November 10, 2016

Book Spotlight - The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond

The Darkest Hour

by Caroline Tung Richmond

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: July 26, 2016
Length: 304 pages in hardcover
Tagline: "Dressed to kill."

This is my friend, Caroline Tung Richmond. We met years ago when we were both undergraduates and had mutual friends who enjoyed mid-week breaks from homework to watch reality TV and eat Mexican food. Caroline is a wonderfully successful YA author who has just published her third book, The Darkest Hour. Her first YA novel, The Only Thing to Fear, imagines the devastation of a world in which Hitler won World War II. Some eighty years after his triumph, a sixteeen-year-old girl named Zara has come up with a way to defeat his legacy and reign but she'll have to risk everything for a chance at freedom.

Caroline also recently contributed a story to Candlewick Press' A Tyranny of Petticoats. The collection features young adult fantasy and historical fiction stories featuring strong-willed heroines and includes works by authors such as Marissa Meyer, Beth Revis, Marie Lu, and others.

Caroline is also currently at work on yet another forthcoming title! Pretty awesome.

In The Darkest Hour, Caroline delivers a young adult historical fiction novel with a strong heroine taking the lead.

Official Summary:

Never underestimate a pretty face.

My name is Lucie Blaise.

I am sixteen years old.

I have many aliases, but I am none of the girls you see.

What I am is the newest agent of the CO-7.

And we are here to take down Hitler.

After the Nazis killed my brother on the North African front, I volunteered at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, DC, to do my part for the war effort. Only instead of a desk job at the OSS, I was tapped to join the Clandestine Operations -- a secret espionage and sabotage organization of girls. Six months ago, I was deployed to German-occupied France to gather intelligence and eliminate Nazi targets.

My current mission: Track down and interrogate a Nazi traitor about a weapon that threatens to wipe out all of Western Europe. Then find and dismantle the weapon before Hitler detonates it. But the deeper I infiltrate, the more danger I'm in. Because the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, and trusting the wrong person could cause millions of lives to be lost. Including my own.

Published by Scholastic Press in 2016, the novel is receiving really positive feedback from readers about Caroline's commitment to portraying strong heroines as she tackles difficult historical contexts. Here's the book trailer followed by an excerpt from Chapter One:


My good Catholic mother taught me to never lie, cheat, or steal.

I pray she can forgive me, then, for what I've agreed to do--for this sin will be far worse.

I hurry down the cramped streets of the Marais district, leaping over the fresh rain puddles and smoothing the creases of my habit. The black skirt drags at my feet, and I hope I don't look too much of a fraud--because I certainly feel like one.

It has been months since I've knelt for Communion and even longer since I was elbowed into a confessional booth. Yet here I am, rosay in hand, dressed like sour-faced Sister McDougal, who'd rap my kunckles in Latin class whenever she caught me reading Nancy Drew. But getting my knuckles bruised is small change compared to what I've been up to these last six months. If my mother could see me now, if she discovered what I've been training for, I'm sure shed weep for my poor blackened soul.

But I'll tarnish my soul if that means smashing the Nazis under my boot. I owe that much to Theo, don't I? 

Sounds thrilling, doesn't it? Will you be checking out The Darkest Hour? What are your current favorite YA novels?

October 28, 2016

Book Spotlight - The Penguin Book of the Undead

The Penguin Book of the Undead:

Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters

Edited by Scott G. Bruce

A few weeks ago I saw Penguin was hosting a book giveaway for an upcoming Halloween-related title. This was the book trailer:

Creepy, right? I don't believe I've ever seen a book trailer that only featured the cover and has done so in such a terrifying way. Not thinking too much about it, I entered the giveaway as I do with so many and just a couple of weeks later a copy unexpectedly arrived at my door. I then realized it was time to see what I'd gotten myself into.

Bruce's book is an edited collection of various accounts of reported experiences with supernatural entities--ghosts, zombies, and the undead. It helps to first preface the book with the ethos of its publisher and author: Penguin obviously has a long-standing top-tier rank in the publication world and Bruce isn't just a fan of TV shows like The Walking Dead, but rather a Princeton-educated, Ph.D. holding professor of medieval history. My understanding is that the book is not a recount of "Well, one time my grandpa heard this story about this lady from this guy who told him..."-type stories. Instead, it's an anthology tracking human fear and anxiety related to death--that, right there sounds much more credible, fascinating, and less terrifying. Bruce studied over fifteen centuries to examine the path of this ghostly imagination. The publishers phrase it best:

"Since ancient times, accounts of supernatural activity have mystified us. Ghost stories as we know them did not develop until the late nineteenth century, but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms, as recorded in historical narratives, theological texts, and personal letters. The Penguin Book of the Undead teems with roving hordes of dead warriors, corpses trailed by packs of barking dogs, moaning phantoms haunting deserted ruins, evil spirits emerging from burning carcasses in the form of crows, and zombies with pestilential breath. Spanning from the Hebrew scriptures to the Roman Empire, the Scandinavian sagas to medieval Europe, the Protestant Reformation to the Renaissance, this beguiling array of accounts charts our relationship with spirits and apparitions, wraiths and demons over fifteen hundred years, showing the evolution in our thinking about the ability of dead souls to return to the realm of the living—and to warn us about what awaits us in the afterlife."

As a nineteenth-century British literature student and scholar, I love reading Gothic-era literature and learning about the cultural context in which it was written. Bruce's collection includes extensive historical accounts that predate this era (think ancient Greece and medieval times) and for someone like me would help provide greater understanding of the cultural mindsets that led to texts like The Monk, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, and eventually our modern-day fascination with all things mystery, detective, crime, horror, and otherworldly.

Besides my love for Victorian literature, I've also been spending some time lately revisiting texts about the Salem witch trials and the associated hysteria and madness within these communities. I can appreciate how Bruce's studies allow him to better examine inherited mythologies and fears through a scholarly lens. Of course, the way I'm addressing the book sounds very academic and detached, more of a collection to be perused for historical content rather than one to read because you're a fan of zombies (I'm not) and you want to be scared beyond belief (yikes, no).

I'll likely scan the table of contents and look for any items that I think might be helpful for providing context for the next time I teach a mystery or Gothic literature course, but it's definitely not kind I'd want to read around midnight. What do you think of this new collection? Do you read or watch zombie fiction?

October 24, 2016

31 Halloween Reads for October

31 Halloween Reads for October

It's October, Halloween is upon us, the weather is turning cold, and it's the perfect time of year to pick up a Gothic or mystery novel. I love it when it's dark and windy outside, you can hear the cold rain hitting against the window panes, and you're wrapped up in your favorite blanket lost in a good story. 

Last year at this time I came up with a list of "31 Halloween Movies (For Those Who Don't Like Horror)." This time, however, I thought I'd cut right to the chase and list some books full of ghosts, paranoid narrators, monsters, and more.

A warning: as many of these novels are Gothic, mystery, horror, or crime-related, some of the content is disturbing. That may mean that many of these books are not suited to all audiences. Do some preliminary research, read lengthier reviews, or ask around if you're worried about content. These stories really have it all and not all of it is "good." I've included a few innocuous children's books, but I've also included several popular Halloween reads that contain disturbing passages. You've been warned.

Keeping the list to 31 was difficult--there were so many titles to consider--but I think the final list is a decent representation of many Halloween favorites. Here they are in no particular order:

1. The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

A governess cares for two orphans in the country and soon fears someone or something is out to attack her and the children. Highlight: Sometimes not seeing something can be scarier than seeing it.

2. Dracula

by Bram Stoker

The original account of blood-sucking monsters come to prey on men, women, and children. Highlight: Blood transfusions have never been so creepy.

3. The Haunting of Hill House

by Shirley Jackson

A group of strangers gathers at an old estate to test if it's haunted. Highlight: Holding hands with a ghost will freak you out.

4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

by Shirley Jackson

A young girl and her sister are the only remaining survivors of arsenic poisoning. Worse than that? One of the sisters is guilty. Shunned by the town and trying to survive locked within the walls of this castle, they'll try to survive until murder strikes again. Highlight: Don't eat the sugar.

5. And Then There Were None

by Agatha Christie

The original tale of strangers lured to a cut-off location and how each dies one by one as predicted by a children's nursery rhyme until then there were none. Who's the murderer and why have these victims been called here? Highlight: Having no clue what's happening or who's doing it.

6. Hallowe'en Story

by Agatha Christie (full review here)

As children, neighbors, family, and friends gather to decorate and prepare for an upcoming Halloween party, thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds brags that she once witnessed a murder. Though many dismiss her outlandish claim as a cry for attention, at the end of the party her body is found murdered. Highlight: Scary children.

7. Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Viktor Frankenstein mourns the loss of his dear mother and after witnessing lightning striking a tree, wonders if a dead corpse can be reanimated. His creation--treated as a monster--is abandoned at birth and must teach itself to communicate while hunting the man who refused to be his father. Highlight: Feeling bad for a monster who speaks French and reads classic literature. 

8. Rebecca

by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is the second Mrs. de Winter and is haunted by the memory of her husband's first wife as she tries to live in her shadows at the Manderley estate. How did the first Mrs. de Winter die? Rebecca has to find out. Highlight: The quiet, eerie calm that threatens to boil over page after page is sheer perfection. 

9. The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins

A Londoner spies on a young married couple each day she passes them on the train until one day the wife goes missing and our train-rider's amnesia makes her worry she's somehow involved. Highlight: Wondering if the drunk, unreliable narrator is a victim or a villain. 

10. The Monk

by Matthew Lewis

A monk is tempted by one of the devil's demons. The Gothic background of haunted castles, ghosts, closed passageways, and mystery predates the nineteenth century yet demonstrates the horrors of a twenty-first century mind. Highlight: The entire second chapter is a long and delicious tale of fright and when you finally meet the devil's disciple, she looks like she raided David Bowie's wardrobe.

11. Lady Audley's Secret

by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

The Victorian era's greatest sensation novel, a tale of deception, bigamy, and murder. Highlight: Upper-class ladies are not always what they claim to be and neither are their husbands. 

12. Death Comes to Pemberley

by P. D. James

Author P. D. James picks up Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice just a few years after its famous conclusion and adds a new twist: a death has occurred on the Pemberley estate and all of its men are suspects. Highlight: Revisiting a beloved Romantic-era tale with a mystery added in.

13. The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett's novel is completely misogynistic, but his tale of a series of murders and thefts related to a priceless black statue is a defining moment in the creation of the hard-boiled detective crime genre. Highlight: Seeing the development of a genre. 

14. Misery

by Stephen King

When a reclusive author meets his number-one fan, his life will never be the same. Neither will his nightmares. Highlight: Unbelievably terrifying.

15. Carrie

by Stephen King

A bullied and abused teenage girl develops paranormal powers as she wreaks havoc and attempts mass vengeance on her small town. Highlight: Reasons never to bully someone nor attend a prom. 

16. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Though Dr. Jekyll is one of the most respected men in London, friends fear his association with a hideous man known as Mr. Hyde foretells great danger. Highlight: Your doppelganger will get you if you don't watch out.

17. Coraline

by Neil Gaiman

Young Coraline steps through a forbidden door in her house only to discover another family on the other side, eerily similar to her own. Highlight: A Stepford Wives eerily calm quality.

18. The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Bod not only lives in a graveyard, he's the only human resident. Highlight: Cool setting.

19. The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

When Dorian Gray sits for a portrait, he fears he will never be able to maintain the health and beauty rendered in the painting. When he makes a supernatural vow to never lose his youth, he faces the consequences of eternal agelessness and a darkening portrait that threatens to betray the secrets of his sold soul. Highlight: When art attacks.

20. Assorted Short Stories

by Edgar Allan Poe

There are so many great ones to enjoy, but be sure to check out "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontiallado," and "The Purloined Letter." Highlight: You'll never look at ravens the same way.

21. The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins

A blend of Victorian detective, mystery, and sensation novels, the story follows a sleuth trying to piece together the truth about a lost woman dressed all in white who has seemingly escaped from a mental asylum. Highlight: Great characters, including Count Fosco. You'll want to wax your mustache ends while reading his lines.

22. The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

It's the post-apocalypse and a father and son are doing their best to hide from blood-thirsty survivors. Highlight: A haunting mood that makes you check behind you to see if you're being followed.

23. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

by Alvin Schwartz

The scary stories kids used to read to each other during sleepovers in the 80's and 90's. Highlight: The creepiest drawings are found in the editions illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

24. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs

While I admit I lost interest in book two of this series, the first installment is a wonderfully odd account of supernatural misfits drawn together to fight evil. Highlight: Riggs' inclusion of odd 19th- and 20th-century black and white photographs.

25. The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Arthur Conan Doyle

The story of a home on the English moors, the legend of a hell-hound, and death on a moonlit night. Highlight: The setting.

26. Assorted Sherlock Holmes Short Stories

by Arthur Conan Doyle

You can start with A Study in Scarlet, the first murder-solving case featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson at 221B Baker Street, or just bounce around titles at random. Be sure to check out The Speckled Band and The Red-Headed League. Highlight: Picturing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

27. The War of the Worlds

by H. G. Wells

The turn-of-the-century tale of aliens invading our planet. Highlight: Victorian paranoia imagining when Mars attacks.

28. The Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat

by Jan and Stan Berenstain

Perfect for young readers or old fans who'll enjoy a nice trip down memory lane remembering when trick-or-treating was simpler and safer than it is now. Highlight: Candy and living in a hollowed out tree.

29. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

by Charles M. Schwartz

Somehow I seem to miss this every year when it's shown on TV so it's to the bookshelf I go! Highlight: Linus.

30. Wuthering Heights

by Emily Bronte

The tale of Catherine and Heathcliff, their doomed and unnatural love, and the downward spiral of the adjoining generational tenets of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Highlight: Heathcliff digging up Catherine's body to find her body has been unaltered by death.

31. Northanger Abbey

by Jane Austen

Catherine Morland thinks she's living in one of the Gothic novels she adores. Is she paranoid or are her suspicions on the money? Highlight: Romantic-era satire.

What do you like to read this time of year?

October 18, 2016

Book Review - The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Written by William Joyce
Illustrated by William Joyce & Joe Bluhm

"Mr. Morris Lessmore loved words. He loved stories. He loved books. His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.

But every story has its upsets. One day the sky darkened. The winds blew and blew...

...till everything Morris knew was scattered--even the words of his book."

I fell for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore within seconds. A few years ago Ted Kooser recommended this picture book to me, and I'm sorry to admit I haven't read it until now.

It's wonderful.

(Sidenote: If you haven't read Ted's picture books House Held Up by Trees and Bag in the Wind, you really should. As a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, his poetic gifts are evident in each of the book's crafted language and the accompanying illustrations are stunning. You can read my reviews of them here and here. His third picture book, The Bell in the Bridge, just came out this summer. I'm looking forward to reading it soon!)

Mr. Morris Lessmore loves books and reading, but in so doing he's isolated himself from the world. During a storm, his personal library is blown away in the wind leaving him feeling unsettled and lost.

On his journey he encounters a book of nursery rhymes that leads him to a large library full of stories he's never read before. The illustration of the library as shown above is absolutely lovely. It would be beautiful framed and displayed in a home library, children's room, or office space.

Mr. Lessmore's time in library not only introduces him to worlds of new stories, but also invites him to share his stories with others who visit the library. The power the books have on him and those around him changes lives and the story ends in sweet, emotional tones.

If you're a reader, I can not imagine how you wouldn't love this story. It's heartfelt and inspirational message about the power of words and community are very memorable and you could spend hours gazing at the colorful, full-page spreads.

Have you read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore or any of William Joyce's other picture book titles?

October 5, 2016

Book Review - What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada

What Do You Do With an Idea?

Written by Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Mae Besom

"One day, I had an idea.

'Where did it come from? Why is it here?' I wondered, 'What do you do with an idea?'

At first, I didn't think much of it. It seemed kind of strange and fragile. I didn't know what to do with it. So I just walked away from it. I acted like it didn't belong to me.

But it followed me."

Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom's award-winning and best-selling 2014 picture book is an imaginative rendering of what happens when we have an idea and choose to foster it.

At first, the child narrator is worried about their idea and what others will think of it. The child tries to hide the idea away and pretend nothing has changed, but the idea feels magical and it makes the child feel happy.

As the child's confidence grows, so too does the idea. Though not everyone responds encouragingly to the idea--and in fact some criticize it--the narrator overcomes fear by choosing to instead protect, care for, and give attention to the idea helping it flourish and soar to new levels.

Kobi Yamada's language is kid-friendly and simple enough for a child to read on their own, though the story makes for a great parent and child to read together to encourage conversation thereafter. The main character is purposefully rendered without use of male or female pronouns so that all child audiences can more easily relate and identify to the story's message.

Besides the inspiring message, Mae Besom's illustrations are a lovely combination of pencil and watercolor. The child narrator's world is mostly black and white and bare until the idea (a crown-topped egg) arrives and brings with it color and a sense of magic. As the child nurture's the idea and it grows in size, the full-page illustrations increase in color, warmth, and detail.

I really enjoyed this simple yet lovely picture book. If you're a fan of Yamada and Besom's collaboration, you can check out their 2016 follow-up What Do You Do With a Problem?