A Gathering of Shadows

gatheringofshadowsby V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “Delilah Bard had a way of finding trouble.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series:  A Darker Shade of Magic
Content: There’s violence, some mild swearing, and a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore, but would be good for high schoolers as well.

It’s been four months since the end of Darker Shade and Lila has moved on. She secured a position on a ship (well, secured makes it sound like she wasn’t underhand in the dealings…) of a privateer. She’s enjoyed her time at sea, developing an intriguing relationship with the captain, Alucard Emery. Among other things, he’s taught her magic. And with the Essen Tasch — magic games between three countries — coming up, she’s intrigued. So much so, that she finds a way to get into the games.

Kell, on the other hand, has felt his life constrict. He is not trusted by the king, who has increased the guards around the king. He and Rhy are not prisoners, but close. So, when Rhy comes to Kell with an idea — compete in the Essen Tasch — Kell is intrigued. And, eventually, convinced.

A quick side note — much more than the action-packed first novel, this one felt like it was full of exposition. We learn about Lila learning magic. We read about Kell’s restlessness. But nothing much happens. And, I have to admit that I lost patience with that.

That said, I did finish it, and the ending was, well, a lot more exciting than the rest of the book. And I’ll probably read the next book.

A Darker Shade of Magic

darkershadeby V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are three f-bombs, some reference to sex (but none actual) and a lot of violence. That said, I think it’d be a good crossover for the high school set. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I want you to know up front that whatever I write here won’t do this book any sort of justice. I really do need to work on an elevator speech for this one at work, because it really is THAT good, and I’d love it if more people read it. But, summing up the plot? Not as easy as it sounds.

Kell is many things: a brother, a prince, a magician, a smuggler. He lives in what he calls “Red” London, a world of magic and opulence, where the Thames runs red with blood. The reason he needs to give it a marker other than the city name is because Kell is one of the few people (well, really only two) who can travel between worlds. He moves through doors of his own making to “Grey” London (ours, set in the early-1800s) to “White” London (an incredibly violent and vicious place), but never, ever to Black London. That’s been sealed off from the other worlds after the magic there went bad and began killing people. However, when Kell accidentally brings a token from Black London back into his world, he discovers that he’s created a problem almost too big for him to handle.

I didn’t even mention Lila… a thief and pirate wannabe that Kell picks up in Grey London, who ends up being more than a sidekick.

Seriously: I don’t know where to start with this. It feels like a Gaiman novel, rich and opulent with its world-building, and yet Schwab never forgets the plot (not to mention the palpable tension when Kell’s life is on the line, multiple times). It twists and turns and weaves and is just unputdownable.

It’s also nice that it comes to a conclusion (albeit a bit rushed, but that’s often the case for me in fantasy novels), while leaving the door open for the sequel. Which, of course, I can’t wait to get my hands on.

Lilliput

lilliputby Sam Gayton
First sentence: “All down the pebble path to the beach, Lily sulked about her iron shoes.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some abuse and danger, and there are some larger words, but for the most part, this one is suitable for grades 3 and up. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lily is a young child in the land of Lilliput when this big giant, Gulliver, comes and snatches her away. He takes her back to London to serve as “proof”. It seems, his stories of his travels have been dismissed as fake and so for the sake of his pride, he kidnapped Lily. He has her in a cage while he finishes his book. Lily, however, just wants to be free. Her life span is a lot shorter than Gulliver’s, and she’s spent half of her life in this cage. She needs to be free.

So, she keeps trying to escape. And eventually, she finds some humans who are willing to help her.

It’s an interesting take on Gulliver’s travels, and I enjoyed having it from the point of view of Lily. There’s some nice subtle commentary on the ethics of taking people from their homeland as well as the conditions which children often found themselves in, both in orphanages as well as in apprenticeships. It was a nice change to have the Spanish character be the “good” guy (in addition to him being the stay-home dad while his wife traveled the world).

But, while it all added up to something nice, it wasn’t overwhelmingly compelling, in my view. And that’s too bad.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

The Hollow Boy

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “I think it was only at the very end of the Lavender Lodge job, when we were fighting for our lives in that unholy guesthouse, that I glimpsed Lockwood & Co. working together perfectly for the first time.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull
Content: It’s scary, and a bit more angsty than I like my middle grade fiction to be. It, much like the others in the series, are best for the 5th grade crowd, but I’d give it to a precocious 3rd or 4th grader. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I really don’t know if there’s much more I can say about this series except this: why aren’t more people reading it? Seriously. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s got some great storytelling.

The next step for Lockwood & Co is to grow. It’s inevitable really. They’ve gotten a bit more notoriety and the cases are coming in. No longer are they utilizing their talents as a team, they’re spreading out. And their house/office is a complete pig sty. So, Lockwood and George decide that what they really need is an assistant: Someone to take calls, organize their lives, and clean up after them. So, they hire Holly. Which ticks Lucy — our main character — off to no end. And this is where the book gets angsty. Granted, Stroud never goes into full-out love triangle angst mode (yes, there is such a thing) and he lets the talking skull that Lucy carries around in her backpack do most of the snarking on Lucy’s mood but there’s no getting around it: she like-likes Lockwood, and she resents the intrusion of another girl.

There’s more to the plot than that: There’s an outbreak of supernatural activity in Chelsea and lots of agents lives are being put on the line. Lockwood wants in on the action, but he’s not considered skilled enough. So the course of the book is spent getting into the action in Chelsea. Additionally, Lucy wants more free reign to use her talent of communicating directly with the spirits, something which has dire consequences.

It kept me on the edge of my seat, turning pages until the very last cliffhanger (sort-of). And yes, I am sad that I have to wait another year to read the next one, but I don’t think I would put this series off. It’s just that good.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Finding Audrey

by Sophie Kinsella
First sentence: “OMG, Mum’s gone insane.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there
Content: It has six f-bombs, all near the end of the book, and nothing else. So, I’m torn: do I leave it on the YA shelves (grades 6-8), where it thematically belongs? Or do I move it to Teen (grades 9+) where it’s not quite edgy enough, but it fits language-wise? Tough call.

Audrey doesn’t leave the house. Doesn’t talk on the phone. Doesn’t talk to people (outside of her therapist and her family). Doesn’t look people in the eye (in fact, she prefers to wear dark sunglasses all the time). She hasn’t done any of these things since the “incident”. And she prefers to keep it that way.

Before I go much further I have to interject: this is a hilarious book. Perhaps it’s because I love All Things British, but I was thoroughly charmed by Audrey and her family. It is possible to take something serious (like bullying — though you never really find out what happened, and that’s okay) and severe anxiety and to be, well, warm about it.

Maybe I should make a second diversion: I adored Audrey’s family. From her gamer older brother (with his mile-wide sarcastic streak) to her absolutely adorable four-year-old younger brother (adorable!) to her completely clueless dad (probably stereotypical, but it worked), to her over-protective mom (I will stand by my statement that the best way to be a good parent is to read YA books), they were all entertaining. Kinsella definitely wrote this with love.

(It reminded me, in some ways, of the Casson family books. That makes me happy.)

The arc of the novel is Audrey’s “recovery”. It’s aided by Linus, one of her brother’s friends who takes an interest in her. He supports her and pushes her to try new things, to somehow get a grip on her anxiety. I really liked that Audrey was never “cured”: she learned how to handle her fears and her body’s reaction to them, but they were always still around, which was not only realistic but somewhat of a relief.

Yes, things were kind of tied up in a nice bow at the end, but that’s kind of expected and I didn’t mind. In fact, I really quite enjoyed this.

The Marvels

by Brian Selznick
First sentence (which comes about 400 pages in): “Joseph was lost.”
Support your local bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 15, 2015
Content: It’s a huge book, which will be daunting. But 2/3 of it is pictures. And the text section may be a big confusing for younger readers. There is some smoking by adults, but other than that, there’s nothing that would stop me from giving this to a precocious 9- or 10-year-old. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I don’t usually like to write about books months before they come out. But, since this is the first one I finished for the 48 hour book challenge, I figured it was okay.

I’m also going to be coy and not tell you too much about the book. I knew very little about it going in, and I think that’s the best way to experience it.

That said, I liked this one nearly as much as Hugo. It’s about the theater and family and truth in storytelling. Selznick’s art is gorgeous, as always, and even though the text section starts out a bit confusing, stick with it. It’s completely worth it at the end. Oh: and read the afterword. It makes everything that much better.

There’s really not much else to say, except: I can’t wait to share it with everyone else.

The Slanted Worlds

by Catherine Fisher
First sentence: “The Bomb fell in a split second of silence.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Obsidian Mirror
Content: There’s some violence and (much like the first one) this takes some effort to follow. Not for the reluctant of readers. It’s in the YA (Grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

A few spoilers for the first one, obviously. You’ve been warned.

Both Jake and Venn have become increasingly desperate to use the mirror, to make it work right. Jake, in order to find his father. Venn, because he wants to turn back the clock to get his wife back. Neither of them know of the outside forces controlling the mirror — that’s a knowledge known intimately to Maskelyne, an old, old time traveler, who may have been the one who invented the mirror — but both are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the mirror safe, and bring back the ones they love. Including involving Summer, the leader of the Shee, the fae-like creatures.

I have realized while typing the above that I could recount the plot of the entire book and it probably wouldn’t make any sense to those who haven’t read it.

There are other factors, as well: Sarah’s still around, trying to destroy the mirror and rid the world of Janus, and she’s willing to involve the Shee as well.  In fact, the Shee is the wild card here: Summer is the chaotic evil here, working toward her own end, but we have no idea what that end it.

There’s a lot of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in this book, time looping in and back and forward on itself in incredibly fascinating ways. Jake is the real focus of the book; its his quest to find his father that we follow most closely. It was a good thing to focus on one arm of the conflict, though I did miss having Sarah around.

But at the end, I was left wondering: how is this all going to come together in the next book? How are we going to resolve the tension between needing to rescue those trapped in time and the need to destroy the mirror to save the world?

I suppose I’m just going to have to read the third one and find out.

The Whispering Skull

by Jonathan Stroud
First sentence: “‘Don’t look now,’ Lockwood said.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: September 16, 2014
Review copy snagged out of the box sent by our Hachette rep.
Others in the series: The Screaming Staircase
Content: There’s lots of ghosts, obviously, and some scary situations. Also a couple of deaths and a couple of instances of mild swearing. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be wary about giving it to an overly sensitive child.

It’s not very often, I think, that the second book in a series is as good (if not better) than the first one. This is one of those rare instances.

First off, it was wonderful to be back with Lockwood, George, and Lucy. Lockwood was as reckless and charming as ever; Lucy was still the glue that held the company together. But George was really the focus of this story. He got his moment in the spotlight, and was something more than the bookish, slightly overweight Other Guy.

The mystery this time is centered around a body Lockwood, Lucy, and George are hired to help secure.  A couple of grave excavators have found a grave site that wasn’t supposed to be there, the body of one Edmund Bickerstaff, who was a leading paranormal and psychic experimenter in Victorian times. It turns out that he was experimenting with things he shouldn’t have been, creating a Bone Glass which was supposed to give you a view into the afterlife, but instead kills anyone who looks at it.

Soon after the excavation, however, the Bone Glass is stolen, and Lockwood & Co are in a fierce competition with their rivals at Fittes to solve the mystery.

Oh, and yes, the whispering skull of the title (and the cover; love it!) does play a fairly major role.

There are so many brilliant things about this book. From the pacing (I couldn’t put it down!) to the hilarious asides, to the action-adventure feel.  It’s wonderful that you don’t really have to read The Screaming Staircase to enjoy this one. There are a few references to the previous book, but nothing happened in it that you Have to know before picking this one up. Additionally, even though there are teasers for the next book (which can’t come out soon enough) the story in this one wraps completely up. I love it when series books are like this.

I can’t wait for the next one.

Half Bad

by Sally Green
First sentence: “There’s these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at my place of employment
Content: There’s talk of imagined sex (none actual), and some (mostly mild) swearing. But the talk of the abuse Nathan takes is hard to get though, even for me as an adult. It’s in the teen section  (grades 9 and up) because of that. Be wary of giving this one to an overly-sensitive person.

I was talking this book up in January to a group of educators, saying to look for it, that Green turns the whole “white=good and black=bad” thing upside down. How little did I know.

It does do that: sure. But to say that’s all this first in a trilogy does is to woefully underestimate it.

Nathan is the illegitimate child of a White Witch — his mother — and the baddest of all Black witches. Marcus, Nathan’s father, has alluded the White Hunters for years. And so, to say that having his kid in their midst irks them is a gross understatement. So the council imposes Codes — restrictions — on all Half Bloods. They start mild, with yearly assessments, but get increasingly more restrictive as Nathan gets older. It ends with him being held in a cage for two years. This is partially because of a vision Marcus saw that Nathan would kill him. The White Hunters want to make that happen: he’s ostensibly being “trained” to murder his father. Not that he has any say in the matter.

So, yes, Greene is turning good and evil upside down; how can the “good” people treat someone who is different from them so atrociously. (And believe me, it’s worse than bad.) But, the black witches don’t fare so well, either. Marcus, from all reports (granted, they’re  untrustworthy) is a despicable person. And the one time we see him, he doesn’t entirely acquit himself either. And the only other black witches we see aren’t that much better. Perhaps it’s more a treatise on how power corrupts, and how differences become so ingrained that we can’t see those who aren’t the same as us.

And even though it was difficult at times to get through, emotionally, it did give me a lot to think about. I’m quite interested to see where she goes with this series, and if she can keep up the complex nature of the characters.