Review: The Babysitters Coven

The Babysitters Coven
By Kate Williams
Published September 17, 2019 by Delacorte Press

Publisher’s Summary:
Adventures in Babysitting meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this funny, action-packed novel about a coven of witchy babysitters who realize their calling to protect the innocent and save the world from an onslaught of evil.

Seventeen-year-old Esme Pearl has a babysitters club. She knows it’s kinda lame, but what else is she supposed to do? Get a job? Gross. Besides, Esme likes babysitting, and she’s good at it.

And lately Esme needs all the cash she can get, because it seems like destruction follows her wherever she goes. Let’s just say she owes some people a new tree.

Enter Cassandra Heaven. She’s Instagram-model hot, dresses like she found her clothes in a dumpster, and has a rebellious streak as gnarly as the cafeteria food. So why is Cassandra willing to do anything, even take on a potty-training two-year-old, to join Esme’s babysitters club?

The answer lies in a mysterious note Cassandra’s mother left her: “Find the babysitters. Love, Mom.”

Turns out, Esme and Cassandra have more in common than they think, and they’re about to discover what being a babysitter really means: a heroic lineage of superpowers, magic rituals, and saving the innocent from seriously terrifying evil. And all before the parents get home.

The Babysitters Coven is so much fun. It’s got a definite Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel to it (and one of the characters actually references the similarity of their situation to Buffy).

Esme is a typical teen just trying to get through high school. She’s neither popular nor unpopular, and she and her best friend stay mostly under the radar, spending their spare time The Babysitters Covenbabysitting. When new girl at school Cassandra wants to join their babysitters club, Esme is a little surprised. When she figures that Cassandra has no experience with kids and is a totally incompetent babysitter, she’s really confused. But Esme is also confused by weird stuff that’s happening around her, stuff that she seems to be making happen. And Cassandra apparently has the same problem.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s funny, fast-paced, and very self-aware (it’s got a very Buffy vibe, and that’s actually acknowledged in the book). Esme is a great character. She’s a typical teen dealing with some very atypical stuff. Cassandra is much more of a loose cannon (the Faith to Esme’s Buffy), but she was orphaned as a young child and grew up in the foster care system, so she hasn’t had the stable parental influence that Esme has from her dad (but not her mother, who has been institutionalized since Esme was a small child). I thought the contrast between the two characters worked really well.

This is the start of a series, and I’m interested to see where things go.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

 

Review: The Bone Houses

The Bone Houses
By Emily Lloyd-Jones
Published September 24, 2019 by Little, Brown

Publisher’s summary:
Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family, and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.

The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?

Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them deep into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the long-hidden truths about themselves.

 

The Bone Houses is a gripping YA fantasy that meshes zombies and Welsh legends into a satisfying story.

Ryn is a orphaned gravedigger struggling to keep her family afloat. Ellis is a mapmaker with a mysterious past. When he comes to Ryn’s village to make a map, she agrees to take Bone Househim into the forest. But reanimated corpses, known as Bone Houses (the Z word is never used), are coming out of the forest and attacking the village, so their journey into the forest is fraught with problems.

I really enjoyed this book. Putting zombies into a fantasy setting influenced by Welsh mythology is a great concept, and it works really well. The Bone Houses are terrifying because no one knows why they’re coming back. There have always been rumors that the dead can come back, but now the village is overrun with them.

Ryn and Ellis form an alliance that’s uneasy at first. She needs his money, so she takes him into the forest, but she has her own reasons for undertaking the dangerous journey. Both characters have secrets, and their trip into the forest forces them to confront some hard truths.

In this pairing, Ryn is the muscle. Although she’s only a teenager, she’s been taking care of her family for years and she’s tough as nails. Ellis suffers from chronic pain from an old injury, and physically, the quest is difficult for him. The two have to work together the survive, and their growing bond is very appealing.

This book will appeal to horror, zombie, and mythology fans. It’s a bit of a fairy story, but with zombies, and I loved it.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.

Review: The Liar’s Daughter

The Liar’s Daughter
By Megan Cooley Peterson
Published September 10, 2019 by Holiday House

Publisher’s tagline:
Piper was raised in a cult.
She just doesn’t know it.

I’m fascinated by stories about cults. How people get into them, what happens when they get out of them. Why people join them in the first place. The Liar’s Daughter is the story Liar's Daughterof a teen girl named Piper who escapes a cult. The twist here is that she didn’t want to leave.

The story is told in alternating “Before” and “After.” We know that Piper is no longer in the cult, but how she got out and what’s really going on aren’t fully apparent until well into the story. In the Before chapters, we see Piper living in a house in the woods with her brothers and sisters. They’re visited occasionally by their Father and Mother, the cult leader and his wife. It’s a weird, isolate life. The cult is your typical doomsday cult: the end is coming, the world outside is full of poison, women belong in the home, and the government is out to get us.

I found the Before Piper hard to take at first. She’s so naive and trusting, even in the face of so much bizarre cult nonsense. But her naivete makes sense in the context of the story (she’s grown up in the cult and doesn’t know any better), and it makes a good contrast to the Piper we see in the After chapters, who is paranoid and unmoored from her old life.

I really enjoyed this book. The Before and After structure of the story worked really well, and it ratcheted up the tension, as we see the buildup to Piper leaving the cult and how it happened. In a note at the end of the book, the author discusses her childhood in a cult-like religious group, and I feel like her experiences give this book an extra dose of reality.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.

 

Review: The Lady Rogue

The Lady Rogue
By Jenn Bennett
Published September 3, 2019 by Simon Pulse

The Last Magician meets A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue in this thrilling tale filled with magic and set in the mysterious Carpathian Mountains where a girl must hunt down Vlad the Impaler’s cursed ring in order to save her father.

Some legends never die…

Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler—more widely known as Dracula—and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Lady Rogue has all the charm of Jenn Bennett’s YA contemporaries mixed with an Indiana Jones-esque adventure plot and a little magic, set in 1937. It’s a really fun book. Lady rogueOur heroine Theodora Fox, daughter of famed archaelogist/treasure hunter Richard Fox, is stranded in Instanbul with no money. Then who should show up by Huck Gallagher, the boy who broke her heart a year earlier. She hasn’t heard from him since his abrupt departure the year before, but now he claims he’s here to take her to meet her father in Romania. Theo is skeptical, but when two men in black robes try to break into her hotel room, and she and Huck flee, barely making it on to the Orient Express.

It turns out that Theo’s father has been searching for a ring that may have belonged to Vlad the Impaler (or Vlad Dracula), the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Theo and Huck end up on an adventurous journey across the wilds of Romania, searching for her father and being chased by some sinister characters.

This book is really entertaining. Theo is a great heroine. She’s smart and she chafes at the restrictions place on her by society and her father. The “I can’t stand you but I also kind of love you romance” is well done, and Theo and Huck have great chemistry. The plot is fast moving, and it integrates history, adventure, and a little bit of magic. It’s also a fun travelogue of Romania (one of my bucket list vacation spots). It’s a perfect book for anyone who ever wanted to be Indiana Jones.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black
By Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, and Alexis Deacon
Published August 13, 2019 by Walker Books US

Publisher’s summary:
Harry Black is lost between the world of war and the land of myth in this illustrated novel that transports the tale of Orpheus to World War II-era London.

Brothers Marcus and Julian Sedgwick team up to pen this haunting tale of another pair of brothers, caught between life and death in World War II. Harry Black, a conscientious objector, artist, and firefighter battling the blazes of German bombing in London in 1944, wakes in the hospital to news that his soldier brother, Ellis, has been killed. In the delirium of his wounded state, Harry’s mind begins to blur the distinctions between the reality of war-torn London, the fiction of his unpublished sci-fi novel, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Driven by visions of Ellis still alive and a sense of poetic inevitability, Harry sets off on a search for his brother that will lead him deep into the city’s Underworld. With otherworldly paintings by Alexis Deacon depicting Harry’s surreal descent further into the depths of hell, this eerily beautiful blend of prose, verse, and illustration delves into love, loyalty, and the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood as it builds to a fierce indictment of mechanized warfare.

