Return to the Old Kingdom – Terciel & Elinor

Lynn: Terciel & ElinorNice things often land on my porch and recently something especially nice arrived. It was an unexpected surprise too—one I didn’t even know was coming. Inside the box was an advanced reader copy of Terciel & Elinor (Harper/Katherine Tegen, Nov. 2021) by Garth Nix, a prequel to one of my all time favorite series, The Old Kingdom series. I read it immediately, no putting it on my to-read stack nonsense! I am happy to report that this was an entirely absorbing and wonderful reading experience! From the very first sentence, I slid effortlessly back into the Old Kingdom. There are few authors who do world building as well as Garth NIx and the world he has been developing since Sabriel published in 1996 has been captivating readers ever since. Terciel & Elinor gives us the backstory of Sabriel’s parents and begins with their two separate story lines.

Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting to his Great Great Aunt, the Abhorsen Tizanael. The bells came to Terciel, a poor orphaned street child, when his sister, the previous Abhorsen-in-Waiting died. Now a young man, Terciel is learning the art of necromancy, preparing to take his place in time helping to the lay the dead to rest and to assure that the Dead do not arise and walk again.

On the other side of the Wall from the Old Kingdom, 19-year-old Elinore lives a sheltered life in a large estate slowly falling to ruin. Her mother, a cold and distant figure, lies dying. Elinor, who has been raised primarily by her governess and groom, a famous ex-circus performer, discovers that the her house and estate is about to be foreclosed by creditors. Elinor has no knowledge of the magic of the Old Kingdom or of her own deep connections to it. But the wind is blowing from the North and the Dead are stirring and gathering power. Terciel arrives to reveal that evil is present in the house and what has lain in her mother’s bed is not her mother. The plot that awaits them threatens all on both sides of the Wall and Elinor’s life will never be the same.

Richly developed characters, a breathless plot, and masterful setting are all trademarks of this series and Nix provides them once again in this immersive story. Readers new to the series can begin here and fans of the series will be enthralled by this addition. I admit to slowing my reading as I neared the end, I was so reluctant to leave the Old Kingdom behind. And, now, of course, I cannot resist re-reading the rest of this wonderful series once again. See you when I surface!

Cindy: I received this magical package as well and made the mistake of loaning it first to one of our teen book club alumni who had to fight her own mother for it! I got it back quickly, though, as neither of them could put it down, and I add my praise to that of Lynn and my fellow Nix fans. 

Sabriel opened with this line:

“The woman who had staggered into their forest camp was dead, only holding on to life long enough to pass it on to the baby at her side.”

Now we have some of Sabriel’s mother’s backstory, and her father’s, and what a story it is. The Old Kingdom series is for teen and adult readers who don’t care about the romantic triangles prompting readers to choose “teams.” Nix’s female characters are strong and capable and aren’t sitting around waiting for the male lead to save them. His stories demand focus and attention and provide a rich reading experience. The descriptions of the dead use all of your senses (!) but there are touches of humor and wit to lighten the darkness. I’m left wanting to reread the series, too, but I’ll probably opt for listening to them, if only to hear Tim Curry read them to me again! Antici………….pa-tion. 

Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Cruella: Hello, Cruel Heart

Cindy: Hello Cruel Heart by Maureen JohnsonEveryone loves an origin story, and who better to learn about than Cruella de Vil? I mean, who makes coats out of puppy skins??? I read the Dodie Smith original The Hundred and One Dalmatians story, but I must have seen the Disney version more than a hundred and one times when my daughter was young. It was her favorite for years. I haven’t watched the new Cruella Walt Disney Studios film yet, but I couldn’t pass up Hello, Cruel Heart (Disney/Hyperion, 2021), a Maureen Johnson novel inspired by the movie. Here we find Estella squatting in a London hideout with two other waifs who had taken her in off the street when she was orphaned. Horace and Jasper taught Estella all of their pick pocket skills and over the years she learns to create the costumes and disguises for their bigger jobs, using a rescued sewing machine and fabric she lifts from all the finest shops. When fortunes finally change for Estella and she has an opportunity to leave her world of crime for one of fashion and fame, she doesn’t think twice about leaving her “family” behind. Johnson’s descriptions of late 60s London, the fashion and music scene, lunching in Soho, and the lure of Harrod’s for picking the pockets of the posh, are fabulous. Add in a dash of romance and an ending worthy of the best villian, and you have a fun romp of a read that might elicit just the tiniest bit of sympathy for the future Cruella de Vil.

Lynn: Tiniest bit of sympathy, Cindy? Oh I had a LOT of sympathy for Estella (Cruella-to-be) even with the knowledge of her as a future puppy poacher planning dastardly designs! Maureen Johnson gives us a fun romp as, Cindy says, but my heart really did ache for Estella as her dreams and heart got stomped on by those knee-high Soho boots!

The Soho scenes and Estelle’s fabulous fashions completely stole the show in this cinematic tale. I haven’t seen the new movie either but I can’t wait to see if it does ample justice to Maureen Johnson’s stylish and highly entertaining descriptions. This was a real delight to read and the perfect choice for readers looking for something diverting AND smart at the same time. In Johnson’s expert hands, Cruella becomes as three-dimensional as her fashion creations and readers may come just a bit closer to forgiving her future furry schemes.

Things That Go Bump…at The Crossroads at Midnight

Cindy: Crossroads at Midnight by Abby HowardTeens who love horror and graphic novels are going to devour Abby Howard’s newest comic, The Crossroads at Midnight (Iron Circus Comics, 2020). This eerie collection of five graphic (in the best way) short stories focus on late night encounters with the macabre. The ages of the characters vary, from a story about young kids at the beach, to a college student studying for exams, and to an aging woman, but all focus on the feelings of lonliness and longing for connection and understanding. In this book, those connections all come at a price. 

The grossest story for me, starts with the college girl, poor and tired of sleeping on the floor, finds a discarded mattress on the street, and decides that the thought of comfort outweighs the the risks of bedbugs or filth on the stained mattress. Her roommate is not amused, but the disgusting scary options that they are worried about are the least of their worries after the girl sleeps on this mattress for a few nights…

As in all short story collections, readers will have a personal favorite. Mine? The final story about an old woman, living alone in a remote area at the edge of a bog who gets a late night visitor. The woman at the door doesn’t speak, but rather than be frightened, the homeowner invites her in and finally has someone to talk to and begins to spin her life’s stories during each visit. Intrigued by her strange guest, she heads to the local library and to a local historian, and digs up an old mystery. 

Last Halloween, Children by Abby HowardI chose to read these stories slowly, one each day, lingering over the art and thinking about the stories. Lynn found this book, but now that I’ve finished, I just placed Howard’s other 2020 horror graphic novel on hold at my library. I can’t wait to read The Last Halloween: Children soon.

Lynn: I had to pace myself with these to keep from gobbling them up in one sitting. Talk about scary, creepy, and eerie! Each and every one made me shiver and they made me want to instantly start the next one to see what weirdly wonderful idea Abby Howard was playing with next.

Howard wisely stuck to a palette of black and white which resulted in intensifying the impact of the artwork. She also brilliantly uses suggestion, corner-of-the-eye glimpses and perspectives with partial views in her panels in ways that encourage a reader’s imagination to mentally draw the rest of the scene. And boy oh boy, did my brain accept the challenge! The drawings of the characters’ expressions convey SO much with just a few lines.

I loved all these stories and choosing a favorite was hard. I trembled on the edge of choosing the first one about a heartbroken teen, angry and hurt over the announcement that her parents are sending her to a camp to “cure” her, who discovers an unseen friend through the fence into the forbidden field of the farmer next door. That one almost won out but I too came down, too, on the last story that struck me to the bone. I’m with Cindy here!

Howard concludes each tale with an ending that allows readers minds to fly away on their own nightmare path and isn’t that the scariest thing of all?

Deb Caletti: One Great Lie – Historical Fiction

Lynn: One Great Lie by Deb CalettiThe cover and the initial plot of Deb Caletti’s newest, One Great Lie (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) could lead readers to think this is a light sweet story of a summer spent in beautiful Venice. A college-bound aspiring writer wins a scholarship to a writing program being held in Venice, Italy. For Charlotte, the biggest thrill is that it is being taught by her favorite author, Luca Bruni.  Readers will be in for a surprise but really, shouldn’t we know that Deb Caletti always offers a lot to think about?

There is a smoldering anger in Caletti’s writing here as she builds a fire made of historical evidence of how women were treated in the Italy of the 1500’s. Outspoken women, women of intellect or artistic ability or simply young women who were inconvenient to their fathers, brothers, or spouses were casually disposed of to convents or prisons. Along side these embers, Caletti adds the fuel of a modern story of casual dismissal, appropriation, and shaming for young women at the hands of a powerful man. It is a scorching story of historical injustice that continues today and no one reading this story will miss the heat or fail to build their own fire of anger.

