YA Recommendations Roundup: Summer/Fall 2015

I’m going to start recommending my favorite 2016 books next week, so I thought I’d post a roundup of what I’ve recommended at Coven Book Club since June (when I posted my Winter/Spring 2015 roundup post.)

21569527If you haven’t read the first book in Mary E. Pearson’s trilogy, The Kiss of Deception, do so ASAP and you’ll likely be devouring The Heart of Betrayal just a few days later. This series is addictive, and this second book in the trilogy did not suffer from a sophomore slump and is equally good, if not better, than the first book. I want the third book so badly. GIMME NOW.

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In Lair of Dreams, the Diviners must catch a serial killer who is causing a deadly sleeping sickness. After Evie’s frightening showdown with the serial killer that took place in Libba Bray’s The Diviners (2012), she’s become a celebrity Diviner. The world now knows her special talent: she can “read” objects and discern people’s pasts (and their secrets). But despite fame and fortune, her troubles aren’t over. (Read Allison’s recommendation of The Diviners audiobook here.)

23346358The Accident Season, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, is literary horror at its best: magical realism and eloquent, imaginative prose amplify the horror narratives and play to our most primal fears. Seventeen-year-old Cara’s family is cursed. Every October (The Accident Season), Cara, her mother, her sister Alice, and her step-brother Sam find that no matter how many precautions they take, “[b]ones break, skin tears, bruises bloom,” and sometimes family members (her father and uncle) die. (Read my full recommendation here and Allison’s recommendation here.)

19364719Slasher Girls & Monster Boys, edited by April Genevieve Tucholke: I loved this anthology of scary stories by many of my favorite YA authors (Nova Ren Suma, Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, and more). This collection pays homage to classic horror films and literature, urban legends, fairy tales, and myths; yet these stories are original and disturbing in their own right. (Read my full recommendation here.)


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What I like most about Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives–pitched as “Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games meets Little Women” —is its strong heroine, Jes, who fights for freedom and justice in a very classist, racist, and sexist society that resembles Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. As the daughters of a Patron father and a Commoner mother who are forbidden from marrying, Jes and her three sisters struggle to fit in with the Imperial Patrons. Jes, especially, doesn’t want to obey the rules and she secretly trains for an elite athletic competition, The Fives. When her family is torn asunder, winning fame and fortune through The Fives becomes of the utmost importance….Even if she is falling in love with a competitor?

23569428Eleanor Herman’s Legacy of Kings (Blood of Gods and Royals #1) reimagines the early years of the reign of Alexander the Great, Macedonia’s sixteen-year-old heir, through multiple POV characters. Tangled up in Alexander’s web are Katerina, who’s determined to kill Alexander’s mother; Katerina’s lover, Jacob; and Alexander’s betrothed Persian princess, Zofia.  

17564519Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in the Gold Seer trilogy, offers a fresh perspective on the Gold Rush narrative. Fifteen-year-old Leah is a brave, resourceful heroine who, masquerading as a boy, runs away to California after a terrible tragedy compromises her freedom. (Read my full recommendation here.)

23719270Like Walk on Earth a Stranger, Erin Bowman’s Vengeance Road  features a tough, gender-bending heroine; this time, in Gold Rush Arizona (1877). Like Leah, eighteen-year-old Kate (a Mexican-American) disguises herself as a boy (Nate) and heads further west, after a tragedy leaves her parentless. (Read my full recommendation here.)

11516221Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is set in a near-post-apocalyptic future. After environmental disasters and devastating wars almost wiped out humanity, an Artificial Intelligence, called Talis, achieves world domination and world peace by forcing all of its territories’ rulers to exchange hostages. A child from each territory (usually the ruler’s son or daughter) must be held hostage at one of Talis’s schools (called Preceptures), governed by A.I. agents, until he or she turns eighteen, to be harmed or even killed if his or her country incites conflict. (Read my full recommendation here.)

24397041Like The Scorpion Rules, Mercedes Lackey’s Hunter (Hunter #1) depicts a treacherous, post-disaster future. The barriers between our world and the Otherworld have opened (called the Diseray), mythical monsters roam the earth, destroying cities, and humanity’s survival depends on the Hunters, a group of magically-gifted, monster-fighting teens. (Read my full recommendation here.)

20734002I can see why Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers is being called “Night Circus meets Romeo and Juliet,” but it is not another Night Circus. This star-crossed romance between the daughter and son of two rival families of traveling performers (white-scaled “mermaids” vs. black-feathered tree-walkers) is inventive, magical, poetic, and multicultural. (Read my full recommendation here.)

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I effortlessly fell in love with Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything. Told through diary entries, instant messages, emails, vignettes, charts, illustrations, and more, Yoon’s debut is an imaginative, heartwarming love story about a girl and a boy whose relationship is doomed from the beginning, but that doesn’t stop them from being romantic, funny, hopeful, and adventurous. (Read my full recommendation here.)

22811807Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing is an alternative historical fantasy set in 1818, Geneva, that brilliantly reimagines Frankenstein with a steampunk twist. Alasdair Finch is a Shadow Boy, an illegal mechanic who supplies humans with clockwork parts. Two years ago, he secretly brought his brother back from the dead, but Oliver is more monster than man. (Read my recommendation here.)

24376529Mindy McGinnis’s A Madness So Discreet is not as gory as American Horror Story: Asylum, but it does paint a horrific picture of what it’s like for an innocent young woman to be trapped in Boston’s Wayburne Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. Grace has escaped one hell–an abusive father–for another–the asylum’s dark cellars, where she has no hope of surviving (at least with her brain intact). But she’s saved by a doctor who appreciates her genius and relocates her to an ethical asylum in Ohio. Together they try to catch a killer who preys on young women.

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The first book in a planned trilogy, Illuminae is co-authored by Amie Kaufman (The Starbound Trilogy) and Jay Kristoff (the Lotus War series). Its storyline goes something like this. It’s 2575 A.D. and two interstellar megacorporations are at war. When BeiTech discovers its competitor is running an illegal mining operation, called the Kerenza colony, on a small, isolated planet, it attacks with brutal force. (Read my recommendation here.)

23846013The Rose Society (The Young Elites #2) brings Adelina Amouteru’s villainy to a whole new level. For those of you who don’t know, this series is set in a fantasy world in which some of the malfettos (“marked” survivors of a deadly blood fever) have special powers and are called The Young Elites. As a malfetto, Adelina is vulnerable and victimized until she discovers she’s an Elite, gifted with powers of illusion that feed off of her fear and fury. Adelina is a perfect villain. Motivated by revenge and destruction, not compassion, love and heroism, she’d rather be everyone’s adversary than risk being anyone’s victim. (Read my full recommendation here.)

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Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf, the first book in a duology, reimagines what could have happened if the United States had stayed isolationist and the Axis Powers had won World War II. It’s 1956, and the Third Reich and Imperial Japan have conquered much of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Each spring, to celebrate their joint victory, they host the Axis Tour: a motorcycle race, in which ten Hitler Youth members and ten citizens of Greater East Asia ride from Berlin to Tokyo. The protagonist, Yael, wants desperately to win. The award? A dance with Hitler at the Victor’s Ball. A chance to kill him. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Alyssa recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction (and occasionally middle grade and adult). She thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and publishers for providing her with ARCs and DRCs for review purposes. Please follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.


Historical Fantasy: Virginia Boecker’s The Witch Hunter

Yay, this day has come at last! I’ve been waiting for six months to recommend Virginia Boecker‘s thrilling alternate history YA fantasy debut, The Witch Hunter, which will be published next month. I am always eager to read books about witches, and I was ecstatic when a digital review copy of The Witch Hunter became available on Edelweiss in late October. It’s a page-turner that I practically finished in one day (back in November) and read again a few days ago.

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The Witch Hunter has everything I look for in fantasy. Elizabeth Grey is a feisty and fierce heroine, who is also complex, conflicted and flawed. The plot is fast-paced, action-driven, addictive, and full of twists and turns. There’s high-stakes adventure and romance, mystery, dark magic, a deadly curse, unlikely alliances, betrayal, and sacrifice.

The Witch Hunter brilliantly reimagines an alternate 16h century England (Anglia) where magic is real and forbidden. The kingdom has always been divided by Reformists (magic supporters and practitioners) and Persecutors (magic opposers). Until recently, however, magic was not only permitted in Anglia but was also welcomed. Wanting Reformists and Persecutors to coexist peacefully, Anglia’s previous king (Malcolm’s father) appointed the most powerful wizard and leader of the Reformists, Nicholas Perevil, to his council. That was a big mistake. A magic-induced plague, which Perevil is accused of creating, killed half of Anglia’s population (including the king and Elizabeth’s parents). Wanting desperately to capture Perevil and put an end to sorcery, the Inquisitor, Lord Blackwell, formed the anti-magic laws that witch hunters enforce.

The Witch Hunter‘s first-person, present-tense narration immediately threw me into Elizabeth’s contentious world. The book opens with her standing at the edge of a crowded square on a burning day. She and her best friend Caleb watch four witches and three wizards burn at the stake, before embarking on their own risky witch hunt. She is the only female witch hunter in King Malcolm’s elite group, led by Blackwell, and one of the best at capturing magic-users. Witch hunters are branded with stigmas that protect them from injury, and she is a kick-ass heroine. Witch hunting is becoming more precarious, however. Reformist rebellions are on the rise, and to avoid being targeted, she and Caleb must hide their witch hunter identities and live at the king’s main residence, Ravenscourt, disguised as his servants. Also a terrible secret distracts her from doing her best witch hunting: she is at the mercy of King Malcolm, whose sexual advances she can not refuse.

The first plot turn happens quickly. When Elizabeth is caught with contraceptive herbs, she is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death…before being saved by her greatest enemies. What happens next? I’m not going to tell you. Preorder The Witch Hunter now and find out for yourself on June 2nd.

Alyssa Raymond reviews books for the Boulder Book Store (where she worked as a bookseller for ten years). She also blogs about new and upcoming MG and YA releases at Coven Book Club and its recently-launched sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publisher and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with a DRC of this book for review purposes; her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books on Twitter and Tumblr.


“We Love Lila!”: A Darker Shade of Magic

As it happens, Allison and Alyssa read V.E. Schwab’s new novel, A Darker Shade of Magic. Rather than have a “Lila-like” fight over who would recommend it, we’re joining forces to discuss it together.

A Darker Shade of Magic is Schwab’s second adult novel (she also writes for YA and MG audiences), which is important to note because the book can get, well, adult at times. Schwab spends a good portion of the beginning of the novel establishing the dynamic between four parallel Londons. In Red London magic exists harmoniously with the mundane.  Most readers will recognize Regency era Grey London, where magic has died out. White London is ruled by tyrannical siblings who savagely abuse magic. And Black London is a mystery; Schwab only lets us know that its citizens were destroyed by magic and that the doors in and out have been sealed. It’s to Schwab’s credit that she can make four distinct Londons come alive.

Schwab’s worldbuilding is sublime in this novel, but her characters make it a book we were both dying to recommend. The novel’s protagonist Kell is Red London’s royal emissary and one of the few magicians left in the world who can travel between the Londons. When he crosses paths with Grey London’s Lila Bard, a cross-dressing thief, the story really starts to get interesting.

Allison: I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I love Lila Bard on Twitter. What did you think about her?

Alyssa: I love Lila too! She’s stealthy, clever, witty, tough, independent, confident, and brave. Lila is an ideal heroine, but she’s not perfect (a good thing). She’s authentic and unique, but she also reminds me of other fictional “kick ass” heroines I’ve grown to love: Buffy, Celaena (Throne of Glass), and Katsa (Graceling). But Lila’s perhaps more lovable than those characters because she’s not an assassin or a slayer.

Allison: I totally agree. I think it’s her vulnerability that really gets me. She’s not Buffy, Caleana or Katsa in that she doesn’t have any “chosen one” special powers for most of the story (though I’m wondering if that’s going to change in subsequent books). All of her power comes from hard won experience on the streets.

I read a review where someone called her “unsympathetic at times” and I didn’t find that to be true at all. Maybe it’s because she’s so ruthless? I don’t know, I kind of loved that about her. To me, Lila is what every good pirate or thief should be: arrogant and smart-mouthed. I think when thieves and pirates are men and are those things we call them “dashing” — I’m willing to  say it: Lila is all kinds of dashing.

Some of the reviews I read talked about her “ambitiousness” in a slightly negative way. I feel like what lots of people are reacting to is that there’s some big gender role-reversal going on. I think you could switch Kell and Lila’s names around and the novel would fall into something most people would recognize as a typical fantasy adventure, albeit a progressive one. Kell isn’t weak, but he’s certainly more sensitive than Lila.

Alyssa: I agree with you. She is ruthless, but she’s had to be to survive — and to survive on her own. And I don’t think she’s an unsympathetic character either. I like that she’s not consumed with shame and self-doubt. She believes in herself and in her abilities to survive, and she’s strong-willed, unapologetic, and doesn’t feel sorry for herself. I think those are positive attributes in this case; especially considering how women are supposed to behave in this society.

I love this book’s gender role-reversal and that she subverts female stereotypes. She craves adventure above all else, and, you’re right, if she were a male character this would be a typical fantasy adventure. She gets into plenty of scrapes, but she’s never a “damsel in distress” and she often fights off her foes or comes to Kell’s rescue. She’s willing to fight or even kill anyone who threatens her or stands in her way, but she also develops more of a conscience as her friendship with Kell develops.

Allison: I could talk about Lila for hours, but I’m dying to know what you thought of Kell, since the story is ostensibly about him.

Alyssa: In some ways he is more stereotypically female, and he’s also had a cushier upbringing (even if he doesn’t always see it that way). One of my favorite parts in the book is when Lila gets annoyed at Kell for feeling sorry for himself. He views himself as the royal family’s prized possession, but Lila insists he is part of a family — and a royal one at that — which is more than Lila can imagine for herself.

Allison: Another thing to love about Lila, she’s not afraid to snap Kell back to reality! Even though Lila is certainly not as well traveled or educated as Kell, I feel like he’s the one that sometimes needs to have his worldview rearranged. Overall, I like Kell. I think Schwab is building something with him that will get more complex as time goes on.

Alyssa: Me too. Especially considering he smuggles forbidden magical objects, making him morally complex as well. It’s interesting how I feel about Kell. I like him too, but Lila is the more dashing character. I didn’t fall for Kell like I do some of the swoon-worthy male characters in books. Nor did I want him and Lila to necessarily develop a romance, and I enjoyed their adventurous friendship.

Allison: I know, right? I like their slightly chaste “kiss for luck” tradition. It feels friendly and not particularly sexy. Even if a romance develops later on, I love reading a story about men and women where they can be friends and partners, without being in love right away.

Allison Carr Waechter has never felt the urge to sail the high seas, but if she shoots you in the leg, it’ll be for a Lila-like reason. This week she’s stuck in mundane Grey St. Louis, watching the rain wash away the snow as she grades resumes and cover letters for her business writing course. If you want to help her procrastinate, hit her up on Twitter.

Alyssa Raymond is dreaming of faraway places as she awaits yet another snow storm. In the summer she would rather steal treasures that have washed ashore than sail amidst the many sea monsters that invade Marblehead Harbor. As soon as the snow banks melt, you’ll find her hanging out with the witches in Salem. Until then, she’s on Twitter.


New Literary Horror: The Walls Around Us, Bones & All, Bone Gap

For my February finale, I’d planned to follow up on my last post with a look at my favorite series of fairy tale retellings: Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles. But I just couldn’t wait any longer to recommend three March releases in a different genre—literary horror. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, and Camille DeAngelis’ Bones & All show how eloquent and imaginative prose can amplify horrific events and our most primal fears.

Like a classic horror movie, Bone Gap is set in a stereotypical Midwestern town, with cornfields that haunt the main protagonist, Finn. They talk to him and grow at an alarming rate, among spooky scarecrows and crows that threaten to pluck out his eyes and peck him to death. Like a chorus in a Greek play, the people of Bone Gap introduce Finn as a freak, calling him Spaceman, Sidetrack, and Moonface because he is distracted and avoids eye contact. Finn’s strange behavior is more understandable when he becomes a main narrator and the horror story develops. Two months ago, he was the only witness to the disappearance of Roza, his brother’s girlfriend. While the people of Bone Gap stop looking for her because they think she fled, Finn believes she was kidnapped and he must find her, but he can’t recall what her abductor looks like.

Roza’s narrative reveals that a man with eyes like ice has taken her because she is a beautiful woman who will love him. Her abduction seems mythical (think Persephone) and Bone Gap uses magical realism to emphasize its sinister nature. But while the captured woman is often powerless and voiceless in myths, Roza has agency and willpower. Bone Gap emphasizes the victimization of women that is typical of horror and empowers “the damsel in distress.”

Also told through alternate voices, The Walls Around Us is a creepy supernatural tale, combining prison drama and dance rivalry — “Orange is the New Black meets Black Swan” as some reviewers have called it. There’s Amber, imprisoned in a girls’ juvenile detention center, and Violet, a dancer haunted by her best friend Orianna’s imprisonment and death in that detention center. The book opens with Amber experiencing a phenomenal event: suddenly the prisoners are set free from their cells. But she is a ghost reliving what happened years ago, and they didn’t really escape.

In her first narrative, Violet is onstage during her last performance before achieving her dream of attending Julliard. But she feels broken: on stage, she loves people and they love her, but offstage she is haunted by dark memories and secrets. During intermission she visits the site where a crime took place three years earlier, leading to Orianna’s arrest. Enthralling prose and magical realism unite the stories of Amber, Violet, and Orianna, and explore complex issues of lies and truth, disadvantage and privilege, wrongdoing and justice, guilt and innocence, betrayal and friendship, vengeance and forgiveness.

Bones & All wrestles with similar issues, and it is not your typical horror story, nor is Maren Yearly your typical villain. Like most teenagers (and humans, for that matter) she wants to belong and feel normal, be loved and love herself; but a dark secret keeps her ashamed and alienated. In the opening scene, we learn that Maren devours people, starting with her babysitter when she was just a few years old. She tries to distance herself from everyone emotionally and physically, but if they do get close it’s not like she can’t not eat them. Then she and her mother have to move again…and again. While living with her secret is difficult, as long as she has her mom everything turns out okay; but she wakes up on her 16th birthday to discover her mom has abandoned her, leaving behind her birth certificate with her unknown father’s name. Hoping to find answers to her cannibalism, Maren’s search for her father turns into a much greater adventure.

From its poignant beginning to its unconventional ending, Bones & All will mess with you (in a good way). Horrifying and entertaining, loathsome and loving, cruel and forgiving, confining and adventurous, bizarre and normal: this novel will challenge your emotional footing, moral compass, and plot expectations. Normally heroism is about gaining justice by defeating “the monster”, but in this original and spectacular novel heroism is about Maren accepting and being loved for “the monster” she is. DeAngelis’ choice to narrate her novel from an antihero’s perspective, portraying Maren sympathetically and with integrity while she confronts the shame and loneliness of her crimes, challenges us to ponder many philosophical questions about what it means to be good versus evil, a villain rather than a hero, and guilty rather than innocent. When is killing someone or something considered a crime rather than a natural instinct or as necessary for survival? Maren will take your eyes and your heart, but I hope you enjoy being devoured by this deliciously dark novel as much as I did.

Alyssa Raymond loves to read, review and collect books–thanks to her many years as a bookseller. She can’t wait to share with you her favorite new and upcoming releases and thanks Edelweiss, NetGalley, the Boulder Book Store, and publishers for providing her with advance reading copies in exchange for her honest reviews.


February Favorites: Dr. Alessia Ricciardi

AfterLDVOver here at Lit Witches, we are big tent kinda gals. We cast a wide net through the ocean of readables, and each of us hauls in her preferred catch to share it with those of you who want to hang out in our big digital tent. (Tents, oceans, books, computers, mixed metaphors—we have it all over here!) And in that spirit, dear readers, I want you to drink deeply from a different part of the cauldron. It’s February favorites, and I’m beginning my month’s posting with my favorite literary studies/cultural studies book I have read thus far in 2015. I read a lot of those because I’m a total egghead.

This week, I am recommending Dr. Alessia Ricciardi’s After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi’s Italy, the winner of the 2013 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione prize for Italian Studies. This is a very challenging read, to be sure, but more than worthwhile for those interested in politics, literature, film, history, philosophy, Italian culture, and contemporary culture. Ricciardi’s brilliantly and painstakingly researched, bravely argued volume seeks to figure out just exactly what happened to mute and dilute Italy’s formerly active, powerful political left during “the long 1980s.” Why did the land of Antonio Gramsci, Neorealismo, Autonomia Operaia, and a critical public intellectual scene so quickly turn into the land of bunga-bunga, privately held monopolies, preoccupation with the material, and…wait for it… the European nation in which unfettered capitalism, American-style, not only took root but grew like it was on HGH and anabolic steroids?

This book collects and examines a significant portion of the answers. In contrast to much of the work covering the subject, as Ricciardi points out in her introduction, After La Dolce Vita concerns itself with how publicly acceptable Italian leftists collaborated, knowingly or not, in the dramatic shift in Italian intellectual and civic life.

Ricciardi structures After La Dolce Vita along the lines of some pernicious terms that wrap themselves in a deceptively pleasant and non-threatening guise. The philosophies and cultural products grown from “Sweetness,” Lightness,” “Weakness,” and “Softness,”—also the chapter titles—have not only made Italy into a consumable brand, but have also morphed into prevailing principles in leftist-light (pun intended) thought. One of the major strengths of Ricciardi’s volume lies in its total formal and intellectual depth balanced with a coherent and wide reach through the world of media, arts, and philosophy.

At the end of the introduction, Ricciardi writes, “Although the limits of critical analysis may be all too clear, it nevertheless seems to me possible to keep meaningful ideas alive while judging well the questions that demand a cogent response.” It is not the job of the critic to capitulate, but, as Dr. Ricciardi so eloquently states, to feed meaning and judge well.

Annie is a writer, teacher, proofreader, and shy megalomaniac. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico where she is currently dissertating about narrative images from medieval manuscripts to contemporary comics. She studies flamenco and puts paint on things, too. You can find her on twitter, and trade red chile or sugo recipes to her for getting you an audience with that shadow you keep seeing in the corner of your eye.