Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: 'A Fatal Grace' by Louise Penny

✰✰✰✰½ CC de Poitiers is an arrogant, self-centered, and cold-hearted woman. CC believes that her philosophy of life and self-published book, Li Bien, will soon make her a household name. She also believes that she is on the path to great success. She even had the gall to purchase the old Hadley residence in Three Pines. Unfortunately, she’s managed to alienate just about every single resident of the sleepy little hamlet and is about to become the latest murder victim. When CC is electrocuted in full view of all the spectators at a curling match on Boxing Day, no one sheds a tear.

Meanwhile, Chief Inspector Gamache had planned to spend Boxing Day with his wife, Reine-Marie, reviewing case files of unsolved murders. Hoping to bring new insight to the cases, once a year Gamache exchanged files with his counterpart at the Montreal Metropolitan Police. One case in particular catches his wife’s eye: the murder of a vagrant just before Christmas. Reine-Marie convinces Gamache to look into the case with the hopes of at least finding the bag lady’s name. With this mystery already on his mind, Gamache and his team arrive in Three Pines to investigate CC’s death. They have their work cut out for them as there are no witnesses. Gamache and his team will have to gently pry out the clues little by little as they uncover one of the town’s darkest secrets.

The Bottom Line: Author Louise Penny does it again by delivering a riveting literary mystery full of twists and turns and a surprise ending. A Fatal Grace is an excellent follow-up to A Still Life. It drew me in from the very beginning and wouldn’t let go. All of my favorite characters (and one not so favorite: Yvette Nichol) return as Penny takes the reader deeper into the secrets of this sleepy little town to uncover another layer of mystery and intrigue. All-in-all, the second book in the series is even better than the first. The eccentric characters have more depth and the writing is breathtaking. Penny makes the reader feel as if they are right there in Three Pines battling the elements and trying to solve the mystery with Gamache and his team. Highly recommended for fans of mysteries, cozies, and literary fiction. Penny keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Details: A Fatal Grace: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny. Paperback published by Minotaur Books in 2006. 320 p. ISBN: 978-0-312-54116-3

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine: A Year in Review 2013

2013 has been a stellar year for short stories. It takes a special gift to be able to craft short stories that captivate the reader, and EQMM is full of stories that will grab your attention. The following list features stories that I would highly recommend:

January: This issue features several holiday related stories, but my favorite this month was "There Are Roads in the Water" by Trina Corey. It is a haunting, sad, and lovely tale that I think about now and then. My second favorite for this month was a first story by law student Christopher Reece called "The Auction." The writing was clever and lighthearted.

February: My favorite story was "Never Forget Me" by Penny Hancock. I also enjoyed "One of Those Plans-the-Perfect-Crime-but-Then-Something-Goes-Teddibly,-Teddibly-Wrong Stories by Eric Cline and "Promissory Notes" by Tim L. Williams. Also, this issue featured 3 Sherlock Holmes pastiches of which my favorite was Terence Faherty's "A Scandal in Bohemia."

March/April Double Issue: "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants" by Art Taylor was my favorite of this issue. Readers fascinated with botany (and especially poisonous plants), should definitely check out this story. I also enjoyed reading "Restraint" by Alison Gaylin. This story is short and sweet...just like revenge. Other noteworthy stories in this issue include "The Playlist" by Geoffrey Thorne and  "Neighbors" by Bill Pronzini.

May: This issue featured many stories that I really enjoyed, but Sue Pike's short story, "This is the Last Time," was my favorite. The main character is a child who is left alone in a hotel room in a strange country. The boy has quite an imagination, but sometimes the line between imagination and reality gets blurred. I also enjoyed "Writer's Block" by Penny Hancock; it was very succinct and believable. "The Beauty with the Million-Dollar Brains" by Robert S. Levinson and "Extra Fries" by Michael Z. Lewin were entertaining as well. Finally, be sure to check out the Passport to Crime feature; Medeiros e Albuquerque's story "Crime Unpunished" is worth the read.

June: In this issue Doug Allyn takes readers back to the Civil War in "Blaze of Glory." Meanwhile, Marilyn Todd takes us back to the wild west in "The Wickedest Town in the West." I also enjoyed "The Devil You Know" by David Dean and "Confession" by Bill Pronzini.

July: Every story in this fabulous issue was a winner; it was difficult to pick a favorite. Nevertheless, the story I keep thinking about is "The Cemetery Man" by Bill Pronzini. I also found Nina George's story set in Africa, "The Game of Her Life," haunting and memorable.

August: The last story in this issue was the first one I read and my favorite for this month; it is Sandi Ault's "Wild Justice." I'll have to check out her novels in the near future. Other stories I enjoyed this month included: "Ghost Writer" by Val McDermid, "The Weight" by Steve Hamilton, and the Passport to Crime story, "The Locked House of Pythagoras" by Soji Shimada.

September/October Double Issue: Being a social media junkie myself, I enjoyed Janice Law's short story, "Connected." It was clever and fun. I also enjoyed David Dean's story, "In A Dark Manner." After reading "Mariel" last year, I've become quite a fan of Dean's work. Other stories that caught my attention included: "Collector's Find" by V.S. Kemanis, "Borrowed Time" by Doug Allyn, and the Passport to Crime story, "Mummy Darling" by Maurizio de Giovanni. Also, be sure to check out Kevin Mims' poem, "Cereal Killer," on the last page; I absolutely loved it. All-in-all this was a fabulous issue.

November: Growing up I spent a lot of time in Madison, WI so I really connected with Kris Nelscott's story, "Sob Sisters." Also, I could identify with the characters in Charlaine Harris' story, "Small Kingdoms." Having taught high school for several years, the school environment does sometimes seem like it's own little world. Reading "Darkness in the City of Light" by Hilary Davidson was enjoyable as well.

December: I loved the futuristic setting of Edward D. Hoch's short story, "The Wolfram Hunters." I'm glad his stories are still included in EQMM from time to time. I also enjoyed "Party Girls" by Jonathan Santlofer, "Jack and the Devil" by David Dean, "The Cove" by D. A. McGuire, and "Literally Dead" by Dale C. Andrews.

Having read every single story this year, it was a challenge to pick my favorite for the entire year. However, my vote for the EQMM Readers Award Ballot went to "Wild Justice" by Sandi Ault. It has been a fantastic year for short stories, and I hope 2014 will be just as great! 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: 'Behind the Shattered Glass' by Tasha Alexander

✰✰✰½ Lady Emily is just settling into married life and enjoying being a new mom, when the peace of country estate life is shattered by a murder. On a warm autumn evening the new Marquess of Montagu, Archibald Scolfield, staggered through the French doors and died on the library floor. The family is stunned, and Lady Emily is thrown into a new mystery to solve. Having just arrived the day before, the dead Marquess didn't have time to make enemies or did he? His cousin, Matilda, stood to gain the most from his death, but when Archibald's engagement to an American heiress comes to light, so do other family secrets.

With a zeal for finding clues, Lady Emily wastes no time in getting involved. It seems that Archibald was popular with women from all stations in life, and left a trail of broken hearts behind where ever he went. When an unknown relative arrives to claim the Montagu title, the plot thickens. Meanwhile, Colin's friend, Lord Flyte, has taken a fancy to one of the maids causing jealousy and strife amongst the servants. Lady Emily must not only solve the mystery and help her friend Matilda, but she must continue to oversee managing the busy country estate as well.

The Bottom Line: This installment is Book 8 in the series; however, it is the first book in the series that I have read. While it has received mixed reviews elsewhere, I found the story to be fun and fanciful. It's a quick and entertaining read that's perfect for the weekend. I enjoyed the period details and descriptions of country estate life. Lady Emily is spunky and forward thinking. Each chapter includes an upstairs part and a downstairs part, which I enjoyed as well. Fans of historical mysteries and Downton Abbey will enjoy this novel. There was also quite a bit of romance in this book.

Details: Behind the Shattered Glass: A Lady Emily Mystery by Tasha Alexander. Hardcover published by Minotaur Books in 2013. 304 p. ISBN: 978-1250024701 NOTE: I received an Advance Reading Copy from Minotaur Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book Review: 'Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words' by Kate Whouley

✰✰✰✰ Learning that a loved one has dementia is dreaded by many of us. It can be a difficult and confusing time. Author Kate Whouley takes the reader on a heartfelt journey as she comes to terms with her own mother's diagnosis. Upon finding her mother's house littered with crumpled tissues, magazines, newspapers, cigarette wrappers, and smelly cat food cans, Whouley realizes something is wrong. Is her mother drinking again? No, it is perhaps worse, and nothing could have prepared the author for her mother's downward spiral into the disease that is Alzheimer's. 

Whouley shares her struggles to learn as much as she can about the disease and to find a way keep her mother safe. She must find a balance between work and caring for her mother, but in a way she has always cared for her. Growing up as an only child, Whouley shouldered a lot of responsibility when her mother divorced, remarried, and became an alcoholic. However, this is a new challenge that Whouley can't face alone. Along the way she is fortunate to find Suzanne, an elder-care consultant, to guide her through the stages of her mother's illness. Whouley also learns to rely on friends for support as she works her way through feelings of worry, guilt, and doubt. Additionally, Whouley takes solace in her music and incorporates her love of music into the book as it relates to her relationship with her mother.

The author wants to be the good daughter, but she discovers that it is not always easy to make the right decisions for her mother. Anne, her mother, has always been a little bit difficult, and now Anne resists the changes forced upon her. While Whouley struggles with the process of placing her mother in assisted living and finding the resources to pay all the bills, Anne resists losing her freedom little by little. By sharing their story, Whouley reminds readers that even the aged and the infirm are deserving of our love and respect.

The Bottom Line: Author Kate Whouley takes a very candid and open approach in her memoir as she gently reflects on her feelings of doubt, guilt, anger, and acceptance of her mother's illness. Reading the book is like talking to an old friend who understands about the struggles one faces when caring for aged parents. This quick read explores the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. It also highlights the importance of family relationships and finding a strong support system in your friends. Kate's touching reflections are told compassionately and will leave readers with a bittersweet sense of inspiration. Highly recommended for anyone struggling with caring for an aging parent diagnosed with dementia.

This book reminded me of Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa (which I reviewed in 2011). While Dosa's book features anecdotes about several patients, Whouley goes into much more personal detail. This would be a good choice for a nonfiction book discussion club. For those groups considering it, you can find the Reader's Guide (including discussion questions) here.

Details: Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia by Kate Whouley. Hardcover published by Beacon Press in 2011. 240 p. ISBN: 978-0-8070-0319-0

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: 'Breaking Night' by Liz Murray

✰✰✰✰ Growing up in poverty as the daughter of drug addicted parents, Liz Murray was destined to fail. Her family history included mental illness and homelessness; the odds were stacked against her. With little support and few resources as a child, she began bagging groceries for tips, pumping gas, and shoplifting just to get food. What she could not steal, she had to rely on the generosity of friends and neighbors for basic necessities like food and a place to sleep. Amazingly, even though she rarely attended school, Murray managed to squeak by until her truancy caught up with her.

Child welfare took her into custody at the age of thirteen. Vowing to never to be part of the system again, at the age of fifteen Murray took to the streets as her mother lay dying in the hospital from AIDS.  Dropping out of school completely, Murray focused on building her own family, her tribe. With friends from the neighborhood, school, and the streets including her sidekick, Sam, and drug dealing boyfriend, Carlos, Murray struggled to survive. Throughout it all, Murray did not pity herself, nor did she blame others for her situation.

After making many wrong choices and a few good ones, Liz’s determination to move forward finally began to pay off. She enrolled in an alternative high school, and completed four years of coursework in only two. Her struggles became hurdles to jump over one by one, again and again. Her next goal was to pursue a college degree, and not just anywhere but at Harvard University no less.

The Bottom Line: Author Liz Murray holds nothing back in this gritty memoir about the first nineteen years of her life. Her remarkable journey from the streets of the Bronx to the Ivy League will inspire readers to pursue their own dreams. By realizing that education was her way out, Murray overcame countless hurdles. Her story is one of desperation and survival; yet, it is also a story of determination, hope, and resiliency. She bravely and unabashedly shares her challenge to overcome the barriers of poverty and the stereotype of being homeless.

Highly recommended reading for everyone. This heartbreaking memoir inspires readers to take a second look at how we view both the homeless and ourselves. Once you have finished reading this deeply moving memoir, you’ll think about this book days, weeks, and even months later.

Note: While some readers may shy away from intense topics like sexual molestation and the graphic scenes where her parents shoot up, this book is appropriate for both college students and mature high school students in 11th or 12th grade. Nevertheless, it may be too graphic for sensitive readers.

Book Club Notes: Overall, Liz Murray's memoir was an engaging, inspirational book that was a very quick read for most. There are many turning points in this book that make it a great pick for book clubs. Incidents like pumping gas with Kevin, her decision to leave Carlos, and going to the interview at Prep instead of having pizza provided ample discussion opportunities. Also interesting were her relationships with her parents, sister, and friends. Although some of the scenes were too graphic for a few members, most approached this book with sincerity and an appreciation for what this young woman has both survived and achieved. We agreed that Murray's beautiful writing style was honest and authentic.
The average rating in the group was 4.5 stars. Some felt the book could have ended sooner while others longed for more information about the author's present life. Perhaps there will be another book in the future; there is certainly plenty of interest. Highly recommended for book clubs and college classrooms. Check out the following resources for your book club meeting: Hyperion Book Group Extra, Discussion Questions, and Liz Murray's FaceBook Page.

Details: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray. Paperback published by Hyperion in 2010. 352 p. ISBN: 978-1-4013-1059-2

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: 'The Clockwork Scarab' by Colleen Gleason

✰✰✰ In this first installment of a new series, young, wealthy women are being mysteriously killed in a steampunk version of London in 1889. Each victim happened to have an unusual Egyptian styled clockwork scarab in her possession. In order to uncover the murderer, Miss Irene Adler, under the request of Princess Alexandra, calls upon the unique talents of two young women. One just happens to be the niece of Sherlock Holmes, and the other is the much younger sister of Bram Stoker. However, these aren’t your ordinary teenaged girls. Miss Mina Holmes is logical and composed, while Miss Evaline Stoker is a fast-acting vampire hunter. While each is gifted in her own way, each struggles with a secret as well. Mina doubts herself, and Evaline gets queasy at the sight of blood.

Out of necessity the two young women form an uneasy alliance to try to solve the mystery before more of London’s finest young ladies are murdered. Add a pickpocket, a police inspector, and a time traveler into the mix, and things start to get interesting. Together Mina and Evaline discover a dark side of London filled with interesting characters, danger, and even a little romance.

The Bottom Line: This story is told from the differing viewpoints of Mina and Evaline with more emphasis given to Mina. While the two characters are unique, their viewpoints can be confused at times as the two often sound quite similar. The two young women fall into obvious stereotypes. As their relationship evolves they begin to discover that their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Unfortunately, both are easily wooed and distracted by potential romantic involvements.

I was originally drawn to this book because of the combined elements of mystery, historical fiction, steampunk, and time travel with a twist of paranormal. Additionally, there is an interesting focus on the Egyptian obsession of the Victorian Era. Also, the detailed descriptions of the clothing and outfits will appeal to young women. Thus, the intended audience, girls in grades 8 - 10, may find this novel amusing. Nevertheless, while a few questions were answered, too many loose ends were left hanging. Without spoiling the ending, I was left somewhat annoyed by the lack of resolution. The unsatisfying conclusion was obviously meant to string the reader along to the next installment. While I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the next one set to publish in 2014, I hope it does have a more complete ending.

Note: There is a discussion guide available for book groups or classes.

Details: The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker & Holmes Novel by Colleen Gleason.  Paperback ARC published by Chronicle Books in 2013. 356 p. ISBN: 978-1-4521-1070-7 Note: I received a review copy from Chronicle Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Friday, November 1, 2013

7 Reasons to Participate in NaNoWriMo 2013

There are many words to describe November including drab, dreary, and dull. However, November can also be lots of fun too. It’s that time of year when writers from all over the world sit down at their computers or pull out their favorite pen and yellow legal tablet to begin writing a new novel.

Writing 50,000+ words is no easy task. Now add a time limit of a mere 30 days, and what do you have? It’s National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to try it. Why wait? Now is the perfect time to dive in.  Anyone can join, and sign up is free.

