Elizabeth Schieber

Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’

I know everyone compares everything to Harry Potter, but this really does have the same sort of readability and charm. It’s the story of Morrigan Crow, born a cursed child and hated in her hometown (her father is mayor). Morrigan gets blamed for everything, from bad weather to upset stomachs to lost pets. Good thing that cursed children are all killed the night before their 11th birthday, and for Morrigan Crow, that is tomorrow.

Just before Morrigan is to die, a mysterious stranger whisks her away to Nevermoor, a realm she didn’t know existed, where she finds herself being groomed to compete for a spot in the illustrious Wundrous Society, a school for the gifted. The magically gifted, that is. Morrigan has to compete in a series of trials to earn her place among the future leaders of the country. The only problem is, she has no magic talent to speak of.

Living in an enchanted, clever and ever-changing hotel overseen by a large talking cat, Morrigan comes to love her life in this new world. But as with all good Harry-Potter-esque novels, there is something sinister afoot. And if she doesn’t pass her trials and make it into the Wundrous Society, she’ll be thrown back to her hometown to face certain death. I can’t wait for the second installment, due out in October 2018.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Little Brown Books for Young Readers | 9780316508889 | October 31, 2017)

Review: “In the Land of Armadillos”

scribner-armadillos-rev-lrI requested access to In the Land of Armadillos on Netgalley for two reasons: One, I loved the cover. Two, I loved the title. That’s it. I’d never heard of the author; it seemed like the stories would all be sad. I figured I’d just read the first story and leave the rest behind.

But oh, my gosh. Remember a while back when Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See came out? I said then that typically there was one great WWII novel a year. It’s a subject that will continue to intrigue authors and readers alike, but some tales are better than others. In the Land of Armadillos is most likely the best WWII fiction that will come out this year–and it’s only February. And they’re short stories.

Even if it turns out not to be the best, it’s certainly pretty amazing. Helen Maryles Shankman has written a series of linked short stories about a Polish town devastated by WWII. We get to see the cold-blooded SS officer who finds himself trying to save the (Jewish) illustrator of his son’s favorite picture book (while simultaneously killing those the illustrator loves); the farmer who himself hates Jews and turns in many of his neighbors, only to find himself hiding a young Jewish girl; the town’s best saddle maker; the orphaned siblings who run the town’s largest mill.

Every story was so great – yes, they’re all sad because terrible things happened during the war. But what I loved about them was that the characters–no matter their nationality, political affiliation or religious belief–were so real, so three-dimensional. The story that had me crying was not because of something wretched–a death or betrayal–but instead it was about the revelations of a hard-hearted man. 

Five stars, definitely.

In the Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner | 9781501115196 | February 2, 2016)

“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun 9780345534187_5a2b2I picked up an advance of Paula McLain’s new novel, Circling the Sun, knowing that it centers fully on the life of Beryl Markham. I knew that Beryl was an aviatrix, that she had short hair, and that she had written the popular memoir West with the Night. If I’d have had to guess, I would have guess that she was from London. Or that she went to grade school with Amelia Earhart stateside. And that was the extent of my knowledge. As it turned out, I had been operating under false assumptions. Beryl Markham was MUCH cooler than I could have imagined!

Although I was correct in assuming she was British – she didn’t grow up in London, but rather deep in the heart of Kenya. The setting alone made this an incredibly entertaining and worthwhile read. She was tough, she was opinionated, she was also naive and brash and a little bit wild. The novel only briefly touches upon her life in the sky, instead focusing on her life before she discovered airplanes. Her father was a horse trainer, a breeder and an owner and Beryl followed closely in his footsteps (unheard of for a woman at the time). She fell into a fast moving crowd and struggled to keep up, making multiple missteps as she tried. Scandal seemed to follow her around in the most delicious ways (for a reader, at least). I loved getting to know her through this fast moving, entertaining novel. Every other famous Brit living in Kenya during this time (the 1920s and onward) makes a cameo in this book, or is a central character: Idina Sackville, subject of The Bolter, Karen Blixon and Denys (author and love interest in Out of Africa) – all the ones that you could name are here. 5 stars.

If you, like me, are fascinated by this sort of wild and uninhibited period of time in Africa, here are some other books that fit the bill (that are also great!):

  • Wildflower by Mark Seal
  • The Bolter by Frances Osborne
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books | 9780345534187 | July 28, 2015)

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

AmongTheTenThousandThings9780812995220_dd7ffSometimes all you need to get you out of a reading funk is a well-written story of a messed up family. Guess what? I found one!

If you look at the front cover, you’ll see that Jonathan Safran Foer gave a pretty nice blurb for this debut novel–reason enough for me to pick it up. He’s a favorite of mine, and one who doesn’t blurb often.

Page one tells us that the husband in this family drama, Jack, has had an affair. The recently scorned Other Woman has printed out an entire novels worth of all of their emails and texts, wrapped it up with a bow and sent it off to Jack’s wife, Deb. Pretty common groundwork for any novel that includes an affair, I thought.

However! Usually in these novels, I find one of the two (Jack or Deb, in this case) completely unsympathetic. The wife is too wishy-washy, the husband too unconvincing, why were they ever even married in the first place? What did they see in each other?

In Among the Ten Thousand Things, I liked both sides. I totally believed that there was love in that relationship, love that would make you really consider staying or leaving. Yes, the story is sort of depressing. Yes, there are children involved who are directly affected by the marital drama. But yes, there are some hilarious moments and great lines.

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (Random House | 9780812995220 | July 7, 2015)

Review: “The Book of Speculation” by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationDear Booksellers,

Remember all of those customers who found themselves unlikely fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern? Or the ones who keep looking for something like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield? Well. Here is one you can confidently put in their hands: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.

Early reviews have also compared it to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. And while I (just recently) read and loved Geek Love–I think that comparison is a little bit off. Where Geek Love is darkly tragic, morally blurry, and pretty intense, I found The Book of Speculation to be more commercially appealing. Closer, I thought, to the movie Practical Magic with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock if the movie were about circus performers instead of witches.

Our hero is Simon–a young librarian who lives in his childhood home on the East Coast. And by “on the coast” I don’t mean somewhere out East. It is literally ON THE COAST. In fact, it is dangerously close to falling off a cliff in the Long Island Sound. Pretty quickly, we learn that Simon’s mother drowned in the sea below their house, and also that his mother, sister Enola and Simon himself all have the uncanny ability to hold their breaths for dozens of minutes at a time.

The novel opens with a mysterious package arriving on Simon’s doorstep–an old, old book filled with dates and names and cities. The old log book from a travelling circus. Quickly noticing that some of the names were familiar, he discovers that some of the “mermaids” in the circus’s log are related to him, and that a shocking number of them died by drowning, all on July 24th of different years. The same day as his mother’s death. As the date gets closer and closer, he frantically tries to solve the mystery/break the curse/connect all the dots in order to, so he thinks, save his sister’s life. I’d give it 4 stars and think it will be an easy sell (especially since the cover is great).


Elizabeth Schieber

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (St. Martin’s Press | 9781250054807 | June 23, 2015)