Her nightshade, her gift, has never revealed itself, so Nora leads a life separate from her small community, a life wedded to the powerful trees in the Wicker Woods and the bottomless Jackjaw Lake, but one in which she can never fully join the powerful matrilineal tradition that Nora’s mother has rejected. So Nora, who learned from her grandmother until her death, has to fight to continue living within the magic of the Walkers even while she is “as helpless as a girl by any other name” (loc. 235).
Nora’s heritage means that she is a finder of lost things in the Wicker Woods, and the home she shares with her mother is filled with treasures she has brought back when the moon is full and the trees asleep. At the opening of the novel, Nora is walking in the woods with her wolf/dog Fin when she discovers her “latest found item” (loc. 248), Oliver Huntsman, a boy missing from the Jackjaw Camp for Wayward Boys.
Nora rescues the boy and then must deal with the aftermath of her discovery. As Ernshaw’s novel unfolds, she delves into the Walker family’s Spellbook, which details the stories of Walker women, and into Oliver’s own perspective as he struggles with his loss of memory and comes to know the real Nora, the one outside the superstitions and rumors that surround her family. Both Nora and Oliver try to uncover the truth of Oliver’s disappearance and of the death of one of his companions from the camp.
Winterwood is just phenomenal. Shea Ernshaw beautifully builds a novel that feels like a dark fairytale, and I loved the line she draws between “the legends [Nora] know[s] to be true” and the stories the boys and townspeople tell, which “are lies. Born from fear and spite, not from history” (loc. 475). The legitimacy of Nora’s family story, which is centered on women, and the defiance of the norms the town tries to force upon them are supremely empowering. At one point, Nora declares, “My family is older than witches. . . . Older than the word itself” (loc. 1330). Oliver and Nora each have a loneliness, an emptiness, that draws them together, though they have a hard time overcoming their mutual mistrust. Their earnest attempts to take a risk and be vulnerable to each other are moving, even while both make it clear why it might seem safer not to let down the walls they’ve used for protection.
Though I was able to predict a part of the story arc, I enjoyed every moment of this novel, which is a dark, mysterious, and perfect YA read. The complexity of the characters beautifully centers this amazing and atmospheric book. Shea Ernshaw’s Winterwood would be an excellent fall or winter read, but it’s worth picking up regardless of the season.
In the midst of this world is Susan “Jinx” Marshall, who lives with her mother, a teacher; her stepfather Jay, a security expert at a bank; younger brother Charles; and stepsister Makeeba. Her stepbrother Tyrell, on whom Jinx has a huge crush, is away at school. Jinx’s dad, Dr. Maxwell Marshall, is Dr. Doomsday, a survival expert whose book Dr. Doomsday’s Guide to Ultimate Survival provides advice for how to survive if (when?) an apocalypse hits. Advice from Dr. Doomsday appears throughout Day Zero, reminding us that “Everyone in this world seeks power. Those who will stop at nothing to attain it will also never willingly relinquish it” (loc. 483). He is also friends with Ammon Carver, a fact that drives another wedge between Jinx and Makeeba, a fierce advocate for The Spark and its failed Presidential candidate David Rosenthal.
Jinx is a compelling protagonist. She’s still getting used to her new family and has a truly sisterly relationship—non-stop bickering—with her new step-sister. She is incredibly protective of her little brother Charles, an adorable, eight-year-old herbologist who is diabetic, which has a big impact on events. Jinx’s relationship with her parents is complex: she both wishes they would have stayed together while understanding why her mother left her father, who forced the family to run extreme survival drills that left her disconnected from her peers . . . and society. Jinx is brilliant but often has a better understanding of computers and the virtual world than she does of the people around her. Each person in her family pulls or pushes Jinx in a different direction, and her reactions to each reveal a new facet of her identity. Terminus, Jinx’s best friend and her father’s protege, who she knows only virtually, and the mysterious and handsome Gustavo Navarro, who also knows her father, provide additional complexity as we come to understand Jinx.
DeVos creates a clear, distinct, and well-developed world within a chapter or two and then sets off a series of explosions that changes everything. Jinx, Makeeba, and Charles escape because of Dr. Marshall’s survival training and then return to a home in chaos to find that Jinx’s stepfather has been accused of being part of a conspiracy against the government. As she tries to keep her family together, Jinx must deal with a shifting understanding of who to trust. Pursued by agents of The Opposition, Jinx and her family work through one challenge after another, striving both to survive and for something more, to act morally as they come to understand the roots of an insidious and power-hungry corruption that goes deeper than they initially understand.
Day Zero strikes the balance between the personal and the political beautifully, reflecting the tension that dominates Jinx’s own life. The secondary characters work well to help the reader understand Jinx: her maturity, the moments when she falls into a natural self-interest, and her conflicted loyalties. I thoroughly enjoyed both the adventure-packed plot and deVos’s attention to deeper political and psychological issues. Watching the way these characters react to the changing society provided insight into the world of the book and—as the best books do—raised fascinating questions about our own world. I thoroughly enjoyed Day Zero and look forward to Kelly deVos’s conclusion to this duology.
Matthew Dicks’s novel is, in fact, composed solely of Dan’s lists as he tries to make sense of a chaotic life. The convention works fairly well through most of the novel, providing insight into Dan’s perspective. After a while, though, the device wore thin for me, and the novel’s conclusion defied credulity for me in a way that I could not recover from.
There’s still plenty to enjoy here: as a teacher and book lover, Dan’s lists of principles for administrator and ideas about the importance of books for children resonated. The book is organized into months, and each month, he shares his book store’s picks, stories about customers, and philosophies about reading. Those moments are, I think, my favorites.
Overall, Matthew Dicks’s Twenty-one Truths about Love is a pleasant enough book with an empathetic protagonist but not a book I’d strongly recommend.
Tristan is the third generation of his family to pursue boxing, so when his first bout ends in failure, he faces both his own disappointment as well as the disapproval of his father and grandfather. Almost immediately, Tristan’s parents decide that he should spend the summer with his grandparents. Though he has conflicted feelings about his granddad, who is tough on him, but he is quite fond of Nana, who has built a strong relationship with Tristan infused with storytelling.Tristan also shared a love for stories with his friend Eddie, whose death he is still mourning and blames himself for. Tristan holds tight to Eddie’s journal, which contains the West African and African-American stories that mean so much to both of them. It’s here that the magic of the novel begins: Tristan has known since he received the journal that there’s something odd about it (for starters, it glows!).
Tristant Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky centers on stories, and it establishes that focus early as Tristan tells his tale directly to the reader:
“They didn’t want to hear the rest . . .
“Oh, you do?
“Well, what if I told you that I went to war over my best friend’s glowing journal? . . . Would you believe me?” (loc. 72).
Naming is also important. Tristan constantly bemoans the inappropriateness of having “Strong” as a last name when he considers himself to be a coward, weak, a failure. He knows that being a Strong means he’s expected to be brave and to work hard, but he’s not sure he can live up to those expectations. Tristan and the other characters in the book constantly remind each other to be careful with names and with stories because “stories are powerful magic” (loc. 656).They avoid saying their enemies’ names whenever possible so as not to evoke them, and Tristan comes to use stories as a weapon in his arsenal that is stronger even than his fists.
Tristan’s journey to mythological MidPass begins when Gum Baby, “a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest” (loc. 293), steals Eddie’s journal, and Tristan pursues her. Their battle ultimately ends in the midst of the Bottle Trees on his grandparents’ farm when Tristan, in an attempt to retrieve the journal, punches one of the bottles and unleashes Uncle C, a demon, though a hole that joins the ground under his feet and the sky of MidPass. Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole Tristan has made into a mythological world, and they immediately have to escape bone ships and the threat of the Maafa preying upon the Midfolk. He meets a brave young woman named Ayanna and legendary gods like Brer Fox and John Henry who help him understand the seriousness of the situation.
There’s so much to love here. Of course the mythology, and particularly stories that we (or at least I) aren’t as familiar with, is a big draw. But watching Tristan’s very real personal journey—his consideration of what bravery means, of when violence is appropriate, of what it means to know one’s story—is as compelling as the focus on the gods. Tristan is still trying to reconcile what has happened in the reality of his life back home, where he’s seeing a counselor who talks to him about not “hid[ing] from [his] fears.” Mr. Richardson says, “we have to be able to talk about them, or else they’ll fester like poison, eating us from the inside” (loc. 873). We see similar wisdom from the legendary figures Tristan meets: “Brer Fox told me we can’t harp on past mistakes” (loc. 884). As Tristan begins to reconcile the lessons of these two worlds, his confidence and agency grow.
Watching Tristan contend with symbols of slavery—the Fetterlings, Brand Flies, and bone ships, among others—is a powerful thread through the novel. For Tristan, considering that past has been a part of life, instilled by Nana, who reminds him that “A lot of times . . . little facts get smudged out of the history books. If you gon’ tell a story, you better be sure you’re telling the right one” (loc. 959). It’s in MidPass that Tristan learns to apply so many of the lessons his Nana and Eddie taught him, where the ideas that seemed abstract take on a concrete and immediate urgency. Kwame Mbalia here unites intention and execution in the fabulous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.
Today I am here to talk to you about a brand new release by Lisa Lutz, author of The Spellman Files series. Her newest book, The Swallows, grabbed me from page one. Thanks to @randomhouse #partner for my review copy!
The Swallows is a novel centered around Stonebridge Academy, a private boarding school in New England. Alexandra (Alex) Witt, our protagonist, finds herself teaching at Stonebridge after a mysterious departure from her last teaching assignment. Once immersed in life at Stonebridge, Alex finds out about the Darkroom, a website, operated by male students that rank and comment on sexual experiences they have had with the female students of Stonebridge. What follows is a timely examination of the effects turning a blind eye can have on unsuspecting victims. It further explores the expectations society sets forth for women and men, and what happens when women decide ‘enough is enough.’
I was careful with my summary, because I really wanted to keep it spoiler-free. I knew very little about this book before I started it. I just thought the cover was intriguing (black and red for the win!) and I plunged in. I can tell you–I was not disappointed. For me, this was a serious page-turner. It was well plotted, giving the perfect amount of intrigue to keep the reader engaged, interested, and turning the page. This is a multi-perspective novel, which I always enjoy–but I so appreciated that Lutz sprinkled in chapters from the perspective of minor characters throughout the book. It made the book feel both omniscient, and personal, because the actual chapters were written in first person. So good! I adored the first ¾ of this story. I loved the commentary that it made on life post Me Too and the way in which the women in the novel took agency against a systemic problem that had been fostered for years at Stonebridge.
Enter the last ¼ of the novel. While I felt the first ¾ of the book was expertly paced, I think the last ¼ of the book went off the rails. It felt rushed. Very rushed. And the characters started making choices that did not seem authentic to who I had come to know during first ¾ of the book. The female students, who I had grown to admire, made some choices that seemed totally out of character. And I wasn’t here for it. So, although I thought the majority of the book was fantastic, the end was jarring and disappointing.
All of that being said, I would still recommend reading The Swallows. The ending didn’t ruin the reading experience. The story is timely and well-paced, and an important commentary on societal issues. Give it a go. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.