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Archive for the ‘read in 2009’ Category

Melanie.

The word was spoken against my ear, and I stopped, my feet unwilling or unable to move.

Give it back.

The words seemed to grow louder instead of fading, my eardrums aching from the sound of them.  Cold fingers fumbled at my neck, and I felt the clasp snap as the locket was snatched away from me.

It is mine! the voice screeched.  I slid down the wall to a squat, pressing my hands against my ringing ears.

The icy fingers were at my neck again, but this time they were pressing against the flesh there, squeezing the breath out of me.  I struck out at empty air and shouted for help, but the word came out as a gasp of air.  Spots danced in front of me as the fingers dug into my neck, my throat burning, my eyes blinded with light.  I tried to call out one more time, realizing as I began to slip into unconsciousness that the word I was trying to say was Jack.

(from The Girl on Legare Street, page 178)

In The Girl on Legare Street, Karen White revisits the characters she introduced last year in The House on Tradd Street (click read my review).  Overachieving, super-organized Realtor Melanie Middleton can see and hear ghosts.  It’s a gift she hasn’t fully embraced, which can be a problem when you own and are in the process of restoring an historic home that just happens to be haunted.  White paints another beautiful portrait of historic homes in Charleston, S.C., this time Melanie’s childhood home on Legare Street.  An even more sinister ghost haunts this home, and Melanie’s mother, Ginnette, who abandoned her more than thirty years ago, is back.  Melanie wants nothing to do with her, but with a little coaxing from Jack Trenholm — a writer whom she met when she inherited the house on Tradd Street, the one who makes her heart flutter and her blood boil, depending on her mood — and the various other people in her life, she is willing to tolerate her mother and help her purchase the house on Legare Street.  She learns that her mother received a premonition and raced back to Charleston to protect her; Melanie can’t understand why her mother left her as a child and came back now when she’s old enough to take care of herself.

Ginnette has the gift, too, and she believes teaming up with Melanie will make them both strong enough to force the ghost inhabiting the Legare Street house out of their lives forever.  But of course, when Melanie is involved, things rarely go easy.  Although whiny at times, Melanie’s ranting and raving about her mother’s abandonment, her constant denial of her feelings for Jack, her jealousy of Jack’s connection to the reporter writing a story about her mother, and even some romance with the ghost of a German soldier all provide plenty of entertainment as readers try to solve the riddles and mystery involving lockets, a journal, a stained glass window, and a body found in a trunk under the sea.  Who is the ghost tormenting Melanie and her mother?  How does the mystery involve Melanie’s ancestors?  And when is Melanie going to open her eyes when it comes to Jack?  Well, you’ll just have to grab a copy of The Girl on Legare Street and find out.  (It’s not crucial that you read The House on Tradd Street first, but it’ll make certain things easier to follow.  And it’s a good book, so you should read it anyway.)

Karen White is a very talented Southern fiction writer.  Her characters are lovable despite their flaws, and Melanie’s first-person narration makes it feel like you’re following around an old friend.  White beautifully describes the homes of which she writes, and the mysteries are suspenseful enough to keep you reading past your bedtime.  She does a great job setting a creepy mood when the ghosts appear, and while theses scenes aren’t overly scary, you might think differently if you’re reading them at night in your home alone.  The Girl on Legare Street has something for everyone — mystery, romance, familial drama, and of course, enough sexual tension that you could cut it with a knife.

White wraps up the mystery by the end of the book, but she opens up a whole new can of worms on the very last page, so you can bet I’m eagerly anticipating the third book in the Melanie and Jack saga, which is due out in Fall 2011.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Girl on Legare Street from Joan Schulhafer Publishing & Media Consulting for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Without thinking, you walk toward the bar, toward her and the sound, and yes, the scratching grows louder.  It’s centered on her, remains with her when the bartender steps away, hangs in the air around her as she silently contemplates her martini glass.  There’s no question about it.  That’s the scratching of the author’s pencil.  She’s being written.

(from Being Written, pages 1-2)

I’d been dying to read Being Written by William Conescu since reading a review by Heather from Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books, and I don’t know why I let the book linger on my shelf for so long after she let me borrow it.  I’m glad I picked it up last month because it’s a fast, engaging read.

Being Written is a clever novel about Daniel Fisher, a young professional living in Boston who hears the scratching of a pencil while sitting in a bar and realizes that an author is writing someone’s story.  He knows it’s not about him, he’s only a minor player, but he really wants a piece of the limelight.  He realizes that a young woman at the bar is generating the scratching noise, that her story is the one being written.  His desire to be part of the book is so strong that he worms his way into the young woman’s life.  First, he ends up in Delia’s bed, then he becomes a regular fixture at her and her friends’ hangouts.  Daniel is just a regular Joe (well, aside from the fact that he is the only one hearing the author’s pencil), and he decides he needs to be more interesting so the author will notice him.  He lies and says he’s a writer working on a novel, and he goes out of his way to make things happen.

Delia is a talented singer who studied music in college.  She and her musician boyfriend, Graham, left school before realizing their dreams.  Now Delia works a dead-end job for a nonprofit foundation and sings in her spare time at a rest home.  She is unhappy not only with her career, but also with her relationship with Graham — whose inability to hold down a real job has prompted him to take up another line of work that leaves Delia feeling both disgusted and betrayed.  Conescu also tells the story through the eyes of Monty, Delia’s childhood friend and a colleague of Daniel’s, and Jon, their gay bartender friend.

Consescu devised a brilliant structure for Being Written.  All of the main characters have chapters to themselves, and these are written in the third person (as though they are part of the novel being written) — except for Daniel’s.  Daniel’s story is told in the second person and in the present tense, putting readers in the here and now and making it possible that the author is responsible for his actions.  As Daniel’s willingness to do whatever it takes to play a prominent role in the story grows, the tension builds, putting readers on the edge of their seats.  I wasn’t expecting the story to take the turn it did, with some thriller aspects thrown in, but it all made sense and wasn’t at all out of character.

Being Written is among the most unique books I’ve ever read, and Consecu does a wonderful job pacing the story.  Once I started reading it, it was hard to put down.  I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for something different, something both humorous and sad, or even just a quick, suspenseful read.

Disclosure:  I borrowed Being Written from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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We come home tired.  We come home hungry, but Bobby, Sue, and me, Ella May, got more work to do after supper.

We got to listen.

(from The Listeners)

The Listeners is a picture book depicting the lives of slaves, in particular three children who, after a hard day of work, go to the main house, hide under the open window, and listen to the conversations of the master and mistress of the plantation.  They listen for anything that might be important to the slaves, such as the arrival of a new boss or the sale of a particular slave, which could mean harsher working conditions or that a family would be separated.

Gloria Whelan brings one aspect of slavery to life in a way that is easy for children to grasp.  She explains the hard work the slaves are forced to perform and how they had no say in what happened to themselves or their families without detailing the beatings and other hardships that slaves endured at the hands of their masters.  Whelan shows how slave families did their best to stick together and help one another, and how their faith in God helped them survive.  And the illustrations by Mike Benny are dark hued, complementing this dark page in our nation’s history.

By telling the story from the point of view of a child, Whelan helps spark a discussion among parents and children, who will see sharp differences between their lives and the lives of the book’s characters.  I read this book with The Girl (age 9), and she told me what she’d learned so far about slavery.  We talked about how unfair and even dangerous it is to look at people differently based on the color of their skin, social class, religious beliefs, etc.  The role of the listeners was new to us both, and the courage of these children fascinated us.  The Listeners is an amazing story that can teach both children and adults about a chapter in history that must be discussed but never repeated.

Disclosure:  We won a copy of The Listeners in a blog giveaway. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Serena and I went to see Inglourious Basterds as soon as it hit the theaters, and not being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t have high expectations for the film.  However, I absolutely loved it (read our review here), and when Kathy told me there were scenes in the published screenplay that weren’t in the movie, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

Inglourious Basterds is a revenge war film with a lot going on.  It takes place in Nazi-occupied France and has two major storylines that ultimately converge.  There’s Shosanna, who escapes being murdered by “the Jew Hunter,” SS Colonel Hans Landa, and eventually comes to own a cinema in Paris.  She meets a German soldier who is attracted to her, and he decides that the Nazi propaganda in which he stars should be premiered at her theater.  Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine and his Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers, are attacking German troops, scalping them, and leaving one survivor with a Swastika carved into his forehead.  The Basterds are determined to attend the film premier and hopefully put a stop to the war.

Inglourious Basterds is the first screenplay I’ve ever read, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Tarantino’s stage directions are very detailed, making it easy to picture the story in my head, but the fact that I saw the movie first probably helped quite a bit in that respect.  He gives a lot more description and commentary than I would have expected.

Strangling the very life out of somebody with your bare hands is the most violent act a human being can commit.

Also, only human beings strangle, opposable thumbs being a quite important part of the endeavor. (page 137)

It’s these kinds of details that really make the screenplay interesting to read.  The dialogue also is very clever, and there were several scenes or parts of scenes that weren’t in the movie.  I can see why they weren’t included, as they aren’t crucial to the plot, but they were interesting nonetheless.

I enjoyed reading Inglourious Basterds almost as much as I enjoyed watching it.  If you’re someone who doesn’t mind reading graphic violence and would rather read it than watch it, then the screenplay is the way to go.  While the violence can be a bit much in Inglourious Basterds (this is Quentin Tarantino, after all), the plot and the characters were so captivating that I could overlook it in this case.  As for whether I’d ever read another screenplay, I’m not sure.  It’s not like reading a novel after watching the movie; with a screenplay, you’re essentially reading the movie.  But it was totally worth it in this case.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Inglourious Basterds from Hachette for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The Girl (age 9) loves Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, has all the books, and even waited in line for about 2 hours at the National Book Festival to meet him and have her books signed.  So when the fourth book in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Dog Days, was released in October, she bought a copy right away.  In fact, she saved a gift card she received for her birthday back in July solely for this purpose.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Dog Days was my introduction to the series, and I probably wouldn’t have read it had The Girl not fallen ill and wanted me to read to her.  But I was sucked in from the first page, and in less than an hour, we’d blown through 90 pages of the 217-page book.  It helps that it’s written like a diary with cartoon drawings, but it’s also very funny.

Here’s the gist:  Nothing seems to go Greg Heffley’s way.  The summer arrives, and he plans to spend it in his room playing video games with the curtains drawn.  But his mother (thankfully) has other plans.

The Girl asked me if we could do this review a little differently, sort of like an interview.  So here goes:

The Girl:  What was your favorite part of the story?

Me:  When Greg has to pay his friend Rowley’s father back, and he decides to start a lawn care business.  The advertisements in which he superimposes his and Rowley’s faces on the bodies of burly construction workers were hilarious.

The Girl:  Who was your favorite character?

Me:  I thought Greg was pretty funny, but he doesn’t always make the right choices, as we discussed.  Since the story is written from Greg’s point of view, and he tends to focus mainly on himself, you don’t get to know the other characters really well.

The Girl:  What do you think this book teaches kids?

Me:  Well, I hope they’d see that the choices Greg makes typically are bad ones.  While the events that occur are supposed to be funny, and they are, you really wouldn’t want kids trying to act like Greg Heffley.  But it’s fiction.  I mean, how many kids Greg’s age really think their parents would try to sell them and then call the police on them?  It’s purely entertainment.

What was your favorite part of the book?

The Girl:  When Greg and Rowley were under the boardwalk and sticking a dollar bill through the wooden planks and pulling it back before people could grab it.

Me:  Is this your favorite book in the series?

The Girl:  Yes.  I thought it was the funniest.

Me:  Do you think Greg is a good role model?

The Girl: No.  He disobeys his parents and causes trouble.  He called the police on his father for no reason.

Me:  Why do you think the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are so popular?

The Girl:  The stories and the cartoon illustrations are funny.  Jeff Kinney has a way of telling a story that grabs your attention and is easy to understand.

Me:  Last question.  Do you identify in any with Greg Heffley?

The Girl:  No.  I never disobey my parents.

Me:  HA!  HA!  HA!  You certainly have a sense of humor.

Well, there you have it.  In a nutshell, Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Dog Days is a fun book for middle grade readers, and even grownups will get a laugh out of it.  In fact, I’ve borrowed the other three books from The Girl, and I hope to read them when I’m in the mood for some light reading.

Have any of you shared these books with your children?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclosure:  We purchased our copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Dog Days. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“It is hard sometimes, I know.  One goes astray from the pattern prepared — allowing mundane affairs to carry you away, thinking you are in control when actually you have betrayed yourself.  In the example of one extreme, I will mention the soul whom you knew as Hitler, who was to be a benevolent leader of the European countries, a great light in that part of the world.  But he failed and, in his lust for power, short-circuited his own mission and the lives of tens of millions of others.  He believed in the illusion produced by his politics, and in the darkness of that delusion he was carted away.  In that hell now, he grieves an indescribable grief, painful beyond any experience known.  He grieves for who he is and what he did, a measure that is not easily repaired, though healed in time it will be.”

(The Hierophant of 100th Street, page 204)

This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write.  I was intrigued by the summary on the back of the book calling The Hierophant of 100th Street a cross between The Celestine Prophecy and West Side Story.  When I saw it categorized as fiction/metaphysics, I was hesitant.  What the heck is metaphysics?  And more importantly, what is an hierophant?  After looking up the definition of hierophant (“a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy”), I dove in.

Because there are quite a few characters and a lot going on in The Hierophant of 100th Street, making it difficult to put my thoughts into words, let me just tell you upfront that I enjoyed the book  That being said, I’ll admit that a lot of it was over my head.  To me, it seems as though the book could be divided into two parts:  the people and events of 100th Street — a rough East Harlem neighborhood — in the 1960s, and the spiritual journey of the main character, Adam Kadman.

Author Cullen Dorn follows Adam beginning with his decision to be reincarnated and his rebirth as Adam Kadman, with the book officially opening when Adam is 17.  He is different from the other youths of 100th Street.  He is intelligent, always seeing things that others can’t, and not interested in cheap women, drugs, or fighting.  Adam’s story involves a near fatal stabbing, being drafted during Vietnam, his journey to Egypt and his flight back to the United States when love and culture butt heads, and his friendship with renowned psychic Clifford Bias (who in real life was a close friend of Dorn’s).

The spiritual aspect of the story involves Bias and the secret rituals he leads, as well as Adam’s visits to Arizona to hear Crowfoot speak about the different planes of heaven through medium Richard Ireland.  The mystical religion that guides Adam through his later years — what he had been seeking all along — is clearly spelled out throughout the book, but these scenes felt preachy and read like I was sitting in a college lecture hall.  I longed to quickly read through them to get to what I felt was the meat of the book:  the block of 100th Street where Adam grew up and the captivating characters found on its corners.  I couldn’t get enough of these characters:  John, Adam’s younger brother and a hoodlum and drug addict who winds up in prison; Eddie, a friend of Adam’s who grows up to be a cop and desires only to stop the drug dealers taking over the neighborhood; Count, whose lust for a conniving woman leads him to commit a crime that has the mafia and crooked cops seeking him out; and Landy, a talented musician whose love for Nicola is stronger than her heroin addition.  100th Street, as portrayed by Dorn, is akin to an entire semester’s worth of sociological study packed into just under 400 pages.

While Dorn does connect the spiritual aspect of the story to the larger picture of 100th Street, it is these characters that brought the book to life for me.  I don’t know what it’s like to live in a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood, to worry about being murdered in a stairwell of a public housing complex, to see an entire neighborhood fall to the drug dealers, its inhabitants walking around like zombies.  How these characters come to terms with their situations and how their past lives and choices on the other side affect their actions in this world and the next gets you thinking about the workings of the universe, neighborhood dynamics, friendship and family, and how our decisions affect others.

Even if you think the mystical aspect of the book isn’t your cup of tea and doesn’t jibe with your own personal religious beliefs, The Hierophant of 100th Street is worth checking out.  Dorn’s characters are flawed yet endearing, and he takes readers to the streets to witness firsthand the heartbreaking effects of drugs, gangs, and prison.  At times graphic and completely devoid of hope, The Hierophant of 100th Street shows that life may not be all that it seems and that even in the darkest of situations, there is promise, if not in the here and now, then somewhere else.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Hierophant of 100th Street from Frog Books and LibraryThing for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website.

The book I chose, Riddle in The Mountain by Daryl Burkhard, is published by Dogtooth Books, an imprint of Nomad Press, which is a member of the Green Press Initiative. According to the copyright page, Nomad Press “contributes a percentage of its resources to non-profit organizations working on projects related to the topic of its books.” The book is printed on recycled paper, and as part of the Green Press Initiative, the publisher must adhere to minimum standards for manufacturing. Other green features, according to the publisher, include black-and-white printing; the use of a printer, Friesens, with robust in-house environmental practices; and a minimal freight footprint because it was manufactured in North America, specifically Canada.

I think this campaign is important, especially for people like me who like the feel of a book in their hands and are a bit resistant to the emergence of e-readers. I love everything about printed books — the smell, the texture, and how these differ for every book. But I struggle with the fact that books eat up paper, not to mention other aspects of the printing process that consume energy and other resources and create pollution. It’s nice to know that many publishers are taking steps to make the process more eco-friendly, and it’s important to look for these “green” books whenever possible.

Okay, now on to the book itself. Riddle in the Mountain is an engaging book for middle-grade readers that touches upon ghosts, time travel, and the Wild West. Burkhard tells the story of Kathy, a 12-year-old girl who hears whispers and learns that she has a gift that enables her to open the door to another world. Her family just moved to Boulder, Colorado, and she’s afraid of the dark, so it’s quite possible that the voices she hears are in her head. Her neighbor, Mrs. Acheson, however, recognizes Kathy’s gift. After being teased by her 13-year-old brother, David, and his friend, Frank, the trio go on a late-night ghost hunt — much to Kathy’s dismay — and meet a tommyknocker who lets them know that a door has been opened by the one with the gift and that the three of them must save the key and return it to its rightful place so he can go home to the mountains and the mines.

To accomplish this goal, he imprints a riddle in their minds, each of them with a different part of the riddle.  They find themselves transported to Boulder, Colorado, in 1879 without money, appropriate attire, or adult supervision. They have only the riddle and a desire to find the key, but of course, they must enjoy the hands-on history lesson. Who wouldn’t?

On their journey, they meet Rocky Mountain Joe, who teaches Kathy a lot about life:

Kathy groaned.  “Not me,” she said in a low tone so the boys wouldn’t hear. “The dark scares me.”

Rocky Mountain Joe tilted his head and gave a quizzical look from under his leather hat. “I reckon that’s because you imagine bad things in the dark. Think of its beauty and wonders, instead: the call of the nighthawk in the fading sky; the roar of its wings as it dives for an evening meal; crickets calling back and forth; laughing coyotes as they sing their melodies; the hooting of the owl; or the brilliance of the stars and moon. Without the night and its cloak of darkness, we would miss these wonderful things.”

“What about ghosts and goblins and — well, other things?”

Joe laughed. “Can’t say I’ve run into any of them. Leastwise, none that I can’t handle,” he added with a wink.

Riddle in the Mountain is an action-packed adventure perfect for readers between the ages of 9 and 12, but I think adults could enjoy it, too; I found it to be an enjoyable read. Burkhard’s descriptions of the Wild West bring the scenes to life, and illustrations by Frank Riccio only add to the book’s charm. The characters seemed true to the period, and Kathy, David, and Frank were very real — bickering and all! The mystery of the riddle and the tommyknocker who sent them on their journey grabbed my attention right away, and it was interesting to see how the children joined together, adapted to their new environment, and learned a lot about themselves along the way. I recommend Riddle in the Mountain if you’re looking for a quick read that requires a little thinking but isn’t overwhelming or if you have children fascinated by ghosts, gold mines, western pioneers, and time travel.  The book received an Independent Publishers Award.

More green information about Riddle in the Mountain: The book is 100% PCW (post-consumer waste), processed chlorine free.  The paper is 55-pound New Leaf EcoBook 100, natural antique.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of Riddle in the Mountain from Dogtooth Books/Nomad Press for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“Why did you join?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Everyone has a different story.  A German soldier shoots two men, and their widows, who never even liked each other before, find they are best friends.  They start a little band of resistance.  And they meet another woman whose father was killed, and she bands with them.  And another woman who was raped by a Nazi officer, and she bands with them.  And the girl who watched her mother get raped.  And the girl who watched her brother get arrested and dragged away.  Everyone has a personal story.  But in the end, they’re all the same.”

(from Fire in the Hills, pages 92-93)

Back in August, I reviewed Donna Jo Napoli’s World War II novel for young adults, Stones in Water.  Napoli tells the story of Roberto, a young boy from Venice, Italy, who goes to the cinema with his brother and some friends, and the Germans come in and round up all the boys and transport them to work camps.  Roberto successfully escapes from a work camp in the Ukraine, but he must make his way on foot back to Venice.  While I really enjoyed Stones in Water, I was a little frustrated with the open ending, and I was thrilled when Napoli e-mailed me to say there was a sequel called Fire in the Hills.

Fire in the Hills opens with Roberto still hoping to return to Venice (Note:  I’m not telling you anything big or giving away the end to Stones in Water).  He’s finally made it to Italy, but the German occupation means his hardships are far from over.  Roberto is alone and hungry, and while he’s grown up a lot since his capture, he’s really still a child.  He wants most to get back to his parents, learn what happened to his brother, and simply be safe.  However, he’s roaming through Italy depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.  Roberto is recaptured by the Germans and eventually freed by resistance fighters, whose family takes him in.  While staying with this family, he meets Volpe Rossa (“red fox”), a young girl who is a member of the partigiani, the Italian resistance movement.  Roberto decides to reassess his priorities, putting his desire to see an end to the war above his desire to stay safe, and he embarks on a journey with Volpe Rossa and becomes Lupo (“wolf”).  As Lupo, he goes on many missions, mainly delivering messages and weapons to other resistance fighters — all as he tries to make his way back home.

Fire in the Hills is full of action and tension, and every time Lupo and Volpe Rossa came in contact with the Nazis, I was on the edge of my seat.  I’d grown attached to Lupo, and I could feel his fear.  I loved the character of Volpe Rossa, a young woman wise beyond her years, a leader with great strength.  She knows how to use her femininity and her beauty to her advantage and to advance the cause — and no matter what happens, she doesn’t want to be viewed as a helpless girl.  Napoli provides a lot of interesting details about the Italian resistance, emphasizing the role women played in helping bring the war to a close.  She also brilliantly captures the innocence of Lupo, his gentleness and respect for humanity, which he retains despite all of the horrific things he has witnessed.

Fire in the Hills is a wonderful conclusion to the story begun in Stones in Water, but it is a standalone book.  Napoli weaves the major events of Stones in Water into the narrative, so readers have enough information about Roberto and his experiences since the cinema roundup that they shouldn’t feel lost.  While classified as a YA novel, I would recommend this one for mature YA readers.  There is more violence than the previous book, and these scenes might be too much for middle-grade readers.  (Personally, I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old daughter read this book yet, and I think I’d even wait a year or two before giving her my copy of Stones in Water.  But I definitely will recommend these to her at some point.)

These are perfect books if you like historical fiction and would like to learn a little about the German occupation of Italy and the Italian resistance through the eyes of a young boy directly affected by the war.  They are short, but powerful, and because they are geared toward the YA market, they aren’t overwhelming in terms of graphic details.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fire in the Hills from the library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Now she understood the superstitions of ancient cultures, the impetus for séances and Ouija boards, and the necessity of burial, so that the dead might sleep in peace.  She couldn’t say which was more troubling — the state of her husband’s soul or the state of her own mind, for she suspected that all those mourners with their mirrors reversed did not dread spirits so much as the look of their own haunted faces.

(from The Widow’s Season, page 23)

The Widow’s Season by Laura Brodie focuses on Sarah McConnell, a 39-year-old widow haunted by her dead husband.  She had been wallowing in grief for three months when she first saw her husband’s ghost.  It happened in the grocery store right around Halloween.  He locked eyes with her for a moment, and he seemed more real than otherworldly.  He is gone before Sarah can approach him, but this vision becomes the first of many.  And given that her husband’s death at the hands of a swollen river during a bad storm in the mountains near their home in Jackson, Virginia, is declared without his body having been found, Sarah begins to wonder whether David is really dead or simply trading the life of a busy doctor for one of a simple artist and hermit.

Sarah is haunted not only by David’s ghost, but also by their marriage of more than a decade that involved several heartbreaking miscarriages and a slow emotional and physical withdrawal by both of them.  When a spouse dies so unexpectedly, there are so many things left unsaid and undone — and there isn’t a thing the surviving spouse can do to remedy the situation.  Life must go on for Sarah.  She must decide what to do about the huge house left empty by David’s death and her inability to carry a baby to term.  She must prepare David’s paintings for an exhibition in a local gallery and later a more prestigious showing in Washington, D.C.  And she must contend with her attraction to Nate, David’s handsome-to-the-point-of-perfection (or at least he’s described that way, but maybe not in those exact words) younger brother.

The Widow’s Season offers a ghost story for readers who like to read about mysterious hauntings but don’t like to be scared.  Brodie explores the depths of grief — how it affects Sarah to her very core; how sadness, depression, and despair can blur the borders of reality; and how surviving spouses cope with feelings of guilt as life goes on.  There isn’t a whole lot of plot in The Widow’s Season, but Brodie’s beautiful prose more than makes up for it.  Her sentences are brilliantly crafted to set a mood, and I felt a heaviness as I read Sarah’s story.  I felt her loss, her pain, and her anger, and I loved how Brodie was able to use a handful of words to toy with my emotions.

When it comes to the characters of Sarah, David, and Nate, Sarah is probably the most well developed.  However, Brodie paints a portrait of their true selves, flaws and all, so that readers see their evolution and understand that no one person is to blame for the events that transpire.  I didn’t like all of them all of the time, and that made them more authentic to me.

The Widow’s Season grabbed me from the first page and kept me guessing until the end.  It’s not a novel filled with sunshine and flowers (thank goodness), but there is some hope to cancel out some of the sadness.  Readers who like emotional, character-driven stories should give it a try.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Widow’s Season from the author for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Horrid Henry is back…and he’s as horrid as ever.  Francesca Simon’s beloved U.K. children’s series — which is illustrated by Tony Ross — has been released in the U.S. by Sourcebooks.  The Girl and I reviewed four of the Horrid Henry books earlier this year, and we were excited to be part of the latest blog tour for Horrid Henry’s Underpants and Horrid Henry and the Scary Sitter.  Each book contains four hilarious stories about the biggest troublemaker I’ve ever read in a children’s book.  Here’s a rundown of the stories:

In Horrid Henry’s Underpants:

“Horrid Henry Eats a Vegetable” — Horrid Henry’s parents always wish he was like his younger brother, Perfect Peter.  Peter loves vegetables — even more than candy.  To persuade Henry to eat his vegetables, his parents bribe him.  If he eats all of his vegetables every day for five days, they’ll take him to his favorite restaurant, complete with greasy fried foods and televisions.  Of course, Henry has no plans to eat his vegetables, and he goes beyond the stick-them-in-your-napkin routine I pulled as a kid.

“Horrid Henry’s Underpants” — This is the funniest story in the two books, and of course, kids will get a kick out of the use of the word “underpants” in the title and throughout the story.  Henry’s great aunt has always thought he was a girl named Henny, and she sends him a gift — frilly, flowery girl underpants.  Unfortunately for Henry, he accidentally wears them to school on a day when he overslept, and he has to figure out how to get rid of them before the kids in his class find out.

“Horrid Henry’s Sick Day” — Horrid Henry doesn’t like that Perfect Peter is sick and staying home from school.  He’d rather stay home and watch tv, too, so he pretends to be sick.  His plan backfires when his parents fall ill, and they need some TLC.  Of course, Henry doesn’t want to help.

“Horrid Henry’s Thank You Letter” — Horrid Henry, the greedy, rude child that he is, obviously has better things to do than write thank you letters for the Christmas gifts he received.  After all, he doesn’t like most of them.  So why should he thank the giver?  Henry decides to write some “No, thank you” letters, and figuring that people would pay for his services, he takes on the job of writing “thank you” letters for his classmates.  I bet you can imagine how well that turns out.

In Horrid Henry and the Scary Sitter:

“Horrid Henry Tricks and Treats”  — Henry does a horrid, horrid thing to Perfect Peter and is forced to stay home with his father while his mother and Peter go trick-or-treating.  But when Henry’s classmates ring the bell and show up with their bulging bags of candy, Henry has no intention of missing out on the goodies — especially since his parents are passing out fruit and walnuts as treats.

“Horrid Henry and the Scary Sitter” — It’s understandable why Henry’s parents can’t find a babysitter willing to watch Henry more than once.  Henry is outraged when his parents hire Rabid Rebecca, who expects the boys to be in their pajamas and ready for bed hours before their usual bedtime.  But even though Rebecca is mean and wants the children out of her sight so she can watch ballroom dancing, Henry won’t give up until he has her trained — giving him rule of the house.

“Horrid Henry’s Raid” — Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter’s Purple Hand fort is raided by Moody Margaret and Sour Susan, who insist Henry is responsible for emptying the cookie tin in their Secret Club tent.  Thus begins a back-and-forth battle to annihilate their enemies’ clubhouses.

“Horrid Henry’s Car Journey” — Horrid Henry would rather attend Rude Ralph’s birthday party than the christening of his baby cousin, Vomiting Vera.  So he decides to make the long car trip unbearable for his parents in the hopes that they will turn around and let him attend the birthday party.

Horrid Henry and his antics are amusing to a point.  He truly is the brattiest kid I’ve ever seen in a children’s book, and his actions are funny because they are so outrageous.  However, after reading eight stories of Henry is his horrible glory, I was exhausted and so thankful that my daughter is well behaved and genuinely kind.  I understand that the books are supposed to be funny, but it bothers me that Henry’s parents will tell him to stop being horrid and sometimes even send him to his room without doing much else to change his attitude or his behavior.  Some of the things he does are downright unacceptable and truly mean, and while some of his actions backfire, sometimes there are no consequences.

Yet at the same time, the Horrid Henry books are meant to be funny, ridiculous, and entertaining.  If your child, like mine, is mature enough to separate entertainment from appropriate “real life” behavior, that’s great.  Because you certainly wouldn’t want your kids getting any ideas from Horrid Henry!  While reading these books, The Girl would say “Uh, oh, he’s going to be in trouble” or “Henry’s really mean” or “I’d never do that.  I’d be grounded forever.”  I thought her reactions were funny, and they also made me happy that at least I’ve successfully taught her right from wrong.

After we finished the books, she went upstairs to jot down her thoughts.  When I read her review, I just about died laughing. 

Here are The Girl’s (age 9) thoughts on the books:

Perfect Peter is perfect, but I think he’s a little tattletale.  My favorite story was “Horrid Henry’s Underpants.”  His aunt thinks he is a girl so she gets him girly underwear.  My favorite part was when he couldn’t get dressed for gym because he was going commando, and the teacher said it was his lucky day because she found some spare underwear in the boy’s bathroom, and it’s the same underwear he started out with.  I don’t like how Henry gets away with everything.  I think he should be punished until he’s in college.

Too funny!!  Anyway, if you’re interested in seeing for yourself just how horrid Henry is, you’re in luck.  Courtesy of Sourcebooks, I have a copy of Horrid Henry and The Mummy’s Curse to give away.

I put The Girl in charge of the rules for this giveaway, and because Halloween is coming soon, she wants you to leave a comment telling her your biggest fear.  Please make sure to include your e-mail address with your comment.

Since the publisher is handling shipping, this giveaway is restricted to the United States.  The giveaway will end Sunday, Nov. 8, 2010, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure:  We received copies of Horrid Henry’s Underpants and Horrid Henry and the Scary Sitter from Sourcebooks for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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