Whether it’s your first time or your tenth, here are 7 great reasons to participate:
  1. The Idea: You have a great idea (or maybe even several) for a book.
  2. The Challenge: Let’s face it, this won’t be easy. Nevertheless, you like challenges and trying new things.
  3. Networking: NaNoWriMo is a great way to join a global community and meet new people locally or worldwide.
  4. Try a Different Writing Style: This is your chance to try something new. So instead of writing a romance, try a thriller. Or if you always write in third person, try writing in first person.
  5. Overcome Writer’s Block: With the limited time frame, there just isn't any time for internal editing. There's only time to write, even if it's "bad." Writing this way opens up your creativity.
  6. Learn Time Management: Writing every day for 30 days in a row makes writing a habit. It’s a commitment that requires self-discipline. Check out the Word Count Widgets to help you meet your deadline.
  7. The Novel: At the end you will have (hopefully) completed a very rough draft, and with it comes a sense of accomplishment.
Who knows? Maybe 30 days from now you will have written the next bestseller. After all, how many people can actually say they have even written a novel? Not that many. At the very least you’ll have made a few new friends and had some fun. So make plans today to set your novel free and join thousands of other writers in the quest to meet the 50,000+ word goal.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: 'Los Gatos Black on Halloween' by Marisa Montes

✰✰✰✰ Black cats, witches, skeletons, mummies, and more emerge from the darkness for some Halloween fun. As the scariest creatures of the night walk, rattle, and fly to a haunted mansion, the night air fills with magic and chills. It's the perfect recipe for a monstrous ball in the house’s haunted halls. There’s music and dancing and fun galore, when suddenly there’s a rap, rap, rapping at the door. The monsters run. The monsters hide. But there's no escaping that of all the horrors in the night, the very worst at their door. What could be so frightening to the monsters of the night? Check out Los Gatos Black on Halloween to find out.

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended for spooky bilingual fun for kids in grades 1 - 4. Author Marisa Montes seamlessly incorporates Spanish words into the rhyming text. Thus, this is a great way to introduce kids to the Spanish language. Yuyi Morales' illustrations perfectly complement the text making it easy for non-Spanish speaking readers to guess what the words mean. Also, the book includes a glossary in the back for those who need a little extra help. Morales' illustrations are fantastically dark, spooky, and reminiscent of artwork representing the Day of the Dead or el Día de los Muertos. However, while older kids will enjoy the dark tone of the book and the creepy illustrations, this one may be a little too scary for preschoolers.

Details: Los Gatos Black on Halloween written by Marisa Montes and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Hardcover picture book published by Henry Holt and Company in 2006. 32 p. ISBN: 0-8050-7429-5

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: 'A Halloween Treat' by Edward Gorey

✰✰✰✰✰ A few of my favorite things are included in this fun Halloween themed flip-over book. First up, trick-or-treaters are in for a surprise Edward Gorey style when their goody bag is filled with a surprise. (Hint: It isn't candy.) By flipping the pages very quickly there's even a little animation in the corner of this colorful adventure.

Next, flip the book over to check out Edward Gorey's Ghosts. Filled with a variety of characteristic pen and ink images, some illustrations are new and some are more familiar. Assembled together, this collection of ghosts features unearthly fun.

The Bottom Line: This little gem contains plenty of cats, bats, and ghosties. Kids young and old will enjoy Edward Gorey's illustrations and sense of humor. This is a great introduction to Gorey's artwork and will inspire a new generation of Gorey fans. Highly recommended for everyone.

Details: A Halloween Treat by Edward Gorey. Hardcover published by Bloomsbury in 2012. 48 p. ISBN: 978-1-60819-616-6

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: 'Substitute Creature' by Charles Gilman

✰✰✰✰½ Middle school students Robert Arthur, Glenn Torkells, and Karina Ortiz, the school ghost, have returned in the fourth installment of the Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series. Lovecraft Middle School is not just any ordinary school. It was built upon the remains of Tillinghast Mansion, the home of renowned mad scientist Crawford Tillinghast. The school grounds contain hidden portals to other dimensions, and the school itself is teeming with demons, monsters, creatures, and an assortment of creepy crawly insects. While seventh graders Robert and Glenn have survived several near-death experiences over the past few months, nothing can prepare them for their current adventure.

It’s Valentine’s Day and the school has a special treat for the students; it’s a surprise concert. When Glenn notices that the choir robes look mysteriously like the garments worn by Tillinghast’s servants, they find themselves stepping through another portal and into a new adventure. Just then a blizzard suddenly descends upon their town trapping Robert and a few others inside. Faced with freezing temperatures, little food, and no electricity, the trio of friends must confront a mysterious substitute teacher and the most frightening monsters they have encountered so far. Before all is said and done, Robert will be faced with the most difficult choice of his life, and their lives will be changed forever.

The Bottom Line: The fourth book in the series is just as fun and full of adventure as the previous installments. Authentic characters and dialogue make this book appealing to both boys and girls in grades 4 – 7. Author Charles Gilman expertly weaves the themes of friendship and teamwork into the story. While illustrator Eugene Smith’s black and white pencil drawings are spot-on.

Although there are references to the previous adventures, young readers can dive right into this installment without having read the other books in order. This very quick read is highly recommended for kids who enjoy monsters, horror, and adventure fiction.  For more creepy fun, check out Lovecraft Middle School.

Details: Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #4: Substitute Creature written by Charles Gilman & illustrated by Eugene Smith. Hardcover published by Quirk Books in 2013. 176 p. ISBN: 978-1-59474-614-7 Note: I received a copy from Quirk Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: 'The Resurrectionist' by E. B. Hudspeth

✰✰✰✰ Featuring two books in one beautiful hardcover, The Resurrectionist is both intriguing and beautifully grotesque at the same time. The first half of the book features the fictional biography of a man named Dr. Spencer Black. Spencer and his brother, Bernard, had a rather unusual upbringing. Having a father who was a respected professor of anatomy, the brothers often assisted him in digging up corpses for the dissections he performed for his students. Spencer grew up to attend medical school and attacked his studies with a passion. He excelled and had a promising career ahead of him. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he is drawn into the darkness and becomes obsessed with genetic deformities. As he spiraled into insanity, Dr. Black theorized that deformities were not accidents, but rather the body's attempt to regrow what it once had eons ago. Around this time Dr. Black began experimenting with surgically recreating mythical beasts he believed once roamed the earth. He even went so far as to create a traveling carnival show of his creations.

