Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

It’s very appropriate that this debut novel was inspired in part by a Sufjan Stevens song, as this story has the same melancholy and bittersweet tone of that indie bard’s music. Cullen Witter is a suspicious, sarcastic seventeen-year-old who works at a gas station, fills his journal with the titles of books he might write (“Book Title #73: You May Feel a Slight Sting”) and hopes to someday leave his hometown of Lily, which “was like Arkansas’ version of a black hole; nothing could escape it.” He’s also suffering from unrequited love for a girl who’s already taken, and a deep-seated annoyance with the fact that all his neighbors have become bird crazy over a woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, that was sighted near the town river. One of the only people Cullen really likes is his younger brother Gabriel, who disappears without a trace one summer day. Once Cullen loses the compass of his brother, the only things that keep him from a quick downward spiral into anger and depression are his best friend Lucas’s bad jokes and a brief affair with a married woman. He tries to have hope that Gabriel will be returned safely while resenting the fact that everyone seems to be more interested in finding the woodpecker than in finding his beloved brother. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an eighteen-year-old missionary named Benton Sage decides that spreading the Good Word is no longer for him, and returns home to his father’s great disappointment and rage. Benton trades his Bible for a textbook and enrolls in college, but his father still can’t forgive him. Unable to deal with his father’s disappointment, Benton commits a shocking act, setting into motion a series of events that eventually lead to Gabriel’s disappearance and Cullen’s unexpected redemption. This strange, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink story shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, bringing to mind aspects from one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies. The connections between Cullen and Benton, which seem tenuous at first, end up coalescing in a way that illustrates just how much of our lives are dependent on chance and the kindness of strangers. Weird, wonderful and rare, this unusual book is just as unique as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker mentioned in its pages.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

By day, Karou is a striking seventeen-year-old art student in Prague, sporting blue hair, tattooed palms, and a killer sketchbook that even Picasso would be jealous of. By night, she is an errand girl for a lonely, gentle monster named Brimstone who lives behind a hidden alley door and collects teeth for reasons known only to himself. All Karou can remember is growing up at Brimstone’s hairy knee and helping him collect the human and animal molars and incisors that he strings together into endless ropes of morbid charms. Where does she come from? Who was her mother? Is Brimstone her father? And what in the world does he do with all those teeth? No matter how much she asks, the taciturn monster refuses to reveal anything about her origins. Resigned, Karou keeps her shadow life secret from her school friends as she continues to go around the world, using Brimstone’s disguised portals to collect his grisly ornaments. Until the day she notices the scorched hand prints appearing on all of Brimstone’s supposedly secret doors. Until the day she is attacked by a furious seraph who nearly kills her. Until the day she discovers she is part of a centuries-old otherworldly war. Until the day…she falls in love. This lush, brilliantly constructed fantasy by master storyteller Laini Taylor is gradually and skillfully told backward, until readers would practically give their own teeth to discover Karou’s true identity. And yet, Taylor’s luxurious use of language makes you want to linger over every sentence. Like this description of Karou: “Creamy and leggy, with long azure hair and the eyes of a silent-movie star, she moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.” Or this account of the city of Prague: “Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels. The wind carried the memory of magic, revolution, violins, and the cobbled lanes meandered like creeks.” There is great satisfaction in finding out Karou’s past the same moment she does, and equally great frustration when Taylor leaves K’s future in question, obviously to be addressed in a sequel. Short, action-packed chapters that raise questions about the tenacity of hope, the futileness of war, and the enduring power of love make this book both a pleasure to read and a heart-pounding page turner at the same time.

Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur by Tony Lee & Sam Hart

In this lush, graphic novel retelling of the legend of King Arthur, all the familiar characters show up in glowing color on each paneled page: the boy king of myth, his advisor and mentor, Merlin, the loyal Lancelot and beautiful Guinevere, and of course, Arthur’s evil half sister Morgana and her son Mordred, the warrior fated to bring about the fall of Camelot. Who hasn’t seen or read some version of this classic tale, whether it was Disney’s innocent Sword in the Stone or Marion Zimmerman Bradley’s much sexier and way more feminist Mists of Avalon? What makes this adaptation stand out to me is the epic storytelling that feels almost Biblical in nature. As a big fan of the Arthurian legend, I feel like I’ve seen and heard it all when it comes to Excalibur, but Lee and Hart (the team that also created this classic graphic read) have rendered the myth to nearly Christ-like proportions. Arthur, who has pre-knowledge of his own death from the very first page (hmmmm), gathers a group of loyal men around him in a literal circle (knights of the round table or disciples?) and is eventually betrayed by those closest to him seems very Jesus Christ Superstar in these pages. He even rises again to rule in the fairy land of Avalon (i.e. heaven) and is finally reunited with his true love, Vivianne, aka The Lady of the Lake (or maybe Mary Magdalene?) Gorgeous from start to finish, this is one GN that you may want to own so you can page through it again and again. For a truly Holy Grail experience, pair it with Philip Reeve’s gritty Here Lies Arthur.