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, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, 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*

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Tell the Wind and Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tell the Wind and Fire by Sarah Rees BrennanLucie Manette was born in the Dark City, where Dark magicians or those with families connected to Dark magic are kept close to the Light but not too close. She grew up in the Dark until her father was arrested. But that was two years ago. She’s out now.

Using cunning and strategy, Lucie saved her father when he was condemned. She brought them both into the luxury and relative safety of the Light.

Now, Lucie tries to put her time in the Dark behind her. She can offer no help to the people she loved and left behind when the city is ruled by the power and might of the magicians and politicians on the Light Council. It’s easier to keep a low profile and protect her father and spend time with her boyfriend, Ethan.

Lucie’s precarious world comes crashing down when a weekend trip goes horribly wrong and Ethan is accused of treason. Carwyn, a mysterious boy from Ethan’s past, can deflect suspicion but he, too, is hiding a secret that could ruin Ethan and his family.

Unrest is growing in both the Light and the Dark. When revolution comes, Lucie will have to decide which secrets to keep and which truths to tell. As she struggles to protect herself and those she cares about, Lucie will stop at nothing to save both Ethan and Carwyn. With luck and determination she can save one of them, but only one in Tell the Wind and Fire (2016) by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Tell the Wind and Fire is a stand alone novel inspired by (and loosely retelling) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Rees Brennan sticks to the structure of the original story while also adding her own spin to mark this book as the well-developed urban fantasy that fans of the author have come to expect. The contrast between Light and Dark magic as well as a richly detailed version of New York City come to life with vivid descriptions and carefully executed world building.

This novel brings a decidedly feminist slant to this familiar story. Instead of focusing on any of the male characters, Tell the Wind and Fire focuses its narrator, Lucie Manette. Throughout the novel, Rees Brennan gives Lucie (and her father) significantly more agency than they ever got from Dickens.

Lucie is a shrewd and calculating heroine. She is a survivor and she admits the high cost of that survival in a world where the stakes can literally be life and death. Lucie manipulates her femininity and her perception in the public eye to do what she must to keep herself and those who matter safe as both sides of the revolution vie to use her as a symbol for their cause.

Tell the Wind and Fire is everything you want in a retelling of a beloved classic. This novel will make you miss and want to re-read Dickens’ sweeping novel while also asserting itself as a strong novel in its own right. Highly recommended.

Possibly Pairings: The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, Legend by Marie Lu, Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, Code Name Verity by Elizbeth Wein

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

email review to childrens_publicity@hmhco.com

Shadowshaper: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Shadowshaper by Daniel José OlderSierra Santiago’s plans for the summer are quickly derailed when old-timers from around the neighborhood start to disappear. As soon as a strange zombie guy shows up at the first party of the summer, Sierra knows something is up even if her mother and grandfather refuse to admit that anything is remotely wrong.

When one graffiti mural starts crying and others begin to fade, it’s clear that something sinister is at play. Everyone in the neighborhood agrees it’s vitally important for Sierra to finish the mural she started, but no one will say why.

It’s only when she starts hanging out with Robbie that she learns about Shadowshapers and their ability to connect to magic through art. They used to be very powerful. But that was before the Shadowshapers had a falling out years ago. And before they started dying. With only scant clues, limited experience with her newly-discovered Shadowshaping powers, and not nearly enough time, Sierra and her friends will have to think fast to save their neighborhood–and maybe the world–in Shadowshaper (2015) by Daniel José Older.

Shadowshaper is Older’s first novel written for the YA market and a standalone.

Older uses concrete details and real locations to bring Sierra’s Brooklyn to life in Shadowshaper. The story effortlessly evokes New York wandering and handles issues surrounding gentrification and the changing landscape of the city extremely well. Sierra’s voice, and those of her friends, are authentically teen which only adds to the ambiance of this novel. Additionally, a diverse cast including Sierra’s friends, neighborhood regulars, and Sierra’s family create a great story in a sub-genre that is often frustratingly (not to mention unrealistically) white.

While Shadowshaper excels with characters and setting, it unfortunately falls flat as a fantasy. The mythology surrounding Shadowshaping is slight at best with rules and mechanics that are poorly explained when they are explained at all. There is a lot of potential here that might have been better served with a longer novel or even a sequel.

Breakneck action and numerous chase sequences also diminish the story and leave little room for characterization. While Sierra is very well-realized her friends often come across as stock characters with limited personality or purpose within the narrative. While it is incredibly empowering to have a book where the only white person is the villain, it was disappointing to see that villain become little quite one-dimensional by the end of the novel.

Shadowshaper is a fast read. Unfortunately, many parts of the novel feel rushed. The hardcover has some obvious continuity errors with blocking (characters standing on one page and then standing again three pages later without ever having sat down for instance) and many opportunities to complicate the narrative and characters are ignored.

Shadowshaper is a great choice for readers looking for authentic characters and a fun read. Recommended as an introduction to urban fantasy for readers willing to suspend their disbelief with only limited justification. Ideal for reluctant readers and anyone who likes the novels fast-paced and full of action.

Possible Pairings: Tithe by Holly Black, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova, Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine, Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand, Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Last Stop on Market Street: A Picture Book Review

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena and Christian RobinsonEvery Sunday after church, CJ and his grandmother get on the bus and ride it across town. None of CJ’s friends do this. On the ride CJ wonders why they don’t have a car like his friend Colby. Or an iPod like other boys on the bus. CJ wonders why they have to ride the bus all the way to the dirty part of town. Grandma answers each question thoughtfully as she reminds CJ that sometimes a journey is more important than the destination in Last Stop on Market Street (2015) by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Last Stop on Market Street is de la Peña’s first picture book.

Brightly colored illustrations from Robinson make this book pop from the cover through to the last page. Robinson’s bold, blocky style helps pictures pop–even from a distance if reading this to a group–and draws the reader’s eye across each spread.

De la Peña has an ear for dialogue which comes across in CJ’s authentic conversations with his grandmother wondering about all the cool (to CJ) things that they lack. While I was surprised to see CJ’s diction was never corrected when he asked “how come we don’t got a car?” it did feel like a real kid talking throughout the story.

CJ’s grandmother reminds him to be grateful for little things (like an exciting bus, a guitarist on the bus who plays a song, and so on) while the pair rides across town to their final destination–a soup kitchen where CJ and his grandmother volunteer.

Last Stop on Market Street is a fun story with enough text (and surprises) to make it a great choice for older picture book readers. Discussion points and Robinson’s artwork also make it a great choice to read to a group. Hopefully the first of many picture books to come from de la Peña!

The Unbound: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The UnboundMackenzie Bishop is a Keeper for the the Archive–a library where the dead rest on shelves like books–where she works to keep violent Histories from escaping their shelves.

Last summer she almost lost her life to one such History.

In the intervening months Mac has tried to get her life back together–as much as it can be when she spends so much time lying to everyone she knows and lurking in shadows. But with nightmares that feel real, a new school, and members of the Archive who would sooner see her removed than recovered, Mackenzie isn’t sure how to get back to normal.

When people in town begin to disappear, Mac’s doubts about herself and her safety grow. The disappearances don’t seem to have anything in common. Except Mackenzie herself. Solving the disappearances could help Mac keep her freedom and reclaim some modicum of safety as she truly puts the past behind her. Failure could mean losing her memories, her place in the Archive and her life in The Unbound (2014) by Victoria Schwab.

The Unbound is the sequel to Schwab’s novel The Archived. This book continues several weeks after the conclusion of The Archived with handy flashbacks and recaps to explain key events from the first book. The Unbound works well as a standalone however it does contain mild spoilers for The Archived.

Flashbacks and dreams lend an otherworldly quality to this eerie novel as Mackenzie tries to make sense of her life in the wake of fighting an escaped History. Despite her strong face, cracks are beginning to show in Mac’s carefully constructed armor; it is becoming harder to keep her life at the Archive separate from the life she pretends to lead.

While readers got a sense of Mac in the first book, they really get to know her in The Unbound. Mac’s unflinching loyalty to the Archive was already shaken but now it is shattered as much of what she knows about the Archive is thrown into question. Mac’s friends, a blend of familiar faces from book one as well as some new characters, add another dimension and levity to the story.

