Tunnel of Bones: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe is a match in the dark.

“Maybe is a rope in a hole, or the key to a door.

“Maybe is how you find the way out.”

Tunnel of Bones by Victoria SchwabCassidy Blake’s best friend Jacob is a ghost. This wasn’t as big of an issue until Cassidy and her parents (and Jacob) traveled to Scotland to film a TV about the world’s most haunted places. There Cassidy learned that she isn’t just a girl who can talk to ghosts. She is a ghost hunter tasked with putting ghosts to rest.

This has, understandably, created some tension between the two friends.

But understanding her role as a ghost hunter will have to wait when the Blakes travel to Paris and Cassidy accidentally awakens a dangerously strong ghost.

As the new ghost and Jacob both grow stronger Cassidy will have to rely on old friends and new to put this new menace to rest before it’s too late in Tunnel of Bones (2019) by Victoria Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop

Tunnel of Bones is the second book in Schwab’s middle grade series following Cassidy Blake. The story starts in City of Ghosts but thanks to sufficient recaps the books can be read independently or even out of order.

I love this series. There is nothing more comforting to me than reading about Cassidy’s growing pains as a friend to Jacob and as a fledgling ghost hunter. Readers can expect to see the usual spooky suspects in Paris including the Catacombs and a poignant visit to Notre Dame before the fire in April 2019 left the historic cathedral in ruins.

New locations and new reveals add dimension to Cassidy’s understanding of her ghost hunting abilities as well as Jacob’s backstory. Schwab expertly balances scares and laughs in this fast-paced read that is sure to entertain readers both young and old. A surprise ending will leave readers especially eager to see what awaits Cassidy and Jacob in the next installment.

Tunnel of Bones is as entertaining as it is evocative. Come for the ghosts and stay for the friendships–just be sure to have a snack on hand because the descriptions of all of the French cuisine Cassidy discovers will leave you hungry.

Possible Pairings: The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste, Doll Bones by Holly Black, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The Bone Houses: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-JonesRyn has spent most of her life surrounded by the dead in the village of Colbren. She watched her father at his work as a gravedigger and now, after his disappearance, it is Ryn who puts the village’s dead to rest. It is Ryn who makes sure the dead stay at rest–especially those buried too close to the woods.

The restless dead are always called “bone houses” in the stories. Legend talks often of the curse that makes some dead walk. So often, in fact, that most people believe it really is only a fable. Ryn has always known better but especially now when more and more bone houses are making their way to Colbren.

Ellis has spent most of his life hiding first on the outskirts of court and more recently behind the maps he makes. Coming to Colbren could make Ellis’ name and earn him a fortune provided he can find a guide to lead him through the woods to make the first map of the area–especially the mountain ranges beyond the forest.

When the bone houses surface with new prevalence and more violent attacks, Ryn has her own reasons for agreeing to act as Ellis’ guide. Secrets lie in the mountains and, deeper still, answers both Ryn and Ellis never thought they’d find provided they can survive that long in The Bone Houses (2019) by Emily Lloyd-Jones.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lloyd-Jone’s standalone novel is an eerie blend of fantasy and light horror set against an historic Welsh setting. Chapters alternate between Ryn and Ellis’ close third person perspectives.

While Ryn is comfortable with her physicality and fears losing her work as gravedigger more than most bone houses, Ellis is more cerebral and struggles to mange chronic pain from childhood injuries that never properly healed.

Lyrical prose and lush descriptions immediately bring Colbren and the surrounding woods to life. Suspense is carefully managed as Ryn and Ellis are drawn further into the mystery surrounding the bone houses’ origins in their search for a way to stop them. A gently presented romance adds much needed sweetness to what could otherwise be a grim and tense story.

The Bone Houses is a thoughtful exploration of the intersection of fable and reality and a comforting interpretation of both death and grief. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Devils Unto Dust by Emma Berquist, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

City of Ghosts: A Review

cover art for City of Ghosts by Victoria SchwabIt’s been a while since Cassidy Blake’s life has been anything close to normal. That’s what happens when your best friend is a ghost. Also when you die (briefly) and come back able to see ghosts in general.

Cass doesn’t mind. Jacob is a good friend even if he is a little too obsessed with superhero comics. And sure, passing through the Veil that separates the living from the dead can be scary. But it’s also an inescapable pull for Cass now–it has been since she died.

All of Cass’s summer plans are upended when her parents receive an offer they can’t refuse: a chance to host a TV show about the world’s most haunted places. Cassidy thought she had her ability under control but she is totally unprepared for the level of haunted she encounters in Edinburgh, Scotland.

When Cassidy attracts the attention of a dangerous spirit, she’ll have to embrace her ability and trust in new friends and old if she wants to make it out of Edinburgh in one piece in City of Ghosts (2018) by Victoria Schwab.

Find it on Bookshop.

City of Ghosts is the first book in Schwab’s middle grade series. Cassidy’s story will continue in Tunnel of Bones.

Cassidy’s approachable first person narration immediately draws readers into her story and her world. Evocative descriptions bring the streets of Edinburgh to life and contrast well with genuinely scary moments with sinister ghosts on the other side of the Veil.

Schwab strikes the perfect balance between horror and adventure in this ghostly tale of unlikely friends and reluctant heroes. City of Ghosts is a delightful start to a series that is as entertaining as it is spooky. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Jumbies by Tracy Baptiste, Doll Bones by Holly Black, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken, The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2018*

Never-Contented Things: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Never-Contented Things by Sarah PorterKsenia is cold where foster brother Josh is warm; sharp where he is soft. She is almost eighteen and their foster parents are simultaneously planning for Ksenia’s transition to a group home while preparing to adopt sixteen-year-old Josh. Ksenia is a bit of an oddity in their painfully conventional town with her androgynous looks and thrift store style without any of Josh’s charisma to smooth things over.

While Ksenia is resigned to their separation, Josh is desperate to hang on to Ksenia at any cost–even if it means making an impossible bargain with otherworldy creatures they encounter at a party. Entrapped in another world with Josh, Ksenia is determined to protect him despite his betrayal. Josh sees it as a refuge where no one can question his romantic love and infatuation for his foster sister while Ksenia knows it is a prison with no possible escape.

Josh and especially Ksenia are people no one would look for except for their best friend, Lexi, a girl whose life couldn’t be more different and who, if she can find them, might have the key to breaking the spell in Never-Contented Things (2019) by Sarah Porter.

Find it on Bookshop.

Porter blends horror and urban fantasy in her latest standalone novel of faerie.

Evocative, phantasmagorical prose carries across multiple viewpoints as Ksenia works to save herself and the people she loves in this book filled with messy characters doing the best they can.

Never-Contented Things features gorgeous sentence level writing and vibrant horror which elevate this character driven story about resilience, identity, and learning to save yourself. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

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

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: A Review

“Every choice feeds every choice that comes after, whether we want those choices or no.”

cover art for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireIdentical twins Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way back home and were immediately sent off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children before they could bring disorder to their parents’ tidy life.

This is the story of what happened before they came back.

Jacqueline and Jillian were a matched set–identical. Perfect for their parents to split up and mold after themselves. Jacqueline wore pretty dresses and was polite and quite–her mother’s perfect daughter. Jillian was smart and loud, a tomboy through and through–not quite the son her father wanted but close.

They were five when they learned that grown ups can’t be trusted and sisters can’t always be close. They were twelve when they walked down an impossible staircase and found a world filled with death and horror where, for the first time, they can choose who they might want to be in Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire.

Find it on Bookshop.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas which begins with Every Heart a Doorway. This novella is a prequel to the series starter.

It is an interesting exercise in patience to read the followup to an exciting novella only to realize it is a prequel and will offer no hints of what comes after for the characters you’ve already met and started to care about. Despite desperately wanting to see what happens next at the school, Down Among the Sticks and Bones is an excellent addition to the series.

McGuire continues to develop this series with strong world building and thoughtful character development. Because of the prequel nature this story can be read out of order although that will dilute some of the impact of the character development across the series.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones plays with preconceived notions about heroes and villains in a world where, in the absence of a true hero, the lesser villain may unwittingly take on the position. The story is also a scathing commentary on absent and controlling parents. The usually powerful bond between sisters seen in fantasy novels is subverted here as Jack and Jill realize they are only able to come into their own when they are apart.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is another excellent addition to this strange little series of novellas. Perfect for readers of both fantasy and horror. Fans of the series can only hope future installments will offer as much insight into other characters’ stories.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Every Heart a Doorway: A Review

“She was a story, not an epilogue.”

cover art for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the last stop for the girls—because they are overwhelmingly girls—who managed to slip away unnoticed and pass through a magic door into another world.

They never find the same things in their worlds. Some are Nonsense while others thrive on the rules of Logic. Some are Wicked and others are high Virtue. But even with their differences the worlds all have something in common: for the children who find them they feel like home.

And for the Wayward Children the doors have closed to them—maybe forever. So now they have to learn to move on. If they can.

After her time in the Halls of the Dead, Nancy doesn’t think it’s so simple. Now that she’s surrounded by other exiles like herself the only certainty is that they are trapped together until their doors appear again. If they do.

When students at the school become victims of grisly murders Nancy seems the obvious suspect. She knows she isn’t the killer but she doesn’t know how convince anyone else of that—or to find the real culprit—anymore than she knows how to get back home in Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire.

 Find it on Bookshop.

Every Heart a Doorway is the start of McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas.

The Wayward Children are an inclusive group including the protagonist of this volume Nancy who is wary of the school partly because it is not her beloved Halls of the Dead and partly because she isn’t sure how the other students will react when she tells them she is asexual.

McGuire’s novella is well-realized and introduces readers to not just one fully-realized world but many, This story is an interesting exercise in form (as a completely contained novella) as well as genre. Within the portal fantasy framework McGuire leads her characters through a mystery, a horror story, and even a traditional coming-of-age story. And that’s just in this first installment.

Every Heart a Doorway is a wild ride and a thoughtful exploration of magic and its cost as well as a wry commentary on the mechanics of fairy tales. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Scwhab, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

Vassa in the Night: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Vassa in the Night by Sarah PorterSixteen-year-old Vassa Lisa Lowenstein isn’t sure where she fits in her family or if it even qualifies as a family. Her mother is dead. Vassa’s father stayed only long enough to settle Vassa with his new wife. So now she has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Chelsea is nice enough but Stephanie might actually hate Vassa–which is fine since it’s mostly mutual. It’s an odd living arrangement to Vassa but no more peculiar than a lot of things in her working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.

The nights have been acting especially strange as they become longer and longer. When her stepsister (Stephanie, naturally) sends Vassa out in the middle of the night for light bulbs the only store that’s still open is the local BY’s. Everyone knows about BY’s, and its owner Babs Yagg, but people do tend to remember a store that dances around on chicken legs and has a habit of decapitating shoplifters.

Vassa is sure getting out of the store quickly will be easy. Even her enchanted wooden doll, Erg, is willing to behave and keep her sticky fingers to herself this once. When things don’t go as planned in BY’s it will take all of Vassa’s wits and Erg’s cunning to escape the store alive and maybe even break whatever curse has been placed on Brooklyn’s nights in Vassa in the Night (2016) by Sarah Porter.

This standalone urban fantasy is inspired by the Russian folktake “Vassilisa the Beautiful.” Although Vassa is described as incredibly pale, the rest of the book is populated with characters who are realistically diverse. Complicated dynamics within Vassa’s blended family add another dimension to the story. Evocative settings and imagery help bring this bizarre corner of Brooklyn to life including strong allusions to the Studio Ghibli film “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Vassa is a cynical, no-nonsense character who is quick to make jokes and take risks with the delightfully sharp-tongued Erg at her side. Vassa’s frank narration is sure to remind fans of Veronica Mars as will her resigned acceptance of her role as hero in this story.

Elements of traditional horror blend well with high-concept fantasy in this surprising and engaging tale. A deliberate lack of romantic tension makes Vassa in the Night a refreshing read focused on themes of self-reliance, friendship, and family.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Reader by Traci Chee, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the August 2016 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review from which it can be seen on various sites online*

The Dolls: A Review

The Dolls by Kiki SullivanEveny Cheval hasn’t set foot in Carrefour, Louisiana in fourteen years–not since she moved away with her aunt Bea after her mother’s suicide. After years spent in Brooklyn, New York, Bea and her aunt are moving back to Carrefour just before Eveny’s seventeenth birthday.

Upon her return, Eveny is stunned by the stately old houses and the pristine gardens. Even her new classmates are flawlessly beautiful–so much so that most people call them the Dolls. Drawn in by Peregrine Marceau and Chloe St. Pierre, Eveny is soon at the center of the decadence that is the Dolls’ world.

