The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden
First sentence: “It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is hard to describe: it’s Russia on the cusp of when Christianity is becoming more accepted, but the Old Ways are still in play. There are demons keeping the Big Demon — known as The Bear — at bay, but due to priests, the people are beginning to neglect the Old Ways. Everyone, that is, except for Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a northern lord, she sees and talks to the demons that keep the hearth fires burning, the stable animals quiet, and the lands safe. And when her father remarries a woman who is paranoid about the Old Ways, Vasilisa is the only one who keeps the village and the lands safe.

It’s a slow start, this one, but once it gets going — about halfway through — it really takes off. I mostly liked Vasilisa as a character; she is headstrong and not traditional and doesn’t keep anyone’s advice but her own. I really enjoyed the magic and the contrast between the Old Ways and religion, and how the priests believed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Arden is exploring interesting themes and I’m curious to see where the next one goes, since this one felt like a stand alone.

Spinning Silver

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.”
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Content: There is some domestic violence and other violence as well as some more mature themes. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore. 

If you’ve read Novik’s Uprooted, then you know what you’re in for with this book. (If you haven’t read Uprooted, why not?) 

This takes place in much of the same place that Uprooted does: a vaguely Eastern-European/Russian country. We follow the story of Miryem, the daughter of an inept Jewish money lender, who decides to take on the family business for herself. She becomes successful enough that it captures the attention of the Staryk, a viscous race of faerie who, during the winter, stole from the humans, goods, yes, but often money. She is tasked with turning silver into gold — which she does — and as a “reward” is kidnapped and taken to the Staryk kingdom. 

So, yes: shades of Rumplestiltskin, but the inferences go deeper. There is playing with names and the importance of them (everyone who reads a lot of fantasy knows that one’s true name is to be kept close because there is magical power in them). But, there’s also a demon and quite a few very very smart women who are willing and able to play the system to get what’s not only best for them, but also for the country. 

My only real complaint is the shifting narrative — but that’s just because I’m in the middle of the Cybils, and it seems like there’s a lot of shifting narrative books out there and I’m a bit over it. I love the way Novik plays with fairy tales, meshing them with religion and folklore to create something wholly her own. 

Excellent. 

Be Prepared

by Vera Brosgol
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some awkward pranks, some light bullying, and some kissing. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Loosely based on Brosgol’s youth, Be Prepared follows 10-year-old Vera to Russian camp, nominally so she can “fit in”. Being Russian, she doesn’t quite mesh up with her friends at home, so she figures she’d have a better chance to fit in at a camp where everyone is Russian. Except, once she gets there she finds out that being the new kid isn’t any fun. Everyone already knows the camp traditions, rules, and has friends. She’s perpetually the third wheel and is often pushed around, especially by the older girls she bunks with.  It’s awkward and embarrassing, and Vera just wants to go home.

I can completely empathize with the feeling of not fitting in, feeling awkward, and not knowing how to make friends, and Brosgol captures that perfectly. But, thankfully, she manages to figure things out by the end of camp, mostly by being herself, which is always a good thing for kids to read about. She manages the awkward with humor — there are some laugh-out-loud moments! — and she makes even the annoying kids and the bullies be multi-dimensional.

There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of this one, so I hope Brosgol gives us a sequel!

Tetris: The Games People Play

tetrisby Box Brown
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Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s a history, so if you’re not into Tetris or video games, it won’t be interesting. That said, it’s not a super-high reading level, so kids as young as 10 or 11 might be interested in this. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

First, a confession. One of my roommates the winter of 1991 had a Nintendo (I’m assuming, after reading this), and Tetris was on it. I don’t know how it started (and I may have been playing it in the arcade for a while already; I don’t remember), but I became obsessed with Tetris. Obsessed. I would stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning, playing it, forgoing going out, homework, eating… Eventually, after a month or so of this, my roommates staged an intervention and banned me from playing Tetris. They may have even gotten rid of the game; I don’t remember that either. The game (and my obsession) fell by the wayside, and I haven’t really thought much about it.

That is, until this book showed up in the store and a co-worker pointed it out, saying I might be interested.

It’s the history of how Tetris came to be. A couple of software developers in the USSR thought of this game, worked to program it and sent it around the department where they worked. It became a hit with their friends, and that was the end of it. Or so they thought. But, a developer for Atari and another for Nintendo got their hands on it, and, well, Things began to happen. It’s really kind of convoluted; there was a lot of legal problems, and negotiating business with the USSR wasn’t the easiest to do. But, in the end, Nintendo ended up with the rights, and the rest is history.

Choosing a graphic format to tell this story was interesting, though I’m not sure how well it worked for  me. I kept forgetting who was who (since, after the initial introduction, I only saw their faces and couldn’t remember their names), and the black and yellow color palate got a little old after a while. But, that said, the story was a fascinating one.

Not a bad read.

Baba Yaga’s Assistant

by Marika McCoola, illustrated Emily Carroll
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Content: There are some scary images, but really nothing else. It’s currently in our Teen Graphic Novels, but I’m going to move it to Middle Reader Graphic Novels.

I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel about Baba Yaga, but I really did. And this is the graphic novel I needed.

Masha’s mom died when she was little and her father was often gone with work, so she was raised on her grandmother’s love and stories of Baba Yaga. So, when her father decides to get remarried to a woman with an absolutely horrible child, Masha decides to take her chances in the woods with Baba Yaga. Who is everything that you would like Baba Yaga to be. Horrible, terrifying, magical… it’s wonderful.

Masha has to go through a series of tests before she can become Baba Yaga’s assistant. And it’s the power of the stories that her grandmother told that gets her through those tests.

On the basic level as a magical story, it’s a lot of fun. The young children are sufficiently horrible, and Masha is competent and cool-headed and smart. Her dad’s a jerk, but that’s almost to be expected. It’s a very female-centric story; there’s only a couple of male characters, and they are only playing minor parts. But what I liked best was that it was STORIES (not histories or biographies or facts) that got Masha through the trials. The stories helped her problem-solve. The stories gave her the courage to go on.

And that’s something we all need more of.

Uprooted

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
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Review copy given to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s one graphic, but not explicit, sex scene. It’ll be in the science-fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because our Random House rep said it was based on Beauty and the Beast, and we all know how much I love a fairy tale retelling. But, I didn’t count on how engrossing this book would be.

The rep was right: it is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, but it’s so much more than that. In this valley in Polyna, their resident wizard, who goes by the Dragon, takes one girl every ten years to his tower. When he’s done with them, they don’t come back to the villages, so everyone (of course) assumes the worst. This year, a picking year, everyone guesses that he will take Kasia, our narrator’s, Neishka, best friend. But the Dragon comes, and he picks Neishka instead.

At first, this is terrifying: Neishka isn’t refined, she isn’t skilled for much of anything (except getting dirty), and she doesn’t want to be in the castle with this scary magician. But, as the book goes on, she discovers hidden talents inside herself: she’s a witch, one that is just as powerful as the Dragon, albeit wielding a different sort of magic from him. And its the combination of their magic that is able to confront the real evil in their country: the Wood.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because this one is best discovered page by page. Novik has a way of pulling one into the story; this started out as a treadmill book (read twice a week for a half hour), but soon became the one I was spending all my time with. I wanted to experience Neishka’s story as it unfolded, with all the twists and turns and slow reveals and intricate pay offs.

M texted, recently, looking for a “Laini Taylor-esque” book, and honestly, this is what I thought of when she asked for that. Novik’s world-building is solid and always in the service of the story, rather than something separate. And, while her words aren’t gorgeous or lyrical, they’re more than pedestrian. They serve the characters and the plot, and make the whole work together just marvelously.

Just about perfect.

Arcady’s Goal

by Eugene Yelchin
First sentence: “I’m a risk taker.”
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Content:

Arcady is the best soccer player. Period. So much so, that when the inspectors of the home he’s been placed in come, the director makes a show out of Arcady’s skills. He — Arcady calls him Butterball — puts Arcady up against increasingly larger players, expecting him to beat them. And he does.

But, when one inspector, who’s not quite like the others, comes to visit, Arcady ends up being adopted. Which is not something Arcady bargained on. Nor he he bargain that his new father, Ivan Ivanovich, comes with secrets of his own.

One of the things Yelchin does best is humanize Stalin’s Russia. It’s so easy to push everything from that era off into Things/People were Bad. And Stalin put everyone in concentration camps. But, Yelchin gives us the stories of the children — Arcady ended up in a home because his parents were taken for being enemies of the state — and how Stalin’s policies affected everyday life. They’re simple stories, but they paint a picture of a people who were wronged — even if they weren’t taken — by their leader.

It’s a simple little book, full of illustrations. And there’s a lot of talk about soccer, so there’s an appeal for the soccer lovers. But mostly it’s a portrait of a relationship between to damaged people, and the path to healing.