As part of my resolution to do a better job keeping up with reviewing new books in 2018, I’m going to dedicate one Friday each month to rounding up interesting new books you might spot on your library’s “new releases” shelf.
OLIVIA TWIST by Lorie Langdon
OK, so just go with it: Oliver Twist is actually a girl, who’s pretended to be a boy because her old nurse warned her the world was no safe place for a pretty girl. When she’s picked up for stealing and serendipitously reunited with her upper class family, Olivia happily adjusts to having enough to eat and a safe place to sleep, but she still pulls on her old cap to help street urchins who, like she once was, are struggling to make it on the London streets. She also does a little thieving to keep the family budget going strong. Then, one night at a party, she runs into the Artful Dodger, all grown up and posing as an Irish lord. He knows there’s something familiar about Olivia, but he doesn’t connect the elegant young lady with the little boy who used to run with his gang. Sparks fly, but there’s plenty of danger lurking in the shadows for Olivia and Dodger both.
I mean, either this is your kind of book and you have already stopped reading this and gone to put it on your library hold list, or this is not your kind of book and you are rolling your eyes at the premise. I’m firmly in the pro camp, but I realize that camp is a fluffy, sometimes silly place that doesn’t always come with redeeming literary value. This book is fun, but it runs on its premise (which is, let's be honest, pretty delightful) and doesn’t have much to offer beyond that. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think if you fit the very specific niche group of people who love Dickens, fan fiction, and YA, you, too, will find it a fun, frothy delight that doesn’t change your life but definitely makes you happy other people are out in the world thinking about things like this.
A SIDE OF SABOTAGE by C.M. Surrisi
This is the third book in the Quinnie Boyd mystery series for middle grade readers, but it was the first one I read and I didn’t feel like I was missing any major plot points. (I’m excited to check out The Maypop Kidnapping and Vampires on the Run, the first two books in the series.)
With middle grade mysteries, you’re always walking kind of a fine line, I think: You want action and adventure, but you don’t want terrible things that keep you up at night to pop up at the end of every chapter. A Side of Sabotage is safely in the mild camp, but it has enough suspense to keep you hooked without too much kids-in-peril action. Set in coastal Maine, the detective-in-resident is the 14-year-old daughter of the town sheriff and the owner of Gusty’s, the town’s hot-spot coffee shop. Her dad’s cafe is getting some competition this summer, thanks to a hipster chef from Boston who has set up a swanky eatery down the road. When weird things start happening at Gusty’s, Quinnie immediately suspects the new restaurant in town and makes up her mind to figure out what’s really going on.
I love a mystery with meddling kids, and this one definitely fits the bill. The detective work is more nuanced than, say, Nancy Drew and more action-packed than, say, Encyclopedia Brown — there are clues that you can follow along with Quinnie and her friends. A middle grades mystery usually depends at least a little on parents being absent or unconvinced there’s a problem, and there’s definitely some of that here, but it doesn’t read as particularly neglectful. Quinnie’s parents are busy, and there’s no real reason to suspect that the problems at Gusty’s are more than unfortunate coincidences. Quinnie and her friends are nice, normal kids who enjoy hanging out together, and they don’t feel like generic “types,” which is one of my middle grade detective novel pet peeves. All in all, I found this charming, and it made me want to go back to Maine this summer.
I STOP SOMEWHERE by T.E. Carter
This book is very buzzy, and it’s probably just me, but I just don’t get it. Disclaimer: I have a teenage daughter, so books about (kinda spoiler but not really since it’s the whole premise of the book) bad things happening to teenage girls have to get over a pretty steep threshold for me to appreciate them. That could be the problem. Or it could be that I am just so, so, so tired of these kinds of stories in general, where we spend our time falling in love with young women who end up being victims of male violence. This is the same reason I can’t watch Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale — it feels like these stories ultimately end up seeing things through the same lens they are supposed to be critiquing. Really, I could be the problem here.
Sort of like The Lovely Bones (which, come to think of it, also didn't work for me), I Stop Somewhere is a coming-of-age story set in a young woman’s afterlife. Ellie was brutally attacked and murdered, and now her spirit lingers in the empty suburban house where her attackers hid her body, watching them assault (but not murder) a series of other young women. At the same time, Ellie’s remembering her life, which was mostly lonely and confusing, where the best thing she could hope for was just not to be noticed. There’s some talk about the power women have inside them and some watery sort of less-unhappy endings for some of the side characters, but the book never stops feeling bleak. Maybe there’s some stuff to unpack here about rape culture and invisible girls, but I think there are other books that do this better.
It wasn’t for me. Obviously. If you read it, treat it like it’s plastered with trigger warnings about every kind of sexual abuse and violence, and if it works for you, please tell me what I’m missing.
TESS OF THE ROAD by Rachel Hartman
I really dig the Seraphina books, which manage to be feminist, inclusive, and nonbinary, and have dragons. This is, loosely, the third book in Seraphina’s world, focusing not on the part-dragon protagonist of the previous two books but on her all-human half-sister Tess.
I did find the premise of the book — which is that Tess is persona non grata with her family and polite society because she’s had a baby out of wedlock — frustrating, and even though the bulk of the book is about how Tess transcends this narrow definition of womanhood and even though Seraphina totally avoids most of those misogynist tropes, the set-up kept me from falling in love with this entry in the series. (I think, like a lot of people right now, I am just genuinely fed up with this treatment of women. Honestly, Rachel Hartman is clearly fed up with this treatment of women, too, and that’s part of the point of this book.)
When Tess disguises herself as a boy and sets out on her own, she’s expecting to wallow in her solitude. Instead, she finds herself on a series of adventures on the hunt for a legendary serpent, posing as a priest, working as a laborer, and thwarting robbers. As she makes the journey, she slowly works through the bitterness of her past, finally recognizing that she has spent most of her life taking responsibility for things that are not her fault and that the standards to which her world has held her are damaging and destructive. Ultimately, Tess grapples with her relationship with shame, and by the end of the novel, she’s shed a lot of her anger and bitterness as she’s discovered her own sense of self and purpose. This is definitely a novel of the #metoo movement, and a good one, and if that’s on your reading list right now, I can recommend Tess of the Road enthusiastically. If you need to put it on your TBR list for later, though, I think that’s OK, too.