New in Town by Kevin Cornell

Cover image for New in Town.

New in Town by Kevin Cornell (9780374306090)

One morning, the residents of Puddletrunk woke up to discover that their bridge had collapsed. It certainly wasn’t the first time. They were lucky to have Mortimer Gulch, who had built and replaced over 200 bridges for the town. Mr. Gulch said it was the termites again and they’d just all have to donate to replace the bridge again. He was willing to accept jewelry and cash. But the new traveling clock repairman refused to pay, instead saying he would pay by fixing the clock tower for free. So bridge #272 began construction! Everyone worked hard to build it while Mr. Gulch orated, drummed and motivated them. Then they ran out of wood, but the clock repairman had some. When he refused to share his wood with Mr. Gulch, lest it get eaten by termites, readers soon find out exactly what has been happening to the bridges. But the traveling clock repairman just may have understood it all along.

Cornell has created an atmospheric picture book of an isolated town built in a marvelously ramshackle way on a small circle of land surrounded by a pit. Readers will immediately know that Mr. Gulch is a bad guy, but they won’t quite understand how bad until it is revealed that bridges (and clock towers) are simply delicious. The quiet and reserved repairman has a plan of his own that results in a wonderfully satisfying ending, neatly solving the bridge problem in a permanent way.

Cornell’s illustrations are a delight. They play with light and dark, filling with ominous shadows. The ramshackle town is full of small details as are the people in town. The ending works particularly well because of the art, showing the height of the tower, how precarious it looks, and the rather sad wooden bridge that connects them to the world. Even the font used for the book is unusual and interesting, swirling with promise of a fantastic tale.

A great villain, quiet hero and one doozy of a solution come together to make this fantasy picture book pure joy. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba

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Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, illustrated by Miho Satake, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa (9781632063038)

When Kazu sees a strange girl leaving his house in the middle of the night wearing a white kimono, he wonders about it. But things are even stranger at school, when he is the only person who seems not to know Akari, the girl who exited his house that night. Everyone else seems to have known her for years and years. When Kazu follows Akari home, he realizes that her mother is invisible! As Kazu explores the history of his Kimyo Temple neighborhood, which doesn’t have a temple, he finds himself angering some of the older people in his community. Putting the pieces together, Kazu discovers that a small Buddha statue from his family’s home has the power to restore dead people to life! After getting to know Akari and her mother from her previous life, Kazu has a new quest, to give Akari the chance to read the ending of an unfinished story from decades ago. It may be the key to keeping Akari alive this time around and also the answer to the questions about Kazu’s own family and community.

Written by one of Japan’s most well-known and prolific children’s and YA fantasy authors, this book is a marvel. Kashiwaba weaves together multiple layers to create a book that is satisfying and full of magic. There is Kazu’s own life, going to school and having friends, going to the beach and enjoying his summer. There is the mystery of Akari with her empty house and invisible mother. There is the story of Kazu’s own family and the missing temple in his neighborhood to explore. Then the story that Akari loved in her previous life is shared on the pages, giving readers a witch-filled and magical story that is full of danger, cold and heroes. The last is to find the author herself and see if they can get the story finished. By that point, the reader is hoping that they can, because you simply must know how it ends!

Beautifully, Kashiwaba changes the style of her writing from Kazu’s story to the fantasy tale embedded in the novel. Kazu’s story is more modern with shorter lines and more exclamations. The lines lengthen in the witch’s story, becoming more storytelling. It’s very cleverly done. The characters are marvelous from Kazu himself at the heart of this unique zombie story to Akari who is learning to live a new life and loving every moment to the friends, parents and newly met people that Kazu meets along the way.

Unique, fascinating and completely wonderful, this Japanese import is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (9780593300916)

Shiori is the only princess of Kiata, a land where magic is forbidden. She lives in the palace with her six older brothers, her father the emperor and his consort, her stepmother. None of them know that Shiori has magic of her own, but her stepmother, who is also a sorceress, discovers it. Shiori meets a dragon in the waters when she almost drowns, soon becoming friends and learning more about her magical powers with his help. But when Shiori followers her stepmother into her snake-filled garden, her stepmother banishes her and her brothers. Shiori is cursed with having to wear a bowl on her head that covers most of her features and being unable to utter a sound without killing one of her brothers. Her six brothers are turned into cranes by day and human by night. Shiori must find a way to reunite with her brothers and break the curse before her stepmother takes over the empire. But things may not be as simple as Shiori first thinks, and certainly meeting her betrothed while unable to speak was never in her plans.

An impossible book to summarize in any way that conveys it fully, this novel is a wonderful interwoven net of The Wild Swans and other folk tales. The world building here is so masterful where the magic makes sense, the curses bind and force the story forward, and there are layers of the empire, magical and human to explore. The setting of Kiata offers extensive forests, an icy northern castle, long stretches of sea, and mountains of magic and demons.

Against that setting, Lim offers readers characters who change and grow as the novel progresses. The most changed is Shiori, who steadily learns about herself and her betrothed, thinking deeply about who she once was and who she has become due her stepmother’s curse. The romance is slow and steadily builds in a way that is organic and lovely. Readers will love the secondary characters too. Plus the villains themselves are complicated and add to the twists and turns of the novel.

A great fantasy full of magic and curses. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

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Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury (9781534465282)

Voya’s time to get her Calling has finally arrived. While she isn’t excited about the trial that she must undergo, she is thrilled that she will get her witch’s power. Voya hopes that her power will set the course for the rest of her life, likely keeping her close at home with her multigenerational family who live in a house that was magically moved to Canada. When Voya’s hesitation causes her to have to ask her ancestor for another chance, she is given an impossible task: to destroy her first love. If Voya doesn’t succeed, every witch in her family will lose their magic. It also means that Voya’s young sister will die since magic keeps her alive. As Voya tries to get her cousin a great internship, she also meets a boy who is the perfect genetic match for her. The trouble is, they don’t like each other at all and he has no interest in even meeting her again. As Voya struggles to solve the mystery of her Calling, she learns more about her family’s pure magic, the cost of darker magical power, and what duty to her family means.

This book is full of Black magic that is at once both powerful but also marvelously mundane. Sambury brings us into a family of witches who are coming to the end of their power and tied to being pure, meaning that they won’t kill or torture other people to gain power. The family dynamics are beautifully drawn, from divorced parents who are forced to live together under the same roof to a grandmother who controls them all to a group of cousins who are very different from one another but also watch out and help one another constantly. The dialog is well written, full of small touches that bring each character to life.

Voya is an unusual protagonist. First, she has not only her parents but a huge extended family around her all the time. Second, she has trouble making choices that impact her life to the point of grinding to a halt regularly. When given tasks that force her to make decisions, she falters but doesn’t give up. She finds other ways, other paths and asks for help. This is the opposite of a solo protagonist, as she is surrounded by people who love her even if they don’t trust that she will succeed.

Magical, powerful and unique, this novel is fantastic. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by McElderry Books.

Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland

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Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland (9780062915894)

When Ophie’s father is killed in a racist attack on their home in Georgia, Ophie discovers that she can see and communicate with ghosts. Her father’s ghost encourages her to flee with her mother. They make their way to Pittsburgh to stay with relatives. Ophie’s mother finds them both jobs with a wealthy family in their old manor that happens to be filled with ghosts and secrets. In post World War I America, work is hard to find and they can’t afford for Ophie to continue to attend school. As Ophie learns the tasks to be a maid for the elderly woman who owns the house, she realizes how dull her future looks, caught in endless domestic work. Ophie must also learn the tricks of dealing with all of the ghosts who surround her both at work and outside. Some are far more demanding than others. One spirit in the house though is friendly to Ophie, teaching her the small elements of being a maid that will make Ophie’s life easier. But even that spirit has secrets, ones that may not stay hidden once she has a voice.

The author of Dread Nation has turned to middle-grade novels with historical fiction that wrestles with racism and prejudice while offering an enticing mystery to unravel. The fantasy elements of the ghosts around Ophie add to the mystery and effectively isolate Ophie from those around her as she figures out how to handle both ghosts and her wealthy employers. Ireland doesn’t shy away from the blatant racism of the time, but also effectively demonstrates how those same racist forces are in our modern world.

Ophie is such a great protagonist. She is dynamic and smart, hurting from the loss of her father and trying to help her mother find a way forward for them both. As she has to stop going to school, she finds ways to keep learning, including romance magazines that she finds around the big manor. Ireland cleverly ties all of the elements of the book together with her reveal at the end, keeping Ophie and her powers fully central.

A marvelous mystery full of fantasy elements and Black history. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (9781547603909)

Briseis has a magical gift that she works hard not to reveal. Plants respond to her touch and presence, growing more lush and leaning in towards her, sometimes with destructive force. When Briseis inherits an estate in rural New York, she and her mothers jump at the new opportunity. The home is dirty and needs attention, and it also holds a lot of secrets for Briseis to figure out. There is the apothecary shop that seemed to deal in more normal herbs, but also ones that are extremely poisonous and rare. Then there is a trail of clues that lead Briseis to a neglected garden on the property that has regular herbal plants but also hidden poison gardens that only Briseis can reach thanks to her newly discovered immunity to poisonous plants. As strangers arrive on the property to seek services from Briseis, she finds herself part of another mystery. What is behind the locked door in the garden, and could it have been why so many women in her family have died or disappeared?

There is just so much to love with this novel. It’s a mesmerizingly lovely look at contemporary Black life that is imbued with magic and mystery. Briseis’ talent with plants moves from being problematic to being celebrated, something that really shines at the center of the book as she gains confidence in her own powers. Against the green wonder of her magic is the danger of poison that darkens the entire story very effectively, and is steadily revealed as more characters appear in the story.

Bayron paces the mystery out very cleverly, allowing readers to both enjoy and doubt several characters who are close to Briseis. The inclusion of queer characters is done naturally and woven into the story. Briseis has lesbian mothers and is queer herself. Briseis herself is a great protagonist, richly drawn in both her self doubt, her initial friendlessness, and how that transforms into a dangerous dance of trust and betrayal.

Beautifully written, full of strong Black women and filled with magic, this teen novel is spellbinding. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

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Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera (9780062947550)

Cece lives in Tierra del Sol, a town at the edge of the desert where criatura, powerful legendary beings, roam. Devoted to the Sun, the town stands against the influx of these beings. Cece though is unique in her town. She has a water spirit, given to her when she was young, that is considered a curse by the rest of the residents, including her own family. When her older sister is stolen away by a criatura to become his bride, Cece blames herself for bringing her sister into the desert. Now Cece must figure out how to rescue her sister. She decides that the only way is to become a bruja herself and control the soul of a criatura. The first criatura she meets is the legendary Coyote, who agrees to join her in her quest. As Cece joins the brutal contests of the bruja, she must find her own way, a way that may just change the relationships between criatura, bruja and humans.

Rivera’s novel is entirely immersive and engaging. She invites readers into the world of Mexican folklore, highlighting several legendary figures both kind and cruel. Still, the world she creates is also entirely her own with the small community of humans standing in the way of the powerful criatura and the disdain that those people have for Cece and what she becomes. The world of criatura, bruja and humans is a delicate balance where power if vied for and battles are commonplace. Just knowing who to trust is difficult and may lead to ruin.

The characters placed in this world are beautifully written. From Cece herself, who is courageous, caring and unwilling to lose herself in order to gain power. To Coyote, who is funny, wild and true. The soft spot that Coyote has for humans is one that will be shared by readers towards him. His character is complex and so much a heart of this book.

A great middle-grade fantasy full of magic, legend and individuality. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

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The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (9781338540581)

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a plan. She just needs to survive high school and then she can leave her small island and become the real person she keeps secret from everyone. She has a group of friends, but she’s different from them. Her family has fallen apart with her father leaving, her mother sad and her little brother raging. Morgan is about to have another huge secret to keep. When Morgan meets Keltie, she rediscovers someone she met as a child. With a kiss, Morgan allows Keltie to take on a human form and leave her seal form behind. The two become close friends, but Morgan is worried about people seeing them touching or together at all. Keltie though has something she hasn’t told Morgan either. As the secrets pile up, Morgan has to see if she has the courage to live as the person she truly is before it’s too late.

From the author of The Witch Boy trilogy comes this magical sea breeze of a graphic novel that is just right for summer beach reading. The twist on a traditional selkie tale is lovingly created, offering moments of real connection, beauty and pain. Morgan is closeted and pretending to be everything she is not. It’s great to see that as she moves into her truth, she becomes better connected with her family as she shares things with them. The setting of the novel is a large part of the story with the seaside, the island and the seal nursery just offshore.

The illustrations show that setting with detail, inviting readers down to the beaches, out to the seals, deep underwater, and onto the rocks. They are drenched in summer sun, tantalizing moonlight, and the blue greens of the sea.

Beautiful, aching and full of LGBTQIA magical fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta

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Force of Fire by Sayantani DasGupta (9781338636642)

The author of the Kingdom Beyond books returns with a stand alone novel set in the same universe. Pinki is the daughter of two of the most renowned rakkhosh members of the resistance to the take over of the Kingdom Beyond by the snakes. But Pinki resolutely refuses to join the resistance, focusing on herself instead. She is a rakkhosh who has fire magic but can’t control it at all. So when a handsome snake prince offers her a way to learn to control her fire, she agrees to find the hidden moonbeams for him. But the moonbeams are not what Pinki had thought they were. As she follows the trail to find the moonbeams, she finds herself learning about what the snakes are doing to people and children in particular, including one of Pinki’s own little cousins, who has lost the ability to speak. But can Pinki forgive her neglectful parents and find a way to embrace her fire and her heritage?

The world building here is marvelous, full of beings from Bengali folktales and stories. As they journey through cave complexes, into ornate palaces and beneath the sea, the entire landscape not only is revealed but becomes a large part of the story as it is impacted by the snake magic and decrees. Readers will also see ties to the Indian Revolution against British rule throughout the story, something that is mentioned in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. This use of a real tyranny as a basis offers a strong foundation for this fantasy to rest upon.

The characters are well drawn. Pinki in particular is a delight of a female character, full of pride in her largess, her horns and her talons, she also struggles to make friends and to rely on others for help. This is all made understandable as her personal story is revealed. She is a character who starts out as surprisingly selfish and steadily proves that she is not, again and again. With funny characters who add charm, like the egg-gifting little cousin, the book also has a lot of humor throughout to offset the darkness.

Fiery, fun and fabulous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.