There is a lot happening here. A compelling family mystery, a first deep love, a story of sisterhood, coming of age, and taking a stand. All this is set in the watery ancient beauty of the city of Venice. I am a long-time fan of Deb Caletti’s books and and this is one that demands much of the reader. I needed time to process the story when I finished it and I know it is one that is going to stay with readers for a long time.

Curse of Specter Queen: Book 1 of a New Fun Series

Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny MokeCindy: We haven’t even told you anything about this novel yet, but by the time we do, you’ll be delighted to know that Curse of the Specter Queen (Disney/Hyperion, June 8, 2021) by Jenny Elder Moke is the start of a new series, because your younger teens are going to want to continue to adventure with this crew. Samantha Knox is the quiet star of the cast that includes her wealthy estranged best friend, Joana and her brother Bennett, Sam’s childhood crush. When a mysterious ancient diary arrives in the mail at the antique book shop where Sam works, it sets in motion a reuniting of these friends as they  begin a high stakes version of the puzzle-solving ciphering they did as kids for Jo and Bennett’s father. Sam always took that play seriously but now she may be in over her head. The mystery, set in the 1920s during Prohibition takes them to Ireland, where Jo is more interested in the pubs than the monastery in the country where they are to stay. Her sarcastic banter and love of fashion provides some lighter moments to counter the dangerous and frightening situations the teens face while trying to find an ancient relic to stop a world-threatening curse. This will make a great read-alike series for fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

Lynn:  This book was such a treat! Reading it was a welcome escape from the ongoing stresses of our current situation. Curse of the Specter Queen is packed with just the sorts of elements I relish most in a book: a smart book-loving but self-effacing and insecure heroine who finds her strengths, an ancient curse, a twisty plot full of mysterious clues, a great setting, and lots of red herrings! Who could want more? Besides the compelling plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the depictions of the long-time friends whose had friendship had foundered on misunderstandings and that of the bickering siblings. I can’t resist a book with ciphers and codes and this one delivered!

I appreciate the many books being published today that take on world-crushing issues and portray situations that have been historically oppressive. Those are badly needed. But we also need books that entertain, that lift us beyond difficult and challenging times. We need treats in our lives just as much as we need the meat. Curse of the Specter Queen is just such a treat for so many readers. Huzzah for Samantha Knox and her adventures to come.

 

Autographed Books: Like, Feed

Feed by MT AndersonCindy: I’ve recently added some bookshelves in my house (yay!), which prompted a reorganization of my collections. As I sorted and tried to purge some books, I also had my hands on old favorites that won’t be moved along. Some of my favorites come from award committees or special publisher events where I picked up personalized autographs from favorite authors. Lynn and I thought it might be fun to start an occasional feature of some of our autographed books and any stories that might accompany them. Well, at least those that we have permission to share. Let us know what you think.

One of my very favorites came from my first meeting with M.T. Anderson. 2002 was my second year serving on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and Feed was a National Book Award Finalist. At the time, I had middle school age daughters who used the word, “like,” more often than the characters slinging slang in Anderson’s futuristic story about never being able to turn off the “feed” because it has been implanted in your brain. At the dinner, I told Tobin that I’d started charging my daughters 25 cents per “like” used incorrectly, mostly because the bad habit had spread to my own speech. One night at dinner I began to sound like an auctionneer: “25, 50, 75 cents, a dollar!” We laughed and when he later signed my book, this was the autograph! I, like, cherish it, like, immensely!

Furia – Following Her Dream

Lynn: There is a saying in Camilla’s family, “Lies have short legs.” She has heard this all her life but despite this, Camilla has been lying to her family for over a year now. Yamile Saied Mendez’s debut novel, Furia (Algonquin, 2020) has a setting and a theme unusual in American YA. 17-year-old Camilla Hassan lives in a barrio in Rosario, Argentina. She is a tremendously gifted athlete, dreaming of playing futbol at the professional level. It is exciting to have this strong new voice and subject. But this is much more than a “sports” book. The driving theme of this exceptional book is the exploration of an extraordinary young woman fighting cultural and family expectations to follow her dream.

Camilla has been leading a double life. Her strict family and domineering father, in particular, think she is the model daughter, studying hard for a career as a doctor. And Camilla IS the perfect daughter. She works hard, she is making excellent grades, she stays away from the temptations and perils befalling many of her classmates. But she has also been playing on a women’s futbol team for over a year. Camilla shines as an athlete, dominating the field, and earning the nickname “Furia.” Somehow she has kept this secret from her family, washing her uniforms secretly, hiding her equipment, and struggling to balance practice, games, and school. Now, her team has qualified for the South American tournament and Camilla knows that this opens doors for her to play professionally. But this tournament requires parental consent for travel and more. Camilla can no longer hide her dreams from her family.

Mendez adds even more complications to the story. Camilla’s childhood friend and first love, Diego is the pride of Rosario, playing international soccer for the Italian team, Juventus. He is a true futbol star and he stopped writing to Camilla more than a year ago. Now, suddenly he is home visiting and intent on rekindling his relationship with Camilla. Wary of being hurt again and even more fearful that her dreams and goals could be sidelined by her feelings for Diego, Camilla is overwhelmed by all she is trying to juggle.

I am a long-time futbol fan and I greatly enjoyed seeing the sport, especially the women’s teams, as the focus of the story. My only quibble might be that I yearned for a bit more scenes of games and practices. But the overarching exploration of this fast-paced and fascinating story does not require a sports fan to appreciate. This is a universal theme that readers everywhere can relate to, portraying the many obstacles a young woman faces to follow her dream. The reality of the difficulties presented by family demands, cultural obstacles, relationships both romantic and family, and the lack of resources and financial support will resonate with many teens. It is a balancing act that young women everywhere will understand.

First-time author Yamile Saied Mendez keeps a lot of balls in the air in this heart-felt story and she manages them all well. She is an author to watch and Furia scored all the goals for me.

2020 Just Won’t Let Up…Grim Books

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve got to be kidding? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, economic depression, and an unprecedented post-presidential election transition and you should see the books the publishers are sending us to read! We understand that reading builds empathy and provides survival and coping strategies, but we need cuddly puppies, comfort food, and beach reads since we can’t travel to beaches. Instead, take a look at the depressing topics the authors and publishers are offering up:

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison (Amulet, 2020)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but that just makes it all the more depressing to think about reading since it illustrates in words AND pictures the horrors that happened at this prison. Important stories, to be sure, and about a subject most of us know little about, but hardly the beach read that the picture postcard-inspired cover promises.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2020)

Narrated by Hunger, the tragic story of the men and women and children who end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with nothing to eat but their dead does make our toilet paper shortages of 2020 seem lame, but really? Is this the book you want to read NOW?

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2020)

As if the natural disasters the world has been facing all year aren’t enough, let’s revisit one of the most horrific manmade disasters, which at its root was due to class divides and social injustice.

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar (Peachtree, 2020)

You know things are bad in the reading world when even the promise of sweet candy leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Welcome to the world of black market candy rings…

Good grief! This list looks like the Goodreads account for Count Olaf! What books have you seen that you just can’t pick up right now? Or, please….tell us what you are reading that is bringing you comfort!!!

Elatsoe – Ghost Dogs, Murder, and a Lipan Apache PI for Teens

Lynn: It is rare to find a book that is wholly fresh and original with a voice at once authentic and unique. it is even rarer for that book to be a debut, yet masterfully crafted and uniquely plotted. In Elatsoe (Levine Querido, 2020), Darcie Little Badger’s power with story, character, world building, and setting took my breath away. In a year when I have struggled with focus, Elatsoe held my attention utterly and her voice and this story will stay with me. This is truly brilliant writing and its mix of mythology, Lipan Apache culture, fantasy, and murder mystery is like nothing I have ever read before.

This is set in an alternative American southwest. Seventeen-year-old Elatsoe plans to become a paranormal investigator when she finishes school but those plans get a kickstart when her cousin Trevor is killed in an apparent car crash. Trevor appears to Elatsoe as he is dying, begging her to protect his family. Elatsoe, her friend Jay, and her ghost dog Kirby investigate and are convinced that Trevor was murdered. Little Badger seamlessly weaves Lipan Apache culture and mythology into a gripping blend of mystery and carefully constructed fantasy, complete with daily magic and an array of monsters. Along the way, Elatsoe deals with her own grief and steps up to take her place in a long line of protectors for her people. Characters are richly developed and the portrayal of a supportive family and respect for traditions is especially heartening.

Little Badger breaks into the taut sense of the mystery with insertions of traditional stories, and while this slows the pace, it heightens the immersion into what makes Elatsoe the person she is. A reader’s patience is rewarded as all these pieces come together into a remarkable whole. The pleasure of this book is enhanced by the striking quality and beauty of the book design. Levine Querido has done an exceptional job, including the black and white sketches by Rovina Cai that begin each chapter.

I was reluctant to leave the book and while I see no indication that this might be a series, I hope that Darcie Little Badger will bring Elatsoe back in future PI cases.