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Posts Tagged ‘ghosts’

splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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skullI’m late to the party when it comes to fall books. I missed Halloween and most of the last month due to a series of unfortunate events. Books went unread, blog posts unwritten, e-mails unanswered. Now we’re catching up: Three books aimed at kids with crossover appeal for teens and grown-ups.

The Screaming Staircase, the first entry in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series about teen ghost detectives, was both frighteningly funny and wickedly smart. The follow-up, The Whispering Skull (Disney, digital galley) is all that and more, offering some genuine chills as Anthony, George and narrator Lucy pursue malignant spirits and evil grave robbers in an alternate London. The teens have the necessary psychic abilities — along with swords, silver chains and flash powder — to battle their supernatural foes, but they compete for business with larger, more established firms such as the Fittes agency. The rivalry is exacerbated when Scotland Yard puts both Lockwood and Fittes on the case of the mysterious “bone mirror,” stolen from the corpse of a Victorian doctor who tried to communicate with the dead. The doctor supposedly met a grisly end in a roomful of rats, but such rumors don’t explain the bullet hole in his head, nor the power of the mirror, which strikes such fear in onlookers that they go mad or die on the spot. While George researches the case, Anthony contacts an unusual source and Lucy tries to discern if a skull in a jar ever speaks the truth. Action and adventure ensue as the trio infiltrates a museum, eavesdrops on a midnight auction, leaps from rooftops and crawls through crypts. Don’t miss it.

sisterhoodI bet Julie Berry had fun writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook Press, library e-book), even with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. I certainly chuckled my way through this madcap murder mystery set in a Victorian boarding school for girls. The seven students, from Dear Roberta to Dour Elinor, are shocked and dismayed when their skinflint headmistress and her no-good brother both drop dead at Sunday dinner. They’re not so worried about a killer on the loose as the prospect of the school being closed and the girls sent home. Then Smooth Kitty proposes a scheme whereby they’ll cover up the murders, bury the bodies in the garden and run the school themselves. One lie leads to another as nosy neighbors keep dropping by, and before long Stout Alice is impersonating the late headmistress while her classmates go sleuthing. So clever. Such fun.

witchboyThe title character in Kelly Barnhill’s coming-of-age fantasy The Witch’s Boy (Algonquin, review copy) is also known as Ned, “the wrong boy,” because his mother’s magic saved him from drowning with his twin brother, Tam, and then bound their two souls together. Ned believes Tam should have been the one who lived; he grows up awkward, shy and unsure himself. In a nearby kingdom, the girl Aine is also suffering from the choices her father — the Bandit King — has made. Ned and Aine’s lives are linked by an ancient prophecy — “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his” — as well as by her father’s scheme to steal his mother’s magic. Assertive Aine and quiet Ned make for unlikely friends as they begin a quest to discover the secret of nine stone giants and prevent a devastating war. Barnhill’s lyrical language and use of classic fairy tale elements gives her involving story a magic all its own.

 

 

 

 

 

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dicamilloWhen a vacuum cleaner swallows a squirrel, obsessive comic-book reader Flora Belle Buckman rushes to the rescue, resucitating the now-not-so-furry creature only to discover she has a superhero on her hands. Ulysses — as Flora calls him after the vacuum cleaner model — has somehow acquired the superpowers of strength, flight and poetry-writing.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick, purchased hardcover), which this week won author Kate DiCamillo her second Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature. She won her first 10 years ago for The Tale of Despereaux,  and her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, set in the small-town Central Florida where she grew up, was a Newbery Honor Book in 2000. She now has more than a dozen books for young readers to her credit, including the popular Mercy Watson series. I wrote about her when I was at the Orlando Sentinel and again on this blog a few books back, http://tinyurl.com/owbs4av.  I was getting ready to write about her again because earlier this month, Kate DiCamillo was inaugurated as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress. Then came word that Flora and Ulysses had captured the Newbery. Super!

Or holy bagumba, as Flora might say. Like her creator, Flora has a “capacious” imagination, a super-sized vocabulary, a droll wit and a tender heart. All are shown to advantage in the book, where the narrative is nicely complemented by K. G. Campbell’s illustrations and cartoon panels. It’s altogether funny and charming, a whimsical winner if ever there was one.

lockwoodI love books that successfully bend/blend genres. Jonathan Stroud kicks off his new series about teen ghost detectives, Lockwood & Co., with the frightfully funny and wickedly smart The Screaming Staircase (Disney-Hyperion, digital galley). London has a Problem: disagreeable ghosts, spirits and spectres of all kinds. The solution: teenagers with specially honed psychic abilities who have the best luck vanquishing the supernatural foes. Narrator Lucy Carlyle, who hasn’t always been lucky, joins the independent psychic detection agency, Lockwood & Co., teaming up with ambitious Anthony and aggravating George. They rid one London structure of its ghostly occupant only to discover a corpse and burn down the house in the process. Nevertheless, another haunted mansion awaits — Combe Carey Hall, site of way too many sudden deaths, surprising secrets and, of course, the screaming staircase. Great fun for kids (and adults indulging their inner kid).

hollowI’m halfway through Ransom Riggs’  Hollow City (Quirk Books, purchased e-book), the sequel to his fascinating fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar  Children. So far, it’s just as good, if not better, as Jacob and a group of other peculiars flee their Welsh island time loop to participate in the war against the nightmarish creatures known as “hollows.” They’re accompanied by Miss Peregrine in bird form — they’re hoping to find help to change her back — and meet other peculiars, including animals. Really, you have to read the first book, you must, to fully appreciate the exciting and well-crafted backstory in which Jacob discovers he’s more like his mysterious and extraordinary grandfather than he ever supposed. Again, odd black-and-white vintage photos enhance the the tale. I’d write more, but those pages won’t turn themselves. At least not yet . . .