Schwab once again delivers a dazzling blend of mystery and fantasy in an entirely unique world in The Unbound. Vivid characters and breathtaking prose guarantee readers will be clamoring for a third book.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Exquisite Captive: A Review

Exquisite Captive by Heather DemetriosNalia is a powerful jinni from the world of Arjinna. After a deadly coup killed almost everyone she cared about, Nalia was captured by a slave trader who sells jinn to humans. Since then she has been on the dark caravan of the jinni slave trade for three years.

Trapped in Hollywood and bound to a handsome master who is as ruthless as he is powerful, Nalia is desperate for the chance to return to Arjinna and rescue her captive brother. Unfortunately, that seems nearly impossible while bound to her master and the bottle that can hold her prisoner.

When Nalia agrees to a dangerous bargain with the leader of Arjinna’s revolution she will have to decide if any price can be too high for her freedom and the chance to save her brother in Exquisite Captive (2014) by Heather Demetrios.

Exquisite Captive is the first book in Demetrios’ Dark Caravan trilogy.

This gritty urban fantasy has a lot going for it. The Hollywood setting, as well as the descriptions of Arjinna, are lush and immediately evocative. Although some of the situations are stilted, most of the story here is exciting and fast-paced.

Nalia herself is a strong and capable heroine. Unfortunately she is also in the middle of an extremely lopsided (read: forced) love triangle. On one side we have Nalia’s master Malek and on the other Raf–leader of the Arjinnan revolution. Raf often feels like a one-note character with his efforts to save his people and his strong convictions. Malek is more nuanced but decidedly less sympathetic as every bit of character development is countered with a new act of villainy. The romance, such as it is, with both men seems to come out of nowhere as feelings bloom suddenly (with varying levels of returned feelings) for all of the characters.

The well-realized world of Arjinna is sadly overshadowed by stiff descriptions and numerous explanations of djinni hierarchies and Arjinnan culture. While it is all valuable information, the sheer volume can be daunting and makes an already long story feel even lengthier.

However, Demetrios does still craft a refreshingly diverse story here (albeit with some unfortunate stereotypes creeping in–most notably with Sergei). With nods to Arabian culture and tons of action, Exquisite Captive is an interesting blend of traditional jinni lore and urban fantasy elements. It is sure to appeal to readers looking for the next big thing in paranormal romances.

Possible Pairings: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Finnkin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Art of Wishing by Lindsay Ribar, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Fire Artist by Daisy Whitney

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

The Archived: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Stories about winding halls, and invisible doors, and places where the dead are kept like books on shelves. Each time you finish a story, you make me tell it back to you, as if you’re afraid I will forget.

“I never do.”

The Archived by Victoria SchwabMackenzie Bishop became a Keeper for the Archive when she was twelve years old. Trained and groomed by her grandfather, Mackenzie knew exactly what being a Keeper would mean. It means danger as she hunts for escaped Histories–records of the dead bound in something very close to flesh and bone–that need to be returned to the Archive. She knows being a Keeper means lying to everyone she knows.

It isn’t easy work. But it gives Mac a solid link to Da and his years of training and stories. It gives Mac the illusion of being close to her younger brother who died a year ago.

Still grieving and lost, Mac’s family moves to a decrepit building trying to start again. As she tiptoes around her mother’s crazy new schemes and her father’s avoidance, Mac soon discovers that a building as old as the Coronado is filled with secrets and lies of its own. Learning more about the building Mac discovers disturbing alterations to Histories within the Archive. Someone wants to hide something about the Coronado. And perhaps about the Archive too. If Mac can’t solve the mystery that remains the entire Archive could collapse in The Archived (2013) by Victoria Schwab.

The Archived is Schwab’s second novel. It is also the first in a series although it stands very nicely on its own. The sequel, The Unbound, is due out in 2014.

The Archived sounds like it should be a grim book. There are dead people. There are sad characters. It should be depressing. Instead, The Archived is an eerie, original read that is simultaneously exciting and contemplative. Mac is a strong, resilient heroine who is flawed and as utterly authentic as the world she inhabits. And what a world. Filled with librarians and keys and secrets The Archived is a unique book filled with all of my favorite things right down to a beautiful cover and book design.

Lyrical memories of Mac’s past are interspersed between action-packed chapters with Mac’s work as a Keeper for the Archive. Schwab skillfully combines a compelling premise with themes of loss and family to create a nuanced mystery sure to dazzle readers.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin