May 22, 2020

Book Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton


The Secret Keeper

by Kate Morton

Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Atria
Length: 484 pages
Published: October 9, 2012
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother.

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past.

Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world."


"It's a terrible thing, isn't it, the way we throw people away?"


"The man came round the corner and she glanced sideways. The smile slipped from her face.

'Hello there,' said the stranger, pausing to press his handkerchief to each temple. 'Fine weather we're having.'

The baby's face broadened in delight at the newcomer, and he reached out his chubby hands, opening and closing them in excited greeting. It was an invitation no one could refuse, and the man tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket and stepped closer, raising his hand slightly, as if to anoint the little fellow.

Her mother moved then with startling haste. She wrested the baby away, depositing him roughly on the ground behind her. There was gravel beneath his bare legs, and for a child who knew only tenderness and love the shock proved too much. Crestfallen, he began to cry.

Laurel's heart tugged, but she was frozen, unable to move. Hairs pricked on the back of her neck. She was watching her mother's face, an expression on it that she'd never seen before. Fear, she realized: Ma was frightened.

The effect on Laurel was instant. Certainties of a lifetime turned to smoke and blew away. Cold alarm moved in to take their place.

'Hello, Dorothy,' the man said. 'It's been a long time.'

He knew Ma's name. The man was no stranger.

He spoke again, too low for Laurel to hear, and her mother nodded slightly. She continued to listen, tilting her head to the side. Her face lifted to the sun, and her eyes closed for just one second.

The next thing happened quickly.

It was the liquid silver flash Laurel would always remember. The way sunlight caught the metal blade, and the moment was very briefly beautiful."

My Book Review:

I first read Kate Morton's novels when a friend recommended The Forgotten Garden. I read it--more aptly, I devoured it--while on vacation. The stunning writing blew me away and the depth of her characters and the setting greatly reminded me of Charles Dickens, whom I adore. It was a 4.5 out of 5 stars and I could not wait to read another one of her books.

The beginning of The Secret Keeper is fantastic and drew me in immediately: a young girl named Laurel witnesses her mother murder a man who comes walking up the driveway and greets her with a familiar tone. When the narrative followed this Laurel’s journey to discover the truth behind her mother's relationship with this stranger and what happened that day, the reading flew by. I was endlessly curious and loved fitting the puzzle pieces of this mystery together. The narrative, however, alternates between Laurel and another character Dorothy (aka Dolly) and I really struggled through these sections. In large part, this is due to Dorothy's obsession with Vivien, an upper-class woman whom she meets, admires, and then becomes obsessed with stalking. This obsession made no sense to me, her motivation felt lacking, and ultimately I was so bothered by her choices that I set the novel aside. However, my love for The Forgotten Garden and my desire to find out the truth motivated me to pick it up again and press forward. I'm glad I did.

About a hundred or so pages from the end, the mystery intensifies and as elements arise, clash, and confuse. This made both Laurel's and Dorothy's narratives increasingly tense and intriguing and I found myself hooked. The novel’s ending completely threw me, I did not see it coming, and for that I applaud it. All at once, everything made sense. Serious props to Morton for pulling this off.

Morton excels at combining strong characters, vivid historical settings, and complicated mysteries. The emotional vascillation betwen Laurel and Dorothy's narratives can be jarring, but the payoff is well worth the investment.
You can also check out Morton's newest novel, The Clockmaker's Daughter. What's your favorite Kate Morton novel?

April 6, 2020

Book Review - The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White


The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

by Kiersten White

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Horror, Retelling
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Length: 304 pages
Published: September 25, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Elizabeth Lavenza hasn't had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her "caregiver," and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything--except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable--and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth's survival depends on managing Victor's dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness."


“I sought to puncture Heaven and instead discovered Hell.”

Excerpt (from Part One, Chapter One):

"Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through the clouds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.

I sighed happily as rain slashed the carriage windows and thunder rumbled so loudly we could not even hear the wheels bump when the dirt lane met the cobblestones at the edge of Ingolstadt.

Justine trembled beside me like a newborn rabbit, burying her face in my shoulder. Another bolt lit our carriage with bright white clarity before rendering us temporarily deaf with a clap of thunder so loud the windows threatened to loosen.

'How can you laugh?' Justine asked. I had not realized I was laughing until that moment."

My Book Review:

This was the first time I'd read a Kiersten White book and I was blown away. As a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my expectations were high. She met them all.

White’s narrative is simply beautiful. Her writing is eloquent, the story is very well crafted, and it's evident she's done her research. White’s knowledge of Shelley’s life no doubt influenced the choices she made in retelling this story from Elizabeth Lavenza’s point-of-view. The result is a compelling narrative that will easily engage both young adult and adult audiences.

The emphasis on a woman's perspective within this tale of horror is a real tribute to Mary Shelley. The novel explores Elizabeth's complicated position and in so many ways thematically reflects Shelley's own coming-of-age. I absolutely loved what White did with Elizabeth Lavenza and Mary Shelley as characters (yes, Mary appears in the novel as well) and how well she wrote Victor Frankenstein as a Byronic hero who gets his just desserts.

The book's setting is spectacularly Gothic. White perfectly captures the dark, haunting mood of classic horror novels and includes stomach-churningly specific, grotesque details (picture body parts rotting in old trunks). At times, these descriptions might make audiences squeamish, but the story is so compelling they'll have to keep reading.

After completing this novel, I am definitely a new fan of Kiersten White's writing. If all of her young adult novels are this fantastic, I cannot wait to read more.


January 16, 2020

Book Review - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

by T.S. Eliot
illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Genres: Poetry, Children's Poetry, Classics, British Literature, Animal Literature, Humor
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Length: 80 pages
Published: October 19, 2019 (originally published in 1939)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"T. S. Eliot’s playful cat poems have delighted readers and cat lovers around the world ever since they were first published in 1939. They were originally composed for his godchildren, with Eliot posing as Old Possum himself, and later inspired the legendary musical Cats. Now with vibrant illustrations by the award-winning Axel Scheffler, this captivating edition makes a wonderful new home for Mr. Mistoffelees, Growltiger, the Rum Tum Tugger, Macavity the mystery cat, and many other memorable strays. It’s the perfect complement to the beloved previous edition, which remains available."


“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, or George or Bill Bailey -
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter -
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum -
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover -
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

My Book Review:

This was my first time reading T.S. Eliot's full collection of cat poems (originally written for his godchildren). I haven't seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage adaptation, Cats, but like many people I'm familiar with the songs that have permeated popular culture. It sounds like the recent film adaptation was a bit of a mess, but longtime fans, cat-lovers, or those who are curious might want to check out the original inspiration for the adaptation that brought us songs like "Memories."

I must admit I definitely liked some poems in T.S. Eliot's collection more than others. I openly admit to not enjoying some at all. Overall, I particularly enjoyed the ones that had a more consistent meter and rhyme scheme.

Stand-out poems include "The Rum Tum Tugger" (the only one I'd read previously), "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," "Mr. Mistoffelees" (probably due to my familiarity with the song), "Gus: The Theatre Cat," and "The Ad-dressing of Cats" (which explains to children how cats' personalities are nothing like dogs').

While I wasn't surprised by the signature high level of Eliot's vocabulary which readers don't normally find in children's literature (words include raffish, sampans, terpsichorean, prestidigitation, and legerdemain), I was surprised to find I respected that Eliot didn't dumb himself down when writing for this new audience--if kids don't understand everything they hear, they'll ask. That trust feels implicit in his poetry and his love of language adds to the fun of this text, as do Axel Scheffler's accompanying illustrations. If you enjoy this, check out Edward Gorey's original illustrations as well.

Is anyone out there a fan of the musical? Has anyone seen the film and lived to tell the tale?

November 13, 2019

Book Review - Victoria: Portrait of a Queen by Catherine Reef

Victoria: Portrait of a Queen

by Catherine Reef

Genres: Young Adult, Biography, Nonfiction, British History
Publisher: Clarion Books
Length: 256 pages
Published: November 7, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Catherine Reef brings history vividly to life in this sumptuously illustrated account of a confident, strong-minded, and influential woman.

Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"If another princess had not died tragically and young, Victoria would have never been born.

The ill-fated princess was Charlotte. She was the only child of the prince regent, the man who occupied the British throne. The prince was ruling in place of his father, King George III, who had been deemed mentally ill. Upon his father's death, the prince regent would be crowned King George IV. Charlotte was twenty-one years old on November 6, 1817, when she delivered a stillborn son. Within hours hse sickened, and soon Charlotte too was dead.

The English people had loved the princess. 'She stood on high,' wrote a newspaperman. Charlotte had embodied 'images of young, and promise, and blooming womanhood.' Eighteen months before, the public had rejoiced in Charlotte's marriage to handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. They had felt secure knowing that she would reign one day, upon her father's death, all in good time."

My Book Review:

In Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, Catherine Reef presents an illustrated biography of Queen Victoria adapted to young adult audiences.

Though compared to other more exhaustive biographies of Victoria Reef's text is short and simplified, it is nonetheless a helpful starter for interested readers. Reef undoubtedly did an extensive amount of research before composing her text. While some aspects of Victoria's personal life, political views, and public perception are a bit more complicated and nuanced that what is presented, these are likely areas of Victoria's biography that are not of key importance to young adult readers.

Reef paints a clear portrait that helps her audience understand the significant role Victoria played in the nineteenth century. She does well explaining the unique position Victoria was in when she inherited the throne from her uncle at age eighteen, and shares details about Victoria's courtship with her cousin, Albert, their marriage, and her position as the queen.

I would recommend this book to any young adult audience who has an interest in women's history and biography. Victoria is a fascinating and complex figure, and it's exciting that Reef has composed this text with a young audience in mind.

September 5, 2019

Book Review - Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Irish History
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 452 pages
Published: October 3, 2005 (first published September 5, 1996)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion. This is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

So begins the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank's father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy-- exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling-- does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father's tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.

Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank's survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig's head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors--yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness.

Angela's Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic."


"You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

My Book Review:

Reading the first two-thirds of Angela's Ashes is a five-star experience.

Listening to the audiobook and McCourt’s Irish accent as he tells the story of the heartbreaking poverty of his childhood growing up in Limerick, Ireland is so memorable. I was floored by the pain he went through: the hunger, the grief, the uncertainty, and the burden of his helpless situation. McCourt excels as recreating the setting and emotions of his painful coming-of-age. He experiences the deaths of siblings, his mother’s ill health and depression, Irish Catholic guilt, cruel schoolmasters, deadly illness, untreated chronic infections, and worst of all, an alcoholic father who is unreliable and increasingly absent. All of this is told in a very strong, powerful voice. I cannot recommend this section of the book strongly enough.

Sadly, however, the last third of the memoir is a disappointment. McCourt focuses on repeated and unnecessarily crude sexual content to describe his experience of puberty when what lies at the heart of his coming-of-age is his religious crisis of faith. Had he shifted frameworks and further explored how he reconciled his pain with his cultural heritage, I would have been on board. That not fully being the case, I was left wishing the book had ended a couple hundred pages earlier.

Overall, McCourt's memoir is amazingly powerful, but be warned about some of this concluding content.

August 30, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wilderness of Hope by Quinn Grover

Wilderness of Hope:
Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West

by Quinn Grover
(Outdoor Lives series)

Genres: Memoir, History, Nonfiction, Nature, American Literature
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Length: 248 pages
Published: September 1, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, University of Nebraska Press

Official Book Summary:

"Longtime fly fisherman Quinn Grover had contemplated the 'why' of his fishing identity before more recently becoming focused on the 'how' of it. He realized he was a dedicated fly fisherman in large part because public lands and public waterways in the West made it possible. In Wilderness of Hope Grover recounts his fly-fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place, connecting those experiences to the ongoing national debate over public lands.

Because so much of America’s public lands are in the Intermountain West, this is where arguments about the use and limits of those lands rage the loudest. And those loudest in the debate often become caricatures: rural ranchers who hate the government; West Coast elites who don’t know the West outside Vail, Colorado; and energy and mining companies who extract from once-protected areas. These caricatures obscure the complexity of those who use public lands and what those lands mean to a wider population.

Although for Grover fishing is often an 'escape' back to wildness, it is also a way to find a home in nature and recalibrate his interactions with other parts of his life as a father, son, husband, and citizen. Grover sees fly fishing on public waterways as a vehicle for interacting with nature that allows humans to inhabit nature rather than destroy or 'preserve' it by keeping it entirely separate from human contact. These essays reflect on personal fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place and an attempt to understand humans’ relationship with water and public land in the American West."

Author Bio:

"Quinn Grover teaches courses in writing and literature at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His research interests include the literature, lands, and cultures of the American West. Quinn's work has been published in national fly-fishing magazines such as the Flyfish Journal, the Drake, and American Angler as well as literary outlets such as Newfound, Cirque, and Juxtaprose."

Excerpt (from the Prologue):

"I caught my first fish using a fly rod on a Boy Scout outing. I was thirteen years old. We were camped along a small creek in central Utah, and I had insisted on taking my fly rod, even though I had yet to actually catch anything using it. The stream--just three or four feet wide in many places and bordered by bunches of willows--snaked through a meadow carpeted with the green grass of a wet summer.

"I spotted the fish rising in a flat, unprotected section of river between willow bunches and I felt suddenly--alarmingly--visible. I decided to kneel before making the cast because the landscape was so wide open. I felt exposed--as a fisherman, as a beginner, as an outsider in a wild place. I'd like to believe that I sensed something divine in the presence of the rising of a trout, some sort of holiness, something that demanded reverence. But really, I was just scared I was going to screw up my one chance." (Grover xiii)

Early Praise: 

Wilderness of Hope joins a long tradition of books—including The River Why and A River Runs through It—which remind us all that, of the many possible paths toward understanding the universe, few are as reliable as fly fishing. Quinn Grover makes a strong case for passion as the key ingredient of a meaningful life, but also for knowing how the planet might make best use of us.”—Brooke Williams, author of Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet

“Quinn Grover’s Wilderness of Hope provides a life compass for those of us who pursue wild and native trout on our public lands and waters. He preserves our capacity for wonder by weaving together the fabric of family and fishing friends, wilderness, and the importance of preserving and protecting our public lands and resources for future generations.”—Craig Mathews, author of The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide

“On his first trip out, Quinn Grover lands a whopper! There’s a casting and reeling rhythm to his writing, long luxurious passages on nature’s elusive tributaries, then—zing!—thrilling bites of witty insight spilling into pools of reflection. He seems to have spawned a new genre, the Ichthysroman. In Grover’s own words, he’s a ‘middle-class man’ in love with places ‘worth knowing.’ I say he’s the high-class author of a book worth keeping. I’m hooked!”—Matthew James Babcock, author of Heterodoxologies

“With meditations born from experience, Grover conveys the mystery and pull of the trout rivers that run through the American West. These essays make one want to pick up a fly rod, wade into the nearest swift water, and revel Thoreau- or Dillard-like in the wild atmospheres found there.”—Braden Hepner, author of Pale Harvest

August 26, 2019

Book Review and Infographic: Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

by Angela Duckworth

Genres: Nonfiction, Self Help
Publisher: Collins
Length: 352 pages
Published: May 3, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars (infographic down below!)

Official Book Summary:

"In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, educators, students, and business people both seasoned and new that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called grit.

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Sharing new insights from her landmark research on grit, Angela Duckworth explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments.

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently bemoaned her lack of smarts, Duckworth describes her winding path through teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not genius, but a special blend of passion and long-term perseverance. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth created her own character lab and set out to test her theory.

Here, she takes readers into the field to visit teachers working in some of the toughest schools, cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she's learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers; from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that not talent or luck makes all the difference."


"Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase--as much as the capture--that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn't dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

"In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

"It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit."

My Book Review (Plus My Infographic!):

The premise for Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a great idea. Duckworth proposes many valid points about our individual ability to develop and increase grit to help further personal character. However, I'm not fully satisfied with many of her examples. Duckworth places extreme value and repeated emphasis on fame, celebrity, and money. She also dances around fully addressing issues like mental health, life-work balance, socio-economic disadvantages, gender, race, and prejudice.

I've translated some of my thoughts about Duckworth's key ideas and my responses into this infographic below:


August 7, 2019

Book Spotlight - Four Tales of Troubled Love by Matthew James Babcock

Four Tales of Troubled Love

by Matthew James Babcock

Genres: Fiction, Novellas, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Length: 342 pages
Published: January 25, 2019
Purchase Link: Amazon

Official Book Summary:

"Enter this tetrad of tangled love tales at the turn of the last millennium when what were then the latest technologies--personal computers, fax machines, and mobile phones--started to short-circuit pacemakers. This tour de four of realistic love stories operates operatically, like a piece of music in four movements, sometimes zany and tragic, at times surreal and sublime.

'Help Phone Thirteen' (scherzando con misterioso): A young father moves his family across the country to escape his oppressive in-laws and, when his job and marriage implode, gets guidance from a mystical voice on a "help phone" at the local mall and a professional clown masquerading as social savior.

'Meer, Tarn, Water, Fell'
(marcia moderato con fuoco): A poetry-loathing Dutch tour bus driver on a stopover in The Lake District plots revenge on his German ex-wife, unaware that the daughter he never knew he had has followed him half way around the world for the love she was denied.

(appassionato): An ex-military pilot turned tech CEO finds his unconventional marriage and newfound faith at odds when he discovers the joys and dangers that come with waiting for answers from heaven and the heart.

'The Seal'
(eroico non troppo): A young family, caught between the baby blues and the deep blue sea, battles professional and personal pressures, but thanks to a homeless benefactor and captive harbor seal, learns that loving the environment and loving each other are a matter of instinct.

T. S. Eliot had his Four Quartets of poetry, now comes a foursome of fiction. For beach readers, literature connoisseurs, and book club junkies alike, these tales will quadruple the pleasure in reflecting on how we live and love. Wherever you take them, they will find you once again, in love with trouble and troubled by love."

Author Bio:

A veteran presenter, professor, and reader, Matthew James Babcock has traveled, studied, and written in Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Great Britain, Germany, and has come home to roost in the great basins of the Rocky Mountain Northwest. He lurks online under the code name ‘Wordman.’ He is also the author of Private Fire: Robert Francis's Ecopoetry and Prose, Strange Terrain, Points of Reference, and Heterodoxologies. You can visit his website here.

Interview and Excerpt:

Available here.


"Matthew James Babcock is charming with a poetic bent.... Throughout all the stories there is a push and pull for what love really means. For all those beach readers or book clubs looking for their next read -- this is it." ⎯J Bowen West, The Times News

"With sentences like, 'His sick heart swings like a clapperless bell,' Matthew James Babcock's Four Tales of Troubled Love is a banquet of rich, abundant and wildly inventive language. In these novellas, only oddly matched lovers survive, and the fantastic and hilarious are indistinguishable from the painful and dismal. A unique and exceptional book." ⎯John Vernon, Author of Lucky Billy

August 6, 2019

Interview with Josh Allen, Author of Out to Get You

Interview with Josh Allen
Author of Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

Today, I'm happy to share my interview with middle-grade author, Josh Allen. Allen's book of scary stories,  Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is being published by Holiday House on September 3, 2019. Perfect for any reader aged 8-12 who loves mystery and creepy twists and turns, Out to Get You is highly anticipated and is already receiving great recognition. You can order the book here and read my review here (I gave the book 5 out of 5 stars for its creativity and fun).

Allen teaches creative writing and literature. His work has appeared in Cricket, Dialogue, Juxtapose, and other literary magazines. He lives in Idaho with his family.

What draws you to middle-grade audiences and the scary story genre?

I’m drawn to middle-grade audiences because I’m passionate about transforming kid readers into adult readers, about reminding kids as they age that books are wondrous and fun. I think that when a kid stumbles upon the right book at the right time, that kid becomes a lifelong reader. So I write for kids because my dream is to offer a book that will do that for just one kid.

I write scary stories for two main reasons.

First, I think kids today have a lot to be afraid of. The world is big and frightening, and too many of adults that kids encounter are angry—angry at their world leaders, angry at their televisions, angry at each other. Horror offers kids a catharsis for their fears, a safe space to experience and work out their anxieties, so that when real fears inevitably descend, which they will, kids will be better equipped to navigate those emotions. Basically, I’m trying to use horror stories to inoculate kids against a massively frightening world.

Second, and this is perhaps the more important reason I wrote scary stories, they’re massively fun.

Do you also write for young adult or children’s audiences? What other projects are you working on?

I write primarily for middle-grade audiences, that is, 8-12 year olds. I’ve got a second collection of horror stories in the works that I hope will be out there in the world soon, and I’m also working on a non-horror novel for kids set in the 1980s that’s all about family bonds, the healing power of music, our need for community, a man with eight fingers, the space shuttle explosion, and the death penalty. Trust me, it’ll all eventually make sense. I hope.

Who are your favorite writers of middle-grade fiction? Who are some of your other favorite writers?

I love Gary D. Schmidt, Jason Reynolds, Kate diCamillo, Lauren Wolk, Erin Entrada Kelly, and too many other brilliant middle-grade writers to name. There’s just so much talent in the genre right now.

I also love Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Doerr, Michael Chabon, and Alice Walker.

Your story collection features eerie conundrums and mysterious twists and turns. Where do your ideas come from?

This answer is a bit hippy-dippy, but I believe we exist in a creative universe that wants to help us be creative, that is actually designed to draw out our creativity. So, I believe that the universe is out there trying to give us what we need to fulfill our creative destinies, whether we’re trying to write, paint, sculpt, dance, or whatever (see, like I said, pretty hippy-dippy). The secret to getting ideas then, is to Pay Attention. As Anne Lamott says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention... Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that - the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see.”

Most ideas just kind of come to me when I slow down, breathe, and look around. When I Pay Attention.

What’s the editing process been like?

LONG! I revise a lot. A few months ago, I cleaned up my office, and every time I came across a printed draft of Out to Get You, I stacked it in the corner. Here’s how high that stack got by the time I finished:

And I should point out that this doesn’t include all of the drafts I never bothered printing.

How did you find your book agent?

I found an agent with the help of Gary D. Schmidt, who’s a fine writer and a fine friend. After I published a creepy story in a national magazine called Cricket, Gary put me in touch with Rick Margolis, who runs the Rising Bear Literary Agency. I sent Rick a manuscript, and fortunately for me, he liked it.

What’s the best reaction you could envision an 8-12 year-old having to reading your book?

Reading it, loving it, and then running out to find another book they love just as much.

Have your kids read your book? Do they think you’re cool?

They’ve read some of the stories. I’m not sure they think I’m cool. In their eyes, I think I’ve always been just their moderately geeky dad. (PROOF: I’m writing this in cargo shorts.) So I suspect that my publishing a book hasn’t raised my kids’ opinion of me as much as it has lowered their opinion of all writers in general.

Out to Get You features some great cover art and illustrations from Sarah Coleman. Were you able to collaborate or share ideas at all?

Not much, but I love Sarah’s work! Sarah is this fantastic illustrator who’s done work for so many amazing writers including Harper Lee, Cornelia Funk, and Lauren Wolk. She’s so good that I just got out of the way and let her do her thing.

But there was one day she reached out to me for collaboration. One of my stories is set in a boy’s bathroom, and Sarah was working on an illustration that had a bunch of graffiti on the walls. But because Sarah is British, her graffiti was very British. And because Sarah is a girl, her graffiti was a bit girly. So, she asked me one day to send her a list of the kinds of things that might be written on bathroom walls in American boy bathrooms. So, I spent a bunch of time that day brainstorming bathroom graffiti. It was a hoot!

Your book also has a glow-in-the-dark cover. What was your reaction to hearing your publisher was doing this?

The ten-year-old who lives inside my forty-five-year-old body completely took over. I think I actually squealed and jumped around like a madman. I’m glad there’s no video.

Could Out to Get You turn into a series?

I sure hope so! I’ve got a second book of spooky stories almost finished, and I’d love to continue this amazing ride.

You teach full-time as an English professor. When do you manage to fit in your writing time?

I sneak in writing time when I can. Evenings. Weekends. During boring meetings. Mostly, I write early in the morning before the day gets going because once I start with classes and students and grading papers, it’s very hard to eek out any time at all.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write something every day. Read something every day.

In “The Voice,” the teacher has mastered a voice she uses to get her students to follow instructions. Have you mastered “the voice”?

Do I have an authoritative teaching voice? No way. When I completely lose control of my class, my go-to technique is to point out with some lame joke that I’ve completely lost control of the class. (“Wow, I’m a mess. I usually don’t lose control of a class this bad until at least the third week. Oh well.”) Then my students take pity on me and let me pretend I’m still in charge.

What’s more stressful, facing a pile of papers to grade or facing a story that needs rewriting?

Grading papers. I almost always want to write. I almost never want to grade. I generally like reading my students' work. I just hate grading it.

Lastly, in your “Sorry, Froggy” story, Brady eats a pizza bomb. That sounds amazing, but what exactly is that?

Pizza bombs are like calzones—bread dough stuffed with pizza toppings and cheese and sauce. Google them and check out the images. Your mouth will water. I chose pizza bombs for the story because I needed a food Brady could eat in the opening scene that would make him seem slightly barbaric. He couldn’t really be eating a chef’s salad or a lamb chop or anything that would include utensils. Also, I think the name pizza bomb is kind of hilarious.

But yes, they’re delicious.

July 30, 2019

Book Review - Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe by Josh Allen

Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

by Josh Allen
illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman

Genres: Middle Grade (ages 8-12), Fiction, Short Stories, Scary, Paranormal, Ghost Stories
Publisher: Holiday House
Length: 176 pages
Published: September 3, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Thirteen ordinary kids. Thirteen ordinary towns. Danger lurks around every corner . . . where spooky things are hiding in plain sight.

Get ready for a collection of thirteen short stories that will chill your bones, tingle your spine, and scare your pants off. Debut author Josh Allen masterfully concocts horror in the most innocent places, like R.L. Stine meets a modern Edgar Allan Poe. A stray kitten turns into a threatening follower. The street sign down the block starts taunting you. Even your own shadow is out to get you!

The everyday world is full of sinister secrets and these page-turning stories show that there's darkness even where you least expect it. Readers will sleep with one eye open . . .

Thirteen eerie full-page illustrations by award-winning artist Sarah J. Coleman accompany the tales in this frightful mashup that reads like a contemporary Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."

My Book Review:

Josh Allen's collection of scary short stories, Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is exactly what is middle-grade readers need right now. While great detective mysteries, graphic novels, and comic stories abound, really entertaining short stories that have the power to immediately captivate audiences and have even non-readers coming back for more have been missing: Out to Get You is the book we've been waiting for, just in time for Halloween.

Growing up, I had books like R.L. Stine's classic Goosebumps series and Alvin Schwartz's even creepier Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to haunt my sleepovers (Stephen Gammell's Scary Story illustrations still give me the shivers). Allen delivers what modern kid audiences have long needed.

In Out to Get You, Allen successfully proves he can capture readers' attentions in just a few lines, drawing them in to well-written stories of the odd, paranormal, unexplained, and horrifying. Twist-endings, dramatic irony, and characters' nightmares come to life and each story is a page-turner, engaging and delighting with "weirdness and woe." It's difficult to pick a favorite, but a couple contenders would be "When Daunted Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio" (a tale wherein a boy gets to pick the devil's brain) and "The Color of Ivy" that will make me think twice before writing on my hand in pen ever again. Below is a short synopsis of each of the thirteen tales.


After school one day, best friends Jacob and Jakob walk home and brainstorm how to write a scary story for a homework assignment. They invent “The Vanishers” and what horrifying things these monsters are capable of doing to their unwilling, child victims.

"Nine Lives"

Miranda’s mom gets fed up with the messes her cat, Licorice, keeps making. When Miranda doesn’t stick up for her feline friend, she learns what it means when they say cats have nine lives.

"The Stain on the Cafeteria Floor"

Malia and her klutzy friend, Janet, discover a weird stain on the cafeteria floor. Even weirder, the stain swallows dimes and turkey sandwiches whole, growing bigger and bigger. Janet wants to get help, but Malia wants to keep it a secret.

"When Daunte Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio"

This story has a great, most attention-grabbing first line. The plot: Daunte Frederick Coleman gets to meet the devil and ask him three questions.

"The Color of Ivy"

Ivy finds a sparkly, greenish-black marker and instead of turning it in to the lost and found, she uses it to draw an ivy with her name. But Ivy doesn’t just draw her name on a piece of paper--she draws in on her hand--and soon the marker starts drawing for her.

"Neat-o Burrito"

Matt feels like a fool after he says the words “neato-burrito” to his crush, Caroline Spencer. On his way home from school, he finds a magic lamp and a genie who can grant him one wish, but something about the genie makes Matt worry he’s in for trouble.


Every day when they walk to school, Owen races his older sister, Hannah, up a hill in front of a school-crossing sign. Every day, Hannah wins. When Owen takes a closer look at the sign, he notices something unusual about the boy and girl on it.

"The Voice"

Cindy Watson’s teacher, Mrs. Huber, has mastered how to use a particular voice when yelling at her students to get them to listen to her. Cindy wants Mrs. Huber’s power to end.

"Goodbye, Ridgecrest Middle School"

One day when washing his hands in the bathroom wondering when he’ll ever stop mixing up his teachers’ names (Mr. Johansen and Mr. Johnson), a scary message is dispensed onto Wally's paper towel, warning him that he only has two days left.

"Mighty Comfy"

Heidi’s dad picks up a couch someone has left by the side of the road. While he’s excited to sit on it and watch old cowboy movies, Heidi’s worried about where it came from.

"Sorry, Froggy"

It’s frog-dissection day in biology class. Brady couldn’t be more excited, but Julia thinks Brady needs to learn a lesson.

"Staring Contest"

Livvy and her dad have just moved two-hundred miles to an old house in need of a lot of repair. For Livvy’s dad this is a dream come true, but Livvy feels like the house is watching her.

"The Shadow Curse"

Mason has had a month to do his book report, but on the morning it’s due he still hasn’t started. When it’s his turn to stand in front of the class to give his presentation, Mason invents the story of "The Shadow Curse," but his classmates and teacher aren’t the only ones listening.

I highly recommend Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe for any middle-grade reader (ages 8-12). It's just the right balance of creepy mystery and fun intrigue, without ever crossing a line to draw discomfort from teachers, parents, and librarians. My one hope is that the publisher will realize what a great book this is and quickly turn it into a series.

If you still need another reason to order Josh Allen's book, the glow-in-the-dark hardcover should seal the deal for you. Though I received a paperback advanced reader's copy from the publisher, I've seen (and tested) the glow-in-the-dark cover in person and let me tell you, it was pretty cool.

Advanced reader's copy received from the publisher.