Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Crossroads

Eleven-year-old Zack is moving to Connecticut, back to the town where his father grew up.  His father has recently remarried, and Zach is thrilled with his pretty, kind stepmother, a woman who is vastly different from the cold, spiteful mother who passed away a few years earlier.

As pleased as Zack is with the changes in his life, there are disturbing things happening in his new town.  Aside from the mundane but nasty bullies he encounters in his neighborhood, there is an ancient tree at the edge of his yard, a tree that stands by the crossroads where something dreadful happened years earlier.  The tree is somehow connected to restless spirits of the dead, and one of those spirits bears Zack a particular grudge.

Snippets from the points of view of various characters in the town, both living and dead, slowly fill in the blanks of the mystery surrounding the incident at the crossroads, ratcheting up the tension along the way.

I listened to this book as one of my R.I.P. Challenge choices, and it definitely fit the bill.  There are truly creepy things going on - and I was actually a little surprised by the violence and death in a book that my library shelves in the juvenile fiction section.  The protagonist is only 11, and at times he acts as though he is much younger, which might turn off some teen readers.  But I'd recommend it to them all the same, particularly those who enjoy horror fiction.  This is a series, which I didn't know when I started reading it, so maybe Zack will grow up along the way as the books progress.

There were a few things that didn't quite gel for me, things that were just a little too over-the-top in suspending my sense of disbelief, but younger readers would probably be too caught up in the story to share my qualms.  Zack was a bit too weak and easily led for my taste, at least for most of the book, and he makes some choices that were definitely convenient to the plot but seemed pretty boneheaded, even for a young boy as gullible as Zack.  Still, it was an exciting read, and the plot had some fun twists and turns, interesting characters, a tantalizing mystery, and a wonderfully spine-tingling atmosphere.

Books in the Crossroads series:
1. The Crossroads
2. The Hanging Hill
3. The Smoky Corridor 

The Crossroads (#1 in the Crossroads series) by Chris Grabenstein; narrated by J.J. Myers (Listening Library, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books:  "The ending was predictable to this reader but still the characters were a lot of fun, even the nasty ones."
Blogcritics Books:  "The story’s pacing is excellent. Short, bite-sized chapters create a momentum from page one that sweeps the reader through the narrative." 
Jen Robinson's Book Page"It's a book to read under the covers with a flashlight, one that will make you stay up late, and notice the shadows of branches moving on your bedroom walls."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Vacation time - hurray!

First off, a visit with some of our Disney friends...

Then, a little time spent at Hogwarts (at Universal Studios)...

And finally, a week at sea for some family fun and relaxation.  Happy Thanksgiving, to those who will be celebrating that holiday next week.  I, for one, have plenty to be thankful for - my upcoming vacation, family, friends, all those great books out there, and of course all of my wonderful book-blogging friends.  See you at the end of the month!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Magic Below Stairs

I am always excited to see a new book by Caroline Stevermer, and I immediately put this one on hold at my library when I heard about it.  I was doubly delighted to discover that, while it is written for a younger audience than the Sorcery & Cecelia books, it is set in the same world.  The main character is a new one, an orphan named Frederick who - through the simple fact that he fits a suit of clothes - is chosen to go into service at the house of Lord Scofield, a prominent wizard.  The setting is an historic one, England in the early 1900s, but there is magic added to the mix, which makes it extra fun.

Frederick is the kind of kid who likes to know how to do things, and he is eager to learn from everyone around him.  At the orphanage, he pays close attention in the kitchen, learning about cooking, sharpening knives, and even tying knots.  He has an encounter with a strange little man who lives at the orphanage, a mischievous brownie named Billy Bly, and when Frederick leaves the orphanage the creature follows him, creating a sticky situation for Frederick when the wizard discovers his presence.

I just loved this book, with the historical background and details, and the glimpses of Lord and Lady Schofield along the way.  It's funny and sweet, a magical coming-of-age story with a little mystery thrown in, and I do hope we'll be seeing more of Frederick in the future.

Books in the Sorcery and Cecelia series, co-written with Patricia C. Wrede:
1. Sorcery & Cecelia
2. The Grand Tour
3. The Mislaid Magician 

Magic Below Stairs (companion book to the Sorcery and Cecelia series) by Caroline Stevermer (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Monday, November 8, 2010

R.I.P. Challenge Wrap-up

Well, it's the end of another fantastic autumn R.I.P. challenge reading season.  I love that spine-tingling feeling I get reading otherworldly creepy or ghostly things as the leaves change color and the temperature turns chilly.  I also love the feeling of community I get, knowing that all over the world, readers who share my love of the darker side of literature are also getting that same, delicious spine-tingling sensation.  I love reading everyone else's reviews, and I already have a ton of books that I learned about from other readers that I'll be saving up - if I can wait that long - for next autumn.  I have read R.I.P. books for myself, and books to my children, too, and we've all had a wonderful time.

This R.I.P. season, I read the following books.  Some have yet to be reviewed, but I hope to get to them soon.

Can you tell how much I enjoy my seasonal Halloween reading?  Many thanks to Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting this excellent challenge.  May there be many more!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturn Apartments

Mitsu has just graduated from junior high school, and he is ready to take on the same job his father had before he died: window washer.  Washing windows is an incredibly dangerous profession in the future world where Mitsu lives, though; in fact, his father died on the job.  Earth is no longer inhabited by humans - it has been evacuated in order to preserve it as a nature preserve, and humans now live in a huge ring-shaped satellite structure that orbits the Earth, 35 kilometers up in the air.  Washing the windows from the outside involves pressure suits, safety lines, and being very, very careful.  The wealthiest residents live in the upper levels, which receive the most natural light and have windows that are safer and easier to clean.  The residents of the lower levels, however, suffer from illnesses related to the lack of sunlight, and as their windows are the most dangerous to reach, cleaning them is so expensive that most cannot afford it - and the dirtier windows allow even less sunlight to filter inside.

Mitsu's first day on the job is an eye-opening experience.  The view of the Earth is extraordinary, but he can't help but think about his father's fatal accident - particularly when he learns he is to clean windows in that same location where his father was working on that horrible day.  There are issues with envious co-workers, unreasonable clients, and Mitsu, who has been so very alone since the death of his father, has some fast growing up to do.

This is a delightful, bittersweet coming-of-age story with unforgettable characters, a disturbing yet fascinating premise, and absolutely gorgeous artwork.  Teens, particularly those who enjoy dystopian science fiction, are sure to enjoy this, and it has great appeal for adult readers as well.  My 11-year-old daughter read this, and while she found bits of it to be a little confusing, she adored it, and it was fun to talk about the book together.  I am so pleased that this is only the first in a series.  The story does have a satisfying conclusion, but it left me wanting to know more about the characters and their disturbing yet compelling world.

This is one of those complex, character-driven graphic novels that I want to shove into the hands of those readers who think that manga and graphic novels are a genre, rather than a format.  There is such a wide variety of wonderful stories told in this format that those readers who avoid graphic novels, believing they are only about superheroes or silly jokes, are doing themselves a great disservice.

This manga is available in a lovely printed format as well as free online!

Saturn Apartments, Volume 1 by Hisae Iwaoka; translated by Matt Thorn (Viz Media, 2010)

Source: My public library

Also reviewed at:
Book Dragon:  "Younger readers will enjoy the adventures; adults will recognize the deeper meanings (and warnings) of a not-too-far future in peril."
Dawn of the Read: "A great science-fiction manga, but also a fine exploration of work life, loss, and the burdens of adulthood."
Suite 101:  "Readers have experienced the stuck-in-place struggles and will relate to the manga's characters. Enough humor is interjected to keep the manga from being totally serious, but it remains a touching a meaningful story."

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost

Janey is excited about going to spend the summer at her aunt's home in Sussex County, New Jersey.  Janey lives on Staten Island, which isn't the best place to be if you are as crazy about horses as she is.  Sure, she can ride there, but owning a horse is out of the question.  Janey's aunt is thinking about moving, and she's like to sell her house to Janey's parents, but Janey's dad isn't sure about moving so far from the city.  If they don't have a positive experience, Janey fears that her dream of finally living in a place where owning a horse is an actual possibility will never come to pass.

Aunt Viv's house is a wonderful place, with a gorgeous view of the lake that stands behind it, and there's even a rowboat for Janie to use, and a girl just about her own age who lives just a few houses away.  But Janie's attention is taken up by the Burley house just across the lake.  When they stopped to ask directions that first night, Mrs. Burley was rude and abrasive, and seemed to have some sort of negative history with Aunt Viv, who refuses to discuss it.  Janie is sure she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse up there, and she's dying to investigate.  The more she looks into it, the more she discovers something truly strange happening there: a mysterious crimson light that glows in the night in the place where, years earlier, there was a devastating fire.  On the nights of the full moon, there's also the mournful baying of a hound that everyone hears but no one can ever locate...

I read this one to my girls (9 and 11 years old) as one of our Halloween-season books.  Phyllis A. Whitney was one of my very favorite authors when I was growing up, and because I was just as crazy about horses and Janey is, this book was the one I loved the most.  Despite the fact that it was written in the late sixties, the story holds up well and doesn't seem too terribly dated, aside from some language usage that has changed over the years (such as "queer" to mean strange).

As an adult rereading this book, I really appreciated the character development of the adults, which isn't necessarily typical of children's books.  Mrs. Burley is a fascinating, complicated character, a mix of positive and negative elements, and although it takes her a while, Janey manages to understand the tough old woman, and she helps the people around them understand her better, too.  I liked that.  Janey herself is a good kid, but she is sometimes thoughtless and irresponsible, and she grows quite a bit by the end of the story.

This book is out of print, but is worth tracking down for young readers who love horses and mysteries.  My girls and I enjoyed it very much. I love it when I share one of my childhood favorites with them, and it's a hit!

The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost by Phyllis A. Whitney (Scholastic Book Services, 1969)

Source:  My own personal collection

Also reviewed by this author:
Mystery of the Green Cat

Have you reviewed this book, too?  Let me know in the comments, and I'll link to your review.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Goblin Market

Some friends of mine gave me a copy of this lovely edition of Cristina Rossetti's atmospheric Victorian Poem, "The Goblin Market" a few years ago, and I adored it immediately.  I came across it this month and thought it might be a fun R.I.P. Halloween-time read-aloud for my kids, particularly as the rich text is accompanied by gorgeous reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti's brother.  They weren't originally designed to illustrate the poem, but somehow they fit the tone and style of the tale perfectly.

"The Goblin Market" tells the story of two sisters who, as the story opens, are outside when they hear the goblins passing by, calling out to everyone to come and buy their fruit:

Our grapes fresh from the vine, 
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages, 
Damsons and bilberries, 
Taste them and try: 
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy."

The sisters hide in the bushes as the goblin men go by.  They know they shouldn't look at them, much less eat the fruit.  A young woman in their village succumbed to the temptation, and then she wasted away, longing for more of the otherworldly food.  Lizzie chides her sister, Laura, for peeking at the goblin men, and when she finds herself tempted to look, too, she puts her fingers in her ears, squeezes her eyes shut, and runs.  But not Laura.  Overcome by curiosity, she can't help but take a look at the strange men:

One had a cat's face,
One had a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail, 
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry scurry.

When the men stop to look at her, Laura spies the delicious, perfect fruit.  But she has no money, she tells them, as they press her to "Come buy! Come buy!"  They will give her some, though, for just a single lock of her golden hair...

And so begins this tale of sisters, temptation, love and redemption, told in descriptive, charming, atmospheric verse.  At first I thought my children (9 and 11 years old) might find it too much for them, with its unfamiliar vocabulary and old-fashioned language.  But they quickly got pulled into the timeless story, and wouldn't let me stop reading until we came to the end.  It was the perfect choice for a cozy, Halloween-time read, and I'm so pleased my daughters enjoyed it as much as I did.  Here is a link to a free audio version, and here is a link to the text of the poem.  Enjoy!

This is the original cover that Dante Gabriel Rossetti did for Christina's poetry collection, although it was not included in my copy of the book, which seems rather strange.

Goblin Market: A Tale of Two Sisters by Christina Rossetti; illustrated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Chronicle Books, 1997; originally published in 1862)

Source: My own bookshelves