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wounded state, Harry’s mind begins to blur the distinctions between the reality of war-torn London, the fiction of his unpublished sci-fi novel, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.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.

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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.

 

Review: Good Girl, Bad Girl

Good Girl, Bad Girl
By Michael Robotham
Published July 23, 2019 by Scribner

Michael Robotham is a a prolific mystery writer, and I’ve been wanting to try one of his books. Good Girl, Bad Girl was my first Robotham, and it was quite good.

Good GirlPsychologist Cyrus Haven is assisting on two difficult cases. Teen figure skating champion Jodie Sheehan is murdered, and Cyrus is called in to help by an old friend. He’s also been asked to consult on whether a young women in a secure children’s home should be allowed to go free. Evie Cormack was discovered in a secret room in the home of a man who’d been tortured and murdered. She has no name and no past. She was so malnourished that determining her age wasn’t possible, and no one is sure if she’s 18 yet. Evie wants to be on her own, but the authorities think she’s a danger to herself and others. Cyrus, who has his own tragic past, finds Evie fascinating. She has the unique ability to tell when people are lying, something that most people find creepy, but Cyrus is interested in.

This was an engrossing mystery, and I stayed up too late at night reading because I couldn’t put it down. I did find that the mystery of Jodie’s death, although clever, wasn’t terribly original. It’s the story of a popular, pretty, girl-next-door type who has secrets, which has been done before. For me, it paled in comparison to Evie’s story, which is only just beginning to be explored. I get the feeling that this is a setup for a new series featuring Cyrus and Evie. The pairing of the troubled psychologist and the human lie detector is an interesting one. Cyrus’ past trauma makes him want to help Evie, and as unnerving as Evie can be, she’s also very much a scared child inside. More books with this pair sounds intriguing.

Trigger warning for mentions of rape, sexual abuse, and violence against children, attempted rape, descriptions of torture.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: Past Perfect Life

Past Perfect Life
By Elizabeth Eulberg
Published July 9, 2019 by Bloomsbury YA

Publisher’s summary:
Small-town Wisconsin high school senior Allison Smith loves her life the way it is-spending quality time with her widowed father and her tight-knit circle of friends, including best friend Marian and maybe-more-than-friends Neil. Sure she is stressed out about college applications . . . who wouldn’t be? In a few short months, everything’s going to change, big time.


But when Ally files her applications, they send up a red flag . . . because she’s not Allison Smith. And Ally’s-make that Amanda’s-ordinary life is suddenly blown apart. Was everything before a lie? Who will she be after? And what will she do as now comes crashing down around her?

I was interested in Past Perfect Life because I’m fascinated by stories about lost and then found family members (twins separated at birth, babies switched at birth, long-lost relatives finding each other through DNA testing, kidnapped people being found years Past perfectlater).

Ally has been raised by her father and believes that her mother is dead. When she applies to college, her application is rejected because of an issue with her social security number. Then the police show up at her house, telling her that her father kidnapped her when she was three and her mother is alive. Her father is arrested, and Ally is forced to leave her life in Wisconsin behind and move in with her mother in Florida.

This is a nicely done story about the difficulties Ally faces when she’s reunited with her mother. Although she knows logically what her father did was wrong, he was the parent who raised her and she’s still loyal to him, something that seriously upsets her mother. Ally is angry that her entire life has been uprooted. She just wanted to finish out her senior year in the place she feels most at home. Her mother just wants to make up for all the lost years and has trouble accepting the fact that Ally is almost an adult.

I thought the drama between Ally and her mother was well done. The relationship with her father was kind of dropped, and I would have liked more of an examination of how a parent and child move forward after such a huge betrayal. Ally is initially angry at her father, but seems to move on pretty quickly, which was a little unsatisfying.

This book skews toward the younger end of YA readers, and it’s a quick read.

I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Review: The Need

The Need
By Helen Phillips
Published July 9, 2019 by Simon and Schuster

Publisher’s Synopsis:
When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. Anointed as one of the most exciting fiction writers working today, The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.

The first third of The Need was unbelievably gripping and visceral. I was intrigued and filled with dread as I read it. Molly is a paleobotanist excavating a pit that has fossil plants and some very odd artifacts, including a toy solder with a monkey tail, an Altoids The Needbox that doesn’t look quite right, and a Bible in which God is a woman. She’s caring for her two small children on her own while her husband is out of town. One night, as she’s getting the children ready for bed, she finds an intruder wearing a deer head mask in her living room.

This is such a great start to the book, but for me, the rest of the book didn’t quite live up to it. The reveal of who is under the mask is fascinating, but the momentum of the story slows down at that point and never really regains the gut-punch effect of the first 75 pages. That said, this was still a four-star book for me because it was really gripping and because it’s the most honest, realistic portrayal I’ve ever read of life with small children: the joy, the drudgery, the transcendence. This quote sort of sums it up:

There it was: the bliss, the halo, the guilt at her richness. The ecstasy of the ordinary. Two, alive. This freshly peeled piece of the universe nuzzling into her.

This book is beautifully written and perfectly evokes the state of caring for small children.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Spin the Dawn

Spin the Dawn
By Elizabeth Lim
Published July 9, 2019 by Alfred K. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:
Project Runway
meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Spin the Dawn is a really fun young adult fantasy. It’s a Chinese-inspired tale about a young woman who’s determined to find her own destiny. Maia wants to be a master tailor, but because she is a woman, she thinks her dream can’t come true. But when her ill father is called to the imperial court to compete to become the emperor’s tailor, Maia disguises herself as her younger brother and goes to compete in her father’s place.

It’s an impulsive decision, and although Maia is a very talented tailor, she’s not ready for the cutthroat competition. She ends up being forced to make dresses for the emperor’s bride-to-be from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars, which leads her on an epic journey.

I really enjoyed this book. It contains a number of familiar fairytale/fantasy/mythology tropes (a girl disguising herself as a boy, a princess inventing impossible tasks to fend off a suitor, an epic journey, forbidden love), but the author uses them in new ways. The plot never felt predictable, and it takes an interesting turn around the 40% mark.

Maia is a strong character. She finds a way to achieve her dream, and it’s entertaining to watch her try to compete to become the imperial tailor, as she realizes that talent alone may not be enough. I also thought Lady Sarnai, the emperor’s reluctant fiancee, was a fascinating character, and I would love to know more about her. I wasn’t as interested in the romance, but the trope of a young girl and a much older supernatural being isn’t my favorite. There’s going to be a sequel, and I’m very interested to see where the story goes.

I received an ARC from the publisher through Amazon Vine.