Book of the Week: The Witches of New York – Ami McKay

Here’s a satisfying sleeper you can put into the hands of fiction lovers who like their genres stirred into a potent, bracing brew—and their escapism underpinned with some substance.

The Witches of New York takes place in a beautifully realized Victorian New York—at a time when both science and spirituality were taking society by storm. The witches of this novel run a small tea shop that helps ladies find cures for many ills—from sleepless nights to bad marriages to unwanted pregnancies. Enter a young girl from the countryside who hires on as a shop girl—a girl who turns out to be a young witch unaware of her latent powers. Add in a powerful demon who works through a culture of men threatened by these self-sufficient, independent women and you have a summer entertainment whose themes couldn’t be more relevant today.

In this weighty, wonderful novel, McKay takes a sidelong glance at misogyny through a veil of witches, ghosts, and other mystical entities in 1880 New York…. McKay seamlessly combines several plots and juggles a large cast with grace. Skillful worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and a suspenseful plot make McKay’s novel an enchanting, can’t-put-down delight. The door is left open for a sequel, and readers will hope McKay takes Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice on further adventures of witchery and self-determination.”
—  Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With a remarkable cast of characters… McKay has crafted a stunning work that bridges the gap between historical and contemporary women’s issues. The novel is ambitious in its scope yet still delves deep into the thoughts and motivations of characters who normally exist on society’s outskirts—or even beyond the earthly realm…. McKay’s elegant prose bridges the gap between the real world and the spiritual realm with skill and compassion.”
Kirkus (starred review)

The Witches of New York (9780062359926) by Ami KcKay. $15.99 trade paper original. 7/11/17 on sale.

New Young Adult Fiction: Midnight at the Electric – Jodi Lyn Anderson

One of the most profound and haunting books I ever read was Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days. It initially seemed to be three unrelated novellas but by the end it was clear that the three disparate stories were slowly and structurally wound together through time and with the intention of telling us something profound about what it means to be human.

A bit of the same technique is at work here. Anderson’s story starts in 2065 with Adri, a young woman who has been chosen for a mission to Mars. While visiting an extended family member’s Kansas home, she uncovers clues about the life of a girl who had lived in the family’s home during the Dustbowl of the Great Depression. A final thread winds the story back further back to include young woman preparing the immigrate to America after WWI.

With intertwined voices, the story is told through prose, letters, and diaries–and the result is a lovely and timeless story about the nature of being human: the poignancy of leaving as well as the fear and excitement of an unknown future.

Five starred reviews for this one! Anderson has definitely arrived as one of the more nuanced and accomplished writers writing fiction for teens.

Anderson interweaves the stories of three tenacious young women in this sprawling saga…. Each character’s resilience and independence shines brightly, creating a thread that ties them together even before the intersections of their lives are fully revealed. Anderson’s piercing prose ensures that these remarkable women will leave a lasting mark on readers.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

’Deft, succinct, and ringing with emotion without ever dipping into sentimentality, Anderson’s novel is both intriguing and deeply satisfying.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“With quietly evocative writing, compellingly drawn characters, and captivating secrets to unearth, this thought-provoking, lyrical novel explores the importance of pinning down the past before launching into the mystery of the future.”
Booklist (starred review)

Anderson deftly tackles love, friendship, and grief in this touching exploration of resilience and hope. A must-have for all YA collections.”
School Library Journal (starred review)

“Anderson employ[s] a no-frills style that allows her characters to shine through, with each distinct, nuanced, and memorable.”
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)

Midnight at the Electric (9780062393548) by Jodi Lyn Anderson. $17.99 hardcover. 6/13/17 on sale.

Fiction Short Take: The Wrong Dead Guy – Richard Kadrey

This is volume two in Kadrey’s new series and takes this acclaimed urban fantasist into Christopher Moore territory. In fact, Moore himself called the first volume, The Everything Box, “A rolling bouncy-house of a caper tale…quick-witted characters, snarky dialogue, and surreal analogies. If you haven’t sampled Richard Kadrey’s take on fantasy yet, this is a great place to start.”

