Be wary of lidded teacups

Cover artwork for Vodník.Title: Vodník

Author: Bryce Moore

Publisher & Release Date: Tu Books, 2012

The Hook: We Need Diverse Books rec’d this book as a read-alike for Lish McBride’s excellent “Hold Me Close, Necromancer.” Naturally, I went looking for “Vodník.”

The Lowdown (from Library of Congress summary): “Sixteen-year-old Tomas and his Roma family left Slovakia because of mysterious attacks on his life when he was a child, but when they return, the same creatures of folklore begin to strike again and Tomas, aided by his cousin, will have to bargain with Death herself to set things right.”

Overall Impressions:  I zipped through this engaging story.

Moving back to his mother’s hometown in Slovakia after their house burns down was supposed to make things easier for Tomas’ financially-strapped family. This does not exactly work out. It’s a familiar story: Awkward teen, kind of a loner, gets caught up in something bigger than himself, in over his head, finds out he has some special abilities. And it works. It works in some interesting ways, partially because I enjoyed my introduction to Slovakian fairy tales, and a lot because Tomas is so far out of his depth but does not give up despite all his very believable fears. And he’s got a little bit of snark, which is always fun.

Tomas has to adjust to living in a country he barely remembers, making Slovakian his primary language, and realizing that his olive skin, mostly unremarkable in the United States, identifies him as a mostly unwanted Roma in Slovakia.

He also has to adjust to the fact that he can see creatures other people can’t, and they all seem to want something from him. Maybe his help. Maybe his death. It’s a tough call.

Knowing who to trust was bewildering, as Tomas received conflicting and/or oblique warnings and information from several supernatural creatures. “The vodník is trying to kill you.” “We were friends – the fire witch lies.” “Don’t mess with my deaths.” His cousin Katka is his one consistent ally, but she also has a brain tumor – one with a nearing expiration date, according to Death. I really felt all his frustration, confusion, fears and increasing desperation.

I expect at least one sequel – and I look forward to reading it.

The Highs: How the family really comes together as a team as the story goes on.

The descriptions of Trenčín Castle.

I really enjoyed the relationship Tomas developed with his uncle and how it complemented his relationship with his father.

Tomas first thinking “friendly attractive girl not repulsed by my burned arm” when he first meets Katka and then making the mental switch to “awesome cousin” and the friendship they develop.

The conversational tone of the excerpts from “Death in the Modern Day” at the beginning of each chapter. For example, from chapter 14: “Humans like to make deals with Death. It comes with the territory. And while you might be tempted, we discourage you from entering into such pacts. Unless they involve really good dark chocolate. Because some deals are just too good to pass up.”

Tomas’ dad is a librarian and his awesome librarian skillset plays an important role near the end of the book.

Buzzkills:  I wish Tomas’ mother played a more proactive role. She has a number of traumatic experiences in her life -particularly the mysterious disappearance/death of her mother- but her refusal to talk about (or let other adults do so) or even acknowledge various things proves dangerous for Tomas and Katka. She and Tomas love each other but her role sometimes seemed peripheral (other than silence) where Tomas’ father and uncle play larger roles in supporting him. Possibly I’m over-reacting?

The Source: Bought the e-book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip to Slovakia was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.


You can’t outrun death. But you can face life.


Title: Chasing Shadows

Author: Swati Avasthi, Craig Phillips (illustrator)

Publisher & Release Date: Random House, September 2013

The Hook: Sophomore novel from the author who wrote the incredible Split.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Chasing Shadows is a searing look at the impact of one random act of violence.

“Before: Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

“But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…

“After: Holly and Savitri are coming unglued. Holly says she’s chasing Corey’s killer, chasing revenge. Savitri fears Holly’s just running wild—and leaving her behind. Friends should stand by each other in times of crisis. But can you hold on too tight? Too long?”

Overall Impressions:  Ms. Avasthi’s new novel is just as intense as her first and just as complicated in the personal relationships, how they empower us and how they tear us apart. Mr. Phillips’ graphic novel pages equal her intensity, driving the story forward.

Corey, Holly and Savitri have been best friends for years. The story opens with them racing across rooftops and a moment when one of them could have fallen. But she doesn’t fall – they all safety return to their cars. And as Holly and Corey sit in their Mini for a moment, it happens. A gunman approaches, fires, fires again. Corey and Holly are both hit. When Savitri unfreezes, she manages to call 911, tries frantically to stop Corey’s bleeding, to get them to respond. Holly requires surgery and lies in a medically induced coma for days while she travels with her brother, led by a creature called Kortha, into the Shadowlands, until Savitri’s voice calls her back.

Everyone’s dealing with grief in their own ways – Corey and Holly’s mother and father, Savitri’s mother, classmates and former friends. Some get caught up in trying to find the killer, some in trying to hold onto Corey.

Holly and Savitri are twisted up in loss and guilt – Holly as a survivor and Savitri as a witness. Savitri’s also tied herself in knots because just before Corey was killed, she told him she’d gotten early acceptance at Princeton and she’d always told herself that if she left for collage, she would end the relationship. And now Savitri can’t bring herself to leave Holly behind, and Holly can’t let go of Corey, falling into the stories of superheroes created through pain and her visions of Corey and Kortha. How long do you hold on?

Ms. Avasthi does an amazing job of balancing all the characters, of weaving past and present, of taking the reader through grief, fear, anger and mental illness, bringing all the pieces together. I am struck by the story’s imagery, the police as the city’s biggest gang, the freerunners on roofs, the nooses Holly sees on “deliveries” to Kortha. She and Mr. Phillips have created an amazing, powerful story.

The Highs: The power of Phillips’ illustrations for the Shadowlands. Wow.

The balance of Savitri, Holly and Corey’s relationships with each other Before. They were a trio of friends first. Holly encouraged Savitri and Corey’s romantic relationship but Corey also recognized when he needed to step back to Holly and Savitri’s friendship.

The full, complicated portrayal of the parents and their struggles to help their children.

That Corey’s flaws are addressed as well as his good qualities – he’s not canonized in his death.

The jacket – Holly on the cover, Savitri on the back.

The discussions of loyalty and what it means.

Buzzkills: More of a format issues, but some of the text in the illustrated sections was a little hard to read on my non-color e-reader screen.

And a minor detail gripe – when Holly’s thinking through various comic book heroes and heroines and the role pain has played in their journeys, she references “Jane Grey and the Phoenix,” rather than Jean, which threw me out of the story for a moment. I’m guessing someone’s more of a DC fan than Marvel?

The Source: Bought the e-book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a trip to Chicago was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

I read a sad book and I loved it.

Cover art for Second Chance SummerTitle: Second Chance Summer

Author: Morgan Matson

Publisher & Release Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, May 2012

The Hook: From the author who wrote Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour!

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Sandwiched between two exceptional siblings, Taylor Edwards never felt like she stood out—except for her history of running away when things get too complicated. Then her dad receives unexpected, terrible news, and the family makes the last-minute decision to spend the summer together in the cramped quarters at their old lake house.

“Taylor hasn’t been to the summer house since she was twelve, and she definitely never planned on going back. Up at the lake she is confronted with people she thought she left behind, like her former best friend, Lucy, and Henry Crosby, her first crush, who’s all grown up…and a lot cuter. Suddenly Taylor is surrounded by memories she’d rather leave in the past—but she can’t run away this time.

“As the days lying on the beach pass into nights gazing at the stars, Taylor realizes she has a second chance—with friends, with family, maybe even with love. But she knows that once the summer ends, there is no way to recapture what she stands to lose.”

Overall Impressions:  This was, at minimum, a four-Kleenex book for me.  The nature of the terrible news is revealed fairly early on – Taylor’s father has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and given just months to live. Her family loves each other, but they’ve all been so busy with their own things that they’re not really close. Dad’s busy at work; older brother Warren’s focused on preparing for college; Mom, a retired dancer, helps younger daughter Gelsey with her dancing dreams. And Taylor can’t run away, from her father’s diagnosis or, when she gets back to the lake, from Henry or Lucy.

Matson wrote a quiet story. One that mostly takes place in a sleepy older summer community where all the houses have names. The setting and the story have a bit of a timeless quality – technology plays a limited role and community activities harken back to more innocent times.  But in that quiet story Taylor slowly grows into someone who can hold herself back from running away when things go bad and builds stronger relationships with people she cares about.

Of her family, Taylor has the most distant connection with her mother, I think this is because 1) her mother is far more focused on her father at this time and 2) Taylor has always been closer to her father. The three children develop stories outside the house – Gelsey learns to have a friend, Warren falls in love, Taylor gets a job and reconnects with Lucy and Henry. (When they first arrive at the lake, they shadow their father until he tells them to stop, to go outside, to do things.) We see less of the mother’s story because her story is inside the house. We read the story Taylor experiences.

The foreshadowing was a bit obvious in a few places, but it didn’t feel heavy-handed. More like, ah, I anticipate we will see this Dickens quote again. Ah, I see this where detail A and part B of job description will come together.

The Highs: You may mock, but I loved that the older brother was terrified of dogs but tried to be casual about it even though the whole family knows because I also have an irrational fear of dogs.

The bad puns that Taylor and her dad enjoy.

How the silly five questions to start a conversation lists at the diner prompt wonderful discussions for Taylor and her dad.

Taylor, Warren and Gelsey seeing a new side of their grandfather.

Taylor and Lucy making sure Gelsey and Nora have a proper best friends sleepover. “They’re doing it wrong,” Taylor says when she calls Lucy.

Henry, who is lovely, and Leland, who is amusing.

Buzzkills:  Well, it’s a cancer book, so you pretty much know what’s going to happen at the end.

The Source: Bought the e-book. Must say that e-books are hard to hug.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip to a mountain lake was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.