Thursday, April 17, 2008

A haunting tale

From the outside, fourteen-year-old Susan Backstrom seems to have the perfect life. She is gorgeous, always impeccably dressed, plays sports, lives in a lovely old house, and seems to have everything under control. She might even appear to be a bit stuck up, since she never stays around after school to hang out and talk with the other kids.

On the inside, Susan's life is stultifying and always, always, tinged with fear. Her father looms as a terrifying figure, and everything she does is viewed through the lens of his approval. Even so, Susan longs of a little bit of freedom, and when a science project comes along that justifies her spending time at the library in the afternoon, instead of coming home immediately after school, Susan jumps at the chance.

At the library she overhears some kids talking,complaining that they have nowhere to go where they can have some peace and privacy. They decide to explore an abandoned old house at the edge of town, a place with a reputation for being haunted. Susan recognizes one of the voices as belonging to Julio, the son of her parent's housekeeper - the only kind-of friend Susan has ever had, even though her father put a stop to their spending time together long ago. She surprises herself by approaching the other kids, who are angry that she's been listening to their conversation. She turns aside their anger and asks if she can come, too.

The old house hides many secrets, and from the moment the friends step inside, their perceptions of the world radically change. The walls pulse with a strangeness that only Susan seems to understand, as if the difference between her life and the others' has given her a power to navigate spirits, unearthly power, and dusty old bones. Despite the strangeness and fear, this house is infinitely safer than her own, and she is drawn there, day after day, dreading the return to her own cold, frightening house and the things that happen there. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows it is only a matter of time before she will have to pay the price for her newfound freedom, but she can't think about that right now...

I love Nina Kiriki Hoffman's books - they are evocative and exciting, with characters I quickly come to care about and who stay with me long after the books have ended. A Stir of Bones had me from the beginning, with its dark and disturbing undercurrents and compelling plot.

Don't just take my word for it that Hoffman is a wonderful writer. Here's an excerpt from a review Charles de Lint wrote about this book, her first YA novel (from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 2003):

"Hoffman is one of those authors that, while she certainly appeals to a genre audience--at least one with an interest in contemporary fantasy--is also an excellent ambassador to the wider world of literature beyond our few shelves of the bookstore. Her books are the kind that I can hand to my friends who only read mainstream and they are immediately enamored--not realizing that they're reading a fantasy, for all the fantastical goings on in their pages."

This is my third book read for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge, and I highly recommend it! Don't forget to stop by the review site for links to reviews of many wonderful books others are reading for this challenge.

A Stir of Bones
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Viking, 2003)

B&OT review of Spirits That Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman


  1. This sounds like a great book. I think my daughter would like it, too. It is not often you can find a fantasy which also has one foot in reality, which is the kind of reading she prefers. Thanks for the well written review.

  2. This sounds like just my kind of book. Plus such a glowing recommendation from Charles De Lint can't be bad!

  3. I see that E.L. Kronberg has another book out, awesome! I have always loved "From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E..."

    As far as me, I didn't get to vote but naturally it would be the wonderful world of Harry Potter that I would LOVE to go vacation at!

  4. Thanks for stopping by, qugrainne! If your daughter isn't too young, I'd definitely recommend it. I think this one is best for teens because the heroine's dysfunctional family is very disturbing.

    I do think you'd enjoy it, Rhinoa - have you read anything by Hoffman yet? I've enjoyed every one of her books that I've read so far.

  5. VA Gal - I knew of course that you would have picked the HP world for your vote - too bad you didn't get to vote, or it would have pushed HP into the #1 spot! The Mixed-Up Files is one of my favorites, too. :-)

  6. wow, I simply have to try this author! Thanks for the lovely review :)

  7. Thank you Nymeth - I think you would enjoy this author very much. I'll be looking forward to your review of one of her books one of these days... :-)

  8. sounds very intriguing!..

  9. i always find stories about characters who are ultimately lonely to be the most interesting.

  10. It's a good one, Valentina - and doesn't wrap up into a neat package at the end. It gives enough of a conclusion to be satisfying but leaves a lot of room for thought and wondering.

    Molly - yes, she is a lonely person. It is interesting to watch how she navigates these first-time friendships, given her repressed background. It's a very interesting book.

  11. This one sounds great. Can you tell me who the cover artist is? I love the image.

  12. Carl - The cover illustration is by Leonid Gore, who also illustrates a lot of picture books. It's very evocative, isn't it?


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