It’s Like “The Sixth Sense.” But Good.

Great news! I have the perfect book for this Halloween season and I’m only two weeks late! That might not seem particularly helpful now, but all things being equal, this is the perfect book for any season, especially the wet, cold, and dark days of November through…(sigh) May. Leigh Bardugo is a name I’ve mentioned here before. Her Grishaverse novels are among my favorites, so I was ready to love Ninth House, her debut for adult audiences. Yet even with high expectations, it left me incredibly impressed and desperate for a sequel. 

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Alex Stern can see dead people. While this might seem neat to the gothically inclined, it makes Alex’s life a nightmare. For as long as she can remember, ghosts have lurked around her, decorated with the grisly evidence of their unseemly demises (semi-decapitated heads, gunshot wounds, etc.). Her grim ‘ability’ drives her in a dangerous direction – she is a teenage runaway under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and selfish, manipulative men. And yet, when she wakes in a hospital after a violent and tragic night, a tidy gentleman is waiting by her bedside suggesting that her power might open doors to a fresh start in an unlikely environment – Yale University. 

It turns out that New Haven, Connecticut is a city brimming with potent magic. This supernatural resource is channeled by eight ancient houses at Yale which operate under the guise of secret societies, while playing a huge role in world affairs, from throwing elections, to manipulating securities markets, to boosting pop star’s careers. This magic, however, can be extremely dangerous which is why a ninth house, Lethe, was formed to monitor the use of magic by Yale’s young elites. With her powerful connection to the supernatural, Lethe believes that Alex will make a valuable warden against the abuse of magic.  

Alex is assigned to train under the wing of Darlington, an uptight but brilliant and charismatic senior. Darlington has high standards and is skeptical that Alex has the necessary character or background to thrive in this world. At first, Darlington appears to be correct. Alex struggles to learn the rites and history that Lethe demands of her, while also suffering from the academic pressure of student life at Yale and the weight of managing a secret life as a college freshman. Just as she begins to get a feel for her many different roles at Yale, everything falls apart. Darlington disappears under strange and sinister circumstances and a young woman is murdered on campus, with Alex suspecting involvement by at least one of the houses. Alex is left to deal with magical forces she is only beginning to understand, indifferent bureaucracies, and rich, privileged, students who are empowered by a heady mix of supernatural power, generational wealth, and good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Oh, also someone definitely wants Alex dead, and is not being shy about it. 

Ninth House is told in a non-linear fashion. I’m an impatient reader, and I am often annoyed by this style of storytelling, but not when a master of the genre like Bardugo is at the helm. Alex is an incredibly fun protagonist to follow – she is both self-aware and self-destructive, incredibly capable, but not unrealistically so, and a narrator of very questionable reliability. Bardugo is not just a deft writer, but also a thoughtful one. She is able to take a thrilling story of magic, power, and corruption and weave in a mediation on the destructive power of trauma without a whiff of heavy-handed moralizing. Books with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially for adult audiences, but Bardugo manages to make the magic in Alex’s world both frighteningly powerful and almost laughably mundane, grounding the supernatural in the onerous burden of everyday reality. Ninth House has already been picked up as a potential streaming series, which is why I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my partner “they have to cast Danny DeVito as Anderson Cooper!” But you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

Spot-Lit for November 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

In the Hall with the Knife

It’s YA Clue! The End.

For some reason my editor didn’t think my first draft review of this book (see above) was long enough. So I’m going to take another stab at reviewing In the Hall with the Knife by Diana Peterfreund.

First, I want to take you back in time. No, we won’t need a DeLorean but we will need Christopher Lloyd.

I wouldn’t discover this for another five years, but in 1985 a totally bonkers film based on a board game with an all-star cast was getting mixed reviews. Critics didn’t understand at the time that they were witnessing cinematic gold; gold my family and I would watch repeatedly over the years to the point it became a family tradition.

I’m talking about the movie Clue. It takes the characters and layout from the board game and re-imagines it as a 1950s-era dinner party-turned-murder mystery. Thrills, chills, puns, and innuendo are all served up on a platter of physical comedy. While this might not sound amazing to you, it captured my heart and mind in a way that no other media has ever been able to do.

