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Megan

Wink Poppy Midnight

posted by: June 6, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Wink Poppy MidnightWink Poppy Midnight is original and utterly enchanting. April Genevieve Tucholke casts a spell over readers that will hold them in thrall until the last page.

 

The author reminds the readers that, like soups, all stories start with the same key ingredients. Every cohesive story has a hero, a villain and a secret. In this dark mystery, readers are never really sure who is who. Each chapter is alternately narrated by the three title characters and, as the story progresses, readers are less sure of who to trust.

 

For far too long, Midnight has been in love with Poppy, the gorgeous girl next door. Though he knows all too well that she is as cruel as she is beautiful, he has never been able to shake her control over him. Now that he and his father have moved to an old house outside of town, perhaps he will truly be able to get over Poppy. Midnight now finds himself living next to the eccentric Bell family. Everyone in town whispers that their mother is a witch because she tells fortunes from tea leaves and reads tarot cards. The kids run wild, and Midnight is drawn to their stories and games. Wink Bell, with her crazy red hair, freckles and overalls is the exact opposite of Poppy, and perhaps that is exactly what Midnight wants after all.

 

Don’t be tempted to label Wink Poppy Midnight a teen book with a mandatory love triangle. The characters feel variations of love, but it is more of a dark, mysterious fairy tale than a romance. The characters are complex and quirky. The writing is beautiful and smart. Tucholke seems to be spinning us a yarn with a sly smile on her face, trusting that her readers will get it and be delighted in the strangeness of it. Needless to say, I was.

 


 
 

The Girl from Everywhere

posted by: May 18, 2016 - 7:00am

The Girl from EverywhereTime-traveling pirates? Count me in. Heidi Heilig has offered up just such delicious fare with The Girl from Everywhere, the first installment in her new teen series.

 

Nix, whose father is the captain of The Temptation, has grown up on the ship traveling to any far-flung place in time they happen to have a map for, including magical and mythological locales. The eccentric crew members are the closest thing she has to family. But, one place always beckons her father back — the place where he lost Nix’s mother. If he could get back, perhaps he could save her.

 

Time travel has rules, however. The crew can never use the same map twice, and the map must be an original reflection of the place in time it was created. While the captain would do anything to get his hands on a usable map of 1868 Honolulu, it is hard to find one that will actually work.

 

To acquire a potentially usable map, the crew will have to pull more than one major heist. Since piracy is never as simple as it sounds, they must also deal with unforeseen obstacles along the way.

 

Nix’s complex relationship with her father is especially compelling, though there are also hints of romance. Nix’s best friend aboard the ship may have deeper feelings, and she also meets an enigmatic stranger who will test her loyalties to the ship and the crew.

 

Heilig, a native Hawaiian, ties in a surprising amount of actual history concerning the island at this pivotal time in its history, and her descriptions of the place, the people and the food are magical.

 

Readers who enjoy this book should check out Unhooked by Lisa Maxwell, The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry and Passenger by Alexandra Bracken.


 
 

The Past

posted by: May 16, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The PastTessa Hadley’s new novel The Past is a beautifully written story capturing the complex relationships of families — both with each other and with their own past — as the characters find themselves tangled in patterns of behavior they don’t know how to break.

 

The story begins with a summer holiday. One by one, the grown siblings arrive at Kington House with children, groceries and even an unexpected guest. Harriet has arrived first, but immediately slipped off to the woods for a walk. When Alice arrives without her key, she must sit on the stoop and wait. That would have been fine if she hadn’t inexplicably invited her ex-boyfriend’s son Kashim, a chronically bored college student. As they peer into the house like strangers, Alice grows embarrassed of her typical forgetfulness. Fran and her children show up with their car packed full of groceries and let the others in. The sisters immediately begin pouring drinks and speculating about their brother Roland’s newest wife, Pilar, whom they haven’t yet met. And, as easily as that, they all slip into the family roles they know so well: the distant one, the flighty one, the responsible one.

 

Kington House is the vicarage where their grandparents lived and their mother grew up. The pleasantly dilapidated house has no cell phone service, cable TV or even a decent store, but it is full of memories. Every chipped tea cup and desk drawer holds a story, a part of their family’s past. On this vacation, the siblings must decide whether they will continue to hang on to the house, which needs a great deal of repair, or let go.

 

This lovely isolation creates a perfect setting for us to be enveloped in this chaotic family. We become one of them, feeling empathy for them even when they frustrate us beyond belief.

 

There is a grace to Hadley’s writing as she slips from one character’s innermost thoughts to the next. Even without an action-packed plot, this work is hard to put down. This family, their struggles and secrets, are so well written they become like people we have known, and they will linger with readers.

 

Readers who enjoy The Past will be interested in Hadley's previous books. It is easy to see why she is being called one of our greatest contemporary authors.


 
 

Black Rabbit Hall

posted by: May 3, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Black Rabbit HallA foreboding manor house is the centerpiece of Eve Chase’s new novel, Black Rabbit Hall. Readers will instantly be sucked into the dual narratives of two women living decades apart, whose fates are tied to the titular hall.

 

Amber Alton and her family retreat to the house in the Cornish countryside as a respite from the world. The Alton children run wild in the woods and play on their little private beach without a care. Despite the lack of modern conveniences, their parents always seem happiest here as well. One stormy afternoon a tragic accident irrevocably changes the Alton family, and the house seems to change as well. It is less like an idyllic sanctuary and more like a menacing prison.

 

Thirty years later, the eerie gravity of the house draws Lorna, a modern bride-to-be searching for the perfect wedding venue. While a crumbling estate seems like an odd choice, something about the house captivates her in a way she cannot explain.

 

She can feel some inexplicable connection to the place and the buried secrets and betrayals. Unraveling the mysteries of the house and the family who once lived there quickly devolve into her primary obsession.

 

It is rare to find a book with dual plots featuring equally gripping storylines. There is this delicious sense of impending doom throughout the book that makes it impossible to put down.  As soon as readers think they know what will happen next, the story turns sharply in another direction. While Chase has woven some complex affairs spanning a great deal of time, she never loses us for a moment. Her attention to details makes Black Rabbit Hall a tangible place as we lose ourselves in the plot.

 

This book is great for readers who love gothic tales with crumbling estates and dark family secrets, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca or the works of Kate Morton like The House at Riverton


 
 

Pax

posted by: March 24, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for PaxPax, a new book by award-winning author Sara Pennypacker, will linger with readers long after they finish the final page. The story is told alternately by a young orphaned fox named Pax, and Peter, the boy who saved him. Peter found Pax shortly after his own mother died, and his father grudgingly let him keep the fox “for now.”

 

“For now” turned into five years. Pax becomes Peter’s family since his father is usually gone and is emotionally distant even when he is home. Now war threatens their home, and Peter’s father announces he is leaving to join the fight. Peter must stay with his formidable grandfather, a man who doesn’t approve of tame foxes. Peter is forced to abandon the now-domesticated Pax who lives off kibble, in the wilderness. The moment the boy leaves his fox behind, he knows he has made a terrible mistake.

 

While stories about lost pets are familiar to us, this one is unique. The journey that Pax and Peter take in order to find each other tests both, and they meet new characters who change them and us forever. As they come to understand difficult truths about the world, so do readers.

 

Pennypacker doesn’t offer a specific setting, just a land being destroyed by war. The conflict, which is never really clearly explained to readers either, affects not only the people, but also the land and the creatures. The story isn’t a simple protest against war, but a plea for people to be honest about the real price of conflict.

 

Pennypacker’s writing is beautiful. With clarity and compassion one doesn’t often find in children’s books, she addresses complicated themes like loneliness, love and the cost of war.

 

The art for this book is created by Caldecott award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen and perfectly matches the story in its simple, poignant style.

 

Pax is great for readers who enjoyed Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey. Fans of these great animal stories will also enjoy Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt.


 
 

The Expatriates

posted by: March 14, 2016 - 8:00am

Cover art for The ExpatriatesJanice Lee’s new book The Expatriates immerses readers in the lives of three women who must navigate the affluent and insular world of American expatriates living in Hong Kong. The twists and turns of their intertwined lives make this book impossible to put down. Lee’s characters are amazingly realistic and beautifully drawn. Readers cannot help but feel compassion for them even when they aren’t exactly likeable. In this sharp social satire, readers are invited into the funniest moments of their lives as well as the darkest.

 

Mercy is floundering with no plan after graduating from Columbia, so she decides to look for opportunities abroad. Shortly after her arrival in Hong Kong, a tragic accident causes her to collapse in on herself, unable and unwilling to try to move past this event. Hilary is desperate to have a child, hoping it might save her shaky marriage. Margaret and her family move when her husband accepts a career opportunity, and she is content with her new role as a stay-at-home mother. When the family suffers a horrific loss, she can no longer recognize herself or begin to figure out what to do next.

 

These women exist in a “fishbowl” where everyone seems to know everyone else and their story, but Lee illustrates how the self presented to the world can be completely different from the self rippling beneath the surface.

 

Hong Kong is so much a part of the story that it becomes another complex and vibrant character itself. Lee only really delves into the “American Zone” of the city, but she creates a clear sense of this strange place, and we can see how the city is as changeable as the characters inhabiting it.

 

Readers who enjoy this will love Lee’s first novel The Piano Teacher, as well as Paradise City by Elizabeth Day.


 
 

The Mystery of Hollow Places

posted by: February 9, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Mystery of Hollow PlacesRebecca Podos' debut novel The Mystery of Hollow Places is a combination coming-of-age story and atmospheric mystery. Imogene has always loved reading detective books, especially the ones written by her dad. When he disappears in the middle of the night, leaving behind only one cryptic clue, Imogene decides to start sleuthing herself. The clue points her toward her absent mother, a figure she only knows from fairy tales spun by her father at bedtime. In order to find him, Imogene is convinced she must find out the true story behind this woman who vanished from their lives so long ago.

 

As a mystery aficionado, Imogene draws on the skills she has picked up from novels over the years to try and solve her case. Her dad’s first best-seller becomes her how-to manual as she tries to figure out the fine art of private investigation. Along the way, she references dozens of fictional detectives which fans of the genre will enjoy. The fast-paced plot is set against a chilly, snowy New England backdrop, perfect for a good mystery story.

 

In the hands of a lesser writer, it could become a fun, noir-flavored mystery, but Podos creates a novel with depth. Imogene is forced to start rethinking who she thought she was in the light of the truths she uncovers about her missing parents, both of whom battle mental illness.

 

Podos hooks readers with a suspenseful mystery, but what makes this book so memorable is her beautiful style and Imogene’s endearing first person narration. Aside from missing parents, Imogene still has to navigate awkward interactions with the boy she has secretly adored forever, fights with her best (only) friend and procuring gas money for her illicit investigation. There is nothing trite or saccharine about Podos’ handling of love, loneliness and the struggle toward self-discovery. Imogene is real, funny and absolutely endearing. 
 


 
 

Picture Books Are for Everyone

posted by: February 4, 2016 - 7:30am

Cover art for Mr. Postmouse’s RoundsCover art for Mother BruceMarianne Dubuc is an awarding-winning author and illustrator, but never before has she created such an absolutely mesmerizing book for children (or unselfconscious adults). In Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, we follow Mr. Postmouse as he delivers the mail, getting a sneak peek into a detailed cross-section of each animal abode on his route. Mr. Mouse must travel from treetops to the bottom of the sea in his quest to deliver the mail, but he is never too busy for a smile and a wave at each happy package recipient. Roller skates for turtle or a new shovel for mole, each package in the wagon must be delivered. The illustrations are bustling with details, and readers are sure to find something new each time they open this book. Every panel creates complex, funny characters like the yeti who loves to knit, the overeager ants and a very friendly dragon. While the text is amusing and easy to read, the book’s clever illustrations will win over readers of all ages.

 

Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins is a laugh-out-loud picture book that also gently pokes fun at our interest in cooking fancy, gourmet foods. Bruce is a grumpy little bear who only likes eggs. He scours the Internet for new and interesting ways to prepare them. No ingredient is too difficult for him to procure as he combs the forest, ever the local shopper. However, things get complicated when he finds a recipe online which calls for duck eggs. The eggs hatch as Bruce attempts to prepare them, and he finds himself the victim of mistaken identity when the ducklings think Bruce is their mama. This book has a great sense of humor and will delight both kids and the grownups they beg to read it again. The author infuses this same hilarity into the illustrations as well. I especially enjoyed Bruce’s unibrow and his many disgusted and disgruntled expressions.


 
 

A Wild Swan

posted by: January 22, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for A Wild SwanA Wild Swan is Michael Cunningham’s new collection of reimagined fairy tales, and though they may look familiar at first glance, Cunningham offers a completely new angle. He examines the flat characters who have been doing the same things for centuries, and gives them motives, neuroses and secrets.

 

In the chapter “Beasts,” Cunningham offers up a very different interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Beauty is not some impossibly selfless ingénue. It is her vanity, her sense that she is too good for her village, and in fact her family, that leads her to the beast’s castle. She believes that anything that happens to her there can be no worse than the tedium of her daily chores and the dull assortment of village men she is expected to choose a husband from. When she finds that the beast means to ignore her, she becomes bored with life at the enchanted castle. Released, she goes back to her village only to find that everyone believes she has actually been away to hide some sort of disgrace, and she is treated like a social pariah.  This is truly what makes her decide she can love the beast. Once transformed, we discover the beast hadn’t been the unfortunate victim of a horrible curse by an unreasonable old shrew either.

 

Cunningham peels back the layers behind each character to offer up a completely different kind of tale for modern readers. He delves a little deeper, beyond the happily ever after and into the hasty marriages, the toll a wish granted can take and the occasional need for a curse.

 

Like the originals by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, there is an enchanting combination of hope and horror in each tale. The stories take place in a hybrid of folktale villages and the modern world. The characters face old-world problems with modern sensibilities to delightful effect.

 

The prologue, aptly titled “Dis. Enchant,” reminds readers that at least a part of fairy tales’ timeless appeal is the cruel justice in them. They are often about terrible things happening to those who have been too lavishly blessed with beauty or good luck. In that sense, there is a certain kind of balance restored when these characters are cursed with wings and whatnot. This collection is wickedly fun and will appeal to fans of fairy tales or simply well told short stories.

 

The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are a perfect accompaniment, both lovely and haunting.


 
 

Undermajordomo Minor

posted by: January 14, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Undermajordomo MinorPatrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.

 

Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.  

 

Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.

 

From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.

 

In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.


 
 

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