Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

B.B. Alston’s debut middle grade novel, Amari and the Night Brothers, has been one of my most anticipated books of 2021. It feels like forever that I’ve had it on my to-be-read list. There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book and lots of marketing to get it in front of readers. After having just finished it, I can confirm that it is totally worth the hype. This is the first book in a new series that will have readers, including myself, counting down the weeks, days and minutes until the next book in the series is released.

Amari has a scholarship to a prestigious school, where she is constantly reminded how much she doesn’t fit in. She is picked on constantly because she lives in the wrong part of town and she’s Black. She lives with her mum, and until recently, her brother Quinton. Her brother is currently missing and nobody seems to be doing anything to try and find him. Amari receives a package from her brother, with an invitation to attend an interview at the place where he worked. Thanks to her brother’s nomination, Amari is introduced to a world that she never knew existed. Amari joins the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, an organisation charged with protecting the known world from the world of the unknown. Her eyes are now open to the weirdness of the world and she can see the supernatural creatures around her that are hiding in plain sight. Amari must be awarded a badge and decide which part of the organisation that she would like to belong to. At the badge ceremony, Amari is identified as a magician, something that is illegal in the supernatural world. Amari now finds herself even more of an outcast than she was at her school and she has to try and prove to those around her that she isn’t evil. Amari decides to try out for a position as a Junior Agent for the Department of Supernatural Investigations, following in her brother’s footsteps. Her brother was one of the most famous Junior Agent’s before he disappeared, leaving few clues behind about his disappearance. While facing the three try-outs to become a Junior Agent, Amari makes it her mission to find out more about her brother and his disappearance. Together with her new friends, Amari must use her new skills and the information she gathers to stop the Night Brothers and their apprentice from getting their hands on a weapon that could bring about the end of the world.

Amari and the Night Brothers is an addictive read that is bursting with magic and imagination. I was hooked from the start and constantly marveled by B.B. Alston’s imagination. Reading this gave me the same tingles that I got reading Nevermoor, because the world is so fully realised and it’s full of really clever and funny details. The story is action-packed and you care about the characters, so you keep turning the pages because you need to know what happens. Even when you get to the end of the story it’s still exciting because you know that you’ve only just scratched the surface of this world and what is going on, so there will be (hopefully) many more books to come. Amari is just coming in to her powers and figuring out who she is, so you know that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Amari has grown up in a neighbourhood where she didn’t have much, but she did have her family. Whether it is at Jefferson Academy, where she is picked on because of the colour of her skin and where she lives, or at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where she is an outcast as a magician, Amari is told that she isn’t good enough.

It’s kind of like how being a Black kid from the projects makes Mr. Jenson feel the need to watch me extra close every time I come in his store. Or how surprised my scholarship interviewers were that I could speak so well. People assume stuff about you based on things you can’t change about yourself.

Amari just does her ‘best to prove them wrong, to be the person they’re not expecting.’ She does this throughout the book, trying to prove that she is worthy to have a place in the Bureau and that she isn’t the evil magician they think she is.

The Bureau is a fascinating place and I really enjoyed learning about the different parts of it and the way that it operates. It seems like one of those places that you would never really know everything about. There are so many different floors and areas and we only see a handful of them in this first book. I particularly enjoyed the Department of the Unexplained, which has a room called the Origin of Both the Chicken and the Egg. Each of the elevators has a different personality too, from ones that sing opera to ones that like to prank kids.

There are lots of quirky details that give this world depth (and make me laugh). There is a gossip magazine called Rumours and Whisperings, in which one of the headlines is ‘Dwarves insulted by Merlin’s insinuation that golden city is merely gold-plated.’ Amari and her friends sneak out to the All-Souls Festival in the story and discover the Sweet Dreams tent, where you can purchase liquids that give you the dreams that you want. They have titles like Richest Person in the World and Sweet, Sweet Revenge.

Amari and the Night Brothers is the perfect book to recommend to anyone who loves Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series or Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series. Anyone who loves stories with magic, superpowers, secret organisations, the supernatural or the unexplained will love Amari and the Night Brothers. I can’t wait to see where B.B. Alston takes us next!

The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith

Readers of all ages and abilities should be able to find a good spooky story to read. Dan Smith’s new story, The Invasion of Crooked Oak, has just been published by Barrington Stoke, and it’s the perfect spooky story for reluctant, struggling or dyslexic readers.

Pete and Krish love reading about weird things happening around the world on their favourite website, The Mystery Shed. They never thought that something weird would happen in their boring town though. When their friend Nancy’s parents start acting strangely (dead eyes, talking with no emotion and keeping the curtains closed) Pete and Krish think it’s nothing at first. Then others in their town start acting strangely too and the whole town just seems too quiet. The friends follow Nancy’s parents to Carpenter’s Field and the fracking site that operated there until recently. It’s here that the friends make a disturbing discovery. If they don’t get to their families in time they too will be transformed and life will never be the same again.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak is a fast-paced, creepy supernatural thriller that is absolutely brilliant. Dan brings in all those aspects of horror and sci-fi and creates an accessible story for dyslexic readers that will hook in the most reluctant or struggling reader too. Avid readers will love the story too as it is short but really engaging. It will especially appeal to those older primary kids and teens who are fans of Stranger Things as it has a similar vibe.

Although the thrills and chills are the main appeal of the story there is an environmental aspect too. Carpenter’s Field, where the main characters played together when they were younger has become a fracking site (a controversial issue around the world and certainly in their small town). Pumping chemicals into the ground will have long term effects on the area but it has also unleashed an unknown entity.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak is a book to hunt down and recommend to kids, especially with Halloween just around the corner.

The Weirn Books 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods by Svetlana Chmakova

Svetlana Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School graphic novel series (Awkward, Crush, and Brave) have been some of the most popular graphic novels in my school library. Her characters and the awkward situations they find themselves in at middle school are really relatable for kids. Svetlana’s latest book, Be Wary of the Silent Woods, is the first in her new series, The Weirn Books, and it’s scarily good.

Ailis and Na’ya live in a small, sleepy town called Laitham. It’s home to humans and human-passing night things – vampires, shapeshifters, mermaids and weirns. Ailis and Na’ya are weirns, witches born with a demon guardian spirit (called an astral) bound to them for life. The girls go to school at night and have classes on things like Astral Training and Alchemistry. Like any school there are bullies and detention, but also crystal caves and fireproof walls. While searching for a book in her grandma’s attic, Ailis uncovers a family secret. A shadow starts looming in the Silent Woods, a classmate starts acting weird and then Na’ya’s little brother D’esh disappears. Ailis and Na’ya realise they must face their fears and confront the secrets of the mansion in the Silent Woods.

Be Wary of the Silent Woods is an action-packed start to this awesome series that delivers frights and fun. It has the humour that I love from the Berrybrook series mixed with this cool supernatural world. Svetlana uses lots of onomatopoeia so there are some great panels that are taken over by sounds, like screaming or rain pouring down. She doesn’t let the panels limit the story either, with action and speech bubbles breaking out of their panels. Svetlana’s colour palette is muted but never dull.

One of my favourite aspects of Svetlana’s books is that her characters are so expressive and this book is no exception. Ailis and Na’ya’s go through lots of different emotions in the story but it’s always clear from their faces how they’re feeling.

Be Wary of the Silent Woods is out now and I’m already looking forward to book 2. Get this for fans of the Berrybrook Middle School trilogy or kids who like a spooky adventure story.

Interview with Darkmouth author Shane Hegarty

Shane Hegarty is the author of the awesome Darkmouth series.  It’s full of legendary creatures of all kinds and there are plenty of laughs.  You may have been one of the lucky people who got to hear Shane talk about his books when he visited the top half of the country last month (I’m very jealous!).  The third book in the series, Chaos Rising, is soon to be released here in NZ and I got the chance to interview Shane about the series.

  • What inspired you to write the Darkmouth series?

I ran out of excuses not to do it! From a very young age I’d wanted to write a story of fantasy and adventure, with scary bits, jokes, an ordinary hero in extraordinary circumstances. In the end, I wanted to write a story for my own kids that gave me the focus to make the relationships the heart of it even as their town is under attack.

  • What 3 words would you use to describe the series?

Fun. Fantastic. Freaky.

  • What would your Legend Hunter name be?

Shane the Easily Spooked.

  • Which of your characters do you most relate to?

I relate to a few in different ways. Finn has to become a Legend Hunter even though he doesn’t feel strong enough, and I recognize his fear. His friend Emmie is fearless, and she’s the flip side of things – how I would actually like to be. Finally, Finn’s dad Hugo is a but pushy to his son, and I guess I recognise that even if I don’t want to be a pushy dad!

  • Which Legend would you least want to encounter?

There’s a Hydra in Darkmouth 3: Chaos Descends, and I really wouldn’t like to meet any of its heads on a dark night. Or a bright day. Or at any time.

  • The series is being adapted in to an animated movie.  Will you have any part in the creation of the movie?

I’ve seen some of the early drawings and story ideas they’re working on in Hollywood, and it looks amazing. There are brilliant directors involved – Dave Pimentel (Moana) and Doug Sweetland (Storks) – so I know they’ll do a great job. I’m having fun watching it being put together.

  • What books do you recommend for readers who love your series?

If you haven’t read Derek Landy’s amazing Skulduggery Pleasant, they’re so good. I always tell readers of my own favourite book, Douglas Adams’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I’m always delighted when a reader is inspired to pick that up because they always love it.

Jonathan Stroud talks about his new series, Lockwood & Co.

When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . .
For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions.

Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.

Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour and truly terrifying ghosts. Your nights will never be the same again.

The first book in Jonathan Stroud’s new series, Lockwood and Co., The Screaming Staircase, is one of my most anticipated books of 2013.  It sounds absolutely fantastic!  I loved Gareth P. Jones’ Constable and Toop and The Screaming Staircase sounds like a similar sort of story.  Ghosts and supernatural detectives – what more could I want?
The Screaming Staircase is due out in NZ on 20 September 2013.

Cover Reveal – The Extraordinaires: The Subterranean Stratagem

The theatre can wait. First there’s a mystery to solve, not to mention a world to save . . .

Kingsley Ward and Evadne Stephens are the Extraordinaires and they should be the toast of the town – but their juggling and escapology act is failing, and Kingsley is to blame. His wolfish side is breaking free, ruining performances and endangering those around him. The secret to controlling this wildness lies in his mysterious past. Was he really raised by wolves? Who were his parents? What happened to them?

The discovery of Kingsley’s father’s journal promises answers, but when it is stolen the Extraordinaires uncover ancient magic, a malign conspiracy, and a macabre plot to enslave all humanity. What begins as a quest to restore Kingsley’s past becomes an adventure that pits the Extraordinaires against forces that could shatter the minds and souls of millions.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Pryor.  His Laws of Magic series was brilliant and his latest series, The Extraordinaires is set to be even better.  I reviewed the first book in the series, The Extinction Gambit here on the blog and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the second book.

The Subterranean Stratagem is out 2 April from Random House Australia.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

My first book of 2012 is one that’s been calling me from my ‘to-be-read’ pile since it was published in September last year.  Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone is of those books where, as soon as I saw the front cover, I knew it was going to be good.  After finishing it today I wonder why it took me so long to get around to reading this beautiful story.

Karou is a seventeen-year-old at student living in Prague.  With her attitude, blue hair and tattoos, she stands out from the crowd. Her sketches of mysterious and beautiful creatures are the envy of her fellow students, including her best friend Zuzana.  No one knows about her other life, as the errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to a family.  Karou knows nothing of her real family, only Brimstone and the other chimaera who have raised her.  She has been raised half in our world, half in ‘Elsewhere,’ the dark world which she knows little about.  As Brimstone’s errand girl, she travels the world buying teeth from murderers and hunters, trading them for wishes of various denominations.  Karou soon finds her world turned upside down when the seraphim destroy the portals back to Elsewhere, trapping her in our world, not knowing whether her family are alive or dead.  When one of the seraphim attacks her a train of events is set in motion that will lead her back to Elsewhere and the truth about who she is.

From the first chapter, Daughter of Smoke and Bone cast a spell on me and I was totally immersed in the story for days.  I felt like I was right there beside Karou and Akiva, from the streets of Prague and Marrakesh, to Brimstone’s shop and the caged city of Loramendi.  The sights and smells of these places were so vivid that, even when I wasn’t reading the book I was thinking about them.  Laini Taylor’s writing is absolutely beautiful and so full of emotion.  I wanted to keep reading particular sentences just to taste them.  Karou is a character that I really connected with because you could really get inside her head and know what she was feeling.  I felt her heartache, love, longing, loyalty and fear.  The thing I loved the most about the story was the creatures and places that Laini created.  The chimaera, which are made up of different animals and humans, reminded me of the mysterious creatures from Guillermo del Toro’s films, including Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy (especially the scene in Hellboy: The Golden Army at the troll market).

Daughter of Smoke and Bone ends on a cliff-hanger, with a heart-wrenching discovery so I will be eagerly awaiting the next book.  Until then, I’ll savour this beautiful story.

5 out of 5

The Extraordinaires: The Extinction Gambit by Michael Pryor

I’ve been a fan of Michael Pryor’s ever since I first picked up Blaze of Glory, the first book in his Laws of Magic series.  I was captured by the old-style covers and as soon as I started reading I was transported to a world very similar to ours.  The series was full of magic, politics, intrigue, espionage and brilliantly witty characters.  When I found out that Michael had started a new series I was eager to delve into his new story and meet new characters.  His new series is called The Extraordinaires and the first book, The Extinction Gambit, introduces us to a shadowy London where dark creatures lurk just below the surface.

Kingsley Ward knows nothing of his parents.  His foster father, Dr Ward, refuses to tell him how he came to be looking after Kingsley.  On the night that he is to make his professional debut on stage with his death-defying escapology, his performance ends in disaster.  Kingsley has a wolfish nature that bursts free at the most inappropriate times, especially in the middle of his performance in front of hundreds of people.  A strange albino girl called Evadne comes to his rescue and takes him back to his foster father’s house, only to find his father is missing, the house keeper has been murdered, and two abnormally large, very ugly men are ransacking Dr Ward’s library.  Kingsley has no idea who these men or what they have done to Dr Ward.  Evadne takes Kingsley to her secret hideaway and explains that she is part of the Demimonde, the ‘world of the dispossessed and the fugitive, of outlaws, thieves and cutthroats, of the lost and abandoned, of the strange and uncanny.’  Through alternate chapters Michael Pryor introduces us to other members of the Demimonde: Jabez Soames, the human inside the Demimonde who wheels and deals and knows just how to bargain with the various groups in the Demimonde; the True Humans or Neanderthals (depending on whether you’re one of them or not) who want to wipe out the Invaders (Homo sapiens) by travelling back in time and killing them; and the Immortals, a group of immortal sorcerers who need to inhabit the bodies of children to live the longest.  As the story progresses the paths of these various groups cross and it’s up to Kingsley and Evadne to disrupt their plans before it’s too late.

Michael Pryor has once again created a story filled with action, suspense, mystery and fantastic characters.  I loved the idea of this group of shady characters lurking underneath London and having a group of Neanderthals that didn’t die out is brilliant.  The Immortals at first sounded a little like vampires, but I think they’re far creepier.  There’s also a slight hint of the Frankenstein story creeping into this story, as the Immortals create their minions, the Spawn, from their own body parts that they cut off.  Like Aubrey in The Laws of Magic, Kingsley is a fantastic character who is intelligent and witty.  At first I thought Kingsley’s wolfish nature might be hinting at him being a werewolf, but the true is much more exciting, and is linked with Rudyard Kipling who is also a minor character.  Evadne is a girl who can look after herself (and Kingsley at times) and is also incredibly intelligent.  There is a sense that there are many layers of Evadne that Kingsley, and the reader, hasn’t been introduced to yet.   The Extinction Gambit is the perfect book for anyone who likes their supernatural/fantasy stories without the gushy romance.  I can’t wait to see what Michael Pryor has in store for Kingsley and Evadne next.