Written in a style that incorporates some of Dr. Black's journal entries, poetry, and drawings, the biography abruptly ends with his disappearance adding to the mystery of the man. Nevertheless, the short biography sets up the tone for the second half of the book, The Codex Extinct Animalia. The codex features a brief introduction and anatomical drawings for eleven creatures shrouded in myth and legend including Sphinx Alatus, Minotaurus Asterion, and Canis Hades.

The Bottom Line: This gorgeous hardcover book is a keeper. I'm a big fan of books that are a bit different and dark; this one is definitely both. As I read it I was reminded of the anatomy and physiology texts I studied back in college. Having a basic knowledge of anatomy helped me appreciate the book even more. As other reviewers have mentioned, the text is somewhat lacking and repetitive in areas; however, I thought that may have been intentional since the main character is obviously mad. Hudspeth’s illustrations are fantastically macabre and spellbinding. Enthusiastically recommended for adult readers looking for something eccentric with a dark and disturbing twist. Also, recommended for those with an interest in mythology. This would make an interesting coffee table book to be sure. Note: Some sections describing Dr. Black's experiments are extremely disturbing. Additionally, due to the anatomical illustrations, this book is not recommended for sensitive readers or children.

Details: The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E. B. Hudspeth. Hardcover published by Quirk Books in 2013. 192 p. ISBN: 978-1-59474-616-1

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: 'Fergus and the Night-Demon' by Jim Murphy

✰✰✰ Fergus O'Mara is a lazy young lad. All he wants is for his nagging mother to leave him alone so he can be off to Skibbereen to have some fun. Fergus is determined that nothing will get in his way, not even the fearful Night-Demon. After all, the apparition could simply be a figment of Fergus' imagination brought on by something he ate. The quick-witted young lad dodges the Night-Demon's every move. However, when Fergus is ordered to dig his own grave, he finally realizes that the Night-Demon is serious. Will Fergus end up the next victim of the Night-Demon or will his quick wits save him yet again? It seems the young Fergus is doomed, but you'll have to read the book to find out.

The Bottom Line: If you are looking for a scary ghost story with an Irish twist, this one is for you. Gouache and colored pencil illustrations by John Manders are dark and frightening adding to the evil character of the Night-Demon created by Jim Murphy. Fergus and the Night-Demon is somewhat reminiscent of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens as Fergus undergoes a transformation in character due to the haunting. Recommended for kids in grades 5 & 6, but don't read this to the little ones (it's too scary).

Details: Fergus and the Night-Demon: An Irish Ghost Story written by Jim Murphy and illustrated by John Manders. Hardcover picture book published by Clarion Books in 2006. 32 p. ISBN: 978-0-618-33955-6

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: 'Halloween Bugs' by David A. Carter

✰✰✰✰✰ Bugs, bugs, and more bugs galore are featured in this cute little Halloween pop-up book. Hidden behind all kinds of doors, children will find all kinds of bugs hiding out. For example, there's a Lollipop Bug behind the dusty old door and a whole bunch of nested bugs behind the enchanted door. The illustrations throughout the book are simple and colorful. Little ones will have lots of fun opening all the doors to find all the different kinds of bugs waiting to pop out.

The Bottom Line: Kids will absolutely love this little gem of a book. They will read and play with this book time and time again; it's just that fun. Highly recommended interactive fun for little ones ages 4 & 5.

Details: Halloween Bugs: A Trick-or-Treat Pop-up by David A. Carter. Hardcover picture book published by Little Simon in 2003. 14 p. ISBN: 0-689-85916-3 Halloween Bugs is part of the Bugs in a Box series; check them all out.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: 'Twisted Sistahs' by Mark Kimball Moulton

✰✰✰ The Ghoulyah sistahs were three very special ladies. A long time ago, they were known far and wide for their extraordinary beauty. While each was different, each possessed her own special charms. Thus, it was not surprising that the sistahs attracted mistahs from all over the world. Mistahs of all kinds would wait for days to meet these lovelies. In fact, there were so many, how could each sistah choose just one? Then an idea came to them...throw a party and invite them all. And so the invitations were sent, the spider legs fried, and the sistahs dressed in their best. The event became legendary. Soon everyone around the world aspired to have their own October celebration...a celebration that came to be known as Halloween.

The Bottom Line: Author Mark Kimball Moulton has written a fictional account of the "true story" of the first Halloween. While this title is somewhat humorous, it falls flat due to the forced rhyme and lengthy text. Good's watercolor illustrations are simple and a bit quirky; the earth tones are pleasing to the eye. Since the text is rather long for a picture book, save this one for kids in grades 3 - 4. Readers who enjoy stories about Halloween and witches will pick this up.

Details: Twisted Sistahs written by Mark Kimball Moulton and illustrated by Karen Hillard Good. Hardcover picture book published by Riverton Press in 2006. 32 p. ISBN: 0-8249-8676-8

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cookbook Review: 'Betty Crocker Halloween Cookbook'

✰✰✰✰½ At last there is an easy cookbook with kid-friendly recipes dedicated to my favorite holiday of the year...Halloween! I've been searching for quite some time to find a cookbook featuring spooky treats to make for the little goblins in my neighborhood. Finally, I have found what I've been looking for.

Tucked inside the Betty Crocker Halloween Cookbook are seasonal recipes for cooks of all skill levels. After a brief introduction on planning a Halloween party, the book is divided into four sections. Choose from appetizers and drinks; main dishes; cupcakes and cakes; and cookies and other frightfully fun treats. Additionally, there's even a small section for "giftable goodies." Tempting treats to make include: Mummy Toes, Spider Bites, Serpent Subs, Creepy Crawler Cupcakes, Munchable Mice, and more.

Each recipe features a full-color photograph to show you what the finished product should look like. Both the ingredients and the instructions are listed in an easily readable format. Plus, each recipe includes nutritional information. Finally, the cookbook includes "terrifying tips," a metric conversion guide, recipe testing information, and an index. These recipes are so appealing and fun, you'll want to try them all.

Taste Test Notes: The nearly 100 recipes were so tempting that I had a difficult time picking just one to try. My first choice was the Graveyard Bones with Dip on page 36. Unfortunately, my local grocery store did not carry the Pillsbury refrigerated breadsticks, nor did it offer a substitute. Therefore, I moved on to my second choice:  Spooky Spiderweb Pizza on page 78. Once I had gathered all my ingredients, it was a cinch to put it all together. This would be a fantastic recipe to make with kids in the kitchen. They get to work with their hands and enjoy a yummy treat when finished. Surprisingly, the most difficult part of this recipe was getting the pizza dough to fit my round pizza pan. After prebaking the crust, the rest was simple layering. The result was a tasty treat that was completed in 45 minutes.

Spooky Spiderweb Pizza before baking
Nana's Cooking Tips: 1.) You can easily change the toppings to suit your family's tastes. 2.) When it comes time to drizzle the Alfredo sauce on top, be sure to cut the tip of the plastic bag sparingly. You can always go back and cut off a little more.

The Bottom Line: Kids of all ages and adults who are kids at heart will simply adore the delightfully spooky snacks and dishes served up in this Betty Crocker cookbook. The directions are easy so kids can join in the fun by picking out recipes and helping to prepare them. I enjoyed browsing through this cookbook so much that I wanted to give it five stars. However, I did experience some difficulty locating ingredients; thus, the final rating is 4.5 stars. This is a highly recommended purchase for both library and home cookbook collections. Aspiring chefs of all skill levels will find something fun and spooky to whip up for Halloween.

Details: Betty Crocker Halloween Cookbook by Betty Crocker. Paperback published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in 2012. 208 p. ISBN: 978-1-118-38894-5

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: 'Doll Bones' by Holly Black

✰✰✰✰ Poppy, Zach, and Alice have been friends since they were just little kids. Together they have always played elaborate fantasy games with the girls using their favorite dolls and Zach using action figures. However, now that the trio is in middle school, things are changing rapidly. Zach is involved in sports, and Alice has theatre leaving little time for fantasy play. As they try to finish one last game with their toys before they grow up, Zach suddenly stops playing. He won’t even give the girls a reason.

In a last ditch effort to finish the game and get Zach to play, Poppy kidnaps a doll called the Queen. The Queen is an antique china doll that is integral to all their stories. She sits in a locked glass cabinet and is strictly off limits. However, as soon as she is released, the Queen appears in one of Poppy’s dreams as a ghost girl. It seems that the doll is made from the bones of a real little girl who died a tragic death. According to Poppy, the ghost wants her bones to be buried properly. If Poppy doesn't help her, the Queen promises to make her sorry. While Alice and Zach aren’t entirely convinced of the ghost story, they agree to help Poppy. Sneaking away during the night, they set off to discover the ghost’s true story and find her grave. With clues to guide their journey, they find themselves on a real quest instead of a fantasy. The friends discover that they must work together as a team to overcome several obstacles and see the quest through to the end to give the Queen the eternal rest she yearns for.

The Bottom Line: After a slow start, Doll Bones turned into a real page-turner; it’s a tale of adventure, friendship, and growing up. The story is filled with middle school tension as the characters face the uneasy transition from childhood to adolescence. The friends argue with and challenge each other, as they try to work together to complete the task. As with all quests, the participants change along the way. The characters learn that they don’t need to fear growing up, and even when things look bleak, they still have their friendship.

I have never been a fan of antique china dolls, and Black’s story justifies this dislike. These dolls are just plain creepy, and the Queen in this story is eerie and a bit sinister. This is a quick read that ends rather abruptly. Nonetheless, it’s a spooky tale that middle grade readers will enjoy.

Details: Doll Bones by Holly Black. Hardcover published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in 2013. 256 p. ISBN: 978-1-4169-6398-1

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: 'On the Day I Died' by Candace Fleming

✰✰✰½ Mike Kowalski is just your average high school teen with a midnight curfew. Glancing at his car's dashboard clock, he realizes that he is running late again. Ignoring his ringing cell phone, he steps on the gas. Suddenly his car's headlights spotlight a girl standing directly in his path. Slamming on the brakes, Mike narrowly misses her. That's when things begin to get strange. The pale girl is wet, cold, and needs a ride home. What is Mike to do? He can't just leave her there.

After dropping her off, Mike notices her brand new saddle shoes on the floor of his car. He returns to the girl's house only to be told by her mother that she died many years ago. If Mike wants to return the shoes, he'll have to go to White Cemetery, a place just for young people. When he arrives, the cemetery seems forgotten and abandoned, but soon he realizes he's not alone. One by one the ghosts emerge all around him. Mike is horrified to discover that he cannot leave until he hears their stories...their death stories. Before the night is through, Mike will have heard them all, but will he be allowed to leave or will he become one of them?

The Bottom Line: This collection of short ghost stories takes place in the Chicagoland area; some are even loosely based on well-known urban legends and lore. Since Fleming's characters span different decades from 1853 - 2012, each short story is like a time capsule. While Mike's character is used to bind the stories together, each ghost has a unique voice. Thus, the short stories could easily stand alone; you could even skip a story or two without missing beat.

Although some of these stories are more original than others, all are fun and creepy. This quick read is recommended for kids in middle school who enjoy horror, paranormal, historical, and even science fiction. The characters are almost evenly divided between male and female characters appealing to both boys and girls. And don't forget, short ghost stories are always a hit around Halloween. Also, for those interested in Chicago urban legends, the author includes a notes section.

