The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A (Classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados to travel alone across the ocean to colonial Connecticut in 1687. She has no reason to stay in Barbados with her grandfather dead and buried. With nowhere else to go she undertakes the long boat trip on her own assured that she will be welcome with open arms by her aunt’s family.

Her arrival doesn’t go as expected. Kit’s uninhibited childhood in Barbados has left the sixteen-year-old wildly unprepared for life among her Puritan relatives. Her cousins covet her beautiful clothes even while her uncle looks at the bright colors and luxurious fabrics of her dresses with scorn. Kit barely recognizes her aunt, struggling to see any hint of her own mother in her aunt’s weather worn face.

When she discovers a beautiful meadow near a pond, Kit finds some much needed solitude and a break in the monotonous drudgery of life with her relatives. Kit also finds an unexpected friend in Hannah Tupper, an old woman who is shunned reviled by the community for her Quaker beliefs and rumors that claim Hannah is a witch.

As she learns more about Hannah and her life by the pond Kit will have to decide what, if anything, she is willing to give up for a chance to belong in The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare.

Have you ever had a visceral reaction to a book. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is that kind of title for me.

This Newbery award winner came to my attention after my aunt gifted me a copy from her days working at Houghton Mifflin when I was in grade school. Like a lot of books back then I motored through it, eventually donated my copy to my school library, and didn’t think about it again for years. But because I became a librarian and worked briefly at a bookseller, I encountered this classic title again as an adult.

Every time I saw it on a shelf I would feel that jolt of recognition. Yes, this book was one that meant so much to me as a child. It also, if you pay attention to book editions, has had some hideous covers over the years. My most recent rediscovery of The Witch of Blackbird Pond happened when The Book Smugglers featured the book in their Decoding the Newbery series. I enjoyed reading Catherine King’s thoughts (and share many of them) but what really jolted me was the cover. Because finally it was the cover I had first read so many years ago!

Finding and purchasing that edition prompted me to re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I discovered a lot of the things I remembered loving when I read the story the first time: Kit’s determination and perseverance not to mention her friendship with Hannah Tupper. I also love the push and pull Kit has both with her cousins and her suitors. This story is more purely historical than I remembered and Speare’s writing is starkly evocative of Puritan New England.

For readers of a certain age, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs no introduction or recommendation. Younger readers will also find a smart, character driven story. Perfect for fans of historical fictions and readers hoping to discover (or rediscover) a charming classic.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Chime by Franny Billingsley, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Conversion by Katherine Howe, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Witch Child by Celia Rees, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

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The Graces: A Review

The Graces by Laure EveEveryone says that the Graces are witches.

Thalia might dress the part with her spangly skirts and scarves, and Fenrin might bewitch all the girls in town with his good looks and charm. But Summer, the youngest Grace, is the only one willing to admit that she is exactly what everyone in town whispers.

Everyone wants to get close to the Graces. Everyone knows how much it must hurt to lose their interest. Because everyone, inevitably, loses the Graces’ interest.

River is new in town and desperate to attach herself to the Graces. She’s in love with Fenrin, like everyone, even though it’s a cliche. She hopes that seeing into their strange world might understand some of what’s been happening to her. But first River has to become one of the Graces. And she’s will to do whatever it takes to get their attention in The Graces (2016) by Laure Eve.

The Graces is Eve’s first novel and the start of a series.

Eve builds tension early with a narrator who remains nameless for the first part of the novel. Readers know that River arrived in town under a cloud, forced to move for reasons she will not divulge. River sees herself as different and other–just like the Graces themselves–and her narration is suitably calculating and cold.

While The Graces is atmospheric, the beginning remains slow with River carefully circling the Grace siblings as she tries to break into their orbit. The push and pull between what is true and what is not works well with the interplay between magic and reality throughout the novel.

Recommended for readers looking for a trippy book with twists reminiscent of Liar and readers who enjoy an unsympathetic main character–whether to root for them or to watch them fail.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*

Labyrinth Lost: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaAlex is the most powerful bruja her family has seen in generations. Her mother and sisters are thrilled when Alex’s powers manifest so powerfully. But Alex knows that magic always has a cost and she’s unwilling to risk her family after already losing her father to wayward magic years ago.

Determined to rid herself of her magic before anyone else gets hurt, Alex turns to the family Book of Cantos for a spell to use on her Death Day–before she accepts the blessings of her family’s dead spirits and truly comes into her powers.

When Alex’s spell to get rid of her magic backfires and her family disappears from their Brooklyn home, she’ll have to travel to the world of Los Lagos to get them back with help from her best friend Rishi and a strange brujo boy with his own agenda in Labyrinth Lost (2016) by Zoraida Córdova.

Labyrinth Lost is the start to Córdova’s new Brooklyn Brujas series.

Córdova borrows from elements of santeria and latinx culture to create her own well-realized magic system in this highly enjoyable urban fantasy. Alex is a kickass heroine whose love for her family leads to near-catastrophe as her magic backfires and sends her relatives (living and dead) to Los Lagos.

Alex remains proactive and wastes no time wallowing as she bargains with a more knowledgeable (though less powerful) brujo named Nova to bring her across to the magical world of Los Lagos where she has to navigate treacherous lands and travel to the Labyrinth to rescue her family from the Devourer. Rishi, Alex’s best friend, comes along offering moral support, strength, and strategy even though she is uninitiated in bruja ways thanks to Alex’s reluctance to talk about her family to outsiders.

In a world where many things are uncertain, the love and support of Alex’s friends and family remain unconditional and rock solid throughout this novel where family plays a huge role. Alex is a fantastic protagonist who is empowered both as a bruja and a girl as she learns to embrace all aspects of her identity.

Córdova’s evocative writing brings Los Lagos and its otherworldly inhabitants vividly to life. Moments or peril contrast well with Alex’s witty first person narration and a sometimes tense romance as Alex tries to make sense of her growing feelings for Rishi while fighting for her life.

Labyrinth Lost is a fast-paced and atmospheric story filled with action and adventure. A must-read for urban fantasy fans and readers looking for a new coven of witches to join. (Just be ready with your best Resting Witch Face.)

Possible Pairings: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff, Charmed (TV series)

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

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*

The Ghosts of Heaven: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It was all the same thing; the same sign, and now she knew what it meant.”

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus SedgwickIn a time before modern history, a girl tries to use a charred stick and ochre to make magic with disastrous results. Staring at the spiral shapes found everywhere in nature, she begins to grasp the enormity–the power–that can be found in written marks.

Centuries later, Anna hopes to care for her brother after her mother’s death only to have the entire town turn against her. As she fights rumors and increasingly vocal accusations that she is a witch, Anna too begins to see hidden meaning in the spiral found in their traditional spiral dance that begins to appear everywhere.

In the twentieth century an American poet watches the ocean from within the walls of an inhospitable asylum. He can see the shapes there too. Spirals. Helixes. Shapes that have become emblematic of the horrors he can scarcely fathom.

Keir Bowman knows, in the distant future, that he will become an astronaut on a desperate mission to colonize a new planet. He knows he will keep looking forward. What Bowman can’t guess is that in hurtling himself through space, he will also move toward his destiny and an understanding of these spirals that march through history in The Ghosts of Heaven (2015) by Marcus Sedgwick.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a standalone novel in the same style as Sedgwick’s Printz Award winner Midwinterblood.

After an introduction from the author, The Ghosts of Heaven includes four short stories titled “Whispers in the Dark,” “The Witch in the Water,” “The Easiest Room in Hell,” and “The Song of Destiny.” As the introduction explains, these stories can be read in any order. (I read them in the order given in the book which is also the order listed above.)

The Ghosts of Heaven is an incredibly smart and ambitious novel. The stories here span a variety of genres and forms as they work together to convey a larger meaning.

“Whispers in the Dark” is told in sparse verse as a girl begins to make sense of written words and forms.

“The Witch in the Water” returns to more traditional prose as the story watches the hysteria and fear that fed the fires of witch accusations and  trials in the seventeenth century. This segment also demonstrates how much of the novel deals with unequal power dynamics–in this case as Anna tries to work around much unwanted attention.

“The Easiest Room in Hell” brings readers to an asylum on Long Island where supposedly revolutionary treatments highlight the arcane and unfeeling nature of much mental health care in the early twentieth century. This story also underscores the fine line that can exist between creativity and madness.

Finally in “The Song of Destiny” Sedgwick brings the golden ratio (and the Fibonacci sequence) to the forefront in this solitary and meditative story as all of the vignettes come together in a conclusion with surprising revelations about the spirals and their ultimate meaning.

Sedgwick weaves subtle references between each quarter to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts as readers–along with the characters–move toward a larger understanding over the course of the entire novel.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a startling, clever and life-affirming novel that pushes the written word to its limit as Sedgwick expertly demonstrates the many ways in which a story can be told.

Possible Pairings: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Folly by Marthe Jocelyn, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, In the Shadow of Blackbirds of Cat Winters

You can also read my interview with Marcus Sedgwick about the book.

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

Whisper the Dead: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Whisper the Dead by Alyxandra HarveyCousins Gretchen, Penelope and Emma are still learning to control their new-found powers and understand what it means to be members of one of the oldest witching families, the Lovegroves, in 1814 London.

Penelope struggles with a familiar that frightens her and unwieldy powers that allow her to read the past in objects. Emma, on the other hand, now has antlers to conceal while trying to find a way to rescue her father from the underworld and convince her mother to assume her human form instead of  that of a deer.

Reluctant debutante Gretchen, meanwhile, is still not entirely sure of the full scope of her powers. Or what embroidery has to do with magic. Gretchen will have to harness her powers as a Whisperer who can hear the spells of dead witches if she wants to help stop the dark witches the Greymalkins from wreaking all manner of havoc in London and beyond.

She will also have to contend with the frustratingly proper Tobias Lawless and other Keepers tasked with keeping the cousins under surveillance. The only positive is that with so much danger and problems ranging from angry ghosts to werewolves, Gretchen will definitely be able to avoid any balls for the foreseeable future in Whisper the Dead (2014) by Alyxandra Harvey.

Whisper the Dead is the second book in the Lovegrove Legacy. It is preceded by A Breath of Frost.

Recaps and multiple viewpoints help summarize key events from the first book in this trilogy. The narrative focus also shifts from Emma to Gretchen in this volume. (Presumably the trilogy will conclude with a book focused on Penelope.) These facts make this volume approachable and only slightly confusing to new readers.

Rollicking action and mystery come together with humor and charm to make this a fast-paced and engrossing story. A well-developed romance and a cliffhanger ending help guarantee that Whisper the Dead will have high appeal and leave readers eager for the final installment.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Amulet of Samarkand by Johnathan Stroud, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer

*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*

A Breath of Frost: A Review

A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra HarveyLondon, 1814: Emma, Gretchen and Penelope–three cousins and reluctant debutantes–discover their families have been hiding a host of secrets one snowy night at a dull party. It starts with a broken bottle and a fire. It ends with the cousins discovering they have magical powers and a girl found dead, her body covered in strange bruises and, stranger still, a coating of snow.

With their powers unbound, the gates of the underworld open to allow all manner of nasty creatures from the underworld including the feared ghosts of the Greymalkin warlocks–three dark witch sisters–to wreak further havoc across London. Worse, more debutantes are turning up dead.

While all three cousins try to understand and control their new powers, Emma has an added problem. Somehow she is connected to the murders; she keeps finding the bodies. With the authorities targeting her as a suspect, Emma will have to work with Cormac–an unlikely (and entirely too attractive) ally–in order to clear her name and find the real culprit before it’s too late in A Breath of Frost (2014) by Alyxandra Harvey.

A Breath of Frost is the first book in Harvey’s Lovegrove Legacy–a trilogy which will presumably allot one book to each cousin. The second book, Whisper the Dead, will be published in October 2014.

In this alternate historical London, magic runs rampant for the people who know where to look including the Order of the Iron Nail, Madcaps and various sundry characters and groups readers will have to sift through in the early pages of the novel. Patient readers will be rewarded with explanations of all of these names and a motley group of characters magical and otherwise.

Although the cousins often read more like sisters, Harvey still creates a romantic, adventurous novel with a strong familial bond at its core. The cousins are stronger together–something that is not often featured enough in literature. Magic and mystery come together here to create a suspenseful, if not always perfectly paced, adventure. Filled with wit, adventure, and just the right amount of romance, A Breath of Frost is a delightful start to what promises to be a superb trilogy.

Possible Pairings: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce, These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Amulet of Samarkand by Johnathan Stroud, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer