Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick

When I learned about the concept of this anthology, I immediately added it to my list of things to read to my children.  When they were little, the picture book by Chris Van Allsburg called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was one we frequently checked out from the library.  It consisted of marvelous black and white illustrations depicting unusual images, such as the one below, with just one sentence that seemed to be the beginning of a story that the reader had to imagine for herself.

Years later, this anthology arrived - stories told by prominent children's (and adult) authors, each telling what they imagine the rest of the story to be.  There is an introduction by Lemony Snicket told in true Lemony Snicket style, that sets the mood for the rest of the book.  Authors of the tales include Stephen King, Kate DeCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Louis Sachar, and Walter Dean Myers.

This was an interesting book to read to my children (who are now eleven and thirteen, and I'm ridiculously grateful that they are still letting me read to them!).  We all had such different reactions to the stories.  My thirteen-year-old's favorite was "Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka, the tale of a man who should have listened to his grandma's advice not to sweep things under the rug.  Really, he should have listened!

My nine-year-old's favorite was "The Third-floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo, which is an epistolary story about a girl writing to her brother about a strange experience brought on by a fever when she is staying with her aunt.  It's difficult to tell what is real and what is not, but there is the illustration of the wallpaper in the bedroom to back up the girl's story...

I enjoyed this anthology, but not quite as much as I thought I would, although my kids really loved almost all of the stories.  I have to say I got a huge kick out of reading the Stephen King story (which I believe was my favorite) to my girls - it was fun to share their first experience with King's under-the-skin, creepy storytelling style. Some of the stories, Walter Dean Myers' in particular, didn't follow the illustration as closely as we all would have wished, and others didn't make much of an impression at all.  But it was fun to see the different directions the writers took the tales - and to talk about what we expected or didn't expect.  Best of all, the stories my kids enjoyed the most have spurred them to find more fiction by the authors who wrote them.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales edited by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Picture the Dead

Jennie is an orphan, living with her aunt's family during the American Civil War. It is a cold, loveless household, particularly with her two cousins off fighting in the war. She loves both cousins - one as a brother, and the other as something more. But only one brother returns to them, and unfortunately, it is is not the one she was hoping to marry.

Soon it becomes clear that there are mysteries surrounding her fiance's death - and her surviving cousin Quinn, a shell of his former self, knows more than he is letting on.  Jennie feels that the spirit of Will has returned to his family, and she is determined to discover the truth about how he died.  When her aunt insists they visit a photographer who claims to be able to photograph the spirits of dead loved ones, Jennie is skeptical.  But the resulting photo is certainly unusual, and it leads to even more unanswered questions.

Ghosts, spiritualism, mystery, romance, and a sense of menace and desolation pervade this eerie novel.  The illustrations are a fascinating and integral part of the story, which is essentially Jennie's scrapbook of her experiences.  I did find the tiny, crabbed handwriting that accompanied the illustrations to be tiny and difficult to read, particularly the letters that accompanied the text.  But I did enjoy this historical ghost story.

Fans of A Drowned Maiden's Hair will particularly enjoy this one, as will fans of historical mysteries and ghost stories in general.  It's a quiet, eerie story, rather than an overtly frightening one.  There is also an informative section at the back of the book for readers who are interested in learning a bit more about the Civil War and spiritualism.

Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown (Sourcebooks, 2012)

Source: Review copy from publisher

Also reviewed at:
Bookish Blather: "Brown's illustrations really add to the story, giving us glimpses into the scrapbook that Jennie keeps throughout the story. My one complaint is that the writing in the illustrations, as Jennie keeps many letters and writes captions, is only readable if you're sitting on a couch in a well-lit room."
My Friend Amy:  "I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed it wasn't a little creepier, and even though the book isn't long, I still felt the story could have been condensed a little bit. But it was still an enjoyable read and a different kind of story."
Small Review:  "If you like books likeThe Thirteenth Tale then read it. If you want a good ghost story (even if you’re a wimp like me) then read it. Even if you don’t like historical fiction, read it."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Bone of Contention

This third installment in the Magdalene la Batarde series, set in England during the twelfth century, sees Magdalene traveling to Oxford.  Her patron, William of Ypres, has requested her presence there, as King Stephen has called a council, and political machinations are underway.  William knows that while Magdalene may appear to the rest of the world as nothing more than a whoremistress, but he she is intelligent and loyal. He can hold political meetings in her chambers, and no one will suspect they are anything more than simple dealings with a prostitute.  Magdalene is a savvy woman, and she is eager to help William, to whom she is extremely grateful for her current situation.  She is also a good judge of character, and she knows that discussing the meetings with William gives him insight that can be very helpful indeed.

She does not imagine that her sojourn in Oxford will include another murder, but it does indeed, and the ramifications of the crime may well lead to a devastating political scandal.  She teams up with her friend and lover, Sir Bellamy of Itchen, and together they attempt to untangle a web that is as confusing as it is dangerous.

I continue to enjoy this historical mystery series, with its fascinating historical details, the intricate plots, and characters, particularly the woman, who are strong but still ring true to their time period.  Magdalene in particular is a compelling character, as she is already outside respectable society, because of her profession, yet she is educated, intelligent, and compassionate.  She has constraints on her, but she also has a freedom that few women of her (original) class enjoy.  I am sorry that there are only four books in this series, though.  I'll be sad when I've finished the last one.

Books in the Magdalene la Batarde series:
3. A Bone of Contention
4. Chains of Folly

Bone of Contention (#3 in the Magdalene la Batarde series) by Roberta Gellis; narrated by Nadia May (Blackstone Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Black Sheep Books:  "Some of Gellis’ other women characters also refuse to let themselves be defeated before they even begin so even though it’s not any great Oeuvre, it’s refreshing after characters such as Dorcas Slythe (A Crowning Mercy by Bernard Cornwell) who are pretty much wet dishcloths in terms of spirit."
Crested Butte Lodging:  "Although this is a work of fiction, the historical events are very true and make for a fascinating reading experience."
That's All She Read: "This is a simply entertaining story. By that, I mean, read it, enjoy it, but don't look for excellence in it."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Eyes Like Leaves

This is an early novel by Charles de Lint, written years ago, and it was never published.  Not because it wasn't good, which it certainly is, but because he was at a point where he was becoming known for his own unique kind of contemporary fantasy, and his publisher feared he'd be branded as a traditional fantasy author if Eyes Like Leaves were to be published at that point in his career.

The story is indeed a traditional fantasy story, with shades of Tolkien, the epic battle of good vs. evil, gods and mortals fighting it out, and the future of the world hanging upon a single mortal woman who is unaware of the role she has to play.

These days I don't read as much traditional fantasy as I used to.  I'm not sure why that is - I suppose it's because so much of it is the retelling of similar stories with similar themes, and after a while I found myself turning to other kinds of fantasy, things that tended to offer up the unexpected.  Charles de Lint's Newford books are among my very favorites.  They are top-notch stories that include the fantastical, with mythological overtones and characters who are complex and fascinating.  I've read most of his books, since I discovered The Little Country years ago.  (Thanks, Diane! I'll be forever in your debt for that one.)  While I adore his contemporary fantasy, I do enjoy his traditional fantasy novels as well - they offer more in the way of depth of character than most high fantasy, and this one is no exception.  The writing is skillful, and the characters are flawed and believable.  It was fascinating to read this early work.  While it doesn't hold a candle to his later books that have become firm favorites of mine, it's still a solid fantasy story, and fans of de Lint won't want to miss it.

Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint (Tachyon Publications, 2009)

Reviews of other books by Charles de Lint:

Also reviewed at:
I'm Booking It:  "Unfortunately, after I reached the halfway point, my joy in this beautifully written, new to me yet familiar world started to fade, and I began to realize I wanted more from my characters."
The Little Red Reviewer: "And that ending? WOW. Now I know exactly where de Lint’s talent for writing page turning, emotionally stunning urban fantasy came from."
Neth Space:  "The greatest value of Eyes Like Leaves is probably in its story – not the story within the pages, but the story of the pages themselves and how they came to be. It’s a glimpse backwards in time, the view of a great writer before he was great."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Last Dragon

Jane Yolen pairs with Rebecca Guay to tell the tale of a village beset by a ravenous dragon - in an era where dragons are believed to be extinct.  The village is unsure how to deal with the menace - clearly a hero is needed.  Some boys set off for the mainland in search of a hero, but at home Tansy, the healer's daughter has a few ideas of her own.

The story is rather simple and straightforward, but it is sweet, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that the heroes work together, pairing their own unique strengths as they work to vanquish the dragon.  I would have preferred to focus more on Tansy and her family - it feels as though the book touches on many fascinating aspects of their lives, but it never delved quite deeply enough for me.  The artwork is stunning, lush and expressive, and it imbues the tale with a true sense of wonder.  The panels are all depicted in vibrant color, and the pages themselves are thick and creamy.  It's a lovely book.

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay (Dark Horse Books, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books:  "The story is somewhat predictable in that it follows expected plotlines with no unexpected twists, but it is also a lovely romance and just a perfect tale to make one's heart sigh."
Nerfreader:  "I wish there had been more on Tansy since she's a great character: feisty, intelligent, and willing to leverage other people's strengths to make up for her weaknesses. But really, the story is secondary to the fabulous images."
Things Mean a Lot:  "I kept expecting to be surprised; for the narrative to take a sudden turn and go to places I’d never imagined, but that moment never came."