Author Diana Peterfreund had a similar backstory and relationship with the film. She gives a great shout-out in the book’s acknowledgements:

Finally, my eternal devotion to anyone even marginally involved with the beloved 1985 classic movie, as well as my parents, who thought nothing of letting us bring along our battered VHS tape of Clue on every road trip growing up. I could know a foreign language: instead I know that movie’s script by heart.

Same, girl. Same.

If you have a similar love for the film, you will appreciate the 5-6 subtle references I spotted in the text of In the Hall with the Knife. But rest assured that no knowledge of the film is required in order to enjoy what I’ve told friends is “a delightful murderous romp through a flooded and frozen Maine boarding school campus.”

Scarlet, Mustard, Green, Peacock, Plum, and Orchid are students at Blackbrook Academy, an elite, secluded boarding school in the wilds of Maine. It’s winter break and they are among the handful of students unlucky enough to be on campus when the storm of the century strikes. Flooding has wiped out the bridge to the mainland, making escape impossible. Flooding has also systematically invaded most of the buildings on campus until there’s only one place left for everyone to try to survive until help arrives: Tudor House.

Tudor House was once a home for wayward girls or some such nonsense. It housed teenage girls who somehow didn’t fit the norms established by society; in some cases they were accused of crimes and sent to Tudor House to be “reformed.” When Blackbrook went co-ed, they acquired Tudor House to serve as the first girls’ dormitory. For decades Mrs. White has served as Tudor House’s proctor and chaperone.

When it becomes clear that help isn’t coming, or is at least a ways off, the group of students, Mrs. White, Headmaster Boddy, and the school’s caretaker work to weather-proof the old mansion as much as possible while keeping spirits up and learning to get along.

But just as secrets are shared and trust is starting to form tentative bonds, tragedy strikes: Headmaster Boddy is found dead. At first most people try to convince themselves it was a suicide: he must have stabbed himself to death. The school’s caretaker leaves to get help, but Green is the only one who sees the absurdity of ruling his death a suicide and tries to convince the others that it’s definitely murder and the police are needed more urgently than ever.

Who murdered Headmaster Boddy? Was it Beth “Peacock” Picah, Orchid McKee, Vaughn Green, Sam “Mustard” Maestor, Finn Plum, or Scarlet Mistry? All we know for certain is he was killed in the hall, with the knife.

Trapped in a rambling old mansion with a sordid history (and wait–is that a secret passage?) during a brutal winter storm, will anyone survive to tell the police whodunnit?

Stay Home for This Challenge

Fall is my most favorite season. We get pumpkin spice, falling leaves, and furnaces kicking on. My sweaters and boots are so happy to see me and I’m whipping up soups and stews every weekend. And we get rain. Months and months of glorious, life-giving rain. I may as well call myself Shirley Manson because I’m only happy when it rains. Just kidding–but I do love a great rain shower and/or thunderstorm.

We also get a new reading challenge. Read the book, post a photo of it with #everettreads, and be entered into a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card courtesy of the Friends of the Everett Public Library. Thanks, Friends! This month we’re going to read a book set in Washington State.

That’s right, dear reader. We get to stay home for this challenge.

You may have heard about a little book called Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I reviewed it a few years back and the film adaptation was released in August. While I still wholeheartedly recommend reading Bernie, I also think you should try these books set in our wet and wonderful Evergreen State. Just click the cover and be magically–okay, it’s HTML–taken to the summary and with a few more clicks you can reserve your very own copy.

FYI: some of these look really spooky, so if you are looking for some Halloween mood reading you might be able to check two boxes with one book.

I’m going to curl up with Useless Bay by M.J. Beaufrand. Shocking family secrets and a giant mystery on Whidbey Island? Count me in! What will you read for the October challenge?

Spot-Lit for October 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Spot-Lit for September 2019

Spot-Lit consults the big four book trade journals (along with quite a variety of other sources) while pulling these monthly lists together, and it is pretty rare when all four give a starred review to a title. So imagine our surprise to see Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly all giving stars to: Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz, and A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker!  Other stellar releases include new books by Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s (his first novel), Man Booker International Prize-winner László Krashnahorkai, and more.

Click here to see all of the titles below in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Houston: City of Magic

Despite living in Washington for nearly 15 years, I still associate summer with heat and humidity. The Houston branch of my family will tell you that the weather there will give you a “nice summer glow.” I say the icky sticky makes showering a nearly wasted effort and breathing deeply indoors is a luxury taken for granted. After reading the first part of the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews, I now think of magic, mystery, murder, and mega romance when I think of Houston.

In this series, Ilona Andrews (pseudonym for husband-wife writing team Ilona and Andrew Gordon) invites the reader into a Houston we’ve never seen before. I’ll let Andrews explain:

In 1863 in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one’s magic talents. These talents were many and varied. The serum spread throughout the world.  Eventually the world realized the consequences of awakening godlike powers in ordinary people. The serum was locked away, but it was too late. The magic talents passed on from parents to their children and changed the course of human history forever. The future of entire nations shifted in the span of a few short decades.  Those who previously married for status, money, and power now married for magic, because strong magic would give them everything.

Now, a century and a half later, families with strong hereditary magic have evolved into dynasties. It is a world where the more magic you have, the more powerful, the wealthier, and the more prominent you are. Some magic talents are destructive. Some are subtle. But no magic user should be taken lightly.

Magic rules the world. Families with multiple magic users over more than one generation can form a House. Houses almost come across like mob families in that they are very powerful and often skirt the laws–or break them entirely.

But what if you’re a magic user who has spent your whole life hiding your talents? Being a part of a House means you generally have at least one target on your back at any given moment. The more powerful the House, the more powerful your enemies. Sometimes it’s safer to live your life with your magic hidden, especially if your powers are not well-understood and strike fear into the hearts of established Houses. Because if you are feared, you could be taken out.

Nevada is basically a human lie-detector. Catalina is a siren; she can make anyone instantly love her. And Arabella can shift into a giant beast that cannot be physically restrained. Basically, if the government found out that the sisters had these extremely rare magical talents they would be locked away in secure facilities, forced to work for them.

Yeah. No thanks! I’d rather keep my secrets to myself, too.

But such is life for the Baylor family, who are not a House because they have kept the daughters’ abilities secret. Nevada, her maternal grandmother, mother, two sisters, and two cousins all live in a large warehouse that is part home and part headquarters for their family investigation firm. Grandma brings in extra cash retrofitting vehicles for Houston’s elite Houses, and Mom is a retired military sniper. Everyone pitches in with the family business, but none is more dedicated and shoulders the burdens like Nevada. Ever since her father died of cancer and left the business in her care, she has made it her personal mission to see the family business succeed.

To ensure continued success, Baylor Investigations has three rules everyone follows:
Rule 1: they stay bought. When a client hires the family, they are loyal to them.
Rule 2: they don’t break the law, keeping them out of jail and safe from litigation.
Rule 3: most important: at the end of the day, they still have to be able to look their reflections in the eye.

These rules pop up frequently, because the Baylors, and Nevada in particular, are constantly up against powerful and deadly forces who nearly always ask them to break their personal principles in order to stop catastrophic consequences.

Powerful rogue magic users are rampaging through Houston and threatening to topple the world’s House hierarchy. These acts of terrorism have the magic community and the general population on high alert. Enter Mad Rogan, one of the most powerful telekinetics on record. He is working on the fringes to stop the terrorists and crosses paths with Nevada. At first thinking she’s a part of the conspiracy, he eventually learns to work with her in order to stop anarchy and protect society.

This is a high-concept urban fantasy/romance series where the stakes are high and the characters are well-written and relatable, despite the whole magic thing. The first three novels follow the terrorism arc with Nevada and Mad Rogan the protagonists. The novella (and the soon-to-be-published next arc) follow Catalina and her own adventures.

I’m a sucker for a series that dedicates a book to each sibling in a large, loving, and somewhat looney family. But stretch that series out with multiple books per character in a way that doesn’t feel stretched out at all but in fact feels absolutely perfect and wonderful and I think I’m obsessed? Yes. I am here for it. And now that I’ve finished what’s been published so far in the Hidden Legacy series, I’m going back to the other Ilona Andrews series and seeing what trouble I can get into.

I recommend the Hidden Legacy series for fans of superhero comics and movies, those who dig a good family saga, romance lovers, and anyone who fell in love with Harry Dresden. But don’t stop there. Fall down the Ilona Andrews rabbit hole with me. You just know it’s going to be magical.