Fractured Fairytale

CURSED by Marissa Meyer

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

In the sequel and finale to the story begun in GILDED, Serilda and Gild race to undo their curses before the Erlking and his court of demons can enact their own plans to end an ancient imprisonment and rain evil upon the mortal realm.

I listened to the well-narrated audiobook (performed by Rebecca Soler) which highlighted Meyer’s rich, Gothic world-building, steeped in oral storytelling tradition. Twists were abundant and surprising, yet well-founded and throughly satisfying, both as a story on its own and a conclusion to the duology. I would highly recommend this novel (and audiobook) to fans of dark fairytale retellings and would suggest starting with GILDED.

VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

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Since saving Prince Cyrus’ life as a child, Violet has lived a charmed yet precarious life as the king’s official Seer, tasked with relaying prophecies to the entire kingdom, whether they are real prophecies from her dreams or the harmless ones she invents at the king’s behest. A previous Seer predicted the kingdom’s destruction unless it is averted by Prince Cyrus’ as yet hypothetical bride, but Violet is determined that nothing will threaten her hard-won security and comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, Cyrus is the one person who never listens to Violet.

Tortured by dark dreams of the Fates and frustrated with “Princey’s” obstinacy, Violet fakes a prophecy about Cyrus’ “true love,” hoping his bride–any bride–will be able to break the curse. But the woman the king selected is wrapped in her own curse, spun by a witch of nightmares. As beasts swarm the land and fairy glamours flicker, Violet and Cyrus search for the truth behind the veil of deceit, and their mutual hatred sparks into something passionate, thrilling, and infinitely more dangerous. With her life hanging in the balance, Violet will have to decide on which side of the fairytale she belongs–the dream or the nightmare–and whether she can claim either of them without being someone else’s pawn.

Deep, dark, and immersive, VIOLET MADE OF THORNS had me devouring its pages as ravenously as the characters fed on one another. Although tastes of well-known fairytales call attention to the storytelling theme, Chen creates a wholly new fairytale, not directly a twist of any individual story. Her characters are addictive, her steamy romance writing as compelling as any master of that genre, and her world-building a perfect blend of well-worn high fantasy tropes and a new, exciting magic system. I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you read high fantasy (whether you are a young adult or not) don’t miss this exceptional debut!

THE GIRL WHO FELL BENEATH THE SEA by Axie Oh

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Mina didn’t plan to dive into the sea. She had just hoped to reach her older brother on the boat before he did something deadly–like try to save his beloved from the Sea God. For the past hundred years it has been the fate of the most beautiful girl in the country to be thrown into the sea in hopes that she may be the Sea God’s true bride, the only one who can break his cursed sleep and bring an end to the violent storms and wars that ravage the land. But when Mina sees her brother in the prow of the boat facing down the Sea God’s dragon to save the girl he loves, Mina takes fate into her own hands, and dives into the sea in her place.

In the world of spirits, nothing is as Mina expected. As soon as she arrives, three young men slice through the Red String of Fate that ties her to the Sea God–supposedly for his protection–and the leader, Lord Shin, traps her soul in a cage before vanishing. Mina is not about to surrender her soul without a fight, but when she tracks her soul down at Lord Shin’s mansion, she stumbles into an attempted rebellion, and when her soul breaks free it binds her not back to the Sea God but to Shin. Shin takes Mina under his protection, hoping that they can work together to break the Sea God’s curse. But the more Mina sees of the callous gods, the more her faith wavers, and there may be more than a red ribbon tying her heart to Shin. With the fate of her people hanging in the balance and the Sea God’s enemies seeking her life, Mina will have to trust in herself and the stories she was raised on to find the right path to walk.

This feminist reimagining of Korean folklore is immersive with soaring emotions and a swoon-worthy romance. The world had its hooks in me from the earliest pages, and the story was captivating. One of the highlights for me was Mina’s wrestling with her faith as the gods disappoint her and her ultimate realization that she can forge her own fate. I highly recommend this novel to fans of YA fantasy and fairytale retellings!

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

SKIN OF THE SEA by Natasha Bowen

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Simidele plummeted from the slave ship into the ocean, she expected to die. She did die. But the goddess Yemoja remade her as a Mami Wata–a mermaid–and tasked her with collecting the souls of those who died on the ships, helping them toward their next life. Simi wishes her mission could be expanded to do more, to sink the ships and punish the slavers, but the Creator has strictly forbidden any interference with the mortals.

But when a living boy is thrown into the ocean, Simi can’t bear to watch him drown. She breaks the decree, pulling the boy to safety and hoping that none of the gods will notice. Unfortunately, by saving the boy she has stumbled into an ancient power struggle between the Creator and the trickster god, Esu. If she is to have any hope of saving the Mami Wata, she will have to journey with the boy she saved to find his twin siblings who were blessed by the gods and a pair of rings with the power to connect her directly to the Creator. But Simi will only survive the journey if she can keep herself from falling in love.

This book has a classic structure (magical heroine goes on a quest with the boy she secretly loves to defeat a powerful villain) and yet it feels fresh and exciting. Not only does it draw from the wealth of underrepresented West African folklore, but the incorporation of the real and terrible history of the enslavement of African people gives the novel a grounded quality you might not expect from a story of mermaids and gods. Bowen consciously weaves in West African culture, including mathematics, art, and gender politics, ensuring that her characters and the unnamed people on the slavers’ vessels are defined by their own rich and diverse identities, not by slavery. This excellent book is a must-read for YA Fantasy fans and an excellent addition to any public library or high school collection.

GILDED by Marissa Meyer

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

At Serilda’s birth, the god of storytelling gave her a gift, or so her father claims. She certainly has a reputation for telling the most marvelous stories–a reputation that causes all the villagers to distrust her and label her a liar. Unfortunately, she can’t stop herself from telling these lies, and on a fateful night of the full moon when the dark hunters pass through the veil to the land of the living, she tells a tale to the Erlking himself–a tale in which she can spin straw into gold.

Instead of slitting her throat as he might have done to an ordinary mortal, the Erlking whisks her away to his dungeon and gives her one chance to prove her ability. Serilda believes her life is over–until a boy appears in her cell. Neither dead nor living, the boy without a name feels strangely drawn to Serilda, and he happens to have the ability to spin straw into gold. But the Erlking will not be satisfied with a single demonstration of her professed powers, and as his demands increase, Serilda’s stories start to bring her closer to a dark secret about the Erlking and his court and the cursed boy that she is rapidly falling in love with.

No praise I can write here will do this book justice. Masterfully told and spun from many threads of rich German folklore, this novel is far more than a Rumpelstiltskin retelling. The world-building is immersive, luxurious, and chilling; the characters nuanced; the heroine delightful and surprising; and the dialogue modern without feeling out-of-place. Not only is this one of my favorite books of the year, but it is one of my favorite fantasies I’ve read in a long time. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

THE GRIMROSE GIRLS by Laura Pohl

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Ella, Rory, and Yuki return to their Swiss boarding school, they are mourning the tragic death of their closest friend and roommate. Yuki has accepted the official police report: that the drowning was an accident or a suicide. But Ella and Rory aren’t so sure. And when their new roommate, Nani, finds a book of fairytales hidden in the back of a wardrobe, the girls have their first actual clue that something sinister happened. According to their friend’s notes, all of the “accidental” deaths at the school have corresponded to the unhappy ending of a fairytale–from the drowning of the Little Mermaid to the mauling of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. But the deaths are picking up in frequency, and not all of them seem quite so accidental anymore. And if the four friends don’t figure out the source of the curse and put a stop to it, they’re pretty sure one of them will be next.

Much of the fun of this murder-mystery-fantasy is sorting through the many fairytale parallels. The novel moves slowly at first (the main appeal at the start being the fairytale tie-ins), but the plot picks up dramatically in Part Two, at which point it is difficult to put down. There is also a heartening amount of LGBTQIA+ representation, including gay characters, a transgender girl, and an asexual protagonist. I’d recommend this title to high school readers who love twisted fairytale retellings.

MALICE by Heather Walter

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Alyce knows her place. She is the Dark Grace, not quite human enough, not quite Grace enough, tasked with mixing her potions and curses at the request of patrons from the town and then–for some reason–reviled for it. But when she discovers a castle on the cliffs and talks with the shadowy stranger imprisoned there, Alyce learns that there is a deeper magic inside her, capable of more than mixing elixirs and poisons. After a chance meeting with the princess Aurora, heiress to an ancient curse that dooms her to death by her next birthday, Alyce is shocked to learn that the princess is not searching for her true love to kiss her and break the spell. In fact, Aurora means to break it on her own–or with the help of a Vila. Alyce is skeptical; as the Dark Grace, she is capable only of destruction. But as her command of her powers grows, Alyce is noticed by another, more dangerous royal. And as her attraction to princess Aurora blossoms, Alyce will have to decide how much she is willing to sacrifice for love.

With so many fairytale twists on the market, it is a beautiful thing to find one so fresh, imaginative, and engrossing! The romance between Alyce and Aurora is believable with a strong foundation, and both teens and adults will resonate with the struggles of both young women to fit in and be true to themselves when who they are seems at odds with society’s values. (The characters are twenty years old, but the vibe is YA.) I highly recommend this one to all fans of magic-laden YA fantasy or heartfelt queer genre fiction.

Amazon.com: Malice: A Novel: 9781984818652: Walter, Heather: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Princess Shiori does not want to get married. Even if her betrothed turns out to be as kind and wonderful as her father claims, she will still resent him for taking her away from her home–from her beloved father and stepmother and her six fun, loving, infuriating brothers. And what if her future husband discovered her secret–the magic she tries to keep hidden?

When a near-drowning experience brings her in contact with a dragon, Shiori finally begins to experiment with using her magic with the dragon as her guide. But when she discovers that her stepmother has been hiding magic of her own, Shiori panics. She tries to warn her brothers, but her stepmother catches her, placing all seven siblings under a dreadful curse. The brothers turn to cranes, and Shiori must tame her voice because for each sound she utters, one of her brothers will die. As Shiori travels the countryside in search of a way to break the curse, she realizes she will need help–from her brothers, from her dragon friend, and from the one person she had sworn to hate: her betrothed.

A brief summary cannot do justice to the complexity and beauty of this novel. The number of folktales Lim twists into this story could have been overwhelming, but every one serves the character development and relationship growth which drive the narrative. In addition to uniquely Asian folklore (such as the dragons), Lim incorporates the Asian variants of stories that are also common in the Western canon (e.g., the Chinese fish-girl “Cinderella” Ye Xian and the use of cranes in her reinterpretation of Andersen’s Wild Swans). The world she builds through this interwoven folklore is exquisite. For any reader who enjoys reimagined fairytales, this is a must-read!

Amazon.com: Six Crimson Cranes (9780593300916): Lim, Elizabeth: Books