Review of Necromancing the Stone, by Lish McBride

Necromancing the Stone

by Lish McBride

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012. 344 pages.
Starred Review

I liked Necromancing the Stone even better than its predecessor, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. In the first book, Sam has to confront true Evil, and as much levity as the author combined it with, that’s not exactly pleasant. In this book, Sam deals with the aftermath, and the threat of more Evil, with true compassion and maturity, but the fact that it didn’t start with awful violence meant the humor and inspired silliness could shine through.

Let me start at the beginning. In the last book (Yes, you should read them in order.), Sam learned that he is a necromancer and has strange powers over the dead and abilities to speak with the dead. This happened when he defeated an evil necromancer, Douglas, who had tried to sacrifice Sam and take his power. Sam doesn’t like killing, but he had to kill Douglas. And as a result, he inherited Douglas’s position on the Council and his possessions. And, while he was locked in a cage, he got a werewolf girlfriend.

In this book, Sam’s trying to figure out his new powers and his new life. Early on, someone close to him is killed. His sister is threatened. What’s more, the reader knows who did these things, and that this could mean big huge trouble for Sam. But Sam doesn’t know who did it and he isn’t able to speak to the person who was killed, instead encountering a strange goddess in a place with flowers.

It all would be a trifle ludicrous if Lish McBride didn’t write it so well. Sam approaches his life with self-deprecating humor, and the reader can see that he wants to navigate it all and do the right thing. The books don’t just deal with Sam and his girlfriend, but with a wide range of characters — his best friend, Ramon, who was transformed by Douglas into a werebear; James, the pukis servant of the household, his witch mother and younger sister; a Big Foot who lives in the forest with a glamour to look human and work as a forest ranger; his dead friend who now helps organize his life; his girlfriend’s werewolf family; and even the garden gnomes who live in the house he’s inherited and don’t seem to like him much. You end up caring about all these assorted individuals as much as Sam does.

This book is a lot of fun. It’s a light-hearted, humorous book about someone who finds himself suddenly dealing with death on a regular basis. Sam’s not quite as much of a screw-up in this book, though he still is no wizard. And you can’t help loving him.

I hope there will be many more books about Sam and the supernatural creatures of the Pacific Northwest!

lishmcbride.com
macteenbooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on an Advance Reader’s Edition I got at an ALA conference.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

Midwinterblood

by Marcus Sedgwick

Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2013. 262 pages.
Starred Review

Wow. This is one of those books that after reading, I just sit there in amazement at the level of craft that went into it (well, actually lie there — I read in bed). It’s one you want to read over again to fully appreciate all the details. Though next time, just for the fun of it, I might read it backwards.

How to describe it without giving too much away? The book is a series of interconnected stories. The first story takes place in 2073. The next section takes place in 2011. And the sections go progressively further back in time, all the way to prehistoric times, with a section going back to 2073 at the very end, tying everything together. So well done.

I won’t give away exactly what the connection is. You’ll get the idea quickly. Certain common elements occur in all the stories, and finally at the end, you understand why.

All of the book is set on an island in the far north, an island called Blessed. The island is home to a rare “Dragon” orchid. And strange things happen there.

Every story is creepy, disturbing in some way or other, atmospheric. But I don’t usually like creepy stories, and I loved this. He manages never to cross the line into awful. There’s a lot of variety in the stories, including a vampire story and a ghost story, but even though I usually don’t like vampire stories or ghost stories, every one of these stories was exceptionally good. There’s a lot of untimely death in the stories, but they never sink into despair.

Another thing that perplexed me was that recently, I made some comments in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books regarding Jepp, Who Defied the Stars as to how strongly prejudiced I am against books that are written in present tense. But this book was written in present tense (all the different time periods), and it didn’t bother me in the slightest. So I am going to have to modify my analysis. Clearly present tense isn’t the problem. It must be something about the way it is often used. Maybe it bothers me when there’s too much telling in present tense and not enough showing? I’m not sure how he did it, but Marcus Sedgwick made the present tense storytelling seem absolutely right. Maybe it just takes a truly outstanding writer. Now I’m going to look harder at which present tense books I hate, which I can tolerate, and which blow me away with their craft. (So far, this is the only one I can think of in that category.)

