Friday, February 23, 2024

Shelf Awareness--The Invocations

YA Review: The Invocations

The Invocations by Krystal Sutherland (Nancy Paulsen Books, 400p., ages 12-up, 9780593532263)

The Invocations is a delightfully dark and haunting tale that follows three young women grappling with a supernatural witch-killer while trying to exorcise their own demons.

Emer's entire coven was murdered at their family home in Ireland when she was seven and, 10 years later, she's still "frantic and afraid that she [is] being hunted." She hides among college students at Oxford, where the Bodleian library has all the books on protolanguages, sigils, runes, and dead languages a witch could want, to write the perfect spell for vengeance. Seventeen-year-old Jude is struggling to survive with three demons inside her. Her father's billions can't save her, so Jude searches for a talented witch to fix her "rotting flesh" and "necrotic" soul. Gray-eyed, blonde Zara, also 17, is desperate to raise her murdered sister from the grave. Zara's thirst for knowledge about necromancy leads her to Jude, and to a murder victim with a missing patch of skin. Together, the girls find "cursewriter" Emer. The murder victim--a witch and former client of Emer's--is only the first in a series of magic-working victims with a connection to Emer. The teens band together in a desperate hunt for the impossible, "abomination" of a serial killer.

Krystal Sutherland (House of Hollow) skillfully delivers a bewitching tale of "curses and demons and tethers," one where young women are prey, and magic has gone dreadfully wrong. Her solidly crafted world features a riveting mystery that matches her ravishing prose. Themes of misogyny, power, and vengeance, plus a dash of queer romance, make this sometimes grotesque, always sublime novel a captivating read. --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

February Books of the Month

We’re going with three Books of the Month for February!

TADPOLES, by Matt James, is a gorgeous ramble of a picture book, wherein one boy touches on, among other things, two-headed frogs, ponds, clouds, rain, “neat old junk” that includes a rusty bike and a piano, swear words, love, and… tadpoles. James’s art is so stunning, I’m always willing to see where he takes me, and the unexpectedness of this particular journey is gently and surprisingly affecting. The boy’s dad has moved out of their home, but that’s not the focus—the focus is on the magic of the world and the time they spend together. Plus, there’s some non-fiction that includes frog spawn, froglets, and ephemeral ponds to enrich the whole thing.

In DIM SUM PALACE, by X. Fang, Liddy is too excited to fall asleep because tomorrow she and her family will go to Dim Sum Palace. When a delicious smell wafts into her bedroom, she follows it to an actual dim sum palace. There, she finds “baos, buns and bowls of congee! Dumplings, shumai and lots of sweet treats!” Liddy falls into a bowl of dumpling filling, and after some folding and pinching, Liddy meets—and avoids being eaten by—an empress, stays for delicious dim sum, then falls asleep “on a warm bun.” When she wakes, Liddy is hungry again and ready to go to the real Dim Sum Palace. Using graphite on paper and digital color, X. Fang’s blocky, stylized art is full of personality, as is Liddy herself. Shades of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, help DIM SUM PALACE to serve up a veritable feast for a reader’s imagination.

In GRAVITY IS BRINGING ME DOWN, by Wendell Van Draanen illustrated by Cornelia Li, all of Leda’s fumbling and stumbling, slipping and tripping, splattering, slopping, and tipping, are due to the fact that “gravity [is] in a bad mood. Again.” Alas, Zero-G isn’t an option. Ms. Jameer teaches Leda’s class some fun facts about gravity, then Mom takes Leda to a science discovery center. It’s only then that, finally, “Leda and gravity [seem] to have declared a truce.” Leda is able to hop and skip, dance, whirl, and leap, until gravity manages to “bring her down” safely into her bed. Van Draanen’s got a terrific premise here, and she manages to work the science into the plot smoothly enough to not feel forced. Cornelia Li’s analog and digital art is active, buoyant, and perfectly suited. It’s fun!


Monday, January 29, 2024

Shelf Awarenesss--Big Babies

PB Review: Big Babies

Big Babies by Patrick O'Brien (Charlesbridge, 32p., ages 3-7, 9781623543662)

Big Babies uses skillful artistic renderings and a whole lot of imagination to playfully explore what dinosaurs might have looked like before they became the fearsome, grown-up behemoths of prehistoric times.

Readers likely know that dinosaurs are the largest beasts to ever stomp the Earth, but--like all animals--these massive creatures began life much smaller. The Seismosaurus, or "earthquake lizard," was a "lumbering leaf-eater" who "could weigh as much as fifteen elephants." But, as shown on the book's first double-page spread amid tons of white space, the toddler Seismosaurus is only about twice as big as a toy backhoe. The adult "tyrant lizard king" Tyrannosaurus rex "was a top predator"; but as a fuzzy, green-feathered hatchling, it may have been "about the size of a goose." While most of the book focuses on briefly introducing these adorable youngsters and showing how they measure up, back matter includes additional useful information on the different kinds of dinos, plus a height chart comparing the babies to a four-year-old (human) child.

O'Brien cleverly pairs his succinct text and endearing digital illustrations of the young reptiles with modern objects (like a rubber ducky, donuts, and an inflatable kiddy pool) to augment his points about size. A variety of entertaining facial expressions and layered textures go a long way toward bringing these fearsome cuties to life. O'Brien offers enough dinosaur facts to satisfy, while cleverly using the tiny toddlers as an entry point. Because apparently even giant dinosaurs were once "pint-sized" kids, too! --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Shelf Awareness--Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem

PB Review: Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem: The Vision of Photographer Roy DeCarava

Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem: The Vision of Photographer Roy DeCarava by Gary Golio, illus. by E.B. Lewis (Calkins Creek, 48p., ages 7-10, 9781662680557)

Author Gary Golio and Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Ward-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis collaborate again (Dark Was the Night) for Everywhere Beauty Is Harlem, an artful picture book that is a loving snapshot of photographer Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), who saw Harlem in an "old crumpled soda can" and the spray of a fire hydrant; saw it mirrored in the eyes of the people "passing each other on the street."

Work is over, and "Roy's time is his own now." Equipped with a camera and a fresh roll of film, he takes to the streets of Harlem, dreaming of "all the treasures he'll find." SNAP! Roy captures the grin of a boy drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. SNAP! Roy admires the love he sees in the eyes of a boy looking at his mother. And SNAP! Roy photographs the hush of a young girl in a long white dress who stands in an empty lot. He knows to keep his eyes wide open, because "unexpected treasures are waiting to be seen, if you just take the time to look."

Golio has penned an elegant ode to a notable photographer, filling his narrative with sensory details and enriching it with quotations from Roy himself. Lewis's stunning watercolor art showcases the people and the neighborhood, offering a variety of perspectives to reflect the vision and work of DeCarava. Backmatter gives more details about the extraordinary man who worked many different jobs, but made use of "his free time... to record the beauty of what he saw around him." --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Shelf Awareness--Somewhere in the Deep

YA Review: Somewhere in the Deep

Somewhere in the Deep by Tanvi Berwah (Sourcebooks Fire, 384p., ages 13-up, 9781728247656)

In the gripping YA fantasy Somewhere in the Deep, impressive monster-fighter Krescent Dune agrees to guard an underground expedition from myriad "creatures of the dark" in exchange for having her debts cleared. Once the disaster-prone mission is complete, Kress will be free to leave the miserable "island of blood and storm" that passes for home.

Now that the Landers rule over Kar Atish and own the valuable zargunine mines, lower caste Renters are forced to toil below ground "for food, water, and clothes. Or die." But Kress's parents are Kinkillers, "miners who killed other miners," which makes her an outcast. Her only option for survival has been battling monsters in Badger's "playground of death" for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty audience. When she's offered a dangerous protection job deep within the mines, the pay is too good to refuse. But mission leader Beyorn is keeping secrets, and the appearance of a group of cave-dwelling Shadefolk challenges the group's understanding of their world. Amid spiraling tensions, injuries, and death, Kress must bring the company--and herself--to safety.

Tanvi Berwah (Monsters Born and Made) ratchets up the tension with every step the outmatched expedition takes underground. Kress battles "monsters and madness," childhood enemies, and her own complicated origins while striving to do her job. Though action-based, the dramatic novel also touches on oppression and colonization, along with matters of the heart, to produce a wonderfully readable, well-rounded survival novel that's a clash of misers, mining, gods, and apocalypse. --Lynn Becker, reviewer, blogger, and children's book author.

Monday, January 1, 2024

January's Book of the Month--Fire Flight: A Wildfire Escape

January’s Book of the Month is FIRE FLIGHT: A WILDFIRE ESCAPE, written by Cedar Pruitt and illustrated by Chiara Fedele.

A wildfire moves swiftly through a California forest, “crunching dry branches, bark, and heartwood,” and stranding one little owl. There is “nowhere to go, but the owl [can’t] stay.” It bursts out of the trees, spies “a fellow flier” (a fire-fighting helicopter), and soars “right through the helicopter’s open window!” The story generates plenty of suspense but, as the flames die down, so does the intensity, and readers will land, with “a beautiful glide,” back home amid the now-burnt branches of the forest.

Based on an actual event, Pruitt’s focused, poetic text brings the chaotic scene to life with terse sentences and plenty of onomatopoeia, including the “beat-beat-beat” of the owl’s wings, the “chop-chop-chop of a fire-fighting helicopter,” and the “drip-drip-drop of water quenching flames.” Pairing perfectly with the text are the vivid colors, dramatic angles, and close perspectives of Fedele’s art, which pull readers through smoke and flames, and right into the helicopter to experience the uneasy alliance between fellow fliers. An author’s note at the end adds context to this dynamic offering.

Having myself been forced to flee from a California wildfire (the Buckweed fire of 2017), this gripping story really hit home for me!


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

December's Book of the Month--Thank You, Moon

December’s Book of the Month is the lyrical, informative, beautifully-rendered THANK YOU, MOON, written by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Jessica Lanan.

I love books about the moon! I have two full shelves devoted to picture books which feature Earth’s magnificent nightlight. So when I heard about this book, I immediately knew I would seek it out.

From “guiding tiny turtles to the sea,” to “giving lions a chance to feed their families,” to its “ever-changing beauty, night after night,” THANK YOU, MOON pays tribute to some of the ways the moon’s illumination benefits us. Stewart’s text introduces species of wildlife who live and forage under the moon, and depend on it for safety, as well as basic science about the moon itself. Lanan’s stunning watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are steeped in nighttime blues as they dramatically portray the animals in their habitats—and always, the bright, white light of the moon.

Read it once for the beautiful, lyrical language and art, a love poem to our moon. Read it a second time for all the explanatory science embedded within the lines. And, finally, turn to the back matter for an even more complete picture of what’s being discussed. It’s a fine, multi-layered look at the wide-ranging effect our moon has on Earth and its inhabitants.