Thornhill

by Pam Smy
First sentence: “I knew it was too good to last.”
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Release date: August 29. 2017
Content: It’s creepy and the bullying gets intense. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful giving it to overly sensitive kids.

It’s 1982, and Mary is an orphan at Thornhill, in its final days. The orphans are being sent to other places, or place in foster homes. That is, except Mary — who has a form of selective mutism; she mostly can’t talk because of anxiety — and her nemesis, a girl we only know as “her” (I can’t remember ever reading a name, and as I went to find one, I couldn’t). Mary is bullied by her: psychologially, mostly, but also physically. But because she’s subtle about it, and because Mary is so terrified, she is never caught.

In a page taken from Brian Selznick’s books, Smy also tells a contemporary story, in which Ella and her father move into the house next to Thornhill, which has been closed for 30+ years, ever since a mysterious death of one of the orphans. Ella sees a girl in the window one night, and becomes obsessed with finding out who she is (Mary, of course!) and how she died.

This is a completely creepy book. Seriously. Not just the color palate; done in stark black and white, it adds to the sense of foreboding that is in the text. It’s got ghosts and dolls and psychological elements. It’s pretty intense. Which, if you like that sort of book, is a good thing.

The Nest

by Kenneth Oppel
First sentence: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.”
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Content: It’s sad and a bit odd, but there’s nothing, content-wise or language-level, that would kick it out of the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Steven’s baby brother has been in the hospital ever since he was born. The family and the doctor’s aren’t quite sure what’s going on, and how to fix it. So, when Steven starts having dreams about angels who have come to fix the baby, he figures that he’s either incredibly stressed about it all (which is what his therapist says) or that he’s going crazy (which is what he secretly thinks).

 Then those angels turn out to be a strange new breed of wasp that’s taken up residence in Steven’s house and suddenly what sounded like a good idea — fixing the baby — turns out to be a Horribly Bad One. Especially since Steven is fatally allergic to wasp stings.
This, I think, has to be (hands down) the weirdest book I’ve read. It’s a unique blend of things: mature and yet geared toward younger people; an allegory and a horror tale; both impossibly sad and incredibly strange. I’m not sure it always works as a story. But on the other hand, I kept coming back to it. I wanted to know how it ended, I wanted to know the choices that Steven made and how it all played out. And while I was never truly Terrified (which is why I’m hesitant to call this horror), I was really weirded out. It’s strange, it’s gripping, it’s odd, it’s engrossing.
In the end, I thought it was pretty good. I just have no idea who to sell it to.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Audiobook: The Library at Mount Char

by Scott Hawkins
Read by Hilary Huber
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Content: SO so SO violent. So VERY violent. And a LOT of swearing, including a big bucketful of f-bombs. You are forewarned. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When the Random House rep came in to pitch this one, she started by saying “I have no idea how to  describe this book.” And it’s true: it’s about a Library. And librarians, but not the way you think. It’s about the end of the world, but not in the way you think. In fact, any way I try to sum this one up it’s going to end with: but not in the way you think. Throughout this whole book, that was the one constant: it’s nothing like you expect.

When Carolyn was eight, her parents died in a tragic accident, and, along with 11 other children, she was adopted by a man they came to know as Father. Father was a librarian, the caretaker of a most unusual library, and Carolyn and her new siblings became his apprentices, each learning a catalog. It wasn’t an ordinary apprenticeship, either: David, who was in charge of war, learned all the ways of war and death known to man (and some not yet known). He became awful and violent and cruel. Margaret learned the ways of death and the underworld, dying multiple times. (Another one, Jennifer, learned the ways of healing and was tasked with bringing everyone back from the dead.) Carolyn’s catalog was all the languages known to man, both ancient and current, as well as ones not known. To be simplistic, it was an awful existence: Father was heartless and cruel in his punishments, and there was no mercy to be seen anywhere.

But now, Father has gone missing, the siblings have been kicked out of the library, and it’s up to them — well, Carolyn, since she speaks English best — to figure out where Father is.

This is, unfortunately, one of those books that the less you know, the better. Know that Steve — an American man that Carolyn ropes into helping — is the heart of the book. And Erwin — an ex-military Homeland security agent — is crass and awful, but good at heart. Know that the end is worth the rest of the book. And that it definitely gets worse before it gets better. And that “better” is relative.

I was talking to another bookseller about it (one who read an ARC months ago) about how this one is best when read in a group, almost: you need another person to be able to process what happens. So, it’d be a good one for book groups, if you can handle the dark.

A bit about the audio: Hilary Huber was FANTASTIC. Seriously. In many cases, her narration is what kept me reading. Especially since, in many ways, listening to this book is more difficult than reading it: you’re not able to skim the really horrible bits. But her voice, and the way she chose to narrate this book, was amazing. So much so, that I’m going to look for more books read by her.

I didn’t love this one, but I am really glad I listened to it. There’s a lot to think about.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs
First sentence: “I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”
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Content: There’s a few swear words and general creepiness. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) because that’s where adults want to find it, but I wouldn’t be adverse to giving it to a 7th or 8th grader.

I read this one by request of one of my fellow booksellers; she’d picked it for her summer teen book group and couldn’t make a session. So, I’m filling in.

I know the rest of the world has read this already, so I’ll spare much of the plot. I’ll just say that Jacob has grown up on his grandfather’s stories of the boarding school he stayed at in England during World War II. They weren’t normal stories, and the other children weren’t normal children. But Jacob thought that’s all they were: stories. That is, until his grandfather ends up dead in his garden, Jacob feels like he’s slowly going insane. So, he heads off to this island off the coast of Wales (or some place sufficiently secluded and broody and English-y) to find out the truth for himself.

Yes, the format was clever. Riggs intersperses (real) creepy, weird, old photographs and it’s quite unique how he incorporates the pictures. But, that’s all it was: clever. I never got past the whole “I’m supposed to be loving this?” feeling. Maybe it’s too much hype. Or maybe it was his writing. Or maybe it was just the mood I’ve been in, but this one fell flat.

On the other hand, that might make for more interesting discussion at the book group….

Cuckoo Song

by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “Her head hurt.”
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Review copy left for me by the publisher rep.
Comtent: It’s more than a bit creepy, and it’s slow (like many Hardinge) books. I’ll probably put it in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d give it to a 10-year-old who showed interest and was willing to be patient with it.

I have not read everything Hardinge has read, but what I’ve read I’ve (almost) wholeheartedly loved. She is not an easy author to love; she makes you work for the story, often having a very slow start and building from there. Cuckoo Song was no different in that respect. It was a slow and somewhat confusing beginning, one that took me a bit to get into.

Triss has been ill for a good long while. She is Delicate, and often prone to Sickness. And so when she wakes after an accident during her family’s vacation no one seems to think that anything is the matter. Except she feels like something is … off. And her younger sister, Pen, (with whom she has always had a contentious relationship) is screaming awful things at her.  And so Triss does what any 12-year-old would do: she tries to figure out what’s wrong with her. And the deeper she goes into that mystery, the more she discovers that there are things Wrong with her family in some very dark (and somewhat magical) ways. And it’s probably up to her and Pen to fix things.

I don’t want to give away too much because much of what I loved about this was the slow realization of what was going on. There’s a reason the beginning is slow and confusing: Triss, herself, is slow and confused. The reader figures things out as Triss does, peeling one glorious, dark, delicious layer back after another. And no to worry: once the story really gets going, Hardinge’s writing is so lyrical it pulls you in, increasing the tension until the immensely satisfying ending.

It’s absolutely wonderful.

Audiobook: The House of Silk

by Anthony Horowitz
Read by Sir Derek Jacobi
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Content: While there’s nothing “objectionable”, it does, in the end, feature murder, and the solution is pretty tough to take. Still, I think it’d be a good book for all the teen Sherlock lovers out there. It’s in the mystery section at the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for years, I swear. I like Sherlock Holmes, and this one is actually sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate, and Horowitz has written some fun middle grade books… and and and.

I finally got around to it because Horowitz published Moriarty, and I remembered that I did want to read House of Silk. Thankfully, the library had an audio version, and so I opted for that.

And what a ride. First: I loved Jacobi’s narration, from his slightly gruff Watson to his more elegant Holmes. And the wide variations of English accents were amazing. The only time I felt he was off was when he did an American woman, but I was able to forgive that.

The conceit is that Watson is writing this at the end of his life, with the intent that it would be hidden and released in 100 years, because the scandal was too great for it to be published during his lifetime. Which sets up an ominous tone that permeates the whole book. Holmes and Watson (married now, and his wife was away so he was back at 221B Baker Street) were solicited by a man, Carstairs, who felt he was being threatened by one of the Flat Cap Gang from Boston. That leads Holmes and Watson down a tricky, twisty, dark path and into the deepest darkest secrets of some of the most powerful men in Britain.

I know I’m being vague. But, really: the less you know, the more enjoyable the ride. And the ending had me flabbergasted. I had some of it figured out — in retrospect, nothing comes out of left field, which is nice — but when the final revelation came I was sufficiently amazed at Holmes and disgusted by the depravity. As well I should be.

I don’t know if I would have liked it as much had I read it; I prefer the TV shows to the stories, and listening to it gave it the feel of one of those. Or maybe it’s just because Horowitz knows action and plotting… which lends credence to my middle grade/mystery crossover theory.

Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Audiobook: Joyland

by Stephen King
Read by Michael Kelly
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Content: Lot of language, including a dozen or so f-bombs (and that was just in the first half). It’s in the adult mystery section of the bookstore.

I was wandering around the store, looking for something to listen to, and I asked a coworker for a recommendation. I had been listening to a lot of humor, and I wanted something with more… weight. This is what she suggested to me. She pitched it as a coming-of-age novel, no horror, a slight mystery.

And so I went for it.

And got about a third of the way into it before I bailed. It’s the story of the summer of 1973, a boy from Maine who worked at a third-tier amusement park in North Carolina and his experiences that summer. By the time I bailed, his long-term girlfriend broke up with him and he’d saved a kid from choking to death. And there was an illusion to a grisly murder four years before. But that’s it. And I think that’s why I bailed when something better came along. It was meandering — a ton of foreshadowing, which just made me annoyed — and circular, and while Devin was okay as a main character, I just didn’t really care. That, and King introduced the murder fairly early on and then just let it hang there. Which drove me nuts. What’s the purpose of the murder? Why wait until nearly halfway through to bring it back up?

*sigh*

I really am ruined for adult books. Either that, or I’m just reading the wrong ones.

The Night Gardener

by Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October.”
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Content: It’s a very slow, very atmospheric book. Probably not good for those struggling, though I think it would make an amazing read-aloud. It’s in the middle-grade section (grades 3-5) in the bookstore.

It’s the late 1800s, and Molly and Kip are siblings are in England looking for work because of the potato famine in Ireland. They’re desperate, so they’ll take anything, even a job at the Windsor house… a place which many people say are haunted. Molly — who is a storyteller at heart — and Kip don’t really have much of a choice, so they accept the job and head to the house, not knowing the fate that awaits them.

The family — father Bertrand, mother Constance, and two children, Alistair and Penny — is a strange one. Guarded, pale, and most of all, adamant that Molly and Kip stay away from the green door.

And then there’s the tree: the gnarled, old, dead, black tree that takes up a good portion of the yard.

Of course, things don’t go well for Molly and Kip: they soon notice that every night a tall, shadow man comes to water and take care of the tree. And to dig holes. And no, none of this is a happy thing. It comes down on Molly and Kip to figure out a way to not only get out of there, but to stop the evil from perpetrating.

The jacket flap compared this one to Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, and I don’t think it was that. (Maybe Irving; I haven’t read him in a long time.) What it was, however, was a ripping good yarn. Auxier utilized storytelling in the writing of this, and it showed. I could imagine someone standing in front of an audience, spinning this tale out, having everyone on the edge of their seat: will they make it? It’s a long tale, sure, one for multiple nights, but one that will have the listeners engrossed.

But as a reader? It was good, sure, but not great. I liked it, yes, but didn’t love it. I was gratified that Molly (and Kip) ended up being heroes of their own story; there was a time I was worried adults would step in and solve the problem, but Auxier is smarter than that. It was a good read, but I think it’d be a better one if read aloud.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

by Holly Black
First sentence: “Tana woke lying in a bathtub.”
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Content: Lots of violence, some of which is graphic. Very little swearing, most of it mild, and no sex (though there is some talk of it). It’s in the teen section (grades 9 and up) in the bookstore, but I’d let a 12- or 13-year-old who was interested in vampires read it.

I’m going to start this one off by saying this is, hands down, the best vampire book I’ve read in AGES. (I’m not going to add that it’s basically the only vampire book I’ve read in ages.Oh, wait.) It’s dark, it’s gory, it’s bloody, it’s creepy and yet so very awesome. It’s everything a vampire book should be.

Tana Bach, 17, lives in a world where vampirism is a plague. It’s a disease, and there is a cure — to starve oneself of blood for eighty-eight days — but there are enough vampires running around to make it necessary to set up Coldtowns, places where vampires, and humans who are attracted to that lifestyle, can live without endangering the rest of the population.

Except that they sometimes do.

Tana wakes up on the morning after a huge party to find a houseful of corpses. Somehow she managed to sleep through a terrible vampire bloodbath, though she’s not the only survivor. She stumbles into the back bedroom and finds her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, newly infected, and a vampire chained nearby. She does the only thing she could do: saves them. Thus starts her terrifying adventure.

It’s one where she meets a lot of people, some nice — like Jameson and Valentina and Winter — most not so nice — like Gavriel, the vampire she saved. And yet, it’s not a black-and-white book. It’s wandering around in the murky shades of grey, where everyone is out to protect themselves. And Tana… oh, boy does she shine. She is AMAZING. Not in a superhero way, but in that human, flaw-filled, and yet awe-inspiring way. She faces her demons, in a most literal sense, and comes out on top.

Yes, there is a romance between a 130-year-old vampire and Tana, but, as I keep telling people in person, it’s not creepy. And while it’s there (and there’s this great sexy non-sex scene), it’s also something that’s not the focus of the book, which, perhaps, is why it’s not a creepy thing.

At any rate, I couldn’t put this one down, and having finished it, I wish it wasn’t due at the library so I could start it all over again.

Reality Boy

by A. S. King
First sentence: “I’m the kid you saw on TV.”
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Content: A lot — a LOT — of language, and to say Tasha isn’t nice is to grossly misunderstand her. There’s also sex, but none of it is graphic. Or even titillating. It’s in the teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this one since I finished it. Like other books I’ve read recently, I’m not sure this one boils down to a “like” or “dislike”. There was just so much going on that was SO horrific that when I was finished I didn’t want to run around saying to everyone that you HAVE to read this book. That said, I finished it basically in one sitting, because I couldn’t tear myself away.

When Gerald was five, his parents (his mother, mostly) decided that he was a Problem Child and wrote to the Network Nanny show to get them to come help Solve the Problem that was Gerald. And so the Network Nanny came, and he was shown crapping on national TV on the table, in his mother’s shoes, in all sorts of places. And, 12 years later, he still hasn’t lived it down. His nickname is “Crapper”. He’s in Special Ed (because someone who craps on the table MUST be developmentally delayed). He’s in therapy for anger management. And he given up all hope of having a future; his only goal is to stay out of jail.

As the book progresses, though, you come to realize that Gerald isn’t a problem child, that he’s just been labeled that way. And that the situation — from his parents who DON’T DO ANYTHING to his teachers who DON’T DO ANYTHING — has rendered Gerald completely helpless. The book is basically his awakening: the realization that it’s HIS life and if he wants to change it, he CAN. That he doesn’t have to be a victim, doesn’t have to conform to his mother’s expectations of him (which are low, to say the least). And that’s empowering.

Its not an easy read.  Gerald’s family is beyond messed up. But King’s writing is not without compassion towards Gerald and his eventual girlfriend, Hannah. There are moments of hope, breaks between the bleakness that make it easier to get through the moments — with his sister Tasha, especially, who is the driving negative force in Gerald’s life — that are hardest to get through. There is hope, in the end, as well. It’s not a happy book, by any means. But it is a powerful one.

And for that reason, it should be read.