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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@Barrie Summy

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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@Barrie Summy

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.)



Friday, August 23, 2013

Trivial Pursuit, Celtic Girlhood Edition. (AND a raffle!)

Win a signed book, three bookmarks and
temporary tattoos, plus
Fruity Foolers. (They're
important to the TEXTING plot.) 
For those who've been playing along at home, this post was supposed to appear Tuesday on Mod Podge Bookshelf as part of the TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD blog tour. Unfortunately, that was moving day for blogger Gabrielle, and she ended up without Internet access. So we agreed I'd share the post here as a rousing conclusion for my tour. It may appear later at Mod Podge as well.  

This gives me a chance to host my own give-away! Enter below and win a signed copy of TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD plus the delightful swag pictured at right.

First, read this brilliant and educational post:

TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD introduces a young banshee named Ashling, who turns up in 12-year-old Conor O’Neill’s bedroom to await a family death. A banshee’s job is to announce the death by turning into a shrieking wraith, then accompany the Dear Departed to the afterlife.

Conor ends up trying to prevent the death, but in the meantime he goes to school as usual, leaving Ashling to twiddle her thumbs in his room. She discovers a set of old Trivial Pursuit cards in the closet, and finds out about the modern world from them. (For example, she learns that Vidal Sassoon was the official hairdresser of the 1984 Olympics.)

After two days of this, she’s bored to death (so to speak) and sets off for Conor’s school, where she tries to pass herself off as his cousin. She figures her Trivial Pursuit knowledge will help her fit in. It doesn’t.

For this post, I figured I’d switch things around and offer some trivia about Ashling’s life in fifth-century Ireland. She lived in the northern province of Uladh, called Ulster in English, before she was killed by cattle raiders and sent to the Underworld to serve the Lady who rules there.

Question: What was a crannog?

A reconstructed crannog at the National Museum of Ireland. The photo is from a blog post by archaeologist John Bedell, which also shows a real crannog being unearthed by archaeologists. 
Answer: In Ireland and Scotland, a man-made island home-site in the middle of a lake or bog.

Details: Ancient Irish tribes tended to jostle for territory, and quite often raided each other for cattle and slaves. A family who wanted to be especially safe sited its home and outbuildings on a crannog. The house would be round, made of mud daubed on a woven wood frame, with a thatched roof. The whole family most likely would live in that one house, including slaves and foster children. (It was common to send a child to be brought up by another family, a custom that strengthened ties within the community and helped young people learn a trade.)

I think Ashling lived on a crannog—not that it did her much good in the end. She met her death as her family drove their cattle home from a festival in Armagh, the king’s seat for the Ui Neill, her people. Dal Fiatach raiders killed Ashling and her brother, took the cattle, and enslaved the rest of the family. 

Question: When was a fifth-century Irish girl old enough to get married?

Answer: When she was 14.

Details: According to the law of the land (called Brehon Law), a girl could chose her own husband, but as a practical matter her father probably called the shots, as he did for her brother. If she’d lived long enough to be a bride, Ashling would have kept her own property after marriage. She could divorce her husband pretty much at will (the long list of legal justifications included lying and getting too fat!), and in that case would emerge from the marriage with her wealth intact. Anything the couple acquired together (cattle, for example) was divided according to the amount of work each did in the household. (Wouldn’t you love to hear that argument?)

In general, women had a lot of rights and privileges. There’s evidence that they served in society’s most powerful positions: as druids, poets (an important position), brehons (legal judges), and even warriors. Ashling’s mother taught her to fight with a sword; she also was exceptionally good at tending cattle, a family’s primary measure of wealth.

Question: What was Brehon Law?

Answer: The legal system that governed the Irish until the laws of the conquering British finally took over in the 1600s.

Details: Brehon Law was very, very cool. It wasn’t written down until the seventh century—before then, the brehons were responsible for remembering it all. The criminal law was based on compensation: If you did something bad, you either paid a fine or reimbursed the person you’d harmed. Settlements were agreed between the parties with the brehon’s guidance. The laws applied to everybody, from laborer to king.

Question: What was a leine?


Answer: A tunic made of linen.

Details: No clothing survives from the fifth century, but based on stories and stone carvings it seems both men and women wore the leine (pronounced lay-in-ah). Ashling’s would have been ankle-length (the men’s shorter), although she might have worn a belt and hiked it up short if she was doing chores or tending her cattle. The leine was made of linen, usually white or unbleached (unlike the illustration--in fact, linen doesn’t take dye that well), with or without sleeves. It might have been embroidered around the neck, hem, or cuffs. The Irish indulged their love for color in the brat, a wool cloak worn over the leine, fastened with a brooch at the neck or shoulder and possibly with a decorative border.

Question: What is the Cattle Raid of Cooley?

Answer: An epic oral tale about a first-century queen who goes to war over a white bull.

Details: My favorite glimpse of ancient Irish womanhood is Queen Medb (pronounced “Maeve,” as far as I can tell) of Connaught. In bed one night, she and her consort, Ailill, get into an argument about which of them is richer. They wake everybody up and start trotting out all their possessions to compare. Discovering that Ailill is richer by one exceptional white bull, Medb sends to Ulster to borrow their exceptional brown bull. Upon Ulster’s refusal, she goes to war.

She eventually loses, although there’s some suspicion that the ending might have been manipulated by the Christian monks who transcribed the tale. Monks didn’t always approve of uppity women.

They certainly wouldn’t have approved of Ashling.

Mebd of Connaught on Irish currency. I don't blame her for looking grumpy.





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Friday, August 2, 2013

Here comes the blog tour!

The blog tour is a marvelous invention--you get to travel without taking your shoes off in an airport and getting your ears all plugged up.

The official blog tour for TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD started Monday, August 5, and runs every weekday through August 22. (If you missed one, the appropriate link below will take you directly to the TEXTING appearance.) Many tour appearances--if not all--will involve book give-aways.

Heartfelt thanks to all the generous bloggers who agreed to host me!


 TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD 

2013 Blog tour


August 5
What’s a Banshee and How Did She End Up in My Book?

 August 6
Book review by There’s a Book

August 7

August 8
Book review by YA Books Central

August 9
Interview and review at Wordspelunking

August 12
Interview at Literary Rambles

August 13
Review at Kidlit Reviews

August 14
Interview at The Enchanted Inkpot

August 15
Book review by Prose & Kahn

August 16 

August 19
Give-away at The Picnic Basket

August 20
Mod Podge Bookshelf guest post:
Trivial Pursuit: Celtic Edition

August 21
Interview at Manga Maniac Café

August 22
Interview at We Do Write


September 
(Date not yet assigned)

Two-day appearance on Cynsations, with these guest posts:
1. Undertaking an Underworld
2. Kill Your Fears by Writing About Them! (Yeah, Right)

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Next Big Thing!

The lovely Lisa Gail Green tagged me for The Next Big Thing! (It's a meme in which a succession of authors answer the same round of questions about their books.) I admit I've done this before, but it's fun, so there.

What is the title of your next book?

TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD comes out August 15! It's been getting great reviews (a Kirkus star!) but I'm a nervous wreck anyway. The launch party is August 1 (Blue Hill Public Library, 7 p.m.) and I start a three-week blog tour  August 5 at The Children's Book Review. (I'll post the complete tour schedule next week.) 

What it’s about: Conor O’Neill always thought spiders—and his little sister, Glennie—were the worst kind of monsters life had in store. That was before an inexperienced young banshee named Ashling showed up in his bedroom.

The arrival of a banshee, as Conor soon learns, means only one thing: Someone in his family is going to die. Not only will Ashling not tell him who it is, it turns out that she’s so fascinated by the world above that she insists on going to middle school with him.

The more Ashling gets involved in his life, the harder it becomes to keep her identity a secret from his friends and teachers—and the more Conor worries about his family. If he wants to keep them safe, he’s going to have to do the scariest thing he’s ever done:  Pay a visit to the underworld.

If only there were an app for that.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The banshee from Walt Disney's "Darby O'Gill and the Little People."
 I hasten to say that my banshee is a red-headed girl. Most of the time.

I was leafing through Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts, an illustrated encyclopedia of folklore collected by the late Katharine Briggs. I came upon a full-page illustration of a banshee, and she wasn’t what I expected. (My banshee experience started and ended with "Darby O’Gill and the Little People," a Walt Disney film that scared the pants off me when I was a kid.) According to Briggs, banshees weren’t always evil old hags—sometimes they were the spirits of young girls who died too soon.  Ashling the banshee popped into my head right then and there, and I had the plot mapped out in three hours.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s middle-grade fantasy. Depending on who you talk to, “middle grade” ranges from age eight to age fourteen. You can decide for yourself whether banshees and a trip to the underworld constitute "fantasy."

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

CJ Adams (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) would be a great Conor, and Elle Fanning would be lovely as Ashling. (She’d have to dye her hair red.) "Modern Family" star Rico Rodriguez is the perfed Javier. The other major character is Grump, Conor’s grandfather, a banshee expert who’s kind of a loveable curmudgeon. Gotta be Clint Eastwood.


CJ Adams (right), Elle Fanning, and Rico Rodriguez (in case you needed telling) 


Who is publishing your book?

Dial Books for Young Readers, a Penguin imprint.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Let’s see. I started it in the summer of 2010, and got going on it seriously in the fall. I had a first draft to my editor in June 2011, and we finished revisions a little less than a year later.  There were a lot of empty months in there while my editor was considering my various proposals and I was working on other things.  

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

On the surface it was just the idea of a young banshee. But also various family members and friends had died over the previous decade, and I had some thoughts about death that made this book even more interesting to me.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’s a mysterious connection between Conor and Ashling that becomes clear only when they finally visit the afterlife.

While she’s visiting Conor, Ashling’s chief source of information about the world is an old Trivial Pursuit game.

It turns out the Underworld does get a cell phone signal. Also internet.  

And now (*drum roll*), I join Lisa in tagging Lena Goldfinch, author of SONGSTONE, AIRE, and THE LANGUAGE OF SOULS. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

June Book Review Club



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@Barrie Summy


Tra-la, it's June. The garden's half in and so am I. But here's a book to lighten the load, and also to silence that pesky little voice that says you didn't do it justice in teenhood.

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By Mark Twain
Originally published in 1885
Kindle edition, March 2011

Here’s a confession: I didn’t read Huckleberry Finn when everyone else did, back in middle school or high school. I’ve also never read Moby Dick, and I probably won't catch up with that one. (In college I read everything else Melville wrote, so I figure I’m exempt.)  I still have hope for War and Peace.

What drove me from Huck Finn in my youth was the escaping slave Jim, whose dialect just took too much effort. ( An important lesson to us all—especially me, considering that my first book features a guy who often ta-a-alks like thi-i-is.)

Jim confronts Huck's "ghost" in an
 E.W. Kemple
illustration for the first edition.
Here’s what Jim says when he thinks he’s confronting Huck as a ghost: “You go en git in de river agin, whah you b’longs, en doan ’do nuffin to Ole Jim, ’at ’us awluz yo’ fren’.”  I didn’t want any part of that when I was a kid.

Also, I think I was uncomfortable with the N-word, which is sprinkled through this text. Although I don’t approve of banning books under any circumstances, or preventing kids from reading any of them ever, it’s clear why this one is a challenge for parents and teachers today. It definitely requires context and a lot of conversation. Both very good things.

All that said, halfway through this reading I announced to whoever was in the room (most likely the dog) that Huck Finn is the best American novel ever written. I bogged down later, but really this is a masterpiece. I started reading it this time around because I’d downloaded it free and I was away from home with my Kindle. I figured I’d dip into it before bed, and suddenly it was two hours later.

Huck is a marvelous character—a young reprobate, happiest lying flat on his back in the shade with a full stomach and a pipe in his mouth. And yet he is a total sweetheart, pretty much a friend to all and without the mischievous spark of his pal Tom Sawyer, hero of the Twain book that introduced Huck to the world. Despite a ramshackle upbringing with a horror of a drunken, thieving father, he is quick to recognize his sins and attempt to atone for them.

It’s this last characteristic that Twain uses to great comic and cosmic effect.

The action takes place along the southern Mississippi River before the Civil War, when slavery was in full cry. On the lam from his evil father, Huck ends up on a raft with Jim, who hopes to escape to the free territories of the west. Along the way, they have adventures with a rich, funny, pungent collection of con-men, robbers, murders, aristocrats, and common folk.

Here’s the thing: Huck has been taught that slavery is the good and right way of things. He thinks helping a slave escape is a crime, even a sin that will condemn his soul to hell. Because he’s a nice guy and really likes Jim, though, his instinct is to help his friend out and keep him safe. There’s a fascinating battle going on inside of Huck, and we get to watch it play out.

It’s genius. In 1885, twenty years after the end of the Civil War,  Huck’s struggle to dehumanize Jim—and his failure—must have hit home like a howitzer shell.

Most of the book is hysterical, too, although I have to say that I could have done without the reintroduction of Tom Sawyer three-quarters of the way through. His ridiculous attempt to add swashbuckling complications to a simple rescue of Jim goes on way too long, and that’s where the book bogged down for me.  I can’t help thinking that Tom’s there not for the advancement of literature but just because he was such a popular character with readers.

Hey, something had to pay for all those white suits.

If you, like me, managed to escape reading this book in middle school, I urge you to give it another try. Even if you did read it back then, you might want to pick it up again as an adult. It has pleasures and insights you might have missed during the Hormone Years.

Dear FCC: This book was free, and I downloaded it of my own free will. Neither Mark Twain nor his publisher gives two hoots what I have to say about it.



Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Book Review Club



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@Barrie Summy


It's spring, and we're all rushing out the door to dig up the garden and soak up the sun. If you have a moment for reading--a body's gotta rest, right?--I strongly recommend this and its companion book. 

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!


By William Alexander
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013

The authors I envy most are those who achieve what I guess I’ll call “texture”: a magical weave of darkness, wild imagination, humor, and heart. William Alexander is one of these, and his skills are evident in GHOULISH SONG.

This is a companion book to GOBLIN SECRETS, which won the National Book Award last year. Both are set in Zombay, a town divided between rich and poor, seamless and seamy, mechanical and magical.  The river  that splits the city is spanned by the Fiddleway, a marvelous bridge that is the crux of both books. It’s so broad that people have built houses on it, and its clock tower can be seen from almost everywhere. It’s a sanctuary for criminals, but also its central street is lined with musicians. Goblins--who specialize in masks and theater--live there if anywhere.

Kaile, our heroine, lives in Southside, the dusty, teeming, jumble-built poor side of town, home to witches and charms and curses. When we meet her, she seems a nice enough kid but unconnected to the world. She has good reason—her family, hardworking proprietors of a bakery and alehouse, doesn’t have time to express affection or listen to one another. Kaile keeps her thoughts to herself and does her work, waiting for a word of approval that never comes.

When a goblin gives her a flute carved from somebody’s bone, she grasps at it as a way to reconnect with the one family member who reached out to her: her grandfather, a musician who died recently.  Unfortunately, playing the flute separates her from her shadow, which is bad news for a couple of reasons.

For one, Kaile’s shadow stays by her side, now a separate being who doesn’t like her that much. For two, nobody else can see the shadow, and a girl without a shadow is officially dead, a walking ghoul. Her family sings her funeral song and that’s it—she and her shadow are on their own in the dusty South Side streets.

Kaile sets out to discover the flute’s history and whether she can undo its curse. Her adventures eventually take her to the Fiddleway, where she learns that music is more than an entertainment: It’s a force that can either bind or pull apart. It will be her job to save her city by making sure it does the former.

There are so many wonders in these books: witches, goblins, and a ghoul made of drowned people’s bones; a Guard captain with mechanical legs, hands, and eyes; the city clock, on whose face a glass sun follows a glass moon across the sky.  Kaile’s shadow is a gem of a creation, functioning as companion, alter-ego, and conscience, but also as guide. After all, who knows us as well as our shadows? (And it turns out we treat them horribly.)

The events in the two books are concurrent—we catch glimpses of the GOBLIN SECRETS characters in Kaile’s story, and the two plots end with the same event. You could read either one first. Alexander has said he’s working on a sequel to both. That’s a relief, because although each book is a complete and satisfying story, we have a lot more to learn about Zombay and its clock tower.

Dear FCC: I bought this book. The author is a colleague at The Enchanted Inkpot, but if I hadn’t loved his book I wouldn’t have written about it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Next Big Thing! Right here on my blog!

Looky here--a post in between book reviews! That crinkling sound--is that Hell freezing over? (Or I guess I should say "the Underworld.")

Anyway, Erin Dionne (author of the upcoming MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE-BREAKING) tagged me for The Next Big Thing, a blog tour that started in Australia and has been edging its way around the world one author at a time. I'm thrilled to take my turn answering questions about my new book. Read through to the end to find out where we go next!


What is the title of your next book?

TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD comes out August 15 and I’m already bouncing around like a ninny.

What it’s about: Perpetual scaredy-cat Conor O’Neill has the fright of his life when a banshee named Ashling shows up in his bedroom. Like all banshees, Ashling is a harbinger of death, and she’s sure someone in Conor’s family is about to require her services. But she’s new at this banshee business, and first she insists on going to middle school. Even as Conor desperately tries to hide her identity from his classmates and teachers, he realizes there’s no way to avoid paying a visit to the underworld if he wants to keep his family safe.

Fortunately, he has a cell phone, and his computer-geek friend, Javier, will be holding down the home front. Here’s my editor’s favorite exchange between Javier and Conor:

 “Got your cell?”
“Yeah . . . Don’t see what good it’ll do me.”
“I’ll text you if anything happens that you should know.”
“Text me? Javier, we’ll be in the afterlife.”
“You never know. Maybe they get a signal.”

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Banshee illustration
by Yvonne Gilbert,
Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts

I was leafing through Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts, an illustrated encyclopedia of folklore collected by the late Katharine Briggs. I came upon a full-page illustration of a banshee, and she wasn’t what I expected. (My banshee experience started and ended with "Darby O’Gill and the Little People," a Walt Disney film that scared the pants off me when I was a kid.) According to Briggs, banshees weren’t always evil old hags—sometimes they were the spirits of young girls who died too soon.  Ashling the banshee popped into my head right then and there, and I had the plot mapped out in three hours.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s middle-grade fantasy. Depending on who you talk to, “middle grade” ranges from age eight to age fourteen. You can decide for yourself whether banshees and a trip to the underworld constitute "fantasy."

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

CJ Adams (“The Odd Life of Timothy Green”) would be a great Conor, and Elle Fanning would be good as Ashling. (She’d have to dye her hair red.) The other major character is Grump, Conor’s grandfather, a banshee expert who’s kind of a loveable curmudgeon. Gotta be Clint Eastwood.

Who is publishing your book?

Dial Books for Young Readers, a Penguin imprint.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Let’s see. I started it in the summer of 2010, and got going on it seriously in the fall. I had a first draft to my editor in June 2011, and we finished revisions a little less than a year later.  There were a lot of empty months in there while my editor was considering my various proposals and I was working on other things.  

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

On the surface it was just the idea of a young banshee. But also various family members and friends had died over the previous decade, and I had some thoughts about death that made this book even more interesting to me.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’s a mysterious connection between Conor and Ashling that becomes clear only when they finally visit the afterlife.

While she’s visiting Conor, Ashling’s chief source of information about the world is an old Trivial Pursuit game.

It turns out the Underworld does get a cell phone signal. Also internet.  

And now (*drum roll*), I hereby tag Lisa Gail Green, author of the upcoming THE BINDING STONE. Take it away, Lisa!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

March Book Review Club



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@Barrie Summy

Until this morning, it snowed steadily for about 36 hours with absolutely no accumulation to show for it. Yep, it's March. If you're not reading voraciously now, you are way, way too contented with life. 

Here's a little March escapism. And don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

By Maurissa Guibord
Delacorte Press, 2013

Full disclosure: Maurissa Guibord is a friend, and her publisher sent me a galley so I could interview her for The Enchanted Inkpot.

Teen Me would have been thrilled. This is the kind of book she would have devoured and instantly re-read. Then it would have been rinse and repeat every few months until she could recite half of the text.

Here’s why: Characters and creatures out of Greek mythology, some enticing, others terrifying. A couple of love interests, both tormented, one supernatural. Humor. A mystery that starts on page one and just keeps getting juicier.

Who knew gills could be sexy? (I’ve got your interest now, right?)

The plot is unique, as far as I know.

Orphaned Delia makes her way from Kansas to the strange island where her mother grew up, hoping to connect with her grandmother and find out the truth behind her mother’s deathbed ramblings. (“Don’t let them take the baby” being one. Brrr.)

When she reaches Trespass Island, she finds she’s not welcome.  Then she finds she’s more welcome than she wants to be. She meets a young fisherman who seems to be attracted to her but keeps backing off in an odd, unhappy way. Everyone talks about the Revel, but no one will tell her what it is.

And then there’s the pale young man from the sea who seems to be obsessed with her.

There are mysteries everywhere: Why doesn't Trespass appear on any maps? How come its inhabitants seem to be trapped there, surrounded by what seem to be sea monsters? Why did Delia’s mother leave? She'd always said she was terrified of water, so why are there pictures of her happily paddling in the sea?

Sometimes Delia is standing on the shore one minute, and up to her knees in water the next--what's that all about?

Guibord unravels the puzzles slowly and seamlessly. The answers are deeply satisfying, although sometimes heartbreaking. By the time we get our answers, we’re thoroughly invested in all the characters, from Delia’s intrepid grandmother to the slightly ditzy teenagers dolling themselves up for Revel.

Delia’s fate is especially cool. And, Ms. Guibord, it just screams for a sequel.

Poor Teen Me. How she would have loved this book.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February Book Review Club



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@Barrie Summy

"Scattered flurries" are accumulating on the ground as I write this--a joyful sight in a snowless Maine winter, although I doubt it will be deep enough to ski on it. Nothing for it but to settle down by the woodstove with a good book. Not sure this one will cheer you up--better try it with a sun lamp. 

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

By J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown & Company, 2012

Every Christmas, my man Rob and I give each other nothing but books, all purchased from our crackerjack independent bookstore, Blue Hill Books. Although the staff there know our tastes and are remarkably astute advice-givers, I also take the precaution of mentioning (loudly, and with heft) what it is I’m hoping to read.

This year, as Samantha and I chatted over the front counter, I said I really didn’t think I could handle THE CASUAL VACANCY, the first book for adults by celebrated Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. This lodged in her overtaxed holiday brain as “Ellen wants that book,” and so she instructed Rob.

You’ve probably read the excoriating reviews this book received, so you know I was expecting the worst: Drab, depressing characters going nowhere in a badly written novel.  I actually considered returning it, but then I flipped a few pages.

And by gorry, the writing grabbed me, with that odd mix of coziness and cynicism common to a lot of British novelists of a half-century ago or more: Kingley Amis, for example, or Muriel Spark. Not to modern tastes, perhaps, but for a throw-back like me it was manna.

Here’s one small-town character’s reaction to the book’s catalyst, the death of Parish Councilor Barry Fairbrother:

Naturally Shirley had known, as they slid stock words and phrases back and forth between them like beads on an abacus, that Howard must be as brimful of ecstasy as she was; but to express these feelings out loud, when the news of the death was still fresh in the air, would have been tantamount to dancing naked and shrieking obscenities, and Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.

Okay, that’s one of the world’s longest sentences, but I’m sucked right in by the abacus imagery and the dancing-naked/clothed-in-decorum juxtaposition, not to mention the insight into this awful marriage.

The book does have serious problems. Oddly, considering that the characters are so well drawn, I had a heck of a time keeping them straight in my head. There are so many of them, and all of them with equal weight—nobody’s the protagonist, except maybe the dead guy. Halfway through the book, I still couldn’t remember who was married to whom and had which kids. It made me determined to re-read Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth century novelist who did the same type of casting but still managed to keep everyone screamingly distinct.  

Although Rowling’s wry humor is well represented, there’s no arguing that her book is relentlessly depressing. And you struggle to like any of the small-minded, drug-addled, unhappily mated characters. I kept thinking of E.F. Benson, whose Lucia novels of the 1920s and 30s followed the machinations of a bunch of provincial social climbers. Lucia and friends start out in the first chapter as barely likeable figures of satire, but Benson slowly falls in love with them—especially Lucia—and starts giving them some qualities that will make us love them, too.

Rowling doesn't seem to have fallen in love with these characters, although she’s more sympathetic to the miserable teens than to the damaged and damaging adults.   

I’m not sure this book would have been published if it hadn't had Rowling’s name on it--not because it's bad, but because it's delightfully old-fashioned. I also don't think it would have been so badly reviewed if everybody hadn't been expecting a more adult Harry Potter.

Despite the difficulties, I’m glad I read it--partly because I really did admire the writing, and technique was not the Potter novels’ strong suit. But also it gives me hope that, having rid her system of the unused profanities and angst she’d built up up through seven kids’ fantasies, Rowling will write a real winner the next time.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

January Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! And here's the first 2013 meeting of the Book Review Club--crank up the woodstove! And don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews.

By Eva Ibbotson
Puffin Books 2004

Eva Ibbotson is my hero. She published her first middle-grade fantasy at age 50, and by the time she died at 85 she’d done twelve of them, along with seven books for young adults or adults.

Before this I’d only read The Secret of Platform 13. (Interestingly, it came out just two or three years before Platform 9 3/4 gained fame. Asked if she thought JK Rowling had cribbed from her, Ibbotson said kindly, “we all steal from each other,” or words to that effect.) (I can’t find the quote.)

Although Platform 13 is wonderful and is among Ibbotson’s most celebrated works, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d expected. On the other hand, whether because of my mood or the season or some astrological influence, The Star of Kazan hit me right where I live.  Published in 2004, six years before its author’s death, it is the work of a master.

Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to Jewish parents, and her family prudently made its way to England in the 1930s. The Star of Kazan takes us to an ideal Vienna, before World War I. It’s a child’s dream, painted lovingly from the food to the parks to the Lipizzaner stallions. But it’s an adventure, not a travelogue: her twelve-year-old heroine, Annika, has a deep-seated yearning that takes her away from lovely Vienna, to the brink of disaster and back again.

Annika is a foundling, raised in a fond but odd adopted household consisting of three siblings, all professors, and their kindly but no-nonsense cook and housekeeper. Annika grows up learning to cook and keep house, but also tutored by the professors in their fields of art, music, and science. She goes to school, has friends and good neighbors and a pleasant routine broken by the occasional treat. One of the neighbors is an extremely old woman she visits regularly, a former music hall star who clings to a trunk full of costumes and the reproductions of jewels she sold when fame left her behind.

Despite her idyllic life, Annika dreams of her unknown mother, whom she imagines as a beautiful aristocrat searching the world for her lost daughter.

Imagine her joy when just such a woman turns up at the professors’ door and sweeps Annika off to the north country and an ancestral, moated pile of house called Spittal. (Okay, first hint—this is not Barbie’s dream home.) There, she finds mysteries that she refuses to be troubled by: the missing portraits and carpets, the demoralized family and servants, the decaying farm, the fact that her mother keeps promising some wonderful event that will improve all their lives.

Probably the most admirable of Ibbotson’s feats is the fact that the reader spends more than half the book watching the circumstances become increasingly Dickensian, and yet we completely believe it when this otherwise smart, canny child refuses to catch on. It’s the richness of detail that does it—by the time the glamorous mother shows up, we have thoroughly lived Annika’s wonderful life, and we know that she’ll give it all up—and more—for the knowledge that her birth mother loves her.
And it’s the voice: a third person narrator who never departs from a child’s point of view. Here, for example, is our introduction to Annika at age 12:

As soon as she woke, Annika opened her attic window and looked out at the square. She did this every morning; she liked to see that everything was in order, and today it was. The pigeons were still roosting on General Brenner’s head, the fountain had been turned on, and Josef was putting the café tables out on the pavement, which meant it was going to be a fine day. A door opened in the ramshackle little house on the opposite corner and her friend Stefan came out and set off across the cobbles with a can to fetch the milk. He was the middle one of five flaxen-haired boys, and his mother, Frau Bodek, was expecting a sixth child any day. She had said that if it was another boy she was going to give it away.

One paragraph in, we know that Annika likes things orderly and routine, she’s not a snob, and she pays attention when mothers talk about giving away their children. Stay tuned.

I might just mention that the Puffin paperback in my possession is enlivened by the Kevin Hawkes cover and illustrations. Hawkes is from Maine. Naturally.

I’ve only just gotten started on Ibbotson’s books, and I’m pumped. Next up: The Ogre of Oglefort.

Dear FCC: I bought this book with my very own money, because Kevin Hawkes was at the Bangor Book Festival signing books and I liked the cover.