Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Writing Process (tag, you're It!)

There’s been a meme going around (sounds like the flu) called, thrillingly, My Writing Process. I got tagged by the estimable Katie Quirk, who posted a week ago.

Katie, by the way, is the author of A GIRL CALLED PROBLEM. Set in Tanzania, East Africa, this middle-grade novel received a starred Kirkus review, a glowing review by School Library Journal's Elizabeth Bird, and a write-up in the New York Times Book Review. Katie's current project, RICHARD NIXON GAVE ME CHOCOLATE, is a memoir of motherhood, adventure, and coming to terms with not "having it all," set in the mountains of southern India. She currently lives in Orono, ME, and frequently visits schools, libraries, universities and book festivals to talk about her time in Tanzania and about the craft of writing.

****
So here are the questions Katie passed along.

And, coincidentally, my answers.

1. What am I working on?

I just finished the rough, rough, horribly rough, terrible, and stinky draft of a fantasy set in southern Maine in the 1650s. It involves a girl from a distant tribe stranded in an English settlement and brought up there, and a shape-shifting magician who plays tricks on the settlement with dire consequences.

Here’s the opening:

It was possible, Mother Bolton said, that Nathan Chartwell had been turned into a spotted hog.

Grace almost believed it. Sabbath evening, Nathan had been in the stocks for drunkenness and vile language—which nobody minded except there was a preacher visiting from Boston. The next morning Nathan was gone and a speckled monster roamed the village center, snuffling for acorns. 

Grace had never seen that hog. Nor had anyone else.  Its spots were exactly the same as Nathan’s smallpox scars, his wife said, and it had corn whiskey on its breath.

Sure that it was her husband, Mistress Chartwell waved her skinny arms and commenced a great wail that lasted half the morning. You could hear her over the thump of a butter churn half a mile away.

At last Mistress Chartwell quieted down, called the hog Nathan, and took him home. She treated the beast very well in the following days—better than she’d treated her husband, some said. She gave him porridge in the morning and meat in the afternoon, and tucked him into bed by the fire.

Now to turn this thing into an actual book.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My fantasies are firmly grounded in reality—a fantasy figure (so far, a goatman, fairies, a banshee, and now a shape-shifting magician) makes life complicated and dangerous for a human kid, basically. Also, there’s a lot of humor—or I flatter myself that there is.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I used to love stories that took place in a completely fantastical setting: THE LORD OF THE RINGS, for example. I still love many of them, but as I’ve gotten older I seem to prefer one foot in the real world.  I like the notion that the reader has a representative on the page—someone who is used to subways and school buses and popsicles, who will be just as astounded as we are at the magical goings-on and can ask for an explanation when things get too weird.

I don’t think I realized the full potential of reality-based, humorous fantasy until I encountered Diana Wynne-Jones (my first book of hers was ARCHER’S GOON, which is marvelous). Neil Gaiman is another practitioner I admire. If you haven’t read FORTUNATELY, THE MILK (his latest for kids), you should correct that deficiency now.

4) How does my writing process work?

I’ve been an editor as well as a writer all my life, and I seem to be most comfortable editing. For that reason, I have to be very strict with myself when drafting, because otherwise I’ll procrastinate and never get anything down on paper.

Once I get to revision, I will cheerfully work all day, regardless of word count. Revision is my happy place. I doubt that anyone looks forward to an editorial letter more than I do.

When I’m drafting, I am not allowed to eat lunch until I have a thousand words. I may write a little more in the afternoon, but it’s okay if I research instead. (I love research so much it feels like I’m goofing off. And, in fact, I would just keep researching without writing if not for the thousand-word rule.)

I should specify that at this point I’m not writing a thousand good words. Just words. In the past month or so, somebody commented somewhere that drafting is like shoveling sand into the sandbox. Revision is when you build the sand castle.

I keep telling myself that.

Sometimes I get so stuck that I can’t crank out even the bad words, other than swearing at myself. When that happens I open a new document and write a diary entry for one of my characters. Doesn’t have to be about anything important—the weather, what he/she had for breakfast. Within half an hour, the character’s told me where the story’s heading next, and I’m back in the main document.

Sometimes the brain doesn’t engage unless the fingers are typing.

If I’m really in trouble, the diary entry figures in the word count. Cheating, sure. But hey . . . whatever gets you to lunch.

****

And now I pass the baton and the baloney sandwich to Dawn Metcalf and Erin Dionne , who will post next Thursday, June 5.

Dawn Metcalf has always lived on the edge between reality and magic, which explains her current profession and love of fantasy books and games. Her passions include karate, fairy tales, Victoriana and dark chocolate, often combining one or more of them in unexpected ways. She’s the author of INDELIBLE and its forthcoming sequel, INVISIBLE, as well as LUMINOUS. Dawn lives with her husband and family in northern Connecticut. If they had a sign, it would be: Confounding the Neighbor Children Since 1999. Visit her online at www.dawnmetcalf.com.



Erin Dionne’s books are Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, and Notes from an Accidental Band Geek. Her novel Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery, is based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. The series continues with Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting (July 2014). A graduate of Boston College (English & Communications, 1997) and Emerson College (MFA, 1999); she teaches writing at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.  She’s online at www.erindionne.com.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April Book Review



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@Barrie Summy

Happy Spring! I say this with tongue firmly in cheek. What a mess it is in Maine! Way, way, too early for beach reading, so here's a wonderful tome to get you through to warm weather

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The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt
Little, Brown & Co, 2013

A little Salinger, a little Updike. A hefty dose of Dickens. But mostly, Donna Tartt—this is the only book of hers I've read (she's written three novels, one a decade) and she's high in my pantheon now.

At just under 800 pages, THE GOLDFINCH is a time commitment. But there's no sense of drudgery, partly because this is a miraculous marriage of four books tied together with common threads—get tired of one phase of our hero's life, and presto! there's another.

The major cohesive thread is “The Goldfinch,” the small 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius that in real life just visited the Frick Collection in New York from its home in The Hague. The painting—of a bird chained to a perch against a blank wall—is deceptively simple but luminous in color and brush-strokes, much like this book.

Our narrator, thirteen-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker, meets the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he visits with his vibrant, beautiful, and much-loved single mother on a disastrously coincidental day. Theo has misbehaved and been suspended from school. On an uncomfortable journey uptown with his mother to discuss his case with school officials, the two are driven by the rain into the Met and decide to take a gander at a visiting exhibit of northern European art.

From that series of coincidences comes the tragedy that will run Theo's life: The Deckers part company
"The Goldfinch" (Carel Fabritius, 1654)
briefly, and at that exact moment a terrorist's bomb goes off. His mother is killed. Theo comes to in a wrecked gallery and comforts a dying old man, who makes him take “The Goldfinch” off the wall (it's only 13.25 x 9 inches) and insists on giving him an ornate gold ring.

Theo ends up wandering home with both ring and painting. From the old man's half-demented ramblings, he figures out months later where to return the ring, another life-changing event. But he does not return the painting—it becomes his only source of contact with his life Before. Eventually, as his post-bomb befuddlement fades, he begins to realize that the world will consider him an art thief—the more so the longer he puts off telling anyone about the little painting.

Over the next fourteen years, “The Goldfinch”--hidden in increasingly complex circumstances--becomes Theo's joy and his solace, but also his burden and the subject of deep guilt. In other words, it's family.

Immediately after the bombing, Theo fetches up on Park Avenue with the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend. It's here that Tartt offers us a slow, exquisite depiction of extreme grief, from the harrowing early moments ( “I said yes and no when I was spoken to, and spent a lot of time staring at the carpet so people wouldn't see I was crying”) to the later stages when everything's supposed to be back to normal but Just Simply Isn't.

The Park Avenue phase of Theo's story ends when his father, a drunk with a gambling problem (or vice versa), uproots him to a dusty, eerily deserted Las Vegas suburb. This is the second and, to me, the most depressing section of the book, Oliver Twist meets Holden Caulfield. Appearing in the role of Artful Dodger, however, is one of the book's funniest and most compelling characters: Boris, a Russian teen who has lived all over the world and created his own set of ethics in the process. His father, a mining engineer, disappears for weeks only to return in a drunken rage and beat his son. Theo's father isn't much better, so the two embark on a drug-fueled shadow existence, wandering from empty house to empty house, utterly reliant on one another.

Theo eventually makes it back to New York for his Dickens-and-Salinger-meet-Updike phase. Still possessing and possessed by “The Goldfinch,” he drifts into furniture fraud, at risk of betraying the mentor he acquired years before when he returned the dying old man's gold ring. In love with the old man's granddaughter, also a survivor of the bombing, he nevertheless becomes engaged to the brittle socialite daughter of the Park Avenue Barbours, thus subjected to Society at its most vapid.

Phase four features the return of Boris, who pulls Theo into a Grisham-esque thriller—a sometimes comic, sometimes nail-biting page-turner, fun but less enthralling to me than the more character-driven segments of the book.

I'm making this book sound like a real mess, aren't I? Trust me, it's not. Although a tad wordy in places, the writing is spectacular. The characters are round and real and absorbing, and there's an undercurrent of magical realism as coincidences and extraordinary insights first destroy lives and then save them. Your time will be well invested.

(Dear FCC: I gave this book to my beloved for Christmas, and when he'd finished he would not rest until I got started on it. Then he kept hovering and asking “Where are you? What's happening now?” Annoying yet endearing, much like this postscript.)


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

March Book Review Club



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@Barrie Summy


Gaaaaahhhh! It's March and the temperature's in the single digits! What is there to do but read a good book?

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By Tim Tingle
The RoadRunner Press, 2013

“Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before,” our young Choctaw narrator begins. “I am a ghost. I am not a ghost when this book begins, so you have to pay very close attention.”

How could this book not be a page-turner?

Our narrator, ten-year-old Isaac, meets his destiny on the Trail of Tears, the horrifying path walked by southeastern Native American nations after passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The descendent of a trail-walker, Tim Tingle drew on family history and conversations with tribal elders to write this and other books about the event.

But HOW I BECAME A GHOST does not read like history—the story is immediate and real, thanks to a flat-toned yet evocative young narrator,  journeying from innocence through cataclysm to an all-too-temporary justice. 

When the book begins, Isaac’s chief concern is keeping his beloved dog, Jumper, from eating the chickens. (Jumper talks, our first clue that this is not just any old story.) Isaac lives with his parents and twelve-year-old brother in a Choctaw town a few miles from the nearest Nahullos, white people. One day, the family gets wind of Treaty Talk—never good news—and before long they and their neighbors are informed that they’re going to be moved far away. 

In preparation for the disruption, Isaac’s mother takes him on a round of ceremonial visits to the  elders. Isaac discovers that he can “see things before they happen”—in this case, elders burning or erupting in pustules.  He keeps his horrible visions to himself, but they come to fruition  when a band of Nahullos attacks the Choctaws, burning down their houses and driving them to an island in a nearby swamp. Later, in a show of friendliness, they deliver the now-infamous blankets imbued with smallpox.

Isaac’s family survives to join the death march to Oklahoma. By this time Isaac has made two more discoveries: He can see and talk to Choctaw ghosts, and he will soon become one himself.  Terrifying, yes—but ultimately a comfort, as he learns that the great host of Choctaw dead stay near their people and step in to help when they can.

The book takes a suspenseful turn after Isaac’s death, when he and other ghosts help rescue a young girl enslaved by soldiers accompanying the march. The living rescuers include a shape-shifter boy who turns into a panther and the bonepickers, old women who tend the bodies of the dead as part of Choctaw funeral rites. It’s all very cool, yet we never forget the inexorable tragedy taking place around us.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and ends rather abruptly. I would have preferred more of a ringing conclusion that allowed the book to stand on its own, but I have to say this one accomplished its purpose: I’m ready and waiting for the next episode.

Dear FCC: I downloaded this book at my own expense after reading about it on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center listserve.  And yes, I am tempted to wonder why cooperative children need their own book center. (I’m sure CCBC’s never heard that one before.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

February Book Review Club

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It's snowing! And there's no school today--perfect for reading. My only regret is that I will not be reading THE REAL BOY for the first time, and will have to find my magic elsewhere. 

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By Anne Ursu
Illustrations by Erin McGuire
Walden Pond Press, 2013

Every now and then, reading a new book, I know within a page or two that I am in the presence of greatness. Being mostly Irish, I usually experience a spasm of negativity: “If I live to be 100, I’ll never write this well,” I mutter, tempted to throw the book across the room. But I soldier on (especially if I’m reading on a Kindle) and pretty soon the negative feelings are overwhelmed by the wonder of it all.

The most recent instance of this was Anne Ursu’s THE REAL BOY. One page in, I’d already noted the lovely writing, but that left me unharrowed. Then I read this: “The Asterians didn’t call themselves anything special, because when everyone else refers to you as the shining people, you really don’t have to do it yourself.”

And, a page or two later: “The apprentice’s name was Wolf, because sometimes the universe is an unsubtle place.”

Beautiful writing AND a wry narrator? Oh dear.

I’d read Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS  a few years before. I liked it very much, but it didn’t really stick with me. This one will be in my head and heart forever.

As usual, the key is the main character. A young boy, Oscar, is the “hand” to a magician, spending his days in the cellar under the shop processing herbs that he grows and harvests outside of town. He is happy only when his schedule is regular, he’s surrounded by cats and plants, and he doesn’t have to deal with his fellow humans.

We find out early on that, while he is very smart and very skilled in his work, he is mystified and frightened by other people—he doesn’t know how to read their expressions, and struggles to find the literal meaning in the most frivolous comment. This an achingly beautiful rendition of autism—not as a disease or even a condition, but as part of who Oscar is. Sometimes it’s a barrier, sometimes an advantage. Marvelous.

Oscar lives in the Barrow, the most magical place on the island of Aletheia. The magic is in the soil, and therefore in everything that grows there. The Barrow surrounds the base of a tall hill, on the crest of which is the gleaming town of Asteri, whose wealthy residents rely on the magical goods the Barrow craftspeople create.

But all is not well. Children in Asteri are falling ill in mysterious ways, and a monster appears to be roaming the countryside. Something may be happening to the soil’s magic. In the grand tradition of authors torturing their characters, it’s not long before both the magician and his apprentice depart the scene, leaving poor horrified Oscar to tend the shop and deal with an increasingly panicky populace.

Oscar’s progress from cats to courage is utterly believable—inevitable, in fact. There are a couple of very cool surprises—one that tells you, “Hey, this is Pinocchio!” followed by a second that rearranges your brain cells all over again.

Oh, and by the way—everybody has dark skin, but it’s not an issue. It’s mentioned in passing in the text, confirmed by the wonderful illustrations. Yay.

I can’t possibly recommend this book enough. If you write books for a living, though, get your self-esteem in order before you start it.

Dear FCC: I bought this book because I liked the cover. I’m reviewing it because I had no other spiritual choice.




Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Christmas is coming. Hanukkah is still here. And of course you know that books make perfect presents, whether in hardcover or stocking-stuffer paperback. A box of tissues would be a good companion gift for this one. 

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By Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

Yup, you’ll cry.

I’d heard that about ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s 2012 middle-grade novel about a wounded kid and her foster family.

“Nah,” I thought. “There’s no cute doggie and nobody dies. What’s to cry about?”

But there I was two nights ago, sitting in my darkened bedroom at 11:30 p.m., teary-cheeked.

As usual, it was the main character who did me in.

Carley Connors, 12, is put into foster care after her dreadful stepfather beats her and then practically kills her mother, who ends up in intensive care. All Carley remembers about the beating is one horrifying moment: When her stepfather was after her, her mother grabbed her ankle and held on so he could catch her.

Up to now, Carley and her mother have been a team—they shared jokes, watched movies, played hooky, and stole their clothes from the Salvation Army bin. But Mom’s a good-time gal, and in most ways Carley’s been bringing herself up.

“After what my stepfather has done,” Carley tells us, “I’m terrified thinking about what kind of foster home I may land in. The things that could happen to me.”  To her surprise, she gets the Murphys, a picture-perfect American family. Dad’s a firefighter and Red Sox fan, Mom Julie stays home, the three boys fight sometimes but are basically good kids. Expecting the worst and handed the best, Carley finds it difficult to deal.

Determined to be prickly and uncooperative, Carley gradually is seduced by the wonders of a happy family. Julie Murphy especially bends over backwards to be what and where Carley needs her to be: buying her new clothes, making her lunch (with an encouraging note in it, no less), listening when required, backing off when necessary.

Carley does well in school. She acquires a best friend. She plays superheroes with the younger Murphy boys, and overcomes the older one’s misgivings. Despite her best efforts to the contrary, she’s almost happy. The only trouble is that this keeps feeling like someone else’s life, not hers.

Then her mother recovers and is exonerated in the beating. Will Carley return to her, or will she stay with the Murphys?

Carley’s a miracle of a character—you are with her from the first page, completely understanding why she keeps trying to undermine this best of all possible situations. Her relationship with Julie Murphy builds slowly, beautifully, believably.

Julie is a stealth character: the perfect mom, but not so perfect that you hate her or refuse to believe in her. You don’t realize how true she is until you look back on the book with wonder. Her wooing of her difficult foster child is heartfelt and real, as are her motivations.

Some reviewers have expressed mild concern about a possible message against non-traditional families, but this jaded old feminist didn’t worry about that. The story required a strong traditional family and that’s what we got.

If the book does have a minor flaw, it’s that there’s not enough of it. The Carley/Julie relationship gets enough ink to evolve naturally, but Carley’s bonds with her new best friend and with Julie’s husband and oldest son smoothed themselves out a tad quickly for my taste. That may be because I liked Carley so much I wanted to spend more time with her.

And it didn’t stop me from weeping like a baby at the end.

(Dear FCC: I’ve met Linda Mullaly Hunt a few times and I like her a lot. But I bought her book with my very own money and read it when I should have been reading six other things. Nobody said I had to write about it. )


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November Book Review Club

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Well, I missed last month's edition of the Book Review Club entirely, because I'm scum. But I'm delighted to return with a lovely, post-Halloween witch story, perfect for a rainy November afternoon. Enjoy, and don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. 


by Stacy DeKeyser
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012

A fairy-tale retelling with a firm grasp on reality—what more could you want?

From its first chapter, Stacy DeKeyser’s 2012 middle-grade fantasy THE BRIXEN WITCH plunges you into life’s harsh details: If you allow yourself to be distracted by a golden guilder, you don’t kill any rabbits and your family has barley soup for supper. Again.

Also, if you’re infested with rats, a ferret’s a better bet than a guy with a fiddle.

As the rats would indicate, this is a retelling of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin,” except the piper’s a fiddler and there are sensible character motivations lacking in the original. But this is a story with texture and twists, mostly concerning a witch who isn’t what she seems and who has very bad taste in servants.

The best part of the book is Rudi, the farmer’s son whose life is nearly ruined by that golden guilder. He’s a lovely character, an earnest, well-meaning kid who makes a big mistake and then struggles to undo it. Rudy comes upon the guilder while hunting on the Berg, the mountain that overshadows his village, Brixen, and the home of a legendary witch. The coin in his pocket, he’s chased down the mountain and into his house by what might be a shrieking gale—or maybe the shrieking is something much, much worse.

Harrowed by nightmares, a tune that won’t quit, and—perhaps—an evil face at his window, Rudi learns from his grandmother that he’s done the unthinkable: He’s inadvertently stolen some of the Brixen Witch’s treasure.  Oma—who knows more than she lets on—bundles him out the door at the crack of dawn to return the guilder, but he loses it in an avalanche. The tune and the nightmares end, and the face does not return, so Rudi persuades himself that the witch has her coin back and all’s good.

Then the rats appear.

There’s a brief, utterly charming interlude during which we experience village life with all its characters and disagreements. We get to watch Rudi and a professional rat-catcher let loose the ferrets and rid the village of its scourge. But then the rats return and someone else—someone much, much worse—shows up with an offer the village can’t refuse.

Throughout, there’s a sure sense of the realities of life in an isolated mountain village, or anywhere for that matter. Food is hard to come by, illness can kill, and any unexpected expense can lead to hardship for an entire village. People, moreover, are unpredictable—that grumpy guy who keeps complaining about everything turns out to have your back. We won’t even get started about Oma and that witch.

The writing flows by without distracting your attention from the story, which is layered and lovely. Put this one on your early Christmas list.

Dear FCC: I bought this book because I’m going to be on a panel with the author (American Association of School Librarians, Hartford, CT, November 16). I had no idea I’d end up loving it. So sue me.




Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Book Review Club: September


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After a long, semi-blissful summer vacation (the rain in Maine was a pain), the Book Review Club greets another autumn. Don't forget to click the icon to read the other reviews!

By Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2013

It’s odd, the distinction between a children’s book and a novel for adults. In the couple of weeks since I read it, I have repeatedly recommended Neil Gaiman’s tiny jewel of a new book as a middle-grade read like THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, his previous, mega-award-winning novel.

Please disregard. There’s sex in this book, although it’s described by a seven-year-old who finds it so inexplicable it almost fades into the wallpaper. Also, the sweet, sad theme of how we adults remember things (or misremember them) might not interest those who have just over a decade of memories to fool around with.

Part of my confusion may be that OCEAN borrows an important character, the “witch” Lettie Hempstock, from the decidedly middle-grade GRAVEYARD BOOK. Another might be that, except for a prologue and epilogue featuring the nameless narrator as a tired, sorrowful adult, most of this new story is told from his perspective at a solemn age seven. Lettie, the narrator’s guide and savior through a blood-chilling fantasy adventure, appears to be only eleven, although there are indications that she, her mother, and her grandmother may count their ages in eons.

Also odd: Why do so many Neil Gaiman books end up seamless? Reverse engineering them is nearly impossible—they (like Lettie’s grandmother) have existed whole since time began, and that’s all there is to it.

The story begins just after “the bad birthday party”—our narrator turned seven and nobody came to his party. If you had any doubt about the harrowing nature of this book, they’re dispelled by the description of unused party hats and cake eaten alone with a younger sister and her friend.

Soon after, a South African opal miner takes the kid’s bedroom as a boarder and runs over his cat, replacing it with a miserable beast called Monster, who mercifully doesn’t stick around. Then the opal miner follows suit, driving the household car up the lane and committing suicide in it.

The circumstances attract the attention of one of the weirdest otherworldly creatures Gaiman has ever created: Something that looks like a large, flapping canvas tent, who says it wishes to give humans what they want but goes about it in the most destructive possible way. For example: Money being at issue for both miner and household, our narrator wakes up one morning choking on a silver shilling lodged in his throat.

Under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother, Lettie steps in. She takes the narrator into a parallel world to confront the creature, and between the two of them they start a series of supernatural conflicts that at one horrifying point cause the narrator’s father to half-drown him in the bathtub. The poor kid is the only one who knows that something’s wrong, and no one will believe him. So, in the best middle-grade tradition (just kidding), he has to take action himself, with Lettie as guide and protector.

This is a deeply unsettling book, touching many of our primal fears. (Daddy’s trying to drown me!) But it also is beautiful and haunting, and so exquisitely written that you don’t even notice. On the surface, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, but I think that’s because it has a denser weave. I’m going to re-read it to see if I can even identify individual threads.

It’s a very short book. And it’s perfect. What a feat.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, instead of a cake and party hats. Thank heavens.)