Review of The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves

Lesson Three of the Scholomance

by Naomi Novik

Del Rey (Penguin Random House), 2022. 407 pages.
Review written October 2, 2022, from my own copy, preordered from Amazon.com
Starred review

Okay, this book is SO GOOD!!!!

All right, enough gushing, now for a serious review. First, I’m so happy that my preordered copy arrived just before Cybils season started, so I could read it before I need to start madly reading Young Adult Speculative Fiction books, which is the category I’m judging this year. Although this book is speculative fiction and features a young woman freshly out of school, it’s published for adults and isn’t eligible for the Cybils Awards.

First, let me say that this is a trilogy where you absolutely must read the books in order to understand what’s going on. So I’m going to speak about the trilogy in general terms in this review so as to not give anything away. If you haven’t read the earlier books yet, you are in luck! You won’t have to wait a year in between books to find out what happens after huge dramatic reversals at the ends of books one and two. But be prepared — once you start, you’re going to want to finish. I stayed up awfully late last night because of this book. (And I suspect I’ll want to reread the entire trilogy after my Cybils reading is done.)

The story is amazing how it pulls you in. I couldn’t stop thinking about it this morning. My shorthand way of talking about it is that it’s a story about a Wizard School that wants to kill you.

But I love the way Naomi Novik does the world-building, gradually telling us more and more about the world and the magic they use. This is why you really need to start at the beginning.

The trilogy follows El (short for Galadriel) whom the universe – and the Scholomance – seems to want to make a frightfully powerful death sorceress. This is in balance with her mother, who only works healing magic with sweetness and light. The first book starts with her junior year in the Scholomance.

We learn about the magic in that universe – parallel to ours – which always has a price. Wizards can get mana by doing work and helping others, which gives them power to do magic. But they can also use malia, which gets power from taking from the life force of others. The things that want to kill you in the Scholomance are malificaria, and they are drawn to magic, and especially to young and powerful wizards, so they flock to the Scholomance like a magnet. In the earlier books, we learn that El has a grudge against the kids from enclaves, where wizards band together to share magic. But it’s hard to get into enclaves, and there’s a prophecy about El destroying enclaves. And then there’s Orion, that annoying hero from the New York enclave who won El’s heart. He wound up in a bad place in the last book. Has she seen the end of him?

So in this book, El is out of the Scholomance and figuring out what she’s going to do with her life and what she’s going to do about Orion. She came out of the school with the Golden Sutras — powerful spell books about building Golden Enclaves without using malia.

And then a mawmouth is attacking the London enclave. A mawmouth is the most horrible kind of malificaria of all. It devours all in its path — and they don’t die, but remain suffering inside it forever after. Before El, there was only one living wizard who’d ever defeated a mawmouth. El, however, fought and destroyed more than one in the Scholomance. Her classmates know this, and call her to London. And that has consequences….

Another thing I love about this book is the way El, who started out friendless, now has a whole community who care about her and help her.

Okay, I’d love to say more, but I should stop. If you enjoy reading fantasy at all, tackle this brilliant trilogy. It’s outstanding.

TheScholomance.com
naominovik.com
randomhousebooks.com

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Review of All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue

A Memoir-Manifesto

by George M. Johnson
read by the author

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 5 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written November 9, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

In this book, George Johnson talks about what it was like for him growing up Black and queer, even in a loving and supportive family.

His storytelling style is interesting and engaging, though a little repetitive in spots. He had me on the edge of my seat when I listened to him tell about getting his teeth kicked out when he was five years old. His stories of his family, especially his grandma, are warm and loving.

When he talks about sexual coming-of-age, he gets way more detailed than what this middle-aged heterosexual white woman wanted to hear. But this book isn’t written for heterosexual middle-aged white women. It’s written especially to other Black and queer folks to find out they aren’t alone. He even talks about how little information he had about gay sex and how he hopes he can help others go beyond trial and error with a few less errors.

I’m glad this book is out there, and even for those not in its target audience, it’s a story of a boy growing up as an outsider and finding his way with the help of community.

iamgmjohnson.com
us.macmillan.com/audio

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Review of A Spoonful of Frogs, by Casey Lyall, illustrated by Vera Brosgol

A Spoonful of Frogs

written by Casey Lyall
illustrated by Vera Brosgol

Greenwillow Books, 2022. 36 pages.
Review written September 21, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I’m a big fan of the art of Caldecott Honor illustrator Vera Brosgol, and this picture book is full of her signature humor and charm.

In the set-up, we’ve got a nicely-dressed witch appearing on a cooking show, “Bewitching Kitchen,” demonstrating how to make “a witch’s favorite treat” — Frog Soup. After all the other ingredients go into the cauldron:

The last and most important ingredient is a spoonful of frogs.

This will add a kick of flavor and a pop of color.

But it turns out that getting frogs to stay on a spoon is not an easy task. And that’s what the majority of the book is about — chasing frogs, trying to get them on the spoon, with the frogs hopping every which way. When she thinks she finally has them — well, things don’t work out.

And it’s all good silly fun. Lots and lots of opportunities for Vera Brosgol to insert her wonderful visual humor.

Even though I don’t work in a library branch any more, I still look at a book like this and see wonderful opportunities for story time. I predict this will get a roomful of preschoolers or Kindergartners laughing.

Like Frog Soup, I recommend that you enjoy this book with friends.

caseylyall.com
verabee.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, by Sarah Bessey

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things

A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God

by Sarah Bessey

Howard Books (Atria), 2019. 222 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from my own copy
Starred Review

First, a big thank you to my friend Amanda who recommended Sarah Bessey’s writing. I purchased this book shortly after it came out, on her recommendation. When I finally got around to reading it a few years later, I wondered what took me so long. I loved it!

First, Sarah Bessey has a way with words. Her writing is lyrical and lovely. This book is full of stories that pull you into the scene and keep you reading. She also finds ways to interweave emotions and thoughts about God that get you thinking as well.

This book begins with a very bad car accident. One that significantly messed up her health.

In the middle of the book, she receives a miraculous and dramatic healing. But although that healing was real, other parts of her body were still in bad shape. She had to grapple with the miracle that did come and the miracles that didn’t come. And she explains that journey in a way we can all relate to.

Here’s a paragraph that I love, when she was talking about a way God had reached out when she was discouraged and told her she was not forgotten:

I have never gotten over that moment, that word of knowledge, and I hope I never do. My mantra was disrupted, and I had a new path to walk, a path I still walk to this day. If God had not forgotten me — and clearly God had not — and yet I was still part of the company of the unanswered prayers, perhaps that meant that I had misunderstood something about God. Perhaps the problem wasn’t God; perhaps the problem was the God I had created and the God I had been given.

In the miracles and the lack of miracles, she looks at what she needed to unlearn and relearn about God, and she takes the reader on that journey with her.

I also loved the chapter where she visits Prince Edward Island. I was there in 2019 with two of my best friends. I’m always happy to read the thoughts of an L. M. Montgomery fan! And yes, I can’t think of a better place for a spiritual retreat.

I’m going to look for more of Sarah Bessey’s writings. Like me, she comes from a Christian background, but some of her beliefs have changed as an adult. I appreciate her stance of not being certain that she has all the answers.

sarahbessey.com
SimonandSchuster.com

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Review of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn

by Melissa Bashardoust
read by Nikki Massoud

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2020. 10 hours, 6 minutes.
Review written December 12, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a modern fairy tale rooted in Persian folklore. The story is told from the perspective of Soraya, twin sister to the young shah, but who is kept hidden from all outsiders. She has been cursed to be poisonous to the touch. If anyone touches her, they die instantly. She is even deadly to insects. So she travels the palace in secret passageways and wears gloves at all times.

But then she meets a young man who’s not afraid of her. When she finds out a way she may be able to remove her curse, he is willing to help her. There’s a little problem, though – She would have to put out the royal fire that protects her family.

I thought most of the book would be about Soraya trying to lift her curse, but it turns out there’s a lot more that happens, because there are consequences.

The narrator brought the story to life with her lilting accent.

I did enjoy this tale, and loved the Persian flavor. The story was a little convoluted for me – I didn’t completely buy Soraya’s motivations at every point. And there seemed to be coincidences at others. And I wondered at how easily she found out a couple of things – like how to discover an old criminal in hiding, long ago condemned to die.

But the concept – a princess who had been cursed to be poisonous, wondering if that makes her a monster – that concept was worth building a fairy tale around.

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Review of Before Music, by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Madison Safer

Before Music

Where Instruments Come From

by Annette Bay Pimentel
illustrated by Madison Safer

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2022. 88 pages.
Review written September 7, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

I was not at all prepared for how charmed I would be by this book. Before the title page, pictures filling up oversize pages show you a boy with a drum and a woman with a stringed instrument making music. There’s a bit of text:

Music doesn’t come out of nothing.
It always starts somewhere. . .
with something. . .
with someone.

I expected to learn about the instruments of the western orchestra. But instead, the first instrument presented is a rock gong, and the next one a pututu, made from a seashell. Yes, instruments from western orchestras are included, but they’re a relatively small part of the many, many ways that humans make music.

At the back of the book, the author explains that different cultures classify musical instruments in different ways. “In writing this book, I was inspired by the ancient Chinese system, which focused on the materials instruments are made of.” Each group of instruments is presented first with a large painting and pictures of someone making an instrument of that type. Next, the book explains how that material makes music, then we see many more instruments made with that material, subdivided using the Indian and Javanese focus on how they are played.

And there are so many kinds of instruments! Leafing through the 88 pages, I see instruments made from rock, found objects, clay, gourds, strings, metal, wood, reeds, flexible sheets, and human voices. Mixed between the descriptions of instruments and how they are made are features of musical innovators, people who figured out how to make new sounds from materials already used for instruments or how to improve what was being used.

As an example of the amazing variety found here, on the gourd instruments page, I see thirteen instruments from countries all over the world, only two of which I’d ever heard of before.

This book is fascinating and beautiful. There are suggestions at the back for kids to make their own musical instruments.

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Review of Everything I Thought I Knew, by Shannon Takaoka

Everything I Thought I Knew

by Shannon Takaoka

Candlewick Press, 2020. 308 pages.
Review written December 7, 2020, from a library book

Everything I Thought I Knew is the story of 17-year-old Chloe, six months after she got a heart transplant from an unknown donor. She’s recently been set free by the doctor to live her life, though her parents are anxiously keeping tabs on her, and she’ll be taking medication for life to keep her body from rejecting the new heart.

Chloe’s friends are spending the summer getting ready to go to college, but she has to go to summer school to finish the classes she missed the last semester of her senior year. And besides the nightly dreams about a terrible accident, she’s finding herself drawn to new things and acting out of character.

Without telling her parents, when she’s supposed to be at the library, she starts taking surfing lessons from a teen trying to make a little money. And she makes a friend at summer school and finds out what teens who have no parental supervision can get up to.

Chloe and Jane start doing a little research and discover internet theories about cellular memory, and stories of heart transplant patients who suddenly have skills their donor had and know people who were important to their donor.

Could this explain some of Chloe’s strange experiences?

At this point in the book, I almost put it down. It seemed a little too predictable. And while I think cellular memory might be a thing on some level, my suspension of disbelief didn’t extend to the detailed memories Chloe was experiencing.

But it turns out the book was not predictable at all. There’s a twist at the end I didn’t see coming and did enjoy – though it also was a little too much for my own suspension of disbelief.

But I did enjoy the way this tale is told. You feel Chloe’s bewilderment and her pressure to make the most of her life after the gift of a heart. Although I didn’t completely believe everything about this book, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

candlewick.com

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Review of As Good as Dead, by Holly Jackson

As Good as Dead

by Holly Jackson
read by Bailey Carr with a full cast

Listening Library, September 2021. 15 hours, 4 minutes.
Review written July 20, 2022, based on a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Big thanks again to my coworker Lisa, who recommended this trilogy to me. She was anxious to read an Advance Reader Copy of the third book, and I had never read any of them. So I was lucky and didn’t have to wait long in between books, because they were all published by the time I got to them.

In my review of the second book, I’d said that they stand alone okay, but now I say No, not at all. You absolutely need to read the other two books before you read this one. For one thing, you’d find out some major events of the earlier books, but mostly you’d understand the ins and outs of this one better.

Things escalate tremendously in each book. In the first book, Pip is a Senior in high school and takes on a 5-year-old murder case because she doesn’t think the dead boyfriend was actually the murderer, despite a texted confession. In the second book, Pip stumbles into an immediate case where a friend goes missing, but the police don’t think there’s anything to worry about. That case bumps up against another long-ago case of a serial killer.

Well, in this book, Pip gets involved again in an old case involving a serial killer. But this time, a person keeps commenting on her podcast episodes, “Who will look for you when you go missing?” and then some things happen to her that are eerily similar to experiences reported by victims of a Connecticut serial killer from years ago. But there’s someone in prison for the crimes, and there haven’t been any more since he was arrested. So when Pip gets a message from the mother of the convicted man, Pip doesn’t actually want to see the evidence that he is not the serial killer after all. Because that means he’s still out there and may have taken an interest in her.

I won’t say any more about the plot. There was a big turning point about a third of the way into the book, and I really disagreed with the decision Pip made. It had to do with not trusting the police.

As I kept listening and thought about it more, I had to admit that Pip had many, many reasons not to trust the police, and even though I wouldn’t have made that choice, I could believe that Pip would have.

And that choice contributed to an incredibly tense story from start to finish. I was listening this past week when traffic was terrible after a thunderstorm had gone through and stopped electricity and downed trees, and the audiobook had my nerves stretched tight — but at least I wasn’t bored for a second when my normally 15-minute drive took me an hour!

This trilogy is incredibly good, but be aware it’s extremely intense. And the crimes escalate from book to book and get closer and closer to Pip.

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Review of Marie’s Ocean, by Josie James

Marie’s Ocean

Marie Tharp Maps the Mountains Under the Sea

by Josie James

Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt). 48 pages.
Review written April 19, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Dramatized in graphic novel format with speech bubbles, this book tells of the life of Marie Tharp and how she overcame prejudice against women and became the first person to map the ocean floor.

First it shows her childhood interest in science and beginning jobs, which were never as challenging as she could handle. But then everything came together when Bruce Hazeen, a graduate student at Columbia asked her to plot sounding data of the ocean floor from many ships going across the Atlantic Ocean, using sonar.

It goes on to show how Marie discovered something in common in the plots from the ships’ data.

And then I noticed something curious. A V shaped cleft ran through each of the profiles I had drawn.

Could there be a crack in the center of the mountains of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon?

It shows how this discovery supported the continental drift theory, which was considered scientific heresy at the time.

Then Bruce was asked to map the locations where transatlantic phone cables had broken due to earthquakes. When Marie plotted the earthquakes – they were all happening along the rift valley she had discovered in the middle of the ocean.

The scientific community was still skeptical of her work. Then Jacques Cousteau towed an underwater camera across the Mid-Atlantic Ocean floor and showed the world that Marie’s rift valley indeed existed.

Thereafter, scientists’ and the public’s opinion of the rift valley and Wegener’s theory of continental drift slowly began to shift. Opinion also began to change regarding women at sea. In 1965, after fifteen years working at my desk, Bruce offered me my first spot as a woman aboard a research vessel.

Marie Tharp continued working, mapping all the world’s oceans.

Heinrich, Bruce, and I continued to collaborate and produced an elaborate painting called the World Ocean Floor panorama in 1977. This glorious map depicts a one-world ocean whose hidden mountains and valleys, created by the immense forces of Earth, erupted off the canvas and dispersed the idea of a flat and featureless seafloor.

By dramatizing her story, this book brings you into the challenges Marie faced as a scientist and how completely she triumphed over them.

mackids.com

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Review of Little Monarchs, by Jonathan Case

Little Monarchs

by Jonathan Case

Margaret Ferguson Books (Holiday House), 2022. 256 pages.
Review written September 12, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This post-apocalyptic graphic novel features a 10-year-old protagonist, Elvie. With the help of her caretaker, Flora, she’s learned how to safely scavenge and survive on things left since mammals were wiped out on earth fifty years before.

It wasn’t war that wiped out humans. It was sun sickness, caused by a change in the radiation coming from the sun. The only people who survived were deep underground. Survivors, Deepers, lived in underground communities. Until Flora discovered that scales from Monarch butterflies could be used to make medicine that protects people from sun sickness. The problem is that it takes lots of butterflies to make enough medicine for a few people, and it expires after six weeks.

Eight years before, when Elvie was a baby, her parents traveled to Mexico, where they could find more monarchs and get more medicine and work on a vaccine. They left Elvie in Flora’s care. But they didn’t come back and sent a message by carrier pigeon that though they had made it, the trip was too difficult without a vaccine.

Not long after they received the message, marauders attacked their site and took it over. Since then, Flora and Elvie have been on their own, with Flora always trying to develop a vaccine, so humans would be able to live on the surface again.

All this background is communicated fairly quickly. Flora and Elvie have some adventures while simply foraging for supplies, and then an earthquake hits. After the earthquake, they find a toddler near the ruins of an underground station. They have no choice but to take care of him. But will his adults follow? And can they be trusted?

This graphic novel had me on the edge of my seat. I loved Elvie — so resourceful, feisty, and kind-hearted.

You might think the story of humanity wiped out by sun sickness would be dark and dismal, but since Elvie and Flora have the medicine, the pictures are bright and colorful. I learned a lot about Monarchs along the way. (Which goes well with a board game I bought recently called “Mariposas” that’s about Monarch migration.)

Bottom line, this is a really good story — great art, great characters, gripping plot.

jonathancase.net
HolidayHouse.com

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