emerson

Drifters
by Kevin Emerson.

Walden Pond Press, 2022.

ISBN 978-0062976963.

Review copy kindly sent by the publisher. 

About the Book

From the acclaimed author of the Chronicle of the Dark Star comes a riveting mystery, perfect for fans of Stranger Things, about a girl who sets out to find her missing best friend—and discovers her small town is hiding a dark, centuries-old secret.

Jovie is adrift. She’d been feeling alone ever since her best friend, Micah, left her behind for a new group of friends—but when Micah went missing last fall, Jovie felt truly lost.

Now, months later, the search parties have been called off, and the news alerts have dried up. There’s only Jovie, biking around Far Haven, Washington, putting up posters with Micah’s face on them, feeling like she’s the only one who remembers her friend at all.

This feeling may be far closer to the truth than Jovie knows. As strange storms beset Far Haven, she is shocked to discover that Micah isn’t just missing—she’s been forgotten completely by everyone in town. And Micah isn’t the only one: there are others, roaming the beaches, camped in the old bunkers, who have somehow been lost from the world.

When Jovie and her new friend Sylvan dig deeper, they learn that the town’s history is far stranger and more deadly than anyone knows. Something disastrous is heading for Far Haven, and Jovie and Sylvan soon realize that it is up to them to save not only Micah, but everyone else who has been lost to the world and set adrift—now, in the past, and in the future.

About the Author

Kevin Emerson is the author of Last Day on Mars and The Oceans Between Stars, as well as The Fellowship for Alien Detection, the Exile series, the Atlanteans series, the Oliver Nocturne series, and Carlos Is Gonna Get It. Kevin lives with his family in Seattle. You can visit him online at www.kevinemerson.net.

My Take

Drifters is big, meaty book, with interesting and well-developed characters. It has a relatively complex structure, with sections of the main narrative divided by reports of “trials” in 1898, 1962, and 1994. The main narrative, in turn, is split between Jovie’s story, in 2018, and Sylvan’s story in 2022, though both characters appear in each others’ stories. This inspired more curiosity than confusion in me – what were the trials?  How would the stories eventually link up?

The comparison to Stranger Things is apt, as people are disappearing, but only the children seem to realize that something is really wrong.  The adults know that things aren’t good, but more or less unconsciously believe that it’s their own fault for living in a dead-end town like Far Haven. There’s mist and darkness, unusual friendships forged in extreme circumstances, and a creeping feeling of dread and time running out. 

Underneath all of the dealings with the supernatural is a very real look at the harm that isolation and depression can cause.  Jovie (who, like the other main characters in the book, appears to be white) herself has been in a tough place since her parents divorced, leading to financial and food insecurity as her mother works two full-time jobs.  She’s now searching for Micah in the few minutes she can squeeze out around school and her own part-time job.  Trying to support a friend in crisis while still dealing with your own problems and avoiding isolation yourself  is a tricky balancing act, even if there are no supernatural elements involved – but I’d argue that reading about within this setting is a lot more fun.  

The only real fault I could find in this book is the length – 560 pages is a lot for less proficient readers.  Fortunately, it’s also available on audiobook, for those who (like my kids) find that format easier. For readers like my child self, whose main problem was running out of reading material, spending more time with these characters is a positive.  

DRIFTERS Blog Tour

5/9/22 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub

5/10/22 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl

5/11/22 Charlotte’s Library @charlotteslibrary

5/13/22 Maria’s Mélange @mariaselke

5/16/22 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

5/23/22 Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers @grgenius

5/27/22 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

5/31/22 Unleashing Readers @unleashreaders

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Here’s a beautiful and chewy historical novel that lives up to its slew of awards – a Cybils Young Adult Fiction finalist in addition to the four pictured on the cover.

Last Night at the
Telegraph Club
by Malinda Lo.
Read by Emily Woo Zeller.

Listening Library, 2021.

ASIN B087KWKXHL.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

In San Francisco’s Chinatown of the early 1950s, 17-year-old Lily Hu dreams of rockets even as she’s one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class.  The other girl, Kathleen Miller, is one she’s had classes with before but only starts to get to know better now, as Lily discovers that Kathleen also dreams of the sky and being a pilot.  

Amid the vivid scenes of Lily’s life – her tiny room, the girdles and bobby socks, picnics and Miss Chinatown parades – we also see her growing awareness of her own sexuality.  It starts small, as Lily is captivated by a newspaper ad for male impersonator Tommy Andrews, appearing at the Telegraph Club.  Next, she finds a paperback on the spinner at a grocery store, which fascinates her with the story of growing attraction between two women.  

But even as Lily explores this and builds a friendship with Kathleen, she’s aware that any wrong move will put her in danger of her family’s rejection and her family in danger from the government, as the Red Scare is in full swing and her father is already being investigated for his ties to China.  The story moves from its slow pace as Lily feels stuck in her life, ratcheting up as tensions build on multiple fronts.  It wasn’t an easy read for me, but one that I couldn’t pull away from. I especially appreciated how long it takes for Lily to identify what she’s feeling – it’s not a case of her knowing from the beginning exactly what’s going on. Emily Woo Zeller does a fantastic job as always, playing the many different kinds of voices perfectly.

I have of course read several books by Malinda Lo, and hadn’t really read anything about the plot before I picked this up, belatedly, after it won all the awards last year, including the National Book Award. The straight historical fiction is quite a different feel than her previous fantasies, but it’s still well worth reading.   I read it over a month ago, and find myself still coming back to thinking about it, many books later.  

I recommend all of Malinda Lo’s books – I’ve reviewed Ash and Huntress, and the visits to the forbidden dance club make this a good pairing with Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

Emily Woo Zeller has narrated many, many books, including Under a Painted Sky, Outrun the Moon and The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee, Wicked Fox by Kat Cho, Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee, just to name a few I’ve read/listened to myself.

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Generational Trauma and Healing: Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa and A Comb of Wishes

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the best uses of fantasy is to provide an entirely new perspective on a real-life issue, a shift that is both more interesting and more illuminating than a straightforward facts-only discussion.  Here are two new middle grade fantasies that look at generational trauma through a fantasy lens, while being entertaining stories in their own right. 

Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa
by Julian Randall.

Henry Holt, 2022.

ISBN 978-1250774101.

Read ebook on Libby. 
Audiobook also available.

Pilar is a fast-talking 12-year-old Dominicana growing up in Chicago, sprinkling her English with frequent small words in Spanish.  Many things are making home feel less homey lately, though – her Papi’s death in a car accident, and her older sister Lorena going to college.  Pilar has also grown up hearing the story and sharing the sorrow of how Mami’s prima and best friend Natasha went missing in the DR decades earlier.  Though nothing has ever been found, Pilar is determined to use her camera skills to make a documentary about her cousin’s disappearance.  But this search leads her through a portal to the magical land of La Negra.  There, an ominous white prison has been imposed on the magical black sands, where the dictator of the Dominican Republic and the monster El Cuco cooperate to imprison anyone they can catch who resists, in either country. 

Right away, Pilar is surrounded by cucitos – smaller monsters – and has to decide whether or not to trust the ciguapa girl with backwards feet who offers to lead her to safety.  The plot moves as quickly as Pilar and her new maybe-friend Carmen swing through the jungle trees, trying to get to the leadership, the Mariposas, to stop the rising evil.  Meanwhile, we learn a little more about the Dominican Republic’s troubled history and a lot about generational trauma and healing along with Pilar. The fantasy setting and Pilar’s irrepressible humor and drive to hunt for the truth make the story more empowering than overwhelming.  This is another one to recommend to fans of Rick Riordan’s books.  The sequel, Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon, is due out in February 2023.

Cover of A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow.

A Comb of Wishes
by Lisa Stringfellow.

Quill Tree Books, 2022.

ISBN 978-0063043435

Read from library copy.

I say crick, you say crack.

Crick

Crack

This is a story.”

This refrain – a traditional Caribbean story opening – begins the book, as Ophidia, a  beautiful dark mermaid, is enraged to discover that her treasure box has been washed away from its hiding spot.  Meanwhile, 12-year-old human girl Kela is having a hard time enjoying her life on the Caribbean island of St. Rita, since her mother died in a car accident a few months ago.  She hasn’t gone diving with her father, can’t find the inspiration to work on her sea glass jewelry, and her best friend, Lissy, is getting frustrated that Kela still doesn’t want to spend time with her.  But on a rare trip to the beach with Lissy, Kela sneaks into a forbidden coral cave and hears a box singing to her.  It contains a beautifully carved comb. 

Before Kela can decide what to do with the comb, she’s visited by Ophidia, who offers a wish for the return of the comb – or vengeance.  Or possibly both, depending on Kela’s wish.  Kela doesn’t tell this to Lissy, but does take Lissy with her to the university library where her mother was a researcher to learn more about the comb’s  history – which involves the painful legacy of slavery on the island, one involving Kela’s own family.  There’s still some life-threatening danger, but overall, this is more slowly building tension, rooted in the pain of loss, the difficulty of rebuilding trust, and the stories of a small and close-knit island village.  Ophidia’s perspective is seen in alternating, but much shorter chapters.  The ending is bittersweet and perfect.  I look forward to reading more from Ms. Stringfellow!

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Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

I read and enjoyed The Black God’s Drums. This book, steampunk set in Cairo, sounds like everything I’d enjoy. I’d been hearing about this book since it first came out – so why did it take me so long to get to it?? 

Cover of Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark.
Read by Suehyla El-Attar.

Macmillan Audio, 2021.

ASIN B08JD2THTX.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

It’s 1912 in Cairo.  Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities has just handled a case dealing with a very cranky, very powerful djinn who definitely should not have been woken up, when she’s assigned a new young partner, Hadiya, even though everyone should know by now that she works best alone.  She’s still trying to get that sorted out when they’re called to a new case: 20 wealthy Englishmen, plus an Egyptian woman and man, have been found murdered at their club, dedicated to the legacy of the mystic Al-Jahiz.  It’s clearly supernatural, and the man’s two adult children are anxious for justice.  And immediately following that, someone calling themselves Al-Jahiz starts holding rallies all over the city, stirring up trouble.  The two problems must be connected, and Fatma is determined to get to the bottom of.  Meanwhile, her on-again, off-again lover, Siti, has appeared in her life once more – but can Fatma really trust her to stay in her life?  

I skipped most of the setting in that plot introduction, but the world-building is fantastic.  Cairo as depicted is a bustling metropolis, with people from all over the world, many different religions, and many supernatural beings – most especially djinn – mingling together.  The integration of djinn into society 50 years earlier has led to a profusion of djinn-designed buildings and technology, such as the semi-sentient mechanical building shown on the cover of the book.  The appearance of the (probably false) Al-Jahiz has led to a resurgence of opposition to followers of Egypt’s ancient gods, especially worrisome as Siti is a follower of Hathor. 

Agents Fatma and Hadiya are both Muslim and feminist, though quite different in self-expression.  Fatma prefers to wear custom-tailored English style suits and bowler hats, with the varying colorful outfits lovingly and delightfully described.  Hadiya, on the other hand, dresses more traditionally, but with a variety of modern and cheerful hijab. Not, of course, that their clothes are the most important things about them, but they do serve to illustrate the variety of characters, within the same religion as well as having people from multiple backgrounds.  Women’s voting rights and a peace conference are all part of the swirl of events happening in Cairo at the same time.  Suehyla El-Attar does a wonderful job portraying all of these characters, including giving Hadiya a bit of an American accent when speaking English. (I wish her editor had caught her pronouncing “sow” meaning “to plant” to rhyme with “cow” instead of “toe,” but this is a small issue.)  No wonder I saw it on best audiobook lists, as well as being a 2022 Hugo finalist!  

I could go on for a very long time, as there is a lot to dig into here.  I’ve since discovered that there are earlier novellas and a short story – I found A Dead Djinn in Cairo, I believe the first story, on Hoopla, and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 on Libby.  A short story, “The Angel of Kahn el-Khalili” (where, alas, agent Fatma does not appear) is free to read on Tor.com.  

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2+2 Cybils Graphic Novel Finalists

I am here with more reviews of the 2021 Cybils Graphic Novel Finalists.  (I reviewed four of them earlier.) I only read two more of the teen books – I’d already read Girl from the Sea – and my life is unfortunately not in a place to deal with the heavy topics in the other four finalists just now.  I’m still posting the full graphic with all the covers – if you do have the brainspace for them, I trust the committee to have made excellent choices.  

Cranky Chicken by Katherine Battersby. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. ISBN 9781534469884 Read from library copy. 

This is an adorable beginning graphic novel, suitable for readers who loved Elephant and Piggie or Frog and Toad. Chicken is determined to be cranky.  Worm is determined to make friends with Chicken.  Can Chicken believe herself worthy of a friend?  Can Chicken and Worm figure out what makes best friends?  This is an excellent and hilarious choice to introduce young readers to graphic novels, or to get reluctant readers hooked on books.  

The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Kokila, 2021. ISBN 978-0525554882. Read from library copy. 

Thirteen-year-old Mei is growing up in a logging camp in 1885, where her father is the assistant cook.  Inside the camp, all the children play with each other, regardless of ethnicity, all of them gathering to listen to Mei tell stories of the giant logger Aunti Po and her giant blue buffalo.  Discrimination is already evident, as the Chinese loggers receive lower wages and don’t receive lodging as the white workers do.  But as the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed, things get even worse.  Meanwhile, Mei must deal with the hard working conditions and her growing crush on her best friend, Bee.  And when disaster strikes, will Auntie Po really be there?  This is illustrated with beautiful watercolor, and hollow-eyed characters reminiscent of Orphan Annie.  I really enjoyed it, and wish that I could take it back in time to give to my junior high self. 

Cybils 2021 YA Graphic Novel finalists - My Last Summer with Cass, My Body in Pieces, Girl from the Sea, Across the Tracks, Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms, Nubia: Real One, and In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers.

Cheer Up!: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Fraiser.  Illustrated by Val Wise. Oni Press, 2021. ISBN 9781620109557. Read from library copy.  

High school senior Annie is fine staying home by herself, but her parents push her to do something – anything – social.  Very reluctantly, she signs up for cheerleading, along with her old friend BeBe, who’s recently transitioned.  Both teens are under a lot of pressure for different reasons, and Annie starts to realize how much BeBe is struggling behind her now-perfect makeup.  Slowly, this blossoms into a totally squee-worthy romance.  Classic pen-and-ink art makes this feel like it could be any other teen graphic novel, despite the groundbreaking content. This is another one my daughter found perfection.  

Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smyth. DC Comics, 2021. ISBN 978-1401296407. Read from library copy. 

All of her life, teenaged Nubia and her moms have moved whenever she’s accidentally used her super strength, because while Wonder Woman can be strong and seen as awesome, that’s just not the case for a super-strong Black girl.  But now that she’s in high school, when she ruffles feathers by stopping a convenience store hold-up (in front of her crush, no less!  The horror!), they all decide to stick up for Nubia instead.  There’s also gun violence, police prejudice, a racist classmate who won’t accept Nubia’s best friend’s rejection, and a visit from a superhero Nubia had no idea her parents knew.  It’s illustrated with loose, expressive pictures that do a great job of conveying the many emotions on display here.  My daughter loved this so much that she was reduced to one-word ejaculations while waving the book in the air with one hand and gesticulating wildly with the other.   

Posted in Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade, Realistic, Reviews, Romance, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand by Donna Galanti

Thanks so much to Donna Galanti for sending me the second book in this appealing not-quite-middle-grade series. 

Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe. Epic!, 2022. Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

Cover of Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand  by Donna Galanti, Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Unicorn Island: Secret Beneath the Sand
by Donna Galanti. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

Epic! 2022

ISBN 9781524871970

Review copy kindly sent by the author. 

Sam’s adventures continue in this second book.  Sam is now happy living with her uncle, and especially happy with their regular trips to Unicorn Island.  She’s good friends with Verny the wyvern and Barloc, the young unicorn she helped save in the first book.  But the happy perfection is already cracking – earthquakes on the island are leaving huge cracks in the earth, while the unicorns’ beautiful horns are shrinking.  Can Sam and her best friend Tuck figure out what’s going on in time to save the unicorns?  Can Uncle Mitch (once again very grumpy in the face of these problems) open up enough to let Tuck’s veterinarian mother help?  This book contains a misunderstood monster, a big revelation, and hope for Uncle Mitch’s long-missing wife.  

Secret Beneath the Sand has even more to attract young unicorn lovers, as the magical creatures are present from the very beginning of the book instead of appearing halfway through.  The simple vocabulary, fast action, and frequent beautiful pictures in full color keep the story moving at a pace to entice newly confident readers, with enough plot complexity and emotional resonance to keep it from talking down to them.  This series continues to be a great choice for budding fantasy readers.  

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