Ticking clocks, German folklore, and classic storytelling with a self-aware edge...this was a delight.
Y'all, I have been enjoying the heck out of Algonquin's middle grade line of novels these past few years. There is something about the niche of fantasy middle grade coming out of this publishing hosue that I just really, really enjoy. They tend to have that extra something, that extra oomph of world building mixed with lyrical folktale-esque writing structure, and they tend to have writer's humor mixed in with the narrative. I love it every time. The Counterclockwise Heart was no exception.
In this tale we have Alphonsus, a prince with a ticking clock where is heart is supposed to be. Raised by his adoptive mother, the empress of the land, he's told to hide his clock heart from the world and to ignore the prophecy that was attached to his newborn body when the empress found him one night in a gear-filled bassinet. The counterclockwise heart...
Of course, one day Alphonsus's heart stops ticking clockwise like normal. It starts winding backwards, counting down. But to what, and why?
In another thread of the story we have Esme, a young girl from the magical community of Hierophants. She enters Alphonsus's kingdom in search of Nachtfrau, a powerful sorceress. Esme has her own reasons for searching for Nachtfrau, and she has some fate-tied words of her own.
As Alphonsus and Esme twine closer and closer, their fates begin to unravel as well. The clock is ticking... literally.
This was such a fun ride! With the classic spins of a good middle grade adventure folktale, The Counterclockwise Heart surprised me with its self-aware narration, clever twists, and ultimate sense of grounded Germanic-based folktale. It was just a good blend.
I do think that this novel will appeal to certain types of fantasy readers over others--in particular, there were some darker themes and meandering elements to the storytelling that I think are dependent on personal taste. It worked for me, but I'm an adult fantasy reader who likes those things!
Recommended for fans of The Oddmire, Laini Taylor's writing style if she wrote a classic fairytale, and Seanan McGuire's obscure short stories.
Thank you to Algonquin for Young Readers for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A much-needed breath of fresh air within the YA fantasy "there's a magic world among us!" trope, with a lot to say and a lot of heart to give.
"Moms raised a diamond..."
Rue comes from the East Row, where the families look out for each other and happiness, love, and loyalty bloom amid the concrete. She and her half-sister, Tasha, live with their mom and are doing pretty well.
Until, that is, their mom is shot on their doorstep and life as Rue knows it ends.
Suddenly, Rue's absent dad arrives on the scene with a puff of magic (literally) and whisks Rue away to the magical island of Ghazan. Where apparently a land of magical, gray-tinged white people reside, and Rue and her father are the only brown-skinned people in the whole joint.
Yes, it's just as weird as you're thinking...And Rue's having none of it.
Rue's pissed. Dragged away from her sister, reeling from her mom's murder, NOT on board with her no-good father's weird return, and now struggling with a magic she didn't want and a people she doesn't understand.... it's a lot.
And oh, there's also some serious sh** going on and more people are turning up in trouble.
...And diamonds never crack.
Told through a past/present split timeline and through Rue's intensely personal point of view, Wings of Ebony was a unique voice in the realm of today's young adult fantasy and really highlighted a lot of the internal/external issues surrounding Black teens today. And it was a damn fun time too, that also needs to be in there.
There's a lot of "real world" involved right in with the fantastical, so do go into this novel with the expectation that it's not a high fantasy/magical school concept—Rue is back and forth within the magical and non-magical scene throughout the entirety of this book and so are the rest of the characters.
In truth, I thought that Wings of Ebony stood apart from many other fantasies in its tropes BECAUSE of the intermeshed realities of Rue's ties between the magical community and her home of the East Row. There was no clean break, no escapism, no forgetting your roots to embrace the new like we've seen done before in so many other (let's be honest, traditionally white) books.
I know my voice in the discussion as a white adult woman might not add much to the discussions of this book (and frankly, that's fine - this was not a book meant for me or traditionally white audiences, I do recommend checking out the other wonderful reviews coming from more relevant voices) but I do think it was truly awesome to read a book that was clearly for young Black women and teens that didn't cater to white audiences in terms of its dialogue, plot points, or references. There was a lot outside of my personal experience in Wings of Ebony, and to be honest I loved that, Rue taught me things through the page just by her experiences and how she framed her thoughts to the other non-Black characters in this book—but that teaching wasn't her job, or the novel's job, to do that so I'm taking those points as a good personal side benefit, not anything that I came to this novel with as an expectation.
The only caveats to Wings of Ebony in terms of its technical structure, for me, was its pacing. At times, I really did struggle with the flow of the past-to-present timelines and in general found it easy to pick up and put down this book because the flow from action point to action point felt uneven in places. But those are quibbles, this was still an incredibly solid and extremely unique debut.
