Saturday, August 29, 2015

Victorian Spiritualism Fiction Book List

Do you like reading books that takes place in the Victorian Era? Like something a little spooky? Check out this book list...

1) "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste" by Valerie  Martin

Martin (The Confessions of Edward Day, 2009, etc.) offers a complex, imaginative version of historical fiction, playing literary hide-and-seek with the unsolved mystery surrounding an American cargo vessel found abandoned in the Azores in 1872.

Martin follows a linear chronology. In 1860, Benjamin Briggs, who will become the Mary Celeste’s captain, courts his cousin Sallie Cobb, somewhat to the chagrin of her younger sister Hannah, a spiritual rebel who drifts into reveries during which she has visions. In 1872, the ship is found seaworthy but abandoned, with no sign of the crew, the captain, or his wife and infant daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage. In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor and aspiring author, writes a fictional (and racist) solution to the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste that is heavily colored by his own less than happy trip to Africa three years earlier. The story, which captures the public’s imagination and launches his career, is assumed factual by many but not by Philadelphia medium Violet Petra, who readers will immediately realize is Hannah Cobb, who long ago ran away from home and assumed a new identity. Violet is being dogged by reporter Phoebe Grant, who initially wants to expose Violet as a Spiritualist fraud but finds the young woman more victim than victimizer. On an American tour in 1894, the now famous Conan Doyle meets Petra, and she impresses him with a message from his long-dead father. He invites her to London. She disappears en route but not before giving Phoebe a document that only complicates the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste. And really, that mystery is the least compelling element of a novel that sheds unromantic but not unsympathetic light on 19th-century New-Age spirituality and feminism while beaming a less sympathetic focus on brilliant but highly unlikable Conan Doyle. It is Violet, the lost soul, whom readers will not be able to forget.

Martin has wound the disparate threads of her novel into a haunting personal drama.

2) "The Vespertine" by Saundra Mitchell

Sixteen-year-old Amelia travels from Maine to Baltimore to find a husband in 1889, never expecting to end up by destroying her own friends in this historical supernatural romance. Amelia learns quite by accident that at sunset, or Vespers, she sees visions of the future. At first it’s a game, with predictions of pretty new dresses and desirable dancing partners. Eventually, though, Amelia’s visions become darker. She delights her friends when she tells of good fortune, but when tragedy strikes, they blame her. Meanwhile Amelia has met Nathaniel, a poor but talented artist whom she knows can never be a suitable husband yet to whom she’s immensely attracted. No wonder. It turns out that Nathaniel has a supernatural talent of his own. Mitchell depicts Victorian middle-class society with real flair. Her descriptions of the girls ring vibrantly true. Readers see how they act and talk, how they worry about their dresses and their future husbands. The author takes a chance by using some antiquated language, but readers interested in the story should be able to follow the action with no difficulty. Both the forbidden romance and the Vespers visions work to keep readers’ interest high. A nifty surprise ending ices the cake. (Paranormal romance. 12 & up)

3) "Jackaby" by William Ritter

A Sherlock Holmes–style adventure featuring the egotistical and eccentric R.F. Jackaby and his bewildered but invaluable assistant, Abigail Rook.

Inspired by her father’s paleontological expeditions and frustrated by her mother’s expectations of femininity, Abigail arrives in the New England city of New Fiddleham with a suitcase of inappropriate attire and a need for money. She finds employment with the oddball supernatural investigator Jackaby, whose previous assistants have met unfortunate or fowl ends (literally). Aiding Jackaby, flirting with the secretive Detective Charlie Cane, and trying to avoid the wrath of Chief Inspector Marlowe and Commissioner Swift, Abigail discovers that the world is stranger and more dangerous than she ever imagined. Although Abigail is not a seer like Jackaby, able to pierce the glamour of New Fiddleham’s fairy-tale and folklore inhabitants, she learns that to “see the ordinary is extraordinary indeed.” Abigail’s attention to the everyday serves as a foil to Jackaby’s paranormal perception and makes her a refreshingly realistic and agreeable heroine. Secondary characters—including Jackaby’s house—are equally enchanting and well-drawn. Ritter’s debut skillfully blends science with the supernatural and balances whimsy with violence. The smartly paced plot wraps up neatly, but the rich world of this debut demands sequels.

A magical mystery tour de force with a high body count and a list of unusual suspects. (Paranormal mystery. 12-18)

4) "The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead" by Paul Elwork

A debut novel about 13-year-old twins, Emily and Michael, who live on a large estate that borders the Delaware River.

The year is 1925 and the twins’ father, a wealthy doctor who was something of a hero, is dead. He died in the service of his country while in France, trying to save the lives of American troops injured in battle during the war. The two children thrive on stories of their father, doled out by their mother, Naomi, and the family’s only live-in help, Mary. The twins want for nothing but perhaps a little excitement, which they find in an odd and disturbing way: Emily discovers a talent she cannot explain. She can make an odd sound using her ankle bones. Soon, she and Michael employ her talent; they pretend that Emily can talk to the spirit of one of their ancestors. Regina, who died mysteriously from drowning in the Delaware while still a teenager, becomes the focus of the twins’ séances, to which they invite impressionable young friends. Their sessions soon grow increasingly elaborate and before they know it, they are performing for adults, a feat Michael savors, but Emily finds more and more uncomfortable with each lie she tells. In the meantime, Emily has been piecing together her own family’s history, reaching back to the days when her forbears moved from a plantation in Virginia to their present home, and discovering family secrets planted along the way. While her mother reacquaints herself with an old friend, Emily digs into the past and finds a family she never knew existed. Meanwhile, the ghost sessions become more serious and disturbing, leaving Emily with the uncomfortable impression that she and Michael have been opening doors that should have remained closed.

An intricate yet beautifully told story that is less about ghosts and more about secrets and how destructive they can be.

5) "The Poisoned House" by Michael Ford

A scullery maid, a great house, whispered evil and a ghost populate this first-person tale of mid-19th-century London.

Abigail’s mother died a year ago of cholera, and the 14-year-old girl misses her fiercely; Mrs. Cotton, Lord Greaves’ sister-in-law, is cruel to the staff—Abi in particular—in every possible way. Her mother was servant and nursemaid to Sam, who is now back, injured, from the Crimean War, and Abi hopes the return of Sam will both cheer the ailing Lord Greaves and protect her from Mrs. Cotton. But strange happenings pervade Greave Hall: Keys go missing; filthy handprints appear; unidentifiable noises are heard. Mrs. Cotton finds a way to blame Abi for most of it. Abi must try to puzzle out questions of her mother’s demise and other questions about their place in the household. Abigail’s fellow servant Lizzie, Lizzie’s banishment and the coal boy Adam figure in the story, as does a compliant Ouija board, which leads to a climatic confrontation and another death. Ford suddenly turns a sympathetic character evil without foreshadowing, which may strike readers as unfair, and the conclusion happens rather abruptly, but he ties up the tale very nicely by ending with Abigail’s full obituary of many decades later.

In all, scary, compelling and atmospheric enough for a satisfying chill. (Ghost story. 12 & up)

6) "Picture the Dead" by Adele Griffin

A brooding mystery set during the Civil War, this gripping ghost story of a young woman trapped by the confines of her gender and social standing is not altogether successful in its format. Blending straightforward first-person narration and illustrations fashioned to look like a scrapbook, much of the novel’s impact is drawn from its protagonist Jennie’s beautifully crafted plaintive voice. A tale of lost love, family betrayal and visits from the spirit world, also included is an engaging thread involving a spirit medium who employs photography in his fraudulent craft. Each of the short chapters is paired with Brown’s darkly inked, realistic drawings that mimic the look of photographs, newspaper articles and letters written in the elaborate cursive style of the era. Alas, the repetition of some of the images is too unsubtle in foreshadowing the story’s conclusion. Also, though carefully rendered, the illustrations often interrupt rather than enhance the flow of the work and may seem out of place for older teen readers, who would otherwise be a natural audience for this appealingly gothic work. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Regency and Victorian Mystery Book List

Do you enjoy some mystery in your historical fiction? Check out this book list...

1) "The Last Dickens" by Matthew Pearl

A rousing yarn of opium, book pirating, murder most foul, man-on-man biting and other shenanigans—and that’s just for starters.

Charles Dickens is dead, and, inexplicably, people are beginning to die because of that fact—not because they’ve got no reason to live absent new tales from a beloved author, but because said author’s last work-in-progress contains evidence of real-life mayhem that its perpetrators, it would seem, do not wish to see publicized. So runs the premise that Pearl (The Poe Shadow, 2006, etc.), who specializes in literary mysteries, offers. The story unfolds on the docks of Boston, to which an office boy has run to retrieve the next installment of Dickens’s Mystery of Edwin Drood, fresh off the boat from London. Said boy expires, unpleasantly, while a stranger of most peculiar manner is seen skulking in the vicinity, conspicuous by his “decidedly English accent” and “brown-parchment complexion,” suggestive of India and imperial milieus beyond. Dickens’s American publisher—better put, the only publisher in America who is paying the author royalties rather than stealing his work—sets out to solve the crime and retrieve the manuscript, with the clerk’s resourceful sister on hand to help on a journey across oceans and continents. Meanwhile, our stranger is up to more nasty business, slashing throats, sawing bones and giving people the willies. It’s clear that Pearl is having a fine time of it all, firing off a few inside jokes at the publishing business along the way: No matter that Dickens is dead with only six chapters done, says his London editor a trifle ungrammatically, for “Every reader who picks up the book, finding it unfinished, can spend their time guessing what the ending should be. And they’ll tell their friends to buy a copy and do the same, so it can be argued.”

A pleasing whodunit that resolves nicely, bookending Dan Simmons’s novel Drood (2009) as an imaginative exercise in what might be called alternative literary history.

2) "The Reluctant Widow" by Georgette Heyer

An assured touch for whimsical turns and a lively, amusing handling of historical romance for the story of Elinor, who arrives at the wrong house for a job. She is unavoidably married to a shocking fellow on his deathbed, and is led into involuntary participation in the ambition of the dead man's uncle, Lord Carlyon, to penetrate the treasonable activities of Bonaparte agents. All of a pucker, Elinor finds her enforced widowhood dominated by Carlyon, whose monstrous coceit and doubtful behaviour keep her enraged. She also finds that strange visitors to her new estate are murdered, that she is herself in danger, that Carlyon's brothers and sisters combine to placate her. She is at last persuaded that the day is saved for England and that Carlyon's conits are chivalrous and her widowhood will end in a real wedding. Mistakes done to a turn, in Georgette Heyer's skilled manner.

3) "The Iron Wyrm Affair" by Lilith Saintcrow

Sorcery, steampunk, Sherlock Holmes and an alternate world: first of a series from the author of Angel Town (2011, etc.).

Beneath Britain slumbers a huge, ancient, mighty dragon; if it ever wakes up, its fire will destroy the world. In Londinium, Queen Victrix, the current incarnation of the goddess Britannia, commissions Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, to protect Archibald Clare, a failed and now unregistered mentath—due to a mistake, he served time in prison for reasons only hinted at—capable of extraordinary feats of deduction. Mentaths, for whom data manipulation is a compulsive need rather than a means to an end, have more in common with Frank Herbert's human-computer Mentats than legendary fictional detectives, however. Bannon has formidable skills, although how magic works is far from clear. She mistrusts Clare and won't give him the data he needs, while he, naturally, is extremely well-informed, except, oddly, about sorcery, and considers her illogical. Mikal, Bannon’s lone Shield, or protector (he kills nasty things that threaten her while she's preoccupied with sorcery), betrayed his previous employer, a treacherous sorcerer; secretly, he's a shape-shifting serpent—and her lover. Plot? Well, Saintcrow doles it out piecemeal, without giving Clare or the reader enough clues to add up, but somebody's killing registered mentaths and also sorcerers. The conspiracy possibly involves Cedric Grayson, Chancellor of the Exchequer. But to what end, and who's behind the conspiracy? Clearly not the clownish Grayson. Add to the mix a logic engine, dragons, gryphons, an Italian assassin, steam-powered clockhorses and the curious unavailability of hansom cabs.

Intriguing but messy; two of the chief ingredients would have sufficed, four is extreme overkill.

4) "Murder As A Fine Art" by David Morrell

In 1854, a series of senseless killings in London so closely echo the literary work of Thomas De Quincey that he becomes the principal suspect.

Writer Thomas De Quincey, best known for Confessions of an English Opium Eater, his frank memoir of his experiences with opium, also published a satirical essay entitled "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," in which he describes in appreciative detail the early-19th-century Ratcliffe Highway murders. While he's in London on a promotional tour, accompanied by his outspoken daughter, Emily, someone re-creates the Ratcliffe murders in a way that suggests the killer may be using De Quincey's piece as a blueprint. De Quincey falls under suspicion and must use his extensive knowledge of the nature of violence and regret, and his pre-Freudian theories of the subconscious, as well as his resourceful daughter and two policeman who believe in his innocence, to catch and stop the true killer, all while dealing with his crippling opium addiction. Meanwhile, the ongoing murder spree spreads increasing terror throughout London, putting the entire empire at risk. Morrell (First Blood, 1971, etc.) fills his work with extensive detail on life in London in 1854, usually in service to his story but sometimes in a gratuitous fashion. His De Quincey is quite convincing, but most of his other characters lack the same depth. Some sections are oddly and distractingly repetitive—for instance, the reader is given a detailed introduction at two different points in the novel to the real-life Dr. John Snow, who traced a cholera epidemic to a contaminated water source. In trying too hard to bring certain threads full circle, the book's climax comes across as a bit contrived. But the charming central conceit—a laudanum-chugging De Quincy chasing a killer through fog-shrouded Victorian London—goes a long way toward making up for the novel's glaring shortcomings, as do several tense, well-paced action sequences.

Fans of Victorian and/or quirky mysteries will find much to enjoy and will likely be willing to forgive the book's substantial flaws.

5) "A Beautiful Blue Death" by Charles Finch

Old-fashioned ratiocination, done up with all the Victorian bells and whistles.

When Lady Jane’s former upstairs maid Prue dies, presumably by her own hand, the gentlewoman calls on her good friend, Charles Lenox—an amateur sleuth who’s also a Roman antiquities scholar and a lover of maps, a good pipe and a decent cup of tea—to investigate. Searching the gel’s digs at the Barnard household, Lenox discovers several clues: a bottle of rare and expensive blue indigo poison, a forged suicide note, a leaf, a candle and diverse suspicious guests in residence, including two politicians, two nephews, one financier, Prue’s footman fiancé and of course Barnard himself, a Director of the Royal Mint, who was safeguarding crates of the nation’s gold in a locked room. Dumb Inspector Exeter of the Yard is called in, but makes little headway, so Lenox sends his man Graham, his brother Edmund et al. to reconnoiter. Another fatality is scheduled for the season’s main event, Barnard’s ball. Untangling the ties between the deaths solves the case in time for Lenox and Lady Jane to contemplate more congenial companions.

Finch’s rudimentary writing skills are enlivened now and then by bits of London history. On the whole, though, most Sherlockians can skip this unengaging debut without risk.

6) "Bertie and the Tinman" by Peter Lovesey

The Tinman"" was Britain's greatest 19th-century jockey, Fred Archer, who committed suicide in 1886--supposedly while in a typhoid-caused delirium. ""Bertie"" is none other than Albert Edward, Prince of Wales--who is both narrator (jaunty) and sleuth (rather clumsy) in this larky, ribald period jape. Bertie, you see, doesn't believe the typhoid story, knowing the symptoms all too well from personal experience (his father's death, his own near-fatal illness). Instead, the Prince is sure that super-jockey Archer, whom he idolized, was ""terrorized into taking his own life."" So, vowing to punish whoever's responsible, Bertie secretly turns detective, incognito--only to collect some distressing data. Archer, it seems, might have been involved in a race-fixing scam with that notorious race-track entrepreneur, ""the Squire."" Sleuthing further, Bertie beds the Squire's mistress (vaudevillian Myrtle Bliss), visits the late Archer's unlikely fiancee (the aged Countess of Montrose), takes a swim in the Thames (thanks to two thugs), and apparently triggers two more deaths: Myrtle and Bertie's sidekick, Archer's soldier-pal Charlie Buckfast, both turn up as murder victims. But Bertie, after several attempts to trap the Squire (including a naughty weekend-party), does finally triumph--with a surprise or two--over the killer. By Lovesey's own top-drawer standards (The False Inspector Dew, the Sgt. Cribb series), this frolic is a trifle disappointing--too cutesy, too thin--as a period re-creation. But it's undeniably bouncy and chortle-worthy--with added pleasure for racing fans, a splendid cameo by the dour Queen (who has her own secrets), and the anything-butstuffy narration of vain, idle, plucky Bertie.

7) "The Black Tower" by Louis Bayard

Having previously channeled Dickens and Poe, historical novelist Bayard (The Pale Blue Eye, 2006, etc.) throws down the gauntlet to Dumas in another high-energy melodrama.

Set in early-19th-century Paris and environs, the book recounts the life-changing experience of medical student Hector Carpentier, who’s enlisted by celebrated police detective Eugène Vidocq (a real historical figure) to follow clues suggesting that members of the recently restored Bourbon monarchy known to have been executed by the Jacobins who overthrew them did not include the Dauphin Louis-Charles, younger son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. A scrap of paper bearing Hector’s name, a meeting with a down-at-heels baroness and an astonishing accretion of details concerning the late M. Carpentier père, who had himself pursued a medical career, enable Vidocq to persuade the initially disbelieving Hector that his humble father, an artisan of no particular accomplishment, “might have rubbed shoulders with a Bourbon or two.” Dastardly plots, thrilling last-minute rescues and escapes, the destruction by fire of the boardinghouse run by Hector’s stoical mother and the mystery surrounding the docile man-child, who may be the one who might be king, are cast together in a whirligig narrative whose impertinent momentum never flags (despite the appearances of enough red herrings to overpopulate a sizable sea). Young Carpentier is a perfectly suitable unwilling (and quite sensibly unheroic) hero, and the ego-driven, Rabelaisian Vidocq drags the story along by his flaring coattails, never fearing any challenges to his wit and resourcefulness (his eccentric jocosity, however, often feels forced). The novel’s witty succession of trapdoor endings, culminating (we think) in “the quietest of abdications,” keeps surprising us long after it seems Bayard’s plot has nowhere else to go.

Who says they don’t write ’em like this anymore? Long may Bayard reign.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Young Adult Titles Book List

Need something to read? Want something new? Check out this book list...

1) "Mosquitoland" by David Arnold

Encounters both dangerous and wonder-filled with fellow travelers prompt 16-year-old runaway Mim to scrutinize her perceptions about herself, her family and the world she inhabits.

Convinced that her father and stepmother are hiding secrets about her mother’s health and also frustrated by her father’s insistence that she take antipsychotic medication, Mim steals an emergency cash fund to travel 1,000 miles to her mother. Aboard the Greyhound bus, Mim’s inner monologues about other passengers reveal her snarky sense of superiority, which is alternately hilarious, cutting and full of bravado. But her self-imposed, disdainful isolation quickly dissolves in the aftermath of a harrowing accident. Completing her journey suddenly necessitates interacting with a motley set of fellow travelers. Mim’s father’s doubts about the stability of her perceptions feed a continual sense of tension as readers (and Mim herself) attempt to evaluate which of Mim’s conclusions about her fellow characters—both the seemingly charming and seemingly menacing—can be trusted. Arnold pens a stunning debut, showcasing a cast of dynamic characters whose individual struggles are real but not always fully explained, a perfect decision for a book whose timeline is brief. Ultimately, Mim revises moments from her own narrative, offering readers tantalizing glimpses of the adult Mim will eventually become and reminding readers that the end of the novel is not the end of Mim’s journey—or her story.

Mesmerizing. (Fiction. 14 & up)

2) "Made You Up" by Francesca Zappia

After her expulsion from private school for an act of mental-illness–induced vandalism, Alex, 17, begins her senior year at an Indiana public school with trepidation.

Bright and determined to get to college, Alex counts on meds to control her paranoid schizophrenia even if they can’t entirely eliminate the hallucinations that have plagued her for a decade; she relies on her part-time table-waiting job to help keep her occupied. Long before they know her history, bullies at her new school target Alex, but she’s got allies, too—notably Tucker, a classmate and co-worker, as well as the small community of students at school who, like her, must compensate for past misdeeds by doing community service. They sell tickets and snacks, set up seating and provide support for school sporting events. Alex and the group’s charismatic but troubled, possibly autistic leader, Miles, share a mutual attraction that might date back to their strange encounter in a supermarket years earlier, when Alex decided to set a tankful of lobsters free. This debut’s talented author creates interesting characters and a suspenseful plot to draw readers in, but eventually the narrative loses traction and, ultimately, its raison d’être in a nihilistic denouement likely to leave readers feeling manipulated if not just plain cheated. Also troubling is the reliance on toxic stereotypes of mental illness to generate suspense.

An intriguing but ultimately misbegotten project. (Fiction. 14-18)

3) "All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven

Two struggling teens develop an unlikely relationship in a moving exploration of grief, suicide and young love.

Violet, a writer and member of the popular crowd, has withdrawn from her friends and from school activities since her sister died in a car accident nine months earlier. Finch, known to his classmates as "Theodore Freak," is famously impulsive and eccentric. Following their meeting in the school bell tower, Finch makes it his mission to re-engage Violet with the world, partially through a school project that sends them to offbeat Indiana landmarks and partially through simple persistence. (Violet and Finch live, fortunately for all involved, in the sort of romantic universe where his throwing rocks at her window in the middle of the night comes off more charming than stalker-esque.) The teens alternate narration chapter by chapter, each in a unique and well-realized voice. Finch's self-destructive streak and suicidal impulses are never far from the surface, and the chapters he narrates are interspersed with facts about suicide methods and quotations from Virginia Woolf and poet Cesare Pavese. When the story inevitably turns tragic, a cast of carefully drawn side characters brings to life both the pain of loss and the possibility of moving forward, though some notes of hope are more believable than others.

Many teen novels touch on similar themes, but few do it so memorably. (Fiction. 14 & up)

4) "The Storyspinner" by Becky Wallace

A circus girl attempts a balancing act when she gets involved in feudal politics and ancient magic.

Johanna Von Arlo grew up with Performers, trained to fight and wanted to be a Storyspinner like her father. After his mysterious death, Johanna tries to eke out an existence for her three brothers and now-alcoholic mother. But when Johanna encounters young Lord Rafael Santiago DeSilva, she ends up Performing at his court, attracting the attention of other, less honorable nobles and an assassin hunting the lost Princess Adriana. Yet others are also pursuing the lost princess. Mage Leão and Keepers (long-lived warriors, each magically tied to an element) Jacaré, who is over 300 but looks and acts 18, his angry sister, Pira, and ancient rebel Texugo must escape Olinda, cross a magical (but fading) barrier into Santarem and find the princess in order to restore the boundary between the lands. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of seven characters, sacrificing strong character development, and the minimal plot is dragged out, sadly necessitating sequels. Debut author Wallace bucks the trend of retold fairy tales, serves a (superficial) smattering of Spanish elements, offers but doesn’t overwhelm with political intrigue and nicely balances romances with adventure.

An overlong and overcrowded but action-packed beginning. (Fantasy. 12-18)

5) "Under a Painted Sky" by Stacy Lee

Two girls on the racial margins of mid-19th-century America team up and head west.

As the book opens, Samantha, a 15-year-old Chinese-American violinist, yearns to move back to New York City in 1849, though her kind and optimistic father, owner of a dry goods store in the bustling outpost of Saint Joe, Missouri, has great plans for them in California. When the store burns down and her father dies, she is forced to defend herself from their predatory landlord. Suddenly on the run from the law, Samantha and Annamae, a 16-year-old African-American slave who covets freedom, disguise themselves as boys and head west on the Oregon Trail. Well-crafted and suspenseful, with more flow than ebb to the tension that stretches like taut wires across plotlines, Lee’s tale ingeniously incorporates Chinese philosophy and healing, music, art and religion, as well as issues of race and discrimination (including abolitionist views and examples of cruel slave treatment), into what is at its center a compelling love story. “Sammy” and “Andy” meet up with Cay, West and Peety, three young, good-hearted cowboys with secrets of their own, who help them on their arduous, dangerous journey.

Emotionally resonant and not without humor, this impressive debut about survival and connection, resourcefulness and perseverance will keep readers on the very edges of their seats. (Historical fiction. 12-16)

6) "The Creeping" by Alexandra Sirowy

Although she remembers little, Stella witnessed her friend Jeanie’s murder when they were 6 years old. Now Stella needs to learn just what kind of monster was responsible.

Was it a supernatural monster? Is it still out there in the woods today, waiting for redheaded little girls to kill? Certainly most residents of Savage, near Minneapolis, believe in the supernatural monster. Shane, the police detective in charge of Jeanie’s case, has no doubt the monster is human. Mrs. Griever, a seemingly crazy old lady living on the outskirts of town, has no doubt the monster is centuries old. When another redheaded little girl turns up dead, Stella believes the two cases must be connected. Warned by Shane that she may be in real danger, Stella nevertheless constantly risks her safety to investigate what she increasingly believes may be a truly paranormal beast of some kind, especially when she and another childhood friend learn that Jeanie was far from the first redheaded little girl to be murdered in Savage. Sirowy’s main focus—the rift between legend and fact—slowly emerges. With Shane as the voice of skeptical reality and Mrs. Griever the purveyor of longstanding local legends, Stella eventually must learn which is correct if she is to survive. Although the story takes rather too long to tell, it delivers with a nicely suspenseful plot that builds to a crisis point.

Intriguing all the way through. (Suspense. 12-18)

7) "Playlist for the Dead" by Michelle Falkoff

When his best friend leaves behind a mysterious playlist in lieu of a proper suicide note, Sam is left with dozens of questions and only a handful of songs as clues.

Hayden and Sam have been thick as thieves since they were 8, but the pressures of high school have been pushing them apart bit by bit for the last few months. After a party turns disastrous, the two leave on the worst of terms, and Sam finds Hayden’s body in the morning with an empty bottle each of vodka and Valium. He also finds a playlist and a note with just one sentence: "For Sam….Listen and you'll understand." As Sam deals with his only friend's death, a mysterious girl come out of the woodwork offering condolences and a different account of Hayden's personality. As Sam discovers more and more about his friend, he discovers a bit more about his own sense of identity as well. It’s a nice premise with some truly powerful moments, but there is a serious overreliance on exposition-heavy dialogue. These conversations are lined up one after another so often it almost becomes comical. A few emotional dead ends are met as well, making for an ambitious book that doesn't quite stick any of the landings. The highs of the journey are so high that it's almost forgivable that the book's central mystery ends up being a bust.

A mixed bag that delights slightly more than disappoints. (Fiction. 12-16)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Top Disney Songs

Have you ever wondered what Disney songs were the most popular? Check it out...

1) "A Whole New World"-Aladdin

Composer: Alan Menken


2) "When You Wish Upon A Star"-Pinocchio

Composers: Leigh Harline and Ned Washington 

3) "Be Our Guest"-Beauty and the Beast

Composers: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken

4) "Circle of Life"-The Lion King

Composer: Elton John

5) "Bare Necessities"-The Jungle Book

Composer: Terry Gilkyson

6) "You've Got a Friend in Me"-Toy Story

Composer: Carole King

7) "I Wanna Be Like You"-The Jungle Book

Composers: Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman

8) "Part of Your World"-The Little Mermaid

Composer: Alan Menken

9) "Someday My Prince Will Come"-Snow White

Composer: Frank Churchill

10) "Under the Sea"-The Little Mermaid

Composers: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Best of Disney Movies Continues

Want to watch some Disney movies? Want the best of it? Check out this movie list...

1) The AristoCats

Retired madame Adelaide Bonfamille enjoys the good life in her Paris villa with even classier cat Duchess and three kittens: pianist Berlioz, painter Toulouse and sanctimonious Marie. When loyal butler Edgar overhears her will leaves everything to the cats until their death, he drugs and kidnaps them. However retired army dogs make his sidecar capsize on the country. Crafty stray cat Thomas O'Malley takes them under his wing back to Paris. Edgar tries to cover his tracks and catch them at return, but more animals turn on him, from the cart horse Frou-Frou to the tame mouse Roquefort and O'Malley's jazz friends.

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Writers: Larry Clemmons (story), Vance Gerry (story), 7 more credits »
Stars: Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1970

2) Angels in the Outfield

Roger who has lost his mother is living separated from his father. As he and his friend J.P. are one of the biggest fans of the Los Angeles baseball team he has got only two dreams: Living together with a real family and let LA win the championship. As he is praying for these two things to happen some angels show up in order to help him - but he is the only one to see them and believe in them. Fortunately the coach of the baseball team sees his abilities and so LA has a run to the finals...

Director: William Dear
Writers: Dorothy Kingsley, George Wells, 4 more credits »
Stars: Danny Glover, Brenda Fricker, Tony Danza |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1994

3) The Sword in the Stone

Arthur (aka Wart) is a young boy who aspires to be a knight's squire. On a hunting trip he falls in on Merlin, a powerful but amnesiac wizard who has plans for Wart beyond mere squiredom. He starts by trying to give Wart an education (whatever that is), believing that once one has an education, one can go anywhere. Needless to say, it doesn't quite work out that way.

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Writers: Bill Peet (story), T.H. White (based on the book by)
Stars: Rickie Sorensen, Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1963

4) 101 Dalmatians

Fashion designer Anita and computer-game writer Roger meet, fall in love and marry along with their dalmatians Perdita and Pongo. But the proud dogs' puppies are kidnapped by Anita's boss Cruella De Vil, who is stealing young dalmatians to make the coat she has set her heart on. Enlisting the help of the British animal kingdom, Pongo and Perdita set out to find and rescue all ninety-nine pups from their fearsome captors, Jasper and Horace.

Director: Stephen Herek
Writers: Dodie Smith (novel), John Hughes (screenplay)
Stars: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1996

5) The Even Stevens Movie

The Stevens think that they've won an all-expenses-paid trip to an island that's halfway around the world. When their house is destroyed, their food stolen, and their bacon eaten, the Stevens family breaks apart in front of all their friends on live national television, while the island itself is only a short distance away from Sacramento!

Director: Sean McNamara
Writers: Dennis Rinsler, Marc Warren
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Christy Carlson Romano, Donna Pescow | See full cast and crew »
Released: 2003

Not available in County Cat but the TV series is. 

6) Swiss Family Robinson 

A family in route to New Guinea is shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. They are forced to remain on the island because of the damage to the ship and the pirates that are roaming the islands. They create a home on the island (centering around a huge tree house) and explore the island and its wildlife. Plenty of adventure ensues as the family deals with issues of survival and pirates, and the brothers must learn how to live on the island with an uncertain future.

Director: Ken Annakin
Writers: Lowell S. Hawley (screenplay), Johann David Wyss (novel) (as Johann Wyss)
Stars: John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1960

7) Enchanted

The beautiful princess Giselle is banished by an evil queen from her magical, musical animated land and finds herself in the gritty reality of the streets of modern-day Manhattan. Shocked by this strange new environment that doesn't operate on a "happily ever after" basis, Giselle is now adrift in a chaotic world badly in need of enchantment. But when Giselle begins to fall in love with a charmingly flawed divorce lawyer who has come to her aid - even though she is already promised to a perfect fairy tale prince back home - she has to wonder: Can a storybook view of romance survive in the real world?

Director: Kevin Lima
Writer: Bill Kelly
Stars: Amy Adams, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden |See full cast and crew »
Released: 2007

8) The Princess Diaries

Mia Thermopolis is the average teenager - sweet, a little geeky and pretty much invisible to everyone with the exception of her mother, best friend Lilly and Lilly's older brother Michael. Making it through high school without throwing up is a challenge in itself for Mia, so it doesn't come as welcome news when her estranged grandmother shows up out of the blue and calmly informs her that she is in fact the heir to the throne of a European country called Genovia. Suddenly Mia's life is thrown into complete overload. She's being taught about scarves, waves and pears in order to become a perfect princess, she gets a makeover and a tough looking yet sweet bodyguard/limo driver called Joe. Things get out of hand when the media gets a hold of the story and suddenly Mia is thrust into the spotlight in both the newspapers and in school. On top of all that Mia has a choice to make. She must decide by Genovia's Independence Day Ball whether she longs to relinquish her claim on the throne or to...

Director: Garry Marshall
Writers: Meg Cabot (novel), Gina Wendkos (screenplay)
Stars: Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, Hector Elizondo |See full cast and crew »
Released: 2001

9) The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride

Simba and Nala have a daughter, Kiara. Timon and Pumbaa are assigned to be her babysitters, but she easily escapes their care and ventures into the forbidden lands. There she meets a lion cub named Kovu and they become friends. What she and her parents do not know is that Kovu is the son of Zira - a banished follower of the now-dead Scar. She plans to raise Kovu to overthrow Simba and become the king of the Pride Lands. This tests not only Kiara and Kovu's relationship as they mature, but Simba's relationship with his daughter.

Directors: Darrell Rooney, Rob LaDuca
Writers: Flip Kobler (screenplay), Cindy Marcus(screenplay), 11 more credits »
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Neve Campbell, Andy Dick |See full cast and crew »
Released: 1998

10) The Incredibles

Bob Parr (A.K.A. Mr. Incredible), and his wife Helen (A.K.A. Elastigirl), are the world's greatest famous crime-fighting superheroes in Metroville. Always saving lives and battling evil on a daily basis. But fifteen years later, they have been forced to adopt civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs where they have no choice but to retire as superheroes to live a "normal life" with their three children Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (who were secretly born with superpowers). Itching to get back into action, Bob gets his chance when a mysterious communication summons him to a remote island for a top secret assignment. He soon discovers that it will take a super family effort to rescue the world from total destruction.

Director: Brad Bird
Writer: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter |See full cast and crew »
Released: 2004

Friday, August 21, 2015

Male Hero Book List

Are you trying to get your child to read? Want some heroes for him to look up to? Check out this book list...

1) "Holes" by Louis Sachar

Sentenced to a brutal juvenile detention camp for a crime he didn't commit, a wimpy teenager turns four generations of bad family luck around in this sunburnt tale of courage, obsession, and buried treasure from Sachar (Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, 1995, etc.). Driven mad by the murder of her black beau, a schoolteacher turns on the once-friendly, verdant town of Green Lake, Texas, becomes feared bandit Kissin' Kate Barlow, and dies, laughing, without revealing where she buried her stash. A century of rainless years later, lake and town are memories--but, with the involuntary help of gangs of juvenile offenders, the last descendant of the last residents is still digging. Enter Stanley Yelnats IV, great-grandson of one of Kissin' Kate's victims and the latest to fall to the family curse of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; under the direction of The Warden, a woman with rattlesnake venom polish on her long nails, Stanley and each of his fellow inmates dig a hole a day in the rock-hard lake bed. Weeks of punishing labor later, Stanley digs up a clue, but is canny enough to conceal the information of which hole it came from. Through flashbacks, Sachar weaves a complex net of hidden relationships and well-timed revelations as he puts his slightly larger-than-life characters under a sun so punishing that readers will be reaching for water bottles. Good Guys and Bad get just deserts in the end, and Stanley gets plenty of opportunities to display pluck and valor in this rugged, engrossing adventure.

2) "Eragon" by Christopher Paolini

This solid, sweeping epic fantasy crosses vast geography as it follows 15-year-old Eragon from anonymous farm boy to sword-wielding icon on whose shoulders may rest the fate of Alagaësia. Dragon Riders have died out over the years, leaving the Empire under the iron fist of King Galbatorix; but hunting in the forest one day, Eragon finds a blue stone that soon hatches into his very own dragon. The next months find him learning magic, sword skills, and bits of his land’s history. A slight tone of arrogance running through the narrative voice will hardly bother readers busily enjoying the reliable motifs of elegant immortal elves, mining dwarves, a wise elderly man, and a hero of mysterious birth. Replete with histories, names, and languages, this high fantasy with visible Tolkien influence ends with Eragon’s first battle and a tempting pointer towards the second installment, when Eragon will visit the unseen elven city and plunge headlong into his destiny. (map, pronunciation key, glossaries of three created languages) (Fantasy. YA)

3) "A Darker Shade of Magic" by V.E. Schwab

A fast-paced fantasy adventure that takes readers into a series of interconnected worlds ruled by magic—or the lack of it.

Long ago, the doors between worlds were open, and anyone with magic could travel from one to the next. Now the doors are closed, and only a chosen few have the power to travel between Grey London, a world without magic, Red London, a world suffused with it, and White London, a world where magic is scarce, coveted and jealously guarded. As for Black London, the city consumed, no one would be so foolish as to risk a trip—not even Kell. Officially, he’s a royal messenger, carrying letters among the rulers of the three Londons. Unofficially, he’s a smuggler who collects artifacts from other worlds. It’s that habit that leads him to accept a dangerous relic, something that shouldn’t exist. And it’s when a wanted Grey London thief named Lila steals the artifact that the real trouble starts—for both of them. Schwab (Vicious, 2013, etc.) creates a memorable world—actually, three memorable worlds—and even more memorable characters. Lila in particular is a winningly unconventional heroine who, as she declares, would “rather die on an adventure than live standing still.” The brisk plot makes this a page-turner that confronts darkness but is never overwhelmed by it.

Fantasy fans will love this fast-paced adventure, with its complex magic system, thoughtful hero and bold heroine.

4) "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews

A frequently hysterical confessional from a teen narrator who won't be able to convince readers he's as unlikable as he wants them to believe.

"I have no idea how to write this stupid book," narrator Greg begins. Without answering the obvious question—just why is he writing "this stupid book"?—Greg lets readers in on plenty else. His filmmaking ambitions. His unlikely friendship with the unfortunately short, chain-smoking, foulmouthed, African-American Earl of the title. And his unlikelier friendship with Rachel, the titular "dying girl." Punctuating his aggressively self-hating account with film scripts and digressions, he chronicles his senior year, in which his mother guilt-trips him into hanging out with Rachel, who has acute myelogenous leukemia. Almost professionally socially awkward, Greg navigates his unwanted relationship with Rachel by showing her the films he's made with Earl, anoeuvre begun in fifth grade with their remake of Aguirre, Wrath of God. Greg's uber-snarky narration is self-conscious in the extreme, resulting in lines like, "This entire paragraph is a moron." Debut novelist Andrews succeeds brilliantly in painting a portrait of a kid whose responses to emotional duress are entirely believable and sympathetic, however fiercely he professes his essential crappiness as a human being.

Though this novel begs inevitable thematic comparisons to John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012), it stands on its own in inventiveness, humor and heart. (Fiction. 14 & up)

5) "The Martian" by Andy Weir

When a freak dust storm brings a manned mission to Mars to an unexpected close, an astronaut who is left behind fights to stay alive. This is the first novel from software engineer Weir.

One minute, astronaut Mark Watney was with his crew, struggling to make it out of a deadly Martian dust storm and back to the ship, currently in orbit over Mars. The next minute, he was gone, blown away, with an antenna sticking out of his side. The crew knew he'd lost pressure in his suit, and they'd seen his biosigns go flat. In grave danger themselves, they made an agonizing but logical decision: Figuring Mark was dead, they took off and headed back to Earth. As it happens, though, due to a bizarre chain of events, Mark is very much alive. He wakes up some time later to find himself stranded on Mars with a limited supply of food and no way to communicate with Earth or his fellow astronauts. Luckily, Mark is a botanist as well as an astronaut. So, armed with a few potatoes, he becomes Mars' first ever farmer. From there, Mark must overcome a series of increasingly tricky mental, physical and technical challenges just to stay alive, until finally, he realizes there is just a glimmer of hope that he may actually be rescued. Weir displays a virtuosic ability to write about highly technical situations without leaving readers far behind. The result is a story that is as plausible as it is compelling. The author imbues Mark with a sharp sense of humor, which cuts the tension, sometimes a little too much—some readers may be laughing when they should be on the edges of their seats. As for Mark’s verbal style, the modern dialogue at times undermines the futuristic setting. In fact, people in the book seem not only to talk the way we do now, they also use the same technology (cellphones, computers with keyboards). This makes the story feel like it's set in an alternate present, where the only difference is that humans are sending manned flights to Mars. Still, the author’s ingenuity in finding new scrapes to put Mark in, not to mention the ingenuity in finding ways out of said scrapes, is impressive.

Sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery.

6) "Hocus Pocus" by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's latest is his most insistently antiwar novel since Slaughterhouse-Five, and is haunted by Vietnam; the title refers to Uncle Sam's Vietnam propaganda outfit. The format is standard Vonnegut: homilies, refrains, and fragments of a life on planet Earth (with just a nod to Tralfamadore). The life belongs to Eugene Debs Hartke, soldier-turned-teacher; it's 2001, and the 61-year-old Eugene is getting his life down on scraps of paper while awaiting trial for allegedly masterminding a mass prison break (actually the work of a Jamaican drug kingpin). Though the setting is Tarkington College, Scipio, in Upstate New York, and the narrative is cluttered with campus trivia, Vietnam is invoked at every turn. The new wrinkle here is that Eugene, far from being a hapless Billy Pilgrim, was an accomplished professional soldier, a West Point graduate who rose to lieutenant colonel, a "puritanical angel of death" whose "100-percent-legal military kills" in Vietnam equal the grand total of his sexual conquests after 40 years of tomcatting. But Eugene, for all his medals, still has "ugly, personal knowledge" of Vietnam, which leads to his being fired from Tarkington and moving across the lake to teach at the all-black, Japanese-run prison (the Japanese now run most US prisons and hospitals) until the Jamaican-led exodus and its bloody aftermath. Eugene also has a wretched domestic life (wife and live-in mother-in-law who go mad, estranged kids), but this gets only perfunctory attention. Eugene is an unlikely and never fully convincing filter for Vonnegut's world-view; the snapshots of Vietnam horror ("I saw the severed head of a bearded old man resting on the guts of an eviscerated water buffalo") remain just that; and the Japanese prison warden's childhood memory of the Hiroshima atomic blast reads like a tired replay of Billy in Dresden. Yes, there are occasional flashes of the old Vonnegut magic (a lovely encounter between Eugene and an illegitimate son named after a cocktail, for example), but mostly he is working well below his top form here.

7) "The Bunker Diary" by Kevin Brooks

Knocked unconscious and kidnapped, 16-year-old Linus wakes alone in a small, windowless, concrete building.

The only way in or out is a lift that comes, empty, twice a day. With no food and no contact with his captor, Linus begins a journal. On the third day, a 9-year-old girl named Jenny appears, and food is finally delivered. Over several days, four more captives arrive, all adults, including a big, burly junkie, an uptight young businesswoman and a middle-aged businessman. Last to arrive is Russell, a famous philosopher who’s dying of a brain tumor. In a setting reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, this suspenseful, riveting winner of the 2014 Carnegie Medal explores existentialism through the different stages of life embodied by the six characters. Jenny wonders what they’re being punished for and why their captor is so bad. Linus wonders why they are there and what their captor wants. He notices that the clocks are being manipulated and ponders what past, present and future mean when you’re captive and dependent on an all-powerful “Man Upstairs” for life’s essentials. Wise Russell, the only character of color, calmly works out where they must be and helps the others see the humanity in themselves and each other. Brooks’ latest is not an easy novel, but it’s one that begs for rereading to suss the intricacies of its construction of plot, character development and insight into the human condition.

Not for everyone, this heady novel is worthy of study alongside existentialist works of the 20th century. (Fiction. 14 & up)