All the Crooked Saints: A Review

Here is a thing that draws everyone to Bicho Raro: The promise of a miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears after their first miracle: What they’ll need to do to complete their second miracle.

The strange magic of miracles has been a part of the Soria family for generations–long before the family left Mexico for the desert of Bicho Raro, Colorado.

Now, in 1962, three cousins are at a turning point where magic and action intersect.

Joaquin wants many things. He wants his family to understand him, he wants to spend time with his cousins, most of all he wants someone to hear him DJing as Diablo Diablo on the pirate radio station he is running with Beatriz from inside a box truck.

Daniel is the current Saint of Bicho Raro. He performs the miracles and he sets the pilgrims on their paths to help themselves. Despite his saintliness he is incapable of performing the miracle he needs for himself.

Her family calls Beatriz the girl without feelings, objectively she can’t argue the point. But when unexpected misfortune befalls Bicho Raro, Beatriz will have to reconcile her feelings (or lack thereof) with the logical fact of what she has to do next.

Everyone wants a miracle but when miracles go horribly wrong the residents of Bicho Raro might have to settle for forgiveness instead in All the Crooked Saints (2017) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Set in 1962 when radio waves could be stolen and miracles weren’t quite so shocking, Stiefvater’s latest standalone novel is a story of miracles and magic but also family and forgiveness. An omniscient third person narrator tells the story as Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel are drawn into the center of the Soria family’s tumultuous relationship to the miracles and pilgrims who shape so much of the Soria identity.

Pilgrims come to Bicho Raro hoping a miracle can change their life, or maybe their fate. The Soria family changed years ago on a lonely night when a miracle went horribly wrong. The Soria cousins–Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel–might be the ones to help right the wrongs of that night. But only if they’re willing to risk changing Bicho Raro and themselves forever.

All the Crooked Saints is an evocative and marvelously told story. Wry humor, unique fantasy elements, friendship, and the fierce power of hope come together here to create an unforgettable story. Not to be missed. Will hold special appeal for readers who enjoy character driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BookExpo 2017*

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Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Where Futures End: A Review

“All accidents are magic.”

One year from now in “When We Asked the Impossible” Dylan is desperate to believe that there is more out there and that he can be more himself if only he can get back to the tantalizing world that haunts his childhood memories.

Ten years from now in “When We Were TV” Brixney is positive she can get her brother, and by extension herself, out of a debtor’s colony. All she needs is more views on her social media feed. An unexpected visitor to Flavor Foam could be exactly what she needs.

Thirty years from now in “When We Went High-Concept” Epony is running out of ways to save her family when their town is flooded. Soon she’s forced into an impossible position, her entire online presence erased and her life inextricably altered in a bid to go high-concept.

Sixty years from now in “When We Could Hardly Contain Ourselves” Reef struggles to survive while finding distraction if not comfort in the virtual game playing out across the city’s streets. Until it all goes wrong.

One hundred years from now in “When We Ended it All” Quinn embarks on her coming-of-age quest to find a token to bring back for a husband she isn’t sure she wants. During her travels she meets a stranger. On the first day Quinn will tell her story. On the second day he will tell his story and things will begin to come together. On the third day, one of them will die. Quinn will choose who.

Five people. Five stories. Two worlds. One moment they have all been moving toward in Where Futures End (2016) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Where Futures End is Peevyhouse’s debut novel.

This ambitious novel is broken into five interconnected sections that work on their own as short stories and seamlessly come together to create a larger narrative of a world and its mutable future.

Where Futures End strikes a fine balance between science fiction and fantasy as readers and characters try to reconcile a changing world with basis in scientific fact with the wondrous consequences of those changes.

This eerily prescient book is filled with distinct and haunting characters as well as rich and intricate world building. Where Futures End is a smart and thoughtful book that is perfect for readers looking to completely immerse themselves in a story. Ideal for readers who enjoy tales of portal fantasies, parallel worlds or alternate universes, and short science fiction. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Magicians by Lev Grossman; All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis; The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton; The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

The Reader: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sefia has been hiding and evading capture for most of her life. It started with the house  built on a hill filled with secret rooms and hidden passages meant to guard a dangerous secret. When her father is murdered, Sefia does what she has been trained to do. She hides. She grabs the thing that her parents spent their lives protecting. She goes to her aunt Nin and together they run away.

After Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find her. Sefia turns to the strange rectangular object her father died to protect. As she examines the thing, Sefia slowly realizes it is a book.

The Book may hold secrets about Nin’s abduction and Sefia’s own parents if only she can master the symbols within and learn to read the words. In Sefia’s world, books are their own kind of magic–a dangerous power in the wrong hands. Sefia will need that power if she wants to rescue Nin and stop hiding in The Reader (2016) by Traci Chee.

The Reader is Chee’s first novel and the beginning of her Sea of Ink and Gold series. This book is a layered narrative filled with hidden messages and clues within the text (be sure to look at the page numbers for one of them). The depth and layers within The Reader are impressive and staggering to contemplate. However the hidden clues, messages, and intricate physical design of this novel are distracting at times. Readers willing to give this story time and a proper chance will enjoy the intricate layers and the unexpected ways Chee’s multiple narratives come together.

In the fantasy world Chee has created the written word doesn’t exist. While they have identifying symbols to label things like herbs and other items, this world relies more heavily on an oral tradition for their stories and history. Books and reading are magic in a very literal sense and so both things are closely guarded by mysterious powers and largely unknown to citizens like Sefia.

If you spend too much time scrutinizing the main conceit of this plot (reading doesn’t exist), it starts to crumble. How does electricity work in this otherwise non-industrial society? How do characters leave messages for each other without written words? Are glyphs used? Oral recordings? No one knows or at least no one shares.

Vocabulary that would be taken for granted in any other story also needs further clarification in a book like The Reader. How do characters know about pens or reading lamps? Why do they exist if, as the novel states, reading doesn’t exist? Furthermore, although Chee’s writing is rich and heady, there isn’t a particularly good way to show a character learning to read when that character doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe a book, letters, or words. It makes for plodding passages and very slow progress for the rest of the story.

Readers willing to ignore these niggling questions may find themselves drawn into Sefia’s story. The premise, the larger message about the written word, and particularly Sefia’s own growth is empowering. Chee’s descriptions are vivid and bring Sefia’s multi-faceted world to life.

The Reader is a slow-paced adventure story. Sefia embarks on a journey with unlikely allies and surprising foes. She discovers magic and her own inner strength. She also, strangely enough, learns to read. How you feel about that last one will largely influence how you feel about this story as a whole. Recommended for readers seeking an introspective fantasy with a slow payoff. (Go into this one willing to commit to the series as many of the big reveals come in final chapters.)

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Princeless Book One: Save Yourself: A Graphic Novel Review

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley and M. GoodwinAdrienne Ashe doesn’t want to be a princess. It’s boring and, to be brutally honest, she doesn’t understand why princesses always need to wait for a prince to do the rescuing anyway.

That doesn’t stop Adrienne’s parents from locking her in a tower on her sixteenth birthday. It also doesn’t stop Adrienne from bitterly complaining out the injustice and pointing out how she doesn’t even look like a stupid traditional princess with her brown skin and dark, curly hair (not to mention her prowess with a sword!).

Instead of pining for some handsome prince, Adrienne spends her time in the tower befriending the dragon guarding the tower. When Adrienne finds a sword hidden in the tower, she decides she has waited to be rescued long enough.

With a sword in her hand and a dragon by her side, Adrienne sets out to escape the tower and rescue her other sisters in Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself (2012) by Jeremy Whitley and illustrated by M. Goodwin.

Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself collects the first 4 issues of Princeless. It is the first of four bindups. There is also a spinoff series.

Whitley delivers a frank and self-aware story that is refreshingly and unapologetically feminist. Adrienne is a no-nonsense heroine who isn’t afraid to do what she thinks is right and point out hypocrisy and double standards when she sees them. This plays out to especially good effect when she meets up with a girl who makes armor for warriors and discovers the vast inequity between standard armor for men and women.

Goodwin’s illustrations bring this story to life with wry humor and charming artwork that beautifully compliments the story. The facial expressions for characters throughout are especially priceless.

Princeless Book 1: Save Yourself is a great set up for this series. Whitley and Goodwin introduce many of the key players and the basic premise of the series while also delivering a lot of fun arcs along the way. This series is a delightful addition to the typical princess and anti-princess fare. Highly recommended for readers of comics, fans of fairy tales and retellings, as well as anyone looking for a new kickass heroine to cheer on.

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

The Truth Commission: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“When you tell a story, you shape the truth.”

The Truth Commission by Susan JubyAfter years of being fodder (along with her parents) for her sister Kiera’s best-selling graphic novel series, The Diana Chronicles, Normandy Pale is ready to come into her own. She’d like to be known for her own strengths and accomplishments instead of constantly being compared to her hapless counterpart in the Chronicles.

But it turns out it’s hard to stop being a muse. Especially when you never asked to be one.