This lovely book is a sort of retelling of the legend of Orpheus set in London during World War II. Harry Black is a conscientious objector, and he’s doing his war service by Votagesputting out fires from the German bombs that fall on London every night. Because Harry isn’t fighting in the war, his father disowned him and his relationship with his brother Ellis is strained.

After a bombing raid, Harry is injured and hospitalized and his brother is apparently killed. In his concussed state, Harry is convinced that his brother is alive, so he escapes the hospital with a young girl named Anna in tow, and they begin a bizarre journey into the underworld of London.

The journey is weird and wonderful and moving. Orpheus himself is a character in the book commenting on the action. The story is told partly in verse. The book has beautiful and slightly creepy illustrations by Alexis Deacon, which add to the eerie feeling of the story. The fraught relationship between the brothers was very well done, and Harry’s journey is quite moving. I enjoyed never quite knowing what was going on; it’s sort of the way a head injury or a near-death experience might feel. London during the Blitz is evoked quite vividly. It’s sort of but not quite a retelling, and a passing familiarity with the myth of Orpheus may help the reader.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

House of Salt and Sorrows
By Erin A. Craig
Published August 6, 2019 by Delacorte Press

Publisher’s summary:
In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next.

I absolutely loved House of Salt and Sorrows! It’s a retelling of the fairytale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it’s much darker than the original tale and it’s quite unique.

On a remote island lives a Duke and his daughters. There were once 12 sisters, but four of them have died and the family is in perpetual mourning. Annaleigh is now the second House of Saltoldest, and she begins to suspect that the most recent death wasn’t an accident. Fairytale retellings can be tricky. The reader already knows the basic plot, so there has to be something new to pull you into the story. House of Salt and Sorrows takes a very original approach to the story. Having some of the sisters already dead at the beginning of the story makes this as much a mystery as a fantasy, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.

The world building is really well done. The sense of the island, the sea, the life they live is vivid and really comes alive. The island is beautiful and creepy and vividly described. The islanders worship the sea god Pontus, and the pantheon of deities worshiped by the other parts of the country were fascinating. Annaleigh is a great character, and her grief is handled very nicely. I love fairytale retellings when they’re well done, and this one is nearly perfect. Even knowing the basic story, I had no idea where the story was going, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the book stands on it own.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

Review: The Merciful Crow

The Merciful Crow
By Margaret Owen
Published July 30, 2019 by Henry Holt

Publisher’s Summary:
A future chieftain

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

In a world where her caste is the lowest of the low, teenager Fie has to learn to lead her band of crows in the face of danger, prejudice, and an elaborate plot involving an evil Merciful Crowqueen.

The Merciful Crow has really interesting world building. There is an elaborate caste system, and the Crow caste is at the bottom. They live on the road, going from town to town to dispose of (and sometimes mercy kill) those who have died of the plague. They’re stuck with this task because they’re the only caste who is immune to the disease. They’re in constant danger from the Oleanders, a group of bigots that wants to eliminate the Crows (which makes you wonder who would then take care of the plague dead, but I guess hate groups aren’t known for their rational thinking). Fie’s band of crows are called to the capital to dispose of two plague bodies, but they find instead a live prince and his bodyguard. In return for better treatment when the prince becomes king, the crows agree to get him away from the city and his wicked stepmother who wants him dead. Fie ends up on a long, dangerous journey journey with the prince (Jasimir) and the bodyguard (Tavin).

Where this book really worked for was the detailed and immersive world building. It felt very real. It’s also a really well done examination of a very hierarchical class structure and the sort of prejudices and issues that develop in such a rigid structure. I also enjoyed the relationships of Fie and the prince and the bodyguard as she develops a grudging alliance with one and an unexpected romance with the other. Where the book didn’t work for me was the pacing. After an exciting start, I found that things dragged in the middle, and there was a lot of repetitive sequences of the trio almost, but not quite, getting caught.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and I will be back for the sequel.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.