Anyway, since I don’t want to give away what’s going on in this book, I’ll finish my review with the beginning of the book, set in June 2073, and so full of promise:

The sun does not go down.

This is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before the forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.

For now, he checks his watch as he stands at the top of the island’s solitary hill, gazing to where the sun should set. It is midnight, but the sun still shines, barely dipping its heavy rim into the sea on the far horizon.

The island is so far north.

He shakes his head.

He’s thinking about Merle. How something seems to wait in her eyes. How he felt calm, just standing next to her.

“Well, so it is,” he says, smiling with wonder.

There! Just writing that out, I noticed the significance of one little detail that I hadn’t noticed before. I must read this book again to appreciate the craft even further!

This book is amazing. It’s got sinister undertones, but the even those who don’t like creepy books (like me) may be won over by the sheer brilliance, as the author uses the unsettling elements in a way that adds to the story’s power. This is one that will stick with you.

macteenbooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
by Lish McBride

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2010. 343 pages.
2011 Morris Honor Book

I finally read this book as part of my Award Challenge — reading award winners and honor books — and because I have an Advance Reader Copy of its sequel, Necromancing the Stone.

This isn’t necessarily a book I would have read otherwise, since it is quite dark, with a grisly death and necromancers and a werewolf clan. However, once I got through the rather gruesome beginning, I found myself liking the characters and the light-hearted, humorous approach to this darkness.

Sam is a college drop-out working in a fast food joint, without a lot of prospects. He’s definitely surprised when he gets the attention of a seriously mean and scary man whose tail light he happened to break when playing potato hockey. When someone frighteningly strong beats him up after work and his friend’s head is sent to him in a box, well, he figures he can’t exactly ignore the problem.

He’s told he’s a necromancer, able to communicate with the dead. But why didn’t he know about it until now? And what does it have to do with the herbs his mother gave him to wear around his neck — the herbs that keep away nightmares?

It turns out that the necromancer who spotted him has plans for Sam that won’t be good for him. He’s also hiding a beautiful teenage werewolf in his basement. Sam needs to get enough information about who this necromancer is to be able to do something to stop him from killing Sam and stealing his power.

This is a surprisingly fun book about a good — but perhaps a bit irresponsible — kid thrown into some dark situations. Sam deals with them with humor and flair.

Here’s an early part where the author manages to put some humor into an awful situation:

I opened the box, then quickly dropped it and scrambled up onto the counter, making very dignified shrieking noises. Ramon stared. Frank came into the kitchen just in time to see the box bounce onto its side and its contents roll lazily out. Ramon tried to back up, but he was already against the wall. Frank managed a quick hop back as Brooke’s head rolled to a stop in the middle of the floor. It had already been severed cleanly at the neck, making her ponytail appear longer as it trailed behind like the tail on a grotesque comet. I couldn’t see any blood. In fact, the wound looked cauterized, which didn’t make it any more pleasant.

Nobody said a word.

Nobody except Brooke.

“Ow, cut it out, you guys!” Her blue eyes popped open and swung around until they found me. “Ugh, so not cool. Really, Sam. You don’t just drop somebody’s head. Especially a friend’s. Like being stuffed into a box and bounced around for an hour wasn’t bad enough.”

I screamed and grabbed a butter knife off the counter. I’m not sure what I planned to do with it, but in the meantime I held it in front of me just in case Brooke suddenly grew her body back and attacked. I mean, if she could talk, what was stopping her from leaping up and gnawing piranha-style on my ankels? Once a severed head talks, life’s possibilities seem endless.

