The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

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Goodreads: The Caged Graves
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Summary

It is 1867 and seventeen-year-old Verity Boone is heading home to Catawissa, Pennsylvania, to reunite with the father she barely remembers and to marry a man she knows only through letters.  When she visits the local cemetery, however, two caged graves on unconsecrated ground catch her attention–and one of them is her mother’s.  Determined to see her mother laid properly to rest, Verity inadvertently embroils herself in an old mystery full of hidden treasure, family feuds, and rumored witchcraft.  Soon, not only her engagement but also her life is at risk.

Review

The Caged Graves blends mystery, romance, and suspense to create a lavish tale that immerses readers in a pleasantly Gothic town still recovering from the recent Civil War.  Atmosphere proves as important as either character or plot in this book, and Dianne K. Salerni obligingly lays on the late-night chills with rumors of madness, unexplained events, and half-whispered accusations of witchcraft.  The horror never verges into the unbelievable, however, but simply flavors what is otherwise a guilty pleasure of a historical romance.

The plot never truly leaves the path of the predictable, but readers who enjoy the tropes of historical romances or who enjoy books about the potential claustrophobia of small towns will not find themselves disappointed.  The book, in fact, seems set to please those who like getting out a blanket and a cup of cocoa to watch one of those cheesy cowboy movies with a mail order bride, her rancher and/or sheriff betrothed,  and a charming out-of-towner determined to snatch the girl for himself.  No one doubts the outcome and some of the “drama” may elicit a smile rather than a gasp, but, hey, the couple is cute together and you want to root for them against all their small-minded naysayers.  Plus it feels good to know that everything is going to end up all right.

Criticizing a work that makes no pretensions as to its literary merits but simply asks readers to enjoy the story for what it is almost seems silly–and yet it seems just as silly to ignore the book’s one glaring flaw.  Verity Boone is no 1867 woman.  Verity Boone is the character that makes 1867 palatable for the modern reader.  Bold and impetuous, Verity goes where she wants, does what she wants, and says what she wants.  She traipses around town and the swamp alone, opening herself up to suspected trysts with men.  She fears nothing and talks a lot about how she never faints, allowing her to assist at surgery with the attractive doctor’s apprentice.  If something needs to be done and Verity’s petticoats will show, she lets them show.  If someone says something classist, Verity is quick to condemn.  If they spout the viewpoints of their time, Verity is quick to prove herself a feminist.   “Progressive” does not begin to describe this woman–she seems, rather, to have been transported from the twenty-first century.  She is out of time, out of place–and I had trouble believing that no one ever called her out for it.

Aside from Verity’s character, I found little reason not to immerse myself whole-heartedly in the story.  With two charming male leads, the love triangle provides just enough tension while never veering into the overdramatic.  All the characters are richly drawn, offering hidden depths just when some readers may have dismissed them as nothing more than a plot device or an extra, present simply to make the world seem populated.  The chills prove tingly enough to keep the story interesting, without overwhelming the reader with horror.  All things considered, The Caged Graves is a fun Gothic read, perfect for those who like their atmosphere dark–but not too dark.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

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Goodreads: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair
Source: Library
Published: 2006

Summary

Maud Mary Flynn never expects to leave the orphanage where she is generally considered disagreeable and impertinent.  But then Miss Hyacinth Hawthorne arrives and wants Maud to live with her and her sisters.  Maud wants desperately to be loved, so she agrees to be the sisters’ “secret child,” staying indoors and hiding from visitors, all so she can help with the family business of conducting faking séances.   But as time passes, the practice of playing on others’ grief for their money starts to become an intolerable burden.  How much is Maud really willing to sacrifice to feel accepted?

Review

The premise of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair–that of an eleven-year-old girl participating in the fake séances led by her adoptive family–immediately drew me in.  I imagined a a melancholy and slightly morbid Victorian setting as the main attraction, along with some perhaps quirky or deliciously creepy characters to people it.  Instead I discovered a story focused more on its characters than on the novelty of fake mediums, a story dedicated to probing questions of grief, love, family, and morality.

