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*

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: A Review

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow by Jessica TownsendMorrigan Crow survived her trials and earned admission to the Wundrous Society. Finally, she can have a place in Nevermoor and, more importantly, the family and friends she’s always wanted.

Unfortunately, completing her trials was the easy part. Despite gaining admittance to the Society, the elders are all suspicious of Morrigan’s ability to manipulate Wunder–the magical energy that powers everything in Nevermoor. While Morrigan’s talent is rare, it is also forever and irrevocably linked to the notorious Ezra Squall, a villain known as The Wundersmith and remembered for his numerous crimes against and continued exile from Nevermoor.

Instead of being trained in the arcane arts, the Society only wants to show Morrigan that all Wundersmiths of the past were evil, dangerous, and often incompetent. Worse, Morrigan’s unit is being blackmailed, forced to meet exceedingly risky demands or risk the unit’s secret being revealed to the entire Society.

When prominent citizens across Nevermoor start disappearing, Morrigan’s beloved new home takes on a dangerous edge. Now that Morrigan has found a place in Nevermoor, she’ll need all of her wits and her friends to keep it in Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow (2018) by Jessica Townsend.

Wundersmith is the second book in Townsend’s Nevermoor series. The book picks up shortly after the conclusion of Nevermoor as Morrigan prepares to start her first term at the Wundrous Society. Check out the print edition for inset illustrations at the start of each chapter and listen to the audio version (read by Gemma Whelan) for a fully immersive read.

Townsend wildly expands the world of Nevermoor as Morrigan and readers learn more about her new home and delve into the mysterious history of Wundersmiths through the ages. Morrigan’s world is described in vibrant detail with a perfect blend of humor and adventure.

Wundersmith explores themes of friendship and belonging to excellent effect as Morrigan continues to carve out a place for herself in Nevermoor in spite of those too eager to see her fail. Readers will appreciate the balance Townsend strikes between a self-contained story and tantalizing hints of what’s in store for Morrigan’s next adventure.

With higher stakes, more action, and greater dangers, Wundersmith builds off book one to deliver an even stronger and even more exciting installment. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon, Foxheart by Claire Legrand, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross, The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski

Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dangerous Alliance by Jennieker CohenLady Victoria Aston lives comfortably with her father, helping to manage the family estate and enjoying the relative freedom and security afforded to a young woman whose sister has made a good marriage.

Unfortunately all is not as it appears. When her sister has to flee her abusive husband, Vicky must rise to the challenge of finding a suitable husband by the end of the season before her family is left destitute.

Vicky is certain her favorite Jane Austen novels can provide the guidance she needs in this endeavor despite being surprisingly silent on the subjects of recently returned but still painfully distant best friends and, perhaps more urgently, mysterious accidents that may prevent Vicky from surviving her season long enough to find a suitor in Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance (2019) by Jennieke Cohen.

This debut novel is a well-researched homage to all things Austen complete with chapter epigraphs from Austen’s classic novels. Cohen (a member of The Jane Austen Society of North America) also provides a detailed author’s note demonstrating the care and research that has gone into bringing Vicky’s story and her world to life.

The close third person narration primarily focuses on Vicky with chapters from other characters, notably including Vicky’s estranged best friend Tom Sherborne, helping to further expand the story. Vicky is a plucky heroine who faces numerous challenges with aplomb and a fair bit of good humor when following in the footsteps of her favorite literary heroines proves less successful than she might have hoped.

Dangerous Alliance is part madcap adventure and part romance wrapped up in a mystery surrounding the accidents that plague Vicky from the very first page. While this genre mashup can be disorienting, the story sticks close to the wit and gentle tone readers familiar with Austen would expect–complete with a satisfying resolution. Recommended for fans of romantic comedies, cozy mysteries and, of course, Jane Austen.

Possible Pairings: Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Antsey; Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger; Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones; A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee; Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix; These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas

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

The Kingdom: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Kingdom by Jess RothenbergThe Kingdom™ is more than a theme park. Filled with rides, augmented reality shows, and much more, The Kingdom™ is a completely immersive experience where visitors dreams come true.

Ana is one of seven fantasists. Like the formerly extinct species that roam The Kingdom™’s parks, Ana is genetically engineered–partly biological and part machine. She and the other fantasists reign over the park as imagined princesses greeting visitors, performing, and helping park visitors’ dreams come true.

Fantasists can understand and identify emotions. But they aren’t supposed to experience them. Except Ana is fairly certain she feels something when she befriends Owen Chen, one of the park’s employees.

Ana isn’t the only thing malfunctioning in the park. Engineered animals keep dying, her sisters are scared. Then there are the nightmares. When Ana is accused of murdering Owen, she knows she is innocent. But it’s all too easy for the public to believe the worst.

After spending her whole life catering to the whims of others, Ana will have to learn to speak for herself if she wants to survive in The Kingdom (2019) by Jess Rothenberg.

The Kingdom is a sleek blend of mystery and sci-fi elements in a dystopian world where resources are limited and escapism is worth any price. Ana’s story unfolds in a non-linear narrative including Ana’s first person narration, trial transcripts, and interviews.

While the non-linear narrative lends an element of suspense to this story, it never builds tension instead making for slow pacing and the sense that Ana is deliberately withholding information.

Questions of sentience, humanity, and mercy are interrogated throughout the narrative as Ana and her sisters are dehumanized and subjugated as part of their lives as Fantasists. Gory scenes with animal deaths further emphasize the theme park’s grim inner workings.

