The Wren Hunt: A Review

cover art for The Wren Hunt by Mary WatsonRaised by her grandfather, Wren Silke has grown up in Kilshamble, Ireland. She knows every inch of the town and the woods. And she knows that every year on Stephen’s Day she will be chased through the woods as part of the annual Wren Hunt.

The Wren Hunt is meant to be figurative–not an actual hunt. But the Judges–a group with magical connections to nature–take the hunt all too seriously chasing Wren until they draw blood. As Augurs–people who can use patterns and connections to see the future–Wren and her community are in the minority in Kilshamble. With Judges controlling most of the nemeta–objects from which both groups draw power–it’s only a matter of time before the Augurs are wiped out entirely.

Eager to help and imagining a future where she won’t be hunted, Wren volunteers to help the Augurs reclaim their advantage (and hopefully some nemeta) by going undercover at Harkness House. But nothing is as it seems among the Judges or the Augurs and soon Wren will have to decide who she can truly trust as she tries to end this bloody feud in The Wren Hunt (2018) by Mary Watson.

The Wren Hunt is Watson’s first foray into YA fantasy.

Wren’s first-person narration is tense and often claustrophobic as Wren tries to stop the latest hunt and only manages to escalate it instead. Her frenzied, stream-of-consciousness style narration is fast-paced and immediate.

Atmospheric descriptions and the eerie opening go far to pull readers into the story and bring Kilshamble to life. Unfortunately the magic system is never explored (or explained) at length making it difficult for readers to keep up with Wren as she is drawn into internal politics and soon caught between both groups in her role as a spy.

The Wren Hunt is a strange and sometimes messy story with an intricate plot set in a complex world. Watson artfully explores themes of agency and loyalty though fails to deliver a truly satisfying fantasy. Recommended for readers who like their books to be part story to absorb and part puzzle to assemble.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, Mister Monday by Garth Nix

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

Now a Major Motion Picture: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthyIris Thorne is dreading the movie adaptation of her grandmother’s Elementia books. Hailed as a feminist response to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the Elementia books are seen as classic fantasy and have the diehard fans to prove it. The fandom even has a name: Thornians.

The movie adaptation is only going to make that worse. Iris and her family already had to deal with a crazy fan trying to abduct her younger brother, Ryder. She can’t imagine what will happen with a bigger fan base. Nothing good, that much is obvious.

Iris hopes that spending the summer in Ireland observing the production with Ryder will give her the perfect chance to sabotage the production. After all, if the movie never gets made no one will be able to watch it.

When Iris’s sabotage schemes are thwarted by dreamy leading actor Eamon and the crew’s infectious enthusiasm she starts to wonder if the one thing she has been dreading might also be the one thing she desperately needs in Now a Major Motion Picture (2018) by Cori McCarthy.

Cori McCarthy’s latest standalone novel is a charming contemporary romance. Iris’s narration is razor sharp as she tries very hard to remain an outsider on the set even while the cast and crew do their best to befriend her.

Iris remembers the trauma her family has suffered because of the Elementia books and she is weary to let herself embrace that legacy even as she starts to learn more about its feminist themes and the director’s efforts to stay true to that in the adaptation. Iris is very much a fish out of water among the cast and crew and this is a charming story about how she starts to find her place there–and maybe even in her own family.

Now a Major Motion Picture has humor, a snarky narrator, and a swoony romance all set in a picturesque locale–in other words, all the makings of a perfect summer read.

Possible Pairings: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

The Accident Season: A Review

“So let’s raise our glass to the accident season,

To the river beneath us where we sink our souls,

To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling,

One more drink for the watery road.”

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-DoyleCara is afraid she has no secrets. She is afraid that she isn’t witchy and interesting like her best friend Bea. She is afraid that she’ll never be as in control as her older sister Alice. She is afraid to think too hard about her ex-stepbrother, Sam. Most all of, she is afraid that this accident season is going to be a bad one.

Cara is afraid of her secrets. Every October, Cara’s family falls victim to a slew of accidents. It’s an open secret among their friends and neighbors who ignore the scrapes and bruises or try to find reasonable explanations for the broken bones and deeper hurts.

Cara is afraid of everybody else’s secrets. Everyone in Cara’s family is good at keeping secrets from friends, from each other. They’re good at pretending that the cuts don’t hurt, that the bruises don’t show.

But every accident leaves a mark; every season creates new secrets, new things no one wants to talk about. This season Cara will start to learn why in The Accident Season (2015) by Moïra Fowley-Doyle.

The Accident Season is Fowley-Doyle’s debut novel.

The real power and strength of The Accident Season is in its ambiguity. This is a story about secrets and the lies we tell others (and even ourselves) to keep them. This is a story that explores exactly what it means when there are no easy answers.

The Accident Season is nuanced, optimistic and just a little bit unsettling. In a story filled with secrets and things not said, Cara’s first person narration is taut and keeps up the tension as she and her friends try to learn more about the accident season and their mysterious classmate Elsie.

The Accident Season is an atmospheric and distinctive novel where nothing is exactly what readers first expect. Part ghost story and part mystery, The Accident Season is an aching story about love and loss with elements of sweet romance and sparks of magic. This meditative story about family and the many ways old wounds can heal proves that Fowley-Doyle is an author to watch. The perfect blend of eerie and whimsical. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, When We Collided by Emery Lord, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

The Shadows: A Review

The Shadows by Megan ChanceGrace Knox is nearly seventeen. She should be preparing for her debut and enjoying everything that 19th Century New York has to offer. Instead Grace is tasked with keeping her family from the poorhouse by marrying well (and quickly).

While Grace is dismayed at this turn, she is thrilled to be the object of Patrick Devlin’s affections. Patrick being young and well-off, not to mention good looking, is more than Grace could have hoped for. Grace may not share Patrick’s passion to fight for Ireland’s independence. But surely such a passion can grow over time?

The only problem is that while Grace is enjoying Patrick’s company her thoughts keep turning to Patrick’s mysterious new stable boy Diarmid. Being with Derry is impossible, of course. It would mean losing everything not just for herself but for her entire family.

The only problem is Grace feels like she knows Diarmid and no matter how much she tries to stay away, she feels drawn to him. But Diarmid has his own secrets. Secrets about Irish legends and heroes. Secrets that might get Grace killed in The Shadows (2014) by Megan Chance.

The Shadows is the first book in The Fianna Trilogy.

Chance offers a well-written historical fantasy here rich with details that bring Victorian New York to life. Grace’s insecurities about her worth are frustrating throughout the story although Grace is an otherwise interesting heroine. Unfortunately there is very little going on here beyond the love triangle.

Chance sets up many elements and plot points that will no doubt be addressed later in the trilogy. Unfortunately The Shadows is thin on resolution. Instead readers watch as Grace waffles between Patrick and Diarmid with little in the way of an actual decision until mere pages of the story remain. (This decision will likely be reversed if not entirely unraveled at least once before the trilogy concludes.)

Readers looking for a pure paranormal romance will likely enjoy The Shadows quite a bit. Readers who prefer their romances tempered with plot development, on the other hand, may be better served elsewhere.

Possible Pairings: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, The Luxe by Anna Godbersen, Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones, This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A (rapid fire) Review

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan: A Novel of the Civil War by Jennifer Armstrong (1996)

The Dreams of Mairhe Mehan by Jennifer ArmstrongThis book has been in my house begging to be read since 2004. With seven years of build up maybe it’s not a surprise that this book did not leave me dazzled. Maybe that was the only possible outcome. The story is interesting but from the outset the book had a lot working against it including a plain cover (mine has a white background with black text and . . . nothing else) and some difficult pronunciation (“Mairhe” is pronounced “Moira” and is the Irish form of “Mary” all of which I thought was made clear in the novel but someone didn’t because there is a note at the start of the book explaining all of that–which makes the whole thing feel intimidating).

At 128 pages (hardcover) I hesitate to explain much of the plot but I will say this: Armstrong does a great job if you look at this as a slice-of-life novel. Although I liked Mairhe as a heroine the entire story hinged on a character being likable and I just didn’t like him very much. It happens. Her descriptions of the Civil War battles and Washington of the time are stunning and evocative in a way few writers ever manage. The writing here is lyrical and immediately brings to mind an Irish brogue which adds to the dream-like quality of the entire book.

If anyone can even find this book anymore (NYPL no longer has it) I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction, who is interested in the Civil War, or wants a book about the immigrant experience as much of the plot hinges on what it means to be American (or Irish) in an era when America was still figuring out its identity as a country.

Black Potatoes: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Black Potatoes by Susan Cambell BartolettiIn 1845 Ireland relied most heavily on one crop. Farmers cultivated grains, green vegetables and a variety of root vegetables. But those were often crops owed to wealthy British landlords for rent money if not owned outright. Those landlords would ship the harvested food to England at a tidy profit. Among all of this export, potatoes were truly an Irish tuber.