“[I]nveterate thief Coop is a fast-talking criminal making his way through a supernatural substratum of society. Last time around, he saved the world and has now reluctantly been seconded to the Department of Peculiar Science….Coop’s boss, Woolrich, orders his team on a new mission: ‘A simple theft. A local museum has a mummy on display. We’d like to have it instead of them.’ What sounds like a simple heist quickly becomes mortal danger when they accidentally awaken Harkhuf, an evil mummy imbued with dark magic, which is totally the worst kind of magic, apparently….A goofy, flamboyant, and breathless horror adventure by one of the genre’s sharpest creators.”
Kirkus

“Cross Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder with Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, add a layer of supernatural shenanigans, and if you are as talented a writer as Richard Kadrey, you end up with Coop, thief protagonist of The Everything Box….Richard Kadrey is a master of paranormal suspense and relatable antiheroes with a strong dose of dark humor, and The Wrong Dead Guy is a delight from beginning to end. Highly recommended.”
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books & Music, Okemos, MI

The Wrong Dead Guy (9780062389572) by Richard Kadrey. $24.99 hardcover. 2/28/17 on sale.

New Young Adult Fiction: Of Fire and Stars – Audrey Coulthurst

I love it when booksellers alert me to the strong reads. Early in the season Steph Appell, the children’s book buyer at Parnassus, called to rave about this novel and asked to include it in the store’s YA signed first editions subscription series, Parnassus Next. She compares it to the epic fantasy of Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. And no less that Mercedes Lackey praises it, saying “I devoured Of Fire and Stars in two sittings; it’s a delightful debut, full of all the things I like best in a fantasy story, including not one but two wonderful heroines.”

It’s a Winter Indie Next pick and arrives with strong advance reviews.

At the start of Coulthurst’s spectacular debut, seven-year-old Princess Dennaleia of Havemont discovers that she has a magical ‘Affinity’ for fire. Unfortunately, she is already betrothed to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria, a kingdom where the practice of magic is considered heresy. ….But Dennaleia is faced with difficult choices about her future after something other than friendship unexpectedly develops between the two princesses. Dennaleia and Amaranthine’s narratives combine to create a powerful and exquisite love story that also provides incisive political commentary and cautions against zealotry, vengeance, and intolerance. The central mystery is intriguing, Coulthurst’s worldbuilding is excellent, and the book’s explosive conclusion both thrills and satisfies.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Lovely…a worthy debut that succeeds as both an adventure and a romance.”
Booklist

“Murder, mayhem, magic, romance-and horses…a romantic fantasy that will appeal to those who appreciate character-driven novels.”
Kirkus Reviews

 Of Fire and Stars is the most self-assured fantasy debut I’ve read since Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. It simply hits all the right notes with perfect pitch. Fans of Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, and Rae Carson will not want to miss it.”
— Stephanie Appell, Parnassus Books. Nashville, TN

Of Fire and Stars (9780062433251) by Audrey Coulthurst. $17.99 hardcover. 11/22/16 on sale.

New Fiction: The Everything Box – Richard Kadrey

Kadrey’s long-running Sandman Slim series has a devoted following that has, over time, put Kadrey on the bestseller lists, not to mention garnering one of my all-time favorite book endorsements:

“The best B movie I’ve read in at least twenty years. An addictively satisfying, deeply amusing, dirty-ass masterpiece…an LA noir spaghetti western grudge-war apocalypse, fought with magic, shotguns, occult artifacts, and (at one point) the broken wooden handle of a toilet plunger. Sweet.”
— William Gibson

For those of us with somewhat more delicate sensibilities, this time out Kadrey offers a gentler but no less inventive story–more Christopher Moore than Jim Butcher. In fact, Moore is a fan, saying, “A rolling bouncy-house of a caper tale, The Everything Box abounds with quick-witted characters, snarky dialogue, and surreal analogies.”

The plot? In 2000 B.C. and angel loses a small box that happens to be the engine of humanity’s destruction. In 2015, a thief delivers what he thinks is a simple, supernatural heirloom into the wrong hands. And the race to get hold of this doomsday box and save the world is on.

Advance reviews and bookseller praise suggest that Kadrey’s likely to expand his legion of fans with this one.

Coop is a thief whose immunity to magic lets him specialize in stealing magical objects – until he steals a box that could trigger the Apocalypse. Now fallen angels, supernatural law enforcement officials, rival doomsday cult leaders and just plain criminals all want the box, and expect Coop to get it for them. Can Coop keep himself and his friends alive – and will there still be a world left for them to live in if he does? Kadrey is a master of edgy humor, complex plotting, and nonstop action with a paranormal edge, and The Everything Box is an engagingly dark delight to read!
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books and Music. Okemos, MI

“Kadrey draws heavily on Gaiman and Pratchett’s classic novel, Good Omens, for inspiration, and in equal measure on Donald Westlake’s caper comedies. Kadrey’s plot doesn’t depend on magic; instead, magic is the broth bringing all manner of delicious ingredients together in this wonderful stew of a story. This unusual urban fantasy is a delight.”
Publishers Weekly

“A supernatural comic caper that reads like one of the late Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels sprinkled with some fairy dust.”
Kirkus

  “Thoroughly entertaining and hilarious… I was laughing all the way to the end. Speaking of the end, good endings are very important to me, and this one was particularly satisfying…I can easily recommend this to a casual fantasy reader, or someone looking for a good laugh.
–Kate Schreffler, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

The Everything Box (9780062389541) by Richard Kadrey. $24.99 hardcover. 4/19/16 on sale.

New Fiction: Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff

Oh, Matt Ruff! Booksellers who have hand sold his work know that potential customers go one of two ways: Those who politely say, “That’s different” and pick up something else—and those who say “Whaaaaat??!!” and become fans for life. Count me in the second category.

To get a sense of the kind of weird we’re dealing with here, consider some of his previous books:

  • Set This House in Order — A coming of age story from inside the head of a young man with multiple personality disorder who is living with over one hundred different people inside him.
  • Bad Monkeys — A paranoid psychological thriller about a world of deadly secret societies surrounding our everyday lives that reads like Nancy Drew on LSD.
  • The Mirage — An alternate history conspiracy novel that tells the story of a 9/11 where North American Christian fundamentalists hijack four Arabian jetliners and fly into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers. (Uh huh.)

This new novel will likewise expand your mind and set your sense of perspective on end. It takes place in 1950’s Jim Crow America and involves a travel guide published for African Americans that helped them find food and lodging in an often inhospitable U.S. This is a dark fantasy so at the heart of this novel are true Lovecraftian horrors—but it’s no accident that they are stirred in with the real-life terrors of life in the 1950’s for our African American heroes.

This timely rumination on racism in America refracts an African-American family’s brush….Ruff has an impressive grasp of classic horror themes, but the most unsettling aspects of his novel are the everyday experiences of bigotry that intensify the Turners’ encounters with the supernatural. Readers will appreciate the irony of how the Turners’ conditioning in enduring racial bias empowers them to master more macabre challenges.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Genuinely spooky… But the real horror is the reality of life for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era… sparks the imagination while also igniting the reader’s empathy.”
— Library Journal

“Another ‘only Matt Ruff could do this’ production. Lovecraft Country takes the unlikeliest of premises and spins it into a funny, fast, exciting and affecting read.”
— Neal Stephenson

“A brilliantly conceived story brilliantly executed. In Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff renders a very high-concept, imaginary world with such vividness that you can’t help but feel it’s disturbingly real.”
— Christopher Moore

“Matt Ruff is one of our most imaginative living writers, and Lovecraft Country is simply amazing. It’s the story of two African-American families in the Jim Crow era, dealing with terrors both supernatural and man-made. Ruff is a master at creating clever, sympathetic underdog characters who triumph – mostly – over their enemies, and his sharp wit and brilliant world-building make his books delightful to read while leaving you with plenty of food for thought.”
— Carol Schneck Varner, Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, MI

 

New Fiction: Medusa’s Web – Tim Powers

Ah, Tim Powers…When I sell in his books I’ve learned to recite Powers’ literary bona fides before I start explaining the plots. So here we go: The Washington Post named Powers’ last book, Hide Me Among the Graves, one of the 50 Notable Works of Fiction for 2012. Three Days to Never was a NYTBR “Editor’s Choice,” and was included on the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Best SF/F Books” list. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award twice, and the World Fantasy Award three times.

So does write genre books or literary novels? Yes.

The books are weird, eerie exercises in speculative fiction that handily bridge literary and genre writing. PW started its review of this new novel by observing that “A new Tim Powers novel is always cause for excitement” before laying out where he’s taking us: “His latest is a twisted journey through time travel, possession, old Hollywood, addiction, and familial violence…”

I’m going to let PW’s reviewer Catherynne M. Valente outline the plot because every time I try I disappear down a maze of outlandish, absorbing detail. Expect review attention.

