The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

The Tea Dragon Festival: A Graphic Novel Review

The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O'NeillRinn knows all about Tea Dragons–the sometimes nuisances that are all over the village–but it turns out real dragons are a very different thing. When Aedhan wakes up from an eighty year sleep, Rinn quickly befriends him.

Aedhan appreciates Rinn’s welcome and their help in reintroducing Aedhan to the village he was once charged with protecting. But no matter how at home the dragon feels, he can’t forget all of the time he lost.

When Rinn’s uncle Erik and his new partner Hesekiel come to visit, they hope that the two adventurers will be able to help unravel the mystery of Aedhan’s magical slumber. But it will take more than investigating to help the dragon accept his changed circumstances in The Tea Dragon Festival (2019) by Katie O’Neill.

The Tea Dragon Festival is a prequel to O’Neill’s previous graphic novel, The Tea Dragon Society. Both stories are self-contained and can be read on their own. Although set in different times and different locations, the stories both feature Erik and Hesekiel.

O’Neill once again delivers an adorable and thoughtful graphic novel, this time centered on gender fluid Rinn as they try to figure out their place in a village where it feels like everyone else has already found their special role. Rinn’s friend Lesa is deaf–something that is portrayed well in the comic panels with special speech bubbles to represent that sign language is being spoken. The contrast between dragon Aedhan and the tiny Tea Dragons adds another element of humor.

A mostly pastel color palette and the book’s larger trim size make this story as beautiful as it is entertaining. The Tea Dragon Festival builds well on the foundation of O’Neill’s previous world building while giving readers a slightly more complex plot.

The Tea Dragon Festival is a delightful and cheerful graphic novel about finding your place and your people. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Giants, Beware! by Jorge Aguirre,Rafael Rosado, John Novak, Matthew Schenk; Cucumber Quest by Gigi D. G.; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Hildafolk by Luke Pearson; The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Gravemaidens: A Review

Gravemaidens by Kelly CoonKammani dreams of becoming an accomplished healer–the position her father held before he failed to heal the lugal’s son and his family was cast down from the privileged class as punishment.

While her father drowns the shame of his disgrace and grief over his wife’s recent death with drink, Kammani manages the day to day work of treating patients. Her hopes of securing a better life for herself and her sister Nanaea are shattered when Nanaea is chosen for the dubious honor of becoming one of three sacred maidens who will accompany the ailing lugal into death.

While her sister only sees the opportunity to live briefly in luxury, Kammani knows becoming a sacred maiden is a death sentence. Determined to save her sister at any cost, Kammani embarks on a dangerous mission to sneak into the palace and try to heal the lugal before it’s too late in Gravemaidens (2019) by Kelly Coon.

Gravemaidens is Coon’s debut novel. It is the first book in a fantasy duology set in a non-western world with piecemeal nods to ancient Sumer, Rome, and possibly Egypt with human sacrifice and a powerful god known as the Boatman.

Clunky prose and world building that falls short in terms of explanations about the ritual of the sacred maidens or other cultural norms drag down this otherwise interesting premise. Anachronistic phrases and over-the-top similes further detract from the novel’s potential. Kammani’s first person narration is filled with strangely sexualized descriptions of other female characters, including her own younger sister, with numerous mentions of full and shiny hair, straight teeth, and “womanly curves.” Throughout the novel this sexualization is equated with the preternatural beauty that distinguishes each sacred maiden.

Secondary characters who stay true to stereotype for most of the novel gain more depth near the end suggesting fans may find more to appreciate in book two.

Gravemaidens is a problematic but intriguing story. Make of that what you will.

Popular Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

10 Blind Dates: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

10 Blind Dates by Ashley ElstonWhen her parents decide to spend Christmas with Sophie’s very pregnant older sister, Sophie plans to stay behind for some quality time with her long-term boyfriend Griffin.

Unfortunately, Griffin isn’t as excited about this plan as Sophie had hoped. Heartbroken, she retreats to her grandparents’ house where her nonna proposes a radical plan to help Sophie get over the sudden breakup: For the next ten days Sophie’s entire extended family can sign up to set her up on blind dates.

Sophie doesn’t know what to expect from the dates, especially with her boisterous relatives involved, but it soon becomes obvious that Nonna’s crazy plan might be the perfect way to avoid wallowing for her entire vacation.

With dates including an elite underground party, a living nativity, and a drive through that does not bear further mention, Sophie’s in for a whirlwind of excitement and maybe even some fun with her estranged cousins.

But with Griffin suddenly keen to win Sophie back, a boy who is probably not available, plus the suspense of waiting for her baby niece to arrive, Sophie will need more than her family’s support to figure out what really matters this holiday season in 10 Blind Dates (2019) by Ashley Elston..

10 Blind Dates is a standalone contemporary set over the course of Sophie’s hectic winter break with chapters for each day (and date). Sophie is an approachable, authentic narrator who handles (almost) everything her family throws with a lot of humor and grace.

While she’s slow to realize her breakup might not be the end of the world, Sophie’s growth throughout the novel is obvious as she begins to understand her own role in the awkward space that has grown between herself and her cousins and their childhood friend. Even better, Sophie starts to realize her priorities need to shift and puts in the work to make some necessary changes.

10 Blind Dates is as funny as it is festive. A delightfully entertaining novel filled with memorable, lively characters and lots of seasonal shenanigans. Recommended for anyone in search of a sweet holiday romance that will leave them smiling.

Possible Pairings: Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway; 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz; Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Aimee Friedman, Nic Stone, Kasie West; I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno; Save the Date by Morgan Matson; My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins; My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma; This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Spinning Silver: A Review

“There’s always trouble where there’s money owed, sooner or later.”

Spinning Silver by Naomi NovikMiryem comes from a long line of moneylenders. It’s easy to become a moneylender but it’s hard to be a good one because to be a good moneylender means being cruel. Her father isn’t a good one; he finds it far easier to loan out money than collect payments thus leaving his own family destitute.

Eager to change their circumstances, Miryem takes over inuring herself to pleas for clemency in lieu of actual payments. As the family business finally begins to thrive, Miryem builds a reputation for herself borrowing silver from her grandfather and bringing back gold in return.

When an idle boast attracts the attention of the Staryk–wintry folk known for their cold hearts and brutal magic–Miryem finds herself in the center of a world where striking the right bargain could mean unimaginable wealth and the wrong one could leave her lost forever.

With high stakes and high magic everywhere, Miryem will have to rely on her wits and her nerve when payment for her bargains come due and she has to prove to the Staryk that she is as formidable as the growing rumors about her would claim in Spinning Silver (2018) by Naomi Novik.

This standalone fantasy is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale set in a well-realized world steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. Miryem is a shrewd and capable heroine. She is well aware of the dangers the world for a young woman of means–especially a Jewish one who lends money.

What Miryem fails to realize is that those dangers extend beyond her far town and deep into the strange, cold lands of the Staryk. As Miryem learns more about the Staryk she begins to realize that greater forces are at play in both her own world and the Staryk’s–forces that may need more than her considerable smarts to conquer.

Intertwining stories and multiple points of view extend the world and explore multiple facets of both feminism and womanhood in a world that is quick to dismiss both. Nuanced and complex characterization slowly explore the varied motivations and goals of all of the characters as they work to exert influence over their spheres and fully capitalize on their own agency.

Spinning Silver is a familiar tale masterfully reimagined; a singular retelling that is as crisp and exhilirating as the first chill of winter. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter, Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Hunted by Meagan Spooner

American Royals: A Review

American Royals by Katharine McGeeEveryone knows the story of the American Revolution and the birth of the American monarchy. How could anyone forget Colonel Lewis Nicola’s plea after the Battle of Yorktown asking George Washington to become the country’s first king?

Two and a half centuries later, the country is still ruled by Washingtons and Princess Beatrice is poised to become America’s first queen regnant. Beatrice has spent her entire life preparing for this role. But no matter how much she knows about diplomacy and protocol, she is unprepared when her parents start urging her to start looking at potential suitors to become the first king consort and rule beside her.

Twins Samantha and Jefferson are used to being overlooked as younger siblings to the beloved heir. While Jefferson enjoys all the adoration and privilege of being the only boy, Samantha has spent years leaning in to her reputation as a thoughtless party girl. At least until one boy might finally see the version of herself that Samantha has spent so long hiding. Too bad he’s totally off-limits.

Nina has been Princess Samantha’s best friend for six years. But that doesn’t make it any easier to get over Jeff or forget what happened on their graduation night last year. In fact, it makes it all harder when Samantha draws Nina back into the royal family’s orbit.

Everyone wants to get close to the royal family. But Beatrice, Samantha, and Jeff will all have to figure out the difference between those seeking political favor and those trying to win their hearts in American Royals (2019) by Katharine McGee.

McGee’s latest splashy contemporary is filled with romance and intrigue which plays out against the luxurious backdrop of a re-imagined America and its uninterrupted monarchy. Chapters alternate between closed third person perspectives following Beatrice, Samantha, Nina, and Jeff’s ex-girlfriend Daphne.

The deceptively simple premise–what if America had a royal family?–opens the door for interesting world building. Unfortunately, most of that alternate history is ignored to instead focus on the romantic entanglements of the royal children leaving readers to wonder how this country’s history–especially its bloodier moments like the Civil War or Manifest Destiny–may have changed with a ruling monarchy at the helm.

Detailed settings and well-drawn characters leave ample space for secret plots and star-crossed love to play out with reveals that will be satisfying if predictable to habitual romance readers. While Nina is Latinx and has two moms, most of the cast is white and conversations about succession with the royal family remain largely heteronormative.

American Royals is a frothy, often elegant diversion if you are willing to go along with the conceit of an American royal family. Recommended for readers looking for a story filled with forbidden romance, salacious gossip, and lots of drama.

Possible Pairings: The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright, The Selection by Kiera Cass, 29 Dates by Melissa de la Cruz, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo, Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud, Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins, Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

Pandora’s Legacy: A Graphic Novel Review

The Panagakos family are descendants of Pandora. For generations the family has worked to protect Pandora’s box and guard against the dangerous monsters it contains.

Except no one ever told younger siblings Charlie, Janet, or Trevor about that. When the three of them find (and break) a mysterious jar in the wood near their grandparents’ house, they have no idea what they’ve unleashed.

Lacking their older siblings’ training, not to mention their weapons, Charlie, Janet, and Trevor will have to band together and think fast if they want save their family and stop the freed monsters from destroying everything in their path in Pandora’s Legacy (2018) by Kara Leopard, illustrated by Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews.

Pandora’s Legacy is a high action graphic novel. Although the story focuses on twins Janet and Trevor, their older sister Charlie also plays a large role as the three of them become unwitting heroes and the last defense against the monsters found within Pandora’s box.

The high action of Leopard’s fast-paced plot contrasts well with the Matthews’ finely detailed illustrations that seamlessly blend evocative backdrops and horrifying monsters.

Pandora’s Legacy is an adventurous ode to siblings and underdogs everywhere. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Estranged by Ethan M. Aldridge, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, Cucumber Quest by Gigi D. G., Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

*A copy of this title was provided for review consideration by the publisher at BookExpo 2019*