Katherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.
Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.
Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.
When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.
His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.
Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.
The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.
Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.
Like most avid readers, there are a handful of books from childhood that I became completely lost inside. I still love Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden, and reading it always brings me right back to my childhood, as well as that lonely old mansion in the English countryside. Megan Shepherd’s debut novel The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is sure to spark this same feeling in readers young and old. A blend of history and fantasy, it sucks readers into another world filled with mysterious characters and magical creatures.
Emmaline is one of many at the makeshift hospital for children with tuberculosis, but she is the only one able to see the winged horses in the mirrors of the once great house. Against the nuns’ strict orders, she sneaks out to play in the walled garden whenever she can. One morning, she discovers a horse from the mirror world hidden there. The horse, Foxfire, has a broken wing, which prevents him from returning to his own world. Letters from The Horse Lord begin to appear in the garden’s ancient sundial, and explain that Foxfire isn’t just wounded, but is being hunted by a sinister Black Horse. This creature hunts at night and is repelled by colorful objects. In order to save her new friend, Emmaline must find colorful objects to surround him. This is hard to do in the drab, gray hospital where all color seems to have been washed from the world.
This deeply moving story will have readers on the edge of their seats and will stay with them long after they have discovered all the secrets hidden in the pages.
James Lasdun’s new novel The Fall Guy is a deliciously taut psychological thriller. As the story opens, three friends are on their way to spend a peaceful summer in the country, but readers soon realize there is something malevolent lurking beneath the trio’s careful manners.
Matthew, an unemployed chef, jumps at the chance to stay with his cousin Charlie, a wealthy banker, at his idyllic retreat in the mountains of New York. It will be a chance to get away from the city and figure out what’s next for him. It’s also an opportunity to spend the summer with Charlie’s wife Chloe, who he admits he is very fond of. His fondness actually seems a little more like infatuation, but not even Charlie seems to mind that Matthew covets his wife. After all, Chloe is perfect. Who wouldn’t idolize her a little bit?
As the days blaze on, and the characters spend more time with one another over elaborately prepared dinners and too much wine, the smooth veneers start to crack. The real jealousies and tensions show through. Secrets from the cousins’ past are brought to light that make readers wonder if they understood these characters at all or have any clue what they are actually doing this summer. Is Matthew just a nice guy trying to figure his life out after all? Is Charlie spending his days working on a new business deal in the city? Does Chloe know about Matthew’s mild obsession with her, or is she being secretive for another reason altogether? And, ultimately, how long can this go on before it boils over?
Lasdun weaves in the clues so deftly they are hard to recognize until chapters later. The writing is clever and quietly unnerving. Lasdun creates a unique kind of suspense which sets him apart from contemporaries.
Fans of smart, suspenseful stories like The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith are sure to love this book.
Call me superficial, but I love a really pretty book. This is especially true for children’s books. What better way to lure young readers in than an eye-catching cover or page after page of cool illustrations? Of course, in order to truly live up to my exacting standards, it must have some substance too. I've recently become obsessed with Flying Eye Books, an imprint of Nobrow Press because they never disappoint me. They are always stylishly composed and fun to read.
Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey is an amazing example of nonfiction for children. It presents readers with weird and fascinating facts as well as lots of practical information on things like shark anatomy, social habits and even some of the mythology surrounding this mysterious predator. The author includes a section on species endangerment and simple ways to keep their habitats safe. However, the illustrations really steal the spotlight. Each page is like a print I would hang in my house, featuring underwater scenes and infographics that are as useful as they are nice to look at. They are especially useful for helping young readers make sense of all the information. My favorite panel shows a kayaker paddling at the top of the page with an assortment of sharks in the water beneath, all drawn to scale. It is a great way to begin to imagine how many differences there can be in one species.
One Day on Our Blue Planet…in the Antarctic is a picture book that introduces kids to a day in the life of a penguin named Adélie, also the name of a common species of penguin living on the Antarctic coast. Through her adventures, author Ella Bailey teaches us about the other animals in Adélie's habitat, like seals, whales, squids and krill. The sentences are simple and sparse, but children will discover a ton of information about life in Antarctica through the illustrations. While they are stylistically simple, there is so much cool stuff happening on each page, it's sure to pique young readers’ interest. The end pages also feature each of the species making an appearance along with its name.
These two stylish books are great for kids interested in the natural world, and they are sure to prompt further investigation. Both are part of a series, so be sure to check out other works from these authors.
Fans of Amor Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, have patiently waited for another work, and A Gentleman in Moscow is worth the long wait. Yet again, this gifted writer breathes life into a lavish era long since passed. He introduces a cast of characters that are sure to charm readers, none more so than Count Alexander Rostov.
The story opens shortly after the Russian Revolution. The Count is being tried for writing a popular counter-revolutionary poem, but thanks to some high-ranking friends in the party, his life is spared. Instead, he is declared a “Former Person” — given a life sentence of house arrest. This is interesting, since the Count resides at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, one of the city’s most elegant hotels, just steps away from the Kremlin. Though he must give up his stately suite and take up residence in a tiny room on the top floor, he is not a man defined by rooms.
From inside his beloved hotel, he observes the upheaval that sweeps through Russia in the years after the revolution. Over the next three decades, the country he loves disappears and is replaced by something unrecognizable.
Despite these changes in society, he never loses sight of who he is. His bygone code of ethics is in large part what makes him so delightful as a character. While this may sound stuffy, Towles infuses the characters, including the Metropol itself, with too much effervescent charm to ever be considered tedious.
A rich cast of intriguing characters pass through the hotel, some of them becoming part of the Count’s life in the most unexpected ways. Despite his imprisonment, his life is no less full than it may have been if he were a gentleman of leisure living freely abroad. In fact, his imprisonment may arguably take him on a more emotionally rewarding journey.
Towles somehow keeps life inside the hotel from ever becoming monotonous for readers. This could be in large part because of the humor provided by the stories narrator, balanced perfectly with moments of insight that will leave readers mulling the words over long after they finish the book. Towles also weaves in history, literature, ballet, architecture, and not least of all the importance of food and wine pairing without ever seeming pedantic.
This work will appeal to fans of Russian classics as well as readers who enjoy the sly wit and charm of Jane Austen or Edith Wharton.