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Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow coverBy Mark Dunn

Published 2010, 590 pages

Synopsis: In a hidden valley cordoned off from the rest of the world, a civilization exists in a permanent Victorian stance, even though the year is 2003. Their ancestors were told that the “Outland” was a disease-ridden wasteland from which no one who ventures ever returns. Their society was begun by a group of orphaned children who had the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the entire works of Charles Dickens as their only source of writing. From this limited information, they build their community. Over time, the civilization becomes divided into an unfair, sometimes cruel caste system. But soon, some of the citizens begin to piece together the puzzle of what the outside world is really like and why the orphans were abandoned there in the first place.

Review: I was looking forward to this book because I loved everything I ever read by Mark Dunn. And I thought I would love that the isolated valley remained a Dickensian society; but I have to say, I found it to be difficult to read at times. The narrator seemed to take many words to get to the heart of what he was saying; largely due to the fact that he only speaks and writes in Dickensian prose. At some point in the book I realized that maybe I don’t like Dickens that much.  I’m a fan of brevity; I like when authors get to the point. I felt like this story could have been told a lot quicker. That being said, the story itself is excellent. There is a lot of suspense and it is cool to think of an isolated place that is still very much the same as Victorian England. Kind of like Colonial Williamsburg without the tourists. I like the premise and the way the plot developed. Overall, for me, it just dragged a bit too much.

Rating: 3 boots

Recommendation: Oddly enough, given the synopsis, I would recommend this book to someone like me–someone who enjoys reading Victorian-style dramas combined with a suspenseful thriller. All you need is a bit more patience than I have. This is clearly and adult novel, though, as there is a lot of violence.

Legends of the Mountain State

legends coverA little background: I have always had an affinity for spooky stories. When I was a kid I read all the old favorites, like R.L. Stine and the “Spooky Stories to Tell in the Dark” series. Now those old stories read more like urban legends to me; either I’ve heard similar tales already, or they are too predictable, or they end on a funny note instead of a scary one.

I recently discovered a new way to get my spooky fix–tales based on true stories that became urban–or, in some cases, rural–legends that are written by local authors. For example, I recently went on a hiking trip to West Virginia. My family stayed in a cabin in the woods at Blackwater Falls state park. Browsing through the gift shop I found some books written by West Virginian authors about local legends and ghost stories. Legends of the Mountain State is just one of many such books that contain stories based on actual myths from that state. I’ve noticed that these kinds of books can be found in local bookshops almost anywhere you travel. While in Wilmington, North Carolina last summer I bought a book called Haunted Wilmington that tells of strange happenings and ghostly sightings that have occurred there. That you’re reading spine-tingling tales based in part on actual stories is spooky enough, but with the added chill of knowing you’re in the very same spot where these stories take place there’s a whole new thrilling dimension.

Review: Legends of the Mountain State: Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia is a compilation of stories by local authors based on tales of hauntings that have taken place there. The authors are experienced writers, some of whom have won various awards for short stories, including the Bram Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award. The stories contain urban myths, unsolved mysteries, and ghost sightings–one of which is cleverly written from the ghost’s point of view.

Rating: 4 boots

Recommendation: Not for the faint of heart! These are tales that will creep you out, especially if you’re in a cabin in the woods in the state where they take place!

chain letter coverSide Note: Not to digress too much, but this seems like a good time to mention that when I was a young adult, my favorite scary story was Chain Letter by Christopher Pike. Sure, it was written in the 1980s but it still holds up as a very good read for fans of horror and suspense. It’s based on the practice that was popular back in the day of sending and receiving chain letters–once you received one you had to send it on to the next person on the list; the letter promises that bad things will happen to you if you break the chain. A group of teenagers in Chain Letter receive the letter one at a time and they start to realize they are being “punished” by someone who knows the terrible deed they did the year before. This book had me stumped and spooked until the very end. An oldie but a goodie!

The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 5.30.01 PMBy Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones

Chapter Book Series Published in the 1990s and early 2000s

Age range: 7 to 9

Backstory: (You can skip this part if you want) I never reviewed chapter books before but I have to say something about the Bailey School Kids books. I have a 12 year old son and an 8 year old daughter. My 12 year old has always been a good reader and has interest in several genres. My 8 year old, however, is a very reluctant reader. She loses interest in books and can never seem to get hooked and engrossed the way my son and I do. For a while I thought maybe reading just wasn’t her thing, and I was going to be okay with that. She tried the Magic Tree House books, Ivy and Bean, Scholastic readers, and dozens of others. One day a cousin of hers gave her a Bailey School Kids book called Ghosts Don’t Eat Potato Chips and my daughter read the entire book in a couple of days without any prompting. For the first time, she actually looked forward to reading. She checked out a couple more of these books from the library and read those quickly and in earnest. I couldn’t believe it! For that reason, I need to write this review.

Review: Since this is a chapter book series, it’s not something I would normally choose to read on my own and it’s not something I would necessarily consider a book trek. However, these are really great little stories. I love that they have the same four main characters in each book but each book is a stand-alone story. Something that always frustrated me about the Magic Tree House books was that you had to read each one in order so you could follow along the over-arching story. But with the Bailey School Kids books, each one is a separate mystery and can be read in any order. Certain adults in the neighborhood appear to be characters from mythology or fairy tales, like vampires or Santa Claus. These four friends take it upon themselves to find out.

What Jane Says: Directly from the mouth of my 8 year-old, “Other kids should read these books because they’re interesting and it’s kind of a mystery. Four kids are trying to find out if some grown-ups are really from fairy tales or legends. My favorite was Wizards Don’t Use Computers which had a man named Merlin who worked at the library and with a snap of his fingers the library became a kingdom of reading. My second favorite so far is the one I’m reading now called Angels Don’t Know Karate.

Rating: Jane says 5 Boots!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

MissPeregrineCoverBy Ransom Riggs

Published 2011, 384 pages

Synopsis: Following a family tragedy, a teenaged boy, Jacob, discovers clues among his grandfather’s belongings that lead him to an abandoned home for orphans. This is no ordinary home; it contains a time portal that allows the boy to see the home as it was many years earlier, with its original orphans. What makes these children peculiar is their extraordinary qualities, like a girl who can control fire with her hands.  Trouble ensues when the boy learns that the children’s caretaker, Miss Peregrine, is in danger and they must leave behind the only home they have ever known in order to rescue her. Thankfully, Jacob also learns that he has a peculiarity all his own that may be the key to saving them all.

Review: I love strange old black and white photographs. There is something so intrinsically haunting about looking at pictures of people no longer living and wondering what their lives were like. I imagine the author looking through boxes of old photos and becoming engaged with the odd children, their faces beckoning him to tell a tale.

This story is very different from anything I’ve read in that it seems to revolve around these photos; that is, the photos serve as the illustrations to bring these characters to life. It starts out with a gruesome death and gets creepier and creepier as you follow this boy’s incredible journey into the lives of these strange children. At first, we’re with Jacob as everything he thought he knew about the world becomes distorted. Then we learn that he’s no outsider; he’s as peculiar as they are and the story really takes off from there.

I’m so excited that this is being made into a movie, but what drew me to the book were the strange photos and I wonder how that haunting feeling can be captured with actors.

Rating: 4 boots

Recommendation: I think this book is best for those over 12 because there are some scary scenes that I don’t think younger audiences should read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

mysteriousBy Trenton Lee Stewart

Published in 2008

Book 1 of the series, 512 pages

Age range: 8-13

Synopsis: An orphaned boy sees a strange advertisement in the newspaper calling for gifted children who are seeking adventure. Knowing him to be gifted, the boy’s tutor encourages him to respond to the ad. There follows a series of tests for the respondents, with children being eliminated after each test until the group is dwindled to just four children who are then invited to meet mastermind Mr. Benedict. Mr. Benedict is convinced that the world is in imminent danger and that only kids are able to go on a secret mission to stop the evil Mr. Curtain from brainwashing all of humanity.

Review: This is a great book trek! I love a book with surprise twists and this book has plenty. Another huge plus is that the story contains lots of little puzzles that the reader can try to figure out along with the characters. There were some parts that lagged, however, and I felt that some scenes could have been eliminated that didn’t really add to the plot or character development. My 12-year old son read this easily and is now engrossed in the 2nd book of the series, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey. As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not terribly anxious to continue the series. I think I’ll wait to see if my son recommends it.

Rating: 3 boots

Notes: There is an awesome website that fans of this series will love: http://www.mysteriousbenedictsociety.com.

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Published 2009

Synopsis:

The original novel by Jane Austen is re-imagined within a world that is contending with a deadly plague that causes its victims to become undead zombies who hunger for the brains of the living.

Review:

This is another instance of a book that I avoided reading for the longest time.  I love all of Jane Austen’s books, so it’s difficult for me to want to experience them in any other light, especially one that is extremely far off from the story’s original intent.  When I first saw this book I was amazed that an author would want to mess with one of the world’s most beloved authors of all time.  I fully expected to find this another useless addition to the world’s library.  But I have to admit, for the most part, I really enjoyed this novel.  I thought it was so funny and still kept Jane Austen’s original tone in tact—remarkably so.

One of the main conflicts in Austen’s works is women’s struggle to balance the necessity of marrying well with their sense of self and their innermost desires.  In the Bennet household, marrying well was especially important because their estate is legally entailed to the next male heir, so their family would be without a home upon Mr. Bennet’s death.  As we know, in Austen’s day, marrying well didn’t mean marrying for love, but marrying for prosperity.

In Grahame-Smith’s version, this main conflict is still ever-present; however, not only do the girls have to marry a wealthy man, but also one who could protect them from the zombies that roam the land.  Likewise, a gentleman might choose a woman who was “skilled in the deadly arts” over one who was an accomplished pianist, both of those qualities being equally important in choosing a wife.

Many of the scenes in the original novel are the same in this book, but there is an added sense of wariness because the reader begins to expect zombies to attack at any moment.  I thought it was interesting that I was still caught up in the original tension between Elizabeth and Darcy, while at the same time wondering if one of them would be killed and eaten.

Now to the novel’s faults—there aren’t many!  It was lively, witty, and engaging, and a tad bit frightening.  I didn’t like that Elizabeth was so bloodthirsty—(at one point she bashes Darcy’s head into the mantel, and throughout the novel she slays hundreds of zombies and also many ninjas)—but I wonder if that’s what would have happened to the original Elizabeth had she lived in a country that was plagued by zombies.

Recommendations:

Obviously, you need a sense of humor in order to read this book.  I also think it’s utterly imperative that you have read the original book by Jane Austen before reading this one because so much of the humor lies in the twists that Grahame-Smith gives to the original scenes.

Rating:

4 boots

 

Illustration of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (also shown are zombies who have mistaken cauliflower for brains).

 

A Tale Dark & Grimm

A Tale Dark & Grimm

By Adam Gidwitz

Published 2010, 192 pages

Synopsis:

This is a compilation of several short stories by the Brothers Grimm that are woven together to create one fluid tale about the famous brother-sister duo Hansel and Gretel.

Review:

The only thing that annoyed me about this book was that I didn’t think of it first.  This book was so clever, so funny, and so cool.  There are about a million original stories by the Brothers Grimm, including, of course, Hansel and Gretel; but there also many other lesser-known tales that are just as creepy and frightening as that one.  This author chose a great selection of such tales and strung them together so that they told one story that starred Hansel and Gretel.  He took liberties with the language, updating it and changing character names and minor details so that they made sense and fit the broader picture, but did so with great style and humor.  Somehow this is an original, modern story and yet still maintains the old-world tone of the original Grimm fairy tales.  I don’t know how the author did it, but I was very pleasantly surprised and I hope he decides to do another similar compilation… maybe tackling Hans Christian Andersen next?  (I’m still haunted by “The Little Match Girl”…I wonder what Adam Gidwitz could do with that one….)

Recommendations:

Admittedly, I’ve been in the mood for dark stories lately, so this was right up my web-strewn alley. I would obviously recommend this to anyone in a similar mood. But I would also sincerely recommend this as a great under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight book for kids 7 to 11 or for anyone who ever wondered “whatever became of those kids in the fairy tales of old?”

There are some gruesome, graphic, violent scenes—about which the author provides ample warning—but then, these scenes were there from the beginning; they were a part of the original tales and I agree with the author that it would have been completely silly to remove them in order to comply with today’s standards of what makes for “good reading” for kids.  I personally think kids can handle a lot more gruesome-ness then we think they can—especially when it’s done in such a fun, far-away, fairy-tale kind of way like this book.

Rating:

4 ½ boots… and I’m eagerly awaiting other books by this author.

Moon Over Manifest

Moon Over Manifest

By Clare Vanderpool

Published 2010, Winner of the Newbery Award

Synopsis:

The sign that welcomes 12-year old Abilene Tucker to the small town where her father grew up reads:  “Manifest…A Town With a Past.”  She soon begins to unravel how the town’s past is intertwined with her own family.  But if this town is such a great place for Abilene’s father to leave her, then why doesn’t he come to Manifest with her?  The more Abilene discovers about the town’s history, the more mysteries there are for her to discover.

Review:

Have you ever read a book that made you feel like you were a part of the story?  Have you ever come to know and understand a cast of characters so well that you felt what they were feeling?  This is the kind of connection that awaits readers of this novel.  I loved every minute I spent in Manifest.  This is an extremely well-written book with everything I look for: a fantastic plot with a mystery that unravels very slowly, natural vernacular dialogue among the characters, real American history, and touches of legend, laughter, and love.  It’s just wonderful.  That’s really all there is to say.  Plain, simple, beautiful…perfect.

Recommendations:

I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially lovers of American historical fiction.  This book is very similar to the style and warmth of Richard Peck and Mark Twain.

Rating:

5 boots!

Dandelion Fire

Dandelion Fire

By N.D. Wilson

Published 2009, 466 pages

Synopsis:

This is the second book in the 100 Cupboards trilogy.  Henry York and his family continue their adventures in the land beyond the cupboards that Henry discovered in his attic bedroom.  The witch they thought they had destroyed re-emerges and a war between men, faeren, and wizards ensues. 

Review:

I’ve been putting off writing this review because I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as I did the prequel.  I was so looking forward to reading more of that great writing style in the second and third books.  Mr. Wilson….what happened?!  Dandelion Fire, though much longer, is missing so much of what the first book had: the inventive writing style, the originality of the plot, and the swift, easy pace. 

The story starts off great; Henry discovers a burn on his hand and undergoes a “change” that causes him to go blind.  A scary man in black sucks him and Richard through one of the cupboards and Henry wakes up strapped to a table and is about to be operated on.  Awesome.  But then confusion sets in and the story becomes extremely hard to follow.  It was wordy, and yet, didn’t use enough words to adequately describe what exactly was happening.  In a story about an entirely fictional land inhabited with faeries and wizards, the reader needs to be fully aware of what is meant by the characters’ strange language and strange habits.  I like strange people in strange surroundings, but I never had a clear picture of why they were doing and saying anything.  It was as though the author assumed we knew what was going on and didn’t feel the need to expound.  The reader was left guessing about too many things until the last 100 or so pages.  I’m all for suspense, but I didn’t know what the suspense was for.  I mean, yeah, the witch was sucking the life out of the land and they were racing against time to stop her.  I got that.  But so much happened that took away from that basic plot. 

And too many questions were left unanswered. Why, for instance, did everything disappear in Kansas?  Were the faeries good or evil?  And the wizards?  They were the attackers, so I wanted to hate them, but some of them seemed to have been overpowered by the witch so I felt sorry for them.  It was very difficult to find someone to root for.  And what is the deal with Eli?  He seemed like a complete ass throughout and yet everyone is sad when he dies.  And where exactly has Mordecai been this whole time?  Buried alive?  Wha???  And the most frustrating question of all—how did Henry get to be with his adoptive, indifferent parents in the “real” world in the first place?

This is the most disappointing sequel I have ever read.  I felt like I was being led on a wild goose chase that was too long and too confusing and when I finally found the goose, it was just a goose.  The debate for me now is whether or not to read the last book in the trilogy.  If I go by how I felt after the first book, then yes.  But after this sequel…I don’t know!

Recommendations: 

I wouldn’t honestly recommend this sequel to anyone I know personally, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would enjoy this and be able to follow along better than I did.

Rating:

2 boots

For More Information:

www.100cupboards.com

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood

By David Benedictus, Illustrated by Mark Burgess

Published 2009

Synopsis:

The original Winnie the Pooh books by A. A. Milne end with Christopher Robin telling his friends that he won’t be coming to the Hundred Acre Wood anymore because he’s starting school.  This collection of stories by David Benedictus imagines what it would be like when Christopher Robin returns from school to spend summer holidays with Pooh and the whole gang. 

Review:

Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Now We Are Six (1927), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) must be among the sweetest, funniest, warmest stories for children.  I don’t know, to be frank, what exactly makes them so; I think it must be a combination of wit, simplicity, and pure heart.  They are such wonderful books, in fact, that I cannot imagine an author attempting to continue the story without fearing that they will diminish the originals.  My family and I listened to the audio version of Return and it was the most surprisingly happy experience I’ve had in a long time.  We know the Hundred Acre Wood friends very well; we’ve read the books again and again, watched the Disney movie versions with glee, and I, for one, didn’t think the world wanted nor needed further adventures with Pooh.  I was happily wrong!  A. A. Milne must have been smiling down on David Benedictus as he was re-imagining this enchanted world because Benedictus’s stories have the same heart, warmth, simplicity, and humor as the originals.  There is even a new character, Lottie the Otter, who fits right in and is a wonderful addition to the family.  We loved listening to this book and now we are going to buy the hardcover illustrated copy that we will place next to Milne’s versions, right where it belongs.

Lottie the Otter

Recommendations:

I recommend this book to be read aloud to kids age 3 to 8.  If you loved the original stories, you will not be disappointed with this fantastic sequel.

Rating:

5 Boots!