Gather Her Round by Alex Bledsoe

gatherI have written before of my love for Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa books. I swear, I become more enamored with Cloud County and the Tufa with every entry in this series. Bledsoe’s latest, Gather Her Round, does not disappoint. My favorite characters are back – Bliss Overbay, Bronwyn Hyatt Chess, and Mandalay Harris – plus some new folks who show great promise. In this instance, Bledsoe begins with a horrific accident when Kera Rogers is attacked and killed by a wild pig. Kera’s death reveals a love triangle that becomes deadly when one boy who loved her finds out she was seeing his best friend. Soon after, the scorned lover becomes responsible for the death of his friend, also killed by a wild pig, which sets in motion a deadly hunt and plenty of human emotion.

Bledsoe has created a remarkable world within a world in Cloud County, and keeps adding fascinating characters. I am so intrigued by how Mandalay’s story is unfolding and am eagerly awaiting how Bledsoe will resolve the tension between her and Junior Damo. Two new characters who I hope to see in future stories are Janet, the musical prodigy, and Flick, Junior’s dangerous protector. If you haven’t read the Tufa stories, don’t start with this one. Go get The Hum and the Shiver and start from there. You’ll thank me!

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

IMG_1310It seems like there’s been a proliferation of novels in recent years that feature women who masqueraded as men so they could fight in a war. Some are better than others, and I will mark Neverhome by Laird Hunt as one of the better efforts.

We first encounter Ash Thompson as a green recruit training to engage in action during the Civil War. Hunt elects not to dwell on the methods Ash uses to disguise herself, and instead focuses on Ash’s personality and strength. We come to see early on that Ash is not a typical 19th century woman, and we learn why as the story progresses. Indeed, Ash and her husband really have, in many ways, flipped their roles…but it works.

Ash distinguishes herself early on in battle, and in sharpshooting. She also earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” when she gives up her own coat to cover the nakedness of a woman cheering on the regiment as it passes by. As the story progresses, though, we come to understand that Ash is not a saint, but despite all the horrible things that happen to her, she remains steadfast and true to herself.

Hunt’s writing is evocative and skillful, and his character development is spot on. His ability to tell this story of the “woman in disguise” and make it interesting, readable, and, ultimately, heart-wrenching places him at the top of his field. An author who can take me all the way through a book and lull me into thinking I know how it’s going to end, then punch me in the gut and tell me I was wrong is an author I will watch. Laird Hunt is one of those authors. Recommended.

Helen by Anita Mishook

IMG_1299A dream turned inside out. That was California.” Helen Rice, the protagonist in Anita Mishook’s masterful debut novel, Helen, certainly finds truth in this statement. We first meet Helen as she travels from New York to California to join her older sister and her family in lovely Glendale, California. The sisters, Polish Jews orphaned jointly by the Great War and influenza, survived great hardship and made it to New York, where Sarah labored to ensure Helen acquired the best education possible. Now an adult, Helen finds herself drifting and decides to join Sarah, her husband Harry, and their two children in the land of golden opportunity.

However, Helen soon learns that sunny California has a dark and dirty underbelly which includes gangers, corrupt cops, and Nazis. Helen, passing as a “Good German Girl,” becomes the darling of a dangerous group of Nazi supporters known as the Silver Shirts. At the same time, Helen’s friend from New York, a spy for the Anti Defamation League, arrives and immediately enlists Helen as a spy. Helen, by default, begins to live a dangerous double life, culminating in foiling a Nazi plot and triggering a new life as a double agent.

Mishook, a psychologist, developed Helen’s story out of research into her own family history. She uncovered evidence of the emergence of an American Nazi Party in California in the 1930s as she researched her mother-in-law’s immigration from Poland to California, and spun that family history into a readable, informative novel. There are wonderful and disturbing nuggets of historical information here about the motion picture industry and American Nazis, much of which I never knew. Mishook’s writing is smooth and conversational, and she handles dialog well, especially given this is her first novel. The character development is skillful, resulting in some very well-drawn personas. Helen, for example, walks a fine line between irritating, charming, shallow, and badass. She’s a rather vain, unformed young woman who has drifted through her life pretty much guided by her older sister. We watch her move from uncertain girl still depending on older sister Sarah to tell her what to do, to a more confident, daring young woman who has a purpose.

Other characters like Harry and Ralph are interesting, while Joe and Winona could have used a bit more development. However, these characters all fit their roles just fine and contributed what was needed to the story. If I have one quibble with this story, it’s a small one. Sometimes authors really, really like a descriptive phrase and tend to repeat it multiple times throughout a book. That happened here, with the author repeatedly describing Helen as “chewing the soft interior of her cheek/lip” during moments of uncertainty. By the end of the book, the inside of Helen’s mouth should have been a bloody pulp if she chewed her cheek so much! But, that is a minor quibble with an otherwise wonderful book. I hope Mishook continues to produce novels and am looking forward to her next one! Recommended.

Dragonwatch by Brandon Mull

dragonwatchFablehaven fans, rejoice! Kendra and Seth are back and as badass as ever!

Dragonwatch opens with a mysterious early morning meeting between Grandpa Sorensen and a shady, cloaked being, where Grandpa is warned of a coming disaster. Kendra, out for her morning run, over hears some of the conversation and realizes that she and Seth will likely be called upon to do battle again. This time, however, more will be asked of the two than ever before. Can they handle the responsibility?

As with the earlier Fablehaven books, Mull creates a vivid landscape filled with all sorts of glorious and deadly creatures. At center stage in Dragonwatch are, of course, DRAGONS! Celebrant the Just takes his places among Dragons of Literature here, right up there with Smaug, Orm, and Saphira. Mull moves the story along at a rapid pace, and successfully keeps Kendra and Seth pretty normal kids who just happen to have mystical powers. The dialog is breezy and colloquial, which will appeal to readers and keep them going. The story arc begun here leaves so much room for more entries in this series that fans will be thrilled and left eagerly awaiting the next. Well done, Mr. Mull. Well done.