The Kingdom is a stark story set in an eerily plausible world. Recommended for readers who like their speculative fiction, and their heroines, to have a little grit.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton, The Similars by Rebecca Hanover, The Grace Year by Kim Liggett, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

Sadie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Sadie by Courtney SummersThe only thing that has ever really mattered to Sadie is her little sister, Mattie. Sadie pins all of her hopes and dreams onto Mattie. She gives her the care and affection their mother can’t usually manage. Mattie is better and more and she deserves everything Sadie never thinks to want for herself.

But then Mattie is murdered.

The trail is cold and the police don’t care. After all, she’s just another dead girl.

But Sadie knows who did it. And she knows she is the only one who can make them pay–even if it means losing herself in the process.

Weeks later West McCray hears about Sadie while he’s recording a radio segment on small, forgotten towns in America. The police might not care, most of the town might not care, but West finds that he does. What starts as a podcast soon becomes a much larger project as West delves into Sadie’s past and tries to follow her trail before it’s too late in Sadie (2018) by Courtney Summers.

Summers’ latest standalone alternates between Sadie’s first person narration and West’s podcast segments as he follows her trail.

Sadie is a brutal story about the disasters left in the aftermath of loss and poverty. Despite the violence surrounding Mattie’s murder and Sadie’s own revenge quest, the prose never sensationalizes it. Through West, Summers makes a deliberate choice to never make Mattie into a plot point and never to appeal to the lowest common denominator by glamorizing violence.

Sadie is a calculating and singular narrator. Her shrewd narration contrasts sharply with dialog as she navigates the world with a severe stutter (a speech impediment that could have been fixed when Sadie was a child if her mother had bothered to pursue treatment). That contrast in particular highlights the way that Sadie explores poverty and privilege–particularly as West begins to unpack his own privilege in being able to initially dismiss Sadie’s disappearance as too common and not interesting enough for a podcast.

Nothing here is neat or simple–including Sadie herself. While the ending leaves readers with a lot of questions it also places the decision of how her story will unfold, back in her own hands–a freedom that was impossible to imagine at the beginning of the novel. Sadie is an incisive story about agency and feminism as well as an utterly engrossing thriller. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

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

The Vanishing Stair: A (WIRoB) Review

Here’s a teaser from the start of my review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson (originally reviewed for Washington Independent Review of Books):

cover art for The Vanishing Stair by Maureen JohnsonEllingham Academy is a prestigious Vermont boarding school founded by eccentric billionaire Albert Ellingham. Its students are encouraged to think of learning as a game while pursuing their passions. Some of them come to the academy to write, others to create. That’s the one thing that binds the students together: “Everyone at Ellingham Academy had a thing.”

Stevie Bell’s thing is crime; specifically, solving the Ellingham case.

In 1936, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. Despite doing as the kidnappers asked and paying a ransom, Ellingham never reunited with his family. Iris’ body was soon found; Alice was never recovered.

The biggest clue in the case was the “Truly Devious” letter — an eerie poem reminiscent of Dorothy Parker that promised violence and maybe even death.

Stevie isn’t the first person to try to solve the case. But she has something no one else does: new evidence. It’s all contained in an old tea tin filled with “a bit of white feather, a bit of beaded cloth, a tarnished, gold-colored lipstick tube with the mummified remains of a red lipstick, a tiny enameled pillbox in the shape of a shoe, some pieces of notebook paper and black-and-white photographs, and the unfinished draft of a poem.”

Together, these “humble objects” are proof that the infamous Truly Devious letter may not have been tied to the case at all, but a student prank.

The problem is that Stevie’s parents pull her out of Ellingham mere weeks into her first term, after the death of another student, Hayes Major (whose murder Stevie tried to solve). Knowing what happened to Hayes, and knowing that another student was likely involved, Stevie senses missing pieces.

You can read my full review of The Vanishing Stair (2019) by Maureen Johnson here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/the-vanishing-stair

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith

Truly Devious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stevie Bell had a simple desire: she wanted to be standing over a dead body.”

cover art for Truly Devious by Maureen JohnsonStevie Bell has two great passions: the study of crime in general and the Ellingham case specifically. She has read all the books, all the articles, and all of the case transcripts about the kidnapping of Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. She knows the contents of the Truly Devious letter–the biggest clue in the case–by heart. She knows every facet of the case and she knows that she is going to be the person to solve.

That passion, that certainty, is what earns Stevie admission to the elusive and prestigious Ellingham Academy–a Vermont boarding school where learning is a game. In the school students can create, learn, and study their own passions whatever they may be. There are geniuses, novelists, artists, and more.

Stevie still thinks there’s a possibility that her admission might have been a mistake.

But she isn’t going to let that, or her anxiety, stop her from solving the Ellingham case–no matter how cold it may be. She just needs to get a handle on her new classes and her housemates. Except someone has other plans. When death returns to Ellingham Stevie finds herself at the center of a case that’s anything but cold in Truly Devious (2018) by Maureen Johnson.

Truly Devious is the first book (and first act) in Johnson’s tightly plotted Truly Devious trilogy which continues in The Vanishing Stair. The story follows Stevie in close third person along with chapters interspersed throughout following key players in the Ellingham case as the kidnapping and failed ransom drop unfold.

Stevie’s knowledge of mystery conventions and true crime contrast well with her open bewilderment and naiveté when it comes to dealing with her classmates–especially David the mysterious prankster who is almost as annoying as he is attractive to Stevie.

When a student dies on campus, Stevie is drawn even deeper into Ellingham’s myriad secrets and discovers that there might be more to both cases than she initially thought. Evocative settings and an intricate plot are only somewhat impeded by poorly executed characterization with some behaviors that never quite hit the mark.

Truly Devious is an ode to classic boarding school mysteries. Recommended for true-crime enthusiasts, amateur detectives, and of course anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding a body in the library.

Possible Pairings: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero, Overturned by Lamar Giles, Running Girl by Simon Mason, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith