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Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

It was such a pleasure to read Rachel Hartman's Seraphina. The story is original and fresh and wonderful in light ofseraphina reading so much dystopia lately. Seraphina is half dragon, though she does not know this at first. She only knows that her mother died giving birth to her and that her father, a lawyer in the royal court, has always been fearful for her safety. At a young age, Seraphina discovered her gift of music and taught herself the flute against her father's wishes, and then began to study with a saar, a dragon in human form named Orma, who turned out to be her uncle.

Again, against her father’s wishes, Seraphina leaves her home to become the assistant to court musician, Viridiu, just in time to play for the funeral of Rufus, prince of Goredd who was killed by dragons. Phina becomes embroiled in these human-dragon struggles and in the hunt to find the killer in the meantime falling in love with the Captain of the Guard, Prince Lucian kiggs, fiancé to the new heir to the throne, Glisselda, Serafina’s one friend at court.

 The kingdom of Goredd has had a treaty with dragons for 40 years; dragons are known for their logic and analytical thinking, and do not grasp human emotion. They are thought not to understand music either, but Seraphina’s mother was a musician and Phina inherited her talent. There are those who wish to destroy the treaty and there are worries as the treaty’s anniversary approaches and the leader of the dragons, the Ardmagar , is expected to visit Goredd.

Hartman's background in music and knowledge of Renaissance music informs her writing. It is a complex story with numerous characters, dragon and human, and bears close attention, but the rewards are many.

Seraphina was a 2013 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Winner.

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Rosko

James Whitman is a "depressed, anxious kid."  He loves to recite the poet Walt Whitman, and to yawp Whitman in the morning, which irritates his dad, the Brute.  He's depressed about a lot of things, but mostly  because his sister was expelled from school and thrown out of the house and is barely making it as a waitress with no car or decent place to live and she can't even keep a phone.   

This could have been a real downer, but Roskos finds humor in the situation which he uses in just the right measure.  dr._Birds_adviceFor a year James has been seeing an imaginary therapist, Dr. Bird, a large, human sized pigeon.   "Pigeon's strike be as good listeners--they discern the voices of mates over the cacophony of the natural world.  They move the right way too.  A pigeon's head-tilts suggest the kids of things that I imagine therapists say: "Really?" or "How did that feel?" or "Tell me more."  Plus: one intense, glassy black-eye staring at me, the neck-bob of agreement, the puffing of feathers when I'm being evasive."

James has a real friend Derek, who maintains their long friendship with James and they help each other, despite Derek being a popular guy.  There's also Beth, a smart girl who heads the poetry journal.  James is attracted to her and almost gets run over by a bus trying to save a bird, all to try and impress her.

With the help of Dr. Bird, Derek, Beth, a real therapist and his sister Jorie, James works his way into dealing with his anxiety and gaining the ability to "Sing the Body Electric" and write his own ode of himself, "America! I Sing to the tiny part of you that I call home."

In case like me you're not really familiar with Walt Whitman and don't know where the word comes from,  he used it in Leaves of Grass,

                                            I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;    
                                            I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Plus, Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets has got to be one of the best covers ever.

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

midwinterbloodMidwinterblood is an overwhelming book in seven sections, starting in 2073 on Blessed Island where Eric Seven, a journalist, has gone to do research.  There he finds people who seem to live forever, where there are no children and where, though he seems to forget why he is there, he recognizes a woman, Merle.  The following six sections take us back through increasingly longer stretches of time, to the time of the vikings and further back with more and more apprehension to the days of sacrificial cults. In each section there is an Eric, a Merle and a Tor or semblances of these names. There is also the Little Blessed Dragon Orchid from which a tea is brewed that that has many properties, often there is a painting and there are hares.  All the stories are connected; there is love, deep love, but also sacrifice and death. An epilogue circles back to the first story. It's an amazing, evocative novel that left me with many questions and the need to reread it.  You can read Midwinterblood in one setting, and it may be even better that way, since you can keep hold of the many parts and how they intertwine.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

"The day before my father's arrest, I read an article about a mother who cured her daughter of the Spanish flu burying her in raw onions for three days."

So begins In the Shadow of Blackbirds. The reek of onions follows you and Winters fills this atmospheric story with the in_the_shadow_of_blackbirdscolors of bodies turning purple and black from the flu, the smells in hospitals and veterans' homes and the smell of people with onions around their necks and the sight of people with salt stuffed in their noses and wearing gauze masks.

It's October 14, 1918 when sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black takes the train from Portland to San Francisco to live with her aunt, after her father's been arrested for being a pacifist. Mary finds that her dear friend Stephen has enlisted and will soon be shipping off to France. Her Aunt Eva has been widowed at the young age of twenty-six by the influenza epidemic that is killing thousands and is working in the shipyards. Mary is free to explore on her own. One of my favorite parts is when she spends some time volunteering in a veteran's home passing out tea and reading and speaking to the suffering veterans.