A notoriously haunted L.A. hotel. A group of teenage ghost hunters. A dead girl and her secrets. And something lurking in the dark...
Sense of pacing: ★★★★
Personal enjoyment: ★★
Chrissy, Chase, Kiki, and Emma are quickly becoming famous for their YouTube channel, Ghost Gang. In a setup that feels pretty similar to Buzzfeed Unsolved and other real-life online channels, this group of teens goes to haunted locations and films their explorations and reactions to creepy locations. And Chrissy is their ace in the hole: she actually CAN see spirits.
The Ghost Gang needs their next big hit. Chase, the group's organizer, decides to set their sights on the big one: the most haunted hotel in Los Angeles, California.
In this hotel from hell, a young girl died brutally within its walls and her erratic behavior before her untimely death was caught online for the world to watch. Something happened to this girl, and someone—or something—killed her. No one has found out the truth.
Chrissy and the rest of the group aren't exactly wild about visiting this location, but they let their better senses get the best of them and agree to go. (What's a horror setup without a few dumb decisions?)
They have no idea what they're in for...
So first off, a small disclaimer: I think this book is quite good for the right audience, and in that audience I could see Horror Hotel being a new favorite YA thriller/horror. It has all of the right hooks, shocks, and drama.
Unfortunately, I was not the right audience for this story because I'm a frequent horror movie and true crime documentary buff and knew the source material inside and out before starting this story.
If you've watched the Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and heard the very true story of the tragic death of Elisa Lam at that real L.A. hotel, then this fictionalized account with different names and slightly different tweaks might not work for you. The authors of Horror Hotel pay tribute to Elisa Lam in their dedication, which makes sense as this story was inspired by hers, but to me this novel was almost an exact replica of that particular Netflix documentary.
Now I'm not getting into whether replicating stories is good or bad, retellings are a very popular thing and I've enjoyed a few of them, but regardless of my opinion on that element I found Horror Hotel to be pretty low stakes and low interest for me, personally, because I knew where it was going all of the time. Without the feeling of "where is this story going," I quickly found my interest waning.
Again, this issue only happened because I was so familiar with that Netflix documentary. For those who haven't seen it and are just casually aware of the Elisa Lam story and the Hotel Cecil, this might be a very different reading experience.
Recommended for new fans to the genre and for those who have not watched the referenced Netflix movie.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Generational secrets, the darkness within, and small town murders collide in this atmospheric and unputdownable debut.
Sense of unease: ★★★★★
Watch out for the dark.
Wow, this was such an engaging young adult mystery. As an adult reader who can't seem to stay away from the young adult genre, sometimes there are stories that don't translate out of their age-appropriate market and I feel like I'm the one old person at the young people's party. The Dead and the Dark was not one of those books—I think this one will have more of an all-ages appeal.
In Snakebite, a small town with generations of secrets and shame, things don't change. Visitors never stay, residents don't leave, and those that are different are not welcomed.
Years ago, Logan's two dads left Snakebite under upsetting circumstances, several of which revolving around their status as the only gay couple in town. They've been a traveling duo ever since, with their paranormal TV series dragging them across the country along with their adopted daughter, Logan.
But when one of Logan's dads returns to Snakebite and his supposedly short trip turns into months and months, they family decides to return to Snakebite and see what's going on.
Someone's keeping secrets. And a boy is already missing.
I think The Dead and the Dark works best if you don't know too much about it going into the story, so I'm not going to share any more of the plot. In short: I thought this story took a while to get off of the ground (roughly 75 pages) but then once things started to unravel for Logan and the other characters I could not stop reading this one.
It's a bit ghost-y. A bit queer identity struggle. A bit of small town bigotry. A bit of a romance on the side. A bit of a cold-blooded killer.
This one sits at some interesting cross-sections, so I can see why some readers feel unsatisfied after finishing it. If you're here for just one thing, then the other bits feel like unwanted excess. But I, personally, was here for the entire experience and, outside of some occasionally clunky writing, I thought this story was extremely well done.
Looking forward to seeing Courtney Gould's growth in her next book.
Thank you to Wednesday Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Life lessons hidden amongst a gemstone-world filled with heart and humor... a great graphic novel to share with a young reader.
A disclaimer: I am barely knowledgeable on the DC Comics universe. I have enjoyed reading several of the young reader graphic novels coming out of DC, but all of my enjoyment and review base comes from face-value reviews—I do not have any prior knowledge/opinions on the characters in each series.
Amaya, princess of House Amethyst in Gemworld, is in trouble. A powerful young girl with a lot of ability and not a lot of life experience, she accidentally creates a huge mess in her parent's castle and breaks their largest protector gemstone.
She wasn't ready for the consequences of her actions...
Amaya needs a reality check—so her parents send her and an adult caretaker to Earth for a while. It's supposed to be for one week.
But then, 3 years later, we meet Amaya as a middle schooler and to our surprise, she's lost ALL of her memories of her time on Gemworld. Something is afoot.
With magic, memory, and family all tying together into one purple-tastic adventure, this graphic novel was a ton of fun.
I thought the artwork for this one was beautiful. I loved the artist's play on the all of the purple tones of Gemworld, and the fun style of all of the panels for each plot point.
Amaya and her antics were interesting. As a mid-20s adult, I'll admit I had a hard time really staying invested in her journey...but this seemed to really be an age thing, as the story itself and the plot progression did not have any issues in it. Just too young for this particular reader.
I recommend to anyone with a young one at home who's interested in comic book worlds! (And for anyone who loves purple, obviously.)
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is Hayao Miyazaki's favorite childhood book—and, according to Neil Gaiman's foreword included in this English translation, it's going to be the focus of his last upcoming film. This book was a beautiful, thought-provoking and philosophical epic wrapped around the story of one young boy's journey in 1937 Japan.
It's often the youngest of stories with the largest of messages, and How Do You Live? is no exception.
Born and raised in Tokyo, but now finding himself living outside of the city, Copper is a young teenaged boy growing up in 1937 Japan under the guidance of his family. He's trying to make his way in the world like all of us do at that age--looking to family, school, friends, and society for ways and tools on how to be, how to think, and how to live.
This novel portrays that sense of "finding oneself" during those tumultuous years in such an entrancing way. There are interjections on ethics, societal reflections, and life lessons. There are moments where Copper struggles for identity amongst his family and lot in life. There are moments where he is just a boy, doing boy things.
Life is not just one thing, or even multiple things. And neither are people just one thing, or many things. How Do You Live? showcases those complexities and nuances in ways that are simply astounding for a novel tailored to such a young audience.
It's a poignant and compelling read—and, most important, it's an engaging one. I was riveted to Copper's journey and was right there with him for every moment.
Do yourself a favor and pick this one if you're interested in the subject or in Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films—this book's core resonates with a lot of the master's work.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Deals with Fate, a whimsically dark, wintery setting that reminded me of the Night Circus's atmosphere, and a twisty-turny love plot to fit all of the classics. I loved it.
Entry point for new readers? oof, equal yes and no
NOTE: Once Upon a Broken Heart is set in the same universe as this author's previous trilogy, Caraval. I was not smart enough to realize that before reading this (whoops), so I want throw that out here at the start of this review. This has crossover with Caraval. It is, however, marketed as the start of a brand new series.
Evangeline Fox grew up on fairytales. Her life is one, after all, even if some people don't realize it. A recent orphan, Evangeline works in her late father's curiosities shop and is in love with a boy. Her mother raised her on stories of the magical North, where curses and magic are real and everyone knows it. Evangeline's very existence—her hair is the color of rosy gold, her upbringing shrouded in magical mystery—everything points to the start of a good fairytale.
But then the boy becomes engaged to Evangeline's stepsister, and everything in Evangeline's life shifts sideways.
She decides to believe in yet one more fairytale—the existence of Jacks, the Prince of Broken Hearts. For those who need him in Valenda, Jacks has a temple where the broken hearted can go and ask for a bargain.
It's dangerous to bargain with a Fate, but Evangeline is desperate and "dangerous" sounds like it could get the job done.
She strikes a deal with Jacks. Things don't exactly go as planned. He's a Fate, of course, and Evangeline is a girl straight out a fairytale—the story isn't going to let them go that easily.
It's time to let the story unfold...
I don't want to get into the plot too much, as half of the fun is going into the story with as little knowledge as possible, but WOW! In short, I really enjoyed this one.
Highlights: I loved the dynamic between Evangeline and Jacks. Even though Evangeline was much more naive than I prefer for a protagonist, the dynamic really worked for me and fit the story's vibe. I was also a huge fan of the world. It takes a rare type of author to write with the same je ne sais quoi quality as early Erin Morgenstern, but Stephanie Garber reached it. It's the YA, winter version of the Night Circus in terms of atmosphere and I was into it.
Negatives: Was it easy to jump into this world WITHOUT having already read Caraval? ...No. I wish I'd known how many references, nods, and hidden nuances in this novel were going to directly relate to that previous storyline. I would have taken a second look at Caraval first. It wasn't as bad as jumping into a direct sequel, but I did feel like I'd entered a TV show at the start of the second season. New character arc but same setup, and it was a bit confusing.
Read this if you like well-told tales, fairytales and their retellings, the power of hope, a dang good time, and nothing too dark.
Cool concept, really loved the death lord angle. Annoyed as heck by the main character to the point where I wanted to skim…so, a mixed bag of thoughts here.
Main character: ★ 1/2
Violeta Graceling and her brother, Arien, live in a wooded world filled with a mysterious blight. They live off of the long-suffering "goodness" of their adoptive mother, who works for the local villager as a painter for the village's important religious icons. It's a light versus the darkness, goodness versus shadow demons type of religion... and to Violeta and Arien's horror, every night Arien wakes to shadows coating his body.
Violeta knows that if Arien could just wish the shadows away, they could be safe. Harsh control is the only answer to Arien's issue...right? (Oh dear)
One day in the village, Arien is caught with his shadows by the visiting lord from the nearby Lakesedge estate: Rowan Sylvanan.
Rowan Sylvanan might be close to Violeta's age, but he's already a nightmare story that parents warn their children about at night. He killed his whole family, they say. He's filled with evil, they say.
Rowan takes one look at Arien and his shadows and makes the decision to take Arien home with him. And because Violeta is fiercely protective of her brother, Rowan begrudgingly takes her too.
But neither the estate nor Rowan are what they seem, and Violeta's going to have to face certain truths whether she's ready for them or not...
Sometimes, it's not really the book's fault or the reader's fault when the reading experience is "meh." Sometimes it's just....the main character. And for Lakesedge, my issues all circle around one thing: Violeta herself.
I thought this world was cool. I loved the gothic atmosphere, the mystique of the estate, the dark shadow magic at the core of the story. I thought the ending in particular was spectacular.
But.... I can't give this more than 3 stars, because for the first half of the book (and frankly, ok, the rest of the book too) I couldn't stand Violeta. When you have a first-person narration with only one POV, a lot of the story rests on that one main character and whether the reader can get behind them and their actions. And I just could not do it.
Violeta was stubborn to the point of dumbness, prejudiced to the point of fear mongering, and at the end of the day she was also... weirdly reactionary to her own story?
(Except for the very, very end where my complaint turns into a spoiler: (view spoiler))
I'm not sure if all of that stands up outside of my own personal opinions, but that was how I felt. Oh well. Another case of "it's not you, book, it's me!"
Excellent atmosphere, loved the fresh take on a very different—and minimally inspired—Jane Eyre retelling. Loved the magic component, the haunted house, the Ethiopian-meets-gothic vibes… ahhh so good.
First disclaimer: I have not read Jane Eyre.
Second disclaimer: I did not go into this book wanting, or requiring, a faithful interpretation of Jane Eyre.
Andromeda, or "Andi," is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. With a rough upbringing behind her, current poverty around her, and a very uncertain future ahead, Andi is out of options and in need of steady employment.
So when an offer for a house cleansing comes her way riddled with warnings, she's too desperate to refuse.
Andi arrives at Thorne Manor in the middle of the African desert with desperation and everything to gain. She needs to eradicate this manifestation at whatever the cost—she has nothing left to lose.
But Thorn Manor, with its English colonialist design and history forced into the African landscape, is nothing like Andi's expectations. It's dark and freezing cold in the middle of the desert. It's filled with weird, misplaced furniture and false illusions. There's a sense of foreboding that Andi has never experienced despite all of her prior cleansings. And, to top it all off, the host of the manor is not at all like her expectations.
Andi has a job to do. And as the servants keep disappearing (or worse) and the house creeps closer toward Andi with every breath, the stakes are too high to leave.
Now add in a romance, a ghost story, and a claustrophobic atmosphere on par with Mexican Gothic, and you have a STORY.
Don't let your guard down...
Again, with my disclaimers at the beginning of this review aside, I thought this was a fantastic story. I read it over the course of one evening—and basically one sitting, if you don't count tea breaks!
Within These Wicked Walls had truly fantastic writing. Most times for young adult fiction/fantasy, I am attached to the characters, plot, or world building more than I'm attached to the actual words and their structure themselves. But for this one, the writing itself stood out to me. I loved the sense of place conveyed through the sentence descriptions, Andi's presence on the page, and the great sense of dialogue and scene transitions. This sounds like I'm reviewing an academic paper or something (boring, I know) but I really wanted to call it out here. GREAT writing.
I also thought that entire plot (romance, relationships, pacing, and all) was just.... chef's kiss. Really nice. I have no complaints besides a few spots that felt slowly paced.
Why is it so hard to talk intelligently in reviews when you love something??? Sigh. Please take my badly-constructed word on this: this story is fantastic, it's atmospheric, and it's a fresh take on a very old concept with some much needed non-Western influences.
I could see myself rereading this one every autumn. Pick this one up, gothic/ghost fans!
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.