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.

Love, Jacaranda: A Sweet Nod to Daddy-Long-Legs

Lynn: Bookends readers know well that I am an escapist reader. I love humor, happy endings and books that make me smile. Back in my working days as a school librarian, I realized that many of my young readers craved the same sort of diversions. “Can you help me find a fun book?” was such a common request that I kept a list ready to hand out. All that is to say that Alix Flinn’s latest book would fit perfectly on that list. Love, Jacaranda (Harper, 2020) has all the elements that I and so many teen readers love. There is a hard-working, lonely protagonist struggling against life’s challenges, an engaging set of secondary characters, an intriguing setting, a romantic tangle, and a sweet happy ending. What more could you want? Well, in my case there is more icing on the cake—it is an epistolary novel (a form I love) AND it is a charming re-telling of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster published in 1912. And no, I am not that old that I remember the original! However, if you want an interesting look at book covers, take a look at how this one has changed over the years.

Jacaranda Abbott has lived in a series of foster homes since her mother was sent to prison for attempted murder. The talented sixteen-year-old dreams of a theatrical future but the reality seems dim until one day a video of her singing to a customer at her Publix market job goes viral. Out of the blue arrives an offer by an anonymous benefactor to pay her way at a prestigious art academy in northern Michigan. In a wonderful blur, she suddenly finds herself studying what she loves, living in a room of her own, and having real friends. Ashamed of her background though, Jackie (as she now calls herself) conceals her family history. Deeply grateful for her opportunity, Jacaranda writes to her unknown benefactor calling him Mr. Smith and pours out her experiences, dreams, and struggles in letters that are heartfelt, frank, and delightful.

Readers will root for Jacaranda, cheer her hard work and her sweet budding romance with a roommate’s wealthy cousin. Along the way, there are some thoughtful themes about class and opportunities, mother-daughter relationships, and forgiveness. It isn’t necessary to have read the classic Daddy-Long-Legs to love this story but those who have will find many delightful embedded references. And perhaps those who haven’t will seek out the original. Either way, lace up your dancing shoes, get ready to make of list of wonderful Broadway shows to visit or meet for the first time with Jacaranda. Readers are in for a treat!

 

Dress Coded: Middle School Fiction That Is All Too Real

Lynn: I picked up Dress Coded (Penguin/Putnam, 2020) because of its timely subject and I stayed because the outstanding writing completely captured me! What a terrific surprise! I read this in a day, not wanting to put it down. Carrie Firestone is a debut author and one I will be eagerly watching.

This IS a timely subject and a very important one – the treatment of girls and the clothes they wear. In Molly’s middle school, the dress code is used to humiliate and harass. It is applied inequitably and it’s used to place blame and body shame on young girls. Molly, an 8th grader, is small and slight and a late developer and she has largely gone unnoticed by Fingertips, the administrator who prowls the halls looking for dress code violations such as shorts shorter than the length of a girl’s fingertips, bare shoulders, or bra straps that show. When one of Molly’s friends is treated horribly, she decides to take a stand and starts Dress Coded—a podcast highlighting case after case of humiliation and shaming and the impact it has on girls. The podcast becomes widely followed and soon even high school girls start asking to tell their story of their experiences as middle schoolers. Molly, who is an average student, and who has felt invisible, discovers the power of her voice and her outrage at the treatment of so many. Throughout the course of the book, Molly’s confidence grows and she learns the steps of an organized protest seeking change and justice.

But this more than simply an “issue” story. There is a lot going on here that captured and held my attention. Molly’s family is really struggling as her 11th-grade brother, Danny, is mean and defiant, addicted to the nicotine in vaping, and selling vaping pods to younger kids. The parents’ focus is on Danny and their inability to deal with him and here again, Molly feels unseen.

This story is also a portrait of the power of friendships. Molly, a deeply empathetic girl, is sustained and supported by her relationships with her widening circle of friends. Firestone’s picture of middle school is spot on as is the dialog, relationships, and struggles of kids that age. Told in Molly’s first-person voice, the story also includes podcasts, school bulletins, phone calls, and letters. Crushes, bullies, racism, and more is also explored. The story is compelling, encouraging, and ultimately triumphant. I was cheering the whole way!

Cindy: Dress Coded is going to be a popular book in middle schools. Having worked in them for over three decades and having raised two daughters who attended them, this story raises important questions and issues for students and policymakers to explore together. One of my favorite lines of the book comes during the school board meeting when a junior boy approaches the mic and says that, “he is distracted by girls all day every day (everyone laughs), but it has nothing to do with the thickness of their shoulder straps or whether their shorts are longer than their fingertips. ‘That, my friends, is preposterous.'” Anyone who knows adolescents or remembers being one knows that body image is such an important issue along with so many other awkward parts of this age, for both sexes, but girls face additional scrutiny due to messages in our media, and in our policies. It’s way past time to start doing something about it. Viva la revolution!

The formatting of the book, as Lynn notes, makes this an appealing read for reluctant or busy teen readers. The subject is sure to grab their attention, and the brief chapters and ample white space will keep them turning the pages.

 

 

Left-Handed Booksellers of London – Please, Mr. Nix, We Want Some More

Lynn: Have you ever read a book that feels as if it has been written specifically for you? That is exactly how I feel about The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (Harper/KT, Sep. 2020) It is as if I had a wonderful conversation with Garth Nix about fantasy books and he immediately wrote this marvelous book with all those elements in play. I’ve always loved Garth Nix’s work. The Old Kingdom series is one of my all-time favorites but The Left-Handed Booksellers feels special. An urban fantasy set in an alternate England with bookshops that are far more than bookshops and booksellers with special gifts keeping an eye on the magical elements of Britain. What urban fantasy fan, bookstore-loving reader could possibly ask for more?

Susan Arkshaw has grown up with a single mother who often seems to be so distracted or inward-focused that she seems absent. Yet Susan’s childhood has been a good one, bolstered by a recurring comforting dream of being guarded by unusual beings. Now 18, Susan has earned a place at a prestigious art school in the fall but she is leaving for London early, on a mission to track down the father she has never known anything about. Her first stop in London is with her most concrete prospect and it is a spectacular disaster. With the stab of a silver pin, a strange young man dispatches the man Susan came to see. Suddenly they are pursued by creatures out of legends and nightmares into a place outside of the world Susan knows.  The young man, Merlin St. Jacques, is on a search too, and their paths seem linked. Incredibly, Susan discovers a world of legend, myth, and magic that exists alongside her own, and policed by the Booksellers of London. The Booksellers possess special gifts and abilities. The left-handed, such as Merlin, have more physical gifts for combat while the right-handed have more intellectual gifts. Together, they keep the supernatural world more or less in check. But something has knocked the system completely out of order and Susan may be the key to it all.

This intelligent, inventive, and immersive story is a pure pleasure to read. The writing flows so smoothly, the characters are wonderfully developed individuals (complete with flaws and quirks) who grow and change through the story. The plot is compelling with perfectly placed twists and chapter-ending cliff-hangers and the magic system and world-building are simply superb. I read this as slowly as I could manage and still, the book was done before I was ever ready to stop reading. I loved the touches of humor, the comments on writing, publishing, the book world, and the expertly managed story arc. The resolution was completely satisfying but left me yearning to stay in this incredible world.

My only complaint is that the jacket blurb says this is a stand-alone book. Please, Mr. Nix, more, please! The booksellers of London and this brilliant world are just too good to leave behind!

Cindy: Merlin is a great character, and like Lynn, I’m hoping this isn’t the end. I’d love more of him, Susan, and the Booksellers of London. Merlin laments being denied access to the customers, mostly being assigned to moving stock around. He even pleads to be put in Special Orders, “That would be better than the stockroom.” His cousin, Vivien, replies, “You would get cross checking Books in Print and destroy the microfiche reader…” These and other nods to the professional bookseller world are fabulous for the book nerd readers amongst us.

Another favorite element is the frequent complaints about the dangerously close-to-truth knowledge that ignorant fantasy writers put in their books. Even the Bard gets a slap when Susan compares the information she’s been given by the Booksellers. She asks, “Like Oberon and Titania?” Merlin’s muttered response is “Shakespeare knew too much.”

This story is recommended for high school, but it’s definitely an adult crossover. Lynn and I enjoyed it as thoroughly as any teen will!