Initially I was not sure I would like Maud and feared I would not be able to sympathize with her on her journey.  She seemed unduly jealous of the other girls, petulant, and irritating.  Her way of “acting out” is to scrape her boots on the floor to make an irritating noise.  She seemed to lack the spirit even to rebel properly.   But then she was adopted and my heart melted.  It became clear that all Maud really wants is for someone to love her.  That desire hides beneath a somewhat grown-up exterior, but when Maud allows herself to let go and to feel happiness, one sees her as she is–a mere child aching for a home but afraid of being hurt one more time.

Once I began to understand Maud, the story opened up to me.  She is not the only one hiding a secret and, because the other characters are shown through her eyes, the true natures of the others is not readily apparent.  As an eleven-year-old, Maud tends to judge initially on appearance and she is susceptible to judging favorably those who give her sweets and treats while withholding favor from those who discipline her.  The reader thus gets to mature along with Maud, in a sense, learning who is really kind and who is really selfish only by watching the way they treat those around them–including Maud.

For Maud is often treated terribly.  She is an investment by the sisters to reap later financial gain and, as such, she is expendable.  Her case becomes that of an abuse victim, for her guardians use her for their own ends and toy with her enough to keep her happy to oblige.  But the story permits no victim blaming even as it induces readers to sympathize with the child.  Alone and perpetually unwanted, Maud is understandably desirous of trying to stay in this home, trying to convince someone that she is clever, good, and useful–and thus worthy of love.  She may be looking in all the wrong places, but you can’t blame her for looking.  Indeed, while seeing through her eyes, readers may find themselves hoping for the impossible, as well.

Maud has a way of focusing the attention of the story on herself, but that in no way means the rest of the story lacks interest.  Indeed, I found myself captivated by all the characters and desirous of learning all their fates.  Though the plot summary initially attracted me with promises of depicting fake psychic sessions, learning the means by which the sisters scammed their clients ultimately could not compare to the psychological study the sisters themselves presented.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is a surprisingly thoughtful look at the things we do for love.  Though ostensibly about the coldness of grief and death, it ultimately triumphs as a heartwarming story about home and family.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

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Goodreads: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Series: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children #1
Source: Library
Published: 2011

Summary

Jacob grew up hearing his grandfather’s stories about being raised in an orphanage where the children possessed unusual abilities from super strength to levitation, an orphanage that was the only place they were safe from the monsters.  For a time Jacob believed these stories, until his father explained them away.  But then his grandfather dies from a mysterious attack and Jacob swears that, for a moment, he saw the monsters, too.  To convince himself of his own sanity, Jacob travels to the island where Miss Peregrine’s orphanage once stood and explores the abandoned mansion in search of his grandfather’s past.  His search reveals an incredible secret–the fact that the orphans might still be alive.

Review

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children intrigued me from the start.  Its combination of prose with startling vintage photography suggests a creepy and a unique read.  However, though the book begins with promise, the story loses momentum just when readers might expect it to become really interesting–with the introduction of Miss Peregrine’s “peculiar” children.  Suddenly, the story transforms from a slightly threatening mystery to a somewhat standard fantasy.  Possibly the fantasy is not all that bad, but when readers are expecting something else, the fantasy simply fails to enthrall.

The book begins beautifully largely because of the relationship between the protagonist Jacob and his grandfather.  The two are very close and bond in part through the grandfather’s stories about growing up in an orphanage with magical children while hiding from monsters.  The explanation that the grandfather, in fact, fled to an island off Wales when the Nazis destroyed his family, offers complexity to his character while not erasing the sense that his monsters are more than psychological; Jacob’s turning away from his grandfather’s stories as he “grows up” seems a bitter betrayal, if perhaps not unnatural for a teen.  Their relationship underpins the entire story and gives it heart and meaning when the rest of the elements fail.

The typical death of the mentor figure to propel the protagonist into action thus seems in this case a terrible miscalculation.  I would have welcomed Jacob and his grandfather as a team, but regret that, ultimately, the grandfather becomes little more than a plot device.  Unfortunately, unlike other teen heroes (like Harry Potter, for example), Jacob seems to have little reason for a propulsion anywhere.  His grandfather vaguely mentions finding safety at his old orphanage, but not much suggests Jacob is yet unsafe where he is.  His journey to the “peculiars” is therefore unconvincing–it makes sense that he wants to learn more about his grandfather’s past, but not that he would so easily accept a new life with a group of people he’s just met in favor of his old one with his family.  Yes, his family misunderstands him and all, but his choice comes across as callous even for a confused teen. In the end, the saving of the peculiars really belongs more to the grandfather who knew and loved them than it does to newcomer Jacob.  Disposing of the grandfather so early on just so Jacob can have some emotional character development creates an unconvincing story.

The other characters, despite their magical abilities, are never as compelling as Jacob’s grandfather.  One might have expected from the odd vintage photos and from the hints of ghastly monsters that their world would be odd and scary, but once the book explains how that world works, the enchantment falls away.  Suddenly they no longer inhabit an eerie world of ghosts and mysterious phenomena, but a world of order with rather typical monsters hunting in rather typical ways.  The children themselves fail to add any charm, revealing themselves as quite normal with their everyday squabbles and jealousies.  I think I was supposed to find the female lead interesting at least, but after a rather unusual introduction, she reveals herself to be nothing more than the love interest who validates the male hero’s entrance into her world by giving her approval.

The sequel promises the usual standard fantasy fare of a battle for survival as the magical children face the monsters who hunt them, but I do not care enough about any of them or even about their world to follow them there.  I picked up the book for something unusual, not for a plot I can find in dozens of other works.  The most unique aspect of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the creepiness; once that falls away, the story falls apart, too.

Top Ten Tuesday (89): Characters I Would Totally Want to Be for Halloween

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Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten Characters I Would Totally Want to Be for Halloween

The topic doesn’t specify, so I am assuming characters from any type of media are fair game, not just ones from books.  I also want to highlight characters I think would be fun to dress as, not just characters I like, so anyone who looks too “realistic contemporary” might have to be passed over.

 

  1. Elsa from Frozen: Fairly easy to do if one already happens to own a sparkly blue semiformal dress and has braidably long hair.
  2. Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings: One of my favorite literature characters, and she has some beautiful dresses in the movies.
  3. The TARDIS from Doctor Who: Technically, yes, she is a character. However, I would like to go as a creative interpretation of the TARDIS (example), not the TARDIS’s human incarnation.
  4. Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings: I would love to be as graceful as an Elf, and I love her outfits and jewelry from the movies.
  5. Merida from Brave: A strong female protagonist who also has a great wardrobe.
  6. A Hogwarts student: I’ve dressed as a Durmstrang student in the past.  After college graduation, however, I finally have a long black robe I can utilize!  I can just vary the colors of the outfit and go as anyone from Hermione to Luna!
  7. Guinevere: Ok, or any medieval-literature noble female character.  I just want an awesome dress.
  8. Rapunzel: Did I mention I can rock a braid, and that I want a princess dress?
  9. Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia: One of my favorite book characters, and you could build a costume for her in so many ways: winter coat, queen dress, saving the kingdom gear, etc.
  10. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games: She doesn’t speak to me quite so much as some other characters, but, again, I love the options one would have creating a costume for her. You could wear anything from an arena uniform, to her signature archery outfit, to one of the dresses Cinna designs for her.
  11. Bonus! Wonder Woman: Although I’d probably go for an interpretation where I get to wear more clothing than the classic costume allows.  Even looking beyond the practicality of fighting in her costume, or whether it’s objectifying, October where I live is not warm.  I need more clothes!

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches by Lauren Magaziner

Only Thing Worse Than WitchesInformation

Goodreads: The Only Thing Worse Than Witches
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: August 14, 2014

Review

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches is heartwarming story about two children who, in the course of cramming for a witch Bar Exam, discover they just might learn more about friendship than they do about spells.  Rupert Campbell, hoping to escape his horrifying fifth grade teacher, answers an ad to become a witch’s apprentice.  It turns out, however, that Witchling Two is, well, not yet actually a witch.  She needs a human apprentice to help her study and pass her test to earn the title!  Yet assisting her will not be any easier for Rupert than attending his own classes.  Fraternizing with humans is against Witch Council laws, and Rupert’s life is suddenly in terrible danger.

As one can probably tell from the summary, The Only Thing Worse Than Witches is a delightful mix of whimsy and danger.  The book takes full advantage of Witchling Two’s penchant for performing magic badly and places the characters in a variety of silly situations.  Furthermore, the writing is just the right side of quirky: amusing, sometimes random, but never outright odd.  The silliness nicely balances the fact that Rupert is essentially running/hiding for his life.  While readers do feel some apprehension that Rupert might really be made into toecorn, the story never gets too dark or hopeless.

Buried within all the magic and adventure, there are also some astute life observations.  There is a particular emphasis on friendship and all the things that come with it: loyalty, being true to yourself, braving danger to help out a friend.  Watching Witchling Two’s and Rupert’s friendship grow is heartwarming.  However, there are also all kinds of other philosophical nuggets, and both young readers and adults should find something to think about.

Framing the story is some incredibly deft world-building.  This is always an important feature of fantasy, where ground rules for magic, imagined species, etc. must be laid.  In a middle grade novel, there is not always space for this, but Magaziner gets everything out into the open quickly and completely.  Readers learn about the witches, their history, and their government, and obtain a general sense of how potions and spells work.  The magic here makes sense.  Furthermore, readers also get a good feel for the town of Gliverstoll, which is basically as quirky and charming as the book itself.

The Only Thing Worse Than Witches is one of those amazingly satisfying middle grade books that is smart enough for adults to enjoy, but imaginative and heartfelt enough that it will speak even better to children.  Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I know the author.

Once Upon a Midnight Eerie by Gordon McAlpine

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Goodreads: Once Upon a Midnight Eerie
Series: The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014
Illustrations by Sam Zuppardi

Summary

In The Tell-Tale Start, Edgar and Allan Poe, great-great-great-great-grandnephews of the famous writer, defeated an evil scientist who wanted them for his experiments in quantum mechanics.  Their subsequent fame landed them the role of the young Poe in a new biographical film being made in New Orleans.  Unknown to them, however, a new enemy threatens their lives.  Can their new friends Em and Milly Dickinson help them solve the mystery in time?  Will Poe, repeatedly thwarted by a meddlesome Shakespeare in the afterlife, be able to warn them?  Absurd adventures are sure to come in the latest installment of The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe.

Review

The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe series is a silly, lighthearted celebration of literature, science, and the supernatural. Though the twins delight in the macabre and even meet a pair of real-life ghosts in this latest book, their adventures are so absurd, their complete lack of seriousness so complete, that no sense of danger or fright ever touches the work.  Quite simply, Edgar and Allan invite readers to share with them a somewhat zany afternoon without asking for any commitment in return.  You either come along for the ride or you don’t–they really don’t care.

I can’t recall if I’ve ever read a book before that seems so comfortable with itself that it makes no pretenses to be anything it isn’t.  It chooses to create a nonsensical afterlife where the dead write fortune cookies and even license plates, where Shakespeare is no revered literary idol but a grumpy bureaucrat and refuses to let anyone question its bizarre vision.  It flourishes actual ghosts around in a world that previously suggested the dead are trapped in mundane jobs in some sort of warped purgatory, as if it’s perfectly natural they should be there.  It introduces not one, but two sets of twins who are descendants of famous writers and apparent geniuses to boot, and dares anyone to say this isn’t plausible.  This book wants to be silly and weird and it’s going to do whatever it wants, regardless of whether what it wants makes sense.  In short, this book is a delight.

It’s true that Once Upon a Midnight Eerie is very casual with its science and certainly not entirely respectful of its literary influences (if by respectful, you mean it suggests imperfections), but anyone who loves science and literature enough to appreciate it even when it’s being silly will find this book an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.  After all, what’s not to love about a book that, when it has something good going for it, like a pair of twins or a famous dead ancestor, decides just to double that factor?  Surely that strategy can only make the book doubly successful as the last one!  With logic like this, the book is a riot from beginning to end.

Jackaby by William Ritter

JackabyInformation

Goodreads: Jackaby
Series: Jackaby #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014

Summary

It’s 1892 and Abigail Rook is newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England after having run away from home in search of adventure.  First, however, she needs a job.  After scouring the city with little luck, Abigail answers an advertisement for an investigative assistant, the specialty of the service being the unexplained.  Enter R. F. Jackaby, a detective of sorts who claims that he can see magical creatures no one else can.  When the police cannot solve a crime, Jackaby follows the supernatural evidence to find the real culprit (even if the police don’t believe him).  Abigail is skeptical at first, too, but her first day on the job finds her on the scene of a serial murderer, the villain whom Jackaby says isn’t human.  Can the pair solve the mystery before the killer strikes again?  Or will they be the next ones to lose their lives?

Review

The cover jacket bills Jackaby as a cross between the BBC’s Sherlock and Doctor Who, but, as with most such allusions, I find the comparison a stretch.  Yes, Jackaby is a bit of an eccentric and a tad unfeeling towards others and, yes,  he investigates unexplained mysteries, but aside from that, the similarities are few.  After all, I would expect a Sherlock-like book to include more convoluted clues and perhaps some fancy use of technology, and I would expect something inspired by Doctor Who to include, if not time travel and aliens, at least some of the joy the show used to have.  I actually think it’s a bit of a shame the cover blurb would create such high expectations, for the story is solid on its own, but falters a little under the weight of the comparisons.

“Solid,” of course, is not a flashy description or one that usually has readers pulling a book off the shelves, but since this a debut book, I use the term in what I mean to be a complimentary way.  It manages, in a reasonable amount of space (as in, it’s not one of those books that’s 400 pages just so it can feel like it’s Harry Potter), to create a fascinating and original world full of magic and mystery, to introduce a cast of likable and often amusing characters, and to provide a plot that, if it admittedly lacks complexity and surprise, at least holds the interest of the reader all the way through.  It’s not my favorite book of the year, but I would still like to read the sequel.

Some parts of the book admittedly still reveal the story as a debut.  Abigail Rook, for instance, reads very much like one of those cliche and anachronistic women who flout all the social conventions of their time for no apparent reason other than that readers are evidently supposed to be unable to connect with a female from the late nineteenth century if she could plausibly have lived at that time.  Furthermore, most of Abigail’s character description comes from forced speeches she makes about how she longs for adventure and read more books than her father’s graduate students.  I would not have known any of this, however, from Abigail’s actual actions.

I also regret that the romance proves sort of vague (though I applaud the complete absence of a love triangle.  Jackaby is not a suitable romantic interest at this time, thanks to his inability to connect with people, and the author knows it).  I like that the romance is not sudden and fast, that’s it’s being allowed to develop naturally.  However, at this point the two romantic interests barely know each other, so it seems rather odd that they’re treating their romance as something more than interest or a crush, when it really is still at that level.  I wish their status had been more defined in this first installment, just so it isn’t so weird and awkward.

These slight criticisms aside, Jackaby is a fun, original novel that will have readers engrossed in its magical world and clamoring for the sequel.  I am sure that, as William Ritter hones his skill, the results will be incredible.

Who Has the “Authority” to Review Books?

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Kathleen Hale’s recent Guardian article has generated a lot of commentary, most of it judgments of whether or not Hale was right to take the actions she chronicles.  Somewhat overlooked in the general backlash, however, is a claim that a number of Guardian commenters (who seem to be neither bloggers nor people who utilize sites like Goodreads) are making: that in order to preserve the “integrity” of book reviews, only “qualified” people should be able to voice their opinions.  None of these commenters, as far as I can tell from browsing, gave a workable definition of what people have legitimate “literary authority” (beyond implying that professional reviewers who work for places like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly must).  If we work through the question, however, it becomes apparent that there really cannot be people who “can” judge books “correctly” and people who “cannot.”

Am I qualified to share my opinions on books?

If we accept for the moment that there is a hierarchy of literary authority, I want to point out right now that I am pretty high up it, so I reassure anyone doubting the “validity” of my opinion that the rest of this post is worth reading.  I have a BA in English literature, I am currently pursuing a PhD in English literature, I have experience interning in the book publishing industry, and I have about three years of experience running this blog.  If anyone is higher than me on this imaginary hierarchy, it must be people who have already earned PhDs in literature and people with many years of experience in book publishing.

I have not worked reviewing professionally, but I have met people who have.  At the time, they had BAs in English literature and potentially some internships in the publishing world.   The bar, then, to have a “professional” opinion is not unsurmountable.  Basically, one needs to have studied literature at the undergraduate level.  I think a lot of bloggers have passed that test.

But how would publishers even know who is “qualified”?

If we continue with this thought experiment and say, yes, that makes sense, publishers should have “standards” that need to be met before they send readers review copies, we still run into problems.

First, a lot of Guardian commenters are proposing a very basic solution: bloggers need to provide publishers with their real names and addresses.  Well…I think many do.  Generally speaking, you need to be a real person to receive mail.  But knowing someone’s name and address, someone’s REAL IDENTITY! does not actually tell the publisher anything about that person.

So is this a proposal that publishers also run background checks on bloggers?  Or that they issue applications where bloggers state their “literary qualifications” and then conduct in-person interviews to make sure they are not creeps?  Because no publishing company is going to waste time and money doing that.

Also: Publishers already vet bloggers.

Most require a blogger to have been blogging X many months, to have Y many followers, and to write reasonably intelligent reviews before they send them review copies.  There are industry standards for this type of thing, which said Guardian comments appear to be unaware of.

But no standard if ever going to eliminate “unqualified” reviewers.

It is possible to run a book blog reviewing only books that are purchased or borrowed from the library.  Many bloggers do this.  Krysta and I did this for years before beginning to request a limited number of e-ARCS.  Publishers can never fully control who gets to review their books.

And that is perfectly fine because of a right most countries today recognize: free speech.

Most importantly, however: Books are written for everyone.

“Amateur” reviewers have valid opinions of books.  Fiction in general is not directed towards people with doctorates in literature or towards industry professionals; their audience is the masses.  If people are talking about Kathleen Hale’s book in particular, it is important to remember her book is classified as young adult.  AKA it is marketed to teens.  AKA people with a high school level education.  They are supposed to have an opinion of the book, which means everyone else is allowed to, as well.

Conclusion

If anyone prefers to read professional review of book instead of “amateur” ones, they have every right to do so.  We all have some standard of quality we like to see in reviews.  But “quality” is subjective, and making the blanket assumption that professional reviewers are more intelligent or more qualified than amateur ones is naïve.  (Also, who decides who gets to be a professional reviewer?  And why should I blindly trust the opinion of this anonymous person who hires them?)  Saying that amateur reviewers should not review, that their opinions should not be allowed space for expression, is a blatant affront to respect and free speech.  If someone can read, they have the right, the authority, the qualifications to form an opinion on a book and share it.

The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Princess in BlackInformation

Goodreads: The Princess in Black
Series: The Princess in Black #1
Source: Library
Published: 2014
Illustrations by LeUyen Pham

Summary

Princess Marigold’s kingdom contains an entrance to Monster Land, but that’s nothing she can’t handle as the secret superhero the Princess in Black.  When Duchess Wigtower comes to call and the monster alarm goes off, however, Marigold has a dilemma.  Can she transform into the Princess in Black, defeat the monster, and return for the last of the scones all before the nosy duchess discovers her secret?

Review

The premise of The Princess in Black seems to guarantee the success of the series, regardless of the merits of the book.  After all, it cannily combines many a reader’s love of princesses and superheroes to create a story that celebrates not only the varied interests of little girls (that being, I assume, the target audience though Shannon Hale’s fame will ensure the book is is picked up by all sorts of readers) but also the multifacetedness of  those girls.  No longer do they have to choose between pink and black, between tea parties and monster fights.  They can have it all.   The story could probably be terrible and people would still read it for the sheer joy of finally having a princess after their own hearts.

Unfortunately,after reading The Princess in Black, I found it necessary to console myself with the fact that, yes, at least the book features a pretty cool heroine.  The story itself is, if not cliche, at least highly expected.  A nosy neighbor of sorts visits the castle for the sole purpose of creating a little dramatic tension while Marigold goes off to battle a monster and then returns.  Such a standard plot could have been saved by interesting characters, but they unfortunately have no personalities, instead existing only to fulfill the needs of the plot.  Aside from the meddling duchess, the only other character (excepting the dim-witted monster, who may be the most sympathetic of them all) is a goat boy who literally appears just so the Princess in Black can have an admiring audience. Yes the story promises him more prominence in the sequel, but in this book I almost feel sorry that he was required to show up, it being such a waste of his time.  He clearly has potential and there was almost enough for me to like him, but the story stopped just short of fully fleshing him out in a cheap bid to create suspense for the next installment.

The motivating forces behind this particular story are furthermore lacking, so that I found it difficult to invest myself in the plot.  The idea is that Duchess Wigtower visits Princess Marigold with the sole purpose of discovering her secret, not because she has anything on Marigold but because “everyone has secrets”.  That’s a little far-fetched, but it’s an early chapter book and I guess we only have so much space, so it’s better just to create a clear antagonist upfront.  So far so good.  But then the Duchess goes on and on about how “perfect” Princess Marigold is and how there must be something not perfect about her.  Yes, yes there is.  It’s the fact that she literally runs out the door during a formal call with an obviously fake excuse about having to check on the health of the birds outside because the two of them heard a ringing noise.  There you go, Duchess.  If the Princess isn’t rude, she’s apparently not too bright (surely she’s had to explain her ringing jewelry before?) or simply crazy.  There is no need to spend the rest of the book trying to dig up dirt on her.  She proved her human nature in the first few pages.

The illustrations are the saving factor in this book.  Although the text tries to be funny or sometimes ironic, most of the time I thought the attempts fell flat.  The pictures, however, really bring life to the text, conveying humor and wit through the postures and expressions of the characters.  The illustrations are charming, beautiful, vivid.  I went through the book again after having finished it, solely so I could enjoy the story without the words and only through the pictures.

Despite my perhaps too-harsh criticisms (I recognize that most readers of early chapter books are not likely to dissect the text as I have), I most likely will continue on with the series.  After all, I love princesses and I love superheroes.  Where else am I going to get both of them in the same place but from the Princess in Black?

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

The Night GardenerInformation

Goodreads: The Night Gardener
Source: Library
Published: May 2014

Summary

Orphaned while attempting to escape the Great Famine, young Molly and Kip arrive at an old English estate to take up their new jobs as servants.  Locals speak of the place as haunted, however, and none will dare to step foot on the property.  Desperate to survive, the children take the position, anyway, and dismiss the rumors.  But someone walks the house at night and the family all seem to be rapidly losing their health.  Can Molly and Kip break an ancient curse or will they become the latest casualties of the night man?

Review

The Night Gardener is a deliciously creepy tale with all the elements you would want in something that proclaims itself as channeling Washington Irving and Henry James.  From the dilapidated house entwined with a sinister tree to the macabre family who dwells within, everything points from the very beginning to the type of tale that will keep you awake at night with all the lights on.  The Night Gardener does not rely only on chills, however, for a great story, but also raises questions about truth, desire, and the power of words to create a work nearly as intellectually interesting as it is creepily compelling.

Fourteen-year-old protagonist Molly and her eleven-year-old brother Kip will no doubt capture the sympathy of readers from the beginning.  Molly is a word spinner and well aware of her power.  Young but determined, she mostly uses her stories to protect her brother from the harsh reality around them, as well as to provide for their everyday needs now that their parents are gone.  Her loving instincts, her gumption, but most of all her unspoken need for her own tales are all immediately endearing, though perhaps it is her increasing inability to differentiate between stories and lies that makes her the most likable.  She is, in the end and despite all her strength, still a girl in need of a place to call home and readers will easily welcome her into their hearts.  Her brother Kip, meanwhile, calls forth much the same response, being a sensible, capable boy with a strong moral compass.  When Molly fails, readers know they can always count on her brother to bring both of them safely through.

Molly and Kip’s good hearts are, of course, the key to defeating the ancient curse that threatens their new employers.  However, though a middle-grade fantasy no doubt means the two will succeed, Jonathan Auxier still manages to make The Night Gardener a truly frightening read.  Aside from the externals, such as the presence of evil walking through the house each night, the story also offers a scarier plot point: the inability of the characters to leave their precarious situation due to ordinary human greed.  What seemed to be a typical ghost story suddenly expands to take a hard look at human nature and the lengths we will go to achieve our greatest desires.

With sympathetic characters, delicious chills, an even pace, and a good moral lesson, The Night Garden stands out among the middle grade fantasies of 2014.  I look forward to reading more of Auxier’s work.

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