Posted in Science Fiction, Steampunk, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Delightfully eldritch, creepy storytelling from Frances Hardinge: Deeplight

Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge, (Apr. 2020, Amulet), $13.99, ISBN:  978-1509897568

Ages 12+

(This review and ISBN are the paperback version. The hardcover was released in October 2019.)

Taking place in a time and world where gods were earthbound monsters who killed themselves in battle, Deeplight is set on an island named for one of these gods, Lady’s Crave, where the inhabitants scavenge the waters for pieces of the gods, referred to as “godware”, imbued with small but noticeable power. Hark, a 14-year old orphan, and his best friend, Jelt, are petty crooks who get involved in schemes of varying illegality. Hark is caught and sold to a godware “expert’, Dr. Vyne, as an indentured servant; she puts him to work in a home for the aging priests, to find out what he can about the gods and where key pieces and archives remain. Meanwhile, Jelt hasn’t let go of his hold on Hark, and convinces him to go on one more expedition, where Hark discovers a pulsing piece of godware that has healing powers. But nothing comes without a cost, and healing Jelt sets events into motion that will have huge repercussions.

I love Frances Hardinge’s work. She creates wonderfully creepy stories; Deeplight adds a level of eldritch horror with a dash of steampunk and takes the conversation to a new level, throwing in themes of idolatry, greed, and the part fear plays in holding onto belief. Each character is fully realized, with backstory and motivation; whether or not they’re likable is entirely up to you – but you will never forget them. I’ll be gushing about this book for a long time. Frances Hardinge is the author you give your Mary Downing Hahn fans when they’re ready for more. Give this to your horror fans, your steampunk fans, and slide it in front of any HP Lovecraft fans you may have come across.

Deeplight has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction

The Derby Daredevils are rolling into action!

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, by Kit Rosewater/Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse, (March 2020, Amulet Books), $14.99, ISBN: 978-1-4197-4079-4

Ages 9-13

I love that roller derby is back and appealing to middle graders. In recent years, we’ve had Dorothy’s Derby Chronicles from Meghan Dougherty, Jessica Abel’s Trish Trash bringing roller derby to Mars, and Victoria Jamieson’s monster hit graphic novel, Roller Girl. For the teens, DC Comics’s Harley Quinn is taking to the rink, and the girls from Slam! had a derby-centric title. As a kid who always wanted to try derby but was (still) too chicken, this is vicariously glorious.

Enter a new middle grade series, The Derby Daredevils. Kenzie and Shelly are BFFs who love roller derby: Kenzie’s mom is even a derby girl, and Kenzie can’t wait to be old enough to try out for a league. She and Shelly have it all figured out: their superstar moves, their secret handshake, their big rink entrance. Luckily for the girls, their local rink is starting up a junior league and are holding tryouts! But unless they have a team to try out together, the two besties risk being split up if they try out separately. Kenzie’s answer: recruit friends from school and make a team! The have one week to recruit and train a whole team, and Kenzie has a hard time reconciling what’s in her head with reality, which threatens to cause some friction: Shelly and shy classmate Tomoko start becoming friendly, which upsets Kenzie. Isn’t she supposed to be Shelly’s best friend? When Shelly invites Kenzie’s secret crush, Bree, to join the team, Kenzie flips out, but inviting the risk-averse Camila and the way-enthusiastic Jules isn’t helping much. Can the girls get it together in enough time to make the tryouts?

This is SO much fun. There’s so much to work with here: a fully realized cast of characters from different cultural backgrounds, each with a distinct personality. Massive “OMG!” moments involving Kenzie and her crush, Bree, that every middle grader will recognize and empathize with. The relatable feeling of wanting something so bad, that you’ll take that square peg and pound it into a round hole to make it work. And black and white illustrations throughout, to really make readers feel like they’re part of the action! Derby Daredevils is a positive LGBTQ+ series, not only giving us a main character who experiences a crush on another girl, but a transgender dad in a loving marriage. I love the way the author explains Kenzie’s understanding of her dad: “Since her dad was transgender, that meant in some of his stories he looked more like a girl, and in other stories, he looked more like a boy. Actually, he was a boy all along, her dad had explained. But before he told people, they thought he was a girl. In his ‘before’ stories, Kenzie’s dad was like an undercover agent, with a secret only he knew.” It’s a straight-forward, commonsense way to explain gender to kids that respects them and respects the adult. I love it.

There’s action, a little tween romance, and a strong bond of friendship in this book, and I can’t wait for the next book to pub later this year. In the meantime, I’ve dogeared (the horror!) and scribbled all over my ARC, in the hopes of writing a discussion guide for it at some point, so if I get that done, I’ll post it. In the meantime, this is a great choice for a book club and way too much fun for budding (and frustrated middle aged wannabee) derby girls.

The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team has starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist.

Posted in Teen

The Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters – an ’80s-style YA mystery

gallivantersThe Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters, by M.J. Beaufrand (May 2015, Abrams) $16.95, ISBN: ISBN9781419714955

Recommended for ages 14+

Set in the punk rock scene in 1980s Portland, Oregon, The Rise and Fall of the Gallivanters gives us a serial killer mystery with a supernatural touch, with a splash of David Bowie, for good measure.

You with me? Okay. Girls are going missing in Portland. One of them was found in the PfefferBrau Haus, a local brewery. Noah, a teen on the punk scene, swears the brothers running the brewery have something to do with it. A guy named Ziggy shows up – who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to David Bowie – and warns Noah about a creepy supernatural force called The Mar. Noah decides to resurrect his band, The Gallivanters, get into the battle of the bands at the PfefferBrau Haus, and bring the mystery of the missing girls to an end.

This book took a little bit to grow on me, but once it did, I committed to this story. We’ve got an unreliable narrator, which is always good for a page-turner. We’ve got a story of friendship, and a bit of a mystery that may involve the paranormal. And we have a story of loss that will sock you in the gut. Noah can be a frustrating narrator, but it’s in his character. The pacing can be a little bumpy, but overall, teens with an interest in the ’80s punk scene and whodunit fans will enjoy this one.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Tween Reads

Cuckoo Song is engrossing dark fantasy for the middle school set

cuckoo songCuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge (Abrams, May 2015), $17.95, ISBN: 9781419714801

Recommended for ages 12+

Taking place in the post-World War I English countryside, Triss wakes up after an accident, her mother fawning over her and her father concerned about someone being responsible for it. Her younger sister, Pen, is afraid of her, shrieking that she’s “a fake”. Triss’ hunger is out of control; she can’t stop eating, and she can’t seem to be satisfied. She’s very afraid – this feels like something beyond her usual frailness and sickliness. Pen, meanwhile, is convinced that Triss is not who she claims to be – what does Pen know? The answers will lead the two sisters on a dark adventure that peels away the layers surrounding their lives, and brings unsettling answers to questions about their brother, who died in the War, and his fiancée, who can’t stay in one place, thanks to a secret of her own.

Cuckoo Song is one of those books that slowly builds – you start with a ping at the back of your neck, and gradually, your chest is tight, and the hairs on your arms are standing at full attention. There are horrible bargains struck, and the consequences will make readers wince and break their hearts. As a parent, reading this, I ached over the desperation of a parent who just wants to hear his or her child one more time. Thinking about this from a middle schooler’s point of view, this is skin-crawling: parents who don’t know how to parent, so lost in their despair over loss; not knowing who – or what – you are, and having your younger sibling keeping secrets that directly involve you; a never-ending hunger that horrifies you, once you realize what sates it. There are so many parallels to adolescence here, and that’s what will connect with readers.

Frances Hardinge writes beautiful dark fantasy. This was my first book by her, but I can see it won’t be my last. She knows how to weave a multilayered narrative that draws vivid pictures in the reader’s mind and even transcend the page – I felt cold, damp, and chilled in alternate parts of the book, and I couldn’t put it down.

Give this book to your Gaiman fans, your dark fantasy fans, and anyone who wants a good novel that will leave them unsettled for a long time after.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

The Cure for Dreaming gives us Dracula, suffrage, and mesmerism!

cure for dreaming The Cure for Dreaming, by Cat Winters (Oct. 2014, Abrams), $17.95, ISBN: 9781419712166

Recommended for 13+

Olivia Mead is a strong-willed young woman living in Oregon in 1900. She loves to read fiction – Dracula is her current favorite novel – and she dreams of going to college. She also happens to be a suffragist, something her narrow-minded father doesn’t know anything about. Olivia’s mother left her with her father when Olivia was a young child; she lives in New York where she ekes out a living as a stage actress and dates wealthy men. She sends Olivia money every birthday, but doesn’t seem to be otherwise too involved.

Olivia’s father can’t take much more of his headstrong daughter’s ideas. He fears her behavior will lose him patients, so he contacts Henri Reverie – a mesmerist (a hypnotist) that hypnotized Olivia in a recent performance –  to “cure” his daughter. He asks Henri to help Olivia to “see things as they really are”, and rather than argue with him, to say, “All is well” when she’s angry.

It backfires. Horribly. Olivia does see things as they really are – she starts seeing oppressive men as bat-vampire-wolf creatures, and anti-suffragist women as pale, ghostly beings. She is unable to defend herself, only able to say, “All is well.” She finds herself the target of ridicule as her father glories in his “success”. But he hasn’t succeeded in doing anything other than stoking the fire of Olivia’s independence, and her desire to get away from him at all costs. She seeks Henri’s help in restoring her mind, and finds out that Henri’s story goes far deeper than a mere stage performer.

The Cure for Dreaming is one of those stories that initially makes your head swim – Dracula, suffrage, and hypnotism? It all comes together, but there are moments when the narrative lost me. There is a subplot surrounding Henri’s younger sister that was felt almost tacked on, and Olivia’s father verged on caricaturist in his rage. Olivia seems far too complacent about her absent mother leaving her with a verbally abusive and neglectful father – she left because she couldn’t take it anymore, but it was okay to leave her kid with him? And it’s okay to drop a line and tell her how much she misses her ONCE A YEAR?

Overall, The Cure for Dreaming is an interesting read. The photos that Ms. Winters chose to feature throughout the book, archival photos of suffragists and the time period, drew me right in. The subplot about an anonymous letter that adds fuel to the suffragist fire was one of the best parts of the book.

The author’s website offers a treasure trove of information, including book trailers, information on the periods during which her novels take place, an FAQ, links to social media, and book information.