When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo


Description

In the old house on a hill, where the city meets the rainforest, Yejide’s mother is dying. She leaves behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: one St. Bernard woman in every generation has the power to shepherd the city’s souls into the afterlife. But after years of suffering her mother’s neglect and bitterness, Yejide is looking for a way out.

Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life his mother built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past, and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.

Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, an ancient and sprawling cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and exuberant storytelling, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding and hopeful novel about inheritance, loss, and love’s seismic power to heal.

My Thoughts

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that truly leaves me speechless. This is one of those books. The writing, much in the rich dialect of Trinidad, is unlike anything I’ve experienced. I found myself reading aloud just to hear the beautiful sound of the words.

While the expected meeting of Yejide and Darwin doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, the chapters leading to this event build a world inhabited by both families that is as real as the fluttery moths surrounding Yejide’s mother as she passes. As real as Darwin’s shorn locs and as bitter as his mother’s disappointment. Once the two meet, prepare yourself for a whirlwind. You will not be able to put this book down until you read the final word.

I was reminded of one of my favorite books, A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds, which also tells the story of a young woman who can commune with the dead and the man who helps restore her faith. That book is one I recommend constantly; When We Were Birds will be added to that list.

Highly recommended.

Praise

Named a Most Anticipated Book by Time, Harper’s Bazaar, The Observer, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Essence, Nylon, Good Housekeeping, Apartment Therapy Business Insider, NBC, Bustle, LitHub, BookRiot, Ms. Magazine, and more…
 
“Mythic and captivating… Banwo roots the reader in [Trinidad’s] traditions and rituals, in the sights and sounds and colors and smells of fruit vendors, fish vendors, street preachers and schoolchildren. In the glorious matriarchy by which lineage is upheld. The result is a depiction of ordinary life that’s full and breathtaking.”New York Times Book Review

“[A] masterly debut novel. It announces an important new voice in fiction, at once grounded and mythic in its scope and carried by an incantatory prose style that recalls Arundhati Roy. . . Lloyd Banwo’s literary gift lies in her capacity to transfigure [grief] – to conjure a cosmic landscape where the living coexist among the dead.”—The Observer (Top 10 Debut Novel of 2022)

“A thoroughly original and emotionally rich examination of love, grief and inheritance… When We Were Birds is full of life .  . .The scenes it hosts are packed with drama, colour and tension, particularly in her gripping finale . . Her novel takes flight and soars.”—The Economist

When We Were Birds is an ode to the idea that broken traditions can lead to beautiful new beginnings.”—Time Magazine

“[A] spellbinding novel . . The poetic prose in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel captivates from the start . . .When We Were Birds is a unique love story whose magical setting in Trinidad takes center stage.”Real Simple

“Lloyd Banwo conjures an aching sexual energy, places the lovers in deliciously paced jeopardy and takes the tale to an agreeably thundery climax . . .Lloyd Banwo has written a love letter for Trinidad, to remind all of us that yes, love is still very, very nice indeed.”—The Guardian

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd


Description

From the critically acclaimed author of The Book of M, a highly imaginative thriller about a young woman who discovers that a strange map in her deceased father’s belongings holds an incredible, deadly secret—one that will lead her on an extraordinary adventure and to the truth about her family’s dark history. 

What is the purpose of a map? 

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field, and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.

But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable, and also exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence… because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret, and discover the true power that lies in maps…

Perfect for fans of Joe Hill and V.E. Schwab, The Cartographers is an ode to art and science, history and magic—a spectacularly imaginative, modern story about an ancient craft and places still undiscovered.

My Thoughts

I devoured this book in one night! There’s adventure, mystery, danger, and daring imagination here all spun into one of the best stories I’ve read in ages.

The vibe reminded me a bit of Mr. Penumbras 24 Hour Bookstore, but the story is wholly original. As a librarian, the setting in NYPL added an extra appeal.

While this is a fantastic adventure, there is also an underlying cautionary tale about mapping and the increasingly intrusive role of AI in mapping our locations and movements. The megalomaniac mapmaker in this story is probably out there in real life and that is a bit scary. This would be a fascinating topic for book discussion group debate regarding the value of all the information gathering that occurs without our knowledge today through things like Alexa and Siri, our cell phone location services, our smart cars, our computers, our smart TVs, etc.

I’ll be recommending this a lot in the coming months.

Published By: William Morrow
Publication Date: 3/15/2022
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova


Description

The Montoyas are used to a life without explanations. They know better than to ask why the pantry never seems to run low, or why their matriarch won’t ever leave their home in Four Rivers—not for graduations, weddings, or baptisms. But when Orquídea Divina invites them to her funeral and to collect their inheritance, they hope to learn the secrets that she has held onto so tightly their whole lives. Instead, Orquídea is transformed into a ceiba tree, leaving them with more questions than answers.

Seven years later, her gifts have manifested in different ways for Marimar, Rey, and Rhiannon, granting them unexpected blessings and powers. But soon, a hidden figure begins to tear through their family tree, picking them off one by one as it seeks to destroy Orquídea’s line. Determined to save what’s left of their family and uncover the truth behind their inheritance, her descendants travel to Ecuador—to the place where Orquídea buried her secrets and broken promises and never looked back.

Alternating between Orquídea’s past and her descendants’ present, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is a “spellbinding tale, both timeless and fresh, that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Prepare to fall in love” (Kim Liggett, New York Times bestselling author).

My Thoughts

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher in August and was immediately drawn to the cover art, which is simply beautiful. I discovered that beauty was carried through to the text as soon as I began reading.

This is the story of a woman who began life as an unwanted child, a burden to her mother and an embarrassment to her stepfather, but beloved among the downtrodden in her village, who became the matriarch of a remarkable family. As a child, Orquidea wanted nothing more than to please her mother and take care of the people who needed help. She is portrayed as a resilient, clever child with a strong will who sees more to the world than most people. Cordova begins building the layers of Orquidea from the beginning, slowly moving towards the action that defines Orquidea’s adult life and the lives of her descendants.

Cordova has mastered the art of magical realism, blending magic with everyday life as naturally as a tree grows and gives life. The tree imagery runs through the story, beginning with Orquidea’s transformation into a ceiba tree, sacred to her people. It is believed that the souls of the dead ascend to the top of the trees to go to heaven. It was also a connection between all three worlds, the underworld, earth and heaven. Here, it is Orquidea, the matriarch, creating links between the past, the present, and the future.

The introduction of the fallen star reminded me of one of my very favorite books of 2020 – Quintessence by Jess Redman, a children’s book that used the fallen star imagery to remind us that we all have a light inside us and we just have to figure out how to ignite it. Orquidea understands that and does her best to help her descendants find their light. She uses the fallen star to wish her way into freedom.

This is also a story about obsession and possession. It’s a familiar trope – a woman running from a man who wants to consume and control her. Here, Orquidea finds the power and courage to escape but not without consequences. She lives with those consequences for 40 years before finally confronting her fear and anger and breaking free of him and it forever.

There are so many things to love about this book, but what brings it all together is Cordova’s gorgeous prose. She has mastered description and dialog and every word and phrase is exactly as it should be to create magic. She is a writer to watch and I look forward to more of her work.

This is my “Best of 2021” pick, for sure. I’ll be recommending this for a long time to come.

Publication Date: September 7, 2021
Published by: Simon & Schuster, Atria Books
Thanks to the publisher for an advanced reading copy

Luminous by Mara Rutherford


Description

“Wonderfully lush and enthralling.” —Erin A. Craig, New York Times bestselling author of House of Salt and Sorrows

From the author of Crown of Coral and Pearl comes an immersive new fantasy about a witch who must learn to harness her power—or risk losing her loved ones forever.

Liora has spent her life in hiding, knowing discovery could mean falling prey to the king’s warlock, Darius, who uses mages’ magic to grow his own power. But when her worst nightmare comes to pass, Darius doesn’t take her. Instead, he demands that her younger sister return to the capital with him. To make matters worse, Evran, Liora’s childhood friend and the only one who knows her secret, goes missing following Darius’s visit, leaving her without anyone to turn to.

To find Evran and to save her sister, Liora must embrace the power she has always feared. But the greatest danger she’ll face is yet to come, for Darius has plans in motion that will cause the world to fall into chaos—and Liora and Evran may be the only ones who can stop him.

“A beautiful, enchanting tale of a young woman coming into her own powers. Luminous shines as brightly as its heroine.” —Joan He, New York Times bestselling author of The Ones We’re Meant to Find

“Shining prose, radiant characters, and a love story that burns bright.” —Elly Blake, New York Times bestselling author of the Frostblood Saga

My Thoughts

This captivating tale of a young girl discovering her own power falls somewhere between A Court of Thorn & Roses and MarcyKate Connolly’s Shadow Weaver, meaning it will appeal to advanced middle grade readers as well as to teens and adults who enjoy fantasy.

The story is familiar – a young girl must hide her powers to keep herself and her family safe, but in Rutherford’s hands readers are treated to some first class world-building and character development. Rutherford draws inspiration from multiple places – e.g. the use of three sisters, the weaving of fate from Greek mythology, even The Nothing from Neverending Story which is how I interpreted Darius – but the story she creates in wholly hers and it’s one of the best things I’ve read lately. While the main character Liora was charming and brave, I was utterly captivated by the character of Margana and thought her fate, while unexpected, was well-done.

Highly Recommended.

Publication Date: October 5, 2021
Published by: Inkyard Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo


Description

A 2021 People Magazine Best Books of Fall Winner!

From two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo and two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall comes a fantastical meditation on fate, love, and the power of words to spell the world.

We shall all, in the end, be led to where we belong. We shall all, in the end, find our way home.

In a time of war, a mysterious child appears at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Gentle Brother Edik finds the girl, Beatryce, curled in a stall, wracked with fever, coated in dirt and blood, and holding fast to the ear of Answelica the goat. As the monk nurses Beatryce to health, he uncovers her dangerous secret, one that imperils them all—for the king of the land seeks just such a girl, and Brother Edik, who penned the prophecy himself, knows why.

And so it is that a girl with a head full of stories—powerful tales-within-the-tale of queens and kings, mermaids and wolves—ventures into a dark wood in search of the castle of one who wishes her dead. But Beatryce knows that, should she lose her way, those who love her—a wild-eyed monk, a man who had once been king, a boy with a terrible sword, and a goat with a head as hard as stone—will never give up searching for her, and to know this is to know everything. With its timeless themes, unforgettable cast, and magical medieval setting, Kate DiCamillo’s lyrical tale, paired with resonant black-and-white illustrations by Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, is a true collaboration between masters.

My Thoughts

Kate DiCamillo just keeps on writing perfect books. The Beatryce Prophecy is storytelling at it finest, with endearing characters and a compelling, folktale-like story led by a remarkable and memorable trio of characters. However, if you count the goat, it’s really a group of four!

All the elements of a story are here – characters that leap off the page; a well-constructed plot that keeps the reader turning pages; a setting defined by vivid description; and a tension that grips you by the hands and pulls you along to the very satisfying conclusion.

This would make a lovely classroom read-aloud that could be used to spark discussion on a number of topics, including equity in education.

Highly recommended.

Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Published By: Candlewick Press
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

Be My Ghost by Carol J. Perry


Description

Maureen Doherty and her golden retriever Finn have taken possession of a charming old inn—only to discover that it’s already possessed by tenants whose lease on life already ran out. Maureen’s career as a sportswear buyer hits a snag just before Halloween, when the department store declares bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Finn’s lost his way as a guide dog after flunking his test for being too friendly and easily distracted. Sadly, only one of them can earn unemployment, so Maureen’s facing a winter of discontent in Boston–when she realizes she can’t afford her apartment.

Salvation comes when she receives a mysterious inheritance: an inn in Haven, Florida. A quaint, scenic town on the Gulf of Mexico hidden away from the theme parks, Maureen believes it’s a good place to make a fresh start with a new business venture. But she gets more than she bargained for when she finds a dead body on her property–and meets some of the inn’s everlasting tenants in the form of ghosts who offer their otherworldly talents in order to help her solve the mystery.

I discovered Carol Perry’s Witch City series last year and really enjoyed her style of writing. That style is carried over into this new series featuring a former department store buyer who suddenly finds herself the owner of a vintage inn located in Haven, Florida.

Witch City focuses on, you guessed it, witches. This new series is all about ghosts. The inn our heroine Maureen inherits is haunted you see, as is the entire town of Haven. Perry spins an engaging yarn involving ghost hunters, a pissed off inn manager, a mysterious bequest to our intrepid heroine, and at least one fun ghost haunting Maureen’s penthouse suite.

While this isn’t anything new in terms of cozy mysteries, Perry successfully begins building the foundation of what I hope will become a lengthy series featuring Maureen Doherty, her golden retriever Finn, and a host of quirky, colorful characters inhabiting the picturesque town of Haven, Florida. Some cozies are super ridiculous with just about every genre cliche thrown in for good measure; others take themselves too seriously, resulting in a boring story. Be My Ghost is just right – great characters, great writing, great setting. A winner all the way.

Publication Date: August 31, 2021
Published By: Kensington
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Undertakers by Nicole Glover


Description

Nicole Glover delivers the second book in her exciting Murder & Magic series of historical fantasy novels featuring Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, magic practitioners and detectives living in post–Civil War Philadelphia.

Nothing bothers Hetty and Benjy Rhodes more than a case where the answers, motives, and the murder itself feel a bit too neat. Raimond Duval, a victim of one of the many fires that have erupted recently in Philadelphia, is officially declared dead after the accident, but Hetty and Benjy’s investigation points to a powerful Fire Company known to let homes in the Black community burn to the ground. Before long, another death breathes new life into the Duval investigation: Raimond’s son, Valentine, is also found dead.

Finding themselves with the dubious honor of taking on Valentine Duval as their first major funeral, it becomes clear that his passing was intentional. Valentine and his father’s deaths are connected, and the recent fires plaguing the city might be more linked to recent community events than Hetty and Benji originally thought.

The Undertakers continues the adventures of murder and magic, where even the most powerful enchantments can’t always protect you from the ghosts of the past . . .

Review

Nicole Glover’s series debut, The Conductors, is one of the most fascinating and unique stories I’ve read in a long time, and the stars of the series, Benjamin and Henrietta Rhodes, are two of the most engaging characters put to page. Glover’s second in the series, The Undertakers, drops the reader back into the Rhodes’ Philadelphia just a few months after the conclusion of The Conductors.

Ben and Hetty are trying to get their funeral home business off the ground when a new mystery is dropped in their laps. Mysterious fires and the even more mysterious deaths of a prominent businessman and his son set Hetty and Ben on a new case. An old enemy from the past re-surfaces and raises complicated feelings and memories for Hetty, who manages to tie them all back up into a neat conclusion.

Glover does a remarkable job of interweaving stories and experiences from the past into the current lives of the Rhodes and their circle of friends. She also introduces the reader to bits of African-American history that add a depth and dimension to the plot. Here, I was prompted to research the role of early fire companies in Philadelphia and other early American cities. Fire departments today are noble organizations committed to public safety, but they weren’t always so egalitarian. Glover uses that history to depict a slice of African-American life, post-enslavement.

The magical aspect of this story continues to engage me. Celestial magic versus sorcery is such an unusual view of how different cultures approach magic. Glover creates an intricate and deep relationship between African-Americans and the elements of earth, air, fire, and water and spins that into a captivating narrative sure to appeal to fans of fantasy and magic.

If you haven’t read The Conductors, go do that between now and November when this one comes out. I am definitely looking forward to the next installment in this series!

Published by: Mariner Books
Publication Date: November 9, 2021
Thanks to Edelweiss.Plus for the review copy

The Promise Witch by Celine Kiernan


Description*

Third in a darkly enchanting trilogy after Begone the Raggedy Witches and The Little Grey Girl, The Promise Witch opens in a time of heat and thirst. The deposed old tyrant of a queen sent a cursed winter to bury Witches Borough in snow. Months later, the clouds have vanished, but an equally cursed drought has settled over the castle and its river, now bone-dry. Witches Borough is dying, and though Mup is the pathfinder, the stitcher of worlds, is she strong enough to mend a scorched landscape and bring the water home? Enter a raggedy witch trailing a storm of ashes: Magda, Crow’s mother. She wants Mup to fulfill a promise. She wants Mup to help her. And woe betide any who stand in her way. Irish storyteller Celine Kiernan’s breathtaking tale of family, loyalty, and risk caps a timeless trilogy brimming with drama and danger—and heartbreaking resonance to the struggles of today.

I discovered Celine Kiernan’s series quite by accident while browsing online. I was thoroughly captivated by Begone the Raggedy Witches and eagerly read the follow-up Little Grey Girl. In The Promise Witch, Kiernan brings the family through the hardest of times, guiding Mup and Mam and the people through terrible thirst and vengeance from a power in decline.

As in the two previous stories, Mup is the center, the “stitcher of worlds” who provides the path for the new through the terrible landscape of the old.

Kiernan’s characterization is outstanding. Mup, wise beyond her years and powerful beyond belief, is still a little girl who needs her Mam. And Mam is a little girl all grown up finally understanding her role in this magical world.

This can be read as a straightforward fantasy for middle graders, but also as an allegory for climate change. Kiernan layers magic, friendship, and loyalty over top of environmental changes similar to what’s happening in our world. Her story implies that good change can happen when people come together, trust one another, and make decisions that may involve sacrifice for the benefit of others.

This is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended.

Published By: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Thanks to *Edelweiss.Plus for the review copy

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker


Description

In this enthralling historical epic, set in New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I— the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world.

Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, who can hear the thoughts and longings of those around her and feels compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a restless creature of fire, once free to roam the desert but now imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and try to pass as human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Brought together under calamitous circumstances, their lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other.

The Golem and the Jinni was one of my top reads in 2013 and I still recommend it to readers in my library. I was excited to discover this sequel and dove in right away.

That was a couple months ago.

As with Golem, Wecker takes her time introducing characters and floats the various storylines along a gently running river. Normally, I would find this a lovely and welcome difference to the suspense stories I usually read; in March 2021, I found it impossible to keep my attention on the story and had to put it down. This had nothing to do with the book – it was everything going on in both the world at large and my own little corner of it.

Fast forward to May and a slightly calmer environment. I picked this up again and spent a wonderful weekend immersed in the world of Chava and Ahmad. It was my time to read this.

I thoroughly enjoyed the stories of Chava, Ahmad, and all the people who touch their lives, as well as the way Wecker ties in the significant historic events of the times, To be sure, there are lots of stories here, but Wecker keeps them all bound together, much in the way that people interact in real life. She presents a view of community and caring among people who are very different and shows that human decency can transcend differences – a message we all need right now.

Recommended.

Publication Date: June 8, 2021
Published By: Harper
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey


Description

Two people. Infinite lifetimes. One impossible choice.

Thora and Santi are strangers in a foreign city when a chance encounter intertwines their fates. At once, they recognize in each other a kindred spirit—someone who shares their insatiable curiosity, who is longing for more in life than the cards they’ve been dealt. Only days later, though, a tragic accident cuts their story short.

But this is only one of the many connections they share. Like satellites trapped in orbit around each other, Thora and Santi are destined to meet again: as a teacher and prodigy student; a caretaker and dying patient; a cynic and a believer. In numerous lives they become friends, colleagues, lovers, and enemies. But as blurred memories and strange patterns compound, Thora and Santi come to a shocking revelation—they must discover the truth of their mysterious attachment before their many lives come to one, final end.

It’s rare that I give a one word review, but this one warrants it, on repeat:

Brilliant

Brilliant

Brilliant

Brilliant

Publication Date: April 27, 2021
Published By: William Morrow
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy