Review: Akata Witch

Akata Witch, Nnedi OkoraforFor 12 year-old Sunny, every day is a challenge. She was born in America, but her parents have brought her home to Aba, Nigeria. As an American she’s already the class freak; combined with her albinism, she’s mocked as a witch and has few friends.

Things start to change when she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Her new friends inform her that she is a Leopard Person, born with innate magical abilities. Her albinism is an indicator of these abilities, and lets her slip between shadows and worlds as if invisible.

But Sunny cannot stay invisible for long. The four children form the youngest coven of Leopard People in history; it is their mission to track down Black Hat Otokoto, who has kidnapped and maimed dozens of children.

The coven is young, and new to magic. Can they defeat Otokoto in time, or will his dark spells bring about the end of the world?

A solid start

Akata Witch has been on my TBR list for so long that I’d forgotten what it was supposed to be about. I’m glad I finally got my hands on it.

The world building is good, if a bit overwhelming. Not only did I have to wrap my head around the Leopard People and their world, I also had to remember that the book is set in Nigeria. Both cultures involve different words and names and mythologies than I’m used to; I was probably 100 pages in before things really gelled.

I loved that the Leopard People value learning above all else, and that the things that make them strange in the normal world are the things that give them power in the magical lands.

Sunny is a wonderful character, brave and insecure and curious and stronger than she knows. The other members of the coven, and even many of the adults, blur together a bit, but Akata Witch is the first in a series — author Nnedi Okorafor should have plenty of space to flesh them out in future books.

For me, the mystery of Black Hat Otokoto was less interesting than following the kids’ education and adventures. But that doesn’t bother me; those characters are more three-dimensional and flawed and funny than a guy who’s Definitely Bad News.

I do have a couple small quibbles, though.

First, I don’t understand why the prologue is written in first person, while the rest of the book is in third person. The change put extra distance between me and the main character, delaying my eventual enjoyment of the story.

Also, the kids feel mature for their ages. Aside from two “I’m totally being a pre-teen/teenager right now” moments, I think the kids’ behavior was the littlest bit unbelievable. They also seemed to accept their “destinies” with few questions…it just rang kind of false.

That said, I still enjoyed Akata Witch. It’s great middle-grade fiction, teaches some important lessons, and overall is a fun adventure for readers of any age.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book that has won a literary award, or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.)

Review: This House is Haunted

This House is Haunted, John BoyneHeartbroken after the loss of her father, schoolteacher Eliza Caine is desperate to leave London. When she applies for a position as a governess at a home outside Norwich, she is surprised at her potential employer’s response: he doesn’t ask about her education or for references, or even tell her the number and age of the children she will be teaching.

Her arrival in Norwich does not allay her unease. First someone tries to push her in front of an oncoming train. Then when she arrives at her destination, she is greeted by two children who insist that she is the only adult in the house.

Eliza’s conversations with the village’s residents — including the family lawyer — do not bear much fruit either. People are afraid to tell Eliza anything about the home, the children, or their parents.

Strange and awful things are happening at Gaudlin Hall. Eliza has never been prone to hysterics; but after a pair of invisible hands tries to push her out a window, the young woman knows one thing for certain: this house is haunted.

Heebie-jeebies, anyone?

Nothing hits the spot like a ghost story — especially one with Gothic undertones. This House is Haunted was published in 2013, but it reads like something straight from the mind of Horace Walpole or Wilkie Collins.

It starts out placidly enough, with the narrator and her father going to hear the author Charles Dickens speak. Mr. Caine is out of the way soon enough, however, and Eliza is off to Gaudlin Hall.

Her students, Isabella and Eustace, are bright but strange. Eustace always seems to be on the verge of spilling every secret he’s ever learned, and Isabella is a disconcerting mix of childish and worldly.

Eliza is smart, kind, and — as it turns out — very brave. She’s determined to learn the truth about Gaudlin Hall and its inhabitants, and to protect them if she must.

As with other novels in this genre, though, I found the characters the littlest bit flat. The plot takes precedence; every character is there to move that plot along and keep the story moving forward. I didn’t feel very connected to any of them.

The story itself was excellent, of course. Some lovely twists and a few truly chilling moments. If you’re a fan of The Woman in White or Nine Coaches Waiting, I recommend you pick up a copy of This House is Haunted.

Maybe just don’t read it late at night.

Review: The Winter People

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahonWest Hall, Vermont is haunted by legends. In 1908 Sara Harrison Shea was found dead in the field behind her home. Since then more people have disappeared, perished under mysterious circumstances, or seen frightening things in the forest near the Devil’s Hand.

The latest person to disappear is Alice, mother of 19-year-old Ruthie and six-year-old Fawn. While searching for clues to her disappearance, the children find a copy of Sara’s diary under a loose floorboard in Alice’s room.

Ruthie and Fawn aren’t the only ones looking for someone they love. Sara’s diary holds a dangerous secret, one that some people would do anything to get their hands on. Can Ruthie find her mother in time, or will the secret Sara Harrison Shea died to protect be their undoing?

Creeeepy!

I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and The Winter People has tons of them. What happened to Alice? What terrible secret did Sara Harrison Shea know? What, exactly, lurks in the woods near the Devil’s Hand?

Author Jennifer McMahon packs some amazing themes — especially parents’ love for their children — and moments into just 314 pages. Every character is desperate to find what they’ve lost, and some go beyond desperation and into madness. It’s beautiful and brutal to read.

I love that the author chose to alternate her chapters between past and present. The book starts with Sara Harrison Shea, but her story is not linear. Her chapters skip back and forth through her timeline, slowly unspooling the secrets and horrors of her final days.

Sara is the most well fleshed out character, but that’s not to say that Ruthie, Fawn, and the others are two-dimensional. They’re all wonderful and exciting to read about. By the end of the book I was rooting for everyone.

Sara’s final secret may not be a complete surprise, but it’s definitely heartbreaking. The Winter People ends with the perfect balance of bitter, sweet, and frightening. An awesome ghost story, just in time for Halloween.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. October’s challenge was to read a cozy mystery, ghost story, paranormal creeptastic, or murder mystery.)

Scare Yourself Silly with These Spooky October Reads

October is a bizarre time of the year, especially in America. It’s a weird mix of history, the occult, slutty costumes, and candy corn. The weather is finally starting to cool off, which means winter isn’t far behind. As the world turns colder, humans draw closer to their hearths and homes. Wrapped up in the winter’s silence, our minds are free to dwell on the things that go bump in the night, the things that may be just outside our windows…

Now is the time to read dark things, frightening things that make you question the world, its inhabitants, and even yourself. Any of these books is a good place to start.

The Seeker

Aine Cahill arrives in Concord, Massachusetts in search of the truth about her ancestor. The more she digs for the truth, the faster her world unravels. There are old, evil things lurking in the forests, things that Aine slowly realizes have been with her since childhood. This one kept me up at night.

The Woman in Black

A young solicitor arrives in a remote village to settle a client’s affairs. There he is terrified by a ghostly figure in black. He’s determined to discharge his duties, but he has no idea of the horrors in store for him. This book is atmospheric in the extreme — the house itself is the best character — managed to terrify me without using a single jump scare.

Heart-Shaped Box

Judas Coyne loves the macabre, so when he’s given the chance to buy a “haunted” suit he does so gleefully. But it turns out the suit is truly haunted…and its ghost has a score to settle with Judas. This book was too scary for me, but if you enjoy being absolutely paralyzed with fright, this could be the book for you.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Sometimes true things are the scariest of all. The big house a little way out of town is locked up for the night, the 12 inhabitants asleep in their beds. In the morning one of them, a four year-old, is dead. A London detective nearly destroys his life uncovering the truth — but we may never know the whole story. I’m just as obsessed with this book as I am with author Kate Summerscale’s other book, The Wicked Boy.

Review: Croak

Croak, Gina DamicoLex Bartleby is 16 and a complete nightmare. Her grades are in the toilet, she’s constantly fighting with classmates and her family, and she’s this close to getting expelled. So she’s mad, but not surprised, when her parents drop her on a bus to the middle of nowhere to stay with her Uncle Mort for the summer. He’s got a farm in upstate New York, and supposedly shoveling cow crap will magically change Lex’s bad attitude.

But it turns out that Mort isn’t a farmer so much as…well, a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to spend the summer showing Lex the ropes.

Being a reaper is tough, but Lex is actually really good at it. Her only problem is a frequent desire to find and punish murderers — a definite no-no.

On top of that, Lex and her reaper partner keep coming across unexplainable deaths. The only thing the victims have in common are milk-white eyes. People whisper about a reaper gone rogue.

Can Lex and the other reapers uncover the truth before it’s too late?

So cool

It’s been a long time since I last read such an original YA novel. Not only is the main premise — teenage girl becomes a Grim Reaper — different, the world building blocks are unique as well (Jellyfish. That’s all I’m saying.).

Lex is a fun character. She’s prickly and not a fan of authority, but she’s also curious and has a strong ethical barometer. She’s a strong person, and by the end of Croak it’s clear she’s going to be powerful when she grows up.

Which is good, because this book got real, fast: it starts with a lot of eye rolling during a meeting in the principal’s office, and within just a few chapters shows Lex reaping souls from badly burned plane crash victims.

It’s been a long time since I last read such an original YA novel.

I love that author Gina Damico let the characters dwell on the ethical dilemma of a vengeful reaper. They show up at the exact moment of death, pausing time and occasionally stepping around the person who pulled the trigger or wielded the knife. The reapers’ responsibility is to take the victim’s soul, not kill the criminal. But that’s what Lex wants to do, and she has trouble hating the idea of a reaper who would do so.

While the “Whodunit” isn’t exactly a surprise, the why and the how are. Big Stuff goes down in the last few chapters, setting us up nicely for the next book in the series (seriously, are there no standalone YA novels anymore?).

Croak was so much fun, and so interesting to read. Plus, death puns!