Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (9780062878021)

Lou lives in the city as a thief, stealing what she needs to survive, feasting when possible on sweets, and dressing herself in costumes from the theater attic where she lives. Because her life depends on it, she tries to never use her witch magic, lest her mother discover where she is. Reid is a witchhunter, raised from an orphaned baby into one of the leaders of the Church Chasseurs. He not only hunts witches but kills them, usually ultimately burning them at the stake if they live that long. When Lou tries to escape Reid by publicly shaming him, they end up being forced to marry one another. As the war between the witches and the church escalates, Reid and Lou find themselves at the center of it just as they discover their increasing feelings for one another.

If you are looking for one amazing teen fantasy novel, you have found it here. Mahurin builds a great world for her characters, one with extensive history that impacts the action in the novel in an understandable and fascinating way. As more of the details of the history are revealed, the cunning nature of the witches’ plans become more clears as well as the motivations of the church. It’s a book that untangles itself in front of the reader and yet leaves plenty of questions to be answered in a future volume.

The book mixes romance and fantasy. It has one of the hottest sex scenes I have read in a teen novel too where details are not skimped on and the woman takes the lead. As with that scene, Lou is not ever one to shrink away from saying what she thinks and needs. She is prickly and jaded, falling for Reid despite all of the guards she has in place. Reid could have simply been the bemused soldier in all of this, but Mahurin has made him Lou’s equal in the book, so that readers understand the damage done by both the witches and the church to society and individuals.

An amazing and gripping fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 16-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (9781534431454)

Moth has always loved everything to do with magic and witches. So when Halloween comes, she dresses up as a witch. That does nothing but encourage some school bullies who tease her in the hall in front of the new kid in town. But something strange happens and Moth’s hands start to glow. It turns out that Moth comes from a family of witches, something her mother had never shared with her. Now it all makes sense why Moth has felt so different from everyone else and struggled to make friends. As Moth learns more about her family and the secret separate magic land her grandmother helped create and still lives in, Moth’s powers grow. She meets a talking cat, makes her first real friend, and then discovers that while witches are real so are those who hunt them!

Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own. Part of that distinction comes from the unique world that the town’s witch elders created for safety. It is a world of floating islands, crystalline colors and flowing robes. It contrasts dynamically with the world of middle school. Moth is the one who brings both worlds together as her magic begins to take form.

The characters in this graphic novel really make the book special. Moth moves far beyond middle-school misfit and is a friendly, funny protagonist with a talking cat who is brave and conflicted. Her mother too is complicated in all the best ways.

A great middle-grade graphic novel that is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

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: Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno (9780062493644)

Georgina has grown up on the island of By-the-Sea where generations of the women in her family have lived. They are women of specific talents: her mother can brew useful potions, her sister can float slightly off the floor particularly when she’s not paying enough attention. But Georgina doesn’t have any powers at all. The sisters are getting ready for college and leaving the island for the first time in their lives. It’s an island with one special resident, a bird that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, a bird with a distinct family connection. But this year, the bird doesn’t arrive, much to the dismay of the entire island and the birding community who arrive each summer. As the search for the missing bird intensifies, tragedy strikes and soon the summer is filled with salt, magic and mystery.

This is one of those books that you fall for hard. It sweeps in with poetic language that invites readers to explore the island of By-the-Sea, breathe in the magic, taste beautifully-named ice cream flavors and linger in the autumnal graveyard for awhile. Leno lingers over the details, creating a world that is so specific, small and focused. It seeps into your pores, this story, invades you like tainted tea and asks you to believe. And you will.

The characters are all written with such care, each one unique and special. Georgina may feel like a side kick, but she is the full-on protagonist here. She is brave, smart and quite the leader when given the chance. She faces real evil on her island home, must find the perpetrator and meanwhile is in the throes of leaving her home for college while not getting any magical powers herself at all. She is complicated, exploring new romance with the hot girl who visited the island, solving a mystery, and coming into her own.

An amazing read, just right for summer. This is one that fans of magical realism are going to adore. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.

 

3 Scary-Good Picture Books

 

Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds

Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown (9781442402980)

Jasper returns for a second gently-scary story. In this picture book, Jasper needs some new underwear. He decides to get one pair of green creepy underwear, because he is big enough for them. When he wears them to bed, he finds out that they glow with a green light. Jasper quickly changes to plain white underwear, hiding the creepy underwear in the bottom of the hamper. Waking up the next morning, he realizes that he has the creepy underwear on! Jasper tries all sorts of things to get rid of the underwear, from mailing it to China to cutting it into bits, but the underwear keeps on coming back. What is a bunny to do? This picture book is a delightful mix of funny and scary with echoes of classic monster movies. Exactly the right pick for Halloween reading. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster.)

The Pomegranate Witch by Denise Doyen

The Pomegranate Witch by Denise Doyen, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (9781452145891)

Deftly written in rhyme, this picture book features a mouthwatering pomegranate tree that is watched over by a witch. Still, the children of the town desperately want a pomegranate from the tree and are willing to go to war with the witch to get one. The children tried again and again, but the witch stopped them with water cannons and rolling walnuts. In the end though, the children got one delectable pomegranate to split among themselves. The next day, the tree was picked bare and the war was over. It was time for Halloween where a Kindly Lady gladly shared out pomegranates from her home. A lady that looks a lot like the glimpses readers get of the witch.

Doyen’s writing is spooky and rich. This is not a picture book for preschoolers, since the writing demands a longer attention span. Elementary classes would enjoy it or it could be added to a read aloud for older children on Halloween. Perhaps with pomegranate seeds to try. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Review copy provided by Chronicle Books.)

The Scariest Book Ever by Bob Shea

The Scariest Book Ever by Bob Shea (9781484730461)

A spooky ghost lives by a frightening dark forest in this picture book. The ghost is the one who is scared, asking the reader to keep on checking on what is happening in the forest. But the forest isn’t nearly as scary as the ghost expects, which adds a zingy humor to this story. The tone of the book is deftly handled, walking a line between shivery ghost story and Halloween party for friends. It’s a book that will invite children to be just as scared as they might like, but also enjoy doughnuts and some costumes too. The art is lovely and graphic, filled with zaps of bright color emphasized by white and black. A great read aloud for slightly older children. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

vassa-in-the-night-by-sarah-porter

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter (InfoSoup)

When the nights in Brooklyn seem to be getting longer and longer, lasting almost entire days, Vassa finds herself looking forward to school just not to be home any longer. Part of it is her stepmother and stepsisters and part is pure boredom. It doesn’t help that Erg, the wooden doll that Vassa’s mother gave her before she died, is stealing things from her stepsisters which are then blamed on Vassa. So when one of her stepsisters basically dares Vassa to head to the dangerous local convenience store, Vassa accepts the challenge. She heads to Babs Yagg’s store, the one that dances on chicken legs and that you have to sing down. She makes sure that Erg is with her, as always, and knows that she is in for an unusual experience. What Vassa doesn’t realize is that she is headed straight into her dangerous destiny and will discover an entire magical world that she never knew existed: one with bleeding swans, a dark motorcyclist, severed hands, and beheaded teens.

Inspired by the Russian folktale, Vassilissa the Beautiful, this novel for teens embraces all of the strange and bizarre in that story and takes it even further. Baba Yaga’s home on chicken feet becomes an amazing convenience store filled with some treats that are tempting and others that seem odd and still others that nauseate. The modern Babs Yagg is still very much a witch, and one that toys with her prey in haunting and excruciating ways. There are impossible tasks, the need for plenty of bravery, and real loss and death threatened at every turn.

This is a mesmerizing book, one that is filled with gorgeous writing that stays out of its own way and then rises beautifully to create new moods. Throughout the book the story turns briefly away and into other perspectives like those of the swans themselves or of the attorneys who are after Babs. The language changes and weaves new patterns, creating completely different worlds and experiences and then gently carrying the reader back to the main story. It’s a powerful magic all its own.

Beautifully written, this twist on a folktale is bizarre, wild and extraordinary. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Tor Teen.

 

 

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (InfoSoup)

Every year, the youngest child in the Protectorate must be left in the woods for the witch. The sacrifice of the child has ensured the survival of their small community for years. Unfortunately, the entire witch story was made up by those in power to keep the population sad and controllable. Still, there is a witch who lives in the woods, but Xan is gentle and kind. She rescues the children who are left in the clearing, taking them to other communities where they are loved and adored. Then one year, Xan accidentally feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the small child with magic. Xan decides to keep the child, whose magic will need to be controlled. As Luna grows, her magic starts to seep out everywhere, so Xan locks it away deep inside Luna who grows up knowing nothing of magic, despite living with a small dragon and a large swamp monster. As truth starts to appear, those in power struggle to maintain control even as Luna begins to discover what is hidden inside her.

Barnhill has created a brand new classic fairy tale with this book. Her writing is rich and filled with emotion. She allows magic to be incorporated throughout her book with a natural feel and flair. It becomes almost as normal as the trees in the woods, allowing readers to realize that Luna must discover her own magic or not be living at all in this world. The world building is brilliantly done with each piece clicking neatly in, forming a full pattern of the world.

The book does have Luna as a protagonist but it is so filled with rich characters that there are many heroes and heroines. There is Antain, the boy who refused to witness babies die. There is the amazing Xan, elderly and full of life, determined to do good even with her last breath. Glerk and Fyrian the monster and dragon are perfect for both humor and wisdom. Luna herself has to be even more special to stand out against these other characters, and she certainly is!

This book is magical, clever and luminous. Definitely one for young fans of fantasy or for anyone looking for a rich reading experience. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan (InfoSoup)

The first in a series, this teen novel is a breathtaking blend of magic, witchcraft, mythology, and Victorian England. Julia is spying on the wealthy people she is pretending to work for as a maid. She is really working with the group of thieves and con artists that she was raised by in the squalid world of the Twist. Julia is an ideal spy because she has the ability to step between worlds and disappear. This well-paying job though has her spying on people who protect those who have magic from a society that drowns witches, including Julia’s own mother who was killed years ago. As the mysteries around Julia grow,  her own life is in danger and she must decide what side she is on and who she is going to become.

The world building in this book is exemplary, truly capturing a twisted version of England filled with forbidden witchcraft, people with extraordinary powers, black market deals, and a lovely touch of steampunk as well. Add in mysteries that have people being murdered on the streets who are clearly being hunted and yet bear no connection to one another, and you have a world ripe with fear for our young magic user. As the mystery is solved, more arrive so that the richness of the world continues to grow as the novel concludes.

Throughout the novel, characters turn out to be far deeper than one might expect. Readers will identify a wolf man as a character far earlier than Julia does, but his character does not end there. Aristocrats and lowly old women alike turn out to be amazing creatures. Steampunk touches herald both heroes and villains. Among this cast of characters, there is Julia who herself is incredible, not just for her powers but for her strength, her ability to be detestable at times, and her determination not to be what one expects her to be.

This is a thrilling and impressive novel that bends genres and will delight fantasy fans. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (InfoSoup)

The creator of Dragonbreath and Hamster Princess has an illustrated novel filled with sorcery, witches, magic and minions. The minions of Castle Hangnail are worried. If they don’t find a witch, wizard, sorceress or vampire to run the castle, it will be decommissioned and sold off by the Board of Magic. But the minions did not expect a twelve-year-old girl to show up on their doorstep, especially one that does not seem as wicked a witch as she should. Molly sets out to prove herself, taking on the list of requirements set by the Board of Magic. She is a natural witch and uses her magic to successfully turn a donkey into a dragon, though the spell does last a lot longer than expected. She also befriends the moles in the garden, vanquishes weeds alongside a local gardener, and tries to find a solution to the castle’s failing plumbing. But despite her success, Molly has been lying all along and her lies are about to tumble down around her and may have her leaving Castle Hangnail for good (or evil).

This novel works exceptionally well. Vernon captures a diverse set of characters. There is the guardian of the castle who is doubtful about Molly from the start, the animated suit of armor who would fight anyone who threatens the castle except that his knees seize up, Pins the animated fabric doll who is a great tailor, and his pet goldfish who suffers from being a hypochondriac. Against this wild cast Molly is refreshingly normal. She’s a girl who is not squeamish about bats or insects, enjoying that liking them counts as being wicked. She is clever in her solutions to the list of requirements and figures out how to use her uneducated power to accomplish great things.

The book is also illustrated, adding to the delight for the reader. There are just enough illustrations to have the book still be a novel but also to break up the blocks of text very nicely for young readers. Readers will enjoy seeing what Pins looks like, what a dragon-donkey appears as, and the little bat who is sent to stay with Molly because he likes being awake during the day. All of this adds to the friendly and fascinating menagerie of characters throughout the book, with Molly the wicked witch being the foil for all of it.

Filled with humor and a strong sense of home, this fantasy novel for children has enough action and magic to win the day. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.