Best New Books and E-Books: February 17, 2021

  • The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec (Fantasy): Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, is both staggering in its beauty and delicate in its execution as it takes the Norse characters and stories we are so familiar with and shoves them to the background. Gone are the death-defying feats of Odin and nearly invisible is the quick-tempered Thor. In their stead, Gornichec highlights the overlooked witch Angrboda, Loki’s mate and the mother of monsters. The Witch’s Heart opens with literal heartbreak and flames. Angrboda has been burned three times and her heart has been stabbed and removed for refusing to help Odin peer into the future. Yet still she lives, largely stripped of her powers and reduced to foraging for roots and snaring rabbits in a forest at the edge of the world. When a god–the frost giant trickster Loki–returns her gouged-out heart, Angrboda is distrustful. But as Loki continues to insinuate himself into Angrboda’s life, distrust turns first to affection and then to deep love. The witch and the god have three fate-possessed children together: the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard serpent Jormungandr, and the half-dead girl and future queen of the dead Hel. Together with the help of the huntress Skadi, Angrboda attempts to shield her growing family from Odin’s searching eye, but the threat that her unusual family poses to the gods in Asgard can’t be ignored for long, and every step they take pushes them collectively towards a climactic conflict: Ragnarok. Gornichec’s work is not a book of swashbuckling Viking adventure. Rather, it is a character study of a woman whose story has otherwise been relegated to but a few sentences of mythology. Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, looms in Angrboda’s visions, but for the most part this is a story of small moments with large consquences. Gornichec lingers over scenes of domesticity–over Skadi helping Angrboda build her furniture, over the feelings of resentment that accompany your child liking their other parent more than they like you, over the simple wonder and occasional annoyance of sharing a bed with someone you love. The Witch’s Heart invites us to swim in these details, lulling us with descriptions of a family dynamic that we know can’t possibly last. And this is where the beauty of Gornichec’s work lives. She never denies the tragedy that is inevitable in any story of Norse mythology. Angrboda, like all the others, is bound by fate and her rebellions must be within its confines. For some readers, the small scale of Gornichec’s novel and the focus on the inevitability of Ragnarok might be frustrating. After all, this story is not what we have been told to expect of tales of Vikings and witches. But to those readers, Gornichec offers this: instead of fighting the end, focus on the details and savor the life–and the change–that can be built in the cracks that fate has neglected.
  • The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Nicole Lesperance blends crystalline prose, an atmospheric setting and memorable characters to create a story that dances and shines as brightly as the northern lights in her debut YA novel, The Wide Starlight. Eli has always known her life should have been different. She should have grown up in the frozen landscape of Svalbard, a group of islands north of Norway, where she was born. She would speak Norwegian and her mother’s family would call her by her full name, Eline. Instead, she lives with her American father on Cape Cod, where everyone calls her Eli and she has lost all familiarity with the language she once called her own. The biggest difference, however, and the loss Eli feels most acutely, is her mother’s absence. Ever since the night she carried 6-year-old Eli out onto a frozen fjord, whistled at the multicolored aurora in the sky and flew away, Eli has felt a gaping hole where her mother should be. So when her mother suddenly reappears, Eli is overwhelmed and unsure how she should act or feel. Then weird, inexplicable occurrences begin to happen all around town that my be linked to her mother’s return, and before Eli can begin to piece together what’s going on, her mother vanishes again. Desperate for answers, Eli journeys to Svalbard, but more than family secrets may be waiting for her under the ice. Lesperance’s story has a breathtakingly frosty atmosphere that’s anchored by her descriptions of the icy world of Eli’s childhood, which is both enchanting and unforgivingly harsh. The author just as vividly evokes the ostensibly mundane contemporary setting of Cape Cod, immersing readers in a seaside landscape dotted with scrubby pine forests. When Eli travels to Norway, readers will practically feel the bitter sting of the frigid air, hear the crunch of packed snow underfoot and see the brilliant gleam of sunlight reflecting off the ice. Both locations are perfect choices for a story imbued with magic and wonder. Yet for all its trappings of snow-swept fantasy, what lies at the glowing core of The Wide Starlight is the deep and sacred bond between mother and daughter, as Lesperance explores the lengths to which that bond can stretch and still remain intact.
  • The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): It’s the year 2043, and deadly swarms of bioengineered flies have devastated the human population over the past 18 years. Even if a person’s flesh isn’t completely consumed by the swarms, infections can remain dormant for years. Survivors call it the Fly Flu. Young people, like 18-year-old Nico and 12-year-old Kit, don’t remember a time before the Fly Flu. As the novel opens, they don’t know each other yet, but they have quite a bit in common. They’ve both grown up in small families in New England, and they’re both afraid that their parents are on the verge of succumbing to latent infections. Kit’s beloved mother, Dakota, has been acting increasingly tired and confused. Nico’s mother has already died, and she fears her father may be close behind. Circumstances conspire to spur Nico and Kit to leave the homes they’ve always known–and as they pursue their destinies, to find one another. David Arnold’s The Electric Kingdom is a mind-blowing blend of post-apocalyptic fantasy, science fiction and time-travel saga. In an author’s note, Arnold writes, “I’ve spent most of my writing career exploring the metaphorical ways in which art and story can save us, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I explored their literal saving graces as well.” Indeed, stories form the backbone of Arnold’s engrossing novel, whether they are read in familiar books or written in new chronicles, told around campfires or conveyed in works of visual art. Alternating between the perspectives of Kit, Nico and the enigmatic “Deliverer,” whose identity remains unknown until close to the novel’s end, The Electric Kingdom incorporates themes of journeys and the unknown, which Arnold has explored in earlier books. The Electric Kingdom satisfyingly blends elements of several genres, making it a perfect choice for readers who don’t gravitate toward genre fiction but enjoy novels that explore philosophical questions, such as science versus religion, or tales of survival in dangerous circumstances. It’s also a deeply emotional story. Powerful scenes capture devastating sadness and loss, while offering a tentative glimpse of hope even when it seems fruitless. It’s the kind of novel worth re-reading–and readers will find something new to appreciate about it with each return.
  • My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Picture Book: Ages 4-7): My First Day is a captivating story that depicts one child’s journey to school. “Today is the first day.” A young Vietnamese boy, his backpack resting snugly on his shoulders, heads out. Mama told him he’s finally big enough to do this alone. Paddling where “the great river, mother Mekong, tumbles into the endless sea,” the boy cuts a striking figure as he stands resolutely in his boat while tall, foam-crested waves in rich shades of green and cyan swell around him. The book’s language is both plain-spoken (“I set out upon the waves and begin my adventure”) and evocative (“I paddle out into the floodwaters, past yesterdays and all the things I didn’t know”). Author-illustrators Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien draw seamless parallels between the boy’s travels and the first day of school that awaits him: “There is still a world to learn,” he says as he first leaves home. Later, he likens his journey to the “unfamiliar hallways of the forest” and refers to the “blackboard” of the river. With resilience, the boy endures rough waters, rain, crocodiles and pythons–some real, some imaginary. These darker spreads, filled with menacing, beguiling shadows, eventually make way for exquisite, light-filled pages. Coral-hued rays of sunlight break through clouds, and the sky fills with brilliant colors and “a dance of storks and new worlds.” In one thrilling spread, Quang and Lien provide an underwater perspective: The boy floats on the surface as we look up at him alongside schools of fish who move gracefully through the water. Fluid, energetic lines, compelling page turns and a forward momentum as the boy steadfastly paddles through the water make My First Day a particularly propulsive, cinematic story. Readers everywhere who know the thrill of the first day of school will delight to see other children arriving in their respective boats at the book’s close, though they may be sad to see the boy’s adventure end. The book’s back matter includes a note reminding readers that children go to school in many different ways and that some children are “even heroes on their journeys!”

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