Details: On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave by Candace Fleming. Hardcover published by Schwarz & Wade Books (an imprint of Random House) in 2012. 208 p. ISBN: 978-0-375-96781-8

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: 'Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween' by Wong Herbert Yee

✰✰✰✰½ Mouse and mole are the very best of friends, but they are also opposites. While Mouse likes Halloween; Mole does not. For Mouse, Halloween is full of fun and adventure. There is so much to do like decorating, carving pumpkins, and scaring friends. On the other hand, Halloween is scary and frightening for Mole. Fortunately, there's one activity that's not too scary. Both Mouse and Mole decide to enter the Halloween pumpkin carving contest. Both pick out the perfect pumpkin, but who will win? And how will they get their pumpkins home? After all, the road will be dark and scary. When Mouse realizes that frightening Mole wasn't such a good idea, she comes up with a plan to help her friend by reading a Halloween story.

The Bottom Line: This Early Reader contains four chapters for beginning readers in Grades 1 & 2. This gentle series highlights the theme of friendship. In this book, Mouse helps Mole overcome his fear of Halloween so they can enjoy the holiday together. In fact, my favorite part of the book was when Mouse reads a Halloween story to Mole; it's like there's a book within a book. The gouache and litho pencil illustrations feature soft, earthy tones perfect for Autumn. Enthusiastically recommended for beginning readers everywhere.

Details: Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween written & illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee. Hardcover published by Houghton Mifflin in 2011. 48 p. ISBN: 978-0-547-55152-4

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: 'Twelve Haunted Rooms of Halloween' by Macky Pamintuan

✰✰✰✰½ Set to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas, this vibrant picture book features 375 spooky items for kids to find. Follow the little bear as he peeks into each haunted room to find what's hidden throughout the house. You'll have to look closely, especially at the large foldout page at the end, so you don't miss any of the fun. Illustrator Macky Pamintuan brings to life bats, cats, ghosts, zombies, spiders, and much, much more.

The Bottom Line: Little ones will pick up this book time and time again. Just when you think you've found all the items, you notice something new. Macky Pamintuan's illustrations are colorful and friendly, making this perfect for younger kids in Preschool and Kindergarten. This counting book is so much fun; I just wish there had been a thirteenth room.

Details: Twelve Haunted Rooms of Halloween by Macky Pamintuan. Hardcover picture book published by Sterling Children's Books in 2011. 28. p. ISBN: 978-1-4027-7935-0

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: 'More Than Midnight' by Brian James Freeman

✰✰✰✰✰ Relinquish your imagination to five tales of horror by master storyteller Brian James Freeman. Included in this collection is a demon waiting to escape, a music teacher gone temporarily mad, monsters taking over the world, an escape from an asylum, and phone calls from the other side. These stories contain abandoned buildings, creepy basements, stormy nights, supernatural forces, and lots of darkness.

This is horror at its very best. These vivid tales were written to scare the reader, and they do. You will be compelled to get up in the middle of the night to check the doors and windows and make sure there’s nothing hiding under the bed or in the closets. Best read on a dark, stormy night, this is a very quick read that will leave you longing for more.

The Bottom Line: All of these short stories have been previously published; however, the stories complement each other so well they were meant to be together.  Each story takes the reader on a short journey into darkness where your imagination takes over and gets the better of you. Freeman builds suspense like few authors can, and Glenn Chadbourne’s pen and ink illustrations heighten the horror. Read this collection for your enjoyment and fright. Very highly recommended for fans of horror.

If you have not read any of Freeman’s work before, I would highly recommend starting with this collection. Also, check out my review of The Painted Darkness, which is one of my favorite reads.

Details: More Than Midnight by Brian James Freeman. Advance uncorrected proof published by Cemetery Dance Publications in 2012. 175 p. ISBN: 978-1-58767-331-3

Horrorfest of Books 2013

The days and our shadows are slowly getting longer while the leaves are changing to hues of gold, red, and orange reminding us that Autumn is here. With the arrival of this special season, Mini Book Bytes Book Reviews is once again pleased to present a carefully chosen selection of books focused on Autumn, Halloween, and horror. We'll be taking a look at books that feature black cats, ghosts, hauntings, pumpkins, recipes, and spooky short stories.

Some of the 13 titles we will be reviewing include:
  • More Than Midnight by Brian James Freeman
  • On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave by Candace Fleming
  • Betty Crocker Halloween Cookbook
  • The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black by E. B. Hudspeth
  • Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes
These books feature spooky fun for readers of all ages. So settle in with a hot apple cider and some roasted pumpkin seeds and dig into a scary read for a spooktacularly good time. Oh, and don't forget to leave the light on! You'll be glad you did.

Happy Reading &

Note: The free Halloween clip art is from Squidoo!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: 'Prisoner 88' by Leah Pileggi

✰✰✰✰ Life hasn't been easy for ten year old Jake Evans. There's never enough food on the table, and his father doesn't even care about him. After committing a crime, Jake finds himself locked up in a prison for adult offenders, since juvenile facilities did not exist back in the 1880s. Although being locked up is frightening at first, Jake makes a few friends. One of the men begins to teach him to read, and Jake even gets a job on the outside helping a pig farmer. Little by little the prison becomes Jake's home. As the days turn into months, Jake begins to grow up. He reaches a turning point when he must decide between doing the right thing at personal risk to himself or looking the other way. Jake shares his story simply, and we are left to wonder what ever happened to him.

The Bottom Line: Writing in the voice of a ten year old boy, author Leah Pileggi's debut novel is a very quick and engaging read. The theme of friendship shines through this sad, yet hopeful, story. Prisoner 88 is loosely based around the true account of James Oscar Baker, the real prisoner 88, who was sent to the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary back in 1885 at the age of ten. While there is no information about Baker's daily life in prison, Pileggi does a fantastic job of describing what life might have been like for him in this novel. Teachers looking for a book of historical fiction to read and discuss in class should check out this out. This would be an appropriate choice for kids in grades 4 - 8.

Details: Prisoner 88 written by Leah Pileggi. Published by Charlesbridge in 2013. 142 p. ISBN: 978-158089-560-6 NOTE: I received an Advance Reading Copy from Charlesbridge at the 2013 ALA Conference in exchange for nothing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: 'The Snatchabook' by Helen Docherty

✰✰✰✰✰ In every house in Burrow Down, bedtime books are read each night. The animals look forward to all kinds of tales about princesses, pirates, and faraway adventure. However, just as little rabbit Eliza Brown settles in with her book, it disappears. How very strange. That night books everywhere disappear without a sound, and bedtime just isn't the same without a story. Night after night the thief returns until Eliza Brown decides to find the culprit. With a simple plan and a pile of books, Eliza waits and waits. What flies in through her window is a surprise. Will Eliza be able to solve the mystery or have the books disappeared from Burrow Down forever? Read this charming tale to discover who's been stealing all the bedtime stories.

The Bottom Line: Children ages 3 - 6 will enjoy the catchy rhyming verse in this adorable picture book. The imaginative illustrations are pleasing to the eye and fun to look at. Highly recommended for bedtime reading or story hour.

Details: The Snatchabook written by Helen Docherty & illustrated by Thomas Docherty. Paperback picture book published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky in 2013. 32 p. ISBN: 978-1402290824 NOTE: I recived an Uncorrected Advance Copy from Sourcebooks at the 2013 ALA conference in exchange for nothing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review: 'Bluffton: My Summers with Buster' by Matt Phelan

✰✰✰✰✰ Imagine a simpler era before smart phones, FaceBook, and YouTube swallowed up our time. Henry Harrison, a ten year old resident of Muskegon, MI in 1908, is intrigued when Vaudeville performers arrive with an elephant and zebra in tow. Henry dreams of the show biz life and takes every opportunity to visit nearby Bluffton, where the performers have set up the Actors’ Colony. Among the performers is a boy named Buster Keaton, who was billed as “The Human Mop.” As the two become friends, each boy longs for what the other has. Buster is a natural comedic actor who can perform physical comedy and stunts without ever cracking a smile. During his summers at Bluffton, all Buster wants to do is play ball, swim, and enjoy some free time. However, given the opportunity, Buster would someday like to be a civil engineer. Meanwhile, Henry is a small town boy who yearns for the limelight. Instead of going to school and working in his father’s hardware store, Henry longs to learn stunts and falls. As time passes, the boys grow up and go their separate ways, each following their own path in life. Using soft watercolors supplemented by text, author and illustrator Matt Phelan tells the magical story of a young Buster Keaton who had hopes and dreams just like everyone else.

The Bottom Line: This very quick read is a great introduction to both historical fiction and Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton’s family did indeed spend summers in Bluffton before his silent film days. Phelan’s artwork is beautiful, nostalgic, and reminiscent of a time long past. Through Phelan’s gentle storytelling, a new generation of Buster Keaton fans will appreciate this fictional look at the childhood of one of the greatest performers of all time. Highly recommended for kids in grades 4 – 8, but younger readers may also enjoy this book, especially the illustrations.

Details: Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. Hardcover published by Candlewick Press in 2013. 228 p. ISBN: 978-0-7636-5079-7 Note: I received a free copy from Candlewick Press in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

General Questions for Nonfiction Book Clubs

Asking the right questions during a book club can make all the difference in the world. While many books feature discussion questions or reading guides, there are so many more discussion worthy books that don’t come with questions. This is especially true of nonfiction books as fiction book clubs are still somewhat more popular.

When choosing books to discuss, it would be unfortunate for book clubs to limit themselves to only discussing books with reading guides. For these situations, I keep a list of basic discussion questions and topics that I fall back on from time to time. I have found that the best questions are open-ended and encourage participants to freely share their opinions. Here is my general list of questions and topics for nonfiction book clubs: 
  1. Did you know anything about this person (or subject) prior to reading this book? What preconceived opinions did you have and did these change after reading the book?
  2. Why do think the author opened the book this way?
  3. Do the issues raised in this book affect your life? How so? How about in the future?
  4. Do you think this book was controversial? If so, which side would you align yourself with?
  5. If the author discussed problems or issues, did he also provide solutions? Do you agree with these solutions or are there other solutions out there?
  6. Talk about the writing style and language of the book. Was the language engaging, inflammatory, etc.? Did it draw you into the story or not? Was the language easily accessible? Were unfamiliar terms and concepts explained?
  7.  Is the focus of this book interior/psychological or exterior/action oriented?
  8. What are the book's strengths and weaknesses?
  9. Did the author succeed in teaching the reader something? If so, what did you learn? If not, how did the author fail?
  10. Have you learned anything new about yourself by reading this book? Please share.
  11. Please share a specific passage or quote from the book that left an impression on you. How did it affect you?
  12. What role do illustrations, maps, etc. play in this book?
Use as many of these questions as you like, but feel free to let the discussion go where it will. Just like an engaging conversation, book discussions can meander from topic to topic and don’t necessarily follow the questions in order. If one or two particular topics really fascinate the group, let them explore these topics for a little while before moving on. As a book club moderator, my personal goal at the beginning of each meeting is to gently guide the group through the questions and topics, but most importantly we are there to have fun. So let the conversation flow and enjoy.
P.S. Here's a fun bonus question that works well with both fiction and nonfiction books: Would this book make a good movie? Cast the movie!
Note: I found the book question mark clip art at: