“A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” by Yaba Badoe

I haven’t read a magical realism book since Isabelle Allende’s “House of Spirits” in high school, which was a fan favourite with our grade eleven class due to the copious amounts of sex in it. Well, sorry to disappoint, but “A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” is a magical realism novel without copious amounts of sex. But you should totally read it anyway, because it deals with some heavy themes and the writing is gorgeous. (How’s this for an intro? Sorry, I did really like this book.)

“A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” starts with a shipwreck of migrants and refugees from Ghana. The sole survivor is Sante, a baby, who is found floating ashore in a treasure chest of her people. Fourteen years later, the story then follows Sante’s life as a member of a circus containing people of all races and nationalities. Despite being orphaned, she’s managed to find her family. However, the dead from the shipwreck are calling on Sante to avenge her people.

This novel deals with a lot of tough issues, such as sex trafficking and murder of refugees in a pretty matter of fact way. And despite the matter of factness, there is a lyrical quality to the writing with symbolism, dreams, and strange magic from the spirit world. There are universal themes of identity and family and belonging running through the entire plot line. In addition, the relationships between Sante and her adopted siblings Cobra and Cat are fleshed out and feel real. Essentially, “Jigsaw of Fire and Stars” is chock full of good stuff and has a unique voice.

Even a few weeks after reading it, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that people sank a ton of ships containing many, many people and their families just to collect some insurance. It is both horrific and tragic. Even a few weeks after reading it, I’m still wondering how Badoe managed to write so beautifully about something so terrible. Amazing and thought-provoking.

 

“The Last Namsara” by Kristen Ciccarelli

Asha is convinced she is morally corrupted. Not from killing dragons, but from telling forbidden stories. Ever since her childhood, she’s killed the creatures to protect her father’s kingdom, trying to redeem herself for a mistake she made when she was young that harmed the city. But now dragons are hard to find, and Asha is forced to tell the old stories to lure them out. Old stories that result in sickness and death and destruction of those who tell them.

Despite her service to the kingdom, her people still hate her. And with her upcoming wedding to her father’s cruel commandant, Asha hopes for an escape. Her father offers a trade: the head of the king of dragons for her freedom from the marriage.

However, when Asha starts the hunt, a slave boy challenges everything that she believed to be true about herself, about her relationship with dragons, and about her kingdom.

This novel describes a rigid society with unusual customs and tensions between traditional values and the new regime. It also contains many beautiful short folktales interspersed throughout the chapters. These stories contribute to building Asha’s world and help to understand the present of the novel in context with its past.

It has a beautiful message about how in order to find your true self, you have to look beyond society, beyond your family, and beyond whatever toxic truths you’ve been told and internalised about your character. In Asha’s world, there is prejudice and racism, and the younger generation must work to break these barriers down and fight against injustice. Asha is a strong heroine and the conflicts she deals with in her fantastical society apply to today’s world as well.

“The Potion Diaries” by Amy Alward

I fell in love with this book the minute the princess of Nova’s love potion turned indigo instead of pink. There’s a lighthearted, whimsical feeling in the details right from the get-go. The princess poisons herself with said indigo potion instead of her crush, and causes a national crisis by falling in love with herself. And now Samantha (Sam) Kemi, an alchemist’s apprentice, is summoned with the rest of the kingdom’s alchemists to compete to find a cure.

Sam has to travel the world to find ingredients for this cure, from the deepest jungles to the highest mountaintops. The world-building in exotic locals and the mythical ingredients from plants to animals always felt well-developed and real. In fact, after reading this book before bed, I sank into a dream full of unusual pink-tinged winged creatures in the forest where Sam found the eluvian ivy. The settings stick with you for awhile.

I also enjoyed the competition between Sam, an alchemist trained in the old ways, and the ZoroAster megapharma company with their synthetic, modern compounds. It reminded me of “Witchworld” by Emma Fischel, which has a similar conflict between ancient and modern magical technology. Of course, in “The Potion Diaries” the conflict wasn’t black and white, mainly because of Sam’s wish to try out the modern laboratory of her rivals and the CEO of ZoroAster’s hot teenage son who greatly admires Sam himself.

“The Potion Diaries” blends magic and romance in a competition that lets one girl try to prove her abilities and help her country. It’s a great read.

“The Problem with Forever” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Mallory Dodge has difficulty speaking up. In fact, Mallory has trouble speaking at all. Her early childhood experiences in foster care conditioned her to stay quiet, unnoticed, and out of sight. Now Mallory has been living with loving and understanding parents for years where she has been homeschooled. However, she wants to go to college. And to test whether or not she is ready for the crowds and noise and people at college, she is trying out her senior year at the local high school.

This would be hard enough for anyone, but it gets harder. On Mallory’s first day of class, she encounters Rider Stark, her friend and protector from foster care. All the memories Mallory’s suppressed start coming back and she feels drawn to Rider immediately because of their shared past. Can Mallory cope in the challenging high school environment? Can she learn to speak up and face her past? And will Rider help her or hold her back?

