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. 

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.

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.

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!

 

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!

Miss Meteor – New Teen Underdog Story Shines Brightly

Lynn: Do you have teen readers looking for something different and fun? Miss Meteor (Harper, Sept. 2020) by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore is a perfect choice. Quirky and odd but utterly charming, this is an underdog story, a sweet romance, and a bit of a Cinderella tale with a dollop of magical realism and a lot of humor. You can’t go wrong!

This dual-narrative introduces readers to Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla who live in Meteor, New Mexico. Best friends in childhood, the girls’ friendship ended their first year in high school because of the important secrets each girl was keeping. But now the two have come together for a common goal – to help Lita win the Miss Meteor Beauty Pageant. Lita is sure that she and her grandmother came from stardust brought to earth by the meteor that hit outside of town. (Just go with this, OK?) She now has silver bands of star stuff on her torso and they are expanding. Lita knows she is turning back into stardust and she wants to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming Miss Meteor before that happens. Chicky is struggling with her own issues but she hopes the $10,000.00 prize will help save her family’s struggling diner. Both girls also want to thwart the gorgeous mean girl whom everyone believes is a shoo-in for the crown.

This is such a fun premise! Lita definitely has her own fashion sense and both girls know it is going to take some expert help to turn her into a beauty queen. Enter Chicky’s three bickering older sisters who bring their considerable talents to the challenge. For me, the characters are definitely the stars of this story and the Quintanilla sisters nearly stole the show! The depiction of this sisterly relationship is truly hilarious. There are several other wonderful characters in the cast and this warm-hearted story celebrates many types of differences with each character finding their own way of being comfortable with who they are. A lot of issues are brought to this runway in a story that culminates in a wild final pageant that readers won’t forget.

This is a terrific book for teens who might feel out of place and provides a sweet message about being true to yourself and following your dreams.

Jane Against the World – A Definitive Examination for Teens of the Struggle for Reproductive Rights

Lynn: Does a woman have the right to control what happens to her body? That seemingly simple question is at the heart of a centuries-long struggle in America that has included not only the right to terminate a pregnancy but also the right to basic information, birth control, and legal protections. Award-winning author Karen Blumenthal* delves into these controversial issues in Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights (Roaring Brook, 2020). Opening with a riveting account of a 1972 police raid on an abortion-rights service in Chicago, called Jane, Blumenthal then takes readers back to the early 1800s and the story of the struggle for reproductive rights and the reality of women’s lives throughout history.

The central issue, the development of the laws governing these issues and the legal challenges to these laws, is always at the heart of the book but the many fascinating byways Blumenthal ventures into deeply enrich the reader’s understanding. She includes information on many of the individuals involved in these issues since the 1800s (and before) and the changing course of both understanding and public opinion. One of the things I found most fascinating was the very clear depiction of the development of what is currently termed the right-to-life movement and the shift in political support to become a party partisan issue. She doesn’t falter from examining all sides of the issue as well as the racial and class divides that have and continue to have an important impact.

There is real tension in the sections about Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, as they were developed and presented to the court. All the central figures are presented, frequently quoted, and emerge as far more than dry biographies. The complexities of the legal cases are very clearly outlined and Blumenthal guides readers through each step of the complicated process of the litigation, and both hearings of the cases before the Supreme Court. The constitutional arguments that the cases hinged on are examined in a way young readers can follow. An epilogue brings the on-going struggle right up to date with the appointment of the two new conservative justices and Blumenthal concludes with several scenarios about the possible future of Roe v Wade.

Extensive sidebar information is provided through the device of Pregnant Pauses, including a brief history of birth control, the development of medical knowledge about women’s biology, brief biographies of key individuals, and types of pregnancy tests over the years. Excellent back matter includes a large bibliography, extensive source notes, and a glossary. This is an outstanding and definitive examination of an essential issue that continues to impact women’s lives and dominates political efforts still. This is an essential purchase for all high school collections.

* Lynn and Cindy: We had already queued up this review to post for Nonfiction Monday but last week we learned the news of Karen Blumenthal’s sudden death. We are deeply saddened at the loss of this extraordinary writer and send our condolences to her family, friends, and the entire publishing world.

 

Patrick Ness and a New Spin on Dragons

Lynn: Just when I had decided that there was nothing new and interesting in the dragon-tales category, Patrick Ness came along with his new book, Burn (Harper, June 2020), and turned that notion upside down. I shouldn’t be surprised as Ness has a habit of giving old tropes a new look and I couldn’t be happier that he has brought his imagination to this science-fiction-with-dragons story. Wonderfully crafted and totally immersive, this is a brilliant book that completely absorbed my attention and that is saying a lot in this time of pandemic fear. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t resist saying that I burned through it.

The story begins in 1957 in rural Frome, Washington where Sarah Dewhurst and her taciturn father wait to meet the dragon they have hired to clear the new field at their struggling farm. The dragon turns out to be a rare Blue and while it appears that he works for a sliver of gold, his real reason in something else entirely. The focus shifts to a pair of FBI agents also in the area. They are tracing vague rumors of some kind of cult and a rumored assassin and arrive in time to check out a grisly murder scene. The focus shifts again to meet 17-year-old Malcolm, an assassin on a critical mission. Sarah’s family farm is the focal point of these three threads. An eons-long struggle is coming to a tipping point for both dragons and men in this and other worlds. None of the people who come together in the next few days will ever be the same.

The intricate plotting is a joy to read as all the plot points have purpose, all the relationships interlock, and every thread comes together. The characters are vivid and multi-dimensional in every sense and the world-building was exquisitely done. Incorporating the tense history of 1957, the Cold War, Sputnik, and the space race, Ness has given dragons and dragon magic a whole new spin.

Get ready for twists and turns and a wild finish! The door seems slightly ajar so I am hoping there will be a sequel and another trip possible to this universe. More, please!

Cindy: Wow. Patrick Ness is one of the most original writers we have and he delivers a dragon’s hoard in this new book. In addition to the creative world-building and the surprises in the plot (the big show down I anticipated was in the middle of the book. What?) he explores the themes of the costs of war and the tragedy in prejudice. In particular, bi-racial Sarah is shunned in town for her heritage just as her white father and now deceased mother were when they married. She has to hide her relationship with her boyfriend Jason Inagawa as the small town’s prejudice is even worse against anyone of Japanese heritage in this post-WWII decade. And then there is assassin Malcolm’s acceptance and exploration of his homosexuality, a thread that is beautifully, tenderly, and heartbreakingly portrayed. All of this while the adventurous plot spins out.

Do you really need to know more than this is written by Patrick Ness and this is the opening sentence:

On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957—the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America—Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

I didn’t think so. Get your preorder in with your local independent bookstore, pronto.