But beneath the wealth and charm, Carrefour is hiding a secret, one that leads to murder and dark truths about Eveny and her past in The Dolls (2014) by Kiki Sullivan.

Atmospheric writing and genuine chills enhance this story that is populated with familiar mean girls, gorgeous boys and a generally clever narrator (however readers like me may wonder why a girl who left town at the age of three has quite so many memories of the town she left behind).

Sullivan capitalizes on the southern setting here to spine-tingling effect as the story moves in a surprising direction involving voodoo magic and sinister forces at work around Carrefour. Spooky moments and incidents of near-peril are tempered with campy fun and a hint of romance with one of the numerous beautiful boys to be found in this narrative. Although Eveny fits in seemlessly with the Dolls she remains equally sharp-witted and sharp-tongued throughout the story, making her easy to cheer for throughout the story.

Sure to be popular with fans of similar books as well as Veronica Mars.

Possible Pairings: Compulsion by Martina Boone, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shephard, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online including an SLJ Spotlight*

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You stop fearing the Devil when you’re holding his hand.”

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve TucholkeViolet’s grandmother, Freddie, told her to be careful of the Devil countless times. But with Freddie dead and her parents indefinitely traveling through Europe, it’s hard enough just to survive without thinking about the Devil. There are bills to pay, a twin brother to fight with and a neighbor to try and avoid.

In need of money, Violet takes a gamble and tries to rent out her family’s guesthouse. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. No one in the small town of Echo thinks much of Violet and her formerly-rich family.

Then River West drives into town all sly smiles and lazy grace to rent the guesthouse and turn the whole town upside down.

The closer Violet gets to River the more she finds herself drawn to him. But as she learns more about River and her own family’s past the more obvious it becomes that Freddie was right all along. It’s easy to lose sight of the Devil when he’s the one giving you a crooked smile like no one else in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2013) by April Genevieve Tucholke.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is Tucholke’s first novel. It is also the first of a duet. (The second volume Between the Spark and the Burn will be published in 2014.)

Violet is a great narrator with a cadence reminiscent of lazy days telling stories in a summer haze. Low level swear words (there are a lot of things that Violet has damn strong feelings about) and references to classic movies and books (like Casablanca and Hawthorne’s short stories) are woven seamlessly into the story to give the whole novel an otherworldly air.

This story is also strangely devoid of theology or other non-secular discussions for a book that focuses so heavily on Devil mythology and the idea of evil. In some ways that is a good thing as it makes the book approachable for a wider audience. On the other hand, even for someone who is not religious, it felt strange to see so much concern for the Devil but no mention of God except to say that there must be some kind of god if there is, in fact, some kind of devil.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is an enjoyable book for readers who don’t mind skipping over small details that don’t quite make sense. Because it is often the little things that make this story frustrating. Where, exactly, is the town of Echo located? Why does Violet not question her strange and instant attraction to the stranger in her guest house? How many times can two teenagers realistically sleep in the same bed (naked) with nothing happening?

And, of course, the biggest question: How many chances for forgiveness does a sociopath really deserve?

Which leads to the biggest problem in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Almost none of the characters are likable. While Violet is a sympathetic (if naive) narrator, none of the secondary characters are likable. Violet’s twin brother is a brute, her neighbor friend is vapid to the point of meanness. River, the supposed male lead, is a villain in every sense of the word: he kills people, hurts people and creates mayhem everywhere he goes not because he has no choice but because he can. Because he enjoys it.

While there is always room for anti-heroes in literature–especially ones that readers will want to root for–it is impossible to find any redeeming qualities in River. He is a sociopath. The only times he is angry or shows regret about his actions is when he is caught in the act. Otherwise it’s all in good fun. River is meant to be sympathetic but in the face of so many wrongs, that sympathy was never warranted. More to the point, River being so awful also drags down the other characters. Instead of seeing Violet and others who try to help River as steadfast or strong they only come off as enablers who are painfully, dangerously ignorant of the devil who has just come to town.

This blend of gothic horror and devilish anti-heroes will appeal to fans of Hush, Hush and Beautiful Creatures. Readers looking for a book with characters who are actually likable instead of just characters who say they are likable will be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Compulsion by Martina Boone, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, Beautiful Creature by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel, Swoon by Nina Malkin, Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore, The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan, The Dolls by Kiki Sullivan, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel