Hell Bent: Alex Stern # 2 by Leigh Bardugo

February 3, 2023 by

[Crystal]

Hell Bent is the follow up to Leigh Bardugo’s 2019 book, Ninth House.  This sequel picks up right where Ninth House left off, following summer vacation at Yale University.  I admit, I struggled to remember what had happened at the end of Ninth House, and who each of the respective characters were.  If it’s been awhile, it’s probably a good idea to give yourself a detailed recap.  Once I did that, things really started moving.  Alex is entering her second year at Yale, and has taken on the role of Virgil in Lethe House, one of the secret magical societies on Yale’s campus.  Her mentor, Daniel Arlington (affectionately referred to as Darlington) has been devoured by a hellbeast, but is still alive.  The premise of Hell Bent is primarily focused on retrieving him from Hell, while also unraveling a series of campus murders.  Along the way, Alex must continue her studies, keep her past from coming back to haunt her, and fill the massive shoes left by Darlington.  The plot moves along at a steady pace, but there continues to be plenty of realistic character development.  The magic in the book is ugly, and the sense of urgency and complicated emotions Alex feels towards Lethe, Yale, and Darlington all feel grounded in realism.  Once Part II of the book kicked in, it was difficult to put down, and I found myself reading well into the night just to finish it.  If you loved Ninth House, you will not be disappointed in Hell Bent; and if you love realistic fantasy, with high stakes and rich characters, I’d encourage you to pick up this series.  

You can find Tricia’s review of Ninth House here.

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Maame by Jessica George

January 24, 2023 by

[Tricia]

In this tender, quiet, coming of age novel, twenty-five year old Maddie George’s life seems to be permanently on hold. The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Maddie is a self-described people pleaser — the dependable person in all aspects of her life. It is telling that in her family, she has always been called “Maame,” which in Twi means “woman”. She has become the default caretaker of her father who has advanced Parkinson’s disease, since her mother spends most of her time in Ghana and her brother is chasing his dream of a career in the music industry. In her work-life, she gets the tea and provides clerical support for people doing the kind of creative, interesting work that she longs to do in the publishing world. She watches her friends date and enjoy the London social scene, but she spends most of her time alone. The book traces Maddie’s struggle to claim her place in the world, as she deals with grief and depression, microaggressions, and dating and roommate issues. Maddie is a lovely character – big-hearted and funny and kind – and I really found myself rooting for her. Maame is a compassionate, intimate debut novel and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

January 18, 2023 by

[Tricia]

In the wintertime I often find myself drawn to historical fantasy – books with a mix of folklore and icy cold nights with a roaring fire (here are previous posts of a few of my favorites in this genre including Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden). Heather Fawcett’s new novel, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries, helped satisfy that craving for me this month. Set in what seems to be Iceland in the early 1900s, Dr. Emily Wilde is a dryadologist on leave from her position at Cambridge to study the Hidden Ones, the faery folk that are said to inhabit that area. Emily Wilde is happily ensconced in her academic life, but struggles to make connections with people. She is more at home trying to understand the Faery folk. She is joined on her project by Dr. Wendell Bambleby who is her opposite in every way – easy and charming with people but lacking her academic rigor and expertise. I read a few reviews of the book that call this book cozy fantasy, which it is at times, but there are some darker elements too. I thought the mix worked very well. It is an engaging story with appealing characters and just the right tone to read on a cold January evening by the fire.

Cursed: Guilded # 2 by Marissa Meyer

December 29, 2022 by

[Crystal]

Cursed is the second and final book in the Gilded duology by Marissa Meyer.  An engaging and magical reimagining of Rumplestilskin, Meyer doesn’t waste any time jumping back into the story.  Serilda, a local miller’s daughter, has tricked the dreaded Alder King into believing that she can spin straw into gold.  However, it is actually the handiwork of Gild, the local poltergeist, trapped forever in the haunted Adelheid Castle, with no knowledge of his life before.  Gild’s magic will only work with bargains and exchanges, and much like the fairytale it is based on, Serilda’s final exchange with Gild is for her first born child.  At the end of Gilded, we find that Serilda has now bound herself to the king, and promised to marry him in order to save the lives of others; effectively trapping herself (and her unborn child) behind the magical veil.  As the plot unfolds, many mysteries set up in the first book begin to unfold.  There are a number of “ah ha” moments that are deftly built into the plot, with each reveal making perfect narrative sense.  As far as fairytale reimaginings go, this one is top notch.  The romantic aspect plays out convincingly and is not the main focus of the book, and the fantastical elements all fit neatly into the world of this fictionalized historical Germany.  There is a darkness and magical realism that lives up to the Grimm tale, and Serilda is a strong, likable female protagonist.  Though there are a handful of moments that feel overwrought, overall it is an excellent fantasy duology that sticks the landing.  More than anything this is a book about the power of stories; both the ones we cherish, and those that have yet to come to pass. A great winter read if you are looking for the perfect blend of magic, adventure, romance, and an epic “once upon a time!”

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

December 19, 2022 by

[Tricia]

I enjoy reading graphic novels, and in particular, graphic memoirs. It can be such an effective, visceral way to tell your story. If you have never read a graphic memoir, some of my favorites include Perspepolis, March, They Called Us Enemy, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and Fun Home. Kate Beaton’s powerful new graphic memoir, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands brought me to a world I knew absolutely nothing about – the oil sands of Alberta Canada in the early 2000s. Beaton grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and graduated from college with tremendous student loan debt. Like so many in her area, she went to where the highest paying jobs were – the oil sands of Alberta, where she worked for two years to pay off her debt. Her experiences in this isolated, almost entirely male work environment were lonely, bleak, and at times harrowing. She portrays her loneliness and vulnerability, her frustration with being stuck in her economic situation, the frequent sexual harassment, the sexual assault, the psychological toll of this type of work environment, and the devastating environmental impact of the work they were doing, in a spare, powerful way. She also depicts the comradeship she sometimes experienced, and the kindness of some of her coworkers. The book takes on a lot of difficult, complicated issues in a compassionate, stark, and honest way. A powerful read.

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

December 14, 2022 by

[Tricia]

The Whalebone Theatre is a wonderfully evocative historical fiction debut by Joanna Quinn. Cristabel Seagrave and her half-siblings Flossie and Digby grow up in Chilcombe, a manor in Dorset on the Southwest coast of England during the eventful years between the end of the first World War and the end of World War II. The children are more or less on their own, ignored by the difficult, complicated adults in their lives. When a dead whale washes up on the beach, Cristabel, a natural leader even as a small child, decides to use its bones to create a theatre where they can perform shows like The Tempest and The Iliad. Cristabel is an independent, adventurous, creative child who is utterly unconcerned with what others think of her, and she grows into a woman frustrated by the constraints and expectations placed upon her. The book is especially effective at conveying what life was like for people living through World War II, both in England and in France. The author fully immerses you in the every day aspects of their lives during the War – you really feel the weight of how long the War went on, year after year, and how close it came to going in a different direction. The book also touches on the ways in which, as awful as it was, the War also gave the siblings the chance to live different kinds of lives than what would otherwise have been expected of them. The book is written with a great deal of empathy – even the most unsympathetic characters are given moments of understanding. If you’re a fan of Still Life by Sarah Winman, you might give this one a try.

Victory. Stand!: Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile

December 3, 2022 by

[Courtney]

I was familiar with the famous image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics before I read this memoir, but I was not familiar with the story of the man behind it. Teens will appreciate seeing Tommie’s meteoric rise as a boy from a large, loving, family in rural Texas, to becoming one of the best all-around high school athletes in the state of California. With the Civil Rights movement as the ever-present backdrop, the reader is forced to reckon with obvious inequalities and abuses in the ways Tommie’s family is treated, even after moving out of the South.  As Tommie tells his story, the reader is invited to see the world through his eyes, made possible by the powerful, emotive artwork of the very talented Dawud Anyabwile. When Tommie finally stands on that podium at the Olympic Stadium, the reader is standing there with him, and his raised fist is depicted much like a prayerVictory. Stand! is really the story of power–who has it, who is denied it, how it speaks, and who will listen. It’s such a stellar, stand-out memoir. Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

November 23, 2022 by

[Tricia]

I’m not a big short story reader, but Night of the Living Rez is a vivid, fascinating book of connected short stories that felt like reading a novel to me. The stories jump around to different points in the life of David who lives on a Penobscot Indian Nation reservation in Maine. The stories are at times funny, tragic, brutal, and tender, and deal with issues of addiction and abuse and loss and generational trauma. And they are so, so well written. Fans of There, There by Tommy Orange will definitely want to read this book.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

November 17, 2022 by

[Tricia]

Kate Atkinson is such an interesting writer. Her writing is so vivid you can practically touch the worlds she creates. In the case of Shrines of Gaiety that world is 1926 London, where people are reeling from the horrors of the Great War and desperately trying to forget their troubles and enjoy themselves. Specifically this book inhabits the gritty, tough underworld of the London nightlife, frequented by mobsters, corrupt police officers, and young runaway girls. There is a huge cast of characters, including the notorious Nellie Coker, who has built a nightclub empire that is under threat by her rivals, as well as Freda, a young girl who has run away to London to become a dancer, and DCI Frobisher who is investigating both Nellie Coker and the alarming number of missing girl cases in London. This is a sometimes glamorous world, but also cold and heartless much of the time, and Atkinson writes about it in a sardonic, somewhat removed tone. There is very little warmth in this book, with only occasional moments of true connection between characters, but I think that is the point – this society is, at best, indifferent to the plight of most of these characters, and her tone reflects that perfectly. I knew nothing about this time period in London and being so fully immersed in it was fascinating.

All of Us Villains Series by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

November 7, 2022 by

[Crystal]

All of Us Villains is the first book in a duology, released in 2021, with the second book All of Our Demise released this month.  It is a dark, YA Fantasy, and can best be described as a distant cousin to The Hunger Games, but with magic.  Every twenty years a Blood Moon appears in the skies of Ilvernath, a small town in what feels like a dystopian United Kingdom.  Ilvernath is under a deadly curse that has existed for hundreds of years, never to be broken, but most know nothing about it.  Magick exists in this world, but most of it is what is considered common magick, used for things like beautifying spells and convenience, but high magick belongs to one family, and one family only, and only they can wield it.  Most in this world believe that high magick is extinct, and are oblivious to the machinations around them.  That is, until a salacious new book is released, revealing all.  In this book, A Tradition of Tragedy,  it is revealed that there are seven powerful, historic families that compete in a deadly tournament every twenty years.  When the Blood Moon shows itself, it is a signal that the seven families must each choose a champion to compete.  When the Blood Veil descends a month later, each champion enters the tournament, but only one will survive.  The winning family then controls all the high magick until the next Blood Moon.  The book is told in first person from four of our main characters, Allistair Lowe, a member of the family who has wielded high magick the longest by being cruel and fearsome.  Isobel Macaslan, who has become a media darling in the wake of A Tradition of Tragedy, but whose family is considered low class.  Briony Thorburn, a member of the prestigious and honorable Thorburn family; and Gavin Grieve, who is looked upon with disinterest since the Grieve family has never won the tournament in its long history.  The world building in this series is incredibly strong, as is the character work.  There is a long build-up to the tournament itself, but it is worth it to see how each of our main characters move through their world, and how they see themselves, the tournament, and each other.  The book asks the question of what makes someone a hero, or a villain?  Do we write our own histories or are they written for us?  Though all of our main characters are teenagers, this series has strong adult appeal.  The complexities of the curse, the characters, and the question of power and what some will do to achieve it truly elevates the series.  When you finish the first book, you will be itching to binge the second!