Thanks to partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints in exchange for an honest review. The book releases Tuesday, November 5.
Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints is a strange, brilliant, gorgeous novel filled with magic and ghosts and love. I love it so, so much and recommend that you pre-order it quickly!
The book’s narrator is Marisol. A ghost. She is one of three Cuban sisters, two of whom were lost during the Cuban Revolution. Marisol, the youngest, has returned in spirit form to seek vengeance and to discover the truth of her disappearance before her spirit also disappears. She haunts her nephew, Ramón, son of Nilda, planting her memories in his dreams in hopes both of being remembered and of spurring him on to investigate the truth of what happened to her.
Older’s novel is gritty and real, and Marisol is the perfect narrator for such a book. She doesn’t shy away from sex or nudity or violence. Instead, she embraces all that is life, hungry for vitality and eager to anchor herself to the world in all its beauty and ugliness. She is also inherently curious, eager to take in everything about the people around her, about the home she lost, about the world as it is now.
As we—alongside Ramón—learn Marisol’s story, we begin to see the shape of her life. She and her eldest sister Isabel are drawn in to the Revolution and to the repercussions of the new regime. Ramón, born in the United States, has never been to Cuba but nevertheless deals with the fallout that has followed his community even as they tried to leave war behind.
This is a rich, rich story, full of romance and love, violence and revolution, loyalty and spite. There are friendships and betrayals, old ties and new alliances. It’s a master work of discovery as we watch Marisol learn the truth of her own life and Ramón understand the history that haunts his family and, therefore, himself. Daniel José Older’s beautiful writing, brilliant imagination, and keen sense of history have produced a brilliant novel in The Book of Lost Saints.
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.
Through the novel, they discuss the merits of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), make commitments to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and resist their white friends attempts to make them the monolithic voice of blackness in answering their questions (like whether a white person wearing dreadlocks is committing an error of cultural appropriation). Kiera considers these topics as she strives to be a good daughter, to dampen the tension between her sister and boyfriend, and to lay the foundation for a successful future.
Beyond her public life, however, Kiera has a hidden identity as Emerald, the creator, developer, and co-moderator of SLAY, a video game “where every word [she] speak[s] reflects the black goddess [her boyfriend] sees in [her]” (9). Malcolm, however, disapproves of video games, which he thinks encourage black people to “waste their lives” and serve as “distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of black men” (10). Kiera feels, partially because of his disapproval, that she cannot let anyone in on her secret. Instead, she and Cicada, her co-moderator, work in hiding to develop the game and to expand its cards, which reflect elements of black history and culture from around the world. Their creativity, based on experience and thorough research, has resulted in a phenomenon for hundreds of thousands of players that is open only to black people.
When a young black man is killed because of something within the game, SLAY becomes the center of a public debate that Kiera tries to navigate from her secret life. She must decide what responsibility lies with her as the media--and her friends and family--consider the implications of a video game that excludes anyone who is not black.
Morris’s book, dedicated “To everyone who has ever had to minimize who you are to be palatable to those who aren’t like you,” grabbed me from moment one. The novel moves sequentially through Kiera’s journey as she struggles to act responsibly as SLAY’s creator and to stay true to her intentions; it also includes vignettes from players within the game, allowing the reader to see the role SLAY plays in each life. The discussions at the novel’s center are compelling and thought provoking--I’d absolutely love to teach this book, which offers such nuanced situations for the reader’s consideration. I am so excited to see the conversations that arise when Brittney Morris’s SLAY is published!
Hey all! Sara here! I am going to talk to you today about a book I absolutely adored. It was one of those books that came at exactly the right time for me as a reader. AND if you know me from the podcast, you know that I am a pretty slow reader and I zipped right through this one.
The book is told in first person in alternating perspectives, in alternating timelines. First, we meet Annika. It is 2001 in Chicago and she runs into her college boyfriend, Jonathan, who she has never quite gotten over. Jonathan, the other voice in the book, is a divorcée working a high stress job in finance. When Annika runs into Jonathan in a chance encounter at the market and finds out they have been living in walking distance of each other for years, they begin a tentative relationship to rekindle what they once had.
Through flashbacks in the alternate timeline of 1991, we discover the inception of Annika and Jonathan’s relationship, the path that it takes in their time together, and its demise.
First, I love a book in alternating perspectives. Second, I love a love story. Third, I love a book with interesting, layered characters. This book has all of this and so much more. I would be remiss not to mention the skillful way Graves develops the character of Annika, and how she reveals Annika’s quirks and growth to us throughout the narrative. She encapsulates both the struggle of adapting to others’ expectations of us and the revelation of being comfortable in our own skin in Annika’s story.
There is a twist of sorts in the story that I didn’t see coming–it may be that I wasn’t paying attention, because I was so wrapped up in the Annika and Jonathan, because after reflection, it made complete sense to me. If you read this, you MUST come back and let me know if you anticipated the twist or not.
I don’t want to give any further commentary for fear of spoiling this gem. I am fairly certain it will be one of my top reads of 2019. It is compelling, funny, heart-breaking, and inspiring–so much wrapped up in a fast-paced, quick read. I won’t soon forget Annika or Jonathan or their beautiful story.
P.S. My friend, Jen, had a bit of a different take on it. Maybe she will write her own review in the future.
Sullivan’s young adult novel uses this story, Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” as a springboard for a story about class division, corruption, and power. At the novel’s heart is Kateri, the daughter of the powerful king who rules a small kingdom built on a formerly lush oasis. Now, the kingdom suffers because of a murderous drought that requires strict rationing of water for its citizens.
Kateri’s father has raised her in luxury but with a hatred for the Desert Boys, a wild gang of outcasts who killed her mother and infant brother when Kateri was a child. She has trained as a warrior both to defend her home—she promised her mother that she would take care of her people and rule with kindness—and to seek vengeance on those who broke her family.
Kateri lives in the world that Stockton first imagined, one where justice is meted out by chance. Kateri’s father forces criminals into an arena, and they are given a choice between two doors: the first holds a bloodthirsty tiger, and the second holds some sort of treasure. As the novel opens, a young Desert Boy is in the midst of his choice, and his prize is the cart of goods that he had tried to steal. Kateri watches as the boy makes away with the object of his theft . . . and then comes to realize that her father had controlled the fate of this criminal all along.
Since Kateri is old enough to marry, her father has set up another series of competitions: she is to fight twelve potential suitors. If she wins the battle, the suitor is banished from the kingdom. If he wins, the suitor will marry her. As he does with the sentencing of criminals, Kateri’s father controls her fate, wresting from her the power she thought she had earned.
The plot really ramps up as Kateri begins to realize the full scope of her father’s betrayal and seeks to regain control over her life by leaving the kingdom and seeking training among the Desert Boys. Along the way, she comes to see herself, her father, and her world hold depths—good and bad—she had not dreamed.
While Sullivan’s novel kept my attention throughout, and I appreciated the world building and mythology that she weaves into the story, I was disappointed by the predictability of the plot. Kateri is the typical strong female protagonist whose epiphanies about the world around her spur her to work for change and to make a series of correct decisions. Those epiphanies come so easily that they are nearly instantaneous. Her training montage—one of my favorite elements of any action book or movie (think The Karate Kid or Rocky IV)—is enjoyable but also so, so quick. She picks up incredibly difficult skills in a day because she is so preternaturally gifted. The novel’s revelations progress as expected for those who have read this type of YA novel before, which means that moments meant to have great emotional resonance fall, unfortunately, short. Tiger Queen is a pleasant enough read but not one that offers anything new . . . or anything as complex and sinister as its source material.
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.