Medusa’s Web is a book of mirrors and doubles, falling somewhere between a Tennessee Williams play and a Nancy Drew mystery. It centers on two sets of siblings—the forlorn orphans Scott and Madeline and their cousins Ariel, a recovering addict, and Claimayne, a cruel recluse. All four were raised together in a sprawling, crumbling mansion called Caveat in the Hollywood Hills, and all of them share a family secret, a set of arcane drawings known as spiders that, with a single glance, allow one to travel back and forth in time between the present day and the golden age of Hollywood. The time travel is more of an exchange program: the traveler inhabits the bodies of men and women of the 1920s and ’30s, while their spirits are transported into the body of the traveler. Such journeys have become a passionate, secretive cult within the elite of Los Angeles over the decades and destroyed many lives, as the pleasures of possession prove irresistible but bad for a person’s health. When Claimayne and Ariel’s mother dies under extremely dramatic circumstances, the prodigals all return to the roost to uncover her mysterious past and face their own profound attraction to the spiders….
Publishers Weekly

“[A]n atmospheric and complex supernatural thriller, with an old-time Hollywood frame, and it steadily builds to a frenetic climax.”
Booklist

“This novel is as weird as anything Powers has written, but he maintains his usual skillful way of making even the most surreal twists compulsively readable. The vestiges of Old Hollywood have their hooks deep in the story, which moves back and forth in time through the visions of the spider users
— Library Journal

 Medusa’s Web (9780062262455) by Tim Powers. $26.99 hardcover. 1/19/16 on sale.

 

Young Adult Fiction: Magonia – Maria Dahvana Headley

This YA debut starts in John Green territory but quickly takes a left hand turn into a fantastical world that Neil Gaiman might have dreamed up. In fact, Gaiman is a fan of Magonia, calling author Headley “a firecracker: she’s whip smart with a heart, and she writes like a dream.”

What she’s writing about is a girl with a critical breathing illness. When Aza becomes lost to our world, she finds her fate in a land above the clouds, where she is not only healthy but in an immensely powerful position—one that may decide the very future of both Earth and Magonia.

Magonia is based Medieval French folklore about pirates who traveled in cloud ships and stole from those on Earth. This is brainy, witty epic fantasy with textured world building and a nuanced exploration of ideas like zealotry, terrorism and heroism. (Really cool cover, too.)

“Terminally ill from infancy, Aza is willing to accept that she’s dead….Yet Aza is very much alive on the massive Magonian airship Amina Pennarum, with a piratical captain, who declares herself Aza’s true mother, and a crew of jays, robins, owls—and one screaming ghost. Headley….[T]he first-person narration is funny, furious, and vulnerable. The haunting conclusion leaves many issues unresolved, but the ferocious, intelligent power of Aza and Jason’s bond is completely affirmed. Sweeping, strange, and built around a richly imagined world of chimerical bird-men and airships…”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 Magonia (9780062320520) by Maria Dahvana Headley. $17.99 hardcover. 4/28/15 on sale.

 

Kids Book of the Week: The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly – Ted Sanders

Those of you who have been listening to me over the years know that me earnestly touting a kids book is rarer than hen’s teeth. But people, this one’s got it.

I picked up this middle grade debut because the publisher went to the expense of mailing out a paper manuscript and it just seemed rude not to skim a few pages. Some indeterminate number of hours later, I was back from Horace Andrews’ dangerously magical Chicago, sitting on my couch in Ann Arbor and looking up the publication schedule for this series to see when I might get my hands on the second book.

At the risk of making you roll your eyes, this book has what Harry Potter had. (Stick with me here…) It’s the story of an every boy who is called to greatness. It offers a magical and sinister world that exists behind the mist of everyday life. It’s written in way that is engaging and accessible to children and at the same time doesn’t talk down to anyone, so it works nicely for adults as well. And bonus points: It’s got physics!

One of the underlying themes of the book is the relationship between magic and science. When Horace receives a magic box that allows him to see 24 hours in the future, Sanders offers a two-page explanation of the Theory of Relativity that, rather than letting the air out of Horace’s magic box, shows just how magical science is—that they are two sides of the same coin.

Booksellers are loving this story and it’s been picked as a Book of the Month at more than a few of stores. It’s a spring Indie Next Pick and I hope it’s the beginning of a grand adventure for tens of thousands of readers of all ages.

The Keepers is a wildly original adventure, electric-paced and brain-bending, that will enthrall kids and adults alike. It’s more than a fantasy, building physics and folklore into its search to answer questions about whether true magic can ever exist. But most of all, it has a wonderful central character in Horace, smart and vulnerable, who grounds us in this extraordinary world.”
— Soman Chainani, author The School for Good and Evil

“Twelve-year-old Horace F. Andrews is both curious and logical. On his quotidian commute home, a previously unseen storefront called the House of Answers ignites his inquisitive tendencies. The discovery of the shop coincides with meeting a creepy man who is more insect than human and a spitfire, self-assured 12-year-old girl, Chloe, who appears out of—and disappears into—nowhere. The House proves to be a curated collection of magical objects—Tan’ji—linked to “keepers.” Chloe is one such, and Horace becomes another when he’s linked to the Box of Promises. Only in the hand of a keeper can the Tan’ji’s power be fully realized, so it’s up to Horace, Chloe and a small group of keepers to keep it from villains of the more-insect-than-human variety….An epic adventure of self-discovery, magic, tragedy and blurred lines of loyalty.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“When Horace F. Andrews discovers a box that refracts time so he can see 24 hours into the future, he is set on an exciting quest that will not only bring him face to face with evil beings bent on taking back the Earth, but also sets him in the middle of a well-drawn group of characters, including a young girl whose life on the streets has forced her to mistrust everyone. Sanders’ writing is fluid and never speaks on ‘a child’s level,’ but he smartly assumes kids are intelligent enough to understand such sweeping concepts as Time, Relativity, and Atomic Structure. In this way, he reminds me of Madeline L’Engle and her fabulous A Wrinkle in Time books. Lest you think The Keepers is too heady and dull, I can assure you there are plenty of exciting action scenes alongside the intelligent exposition. The last two hundred pages involving the raid on the (wonderfully evil) villain’s lair is thrilling and almost sweat-inducing. Sanders has crafted a near-perfect book for kids. They are going to love this book, and I think it can sit comfortably on shelves next to Harry Potter and The Mortal Instruments!”
— Bill Carl, The Booksellers at Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly is fantastically complex middle-grade novel that’s part fantasy, part (accessible) science fiction. With its fully developed cast of characters and fascinating hidden world, The Box and the Dragonfly has all the charm of Harry Potter while remaining wonderfully original. This is a dense book to be sure, packed full of believable science and mysterious places (and people and objects) and centuries old conflicts, but the plot never feels weighed down. And, it’s been a long while since I’ve read a villain that had such a sinister air about them; every time that Dr. Jericho entered a scene, dread churned my stomach and prickled goose bumps on my arms. I cannot wait for book two.
— Brittney Gabbard, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

The Keepers is SO good! I only wish I didn’t have to wait until March to start recommending it to people. It reminded me of reading Kate DiCamillo in the way Sanders doesn’t write down to kids–even touching on poverty and alcoholism but without hitting you over the head with it. Please, please give me the advance copy of the next book in the series.”
— Jessie Martin, Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly (9780062275820) by Ted Sanders. $16.99 hardcover. 3/3/15 on sale.

Short Take: Thorn Jack – Katherine Harbour

This is a recasting of the Scottish “Tam Lin” tale. In PW’s review below you’ll find many of the elements that makes today’s dark fantasies like The Night Circus (and every third YA book) work so well. They draw on family, class and romantic tensions that have resonated through the centuries. I’ve had a lot of grassroots curiosity from booksellers on this one and PW listed it as a “Book to Grab” at BEA. Trivia: the author is herself a bookseller.

Debut author Harbour finds some new ground in this twisty, contemporary reworking of the oft-retold Scottish ballad ‘Tam Lin’. Serafina ‘Finn’ Sullivan, haunted by her sister’s recent suicide, is just starting college in bohemian, old-moneyed Fair Hollow, N.Y., when her lakeside encounter with the enigmatic Jack Fata attracts the enmity of his powerful family, particularly the ageless, calculating Reiko Fata. Finn’s awkward and ghost-ridden but growing romance with Jack soon proves inseparable from the machinations of the ‘children of nothing and night,’ especially after she enlists Jack’s help to save classmate Nathan Clare…[F]antasy fans will find much to savor in Harbour’s delicate, myth-conscious prose. Loose ends suggest a sequel.”
Publishers Weekly

Thorn Jack: A Night and Nothing Novel (9780062286727) by Katherine Harbour. $$ 25.99 hardcover. 6/24/14 on sale.