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madnessSometimes I think I want to go back to school. Not ordinary school-school but someplace exotic, like Hogwarts or Brakebills.

Wexford, the London school in Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath (Penguin Young Readers, digital galley), isn’t all that unusual unless you are 17-year-old Louisiana teen Rory Devereaux. As a new student at Wexford in 2011’s The Name of the Star, Rory’s near-death choking experience left her with the ability to see ghosts. And that led to some rousing ghostbusting adventures with the “Shades of London,” a super-secret trio of young police officers on the trail of a ghostly Jack the Ripper copycat.

In the entertaining new book, Rory is still recovering from her Ripper encounter when she returns to Wexford. The Shades — serious Stephen, enigmatic Callum and gregarious Boo — need her help, especially after Rory discovers that Wexford is built atop the graveyard of Bedlam, the old insane asylum. But there also are other mysterious forces who want Rory’s particular talents, which were enhanced by her last brush with death.

Rory again narrates with verve as Johnson expertly combines the ordinary problems of school (exams, boyfriends, roommates) with the extraordinary (murder, secrets, ghosts). But doesn’t Johnson know it’s not nice to leave readers hanging by their fingernails from such a steep cliff?!

etiquetteManners are the thing in Gail Carriger’s first book for teens, Etiquette and Espionage (Little, Brown Young Readers, purchased e-book), set in the steampunk fantasy England of her Parasol Protectorate adult series. As a “covert recruit” at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality, 14-year old Sophronia and her classmates have lessons in dancing, drawing, music, dress and modern languages, as well as “the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries.” Swords can get caught in skirts, which is why the student assassins-to-be use knives even as they practice advanced eyelash-fluttering.  The school itself is located in huge, interlaced dirigibles floating above the moors, and the professors include a vain vampire and a roguish werewolf.

You can tell Carriger had a blast (and tongue firmly in cheek) coming up with the quasi-Victorian details, outrageous names and over-the-top hi-jinks. Both clever and silly, this genre-bending romp involves agile Sophronia and her sidekicks, including a “mechanical” steam-powered dog, fighting off “flywaymen” for possession of a prototype allowing for better communication through the ether. It’s billed as “Finishing School — Book the First” so the ending is happily not the finish.

nightmareSixteen-year-old Destiny “Dusty” Everhart is a relatively new student at Arkwell Academy in Mindee Arnett’s The Nightmare Affair (TOR Teen, purchased e-book). And she’s having a rough time at this boarding school for magickind, being the lone Nightmare among the cliques of witches, sirens, faeries, etc. But her ability to feed off others’ dreams also earns her a certain reputation, although not as scandalous as that of her estranged mother. But that could change now that The Will, the magickind governing regime, demands that she partner with the handsome human Eli Booker to predict the future.

Arnett’s world-building is engaging, especially the classifications and characteristics of magickind, but the plot is a predictable mash-up of high-school coming-of-age and  Arthurian mythology. Here’s hoping the next entry in the Arkwell Academy series offers more challenge.

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In last summer’s best-seller, A Discovery of Witches, author and historian Deborah Harkness introduced readers to Diana Bishop, an American scholar with witch DNA, and Matthew Clairmont, an Oxford geneticist and centuries-old vampire. The two came together in the search for an ancient alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, that may explain the origins of the supernatural world and its witches, vampires and daemons. After pages and pages, Diana and Matthew were left calling on her untapped powers as a timespinner to go back to Elizabethean England.

I liked the first book for the most part, with its often heady mix of history, science, romance and fantasy. But  I soon tired of supernatural yoga classes and squabbles, and I resented the cliffhanger ending, which tempered my enthusiasm for a sequel that would also be the middle book of the All Souls trilogy. Really, another 600 pages and then wait for the third book a year from now?

Yes, yes, whatever. Shadow of Night (Viking Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley) may be the fastest 600 pages I’ve read since Harry Potter. Harkness’ dynamic duo interact with historical figures, a number of whom have their own supernatural secrets (Christopher Marlowe is a jealous daemon), and journey to London, France and Prague in search of a tutor for Diana and the lost manuscript. They are threatened by witch-hunters, meet up with Matthew’s powerful father, and make true friends and more enemies while trying not to trip up the past and thus change the present. Oh, they also get married, even though witches and vampires aren’t supposed to. As for what the future holds, we’ll just have to wait.

Happily, since paranormal is the new normal, there are other books of mystery and magic to enjoy. Carsten Stroud’s Niceville (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley via NetGalley) is all over the place and over the top with its energetic story of a small Southern town beset by trigger-happy thieves, mysterious random disappearances, a bloodsoaked past and Something Evil from beyond the grave. Detective Nick Kavanaugh isn’t sure what’s going on, even though his wife Kate is from one of Niceville’s founding families, but he dutifully charges forth into the murk and mayhem. I followed and tried not to overthink, or even think.

Sadie Jones’ The Uninvited Guests (HarperCollins, e-book borrowed from library) is altogther different, a wicked delight and/or delightfully wicked. The Edwardian country-house setting and class-conscious characters reminded me a bit of Dodie Smith, P.G. Wodehouse and Muriel Spark, but Jones’ pen is more poisonous. Emerald Torrington’s 20th birthday dinner party is disrupted by news of a train derailment and the arrival of a group of survivors. All are from the third-class carriage with the exception of one peculiar gentleman, who quickly insinuates himself with the family and their few invited guests, claiming old acquaintanceship with Emerald’s mother. She is appalled by his presence but also curiously afraid, and the mystery deepens as he orchestrates a parlor game that sets the players at odds with one another and can only end in tears. The story won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — too strange and bitter — but the shenanigans of Emerald’s young sister Smudge provide needed levity, and really, all’s well that ends well.  At least for some people.

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