Nightspell by Leah Cypess
Like her previous book, Mistwood, this new book offers a new take on fantasy—and, I might add, on paranormal fiction. You know those arrogant, malicious fairies in books such as Maggie Stiefvater's Lament? Well, here they're ghosts, living in a place aptly known as Ghostland. The details of Cypess's world are very well thought out, with the ghosts riding out to hunt in the dark and appearing at odd moments, sometimes looking like skeletal monsters and more often looking ordinary.
The story begins as Darri and the ambitious brother she mistrusts, Varis, ride to Ghostland, where Darri is to marry the prince in exchange for her little sister, Callie. Darri is doing this as a sacrifice, since she's been feeling horrible ever since she was unable to stop a frightened Callie from being sent to Ghostland as a child to await marriage to the prince.
When they arrive, however, Darri learns that her future husband has been murdered and has joined the ranks of the ghosts. Besides which, Callie is avoiding her. Darri and her brother soon find their lives threatened, and then, to Darri's surprise, Prince Kestin asks her to help him figure out who murdered him. To further complicate matters, some of the denizens of Ghostland are alive, while others are dead. (It's actually pretty hard to tell them apart.) As Darri begrudgingly launches into her investigation, as well as trying to learn what Callie's problem is, she uncovers the secrets of the ghosts and of The Guardian and The Defender. Naturally, she puts herself and her siblings in even greater danger along the way.
If you like court intrigue and mystery as well as adventure, dive into this well-crafted story. And when you find that Darri is feeling a little attracted to Kestin, don't worry: he's not a zombie or a vampire, he's something else altogether. He's a Ghostlander.
But Darri's greatest love is actually saved for her sister. Darri will do anything for Callie, and that's what drives the story. As a person with four sisters, I was very moved by Darri's pigheaded determination to save Callie. It turns out what Callie needs is not exactly what Darri imagines, though. Isn't that often the case with the people we love?
Note that Nightspell is a companion novel to Mistwood since it's set in the same world. Mistwood is another good read if you haven't gotten a chance. And take a look at this interview with the author over at The Enchanted Inkpot.
The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen by Geraldine McCaughrean
I know this author's work best because of her retellings of numerous myths and legends (Greek, Roman, The Canterbury Tales, Gilgamesh, etc.), but you may recognize her as the writer of an authorized new book about Neverland, Peter Pan in Scarlet. Mostly, I want to point out that she has a rich, often metaphorical style, which is why I requested a copy of this book from Amazon Vine.
I discovered that McCaughrean adopted a cleaner voice and a quicker pace in this story that is partly an homage to Mark Twain's classic tales about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But her style is very middle grade, so her riverboat leaves Twain behind and enters a more rollicking Mississippi River, with only a few dark notes.
Cissy Sissney's life is looking pretty bad as her sour, pragmatic mother makes her leave school to work in her father's general store. Cissy's secret wish is to become an actress like her former teacher, who has married the leader of a troupe of traveling players. Then disaster strikes, and Cissy gets her wish, at least temporarily. She and a couple of other kids from town wind up in the custody of the theater troupe, and all of them land on a riverboat, making their picaresque way down the great river. Hilarity—and a certain amount of heartache—ensues.
Having recently reread Huck Finn, I got a kick out of seeing what kinds of adventures this much larger cast of characters might have in a similar setting. Of course, the Sunshine Queen is a lot bigger boat than Huck's raft, though sometimes it's less watertight. Cardsharps, preachers, circus performers, banjo players, and an imitation Queen Victoria: you'll find them all in this book. I think my favorite scene is when the group on the riverboat puts on a show for a large family sitting in a row on their rooftop because the river has flooded, but there are many fun moments here.
For those of you who like your historical fiction with humor and spice, pick up Sunshine Queen and imagine a summer on the Mississippi!
Withering Tights by Louise Rennison
Did you ever fall under the alarmingly ridiculous spell of Georgia Nicolson, star of books like Angus, Thongs, and Full-frontal Snogging? In case you can't imagine uber-Brit Rennison ever dreaming up Georgia's like again, you're right; she hasn't. But she has decided to put on a new show starring Georgia's cousin, Tallulah Casey.
I'll admit that Withering Tights may disappoint readers who want more Georgia. In terms of character, style, and adventure, it does resemble the earlier series. But Tallulah is a much gentler and less selfish person than her cousin (which isn't hard to pull off, frankly!). She enters a terrific setting as she embarks on a summer program at a performing arts school in Yorkshire. Since the school has run out of room, Tallulah must lodge with a family in the village. The family is quirky and so are the teachers, as are Georgia's new friends and the boys at the academy located conveniently nearby.
Yes, there's quirk and humor everywhere you turn. As in the Georgia books, some of the humor borders on raunchy, but a lot of that has to do with Tallulah worrying about being flat-chested. Then boy-wise, you've got an attractive, chivalrous college boy like the "sex god" in Georgia's life and a funny academy boy who evokes Georgia's eventual love match. But forget those two: Rennison's best new invention is a local boy who is a lot like Seth in the movie, Cold Comfort Farm. He smolders and sneers and plays the field, and all of the girls for miles around line up in hopes of being mistreated by him. Cain and Tallulah get a little love-hate thing going. She thinks he's a jerk, but he's also... interesting.
In case you don't think Rennison had Cold Comfort Farm specifically in mind when she invented the character, this boy, rather glaringly named Cain, has two brothers named Seth and Ruben. Those are the names of the two sons in the movie, which is based on a book by Stella Gibbons. (Watch the movie, by the way; it's a wonderful send-up of Thomas Hardy and even gothic novels.) Of course, Cain and his brothers and some buddies have a rock band with which they further stun the girls at the theater school.
The main question in the story is whether Tallulah will qualify to stay on in the fall as a regular student, since the summer program is by way of being an audition. She seems to be failing miserably, but then, somebody's got to practice comedy in this place, right? Mostly, read the book to enjoy the goofy interactions between the various members of Rennison's colorful cast of characters. And try not to be too hard on it for not being about the inimitable Georgia.
Note for Worried Parents: Nightspell is a mature book in tone and is intended for teens. MacCaughrean's book is for middle grades, though it has a couple of references to tough life situations. Withering Tights is probably PG-13, with some eyebrow-raising remarks about kissing and breasts.