Frank ran and hid in, I think, the bathroom. I heard some crashing noises that sounded like stuff being knocked around in my shower, anyway. Ramon slid behind the easy chair and hugged it, keeping his eyes on the head at all times. I think he’d stopped breathing. I crouched there, unmoving except for the shaking of my brandished butter knife, and stared at the head of a cute girl resting in the middle of the dirty linoleum of my kitchen floor. For some reason, I had the irrational thought of asking Mrs. Winalski whether or not this counted as having a girl in my apartment.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Princess for Hire, by Lindsey Leavitt

Princess for Hire

by Lindsey Leavitt

Disney Hyperion Books, New York, 2010. 239 pages.
Starred Review

I got a copy of Princess for Hire at ALA Annual Conference 2010 and had it signed by the author — and then I didn’t get it read because it didn’t have a due date. Honestly, for some reason I thought it was a story about a contemporary teen who happens to be a princess look-alike, or something like that. Now, I thought I’d get to meet Lindsey Leavitt at ALA Annual this year, so I started reading Princess for Hire. The stars on the cover should have tipped me off: That wasn’t the plot at all. No, it involves magic! I read this book on the flight to Long Beach and was completely enchanted.

13-year-old Desi Bascomb lives in Sproutville, home of the Idaho Days Potato Festival. She has a summer job that involves wearing a groundhog costume in front of the Pets Charming pets store in the mall. She is humiliated in front of her crush by the girl who was once her best friend.

But then life opens up for Desi. She learns she has “magic potential.” She gets to work, on a trial basis, for an agency that provides substitutes for princesses who need a break from being royal. The agency uses magic to make the substitute look exactly like the original, as well as get the subs back only an instant after they left.

Desi gets a great variety of jobs in this book. Her first trial job is a B-movie actress princess in an insect costume who doesn’t like meeting her fans. Then she goes to replace an overweight daughter of a sheikh. She causes some trouble at a dinner — completely out of character for a princess. But the agency gives her another chance with an Amazon princess due in a coming-of-age ceremony and finally a more traditional princess who lives with her Nana in the Alps — and Desi gets to meet the heartthrob prince of the tabloids and make a difference in the princess’s life.

But Desi’s not supposed to make a difference in anyone’s life. And the Princess Progress Reports aren’t working. Will she lose her job, her chance to live her dreams, away from Sproutville?

This book has plenty of variety, lots of humor, some good insights about life, and makes for very fun reading. This was perfect reading for a flight, and kept me wide awake and smiling. I wish I had read it sooner, but am happy that now I won’t have to wait to read more about Desi.

lindseyleavitt.com
hyperionteens.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a book I got at an ALA conference, and had signed by the author.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Blood Spirits, by Sherwood Smith

Blood Spirits

by Sherwood Smith

DAW Books, 2011. 488 pages.
Starred Review

It’s hard to talk about this book without saying too much about its predecessor. Yes, you definitely should read Coronets and Steel before you read Blood Spirits. When we left Kim, she had found out a world of information about her grandmother’s secret life. She’d been kidnapped more than once, she’d met long-lost family, and she’d gotten involved in political intrigue and fallen in love. She’d also discovered that she has the Sight, and she saw some truly strange things in the kingdom of Dobrenica.

But in the end, she decided not to get between the man she loves and his duty to his nation. She fled, expecting him to get married, and wondering if the traditional magic would happen and Dobrenica would disappear from the outside world.

Well, Dobrenica didn’t disappear. But Kim decided to get a teaching job and to try not to think about Dobrenica. But it doesn’t work, and then Kim has a strange vision of Ruli, her look-alike cousin, the woman who married the man she loves. Ruli is begging Kim for help. Kim decides to go to Dobrenica.

Her timing is bad. Ruli has just been found dead, and even Alec considers himself responsible for her death. Kim’s showing up then makes the case against him all the worse.

This story includes political intrigue, a murder mystery, and, yes, blood spirits threatening the kingdom. There’s more sword fighting (Kim is a skilled fencer.) and shifting alliances and even Kim’s grandmother faces her old love.

Here’s Kim talking to a Dobrenican girl and discovering she’s not the only one who sees strange things:

Tania refused to sit down, so I collapsed on the bed, as she said without preamble, “When I was little I talked to ghosts. Many ghosts. I see them all around, though most are silent and like fog. But my family, they thought I lied, to gain attention.”

I sat up again. “You talked to them?”

She brought her chin down in a single nod.

“But no one believed you?” I began to pull off my boots.

“No one but my sisters. Theresa because she loves the stories about ghosts. Anna because she knew I never lied.”…

“First, how do you talk to them, and second, what made you decide to tell me these things?”

“I do not know how I speak to them,” she said, her slender hands open as I reached for the wardrobe door. “It happened more when I was small. Rarely since. No one else could hear them. It was not always about things that made sense to me. As for why I’m telling you this, it is partly because of what you said when you came to the lens maker’s, but also because of this man.” She pointed at the wardrobe.

“What?” I jumped back as if I’d been electrocuted, leaving the wardrobe door ajar. “What man?”

She pointed. “He stands there, with a cigarette.”

Sherwood Smith is a master of the fantasy genre, and this book isn’t quite like any other. More swashbuckling romance. With vampires. And these ones definitely don’t sparkle.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy

His Fair Assassin, Book I

by Robin LaFevers

Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012. 509 pages.
Starred Review

Wow. This book reminded me of The Canterbury Papers, full of medieval palace intrigue, but this had supernatural powers thrown in.

The book is set in Brittany, beginning in 1485. Ismae has been told from birth that the scar she was born with, from the midwife’s poison failing, marks her as the daughter of Death himself, an ancient Breton god now called St. Mortain. When the man her father sold her to sees the scar, he is going to have her burned, but she is rescued by strangers and sent to the convent of St. Mortain.

At the convent, Ismae learns the special powers she has as the daughter of St. Mortain. She can see a mark on a person who is going to die. Poison does not harm her. She can see a person’s soul when it leaves his body. Also at the convent, they train her to be an assassin.

“If you choose to stay, you will be trained in His arts. You will learn more ways to kill a man than you imagined possible. We will train you in stealth and cunning and all manner of skills that will ensure no man is ever again a threat to you.”

Three years later, Ismae is ready for her first assignments. But now there is political trouble, and Brittany is in danger of being swallowed up by France. Ismae is sent to the court of the duchess herself, ordered to pose as the mistress of Duval, the duchess’s half-brother.

But at court, things don’t turn out as Ismae has been led to believe they will. Those she was told to be suspicious of seem kind and seem to have the Duchess’s best interests at heart. Those she is supposed to trust seem suspicious. What is right?

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of action and adventure. There are surprise attacks and deaths that Ismae had nothing to do with. And the duchess must marry soon, preferably to someone who can bring an army to her cause. Along the way, slowly and exquisitely, we see Ismae’s heart being won by a good man.

Here’s the situation as it’s laid out before Ismae leaves the convent:

Crunard spreads his hands. “Then you know it is true. The circling vultures grow bold. The regent of France has forbidden that Anne be crowned duchess. It is our enemies’ wish to make her France’s ward so that they may claim Brittany for their own. They also claim the right to determine who she will marry.”

Duval begins pacing. “Spies are everywhere. We can scarce keep track of them all. The French have set up a permanent entourage within our court, which has made some of the border nations uneasy.”

Crunard adds, “Not to mention that their presence makes it impossible to see Anne anointed as our duchess without their knowledge. But until we place that coronet upon her head before her people and the Church, we are vulnerable.”

I cannot help but feel sympathy for our poor duchess. “Surely there is some way out of this mess?”

I have addressed my question to the abbess, but it is Duval who answers. “I will forge one with my bare hands, if need be,” he says. “I vow that I will see her duchess, and I will see her safely wed. But I need information against our enemies if I am to accomplish this.”

The room falls so silent that I fear they will hear the pounding of my heart. Duval’s vow has moved me, and that he has made it on sacred ground proves he is either very brave or very foolish.

This is one book I was very happy to see called Book One. The story in this book does come to a satisfying conclusion, but I want to come back to this world. This book would be excellent if it only had the medieval intrigue and romance, but with the paranormal elements added in, there’s extra satisfaction seeing Ismae’s power far beyond what you’d normally expect of a woman in the fifteenth century.

robinlafevers.com
hmhbooks.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/grave_mercy.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on an Advance Reader Copy I got at an ALA conference and checked against a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I write the posts for my website and blogs entirely on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

Candlewick Press, 2011. 105 pages.
Starred Review
2012 Battle of the Kids’ Books Contender

This is a novel about a thirteen-year-old boy named Conor whose mother is dealing with cancer. His father recently left them, so they live alone. At least for as long as his grandma stays away. At school, Conor has to deal with bullying. He acts out at times, and everyone, teachers and kids, tiptoes around him because of what is happening with his mother.

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”

The monster comes over and over again. No one else can see the monster. But it leaves yew leaves in Conor’s room. It damages Conor’s house.

The monster tells him three tales. Three tales that Conor doesn’t like. Three tales that pack a punch. When those are done, what is the truth that Conor needs to tell, and will he have the strength to tell it?

The illustrations in this book are atmospheric and creepy, pulling the reader into the dark, sinister setting. Everything about this book works.

However, let me just say that if you’re a recently divorced mother living with your teenage son and you’re experiencing strange medical symptoms, this book is not a good choice. This fact makes me think the book might not be a great choice for someone whose mother actually has cancer. It’s great for building empathy in kids who are not going through something similar right now, but it might be too discouraging if the situation feels at all like it’s matching life. Let’s just say the outcome for the mother is not good.

For me, I had a stroke last July, and thought I’d come off very lucky, with no permanent disability and the stroke never touching my higher thinking. Then in October, I had a weird setback, feeling like I did right after the stroke again. After another setback, I saw the neurologist. He wasn’t very impressed by my low-grade dizziness and feeling “funny,” but then he did a neurological exam. When he saw I was seeing double if I looked up and to the right (my left eye not tracking with my right eye), he told me I’d probably had another stroke! This was December 23rd. He told me to get an MRI done the next week and see him the week after that. I tried to make an appointment to see him, and they gave me January 25th.

Now, I’d been laboring under the belief that the fact I was on Coumadin would keep me from having a second stroke. After this appointment, I had some days off because of Christmas. After Christmas, at work I noticed that now I was seeing double if I looked up and to the left. I called the neurologist’s office and they told me to go to the ER, but the ER didn’t find anything new wrong. I had more days off for New Year’s and felt awful but just wasn’t sure what the symptoms meant.

Then I read A Monster Calls for Heavy Medal blog’s shortlist. Can I just say this was really bad timing? When I originally had the stroke, I wasn’t very scared because I had no idea what was going on and I hadn’t read about all the bad things that can happen as the result of a stroke. It was a holiday weekend, I felt awful, and my neurologist’s office was closed. And I’m reading a book about the recently divorced mother of a teenage son dying. Is it so surprising that I freaked out? (Actually, after I thought about that connection, I decided to blame my freaking out directly on A Monster Calls, and then I felt much better.)

So, all this is to say: This book is outstanding. It’s atmospheric, powerful, well-written and hard-hitting. But be careful when you read it.

www.candlewick.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Drink, Slay, Love, by Sarah Beth Durst

Drink, Slay, Love

by Sarah Beth Durst

Margaret K. McElderry Books, New York, 2011. 386 pages.
Starred Review

I normally am not much of a fan of vampire books. In fact, I enjoyed the Twilight series because it didn’t read like a vampire book at all. I almost quit on this book after the first two chapters, but I like Sarah Beth Durst’s writing so much, I decided to persevere. I was glad I did!

In the world of Drink, Slay, Love vampires are not sparkly and nice. They have the traditional features of not having reflections, hating holy water, and combusting if they are exposed to sunlight. Pearl and her Family do hide from humans in their mansion with underground catacombs. But at night they go out and feed. It turns out that vampire venom causes wounds to heal quickly and also causes humans to forget. So they can prey on the same humans often, and no one is the wiser.

Pearl’s family has been selected to host an upcoming Fealty Ceremony for the King of New England, so they need to prepare a large feast. But soon after they get the news, Pearl gets stabbed by a unicorn.

Her Family doesn’t believe her. Of course unicorns don’t exist. They think some slayer came after her. But then Pearl discovers that now she can walk around in daylight. Her family is appalled, but they think of a way they can use this turn of events.

“‘You will solve a problem for us,’ Mother said. She began to smile too. This was more alarming than Daddy’s smile. Pearl wasn’t sure she had ever seen Mother’s face curve into a smile. It looked unnatural, as if the porcelain-doll face had cracked. Her eyes didn’t change. Only her lips curved.

“‘Oh?’ Pearl said. ‘Wonderful.’

“‘For the Fealty Ceremony, we need to supply enough humans for the king and his guards to quench their thirst. However, obtaining the dozen humans needed with our current hunting grounds is problematic at best and extremely risky at worst,’ Daddy said. ‘One or two at a time can always be managed, but that many at once . . .’

“Mother chimed in, ‘Our hope is that with this new development, new opportunities will present themselves.’

“‘You want me to find the king’s dinner in daylight?’ Pearl guessed.

“‘Precisely,’ Mother said.

“Daddy smiled. ‘We want you to attend high school.'”

However, Pearl is changing. Could she be developing a conscience? And she’s actually beginning to make friends. Can she really give them up for the king’s feast? But if she doesn’t, her Family will kill her.

I ended up enjoying this book very much indeed. I did laugh when an element came up that I’ve found in Sarah Beth Durst’s other books, Ice and Enchanted Ivy. It’s an element I really enjoy, though. This time there’s a rather major plot point involved, so I won’t give it away. People who are up on unicorn terminology (for example those who have read Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant) may suspect, but they’ll still enjoy it when all is revealed.

Sarah Beth Durst knows how to write fun books. Enchanted Ivy was good-hearted fun playing off the gargoyles of Princeton. This book has good-hearted fun playing off all the traditional vampire (and unicorn) tropes. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though it was a vampire story.

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Source: This review is based on a book sent to me by the publisher.

Review of The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star

Shades of London
Book One

by Maureen Johnson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011. 372 pages.
Starred Review

On the same day that Rory Deveaux from Benouville, Louisiana, arrives in London for a year of boarding school, someone decides to imitate the murders of Jack the Ripper. The murders are gruesome and horrible, and keep arriving on schedule, with Rory’s school in the middle of Ripper territory. But the worst part about these new murders is that the victims can be seen on the closed circuit TV cameras posted all over London. But the person murdering them cannot be seen.

Then Rory begins seeing people that her friends don’t see. And on the night of one of the murders, one man in particular talks to her, but her roommate Jazza doesn’t even see him. He knows who she is and where she lives.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because it’s all played out beautifully, with plenty of growing suspense as we begin to figure out, along with Rory, what is going on.

It all leads into a frightening and dangerous confrontation at the end, with a nice twist that assures us there will be more books about Rory. (Though the story in this book is complete, thank goodness! None of that awful “To Be Continued” stuff here.)

Now, call me sheltered, but I had no idea how gruesome Jack the Ripper’s murders were. I thought he just slit people’s throats or something. Using those details definitely raises the stakes in this novel. We want to see the murderer brought to justice, and we don’t want to see Rory fall into his clutches.

The non-paranormal part of the story is entertaining on its own with an American girl trying to fit in at an English boarding school. I fully sympathized with Rory’s horror at field hockey every single day.

I enjoyed the passage where she explains what she learned in the first week:

“Some other facts I picked up:

“Welsh is an actual, currently used language and our next-door neighbors Angela and Gaenor spoke it. It sounds like Wizard.

“Baked beans are very popular in England. For breakfast. On toast. On baked potatoes. They can’t get enough.

“‘American History’ is not a subject everywhere.

“England and Britain and the United Kingdom are not the same thing. England is the country. Britain is the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales. The United Kingdom is the formal designation of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as a political entity. If you mess this up, you will be corrected. Repeatedly.

“The English will play hockey in any weather. Thunder, lightning, plague of locusts . . . nothing can stop the hockey. Do not fight the hockey, for the hockey will win.

“Jack the Ripper struck for the second time very early on September 8, 1888.”

This is a well-written novel of suspense, but with lots of fun mixed in. I’m an avid follower of Maureen Johnson on Twitter, where she’s the funniest person ever, so I wasn’t at all surprised to love Rory’s voice. I am not a person who deliberately chooses to read scary books. Yet I thought this scary book was wonderful, and a whole lot of fun. I’m looking forward to future books.

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Source: This review is based on a book I ordered from Books of Wonder, signed by the author.

Review of The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races

by Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, New York, 2011. 409 pages.
Starred Review

I wasn’t sure I would like this book when I read the cover flap, but ended up completely entranced. All my childhood love of The Black Stallion books was aroused. I started it on the way to KidLitCon, and was awfully annoyed when the plane landed and I had to stop. The second night (when I didn’t have a roommate), I kept reading until I finished, because sleep could wait!

Now, I haven’t read any of Maggie Stiefvater’s other books. I’ve pretty much had my fill of werewolf or vampire books, so I didn’t even try them. But this one is about horses — bloodthirsty water horses.

I thought the author had invented a completely new creature, but I learned in the afterword that there is a strong tradition of Manx and Irish and Scottish dangerous water horses. Of course, Maggie Stiefvater took the idea and made it her own. This is no fairy tale retelling, but an intriguing story with mythic elements.

The book begins with a Prologue set nine years earlier. The heading says we’re hearing from Sean, who we soon learn is 9 years old. Here’s how it begins:

“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

“Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

“They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.”

As Sean watches his father mount the red stallion, he hopes the capall will remember what Sean whispered in his ear: Do not eat my father.

“I am watching the race from the cliffs when a gray uisce horse seizes my father by his arm and then his chest.

“For one moment, the waves do not attack the shore and the gulls above us do not flap and the gritty air in my lungs doesn’t escape.

“Then the gray water horse tears my father from his uneasy place on the back of the red stallion.

“The gray cannot keep its ragged grip on my father’s chest, and so my father falls to the sand, already ruined before the hooves get to him. He was in second place, so it takes a long minute before the rest of the horses have passed over the top of his body and I can see it again. By then, he is a long, black and scarlet smear half-submerged in the frothy tide. The red stallion circles, halfway to a hungry creature of the sea, but he does as I asked: He does not eat the thing that was my father. Instead, the stallion climbs back into the water. Nothing is as red as the sea that day.”

Then the book begins, nine years later, from the perspective of our other protagonist, Kate “Puck” Connelly. Her parents were also killed by water horses, but not because they were racing. Last Fall, they were simply going for a ride in their boat offshore the island, when a water horse attacked and killed them. Now Puck’s older brother, Gabe, goes to work at the Hotel, and Puck keeps things going at home for him and their younger brother, Finn.

Puck and Finn are going into town along the beach with Puck’s beloved ordinary horse Dove when they see the first water horse of the year come onto the land.

“Finn flinches as the horse gallops down the beach toward us, and I lay a hand on his elbow, though my own heart is thumping in my ears.

“‘Don’t move,’ I whisper. ‘Don’t-move-don’t-move-don’t-move.’

“I cling to what we’ve been told over and over — that the water horses love a moving target; they love the chase. I make a list of reasons it won’t attack us: We’re motionless, we’re not near the water, we’re next to the Morris, and the water horses despise iron.

“Sure enough, the water horse gallops past us without pause. I can see Finn swallowing, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny neck, and it’s so true, it’s so hard not to flinch until it’s leapt back into the ocean once more.

“They’re here again.

“This is what happens every fall. My parents didn’t follow the races, but I know the shape of the story nonetheless. The closer it gets to November, the more horses the sea spits out. Those islanders who mean to race in future Scorpio Races will often go out in great hunting parties to capture the fresh capaill uisce, which is always dangerous, since the horses are hungry and still sea-mad. And once the new horses emerge, it’s a signal to those who are racing in the current year’s races to begin training the horses they caught the years before — horses that have been comparatively docile until the smell of the fall sea begins to call to the magic inside them.

“During the month of October, until the first of November, the island becomes a map of safe areas and unsafe areas, because unless you’re one of the riders, you don’t want to be around when a capall uisce goes crazy. Our parents tried hard to shield us from the realities of the uisce horses, but it was impossible to avoid it. Friends would miss school because an uisce horse had killed their dog overnight. Dad would have to drive around a ruined carcass on the way to Skarmouth, evidence of where a water horse and a land horse had gotten into a fight. The bells at St. Columba’s would ring midday for the funeral of a fisherman caught unawares on the shore.

“Finn and I don’t need to be told how dangerous the horses are. We know. We know it every day.”

Then the narration alternates back to Sean Kendrick. He’s nineteen now, and he knows the water horses better than anyone else on the island. He has won the Scorpio Races the last four years, riding on Coll, the red stallion his father rode the day he died. But Sean isn’t racing on his own name. He works for Mr. Malvern, the richest man on the island. He wants nothing so much as to own Coll for himself, but Malvern isn’t selling.

Then Puck’s brother Gabe tells her he’s leaving the island to find work. Puck will do anything to keep him here, for any length of time, so she decides to enter the race this year.

But the island men don’t want a woman in the races. They say it’s bad luck, that she doesn’t belong. But Puck has to win. That’s the only way she can save their home, on which Malvern says he’s going to foreclose.

To add to Sean’s difficulties, Malvern’s son Mutt is jealous. Sean has always told Malvern which horse is the safest, so Mutt can ride that one. But now Mutt wants to win, even if it takes riding a horse that’s more than he can handle.

We quickly get drawn into these characters’ lives. They both love the island and the island’s traditions. They both love their horses. And they both really need to win.

Meanwhile, there’s a long tradition of how the training is done in the weeks leading up to the race, and Maggie Stiefvater has the reader mesmerized as Puck and Sean go through those weeks, Puck facing the hostility of the whole town, and Sean facing Mutt Malvern’s hatred and Malvern’s refusal to let him buy Coll. Along the way, they both are in life-or-death danger over and over again.

This book is brilliant. As I said, all my horse-book-loving little girl passions were aroused! But it had more than that. These horses were faster and far more deadly than ordinary horses, so the stakes were much higher. The author also worked in a realistic scenario of a small island totally dependent on the tourism surrounding its annual race, with young people leaving the island for the mainland. Like The Black Stallion, we’ve got a young man who is the only one who can ride a wild stallion, and maybe the horse loves him back, though wild with everyone else. And we’ve got a girl willing to risk everything to stay on the island she loves. No surprise, there’s romance between Sean and Puck, and it’s beautifully, delicately done. As the end approaches, we definitely want both of them to win the race, with so much at stake.

The one little thing I wasn’t crazy about was the character of Mutt Malvern. In general, I don’t like books to have a stereotypical bully. But Maggie Stiefvater made the situation seem quite realistic and we could pretty easily believe Mutt would act the way he did. She did keep him just the right side of stereotypical. And the interaction between Mutt and Sean definitely ratcheted up the tension.

Yes, I confess, even though I never had a horse, I was a stereotypical horse-loving little girl through books. And this book was like those childhood reads, only more so. I have a feeling I will be rereading this book many times. It is that good.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.