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Book Brief: Nevermoor, the Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend; Feather by Cao Wenxuan

Nevermoor, The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend; Little, Brown, 461 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.

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A cursed, unloved child is spirited away from certain death to a magical city by a mysterious patron who has entered her in a dangerous competition to win a place in the Wundrous  Society in this marvelous, beautifully crafted fantasy from debut author Jessica Townsend.

Lonely Morrigan Crow - whose unloving family circle rivals the Dursleys in the Harry Potter books - had the bad luck to be born on Eventide, which means she is destined to die at midnight on her 11th birthday. There are shades of the accusations in the Salem Witch Trials in the ridiculous miscellany of misfortunes Morrigan is blamed for by the townspeople - a cat's death, the gardener's fatal heart attack, burned marmalade, hailstorm damage to a gazebo, a broken hip, a fire at Jackalfax Preparatory  School – and her calculating politician of a father is weary of paying reparations and looking forward to her funeral.

Eventide arrives early, and Morrigan is having a final meal with her dreadful family when copper-haired, brash Jupiter North arrives to whisk her away to Nevermoor to enter the trials for the Wundrous Society. She must compete in dangerous trials against contestants who, unlike Morrigan, all have a knack, or spectacular talent whether it be singing or dragon-riding.  Can Morrigan, who is in Nevermoor illegally and will face death if she is sent home, find a way to win?

Townsend has written a marvelous book, full of suspense, surprises, colorful characters and valuable messages about bravery, loyalty and friendship and the triumph of good over evil.

Nevermoor is a place of wonders, with the Hotel Deucalion and talking cat Fenestra, its fireblossom trees, its Brolly Rail, its marvelous Christmas celebration with rival camps clad in red and green supporting Saint Nick or the Yule Queen. The four trials, so imaginatively contrived, offer interesting intrigue and pulse-pounding suspense. Townsend writes beautifully, using wonderfully evocative names for people and places – Morrigan's father is Corvus Crow, there's the sinister Ezra Squall,  the town of Jackalfax, the state of Great Wolfacre. Any fan of Harry Potter or Trenton Lee Stewart's "Benedict Society" series will love this book.

PICTURE BOOK
Feather by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Roger Mello, translated from the Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts; Elsewhere Editions, $18.
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A single feather, blown about by the wind, asks one bird after another “Am I yours?” in this lovely picture book by beloved Chinese children’s author Cao Wenxuan, a professor of literature at Peking University, who writes in the introduction “I believe a good picture book comes very close to philosophy.” Feather is in search of answers to the big questions: “Where do I come from? Who do I belong to?” This quest takes feather to a kingfisher, a cuckoo, a heron, a goose, a magpie, a skylark, a hawk, a hen. The stunning illustrations are by acclaimed artist Roger Mello.

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