This is a book that deals with a lot of sensitive, tough issues. It takes a hard look at the failings of the foster care system, child abuse, and the disparity between the rich and the poor. And yet it is hopeful. The book starts with Mallory in a pretty good place. She’s escaped the abuse, she’s living in a place of privilege, and she has a second chance to rewrite her story and grow. Of course, her scars remain. Why wouldn’t they?

Also, a strong current of attraction between Mallory and Rider drives the plot. Will they become romantically involved or won’t they? Will Rider also manage to escape poverty and believe in himself?

This novel reminded me strongly of Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park” because it deals with very similar issues. It also shares a central conflict, telling a story of a romance between two teens with families in very different classes and how their families respond to their relationship.

It made me consider: Why are people (including me, obviously) attracted to these stories? They are difficult reads. They aren’t escapist. They take a hard look at the problems in the world around us, and some of these problems undoubtedly the reader will have faced or are facing, or people close to them have faced or are facing.

Basically, the conflict and issues in this story gets up close and personal. It doesn’t matter where in the novel the reader sees themself. They may relate to the privileged house of Mallory’s adoptive family, or the meets-the-basic-needs-but-still-full-of-love house of Rider’s current foster family, or the worst case scenario house of the foster family from Mallory and Rider’s past (I sincerely hope not). The reader will see themself in the story somewhere. And yet, no matter which class the reader relates to, everyone has the opportunity to fall in love. It’s human. Love conquers borders, classes, races, everything. Love conquers all.

Because in the end, it’s what everyone wants the most: to love and be loved. And, as Armentrout quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” everyone wants to be real as well.

Stories that deal with this message and show that despite all the troubles in the world that love can still exist, well. Those are powerful stories. And somehow they are the most hopeful.

Kiersten White’s “Paranormalcy” Series

I really enjoyed “And I Darken” and “Now I Rise” from Kiersten White’s recent series, “The Conqueror’s Saga.” In fact, I needed more of White’s writing now. I couldn’t wait for book 3 of “The Conqueror’s Saga” to come out.

Fortunately for me, White has written more books. I gravitated towards her “Paranormalcy” series and read all three books ridiculously fast. Since I read her newest series first, I expected the characters in “Paranormalcy” to be dark and disturbing and the world to be immensely detailed and historical. However, “Paranormalcy” is a completely different beast. Actually, I was glad to read something lighthearted and bubbly for once. Sometimes the darkness in the books I read gets to me and it was a great contrast to meet Evie, the star of this series, who loves boys, pink, and kicking paranormal butt with her taser.

The dialogue throughout the series was hilarious. Evie is both girly and awesome. Too often I meet the female character who is determined to be so tough that she loses her femininity. This is such a common trope these days, it gets tiring. Evie is a great example of how there is nothing wrong with being a girl and liking girl things. She shows that being a girl does not contradict being strong.

Even though the “Paranormalcy” series is cheerful and pokes fun at common paranormal tropes in YA (cough, cough, vampires, cough, cough), it still deals with serious themes. Evie’s faerie ex-boyfriend definitely has some issues with consent and boundaries. These themes play throughout the books, but don’t get too heavy and in-your-face. And, although the evil, sexy faerie trope has definitely made its mark on the YA shelves, “Paranormalcy” is different enough to enjoy. I thoroughly did.

“Witchworld” by Emma Fischel

I’ve had a soft spot for middle grade novels about witches ever since I was eight. At that age, I read “The Witch Family” by Eleanor Estes and decided the witch life was for me. Now that I’m older, nothing has changed. I love witches with their unusual potions, and tendency to veer towards evil, and pride in ugly appearances. They’re great. So when I saw “Witchworld” on the shelves of my local library, I knew it was my kind of book.

“Witchworld” describes a modern family of witches: a single mum and her two daughters. The story follows the youngest daughter Flo. The world of witches has evolved from the last time I visited, and now has modern devices like a spellstick instead of a magic wand, and a skyrider instead of a broomstick. However, when Flo’s grandma comes to stay with her ancient techology and cooks up a potion in Flo’s mum’s spotless kitchen, well, things are bound to get interesting. Flo’s grandma is convinced Witchworld is in danger from ghouls.

Only one problem: everyone in Witchworld knows ghouls are extinct.

Or are they?

“Witchworld” is hilarious. I loved the intragenerational familial bantering. I loved the parallels with young people and technology in our world. And the main character Flo with her obsession with pixies and concern about doing the right thing is a relatable and fun  voice to follow. This is a great read for younger readers.

“Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

I’m not sure what it is about YA fantasy books taking place during carnivals, but I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. There’s something seductive about a dark dangerous carnival where magic thrives and mysteries abound. In the past little while I’ve read Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” and Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls.” So what makes “Daughter of the Burning City” different from the others?

