YA – Blood Countess

Popovic, Lana. Blood Countess. ABRAMS, 2020. 978-1-419-73886-9. $14.99. 304 p. Grades 8-12.

Anna Darvulia is the daughter of a cruel father and gentle midwife and healer. Her mother has taught her well, and although she’s only sixteen, when she’s summoned by Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Anna is able to save her son from death. Days later, the countess summons her again, this time to be one of her chambermaids. At first her father refuses the offer, but after his death, she accepts the position to help support her family. The Countess allows her into the household, but as a lowly scullery maid due to her belated acceptance of the position. Anna’s curiosity about the countess grows during her stay in the castle. According to the rumors, she’s wicked and cruel, but in Anna’s presence, she’s always shown mercy and kindness. Anna’s knowledge of healing herbs and medicines eventually land her as a chambermaid to the countess, and it doesn’t take long for the two to become close. As Elizabeth’s lover, Anna begins to enjoy a life of luxury, but although Elizabeth is kind to Anna, she’s terrible to others. Convinced that Elizabeth’s cruel behavior is a result of the abuse she receives from her husband, Anna tries to bring out her gentle side and shows her cruelty doesn’t have to be the answer. As Elizabeth’s behavior crosses into madness, Anna must decide whether to stay with the woman she thought she knew, or escape the castle before she becomes the next victim.

THOUGHTS:  Blood Countess, book one in the Lady Slayers series, is a fictional account of the real historical figure, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. After finishing the story, readers will most likely find themselves researching the facts and legends of this terrifying historical figure. Popovic spins a both sympathetic and horrific narrative for the countess, and readers will see Anna fall into a toxic relationship with someone that she believes loves her in return. Both Elizabeth and Anna are victims of the patriarchy of their world, and this shared circumstance is what ultimately brings them together. “For all the gold and silver of her coffers, in some ways the countess is just like me. A woman, with a man’s cruel hand around her wrist.” In the end, Anna is able to see Elizabeth for who she truly is, and ultimately makes the choice to do what is right. Readers looking for both thrill and romance will enjoy this dark and chilling tale, and it’s the perfect book to read during the month of October if promoting books that fall into the genre of horror or themes of Halloween.

Fantasy          Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA Fiction – Wolf Hour; Unearthly Things; Book of Dust (Bk. 1); Hell & High Water

Holmes, Sarah Lewis. The Wolf Hour. New York: Scholastic, 2017. 978-0-545-10797-6. 320 p. $16.99. Gr. 7 and up.

Sarah Lewis Holmes has written an interesting, if overly long, take on classic fairy tales.  Using the familiar tropes of the wicked witch, the haunted wood, and the wayward child, Holmes spins the stories of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood on their heads.  The story is told from three perspectives: Magia, the daughter of a woodcutter; the Pigs – Biggest, Little, and Littlest; and Martin, a wolf. Magia’s dream is to follow in her father’s footsteps and chop the special wood from the trees in the Puszka, the dark forest that borders her home.  Magia’s mother has other plans for her though; she wants Magia to use her prodigious singing talents to make a name for herself in the city.  While Magia is happy that her singing soothes her mother’s pregnancy pains, she does not want to make a career out of it.  The Pigs’ dream is to get their mother back; they have been told by the witch that the only way to do so is to play out their story, over and over again: get chased by the wolf, take shelter in the house made of bricks, trick the wolf into climbing into the chimney where he falls to his death into a pot of boiling water. Martin’s dream is to stay safe in his tower of books and find the safety and love that he experienced before his mother was killed by a human.  Martin’s mother always warned him to stay away from stories, because they can suck you in, and you can lose yourself, and so Martin was raised on books of facts.  And then there’s the witch, the puppetmaster holding all of the strings.  Eventually, the characters all find themselves in the same story, and, for better or worse, need to figure out how to extract themselves in order to set things right.  THOUGHTS:  While the book definitely lags in the middle, and Holmes takes her time getting to the real meat of the story, her premise is clever, and the characters are well-drawn.  The love that each of these characters (other than the witch, perhaps) feels for their families is palpable and heartbreaking. Hand this book to lovers of fairy tales, and those who enjoy a slow-burning plot.

Fantasy        Lauren Friedman-Way, The Baldwin School

 

Gagnon, Michelle. Unearthly Things. Soho Teen, 2017. 978-1-61695-696-7 278p. $21.99.  Gr. 8 and up.

After Janie’s parents are killed in an accident, she is shipped off to a family in San Francisco, her dad’s best friend, supposedly. She is thrown into a world where buying an $800 dress seems to be the norm, while back home in Hawaii, that money could have paid a lot of bills. Janie is sent to a private school where everything seems foreign; she can’t even wear comfortable shoes to school. Things get pretty sinister and creepy as there seems to be a ghost in the house that is bothering Janie more than the other residents in the house. The motivations of her benefactors come into question.  Between that and the haunting, Janie does not feel safe anymore, but what can she do?   THOUGHTS: This is a fast-paced book that is more than a little sinister with plot twists galore. It is a retelling of Jane Eyre, that moves quickly. Students who have not read Jane Eyre would still enjoy this suspenseful tale.

Horror; Suspense      Toni Vahlsing, Abington Friends School

 

Pullman, Philip. The Book of Dust. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017. 978-0-37581-530-0. 464 p. $22.99. Gr. 7-12.

Fans of Pullman’s classic His Dark Materials series will be delighted to re-enter the world of Lyra Belacqua. Set several years before The Golden Compass, Dust focuses on Malcolm, a twelve year old boy working at his parents’ inn on the River Thames. In his spare time, Malcolm helps the nuns with odd jobs around the local priory and takes care of his precious boat, La Belle Sauvage. The quiet of his little town is disrupted when the nuns take in orphaned baby Lyra, and Malcolm and his daemon Asta begin to pay special attention when curious visitors begin to frequent the inn. One of those visitors is Hannah, who befriends and exchanges information with Malcolm, and works to decipher the mysterious alethiometer device. Another guest is one less kindly; a strange man and his disfigured hyena daemon, who Malcolm believes is trying to kidnap Lyra. When a terrible storm begins to flood the town, Malcolm must set out on La Belle Sauvage to protect Lyra at any cost. THOUGHTS: A rich, absorbing fantasy set in the familiar, parallel world crafted by Pullman so many years ago. This exhilarating read is the beginning of another trilogy.

Fantasy     Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School

 

Pullman, Philip. La Belle Sauvage. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 9780375815300. 449 pp. $22.99. Gr. 8 and up.  

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has always been a favorite of mine and countless other fantasy fans. The long wait since the publication of The Amber Spyglass is rewarded with the first novel in Pullman’s new companion trilogy, The Book of Dust.  La Belle Sauvage is a welcome return to the fantastical, alternate world of England in the early 20th century.

This story follows 11-year old Malcolm Polstead, a charming and observant boy who works in his family’s inn near Oxford. By chance he finds a clue meant for a Resistance spy, who is working against the totalitarian Magisterium. The clue leads him to a friendship with Dr. Hannah Relf, a master of the alethiometer and the spy’s local contact in Oxford.  Intrigue builds as many characters come to town in search of information about a mysterious baby who has been left under the care and protection of nuns in the village. Malcolm and a local servant girl, Alice, become the protectors of baby Lyra as she comes under threat from agents of the Magesterium and a flood of biblical proportions. The three children and their daemons take refuge in Malcolm’s trusty boat, La Belle Sauvage, in search of Lyra’s father Lord Asriel.  THOUGHTS: Readers will be more than satisfied with this captivating adventure tale with terrific and complex new characters, an intriguing plot and the promise of more adventures to come. One of my favorite books of 2017.

Fantasy      Nancy Summers, Abington School District

 

Landman, Tanya. Hell and High Water. Candlewick Press, 2017. 978-07636-88752.  $17.99 312 pp. Gr. 7-12.

Caleb Chappell and his father make a living as traveling performers of Punch and Judy shows in 1752 England.  Caleb admires his father Joseph, who has creative, technical and moral understanding, so it is a blow when his father is wrongly imprisoned.  Rather than death, Joseph is sentenced to be sent to the colonies.  For Caleb, it feels like death.  But his father tells him to find his aunt (unknown to him) who will care for him, and he will find him again, “come hell or high water.”  His aunt and cousin Letty accept him, unlike the rest of the town who suspects him of everything due to his skin color.  Survival in their small town of Tawpuddle is dependent upon dangerous sailing trips and the wishes of nobleman Sir Robert Fairbrother.  Then Caleb is shocked to find his dead father’s body washed ashore, identifiable only by his ring.  But while Caleb summons help, the ring is stolen and the man buried, meant to be forgotten.  But much, much more is amiss, and Caleb’s determination to prove the man was his father leads him to unearth a landslide of secrets and power in this small seaside town.  THOUGHTS: A well-crafted and twisty tale with the right amount of suspense, atmosphere and characterization (even the puppets) to intrigue readers. With a focus on unmasking racism, sexism and the power of class structure to determine one’s fate, this is not to be overlooked.  

Historical, Mystery      Melissa Scott, Shenango Area School District

Upper Elem/MS FIC – Smarty Marty; Invisible Emmie; The Night Garden; The Losers Club

Gutierrez, Amy. Smarty Marty Steps up Her Game. Cameron Kids, 2017. 978-1944903084. $13.95. Gr. 2-4.

Marty, who loves baseball, is the score-keeper for her younger brother’s little-league team. Having taught him all she knows (which is more than most grown-ups) about her favorite sport, Marty is there to cheer him on! At one game the announcer doesn’t show up, and Marty has the chance to make her announcing dream come true. Some people don’t like the fact that a girl is announcing the game.  What will Marty do?  THOUGHTS: This book is written by The San Francisco Giants in-game reporter Amy Gutierrez. The author knows what she’s talking about both in terms of baseball lingo, and what it’s like to be a woman expert in a male-dominated sport.

Sports              Emily Woodward, The Baldwin School

 

Libenson, Terri. Invisible Emmie. Harper Collins, 2017. 978-0-06-248494-9. 185 p. $22.99. Gr. 4-8.

Thirteen-year-old Emmie used to be quite the chatterbox, but lately she’s been pretty quiet. The only person Emmie feels she can talk to is her best friend, Brianna. But since middle school started, Emmie and Brianna aren’t in many of the same classes, so Emmie just keeps to herself, spending as much time as she can drawing in her journal. Emmie wishes she could pluck up the courage to talk more, especially to her crush, Tyler Ross. One day Emmie and Brianna are joking around and writing love poems to their crushes, and in a rush to get to next period, Emmie drops hers on the ground. The poem is picked up by the class bully/clown, and soon everyone in school knows that Emmie wrote a love poem about Tyler! To make matters worse, Brianna is frustrated that Emmie would be so careless with their top-secret notes. Emmie begins to feel like a puddle of slime, and finds that the only way to move forward is to speak up for herself. THOUGHTS: Invisible Emmie is a cute and funny story that upper elementary and lower middle school grades will enjoy. Libenson mixes images and text in a unique novel that will appeal to graphic novel fans, but delight parents or teachers who are looking for more text heavy titles.

Realistic Fiction    Vicki Schwoebel, Friends’ Central School

 

Horvath, Polly. The Night Garden. Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2017. 978-0-374-30452-2. $16.99. 292 pp. Gr. 3-6.

Franny is a twelve-year-old aspiring writer who lives with her two independent, adopted parents. Life is in balance on their large shorefront property filled with many old gardens, even though WWII is at their doorstep. However, that balance is disturbed when Crying Alice drops off her three kids and leaves to stop Fixing Bob from making a huge mistake. Soon, each character is facing some dilemmas, and the unusual option to have a wish come true through the magical powers of the night garden.  THOUGHTS: Horvath will have young readers laughing and delighted while moved and wondering the true question, “What is a wish worth?”

Historical Fantasy     Dustin Brackbill, State College Area SD

 

Clements, Andrew.  The Losers Club. Random House, 2017. 978-0-399-55755-2. $16.99.  230 p. Gr. 4-7.

Alec loves to read. All the time. Even during class, when he should be paying attention to the teacher. So when the principal threatens Alec with summer school if he doesn’t stop reading during class, he is in a panic. Suddenly, having to attend the after-school program seems like a boon: three hours of uninterrupted reading time. Only, Alec learns he is required to join an established activity, like the programming club or, worse, kickball, dominated by his arch-nemesis, Kent.  Undaunted, Alec petitions to form his own club, the perfect front to sit by himself and read. When he convinces a fellow bookworm to sign on, the Losers Club is formed – the name designed to keep others from joining. However, students slowly migrate to the club, kindred spirits who would rather read than be bullied by Kent. But now Alec finds he spends more time managing the club than reading!  THOUGHTS:  Another delightful Clements offering, an ode to books and reading. Bibliophiles will enjoy finding all the titles mentioned in the book, and many quiet students are sure to identify with Alec.

Realistic Fiction     Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD