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The Castrato

Joyce Pool, trans. from the Dutch by Jonathan Ellis. Lemniscaat USA (IPS, dist.), $12.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-935954-41-5

Pool’s sexually charged story opens with the dramatic aftermath of the castration of 12-year-old Angelo Montegne, an impoverished tanner’s son with an exquisite singing voice in Fiesole, Italy, in 1698. Although Angelo’s father vehemently turns down a priest’s invitation for his son to join the oldest conservatory in Florence (“the price is too high”), Angelo is persuaded by his sister and aunt to accept, after his father’s death. Traumatized by the unexpected castration, he now understands his father’s objection, but it is too late: over the years Angelo becomes one of the conservatory’s rising sopranists and catches the eye of the lecherous Prince de Medici. Pool doesn’t shy away from describing Angelo’s erotic desires (including those for Rosa Scarlatti, defiant daughter of the famous composer), his horror and disgust at his condition, or the sexual encounters between the young men in the conservatory, but she also convincingly depicts the sensory aspects of the lives of the poor and the wealthy in that era. Readers will be swept up into Angelo’s life and rejoice with him at the happy ending. Ages 15–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Merrow

Ananda Braxton-Smith. Candlewick, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7924-8

Twelve-year old Neen Marrey has been raised by her maternal aunt, Ushag, and brought up on stories of merrow (mermaids), selkies, krakens, and changelings. When Neen was a toddler, her fisherman father drowned and her mother disappeared soon after, leaving whispers and speculation in their wake. Neen harbors the secret belief that her mother simply rejoined her true family, the merrow that live below the sea, and that she will soon return for Neen. The discovery of a hidden cave and the arrival of a near-drowned “Northman” lead to unexpected revelations about both the local lore and Neen’s mother. This quiet, introspective novel from Australian writer Braxton-Smith sparkles with lingering imagery and expressive writing. Readers will be easily drawn into Neen’s determined efforts to piece together a true understanding of the mother she barely knew, whose story has been muddied by the unkind stories and rumors shared by locals. Neen’s sense of displacement fades as the wall between herself and Auntie Ushag, created by long-kept secrets, begins to crumble, earning them hard-won contentment and kinship. Ages 14–up. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Of Fire and Stars

Audrey Coulthurst. Balzer + Bray, $17.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-243325-1

At the start of Coulthurst’s spectacular debut, seven-year-old Princess Dennaleia of Havemont discovers that she has a magical “Affinity” for fire. Unfortunately, she is already betrothed to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria, a kingdom where the practice of magic is considered heresy. Dennaleia’s mother swears that if she ignores her gift, it will fade, but the opposite proves true; when a 16-year-old Dennaleia arrives in Mynaria to start her new life, she nearly starts a conflagration. While hiding her ability, Dennaleia must also find a way to work with the prince’s prickly and rebellious older sister, Amaranthine, to dissuade Mynaria’s king from waging an unjustified war. But Dennaleia is faced with difficult choices about her future after something other than friendship unexpectedly develops between the two princesses. Dennaleia and Amaranthine’s narratives combine to create a powerful and exquisite love story that also provides incisive political commentary and cautions against zealotry, vengeance, and intolerance. The central mystery is intriguing, Coulthurst’s worldbuilding is excellent, and the book’s explosive conclusion both thrills and satisfies. Ages 13–up. Agent: Alexandra Machinist, ICM. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Spin the Sky

Jill MacKenzie. Sky Pony, $17.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5107-0686-6

Magnolia “Mags” Woodson, 18, has always turned to dance when things got bad. After Mags’s mother, a sometimes prostitute and constant drug addict, causes the death of the mayor’s daughter in a drug overdose, the reputations of Mags and her older sister, Rose, are tarnished, making life in Summerland, Ore., almost unbearable. But Mags has a plan: she is going to try out for a reality dance competition, Live to Dance, where she hopes to win over her town, in addition to the cash prize. Debut author MacKenzie, a former dancer, believably captures Mags’s overburdened and self-defeating voice, as well as her confusion over her crush on her (probably gay) best friend George and her petty jealousies involving others vying for George’s attentions. However, as realistic as Mags’s voice is, and as on-point MacKenzie’s descriptions of dance are, the narrative is slow and meandering. The story picks up once the competition begins, but Mags’s development as a character doesn’t really start until after her inevitable injury. Ages 12–up. Agent: Victoria Marini, Gelfman Schneider (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Wildings

Eleanor Glewwe. Viking, $16.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-451-46885-7

In a multilayered fantasy set in the world of Sparkers (2014), lawmakers segregate the magical kasir elite from the impoverished and powerless halan, even when it means breaking families apart. That’s how twins Rivka and Arik were separated, with strict orders never to see or speak about each other again. But the political tides are turning, and as Rivka launches a search for her brother, she is caught up in a radical plot to force the parliament to abolish Family Law. Glewwe’s city-state of Ashara is an immersive world with social divisions that are simultaneously familiar and foreign. The ghettos and mistreatment of the lower class hark back to the Nazi occupation of Jewish neighborhoods, the integration of a deaf halan boy into a kasir school recalls Brown v. Board of Education–era America, and the faceless Society—magicians with hidden identities who use brute force to keep the peace—evoke images of modern-day police in riot gear. Rivka and her friends are strong-willed, fiercely intelligent, and fearless as they set out to take down the status quo. Ages 10–up. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Waiting for the Voo

Dean Ammerman. Kabloona, $12 paper (162p) ISBN 978-0-9846822-3-2

In this offbeat SF adventure, first in the Warrensberg trilogy, 13-year-old Wilkin Delgado isn’t pleased when his mother invites a friend and her daughter to move in with them. Alice Jane Zelinski—a 14-year-old with tattoos, gray hair, and an anger management problem—doesn’t want to be there either. Then Wilkin’s mother takes in yet another eccentric tenant. Cardamon Webb, who is a bit like a cross between Willy Wonka and “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, calls himself a plumber, but he’s actually on a quest to fill a dangerous galactic hole, and he needs Wilkin and Alice Jane’s help to prevent their world from being infiltrated by otherworldly “riffraff.” Ammerman builds chemistry between the two central characters through their alternating first-person points of view, but the many outlandish creatures they encounter—demonic birds, “porcelain killer dolls,” and lots of ferrets—feel more like diversionary instruments of chaos than key plot elements. Still, it’s good fun watching Alice Jane and Wilkin romp through the muck of the universe. Books two and three, Escape from Dorkville and The Last Ma-Loo, are also available. Ages 8–12. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Threads

Ami Polonsky. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4847-4690-5

China is a long way from Evanston, Ill., but perhaps not as far as Polonsky’s heroine, Clara, thinks. After all, Clara’s older sister, Lola, was born there, and the whole family visited Lola’s birthplace just a few years ago. Now, Clara is 12, and it’s has been two months since Lola died from leukemia. The family is deep in grief when China reenters Clara’s life via a note she finds in a purse—written by a 13-year-old girl kidnapped to work in the factory where it was produced. Desperate to save Yuming, Clara persuades her parents to travel to China once again; they agree, hoping the trip will help Clara find closure after Lola’s death. Meanwhile, Yuming doesn’t wait to be saved, and in increasingly tense chapters, she joins forces with others in the factory to escape. By letting Clara and Yuming tell their stories alternately and showing the risks both take, Polonsky (Gracefully Grayson) delivers an affecting story of connections that cross international lines: the objects we use, the geography we traverse, and the families we make. Ages 8–12. Agent: Wendy Schmalz, Wendy Schmalz Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Teddy & Co.

Cynthia Voigt, illus. by Paola Zakimi. Knopf, $16.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-553-51160-4

Voigt (the Mister Max books) delivers a warm, subtle novel about the big-hearted adventures of a group of toys living on an island. Spare but astute character development quickly establishes Voigt’s cast, which includes Sid, a perpetually hungry snake; Umpah, an elephant with a penchant for muffin-baking; and Peng, an introverted penguin. Teddy stands firmly at the center, a hopeful wonderer who relies on his friends to push him around in his red wagon, having no legs. Voigt tenderly highlights the friends’ cooperation when they take Teddy to explore new terrain outdoors and figure out how to let him enjoy the water while Prinny, an irrepressible pig, learns how to swim. When a seemingly sinister rabbit, Mr. B, arrives, followed by a doll named Clara who proclaims herself queen, the equilibrium of the group is threatened, but Teddy and friends quickly bring the outsiders into the fold. It’s an affirming celebration of friendship, kindness, and embracing new experiences and relationships. Final art not seen by PW. Ages 7–10. Author’s agent: Merrilee Heifetz, Writers House. Illustrator’s agent: Emily van Beek, Folio Literary Management. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Potatoes at Turtle Rock

Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman, illus. by Alex Steele-Morgan. Kar-Ben, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4677-9321-6

The creative team behind Tashlich at Turtle Rock (2010) returns with another story about a Jewish holiday–themed hike. Once again, young Annie is the leader and narrator; the title refers to her giving two baked potatoes to each family member during a Hanukkah walk through their snowy woods. Annie explains that the potatoes serve multiple purposes: they’re touchstones of family history (as a boy, “Great-Grandpop” used hot potatoes as pocket warmers during wintry walks to his shtetl’s religious school), a makeshift menorah (“Annie, you’re ingenious,” says Dad, as she pushes six candles and the shammash into the spuds), and latke substitutes, eaten al fresco. Schnur and Schnur-Fishman fill the family’s sojourn with snappy banter (asked to reveal something he’s afraid of, Dad replies, “The federal deficit”) while Steele-Morgan’s outdoor scenes capture the chilly blue light of the season. Ages 5–9. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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On That Christmas Night

Lois Rock, illus. by Alison Jay. Lion (IPG/Trafalgar Sq., dist.), $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-7459-6588-8

Would the townsfolk of Nazareth whisper about Mary expecting a baby and her betrothed Joseph not being the father? Rock imagines the scenario briefly in her fresh and compelling retelling of the Nativity. (“ ‘Tut tut,’ and ‘Oh dear,’ they gossiped. ‘Whatever will the poor man do?’ ”), which nonetheless stays respectfully true to the events as described in the Bible. Rock’s plainspoken language and portrayal of the biblical characters as fully realized humans guided by their deep faith in God will appeal to a range of readers. Jay’s (The Twelve Days of Christmas) oil portraits—rendered with her stylized flair and bordered by images of flowers, vines, animals, angels, and stars—add a cozy, dreamlike element to the mix, especially in a scene that shows sheep streaming across rolling hill and angels crowding the evening sky as they converge on the manger. Ages 5–9. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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