Review: The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson

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Description:

When Brian and Gregory receive an invitation to stay at a distant relative’s strange mansion…well, they should know better than to go. Trips to distant relative’s strange mansions rarely go well. And this mansion is even stranger than most. Uncle Max doesn’t really know what century he’s in. The butler boils socks. And the attic houses the Game of Sunken Places.

The Game of Sunken Places looks like a board game. And most of the time it acts like a board game. But from the moment Brian and Gregory start playing, they are caught up in an adventure that goes far beyond the board. Soon the boys are dealing with attitudinal trolls, warring kingdoms, and some very starchy britches.

Luckily, Brian and Gregory have wit, deadpan observation, and a keen sense of adventure on their side.

“The woods were silent, other than the screaming.” This book had me hooked from the opening line. The title and captivating cover art are what drew me in. It looked like an adventure story, and in a way, it is. It starts off with a Narnia feel, when their eccentric Uncle Max meets them in a horse and carriage and takes them to his sprawling, isolated Victorian mansion. The boys are bored one day and discover the Game of Sunken Places in the attic. When they turn over an hourglass, they are plunged into a real-life game that takes place in the dark and creepy woods surrounding the mansion. Along the way they have to solve riddles and puzzles, and meet some fascinating creatures and oddball characters. That reminded me a bit of the film Labyrinth by Jim Henson, and there are just as many twists and turns here. This book would make a fantastic film in its own right.

The story is imaginative, well-written and often laugh-out-loud funny due to Gregory’s constant wisecracks. There are a lot of weird surprises and some scary moments. This book is aimed at ages 9 to 12, but anyone who enjoys fantasy adventures in lost worlds with mythical creatures would love The Game of Sunken Places. It’s the first book of The Norumbegan Quartet, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I feel it’s been seriously overlooked, and deserves a place on every fantasy lover’s bookshelf.

5 out of 5 stars – highly recommended

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Review: Ginger Bear by Mini Grey

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Description:

Horace bakes a gingerbread bear one night and can’t wait to eat it. Too late, it’s bedtime, so he saves the cookie next to his pillow. Ginger Bear wakes up, and has no one to play with. He decides to bake up some friends. Soon, the kitchen is overrun with an entire circus of wonderfully decorated cookie bears. The circus is so exciting and loud that none of Ginger Bear’s new friends hear Bongo the dog as he comes to crash the party.

What follows is nothing less than a full-blown cookie massacre. Luckily, Ginger Bear makes a clever escape, and finds a safe place where he’ll never be eaten – a bakery shop window display.

This is a beautifully illustrated picture book for ages 4 to 8. Ginger Bear is a variation of “The Gingerbread Boy”, and has the same fairy-tale quality. The artwork is lavishly detailed and the colors pop right off the page. You may be a bit surprised by the double-page-spread of destruction wreaked by Bongo the dog, but Ginger Bear’s escape and new life more than made up for the crumbled cookie friends. Children will love both the story and the bright artwork.

5 out of 5 stars – Ginger Bear rocks

 

Review: Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

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Description:

Ten stabs to the heart.

Ten tales to poke and jab – at your darkest fears, your secret desires.

Margo Lanagan’s electrifying stories take place in a world not quite our own, and yet each one illuminates what it is to be human.

Lanagan is the author of the controversial YA novel Tender Morsels, which is one of the best books I’ve read. From the gorgeous cover art to the last page, this collection of short stories did not disappoint.

There is an enchantingly dark fairy tale tone woven into these stories. Toys (or a dream) coming to life, otherworldly travelers in search of a midwife, and a bear rummaging about the house…all that in one story, “Baby Jane”. My other favorites are “Winkie”, a horror reminiscent of the un-Disneyfied versions of the Brothers Grimm tales, “A Good Heart”, which is a realistic tale of true love lost, “Under Hell, Over Heaven”, a bleak look at limbo wherein those in purgatory watch someone’s soul descend into hell, and “Daughter of the Clay” in which a changeling finds her way back home, although this is a rather sad story about wishing to fit in somewhere.

The stories are in turn frightening, sad, strange, and eerily beautiful. They are about love, pain, violence, courage and loss. There is a lot of variety here and it’s extremely well-written, and like most fairy tales, they are about human strength. If you’re not a fan of short fiction and don’t believe it can touch you the way a novel can, you need to read Red Spikes. 

5 out of 5 stars – must read

Review: Pig Island by Mo Hayder

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Description:

Journalist Joe Oakes makes a living exposing supernatural hoaxes. A born skeptic, he believes everything from Bigfoot to the Loch Ness Monster has a rational explanation. But when he visits a remote Scottish island as the guest of a secretive religious community, everything he thought he knew is overturned. Questions mount: Why has the group been accused of Satanism? What has happened to their leader? And perhaps most importantly, why will no one discuss the strange apparition seen wandering the lonely beaches of Pig Island? The answers, and their violent and bloody aftermath, are so catastrophic that they force Oakes to question the nature of evil and ask himself whether he is responsible for the terrible crime that unfolds.

Pig Island is a dark thriller that will keep you guessing. When Oakes receives a video of “the devil of Pig Island” he can’t resist debunking it. It turns out he has a bit of a past with the bizarre preacher who leads the religious community on the island, which was previously used as a waste dumping ground. During his investigation, Oakes uncovers even more mysteries. The locals are reluctant to speak to him, especially about the isolated part of the island and the reasons for the preacher’s disappearance.

Mo Hayder is also the author of the psychological thriller Birdman. As in that book, some of the twists here are gory and depraved, so you may want to avoid this one if you have a weak stomach. There’s a hint of horror wound throughout. The narrators are not very well fleshed-out, but there’s enough suspense to keep you reading. The conclusion, involving a truly strange femme fatale, is shocking, and nearly derails the entire book. Nearly. Somehow, Hayder pulls it off, and the ending gives a supernatural taste to the earlier events. I wish I could say more about it, but I don’t want to give it away.

The novel basically reads like a slasher horror film. If you like creepy thrillers, you’ll enjoy Pig Island. 

3 1/2 out of 5 stars – creepy fun

 

Review: Not in Kansas Anymore – A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America by Christine Wicker

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Description:

Magic has stepped out of the movies, morphed from the pages of fairy tales, and taken root in the modern mind. Soccer moms are getting voodoo head washings in their backyards, young U.S. soldiers send chants toward pagan gods of war, and a seemingly normal family has determined that they are in fact elves. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are turning toward the supernatural in new ways, blending the ancient and the modern for a hypercharged spirituality. They are reaching back in time to powers that have sustained the human imagination for thousands of years.

For many people, magic is taking hold in less obvious ways. Almost unconsciously they find themselves noting mysterious synchronicties that point to a plan for their lives, whether heeding premonitions, marking good omens, or scrutinizing dreams. Most of them never utter a word to anyone.

But others are bolder. The community of Wiccans, witches, vampires and pagans is growing faster than any other religious group in America. Voodoo, hoodoo, and Santeria are attracting middle-class believers across the country.

In Not in Kansas Anymore, former religion reporter Christine Wicker investigates what’s real and what isn’t in America’s faith in magic. She comes across as a tolerant outsider, and does a great job of profiling people and researching the roots of magical belief. However, she seems to be taking the middle ground often. She has her own belief system which she can’t break away from, although it is challenged while researching this book. She spends a lot of time telling readers how she believes neo-pagans and voodoo practitioners should be viewed, and not enough time on what these people believe in. As a result, the book only touches lightly on several different paths, rather than giving us detailed explanations.

The end result is an interesting trip through different magical belief systems. Wicker’s writing style is entertaining, while managing to stay respectful and open-minded. She covers voodoo, hoodoo, Wicca, vampires, dragon believers, chaos magicians, the aforementioned elf family, goth pagans, and more. Overall, I enjoyed it. It’s good reading for someone already experienced in magic or the metaphysical, but for anyone who is curious and wants to learn more about any of these subjects, this isn’t nearly detailed or informative enough.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars – worth a read

Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

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Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

Once the toast of good society in Victoria’s England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect or inspires the awe that once did. Despite having unraveled more than sixty perplexing criminal puzzles, he is considered something of an embarrassment these days. Still, each night without fail, he returns to the stage of his theatre to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling audience with the same old astonishments – aided by his partner, the silent, hairless, hulking, surprisingly placid giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed…and who goes by but one appellation: The Somnambulist.

On a night of rolling mists and long shadows, in a corner of the city where only the most foolhardy will deign to tread, a rather disreputable actor meets his end in a most bizarre and terrible fashion. The police turn once again to Edward Moon – who will always welcome such assignments as an escape from ennui. And, in fact, he leads the officers to a murderer rather quickly. Perhaps too quickly. For these are strange times in England, with the strangest of sorts prowling London’s dank underbelly: sinister circus performers, freakishly deformed prostitutes, sadistic grown killers in schoolboy attire, a human fly, and a man who lives his life backwards. And nothing is precisely as it seems.

The Somnambulist is a Victorian mystery with a slight paranormal edge. Edward Moon is an egotistical stage magician, and not the most likable creature at first, but more is revealed about him as the story unravels. As for his mute companion, the Somnambulist, we don’t learn much until the end. Barnes’ London is fantastically creepy, with a menagerie of quirky and sometimes foul characters. The detail is beautiful and dark.

The mystery is set up as a Holmes-ish romp through London…at first. About halfway through the book, things take a turn for the weird. The story is anything but simple. The ending is so far out of where you thought the plot was headed that it almost seems as if a different author picked up the thread and finished the book. It was a bit confusing at first. Even so, I enjoyed it, and I liked the way the story descended into chaos. When the narrator is finally revealed, things start to fall into place.

And if they don’t, well, there was a warning at the beginning of the book.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars – excellent

Review: The Dangerous World of Butterflies – The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors and Conservationists by Peter Laufer

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Description:

War weary after writing a book about the Iraq War and psychologically fatigued by a career of reporting bad news, Peter Laufer jokingly said his next book would be about butterflies and flowers, simple analogies for peace and love. The result: an invitation to a butterfly preserve in Nicaragua where he soon discovered the behind-the-scenes world of collectors, criminals, and cops obsessed with one of nature’s most compelling creatures.

The Dangerous World of Butterflies chronicles Laufer’s adventures within the butterfly industry and the butterfly underground. He examines the allure of butterflies and recounts the constant role they have played throughout history and across cultures in mythology and art. His research takes an unexpected turn into the high-stake realms of organized crime, ecological devastation, species depletion, the integrity of museum collections, and chaos theory.

I was drawn to this book for both the beautiful cover and the title – the idea of butterflies and danger was intriguing. I have always loved butterfly collections, but I was completely unaware of this dark underground culture surrounding them. This was a fascinating book. It begins with stories of drunken butterflies and butterfly breeders, and I learned some surprising facts. I also learned about a website called IHateButterflies that is for people who “fear, are disgusted by, and generally dislike butterflies (and moths)”. Even though a lot of us are entranced by butterflies, some people just call them “pretty-colored cockroaches”.

There are stories of butterfly smugglers who make thousands and get sent to federal prison, and violent poachers. Some butterfly experts don’t believe there is any danger of extermination by over-collecting, but others disagree. There are sharply divided views on this point.

Some people collect butterflies because they love beautiful or rare things, others collect them because they want to contribute to science. There are artists who use the butterflies’ wings in their work and butterfly watchers. This book isn’t really about science, it’s more about the people obsessed with Lepidoptera. Even so, there is more to be learned about butterflies than I previously thought.

This book is both educating and entertaining. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in butterflies.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars – highly recommended

Review: Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

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Description:

Your best friend hates you. The guy you liked hates you. Your entire group of friends hates you.

All because you did the right thing.

Welcome to life for Mena, whose year is starting off in the worst way possible. She’s been kicked out of her church group and no one will talk to her – not even her own parents. No one except for Casey, her supersmart lab partner is science class, who’s pretty funny for the most brilliant guy on earth.

And when Ms. Shepherd begins the unit on evolution, school becomes more dramatic than Mena could ever imagine…and her own life is about to evolve in some amazing and unexpected ways.

Mena was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. Her youth group wages a hate campaign against one supposedly gay student, harassing him to the point that he attempts suicide. Mena realizes what the youth group did was wrong and writes him a compassionate letter to apologize, which soothes her conscience but angers the church. The boy’s parents sue everyone involved, and Mena and her family are kicked out of the congregation. Now Mena’s ostracized by her former friends and her parents.

Mena is lonely and confused. She has no one to turn to, until she gets a new lab partner in science class – the geeky, funny, and handsome Casey. Mena’s ultra strict fundamentalist parents don’t allow her to socialize with boys or take part in any secular activities, so she lies to them and tells them Casey is a girl. Casey introduces her to his unconventional family and forbidden pleasures such as puppies, science fiction novels, and Lord of the Rings. He eventually becomes a love interest.

When the biology teacher introduces lessons on evolution, Mena’s former church and the youth group begin a protest. Mena is drawn into a counter-campaign led by Casey’s older sister. Soon both Mena and her parents find themselves publicly humiliated by the pastor, who actually suggests during a service that Mena go kill herself. This causes her parents to finally start to realize what their daughter has been going through. Mena concludes at the end that she can believe in scientific fact and the gospel, and tries to convince her parents to let her go to a more liberal church.

This is a first novel that tackles some heavy themes – evolution, religion, gay rights, bigotry, and honesty. It isn’t a “Christian” novel, but I think that liberal Christians may enjoy it. Intelligent Design proponents and fundamentalists would likely have problems with it. I’m of mixed mind about it. I did like Mena very much and could relate to her on some levels. The other characters were spot on, and Casey and his family were likable and interesting. I enjoyed how Casey brought Mena out of her shell. The story started out strong. I couldn’t wait for Mena to be vindicated.

However, that never happened. She feels guilty about lying to her parents, despite the fact that she was justified in doing it. Telling them the truth doesn’t accomplish anything. Her parents never apologize for the way they’ve treated her, even though she had done nothing wrong and in fact had been the only person to do the right thing. They still tell her that she had no business writing that letter. I think that’s rather unchristian of them. Mena decides at the end that her former friends’ bigotry and the pastor’s suggestion that she should die is due to them having a different viewpoint. That is completely wrong. These people are hateful and hypocritical, and for a pastor to say a child should commit suicide is stunningly evil.

I felt that Mena never truly came into her own and she never got the vindication that she so deserved. The students are never enlightened. There was no real closure. We never even find out if her parents will allow her to go to a more liberal church or continue to see Casey. We can only hope that she gains some independence and strength in her new found friends and beliefs.

It felt a bit like the author was going out of her way not to step on anybody’s toes. Instead, she tried to find a happy medium, and it doesn’t work.

All in all, this is still a good read, although the ending may fall a little short for some.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars – worth a read

 

 

Review: Bonechiller by Graham McNamee

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Description:

Danny’s father takes a job as caretaker at a marina on the shore of a frozen lake in a remote Canadian town.

It’s the worst winter the tiny town has seen in years. One freezing night, running in the dark, Danny is attacked by a creature so strange and terrifying that he tries to convince himself it was a hallucination. Then he learns about the Native American legends of a monster that has haunted the lake for a thousand years. Every generation, in the coldest winters, children disappear into the night. Everyone thinks they ran away.

Danny knows better. Because now the beast is coming for him.

In this supernatural thriller, Danny and his friend Howie are chased down and stung by a horrifying, huge beast. Now they are infected and running out of time as nightmares of the creature begin to stalk them. Soon, they will be compelled to wander out into the frozen tundra and give themselves up to the monster.

Danny decides to fight, with the help of his friends Howie, Pike, and Ash. Pike is a walking encyclopedia of weaponry, and soon the kids have an array of ammo and stolen dynamite to take the monster on with.

The book starts out fast (with Pike setting fire to a convenience store) and the pace never lets up. All of the characters have enough dimension and backstory to make them well-fleshed out and relatable. There is also a sideplot about Danny coming to terms with his mother’s death and growing closer to his father. But the focus of the story is always the horror, and the suspense builds as the creature’s infection rages through Danny and his body grows colder and colder. Teens who like suspense and horror novels will enjoy Bonechiller.

4 out of 5 stars – excellent

Review: The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy

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Description:

Jo LaRouche has lived her thirteen years in the California desert with her aunt Lily, a faded Hollywood starlet, ever since she was found in the laundry room with this note pinned to her blanket:

This is Jo. Please take care of her.

But beware.

This is a DANGEROUS baby.

Up until this point, Jo hasn’t been dangerous at all. But that’s about to change. At Lily’s annual Christmas costume party, several strange things happen: a boy in a hedgehog costume shoots an elderly Russian colonel; a human-sized talking cockroach is found tied up in the basement, moaning about how this will play out in the tabloid press; and a box falls from the sky, addressed to Jo from the Order of Odd-Fish.

Jo joins up with Colonel Korsakov, whose every action is dictated by his digestion, and Sefino, an incredibly narcissistic cockroach butler. They are soon being chased by a Chinese millionaire whose one and only goal in life is to become the world’s most evil man. They wind up in Eldritch City, where Jo becomes squire to a knight of the Order of Odd-Fish. The Order is at work creating an appendix of “dubious facts, rumors, and myths…a repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about”.

Eldritch City itself may qualify as another character. It’s like Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl got together and tried to out-weird each other.

There Jo learns why she is considered dangerous, and why she must hide her true identity from her new friends. The Belgian Prankster (a villain who wears goggles and a rawhide diaper) wants to bring about the destruction of Jo’s new home by waking the terrible and dreaded Ichthala, the All-Devouring Mother. Jo must outwit him and face her own strange destiny.

I read the description on the inside cover and I had to buy The Order of Odd-Fish. I wasn’t disappointed. This book is awesome. It’s incredibly bizarre; very Monty Python-esque with a bit of Lovecraft crashing the party. The oddball adventure is neatly balanced with a slight touch of horror, and it’s a lot of fun. Sefino is far and away my favorite character and I loved the sideplot about his problems with the newswriter at the Eldritch Snitch.

This book is marketed as young adult, but anyone who enjoys eccentric storytelling and ridiculous humor would love this book. The story may be off the wall, but it’s incredibly engaging. You never know where it’s going and it leads to unexpected places.

“After that, everyone had the leisure to start screaming.”

5 out of 5 stars – highly recommended