It was potatoes that saw poor laborers through the long winter months after everything else was sold. Boiled, roasted, mashed with garlic and butter. Potatoes formed every meal for families across Ireland. There are few other vegetables as easy to grow that are as filling and nutritious as a potato. The only real problem was that potatoes could not last from season to season. By May the potato stores were gone and the Hungry Months began; poor farmers and their families had to look for food elsewhere sometimes scavenging, sometimes begging.

It was not an ideal way of life, but it worked. Until 1845 when a strange blight struck the potatoes near harvest. Once dug up, the potatoes turned black for no apparent reason. Were the little people aiming to take the potatoes for themselves? Were the farmers being punished for wasting the glut of potatoes from the year before?

In 1845 no one knew what devilry was work. The only certainty for most farmers was that the Hungry Months were going to last much longer than usual, but even then no one knew the Hungry Months would last five years. No one knew the Great Irish Famine would kill one million people from starvation and disease while driving another two million to emigrate.

Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti was the 2002 winner of the Sibert Medal as, according the ALA, “the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year” (think Newbery awards but only open to non-fiction books). Happily, in this case distinguished does not mean stodgy or dense.

Bartoletti’s writing is straightforward and absorbing while conveying a wealth of information. Black Potatoes touches upon the obvious: the importance of the potato to Ireland, what caused the potatoes to turn black (a disgusting fungus that flourished in an unusually rainy planting season), and what happened when the potatoes failed. While looking at these broad historical strokes, Bartoletti  introduces readers to Irish history and politics  (circa 1845) with England and the United Kingdom while also describing the motivations that led so many to leave Ireland (and the conditions they faced on the long journey and at their final destinations).

A variety of primary source research lends an informal tone Black Potatoes and provides personal accounts of a variety of Irish men and women who experienced the famine first hand. Bartoletti brings a bleak period of history to life with aplomb and just the right amount of humor and compassion. Illustrations from period newspapers like the one seen on the cover lend even more authenticity to an already rich text. An eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the period and a must read for history buffs.

Possible Pairings: From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, New York: A Short History by George J. Lankevich
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850

The Last of the High Kings: A review

The Last of the High Kings by Kate ThompsonThe Last of the High Kings (2007) is Kate Thompson‘s sequel to her wonderful debut novel The New Policeman (2005). Some time has passed since J.J. was last seen visiting Tir na n’Og to discover where all the time was going. In fact, quite a bit of time has passed. J.J. is now grown with a wife and children of his own. At first, this time lapse was a jolt as was the changed tone between this book and its predecessor–there was something inherently Irish-sounding in the narrative of The New Policeman that was lacking in Thompson’s new book. At least, I thought it was. Upon re-reading it became apparent that the “Irish-ness” was equally present in both novels.

J.J. and his wife Aisling have made a fine home on the Liddy family farm even though J.J.’s music career keeps him too busy for any actual farming. The Liddy children, teen Hazel, eleven-year-old Jenny, nine-year-old Donal, and the destructive two-year-old Aiden also keep their parents busy. Jenny is particularly difficult to reign in with her willful nature and predilection for skipping school to wander the fields with a mysterious white goat.

Although at the core of the story, none of that is where the story starts. Instead the story begins with a young man, now many, many years dead, waiting on a hill of stones to learn where his future lies. Years later, on that same beacon, a ghost stands guard over the hillside for reasons long forgotten. Throughout the novel this ghost’s fate will intertwine with those of the Liddys in unexpected ways that will change the family forever.

The Last of the High Kings, as the name might suggest, integrates a lot of Irish lore into its plot. Fairies, pukas, and of course ghosts, all play important parts in the story. These magical elements work in strange contrast with the commentary on global warming and other man-made maladies that run beneath the surface of the storyline.

In terms of plot, The Last of the High Kings was not always as enchanting as The New Policeman, partly because readers will already know all about Tir na n’Og and Aengus Og but also because this book had to tread different ground and, at times, made J.J. much less clever than readers of the first book will remember. These problems became less bothersome as the plot moved forward and the story began to move along quite nicely by the halfway point.

The characters found within these pages really are just as charming as those found in The New Policeman. Written in the third person, the narrative follows many characters’ points of view. At first this might make the book seem scattered, but it gets easier as the characters become more familiar. Donal, the quiet and introspective member of the Liddy clan, is a particularly delightful addition. This technique also allows Thompson to look at the family as both individuals and a larger unit. While The New Policeman was largely about the land of eternal youth and fairy lore, The Last of the High Kings is firmly grounded in this world dealing with fantastical elements but also especially with the Liddys reconnecting as a family.

(This book will stand alone without its prequel, however to get the full picture it is really vital to read both titles.)

Possible Pairings: The War of the Oaks by Emma Bull (slightly older target audience), The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby,  The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner