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.
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!
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.
These dueling sister towns in Washington hold a sort of joint claim to fame: Christie Romney’s Unicorns vs. Dragons YA teen fantasy series (which is set in Carthage) and Caleb Sloat’s band Rainy Day Knife Fight (Caleb, Billy’s uncle, grew up in—and escaped from—Rome).
The world here is gritty; both teenagers are familiar with poverty and hunger, and both are outcasts who are deeply lonely. Billy’s grandmother has raised him in a home of hoarding and neglect, while Lydia’s father Larry is a single dad. After her mother died in a car accident in the midst of abandoning them, Lydia has built emotional walls around herself, choosing loneliness over vulnerability. Billy, conversely, is constantly reaching out only to be turned away by everyone. When Billy approaches Lydia after the consolidation of their schools, Lydia responds with her typical bristly comeback . . . but she also leaves the door open to friendship.
We come to know Billy as someone who is constantly trying. He tries to be better, to learn more, to be kinder, more helpful. He relies on the “twenty-four-hour AA meeting channel” (loc. 284) and television therapists for advice because no one in his life cares enough to offer any. Lydia, meanwhile, has walled herself off from her father just as she has from everyone else. Her only hope seems to come in the dancing that serves as her emotional outlet and her inspiration.
The friendship between Billy and Lydia, which is absolutely my favorite part of the book, grows slowly as their world becomes stranger. The leader of the U.S. is the King, and his behavior becomes more outrageous as the plot unfolds (yes, there are some shadows of our real political situation here!). Billy’s house turns against him, disintegrating and seeming to hold something threatening in its walls. Lydia is followed by a shadowy figure of which she can’t quite get a clear view. And then there’s the fog, which grows thicker and smells and becomes more malicious as the story continues. Through all of this growing magic, Billy and Lydia nurture—sometimes grudgingly—their friendship, fighting through the easy urge to turn against each other when their lives go wrong. Watching them come to know each other and to understand the other’s weaknesses and strengths is a beautiful journey.
I really appreciated the gradual growth of the dark magic that surrounds Rome and Carthage: there’s much that’s sinister in this novel, but none of the fantasy evil overshadows the malevolence rooted firmly in reality, in the casual cruelty of the people who are supposed to care most for these teenagers or in the easy aggression of their peers. Amy Reed is brilliant at making us feel the loneliness and sadness against which Billy and Lydia fight, and because that depression is so vivid, I found the moments of hope and courage and earnestness to be so, so moving. The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World isn’t easily categorized into a single genre and should therefore appeal to a multitude of readers.
The book opens after Nikolai’s abdication, when the family has been moved to Tobolsk, Siberia. Anastasia, the 16-year-old narrator, is known as Shvibzik, or imp, and her nickname reveals a great deal about her character. Nastya is a strong-willed and mischievous trickster who enjoys entertaining her family to maintain a sense of normality and playing pranks on the soldiers who are their captors. Brandes does a brilliant job establishing the strong bonds within this family, which includes Nastya’s parents, her three sisters, and her 13-year-old brother Alexei, who suffers from hemophilia. Nastya’s father, Nikolai, acts with a humility surprising for his prior role, and he urges Nastya to honor life, to find forgiveness, and to prioritize the Russian people. Alexei was also a strong character for me, dealing with the pain of his hemophilia and the loss of his destiny as tsar with bravery and grit.
The world building is just great, and Brandes’s vision of magic centers on spell ink, a rare substance that allows spell masters and their apprentices (like Nastya) to “write” their spells as a way of enacting them. This grounding of magic works well both to expand the story of the Romanovs and to anchor it in practical concerns that occupy much of Nastya’s thoughts.
Brandes telegraphs clearly a romance with a Bolshevik soldier who serves as one of the family’s guards; it took me a while to warm to the authenticity of the match, but eventually (no spoilers here!) I appreciated the complexity of its development. Successful for me, from the beginning, is Nastya’s character arc. Watching her struggle, with her family, to acclimate herself to her new living situation, to accept that her family does not have control over their own destiny, is quite moving. Her constant attempts to be worthy of her former title and of her father’s care enhance this already-nuanced character.
The novel’s basis in history allows those familiar with the legend to appreciate the character development and the addition of magic and those unfamiliar with the stories to feel firmly grounded in what happened. (An excellent Author’s Note is also helpful!) While I don’t want to give anything away, I think that the way Brandes played with the mythology surrounding Anastasia is incredibly smart. This strong YA novel bridging history and fantasy is a great addition to the collection of works studying the royal family. Look for Nadine Brandes’s Romanov on May 7!
Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
Thank you to Partner Netgalley for my advance copy of this novel. I loved The Belles and was so excited to read the sequel, The Everlasting Rose. Set in the dystopian world of Orléans , this novel reveals the way that quests for beauty and power can spiral out of control as the quest to become the most beautiful and most powerful gets in the way of compassion, equity, and all forms of understanding.
The Belles opens in a world where most people are born gris, meaning that their natural complexion is gray, with red eyes, straw-like hair, and gray whiskers on their faces. This condition is both unattractive and painful. The only exception to this natural state is the Belles, who are born lovely with all different complexions, shapes, and demeanors, but who are all able to use the power within their blood to help others beautify themselves. The Belles are raised to beautify others, and when they come of age, that becomes their duty. In order to avoid this natural but uncomfortable state of being gray, the citizens of Orléans must have routine beauty procedures done, which can only be performed by the Belles. They pay high prices and suffer extreme pain to endure the beauty procedures. Camille Beauregard and her sisters are coming of age at the beginning of The Belles, and they become the group of Belles able to assist all of the people of Orléans, including the royal family, with these procedures. However, as Camille gets deeper into her journey, she quickly realizes that the world is not as it seems and that her talents can be misused and can cause harm.
The Everlasting Rose picks up where The Belles left off, and it captivates the reader immediately. I loved the main characters in the novel and found myself swept up in their riveting adventure, rooting for them to succeed, even though they were facing staggering odds. Camellia Beauregard leads us through the complex world of the royal family as Princess Sophia makes her way toward the throne. Camille discovers that she has powers she did not realize she possessed, but she also realizes that she can be forced and manipulated into doing things that are horrendous. Her unlikely companion, Rémy, and her sister Edel, are both fascinating supporting characters with their own agendas and desires. Additionally, the teacup dragons who travel with them are so precious and fun!
I love the way Clayton demonstrates the power of suggestion, the pressure to fit in, and the role of gossip and the media in what shapes society. I also love her commentary on the way that subliminal messages and peer pressure can lead us all to feel that there is some kind of artificial beauty ideal that we should achieve-- and that the pursuit of that false ideal can destroy us or cause us to destroy others.
Camille's courage, determination, loyalty, and resolute unwillingness to back down make her the kind of woman I hope to be and hope for my daughters to be. She is ready to bring about change, and she faces the uncertain future with resilience and passion.
In short, I cannot wait for Book Three!
Enter: Edgar’s muse. Yes, his muse, Lenore, comes into his life as the physical embodiment of a grotesque drawing, there to provoke and bully Poe into accepting his affinity for death and all things Gothic. Lenore can be seen not only by Eddy, but by everyone, and as she moves through his world, she unsettles everyone because of her ghastly appearance and her disturbing behavior. The novel moves through the alternating perspectives of Poe and Lenore, and her presence is a definite reminder of the place of women (and, particularly, dead women) in Poe’s stories, of women’s morbid hold on his imagination and of “the beauty in horror” (loc. 376).
In The Raven’s Tale, Winters takes the historical facts of Poe’s life and embeds them into a world reflective of the fantasy he embraces in his writing, one where ghosts and spirits are real, where his muse torments him (and competes with a second, more conventional, male muse), and where Poe’s sporadic use of alcohol makes him unable to write . . . because it makes his muse sleep. Through the novel, Poe fights his inclination toward darkness because he does not think he will find acceptance if he follows that path.
The strength of this book lies in its enthusiasm for its subject matter. Winters clearly loves Poe, his life, and his poetry, and she immerses the reader in his style. This immersion happens most clearly in Lenore’s chapters, where Winters writes in mimicry of Poe: “I awaken in the shadows, ravenous for words, hungering for delicacies dripping with dread” (loc. 155). As Lenore strengthens, the style intensifies, demonstrating the increasing bond between artist and muse. Winters’s describes her research in an extensive Author’s Note, which is fascinating in its consideration of the connections between this novel and Poe’s life.
Though I found many elements of The Raven’s Tale appealing--including the grounding in historical detail and the incorporation of Poe’s early writing process--the novel didn’t completely work for me. The characters fell short: though I love fantasy (the more complex and strange the world, the better), I never felt as if I had my footing in this realm of embodied muses, and Poe himself felt more like a collection of character traits and information than a fully realized character.
The Raven’s Tale, which will be published on April 16, 2019, is a solid choice for those readers interested in learning more about Poe or beginning to imagine how he embraced the darkness that came to dominate his art. It did not, however, succeed in capturing my imagination or the spirit that makes Poe’s works so captivating for readers.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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