Review: The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen (9781250191922)

Released July 30, 2019.

Fie is one of the Crow class, despised and ignored by all of the other classes. Denied the right to have a home other than the open road or any weapons to defend themselves with, they are hated because their class alone is immune to the plague. They serve to come into villages and homes, remove the plague dead and cleanse the space, firing up a funeral pyre away from town. So when Fie’s clan finds themselves caught up in royal court intrigue with the crown prince and his double, who faked their own deaths, Fie is not amused. The only people she cares about are her clan, so the two interlopers despite their charm, mean nothing to her. When an offer is made to save the Crows and give them protection though, Fie knows that she must make it truly stick and gets the prince himself to swear a Covenant oath on it. Now she just has to get them to safety in time before they are all killed.

Owen has woven an incredible world in her debut novel, which is the first in a series. I’m always impressed when an author can toss readers directly into the story with almost no exposition to help and it all works and makes sense. The world building is unique and fascinating, creating both a wide world to explore but also a microcosm of several people as they navigate their fractured and magical society. The magic too is interesting, using bones and teeth to create witchery is wonderfully gruesome and delightfully in keeping with the entire book’s themes. Particularly welcome is a deft use of LGBTQIA+ throughout the novel in the society and several characters.

The character of Fie is also compelling. She is a young woman haunted by the loss of her mother by killers on the open road. She has powers but they are in their infancy and her destiny is to become a chieftain among her people. She is armed with a biting sarcasm that lights up the story like flames, and a deep understanding of what is wrong with the world. Her connection with Tavin grows organically throughout the story and adds its own heat to the book.

A great new voice in YA fantasy, this novel is dark, bloody and compelling. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Henry Holt.

 

Review: How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (9780525554295)

Biz can float through her life, realizing that she is part of a larger universe and leaving her current troubles behind. But every time, she is drawn back to her body and back to her life. She does have great people in her life, including her mother and the twins. Plus her best friend Grace. She also has her father, who died when Biz was young, but stays with her, reminding her of his love for her. But when something happens on the beach, things start to spiral out of control. Grace loses her boyfriend over it, and they both lose their larger friend group. When Grace reacts with fury, her family moves her away. Biz’s father disappears and she stops being able to go to school, almost unable to leave her bed. When she eventually does get help via therapy, Biz doesn’t tell the entire truth, figuring out how to build bits of her life back until they tumble over once again.

This is a remarkable debut novel. Set in Australia, the book explores mental illness with a tenderness that is haunting. The beauty of the world Biz’s mind creates for her is a mix of tantalizing promises and real dangers. Even as readers know that Biz is unwell, they too will be caught up in her visions, understand her desire to keep floating, to enter the sea, to find connections. The setting of Australia is just as lovingly depicted with details of the landscape, the stunning coastline and a trip into the heart of the continent.

In Biz, readers will find a very intelligent teen who is struggling as her mental illness continues to impact her life in profound ways. Biz is warm and funny, a person first and her illness second. Her sarcasm draws people to her. After she loses most of the support structure in her life, she meets new people who love her, accepting her as she is, though she continues to search for what she has lost.

Aching and heart wrenching, this teen novel is an honest and profound look at mental illness and being human. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.

Review: Grandpa’s Stories by Joseph Coelho

Grandpa's Stories by Joseph Coelho

Grandpa’s Stories by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (9781419734984)

A little girl visits her grandfather all through the year. In the spring they walk together in the garden. The girl thinks of replanting her grandpa’s birthdays so he won’t get old. In summer, the two of them play together with a secondhand racing track. The cars fly off into space and the girl thinks of their laughter being like shooting stars. In autumn, her grandpa gives her a book he’s made for her to draw in. She’d like to capture all of her bright feelings about him there. In winter, the two stay inside and Grandpa shares his stories with her. But then her Grandpa dies. While cleaning out his room, she discovers reminders of their time together as well as a new blank notebook that he made her for spring. She fills it with her memories of her Grandpa.

The writing in this book is exceptional. Coelho captures seasonal moments of the pair together, weaving in the joy that they feel, the connection that is being maintained and built. He uses imagery of the little girl’s thoughts to really create sincere memories for her to have that are compelling for the reader as well. When the death in the book happens, it is to be expected as one can feel some sadness in the book throughout as Grandpa ages more. It is a gentle moment, one done with care and thoughtfulness.

The illustrations by Colpoys depict a family of color joyfully spending time together and then experiencing and processing their loss. She uses amazingly bright colors on her pages, incorporating neon-poppy red, zinging sunshine yellow, waves of water blues and many more. Those colors never dim throughout the book, offering hope in their cheerfulness even during times of loss.

A beautifully written and illustrated picture book of love and loss. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.

Review: The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

The Things She's Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (9781984848789)

Beth died in a car accident and now her father is the only one who can see and hear her. He is struggling with his grief, and Beth knows that the best thing for him is to get back to work as a police detective and solve a mystery. Luckily, he is sent on what should be a simple case in a small Australian town. A dead body was found in the aftermath of a fire at a foster care home. But the mystery isn’t that simple as a witness comes forward and speaks to Beth and her father. The witness, Catching, tells an unbelievable tale of almost dying in a flood, her mother sacrificing herself, and then being taken by unusual beings to be fed upon. Still, Beth and her father realize that Catching is telling the truth if they can just figure out what that is and how it ties into the mystery itself.

This #ownvoices tale shares the dark truth of residential schools for Aboriginal children in Australia and the aftermath of entire lost generations. The authors create an amazing story by mixing modern police procedural with a ghost story that vividly shows Aboriginal storytelling and beliefs. The resulting book is one unlike anything you have read before.

From Catching’s poetic and disturbing tale of losing her colors and then finding a way back using the women in her family as points of strength to Beth’s own process of helping her father and then finding a way to let go to Crow’s story of truth and revenge, this is a book that celebrates the power of Aboriginal women to find their voices on the way to getting justice. The three Aboriginal young women at the heart of the book are studies in various kinds of strength, shining on the page and not allowing their light or colors to dim.

Unusual and incredibly powerful and moving, this genre-bending novel is one of a kind. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

 

Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

pay attention, carter jones by gary d. schmidt

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544790858)

Carter’s family is a bit of a mess. On their first day of school, there are lunches to pack, socks to find, ribbons to tie, and dog vomit to clean up. So when an English butler appears on the doorstep just as Carter is heading out to buy milk, it solves a lot of immediate problems. Still, there are other issues that Carter is still grappling with, including grief and loss. As the story continues, readers learn more about the darkness in Carter’s family and his role as the oldest to be strong for everyone. As Carter matches wits with the butler who seeks to control all of Carter’s free time, the two become a team and along the way start a cricket league at Carter’s new school. As the past becomes too much for Carter to bear alone, he learns about the power of sports, teams and a good butler.

Schmidt takes the spirit of Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins and gives us a male version in Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick. The book demands a certain amount of setting aside of disbelief for things like cricket being embraced by an entire middle school and a twelve-year-old driving a car. It is mix of lighthearted storytelling and deeper subjects, moving from eliciting laughter into moments of real tragedy with skill. Readers may not fully understand cricket by the end, but will know what a sticky wicket actually is and how the basics work.

Carter is a protagonist who is dealing with a lot. As the book progresses, he learns how vital he is for his little sisters and how his interacting in their lives is powerful. He steadily builds confidence as the story continues with the final scenes fully demonstrating not only his person growth but also the depth of his struggles. As the tragedies of his family are revealed, readers will be amazed that Carter continues on as he does despite it all. He is a figure of resilience and humor.

Another winner from a master storyteller, this novel for middle graders introduces cricket and one amazing butler. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Clarion Books.

 

Review: The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (9781338209969)

Marinka never asked to be a Yaga, but since she is the granddaughter of a Baba Yaga, she has been learning to speak with the dead and guide them through the Gate and into the stars. All Marinka really wants is to make a real human friend and do things that other twelve-year-olds do. Making friends is nearly impossible though when you live in a house with chicken legs that can move you all over the world overnight. So when Marinka gets another chance to make friends with someone, she takes it, even if it breaks all of the rules that she has been taught. As her decision changes her entire life, Marinka is left to figure out who she really is and what she wants to be.

Anderson has a clear love of Russian folktales, taking a beautiful view of Baba Yaga and giving her a larger community, more chicken-footed houses and a longing for family. The folktales at the center of the book continue to reverberate throughout the story, offering Marinka distinct choices. Marinka makes her own decisions though, ones that readers will not agree with though they might understand. As her situation grows direr, Marinka becomes almost unlikeable, and yet Anderson is able to bring us back to loving her by the end.

Anderson surrounds Marinka with a beautiful and rich world. There is her own Baba Yaga, filling the house with good cooking, lots of love and ghosts every evening. Then there is Jack, Marinka’s pet jackdaw, who sits on her shoulder and puts pieces of food in people’s ears and socks. A baby lamb soon joins them as well. Yet by far, the most compelling member of Marinka’s home is the house itself. Filled with personality and opinions, the house is intelligent and ever-changing.

A dynamic retelling of the Baby Yaga folktale, this picture book offers a big world of magic and ghosts to explore. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee (9781452149868)

Released August 28, 2018

After their parents made an Agreement with Death, the Vickery twins had to live with it. It meant that Felix had to serve Death alongside his father, witnessing healing and dying every day. Felix was not allowed to go to school and could not ever see his mother. His father could not see his brother Lee or his mother ever again. Lee in turn lived with his mother on the other side of the house serving Memory. He took bottled memories, labeled them and placed them on shelves. Both brothers had errands in Poplar Wood, Lee to dispense of the memories and Felix to gather herbs. Their life was terrible but steady until Gretchen entered it, determined to figure out how Essie was killed. From a family of Summoners, Gretchen is second born and unable to conduct the Rites. Still, she insists on untangling what is happening in their small town as Death, Memory and Passion let their rivalry get out of hand.

Just writing that summary demonstrates how unique this book is, yet it also plays with existing myths about shades and summoning. The book makes Death, Memory and Passion into figures that are non-human but still have human desires like revenge and dominance. The book is constructed so that the reader learns more about this fictional world alongside the characters. Each brother knows separate elements and Gretchen brings her own understanding of the other part of the relationships with Shades to the book. The organic way that it plays out via the story itself makes it immensely satisfying.

The characters are definitely worth noting as well. Gretchen is the most compelling character. She is wonderfully curious, prickly and determined. There is no way to tell her no that she will accept and her tenacity drives the story forward. The two brothers are unique from one another as well, one who goes to public school and the other who doesn’t. Their lives are as different as can be, each raised by not only one parent but also influenced deeply by the Shade too. These factors play out in their personalities in a way that is subtle but also clear.

A great fantasy Gothic novel with a mystery at its heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

 

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

3 New Picture Books about Compassion

The Funeral by Matt James

The Funeral by Matt James (9781554989089)

Norma has to go to her great-uncle Frank’s funeral. She has to miss school, and she gets to see her favorite cousin, Ray. But she still practices her sad face in the mirror. Their car joins a line of cars headed to the church. The funeral is long and Norma has to be quiet. Ray has trouble staying still for that long. Finally, the funeral is done. There are sandwiches to eat and then Norma and Ray head outside to play. They play all afternoon until it is time to go home. Norma thinks that her Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral.

James captures going to a funeral as a small child with a poignancy and beauty. Anyone who attended a funeral as a child will see their own memories come to life. Small things like the flags on the cars, playing outside the church, and the graveyard add up to a full day of remembering someone. James’ illustrations are done in acrylic and ink on masonite. They have deep colors and incorporate collage pieces as well. The illustrations open up and soar when the children go outside, the green of the grass taking much of the space on the page. This is a book that celebrates life and honors the perspective of the child. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Old Man by Sarah V

The Old Man by Sarah V., illustrated by Claude K. Dubois, translated by Daniel Hahn (9781776571918)

A little girl wakes up and gets ready for school. Outside, an old man gets up too from where he is sleeping on the ground. He is wet and very cold. He walks to warm himself up. He’s hungry and eats out of a trash can. But he is too tired to continue, so he falls asleep on the ground in a park. The police wake him and ask him to move along. He heads to the shelter for something to eat, but can’t remember his name when he’s asked. He leaves and it begins to rain. He sleeps on the bus but has to leave there too. Then the little girl from the beginning of the book appears and offers the man her sandwich. That evening, he is able to go back to the shelter and this time he remembers his name and gets a hot meal.

The author of this picture book focuses on the power of compassion for those around us. Societal issues are not tackled here, just the pieces of the day of a person experiencing homelessness. They are small but vital, each moment leading to the next and each impacting how the man feels and how well he is able to do. The text is very simple though the book is thicker than most picture books. That allows room for the sepia-toned illustrations that take us on a journey through the man’s day. They are shadowy, chilly and seep under the skin like a shiver. An important book about small acts of kindness. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (9780735229358)

One day Taylor made a wonderful creation out of blocks. But then everything came crashing down. One animal after another tried to help Taylor feel better. Chicken wanted to talk about it, but Taylor didn’t want to. Bear wanted to shout, but Taylor didn’t feel like it. Elephant wanted to rebuild it exactly the way it was, but Taylor didn’t feel like remembering. Others came one after another, but nothing worked. Taylor was alone until Rabbit came in, moved closer and just sat there right next to Taylor. The rabbit just listened and Taylor talked, shouted, remembered and much more. Then Taylor was ready to create something even better.

Doerrfeld has skillfully created a picture book that looks at anger and disappointment, at the process of working through big emotions and the importance of taking things at your own pace and speed. I appreciate that Taylor eventually is ready to talk, be angry and much more. This is not about bottling up emotions but about listening, supporting and moving forward in your own way. Using animals as the emotional reactions was a smart move, with the frowning bear and chattering chicken. The rabbit immediately changes the tone and feel of the book, mirroring what he is doing for Taylor as well.

An intelligent look at big emotions and how best to deal with them and support one another, this picture book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)