First, the magic in “Daughter of the Burning City” is more subtle perhaps than other fantasy books. The heroine Sorina has an unusual power of illusion-work. Although other people in this novel’s carnival have more flashy kinds of magic such as mind reading and fire abilities, the main focus is on Sorina and her illusion-work which allows her to create illusions that are people with their own personalities. These people become her family. Since this kind of illusion-work requires a lot of skill, Sorina doesn’t ever create a family member in the novel. Her family shows up in the novel already made. Instead of magic, most of the plot revolves more around the mystery, which we’ll get to later.

Another thing that makes “Daughter of the Burning City” stick out is that Sonia’s family is really, really bizarre. There is a life-like tree man, a dude with fingernails growing out of his head, and a half-fish half-man. Together with Sorina, they form a Freak Show. Even though the characters are grotesque and unusual, they are given fairly likeable personalities, although admittedly the tree man doesn’t have much to say. Because he’s a tree. These characters are unlike any that you’ve ever seen before.

The final component that differentiates “Daughter of the Burning City” from other carnival YA fantasies is the plot. When one by one, Sorina’s family members are murdered, Sorina needs to find the killer to protect them. In itself this isn’t that groundbreaking, however the way in which the killer is found is pretty unique. Sorina enlists the help of Luca, a gossip-worker. Although some twists were easy to pick up on, one of most major twists in the novel I did NOT see coming and it was a biggie. Amanda Foody has an unusual creativity that makes this novel worth a read even if you’ve read other carnival YA novels. It’s exciting and mysterious and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

“Furthermore” by Tahereh Mafi

“Furthermore” is a middle grade fantasy novel written in the style of such old time classics such as “The Wizard of Oz” or the more recently written “The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.” The author, as an  omniscient narrator leads us through the scenes with gentle and sometimes humourous commentary. Although this point of view has fallen out of fashion recently, it was so refreshing to see it here and really added colour to this fairytale in every sense of the world.

You see, Alice is from the land of Ferenwood where the more colourful you are the more magic you have. As Alice lacks all pigment except for some colour in her eyes, she feels like she is an outcast. During the Surrender, a festival where all twelve-year-olds showcase their talents, Alice places last, confirming that she doesn’t belong in her community.

However, an unusual opportunity presents itself where she teams up with an unlikely ally and sets off on a quest to find her father. The pair have to journey to a strange new land called Furthermore. There, Alice will be forced to accept her unusual form of magic and her identity in order to bring her father home.

This is a beautifully written book that often has a lyrical flow not unlike poetry. The fantastical world is both whimsical and terrifying. “Furthermore” has many uplifting messages about friendship, family and accepting oneself. It is a suitable read for readers both young and old alike.

“Rebel Mechanics” by Shanna Swendson

“Rebel Mechanics” takes place in an alternate history where British magic prevents the American Revolution from ever occurring. Verity Newton arrives in New York to find a job as governess and winds up working for one of the most powerful magical families in the city. Concerned about toeing the line in such a household, she discovers that not everyone in the family is as they seem. Although this magical family has held power for years, many members sympathize with the rebels, a group in the city reliant on engineering and machines instead of magic.

Verity finds herself swept away by the rebel group she encounters in the city. She agrees with their cause to bring equality to the non-magical people and decrease reliance on magic. It also helps matters that Verity starts falling for a rebel inventor. But will her magical employers mind the company she’s keeping? Although some of them are opened minded, Verity isn’t sure if they’ll be opened to all her secrets.

This book had a rollicking steampunk feel. The characters wore strange clothing and made quirky inventions and had unusual gatherings. As a reader you can’t help but like Verity who struggles as a bookish outsider to New York. I love authors who make their characters avid readers – a sure way help the readers of their own books identity with their characters! Although I caught many of the plot twists before they happened, a quite a few of them I didn’t see coming.

Swendson does a good job creating morally grey situations where the truth is stretched with good intentions and characters who seemed likeable display their dark sides. In all, “Rebel Mechanics” is a fun read.

“The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place” by Julie Berry

I have to start this post by saying I usually don’t like works that joke about death. “The Loved One” by Evelyn Waugh made me cringe instead of giggle, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” made me worry about corpses in my own basement instead of shriek with delight at Teddy’s constant yells of “charge!” However, maybe I’m loosening up with increasing age and maturity or simply Julie Berry’s clever dialogue, because I definitely chuckled more than once while reading “The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place.”

When the headmistress of Prickwillow Place drops dead at Sunday dinner, her pupils devise a clever plan. The girls bury their headmistress in the vegetable patch – covering her with manure of course – and begin their lives as free women. However, their tiny Victorian community refuses to leave them alone. They are visited by the village busy-body, the doctor, and several romantic interests. Although the girls dress unfortunate Stout Alice up to pose as their late headmistress, the upcoming Strawberry Social puts strain on their disguise. And when they realize their headmistress died from poisoning, they are forced to consider that murder may be among them as well…

The dialogue and plot were funny and clever, and although some of the ruses weren’t entirely unexpected, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. British humour at its finest, “The Scandalous Sisterhood” recalls old black and white movies and comical plays with a modern message for women. Simply delightful!