Monday, March 17, 2014

Ghost Stories and Grief

On a homestead in Vermont, the land is barren, and when its plowed and dug up, strange artifacts are discovered. Looming over Sara Harrison Shea and her husband’s house is a rock formation called the devil’s hand. This is a place of mystery and superstition where odd things happen and locals are told to stay away. But it is Sara’s home and where she raises her daughter, Gertie. But one day Gertie is found dead, and not long after, Sara herself is found dead in the field behind the house. Her hysterical husband shoots himself after claiming that Gertie killed her. In present day Vermont, Ruthie and Fawn live with their mother in the same house. They have always been told about the monsters living in the woods and have taken the information to heart, but when Ruthie’s mother goes missing, they discover Sara’s tragic past in her diary pages and the fact that it may have a link to their mother.

The novel, The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, is fraught with simmering dread. McMahon creates a world of the paranormal alongside human suffering. How far would you go to bring a loved one back from the dead? Would it be worth the consequences?

This is a creepy novel that keeps you engaged. The book goes mostly between Sara and Ruthie’s perspectives, but there are other chapters from different character’s viewpoint. Although I’m often wary of multi-perspective novels, McMahon created a novel that flowed together, filling in gaps with other characters’ testimony. It also kept the book suspenseful with cliff hangers at the end of one character’s chapter and then jumped to a different character.

The novel presented a frightening, yet alluring idea. Sara finds a way to bring Gertie, her daughter, back from the dead, but she’s not the same little girl she once was. Gertie is creepy. She becomes the frightening thing that lurks behind you, but she brings a grieving mother the comfort she desires. Years later, it’s the ability to bring people back from the dead that drives more than one person to seek the Harrison household and the missing pages of Sara’s diary. Ruthie and Fern, her sister, get embroiled in the search and the consequences of seeking the forbidden. The girls find that what is assumed to be local legend and folklore is something much more sinister.

The novel was compelling and kept my attention. The ending was a little strange and didn’t exactly fulfill my expectations. Sometimes, however, not knowing exactly what happened is the scariest part. This novel suffered a little at the end from some reveals that just seemed smashed together. Overall, it was very enjoyable and a fun novel to make you shiver. Also it has my favorite cover of the year thus far!
If you enjoy this book and are looking for others like it, try Pet Sematary by Stephen King and This House is Haunted by John Boyne.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Deathly Fascination

Cover art is muy importante. There are billions of books out there. Why choose one in particular? Publishing companies have gotten really good at marketing their materials and an amazing way to do that is to have an eye catching cover. Why pick up the boring blank covered book, when you can get the pretty one instead! Well Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown got me with the rocking cover. So simple, yet so intriguing. Then I read the summary and decided I needed to delve into this book.

In Tana’s world, vampires recently entered the main stream, but in order to contain them and the infection they spread, Coldtowns were created. Coldtowns are places that look glamorous, with their all night parties and fancy dress, over the online videos that are put out. In reality, vampires rule and humans are merely worshipers, a food source, or unwillingly stuck. See once you go into a Coldtown it’s nearly impossible to get out.

Tana finds herself in a horrifying predicament when she wakes to a house filled with corpses and her ex-boyfriend chained to a bed with a vampire shackled at the end of the bed. Tana decides to save Aidan, her ex, and the vampire, Gavriel. With the infected Aidan, who was bitten, and the mysterious and insane Gavriel, Tana makes her way to Coldtown. During her journey, Tana feels a strange pull to the monstrous Gavriel, but once she enters the city, he disappears with a mission to get revenge. Coldtown is a dark and foreboding place and Tana’s time spent there is fraught with problems. Whether or not Tana is infected, will become a monstrous being, or will be able to leave this place remains unknown.

Vampire books are getting cliché. How many more variations can there be? Black, however, brings back the old horror mingled with fascination. Throughout the book, Tana refers to vampires as monsters and inhuman. Black often hits on the idea of whether a vampire is a completely different species, a monstrous predator, or if they retain their humanity. There are always going to be those obsessed with the undead and this book also takes a look at the fascination and what it takes to actually become a member of this “elite” race. I appreciated Black’s ability to show the dark and hopeless side of vampire groupies. These are people who want to be immortal and think their lives will be transformed to something godlike by their new found power, but not all the vampire wannabes become vampires. At one point in the book, Black is able to turn the tables and show just how sad and hopeless a lot of these wannabes are. Black both illuminates the glamorous side of vampire life, while also showing how hopeless and disturbing the fascination with this lifestyle can be.

Chapters jumped from Tana’s journey to either her past, her sister’s perspective, or someone else’s point of view. The audience is always kept on edge waiting to read about how the cliff hanger from the previous chapter continues, but also intrigued by the new perspective. This is a very engaging read and I flew through it. Turns out the cover art did not lead me astray.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Matilda: my new best friend

Let’s talk about childhood, that innocent time when the world was your oyster. You could be a pirate, an anthropologist, a super hero, and a teacher all in the same afternoon. There were no limits to your possibilities. All it took was a blanket fort, a friend, and a lot of imagination. Then when your imagination started to wane, you opened a book and a whole new world of magic presented itself to you. As a child, I loved books. I wanted to consume each one and become a part of the setting and plot. So when my coworker balked at the fact that I've never read her favorite childhood novel, Matilda by Roald Dahl, I accepted the call to read it as an adult. And oh my goodness what a read it was. My poor childhood self missed out on a beautiful book and a main character who should have been a best friend.

Matilda is a little girl with an astonishing ability to learn. She consumes books like no one’s business. But poor Matilda must teach herself to read because her parents could care less about her. The Wormwoods are a selfish and materialistic couple. Mr. Wormwood cheats people into buying faulty used cars, and Mrs. Wormwood thinks that a woman should only look good to attract a man. Luckily, Matilda has the library and soon, she goes to school. At school she meets the loving and caring Miss Honey who recognizes that Matilda is a child prodigy and works to hone her abilities. At this academy, however, the evil Ms Trunchbull reigns supreme and any child who so much as thinks of upsetting her will be punished severely. Against all odds, Matilda must find a way to help her classmates and Miss Honey and defeat the ever so ugly and self-centered adults.

Dahl has a way of painting adults in his story that feels so true to a child’s outlook. They are either mean and nasty beings, or fair and lovely. In a world where grownups rule and often have tyrannical sway over children, Dahl presents a child’s perspective and a way to achieve justice even if one is small. Matilda is such a lovely character that I wanted nothing more than to scoop her up in my arms and read all day with her. She makes me want to be a better person. Her life is difficult, yet she does not complain or give up, she finds ways to better herself and the life she’s been handed. She teaches the adults around her and helps those she cares for. On top of that she’s a bibliophile and she loves the library! She’s every librarian and book lover’s perfect child.

It really is astounding that I never read this book. Once I started, I couldn't put it down and wanted so badly for Matilda to have a better life, for her to help Miss Honey, and for the evil Trunchbull to get her comeuppance. Luckily, the wonderful thing about children’s novels is they usually wrap up nicely and have a happy ending. Dahl does not disappoint. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Aging in Australia

The best way I heard the book The Night Guest described to me was as a frog in a pot of water. You know the old anecdote about a frog dying in a pot of water that starts at room temperature and slowly heats to boiling. The frog is not receptive to the temperature change thus never jumps out. Here is an excellent way of describing Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest.

Ruth is an aging woman who lives alone by the sea in Australia. She doesn't do much with her days and lives a somewhat lonely existence. One day a mysterious woman, Frida, shows up and becomes Ruth’s carer. The woman reminds Ruth of her childhood in Fiji. Soon Ruth is calling on her old love and her life is starting to become a bit of a blur. The once perceptive woman begins a slow spiral into forgetfulness and insecurity.

Here is a book that makes you feel unsure of what is happening. At the beginning of the book, you know Ruth has some troubles, but it doesn't seem harmful and she seems to be content if not a little bored. Frida shows up and starts taking over small tasks, then larger tasks, until she becomes an absolute essential to Ruth’s life. It seems as Frida does more for Ruth that Ruth’s ability to function mentally and physically deteriorates. On top of Ruth’s health and mental state, the reader questions Frida’s intentions. She comes in out of nowhere, offers assistance, and starts becoming quite a force in Ruth’s life. It’s a strange relationship.

The main reason I picked up this book was a) the cover was pretty awesome, and b) the description talked about Ruth’s history in Fiji and a tiger, which sounded very intriguing. The book, however, was much different than I anticipated; a little more sinister and not as exotic. In the end, I’m glad I read it. Here is a book that gave a striking picture of aging and the deteriorating mind. It takes the mundane and lonely tasks in one woman’s small world and puts a microscope to them. McFarlane does a fine job of describing the ordinary and the sad little nothings. You felt for Ruth and the frustration she had when she forgot something or had to be reminded of little things. At the same time, you hope this stranger, Frida, is who she says she is, but you question. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Library Game

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein is a fun new children’s book that has been on my reading list since its release. Not only is it about a library, but it also sounded like a fun mystery. Oh and on top of all that, it takes place in Ohio!

The town Kyle Keeley lives in has been without a library for twelve years. However, Mr. Lemoncello, a world famous eccentric game maker, provided the funds for a new library. This isn't a regular library, however. Mr. Lemoncello’s library has all sorts of tricks and treats up its sleeve. There are hologram statues, virtual librarians, game rooms, and shelves of books you have to use a conveyor to reach. For twelve lucky twelve year olds, they get the chance of a lifetime: to spend the night in the new library before anyone else. Kyle is picked as one of the lucky twelve and couldn't be more excited. He loves Mr. Lemoncello and has played his board games and video games all his life. So what could be more amazing than a night in the famous game maker’s library? Well what about a prize within a prize? When the lock in turns into a life sized game, Kyle and his friends must figure out how to escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s library in order to win a fabulous prize.

The best way I can describe this to you is as a mix between Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Westing Game. Mr. Lemoncello is indeed an eccentric character much like Willy Wonka. He’s a lovable man and throughout the book he continues using classic and popular children’s book titles in his speech, which I just loved. The references to classic books, is a great way to make children aware of old favorites while they’re reading this book. The novel really felt like promotional material for libraries, which I don’t have a problem with, but the ending lines of the book were a bit cheesy. If I recall correctly it was basically, you already won your prize because now you have access to the library. Even I, a proud librarian, was rolling her eyes. The mysteries that the kids had to solve were tough, but the reader could also play along on some of them and try to solve the riddles. The characters, as in most children’s books were relatively two dimensional. There was the bratty girl and the rich kid along with the regular kids, like Kyle.

This book could be great. I think the premise is wonderful and the plot moves you along, but there is a large problem I see with this book; there’s too much reference to modern technology. There’s no better way to date yourself than putting in a bunch of technology that is sure to be out of style in a year’s time. The author could easily have left out these references and the book wouldn't have lost any of its value. I would still suggest you read this if you enjoy children’s literature, just do so within the next few years.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An Anglo-Saxon Queen

There’s a trend that has been en vogue for the last few years and I’m just going to say it, it’s really annoying. What is this trend, you ask yourself? It’s the objectification of women! Yay! Alright, that’s a bit melodramatic, but I’m tired of front covers with beautiful women in gowns.  Every YA, historical fiction, and inspirational fiction book aimed at women features some billowing skirt and a tasseled hairdo. I miss artistic covers instead of overly sexed women. Save it for romance covers.

Where did that come from?! Well, the book Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell features a blonde woman walking towards a gate. Typically, I’d avoid this kind of a book because of the reasons listed above, but it intrigued me (damn marketing). So my quest into 11th century England began!

Emma is the daughter of the late Duke Richard of Normandy. She is an intelligent, lovely, moral young woman who must wait on her brother, the current Duke’s, leisure as to when and whom to marry. To Emma’s surprise, her brother makes a very fortuitous marriage arrangement between her and the widowed King of England, Ethelred. This marriage will bring Richard money and stature, and Ethelred a union with Normandy and the promise that the Normans will stop allowing Danish, Viking, ships to shelter their boats in Norman harbors. Emma is coroneted and becomes Queen of a land whose people she doesn't know and who mistrust her because of her foreign allegiances. The story unfolds as Emma discovers the hardships of a loveless marriage, gaining and losing power and influence, and caring for her people and her newly inherited lands. But the Danish threat always lingers.

Sometimes historical fiction delves too much into detail and I find myself pushing to get through a book. However, Shadow was a compelling novel. With what little detail there is about Queen Emma and this period in time, Bracewell created a stunning array of characters that catch the attention and a plot worth sinking your teeth into. The major characters all get first person time in the novel, so the reader gets some one on one time with Emma, Ethelred, the King’s son, and Emma’s rival. It can be messy to write in this fashion, but Bracewell made it enjoyable to get in the head of major characters, see their perspectives, motivations, and feelings. It makes it harder to hate the bad ones. Emma is the anchor of this novel. She is a compassionate, strong woman who knows what she must do and takes steps to gain power and influence in her new kingdom. This novel really struck home with how abhorrent the gender roles were in the 11th century. Women were truly looked at as baby makers and servants. They had to shut up and put up. Although her main role is to have a male heir, Emma wants to be influential. She wants to be a Queen worthy of her crown.

This is, I believe, the first book in what is to be a trilogy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of the Anglo-Saxon rule prior to the Norma Invasion, outlines some of Emma’s life, but almost nothing about Emma’s marriage to Ethelred is stated in the chronicle, so Bracewell could get creative. I truly enjoyed getting to know an era that has very little written about it in fiction. Although the novel could be dark because of the way people were treated, especially women, the warring, and the mores, it was a compelling read. Emma is an intriguing and admirable Queen, and I look forward to the remaining books in this series. If you are a historical fiction reader, I highly suggest you give this one a gander.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Zoo on the Ocean

There are some books that were just meant to be movies.  Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one such novel. Now I read this book for a book club I run at the library, but prior to having read it, I watched the movie. I know! Shock and awe! Luckily, there was enough space between seeing the movie and reading the book that I didn't do the whole “well that was nothing like what I saw in the movie”. This is such a vibrant and visual book that it made a stunning and accurate movie.

Life of Pi is the extraordinary story of Pi. It begins with his childhood in India, where his father owns a zoo. Pi is an eccentric, wise, and vivacious young boy who takes a keen interest in religion. He is born Hindu, but picks up Islam and Christianity along the way, finding faith and comfort in all three. The real adventure starts when Pi and his family decide to sell the zoo and move to Canada. On the trip across the ocean, the ship sinks leaving Pi on a life boat with a chimp, hyena, zebra, and Bengali tiger. What follows is the story of Pi’s survival at sea with a wild tiger and how he carries on.

Many have found this book to be a survival story, a great book of storytelling, and a book about faith. I found it unique in that it combines all three. It has elements of a Biblical tale in the extraordinary circumstances that take place, yet even when Pi questions his beliefs, he remains faithful. Of course, the most obvious element of the story is that of survival on the Pacific Ocean with a wild animal. Pi’s ability to tame Richard Parker, the tiger, and find hope in his presence is the story that makes for good Hollywood filming. There were times during this second section that I skimmed through  because you can only read about fishing so much before it gets repetitive.

I enjoyed this story. I thought the framing of it was interesting with a young man relating his encounter with the older Pi as he tells his story. Most people can find something they like about this book, whether it be the adventure story, faith in the face of adversity, animals and nature, or a storyteller’s tale. If you've seen the movie, the book is quite similar, but I suppose I should say the book is always better…