Mary soon find herself amidst the world of spiritualism and spirit photography. Stephen's half brother Julius is a practitioner and a fraud and is always trying to get her to pose for him, particularly after Stephen has died.  Mary is a skeptic, and finds Julius most unsavory. Despite this, Stephen's spirit comes regularly to Mary and she needs to find a way to put them to rest while protecting herself from Julius.

In addition to an interesting and unique plot, which gets a bit bogged down in the middle, there are amazing archival pictures from the trenches of World War I and the streets of San Francisco with masked policemen and ambulance workers at the beginning of each chapter. The typeface of chapters is also artfully done in Art Nouveau fonts and graphic design.  In the Shadow of Blackbirds has it all, ghosts, mystery, romance, horror and history and is due to be released on April 2.  If you liked Libba Bray's The Diviners, you're sure to like this.

Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

Going_VintageMallory's dad is in the resale business and at the beginning of Going Vintage  is involved in cleaning out her dad's mother's house in Orange, Ca. after she's moved into a fancy retirement village. While sorting through her things, Mallory to finds a list of 5 things her grandmother set out to achieve during her junior year in 1962-63 in what Mallory thinks were simpler times.

When Mallory discovers after an evening of too much kissing that her boyfriend Jeremy has not only been cheating on her, but cheating with an online friend, an avatar named BubbleYum, who is his wife on Alternate Life, and that he has a deeper relationship with BubbleYum than he ever did with her she swears off boys. She writes "Jeremy is a tool" on his Friendspace page and so begins his retaliation against her on the Internet and her renunciation of modern technology and an attempt to live like people did in the early 1960's.

Mallory also swears to achieve all the goals on her grandmother's list that she found in her garage:

1. Run for pep club secretary (There is no pep club, so she’ll have to start one)
2. Host a fancy dinner party/soiree
3. Sew a dress for Homecoming (despite the fact that she doesn't know how to sew)
4. Find a steady
5. Do something dangerous

Each chapter starts with lists. The steady is not for her, Mallory is off of boys. She realizes her life was too much about Jeremy and not enough about who she was and what she wanted. She wants to find one for her sister, Ginnie. Mallory has a lot to learn about herself and her family. Swearing off technology isn't easy and it turns out that technology isn't the problem anyway. Mallory as older sister, seems naive in her expectations;  she's not very grounded and not up to the task of completing her tasks, but she does grow up. Ginnie is a great character.  She seems to do more of the work on the lists than Mallory does.   Funny, hipster Oliver is a terrific. Their grandmother, whose teenage years were not as perfect as Mallory thought, is a great supporting character and the parents are sufficiently annoying though real. Altogether, this was a fun, light read.  Going Vintage is due out March 26.

The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

fire_horse_girlIn Chinese Astrology, girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse. They will bring tragedy to their families. Jade Moon was born in the year of the Fire Horse and her first breath was her mother’s last. She is a clumsy, unlucky girl. No one wanted to marry her, so at 17 she is still single. Her father does not want much to do with her. When a stranger, Sterling Promise, arrives in her village and claims to be her father's brother's adopted son she knows nothing of an uncle. Indeed, he shamed the family by running off. He was supposed to have tended the family's rice fields so that her father could become a scholar.

Now this stranger wants her father to travel with him to Hong Kong to meet some shady master and then sail to America? Jade Moon takes her father’s place and goes to America. She sure will have a better life there. That is until she arrives at Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco where she and other Chinese are imprisoned for weeks, months and longer in miserable conditions. In 1923, Chinese immigrants are not welcome in America, and mostly only men are allowed in. On the island the women are kept separate from the men. A moving section from that part of the book is when Sterling Promise secretly brings her to a room full with poems written all over the walls. Jade Moon calls this the burial ground for dreams and realizes that other people have had their dreams broken as well as her.

Being headstrong and full of anger, Jade Moon manages to land in San Francisco disguised as a man and before she knows where she is finds herself caught up with members of a Chinatown tong, or organized syndicate. You’ll have to suspend a great deal of belief here and allow yourself to enjoy the action as Jade Moon gets taken in by a major player in one of the tongs, runs numbers and then comes to understand what she’s gotten herself involved in. The Fire Horse Girl is a great book to read if you like historical fiction with lots of action and romance.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

Beautiful_creaturesI regretfully admit that I had no idea about the diamond in the rough that is Beautiful Creatures until I saw its movie preview. Having had my expectations for supernatural romances, or anything with an inkling of a resemblance to this genre, sullied by the Twilight series (sorry Twilight fans), I prepared myself for an under-developed, predictable and superficial story.  However, I couldn’t have been more wrong or more surprised. Just goes to show you that you can’t judge a book by its movie preview. Yes, Beautiful Creatures does have a strong supernatural romance element to it, but it should not be prematurely written off as a gushy, imploded, I’ll-dive-off-a-cliff-because-somehow-it-makes-me-feel-closer-to-you, love story (cough, Twilight).  Taking place in Gatlin, South Carolina, this book is amazingly well researched, developed, highly original, and, better yet, is part of a series!

After the loss of his mother, Ethan Wate, a 16 year-old high school student at Jackson High, tries to settle back into life in the small town of Gatlin. However, things aren’t the same: Ethan can no longer tolerate his narrow-minded social circle, his father is a recluse and, to make things more complicated, he is haunted by a recurring, vivid dream of a mysterious girl and a foreboding song.

When Lena Duchannes, the new girl and niece of  Macon Ravenwood (Gatlin’s social outcast and declared town freak), enrolls at Jackson High School peculiar events take place: unpredictable weather, windows shatter, light bulbs explode, you get where I'm going with this, right?  Ethan is attracted to Lena despite these odd occurrences upon her arrival and soon discovers that she is not only the girl in his dreams but a  cursed Caster, a witch, whose powers will be chosen for the light or the dark on her 16th birthday.  Together, Ethan and Lena unearth dark, supernatural secrets of Gatlin’s past and become intertwined in what makes for a page-turning, I’ll-stay-up-to -3:30 a.m.-to-finish-this-book, adventure.

Reviewed by Alaina

Hysteria by Megan Miranda

Mallory is having repeated nightmares and in them she's always running and she can't get all the blood out of her mind.  hysteriaOver the summer she stabbed her boyfriend Brian in her house the events keep returning in her dreams.  She was not convicted because he had broken in and everyone in their Jersey Shore town knew he had a temper.   Still life is difficult for her family; Brian's mother tried to break in and now has a restraining order to keep 200 yards away where she sits in her car day after day. It seems like even her parents seem afraid of her.  Why did they remove the knife block from the kitchen and lock their bedroom door everynight?  And they never open the windows anymore.  

Mallory's parents decide to send her to Monroe, her dad's old boarding school, but even there she can't escape her fears.  She gets tense from the electric buzzing in the hallways and being surrounded by so many trees. Her nightmares continue and she thinks she sees Brian's mother's car.  Each night Mallory wakes with a bruise on her shoulder and she's convinced that someone has been in her room.  Also, Jason, son of the Dean, has it out for her after she rejects him.  The  only thing good about this place is Reid, the son of her father's late roommate. He is kind and understanding, even though she keeps closing doors on him. 

The first lines draw you in, but Miranda doesn't spell it all out right away.  The details of the night Mallory killed Brian are revealed slowly as Mallory herself remembers them.  Hysteria has mystery and intrigue.  it is  a psychological portrait of a girl come undone and then placed in a school with some seriously disturbed people.    The characters are what make this book.  Mallory has deep psychological scars; she is in the process of remembering what happened and at the same time being threatened by something or someone, but she's not sure why.  When a body is found in Mallory's room, who will believe her this time?  Hysteria will be released on February 5 and is on order.

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

orleansI've never been disappointed in a book by Sherri L. Smith and this is great as well.  Set in a hurricane and fever ravaged (New) Orleans, the  Gulf Coast or Delta as it is called has been quarantined and movement across the separating wall is almost non-existent except for a few smugglers from the Outer States.  Daniel, a scientist with hopes of curing the Fever.  Caught by blood hunters, he is kept captive with a young girl and a baby she is carrying.  Fen, who narrates her stream of the story in a musical Patois, know how to get around this dangerous city where people live in tribes determined by blood type and where being an O+ is dangerous because that means you're a universal-donor and the ABs are always on the hunt for your blood.  Daniel hopes to find a way to do his research and Fen wants to get the baby over the wall and to safety in the Outer States. 

Fearful of each other, but each needing the other to get what they need, they come to help each other out.  Fen takes him through the dangerous but vibrant city.  Even in the midst of disaster there is  a parade on All Saints Day.  They make their way through rooftops, an area where the rooftops are still just below water,  where scavengers go to find pickings floating up from houses and where treading heavily can lead to disaster.

Orleans reads like a dystopian thriller; you can imagine the worse at many turning points, but the language is lush and beautiful.  Smith's mother is from New Orleans and is a Katrina survivor and her connection to the city is palpable.  Orleans is a real treat.  The planned release date is March 7.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor__parkWow, I just finished Eleanor & Park a book about two misfits in love. Eleanor meets Park on the school bus where he is deeply into the music on his his Walkman (it's 1986) and reading a comic book, trying to avoid Steve and Tina behind him.  Eleanor is overweight, has a mop of messy red hair and is dressed in the weirdest thriftstore clothes with pieces of fabric pinned over the holes.  She's dirt poor and her mother is remarried to a maniac (her dad wasn't so great either, he's totally forgotten his kids). No one will let her sit next to them, so she sits next to Park.  She's irksome but funny and Park begins to like her.  When he sees her reading his comics over his shoulder, he begins to share them with her. They are both great characters; their relationship is so full of feeling. When you think you know where it's going,  the book heads off in a surprising way and the last section is amazing.  Eleanor & Park is due out February 26 2013.  If you like quirky characters and romance, don't miss it.  Also, the cover is great!

Eleanor & Park won the 2013 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award!

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