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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead rose up from the battlefield at Gettysburg and began to stalk the fields and forests of our reeling nation.  Two days before the War Between the States became the War Against the Dead.  The South was lost, overrun by shamblers, horses all but vanished, and the survivors in the East live in fortified towns and cities, protected by walls and citizen soldiers trained to put down the dead.  Citizens like Jane, forcibly sent to combat training schools as children with the passing of the Negro and Native Reeducation Act.

Over a decade after Rising Day, the cities in the East have been declared mostly free and safe of the undead, but there is still a need to keep the living safe, especially when travelling.  A student at one of the best ladies’ combat training schools, Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Maryland, Jane is training to be an Attendant, a companion who will guard her future employer’s life – and virtue, depending on what the situation may call for.  She misses her mama, her Aunt Aggie, and her Kentucky home on Rose Hill plantation something fierce, but, as one of the best in her class, she hopes to have the choice to return and protect her home when she graduates.  Even if she does find herself in more trouble than she ought due to her inability to keep quiet and follow the rules of decorum, Jane’s combat skills are unmatched by any of her classmates.

When whole Baltimore families start disappearing, without a hint as to where they’ve vanished, Jane knows something dirty is happening – there’s no way folks are headed out West without making a peep about it, and a shambler attack could never be mistaken for anything else.  When Jane and her Miss Preston’s archrival, fussy, fashionable, and lovely Katherine Deveraux (do not call her Kate), attend a lecture on a possible cure for the undead plague at a Baltimore university, Jane finds herself an unexpected hero when she is forced to put down a recently turned man, which results in an unwelcome invitation to serve at a dinner hosted by the mayor’s wife.  It does, however, seem like the perfect opportunity to do a little snooping around for answers, which, as usual, lands Jane – and Katherine – in a whole heap of trouble she definitely wasn’t looking for.

Fierce, strong, determined, and awfully handy with a blade, Jane is a girl you’ll totally want on your zombie defense team.  With incredible world-building that weaves in the real history of medical research, the end of slavery and the Reconstruction, westward expansion and Native American boarding schools, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation has created a very real picture of just what the world might have looked like if the dead had risen up from the battlefield in Gettysburg.  I’m not usually a big zombie fan, but I’m all about historical fiction with a smart twist (plus the buzz on this book was so, so good!), so I’ve had this book on my teetering to-be-read pile for well over a year.  Although part of me wonders why I waited so long to read this reimagined history of a shattered nation, a big part of me is sooooo relieved that now I have way less time to wait for the sequel, Deathless Divide, coming to a library near you in February of 2020!

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is having a tough year.  The only Deaf kid in her school, the only person she really has to talk to during the day is her interpreter, Mr. Charles, despite her classmate Nina’s extra-annoying attempts to show off her fake sign language (and her teacher’s even more annoying refusal to acknowledge that Nina is a faker).  Iris really wants to go to Bridgewood, a school with a big Deaf education program across town, but her parents don’t seem to understand why she would want to be with other kids like her.  And, to make everything worse, her grandpa recently passed away, and Iris misses him like crazy – but her grandma misses him even more.  Lately, it seems like Grandma is sad and lonely all the time – kind of like how Iris feels about school, but worse.  And, to top it all off, after a lunch time disaster with Nina, now Iris is grounded from her beloved antique radio repair business.

So, when Iris learns about Blue 55 in science class, she knows she has to figure out a way to help him.  A hybrid blue and fin whale, Blue 55 sings at a different, completely unique frequency than the other whales in the ocean, which means no one can understand him – no matter how often, or how loud, he sings his song, the other whales can’t send it back to him.  After she reads a blog post about a failed attempt to attach a tracker to Blue 55 by a nature sanctuary in Alaska, Iris starts to talk with one of the scientists working to track the lonely whale.  With her knowledge of frequencies, radios, computers, and a little help from her school’s music class, she designs a song for Blue 55 to let him know he’s not alone in the ocean.  Iris knows she has to play it for him – but how can one twelve-year-old girl get herself, and her song, from Texas to Alaska, especially during the school year?

With a little ingenuity, a lot of determination, and one wily grandma, Iris sets out on a journey to show a whale he’s not alone in the dark – and, along the way, she discovers that she might not be so alone either.

Based on a real whale, 52 Blue, Song for a Whale is a gem of a novel.  Fierce, smart, and very stubborn Iris is still trying to figure out how to navigate her world and communicate with a world that often seems to be vibrating on a very different frequency than she is.  With her good friend Wendell, loyal big brother Tristan, and sign language karaoke queen grandma by her side, though, she’s a force to be reckoned with.  With tons of science (and whales!), this story about family, friendship, and finding your place in the world is sure to strike a chord with tech and animal lovers alike.  Check it out!

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

This story begins where the familiar one ends – with two ugly stepsisters, each rejected by the prince, each missing pieces of a foot in a last, desperate effort to fit themselves into a shape that isn’t their own, and a life they only think they should want.

Isabelle, Tavi, and Ella used to be friends, like sisters are, until they realized that the world, and their mother, saw them in very different lights.  With moonbeam hair and a quiet smile, and a little help from the fairy queen, Ella is destined to sit on a throne, despite all her stepmother’s maneuverings.  Isabelle, more interested in riding her wild stallion Nero in the fields with her best friend Felix, reading about famous generals, and fighting pirate battles with a mop handle for a sword than she is in dresses, parties, and flirtations, and Tavi, who rarely emerges from her beloved books, numbers, and scientific experiments, have never fit the the mold of what their mother, and the village, believes girls should be.  Girls like Isabelle are too hungry, too fierce, and too strong.  Girls like Isabelle are destined for dark endings in grim tales.  Girls like Isabelle are not meant to be at all.  So when the prince comes to the door, searching for a girl to make his queen, Maman orders Isabelle to lock Ella away while they try on the shoe.  Already having cut away so many pieces of their hearts to become who they think they have long been told they should be, it is, really, no more difficult to cut off a heel or some toes.  We, of course, know how the story ends – Ella is freed and her lovely foot fits the dainty slipper perfectly – but what becomes of the stepsisters?

Her family outcasts, decried by all for their ugliness, Isabelle knows that, in trying to reshape herself into someone she is not, she has become what everyone calls her – ugly.  Still, she does her best to keep things going for her mother and sister – shopping, gathering eggs, caring for their one remaining old horse, Martin, and protecting what little they have left.  But war looms close on the horizon – a marauding army draws closer to her village every day, led by bloodthirsty general Volkmar.  Lovely Queen Ella works to spirit away orphans to safe houses, while the prince fights in the fields.  Refugees and wounded soldiers fill the roads, and Isabelle does not know what she, only a girl, an ugly stepsister, can do.  But with a little help from a wish, a quest, new friends, Fate, Chance, a fairy queen, and the lost pieces of her heart, she begins to believe that perhaps being beautiful is more than what everyone has always told her it is.

Fairy tale retellings are some of my absolute favorite books to read, and Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister did not disappoint!  Isabelle is one tough cookie, and I loved how everyone from the fairy tale is fully rounded out into real people with many faults – even the lovely Ella (and the prince even gets a name that isn’t Charming!).  There are new characters and old, an age-old battle between Chance and Fate, some seriously smelly cheese, brave steeds, daring deeds, pearl-stealing monkeys, a lot of cabbage, and plenty of magic to go around.  If you love Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, binge-watched Once Upon a Time on Netflix, or can’t stop singing “Into the Woods,” then this one’s for you!