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Grave Images by Jenny Goebel


Gold is for the mistress–silver for the maid–
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron–Cold Iron–is the master of them all.”
~”Cold Iron” by Rudyard Kipling

Grave Images is a nice, scary sort of story for reading in the crisp days (or evenings) of October as we approach Halloween. Twelve year old Bernie’s (short for Bernadette) family owns a grave monument company and they live, of course, next door to the cemetery. When a strange drifter, Mr. Abbott Stein, comes to town, and Bernie’s dad hires him to makes etchings for gravestones, Bernie is full of plans to use the new man’s artistic abilities to help her do something to pull her mother out of the depression that she’s been in ever since the death of Bernie’s baby brother, Thomas.

However, things don’t quite work out the way Bernie has imagined. There’s a touch of middle school romance, very chaste, and more than a bit of murder, mayhem, and horror, including a ghost. Grave Images is not a comedy, and it’s not for younger readers who might be frightened by death and general creepiness.

This was a short middle grade book, only 198 pages, and I would recommend it to readers who want something short but shivery to get them in the mood for Halloween. The book doesn’t glorify the occult, and it does have a good but understated message about the dangers of bitterness, jealousy, and covetousness. If you’re not opposed to ghost stories (think Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James, but for children), then Grave Images will be a spine-chilling treat.

Some of my favorite ghost stories, old and new:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
The Summer of Katya by Trevanian.
The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce.
The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman.
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1) by Jonathan Stroud.
The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co., #2) by Jonathan Stroud.

And what are your favorite ghost stories?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani

A sequel to Chainani’s first novel, The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes takes Agatha and Sophie back to the fairy tale world that they worked so hard to escape in the first book. Only this time the questions and dichotomies are multiplying in a dizzying way:

Is Sophie reformed, or is she evil?
Is Agatha good, or is she betraying her friend?
Are princes the real heroes of all the fairy tales?
Are girls the true heroines?
Can a witch become a princess?
Can a prince become an evil slob?
Can Agatha trust Sophie?
Can Sophie trust Agatha?
Can Agatha trust her prince?
Should Agatha kiss Prince Tedros or slay him?
Can girls trust boys? Can girls defeat boys?
Can boys live without girls? Can girls live without boys?
Can boys become girls? Can girls become boys?
How are boys and girls different?
Can male friendships be as close as female friendships?
Is the truest love friendship or romance?
Does a girl have to choose between female friendship and the love of her prince?
If so, which should she choose?
Can there really be a “happily ever after” for everyone?
Is there an ending where no one gets hurt?
What is the right ending?
What is the the true ending?

I’m about three-fourths of the way through Chainani’s version of the fairyland War between the Sexes, and it’s giving me moral and emotional whiplash. I like books that make me think and keep me guessing, but I guess I also like resolution. I can’t see how this book can come to a satisfying resolution, no matter what the author and the characters do with it because the central goal of the author seems to to keep everything in balance, no advantage to either side in any conflict. I’ll return later to let you know how it all came out.

*****************

It ended with a sharp division between Good and Evil, but I don’t think this book is one that anyone is going to be very happy about. Mr. Chainani plunked his plot and characters right down in the middle of the culture wars and the gender wars and the battle between good and evil. And somehow the two, good and evil, male and female, are supposed to coexist in infinite tension, with neither good nor evil winning out and with neither male nor female taking the lead, and with neither same-sex friendship nor male/female romance becoming the primary relationship in any person’s life. Gender roles are bent in this book, but never broken, which won’t make either “side” cheer. True love’s kiss wins the day, but not really. It’s a very unsatisfying, post-modern, irresolute kind of ending—or perhaps a non-ending. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book in the series to make a trilogy, but I also wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you like

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Dreamer Wisher Liar by Charise Mericle Harper

Ashley is mad and sad and and jealous and worried and grumpy. Her best friend, Lucy, is moving away at the end of the summer, and now Lucy is going away to summer camp—without Ashley. What’s more, Ashley’s mom wants her to spend the next few weeks babysitting the seven year old daughter of an old friend. The seven year old, Claire, shows up with a list of “surprise” stuff to do (Ashley hates surprises) and with an over-powering extroverted Pollyanna personality (Ashley is more of a melancholy introvert). It’s going to be the worst summer ever.

Then, Ashley finds a wish jar, a jar full of papers with wishes written on them, in the basement. And when Ashley reads one of the wishes, she sees two other girls who are living out the actions that produced the wish. It’s kind of time travel, kind of clairvoyance, kind of magic. It’s scary, it’s change, and it’s surprising—all of which Ashley doesn’t like much. But she’s fascinated with the wish jar.

Most of the author’s books before this one were written for a younger audience, and it shows in the writing style and plot of this story. Third and fourth graders, maybe fifth graders, might like it a lot. Older children might find the book a little unsophisticated for their tastes. It was nice change for me from the themes and plot lines in which the kid has to save the world or fight the evil sorcerer or find the magic talisman. Nobody goes on a journey, and the book is not the beginning, middle, or end of a series. Dreamer Wisher Liar is a smaller story. Things happen and it’s interesting, but the events are modest events. It’s about friendship and learning to accept change and growing up in small but significant ways.

Ashley is a bit self-centered (like all of us), somewhat conservative and resistant to change (like many of us), and overly analytical (like me sometimes). She thinks about things, and she wants to do the right thing even when she does the wrong thing. The wrong thing she does forms the last last part of the title, the liar part, and Ashley is afraid that “the universe” is going to take its revenge on her for lying to her mother about the wish jar. But she just can’t share the magical time travel that is happening in response to the wishes for fear that it might go way. So she lies about what she’s doing in the basement. This “liar” aspect was the weakest part of the story; there are never really any consequences for the lying that goes on. And Ashley doesn’t exactly decide to quit lying; it just becomes no longer necessary to lie about the magic.

Anyway, aside from that, there are several small mysteries that come together in a satisfying way at the end of the book. Ashley learns several small but important lessons. Everything is resolved, and mostly everyone is happy, or at least content. At one point in the story Ashley tells a friend about a book she’s just finished: “I don’t usually like endings, but this was different—it was satisfying.”

Her friend answers: “You mean it’s all wrapped up, finished, no loose or uncomfortable ends sticking out.”

“Yes,” thinks Ashley. “It was all done–there was nothing left to worry about.”

If that’s the kind of book you like, that’s the kind of book Dreamer Wisher Liar is. Enjoy.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

Not for the usual picture book crowd of preschoolers and early readers, Aviary Wonders is beautiful, funny, and carries a good message without beating it into the ground. The lavishly illustrated book is the work of a fine artist. But to whom would I recommend it?

Artists.
Bird-lovers.
Environmentalists.
Fan of steampunk sci-fi and robotics?
Teens.
Maybe middle schoolers.
Definitely adults who fall into the first three categories.

I just don’t know if that’s going to be a wide enough audience to make the book a success, which is a shame. It ought to be seriously considered for the Caldecott Award because the illustrations are gorgeous. The book also shows, in a quirky way, what the world might be like if all or most of the bird species become endangered or extinct. What if people had to build their own birds out of metal and rubber and silk and other materials in order to have the experience of seeing a bird in flight or hearing a bird song?

Aviary Wonders shows, doesn’t tell, the lesson that God’s creations are unique and valuable and can never be completely replicated by man. The book doesn’t mention God or creation, but that’s the message I got as a Christian who cares about our responsibility to steward and care for the world and its amazing diversity of plant and animal life. I didn’t know this fact about passenger pigeons, until reading this book led me to look it up:

“The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct North American bird. Named after the French word passager for “passing by”, it was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world. It accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in North America. The species lived in enormous migratory flocks until the early 20th century, when hunting and habitat destruction led to its demise.” Wikipedia, Passenger pigeon.

Anyway, I recommend the book, but it may be a hard sell. At least, take a look at it in the bookstore. It’s lovely. It’s also odd and different in a world that values tried and true and formula.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Trains. Well, really, one l–o–n–g train that’s so long that it might as well be a traveling city on wheels. This train, The Boundless, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!

The Boundless is a world to itself, inside a literary world that includes sasquatch, a mesmerist, a steam-powered automaton bartender, treasure, and a weeping hag who induces people to commit suicide (no one dies except expendable redshirt bad guys). The last element, the hag, may be a little much for some younger readers, but it somehow wasn’t terribly scary to me. And I’m not a fan of scary.

Anyway, The Boundless takes place in an alternate steampunk North American continent, and most of the action happens on the train. the train. I loved the train. I want someone to draw me a picture of the train, car by car. Or, even better, I want to ride on the train all the way across the country and experience each part of this marvelous magical train myself. (I wonder if in heaven the good things we imagine can become real and be experienced through eternity? Jesus and I could have a lot of fun exploring The Boundless, without all of the bad guys and hags and thieves.)

Will Everett is our humble hero who grows into a self-assured young man by the end of the story. The only thing I didn’t like about the story was the tired old theme of “follow your dream.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Will wants to be an artist while his father insists that he do something more practical with his life. If you want to know why I think that “follow your dream” is a stupid theme to be drilling into kids in every other book they read, not to mention the idea that parents are a bunch of spoilsports with no wisdom to be imparted, then watch this TED talk by Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs (which I’ve never seen, but I like his perspective on the value and dignity of work in this video).

So I just pretended that the simplistic Disney-esque follow-your-dream parts weren’t there, and I enjoyed the train and the adventure and the Picture of Dorian Gray subplot.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni

If you can handle spell-casting, human sacrifice,and lots of violence in your children’s middle grade fantasy, then this book might be just up your alley. I actually found it riveting, while I skimmed some of the witch-y, creepy parts.

You may not know it, but there are actually eight days in a week, with one secret magic day between Wednesday and Thursday called Grunsday. (Well, some people call it that.) The only people who experience Grunsday are the Transitioners and the Kin, descendants of the original creators of Grunsday who had a very good reason for sticking it in there in the middle of the week. Transitioners live in our timeline and the alternate magical one, Sunday through Wednesday, then Grunsday, then Thursday through Saturday, every week with eight days. The Kin only experience conscious life on Grunsday. On the other days they are there, but not? Sort of like ghosts?

The fun part of the story was trying to figure out how all this alternate timeline, eight days a week, not to mention magical abilities and lords and vassals, work out in the world of The Eighth Day. We get to figure it out along with the main character, a boy named Jax Aubrey, who hasn’t been told anything about the eighth day until he experiences it for the first time just after his thirteenth birthday. (He thinks it’s the zombie apocalypse at first.) Jax slowly deciphers the clues that his friends and his foes manage to drop as he also becomes comfortable with the idea that his identity as a Transitioner has given him some special abilities of his own.

I liked it, but again it may be way too sinister, violent, and occult for some readers. It certainly doesn’t glorify the occult, but Jax is, at best, spiritually confused. At one point in the story when Jax and the other “good guys” are trying to reverse an evil magical spell that’s been cast by the “bad guys”, Jax prays to whoever or whatever— “God or Nature or the Whole Universe”— is in charge and listening, to help them. It’s a perfect example of foxhole religion, certainly realistic, but also rather muddled.

Proceed at your own risk.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Did you know that ravens greet one another with a riddle? Or that ravens love riddles? Did you know that evil flesh-eating valravens don’t appreciate riddles, and that’s how you can tell them apart from the good ravens? Neither did I, and neither did young Gabriel Finley until he met and bonded with his own raven, a young bird, who hadn’t even learned to fly yet, named Paladin.

There are a lot of things to like about this story: The riddles. The flying (Gabriel can fly while bonding with Paladin). The essential goodness and humility of Gabriel, our protagonist. Aviopolis, the hidden bird city. However, there were also some problems, which may or may bother younger (third and fourth grade) readers. The problems will most likely rule out older middle grade readers.

I felt the author, who has only published adult fiction previous to this book, condescended to middle grade readers. The riddles that are sprinkled throughout the story often have similar solutions, instead of showcasing different kinds of riddles. Gabriel takes an entourage of friends and possible enemies along with him when he goes on a quest to find his father, but I could see no reason for the company. Gabriel is the only one who really has the ability to bond with a raven, and he’s the only one who can “save the world” with his riddling abilities. The only companions he actually needs are a duplicitous old man who has been to Aviopolis before and might know how to find Gabriel’s dad and of course, the bird Paladin.

Also, Gabriel seems to be really slow to catch on to rather obvious plot and character developments. I think this slowness on Gabriel’s part may reflect a lack of respect by the author for the intelligence of young readers. A boy like Gabriel really should be able to figure out what is happening and whom he can trust more quickly than he does.

So, I do recommend Gabriel Finley and the Raven’s Riddle with some reservations. Some kids are going to love it, but others are going to be just as annoyed as I was with the rather dense protagonist and his erstwhile friends. Oh, and the flesh-eating valravens are going to be a deal breaker for some kids. I never watched Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds for that very reason.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

The Lockwood & Co series of ghost fantasies aren’t for everyone. They’re probably too occult-related for some readers, even though the the protagonists—Lockwood, Lucy, and George—are the good guys as they fight against The Problem of evil ghostly manifestations that have become a common peril in this alternate history future. Also, I caught an instance or two of profanity. And, finally, the humor is biting and sarcastic, not everyone’s cuppa.

But if you can get past or even appreciate those aspects of the novel, The Whispering Skull might be even better than the first book in the series, The Screaming Staircase, winner of last year’s middle grade speculative fiction Cybils award. In episode two of our story, Lucy, George, and Lockwood are in a competition with the Fittes crew to find a very dangerous mirror relic and lay its ghosts to rest.

The eponymous skull is a rather dangerous relic itself in this version of a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living. Lucy, the narrator of the story, has a special connection with the skull, a face in a ghost-jar that sometimes materializes with “expressions of horror and disgust” and even talks to Lucy in a sort of telepathic and sarcastic manner that only she can hear. The skull is just as malevolent and self-centered as all of the other ghosts and spirits that are infesting the country, but it does seem to have a soft spot for Lucy. Will that connection and that special sensitivity be the downfall of Lockwood and Co?

This second book in particular would make a lovely Princess Bride-type movie with lots of witty, sardonic dialog and characters who see each other’s faults but support each other to the death. I’ve never been much on horror films or ghost stories, but if it were done right, I might make an exception for a movie version of this book. There were several scenes in which I wanted to shake (or slap) the characters and tell them that, of course, they shouldn’t let curiosity betray them into doing x or y really dangerous, stupid thing. But that’s par for a ghost horror story, isn’t it? Cue scary music. This decision will not end well. Don’t open that door!

So I recommend this book and the first one in the series for those of us who are not at all interested in the occult as such, but who enjoy a scary, clever story with lots of action, lots of quick-witted humor, and a fair amount of heart. Suave Anthony Lockwood, faithful Lucy Carlyle, and bumbling George Cubbins make a fine team of intrepid ghostbusters, and the ending promises more Lockwood and Co adventures to come.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

He Laughed With his Other Mouths by M.T. Anderson

I considered NOT reviewing this little volume since it’s just not the kind of humor that tickles my funny bone. Humor is strange and hard to write, I think. Not all of us laugh at the same things, and we’re not always in the mood for the same kind of humor. It must be very difficult to try to be funny for a living, as a comedian or a writer. And I’m not sure exactly why the books in this series don’t make me laugh.

Now, I can do absurd as well as the next guy. I have laughed out loud at the absurdity and wit of Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guide series. And the third book in that series, which I just read a couple of weeks ago, was as funny to me as the first one. When I read the first book in M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, I described it as “a pastiche of all those series you read when you were a kid back in the fifties and the sixties, if you were a kid back in the fifties and the sixties: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Danny Dunn, the Bobbsey Twins, cowboy series that I never read.” I also opined then that the joke was getting old by the end of the book.

Well, it’s still the same joke, and it’s still old. Plus, Mr. Anderson decided to add in a sad little story in the footnotes about a boy named Busby who lived during WW II and read the Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut books that form the basis for the main story. Busby has a sad life with his dad being injured in the war, and it’s not funny at all. The contrast is jarring.

I just didn’t find Pals in Peril very humorous. If you liked The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, He Laughed With his Other Mouths is more of the same. If not, skip.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Thrones and Bones: Frostborn by Lou Anders

This middle grade fantasy adventure takes place in the frozen North, very Norse, but on a different planet than Earth, one with two moons? The mythology that the story incorporates is definitely Norse/Scandinavian, but the different planet aspect allows the author to deviate from Norse folklore and culture whenever he wants without getting accused of being inauthentic. At least, I suppose that’s why he set the story on another planet. I can’t see that the foreign planet setting serves any other purpose . . . yet. (This book is, of course, the beginning of a series.)

Anyway, Karn lives in Norrongard where his father is jarl and owner of the family farm. Karn is due to inherit the farm someday, but he’s not much interested. He’d rather be playing Thrones and Bones. Typical unmotivated young teenage boy.

Thianna lives even farther north than Karn because she’s a frost giant, sort of, half. Her mother was human, and her father is a giant, which makes Thianna a misfit. She wants to be seen as a full-fledged giantess, but she’s too short for a giantess and too tall to be a human. She’s definitely tough and stubborn, not unmotivated.

When both Karn and Thianna are forced to leave home under dangerous and unjust circumstances, they meet up and help each other to evade their pursuers and to survive long enough to figure out their own strengths and goals. Thianna carries the Macguffin, a horn that neither Thianna nor Karn understands the significance of, but that everyone wants. Somehow the horn is dangerous enough to practically destroy the world. That part is never completely explained, but rather left open, perhaps for the next book in the series?

Anyway, lots of near-death experiences, a huge, hungry dragon, undead draug, murderous relations, an avalanche or two, and flying wyvern, among other things, make the book exciting and full of vicarious reading adventure. Read it if you like northernness or Norse mythology or chasing-around-in-the-snow adventures. Stay for the friendship that develops between two very different young people, Thianna the Bold but sometimes Foolhardy and Karn the Lazy but Master of Strategy.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.