How can Normandy focus on her projects at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design when she is terrified of what fresh humiliations her character will be subjected to in Kiera’s highly anticipated new book? How can she embark on a search for truth with the Truth Commission she accidentally started with best friends Dusk and Neil when it feels like secrets are the only things holding her fragile and peculiar family together?

In searching for secrets at Green Pastures, Dusk, Neil, and a reluctant Normandy hope to bring some kind of peace and honesty to their school. But when their hunt for truth reveals some uncomfortable secrets and shocking truths about Kiera and her work, Normandy will have to decide how much honesty she wants in her own life in The Truth Commission (2015) by Susan Juby.

The Truth Commission is an ambitious novel presented as a work of narrative non-fiction complete with footnotes and illustrations (by Trevor Cooper). Written as Normandy’s spring project for the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, The Truth Commission is a sleek and self-aware novel.

In watching Normandy work through the process of writing her own book (when to add chapter breaks, how to move the plot along, etc.) The Truth Commission also becomes a sort of primer on how to write and write well. The one-sided dialog (in footnotes) between Normandy and her teacher Ms. Fowler also adds another dimension to a novel that is already delightfully complex.

Speaking of Ms. Fowler, it’s also refreshing to see that Normandy has adults in her life who are present and offer support throughout the novel–even if they aren’t always the ones who should be at the forefront in terms of support. This novel is about a lot of other things but seeing Normandy create and nurture her own support system is very powerful.

As the title suggests, The Truth Commission is a story about truth and honesty. It’s also a story about family and what it means when the family you are born into is not always as good or healthy as the family you might choose. It’s a story about art–both making it and engaging with it. It’s a story about the push and pull of friendships. It’s even a bit of a story about love. Most importantly, The Truth Commission is about how people–both creators and not–shape their own worlds and stories in the telling.

The Truth Commission is a thoughtful, smart, and funny story that works on many different planes. What starts as a humorous and promising project for Normandy and her friends becomes much more in Juby’s expert hands in this meditation on subjectivity, consent and how telling the truth (or choosing not to) can change everything. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Feed by M. T. Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, In Real Life by Jessica Love, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Susan!

Don’t Ever Change: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So now when they look at me, they don’t see an old friend who’s trying hard to improve and grow; they see someone who started to leave them a long time ago, has pretty much already left, and maybe didn’t care about being there in the first place.”

Don't Ever Change by M. Beth BloomEva is seventeen and in her last week of high school when a conversation with her English teacher leaves Eva wondering if she might have missed something with her sharp focus on producing literary stories and delivering hard-hitting critiques of her classmates’ work throughout high school.

After years of thinking she knew everything, Eva realizes she is running out of time to learn all of the basic high school things she previously scorned. Eva is determined to live this summer. And to write it all down.

With unlikely friendships, painful realizations, and a few rare moments of clarity, Eva will learn that she has to get to know herself before she can write what she knows in Don’t Ever Change (2015) by M. Beth Bloom.

Don’t Ever Change is Bloom’s second novel.

Eva thinks she has everything figured out at the start of this novel. She has avoided typical high school cliches and eschewed most everything else that can’t lend her an air of profundity. It is only upon finishing high school that she realizes the veneer of intellectuality that she has created is painfully thin.

Hoping to make up for years of missed opportunities, Eva dates a musician she never would have talked to before. She becomes a camp counselor despite a decided lack of experience and zero interest in interacting with children. She even begins to wonder if her rival in high school might have actually been a friend all along.

Although Eva is not always the nicest narrator, or the easiest character to read about, she is always real and she is always learning–even if it might take her longer than it should. Eva is self-aware enough to know that she isn’t always likeable. She knows she doesn’t make great choices and that she might have even made some really bad ones in trying to convey that she is a Serious Writer. Over the course of a seemingly mundane summer she also realizes that she may not know as much as she thought.

Opportunities surround Eva for new experiences and friendships, but for the most part, those realizations come too late to mean anything. No matter how much she missed in high school, no matter how many friends she pushed away, at the end of the summer Eva will be across the country starting college in Boston.

Instead of being a book about seizing missed opportunities, Don’t Ever Change is a thoughtful and often witty admission that important moments can be lost or squandered. But there are always new ones to find.

Don’t Ever Change is as self-aware as the main character and often as mystifying. The story is strange, messy and not always neat but sometimes perfect. Just like real life. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels to have a little bite and fans of Alice, I Think who still wish they could see Ms. MacLeod heading off to college.

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

*A copy this book was acquired from the author/publisher for review consideration*